Aussie climbers: On the up with the new gods of rock

From Shane Warne to the Thorpedo, Australia's sportsmen pride themselves on being the best. So why are the nation's climbers still playing catch-up? Down Under, discovers Mark MacKenzie, two legs are good but eight are better
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The Independent Travel

In cricket and rugby league its teams regularly prove themselves untouch-able - England did regain the Ashes last summer, but it took them 18 years to do so. And the breakers that roll on to the golden sands framing this vast continent have produced countless surfing champions. Australian Rules football may have about as much global significance as baseball's World Series, but it produces fine athletes nevertheless, specimens of the physical excellence that remains a cornerstone of Aussie identity.

But the Grampian Mountains in the southern state of Victoria are miles from the nearest beach, footy oval or cricket square. And so, because this sport-obsessed country abhors such geographical vacuums, the Grampians are endowed with the resources to attract international sportsmen of a different nature.

World-class climbing is not something most people associate with the land of green and gold. But if sandstone walls are your thing, the Grampians offer some of the best on earth. At least according to Daniel Earl. The 30-year-old is the owner of Hangin' Out, a local climbing school, and he has agreed to show me the ropes, literally.

We meet in the small outback town of Halls Gap, one of several that act as base camps for climbers coming to the area. We are heading for the northern Grampians, part of the 168,000-hectare Grampians National Park, roughly 30 kilometres out of town along a dirt track. As the jagged ranges appear in the distance "Earl", as he prefers to be called, runs through their formation in detail, 450 million years of geology in about 40 minutes.

As befits a former horticulturist, Earl's other passion is plants. Which is handy, because the shelter of the Grampians provides a nursery for some of Australia's most important flora.

"One third of all Victoria's plant species grow here," says Earl proudly of the 1,000 native species found in this relatively small area. "We also have 200 different species of birds, quite a few of which are endemic."

The plight of local wildlife is a delicate subject. In January, bush fires swept through the park, devastating vast tracts of forest and threatening the future of several species, such as the rare smoky mouse. The future of this marsupial remains uncertain, but the bush is already showing signs of repair; as we drive, Earl points out new-grown pines that act as barometers of recovery.

His passion for Aussie climbing, on the other hand, requires no such nurturing. "Europe and America represent about 80 per cent of the global climbing population," Earl explains. "In this country we probably only have about 100,000 serious climbers."

As a man who has roped up in most of the world's climbing meccas, including Yellowstone Park in California and Squamish in British Columbia, he is less than complimentary about the state of the sport in his homeland.

"We have some world-renowned climbers in this country, genuine rock gods, but rock climbing isn't part of our mainstream culture. People in Australia love abseiling. I mean they love it." Earl doesn't. "We're talking about spending a fortune on gear just to be lowered down a rope. I don't understand it; for a climber it's absurd," he says with a mildly fanatical air.

We disembark in the shadow of a peak known as Hollow Mountain, and Earl hands me a pair of climbing shoes two sizes too small. "They'll make your toes into a fist," he explains, "give you better grip."

A short walk later and we're standing in Summerday Valley, "the most- climbed part of the Grampians", with more than 150 climbs clustered around a small wooded area. We will be spending the day climbing in traditional European style, roped together, with Earl climbing first.

Secure in our harnesses, our first climb is "An-tic", a short, 13-metre pitch on the valley's "back wall", and one graded 10 on the Australian scale of difficulty that runs from 1 (easiest) to 34. The system replaced European classifications in the 1960s, and before Earl climbs he shows me how to create a belay, passing the rope through a karibiner to create a brake on the rope should he fall.

As he moves up the rockface he inserts various pieces of protection. Designed to support his weight, they consist of small metal chocks, or "wires", and retractable wedges, known as camming devices.

When he reaches the top, it's my turn. With my climbing career thus far consisting of one vertigo-filled day in Wales 20 years ago, the techniques required feel unfamiliar and awkward.

"Don't pull yourself up," advises Earl, "and get your weight over your feet instead". Reaching the top feels like emerging from being underwater; having climbed with my face pressed to the rock, the view of the surrounding Wimmera region is spectacular.

The first climbers in the Grampians, possibly in all of Australia, were Aborigines. The Djab wurrung, one of five tribes of the local Koorie people, established camps in lofty mountain crags as much as 12,000 years ago. The Koorie know the area by another name, Gariwerd, and the Grampians did not appear until the 1830s, arriving with one Major Thomas Mitchell, a Scottish explorer who renamed the ranges after those in his homeland.

Not all contact with colonising Europeans was so benign. In the first 20 years of settlement, an estimated 25,000 Koorie were slaughtered by incoming settlers. From a population of just 28,000 it marked the near-elimination of a people.

The area remains one of tremendous cultural significance and is home to up to 70 per cent of the state's Aboriginal rock art.

Back in Summerday Valley, we relocate to the Wall of Fools, a vast sheet of rock that, from a distance, looks impossibly slick for a novice. But closer inspection reveals holds and crevices, and as I make my way up Candles, a 27m, Grade 9 climb, Earl, an excellent guide and teacher, provides continual encour-agement. His principal advice is to relax and "shake out the pump," the lactic acid that inevitably builds in unconditioned muscles. This requires a leap of faith, quite literally, as I relinquish my grip on the rock face and trust the rope to support my weight.

Thereafter, climbs come thick and fast until our final climb, "Steph in Soweto", at Grade 15 the hardest of the day. Just over the horizon is Mount Arrapiles, a three-kilometre long slab of rock on which Australia's reputation for sandstone climbing is founded. What constitutes a climbing mecca depends on who you ask - Thailand for limestone, granite in the US - but Google the word "Arrapiles" and the result will be web links from all over the world.

"When real climbers discuss sandstone they'll almost always include Arrapiles," says Earl. "There are 2,500 climbs there and those are only the ones that have been logged."

Among them is the continent's second-most photographed piece of rock after Uluru, the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock. Kachoong is a 40-metre climb punctuated by a four-metre roof or overhang. Its name comes from the jarring noise a climber's rope makes when he or she attempts to "pull the lip", to negotiate the overhang or fall in the attempt.

"It's incredibly photogenic," says Earl. "One pitch, up, out and up again, with the landscape behind you. Stunning."

Despite the ringing endorsement, Earl's heart lies firmly in his own beat. Recalling favoured climbs, he sounds like a Antipodean Wainwright, divulging an intimate knowledge of the area based on a lifetime's experience. In fact, he only moved to the area in 1999.

"Personally, I think the aesthetics of the climbing lines in the northern Grampians are far superior to those in Arrapiles," he says. Well, actually that's not quite what he says, but that's the printable version.

"A lot more stuff gets climbed that people don't report; climbers will bring in a tent and sleeping bag and get on the rock as early as they can."

Before we head back to town, I get to see another of Australia's world-class climbers in action. This one is acknowledged as the best of its kind on the planet, yet for all its fancy ropework it has none of the swagger or backchat often associated with sportsmen from this island nation. But then the golden-orb weaver is a spider.

Learn the ropes in the land of Oz

To go climbing in the Grampians with Daniel Earl (below) contact Hangin' Out: 00 61 3 5356 4535; hanginout.com.au. Prices start at £26 for half a day's group tuition, rising to £102 for a full day's one-on-one instruction. Mark MacKenzie flew to Australia with Qantas Airways. Return flights from London Heathrow to Melbourne, start at £516 for departures before 30 June. Flights must be booked by 25 May. More information: 08457 747 767; qantas.co.uk. To obtain a free copy of Tourism Australia's Traveller's Guide: australia.com; 0906 8633 235 (calls cost 60p a minute).

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