Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Buoux: Where even the Pockets have Pockets!

So, I'm back now from my recent climbing trip to France, and training like a madman for my next trip down to Tassie in March. As this will be my first chance to spend time on my Obsidian Obsession project (see THIS post) with training-borne strength (as opposed to the "general fitness" retained from continuous climbing for several years), I'm keen to see whether this is the edge I need to finally succeed at it. I'm actually a bit apprehensive, because if I can't tick it on this trip (my 3rd trip encompassing this route), then perhaps it's time that I admit to myself that it's beyond my abilities... After all, how many trips can you do with the sole purpose of ticking a single climb?

So, a quick catchup:

Neil Monteith's stunning picture of me on
Dawn-Drawn Wonga Pigeon (35m 26)
Prior to heading to France I'd had some small success in the Blueys (such as successfully ticking the radically overhanging crack Pit Fighter (30m Trad 28) at The Pit, and finally managing to tick a route of mine -Dawn-Drawn Wonga Pigeon (26)- at Banksy). I'd also experienced much frustration as I returned to my usual temperament of "butting heads" with the inevitable crimp-boulder cruxes that almost exclusively define "Hard climbing in the Blueys", by falling of my various projects (such as Sword of Damocles (28) and Hairline (28)) ad infanitum. So, aside from the "general fun" that is all things climbing, you could probably say that I had a mixed bag of experiences when it comes to success... A pretty standard ratio for most climbers, I think.

Consequently, I departed for southern France doubtful of my current level of performance.

Buoux: "Where even the pockets have pockets!"

About 1/3rd the entire length of the main cliff at Buoux.

Ben Moon on Agincourt (8c)

I've been to France previously, and climbed at Ceuse and Verdon (albeit briefly), but this time I was really psyched to make Buoux the focus of my trip. As a rabid fan of climbing history, I couldn't wait to experience it's legendary, sandbagged, powerful pocket-pulling firsthand. Well before Ceuse came into fruition, Buoux was the original forging ground for hard sport climbing in the world. Routes like Reve de Papillion (8a), Chouca (8b+), Le Minimum (8b+), Le Rose Et Le Vampire (8b), La Rage de Vivre (8b+), Le Spectre De Sur Mutants (8b+), and -of course- Agincourt (8c) pushed the domain of sport climbing into previously unrealised highs. Made popular by the leading climbers of the generation (Jean-Baptiste Tribout, the Le Menetral Brothers, Patrick Edlinger, Jerry Moffat and Ben Moon), the lasting legacy of these climbing idols is found in the pocketed limestone of Buoux.

Paul Thomson on Agincourt (8c)
(I look way cooler!)

Commonly regarded as "out of fashion", and having diminished in popularity due to prolonged cliff closures (caused by access issues with the locals), I'd also previously been warned off Buoux by purported glass-levels of polish, monstrous sandbaggery (to the point of ridiculousness), bone-breaking runouts, tendon-busting pocket cranking and rampart car-crime (due to its relative proximity to Marseilles). But of course, being stubborn (and arrogant), I chose to go anyway, and -being up for anything- Stephen Varney (my partner from my Yosemite escapades 2 years earlier) opted to join me, remaining -to some extent- gleefully ignorant of precisely what he'd signed up for.

"Welcome to Buoux!"

Stephen rehearsing the famous "Rose Move" on
Le Rose Et Le Vampire (8b). He even has the facial
expression about right.
Upon arriving in France, after some 35 hours in transit, the start of the trip was almost ruined when Stephen's Luggage failed to materialise, only to manifest out of thin air while in discussions with the local Baggage Handling Coordinators to track it down. Soon enough we had our car, and had made the 1.5 hour drive to Apt and organised camping at the legendary campground at Les Cedres, which features prominently in Jerry Moffat's, Johnny Dawes' and Ben Moon's Biographies (and the Alun Hughes film "Buoux 8c"). This campground would turn out to be the perfect refuge for us, as even after the campground had formally closed down for the season (everything in southern France shuts down in November) we managed to negotiate a deal to let us stay on in a permanent "on-site tent" in the near-deserted campground. This occurred at precisely the right moment, as the weather rapidly turned Alpine, and our own tents were drowned in torrential rain. Amidst pizza, frits (hot chips) and boutique beer (some paid for, others given to us for free, as the Belgiums hosts were extremely keen to see what we thought of various local beverages), this really turned out to be a home away from home, and I cannot sing their praises enough.

At any rate, I'm getting ahead of myself... 

Our luxurious campsite at Les Cedres, in Apt... before
the flood that necessitated Noah's Ark.
Well, after dumping our gear in the tents, we raced to Buoux and managed 4 hours of climbing before dark. On this first day, the climbs certainly seemed tough for the grade, but not the "shut-down sandbags" I'd been led to expect. Nevertheless, we were both thrown immediately into the deep end, with cranking on mono and two-finger pockets within the first few moves of our very first route (a 6b (19)). Consequently, hopes were high for great progression on Day 2, but a dose of harsh reality was heading my way... Apparently we'd managed to avoid the most notorious sandbags on that first day, as day 2 commenced with me having to give a 6b+ (20) a 2nd shot for the tick (and even then, only just scraping by), and spending 5 shots to tick a 6c+! 

Stephen in the front, Le Rose in
the middle, and Chouca (8b+)
in the back.

As the trip went on, I'd come to realise that as the grades got harder, they tended to more closely align with our own, and that the grading system (especially in the lower grades) was more akin to bouldering: they tended to grade a route solely by its hardest move/sequence, not by how sustained it was. Additionally, anything which comprised a "limestone grey slab" would seem stupidly sandbagged (the original ascensionists were the grey-slab masters, as anyone who has visited Verdon or Sella will attest), whereas the steeper routes felt more familiar. Sure, some of them were quite polished, and but never so polished as to be "terminally glassy", and often the slipperiness could be overcome with good footwork.

The radical overhanging line of
Courage Fuyons (7a+). Very

The highly fingery style meant a specialised sort of strength, and I've never been particularly great at cranking on pockets (Disclaimer: I've also never really trained pockets), yet that didn't stop me feeling like a boss as -on a later 7a Onsight- I found myself standing tall on smears and clipping above me, solely off a single undercling mono at my waist. Despite the tough grades and some seriously humbling experiences, by the end of the 3rd day I'd managed to tick a 7a+ (24) and by the end of the first week I'd ticked another.

One thing which hadn't been exaggerated were the runouts, which -despite this being a "sport climbing area"- would quite often earn R-ratings back home, with many "heart in throat" moments in anticipation of monster falls (and sudden stops).

In this first week my favourite routes were: 
  • La Pesanteur ou la Grace (6c+)
  • Dernier Probleme des Alpes (6b+)
  • Papa Pas Pou (6c)
  • TCF (7a)
  • Courage Fuyons (7a+)
  • Dresden (7a+)
Psyched after ticking No Mans Land (7b)

We climbed 6 out of the 7 days at Buoux in the first week, and 5 out of 7 in the second. At this stage we moved to combine a spot of projecting with our Whitman's sampler of the crag, and set our sights on a few more challenging routes. We would warm up at an "easier" area (and use the opportunity to investigate the nearby harder routes for a future attempts), then move to our personal goals for each day. I attempted and ticked (2nd shot) a classic 7b (25) called "No Mans Land", which combined Buoux pockets, Taipan-esque thin (and slippery) scoops, and Siurana-esque edges, for a stunning, beautiful adventure. Stephen threw himself at a world-class 7a called TCF (which I'd done in the previous week), and eventually sent it packing in a nighttime headlamp ascent! The conditions were great, the local and international climbers were friendly and entertaining, and our evenings were filled with drinking at the campground bar with the few remaining occupants of the campground (by this stage the campground was actually closed).

For Week 2 at Buoux, my recommended ticks were:
  • Desespoir (7a)
  • Cri de Guerre (6b+)
  • Les Diamants Sont Eternels (7a!!??)
  • La Cage aux Orchidees (7b)
  • No Mans Land (7b)
A perspective of the scale of Verdon Gorge.

Amidst all of this Buoux climbing, and after overdosing on croissants, baguettes and Nutella, we took two separate "holidays" to the Verdon Gorge, departing Apt ludicrously early in the morning and rampaging 4 hours to our destination to arrive at first light, ready for a full day of climbing. Our initial plan was to spend a week at Verdon, but advent weather meant that our actual time (and volume of climbing) at Verdon was far more haphazard.

Hopefully you've heard of the Verdon Gorge... hundreds of climbs in the 200-300m range, with grades that run the entire spectrum, and featuring routes in every discipline, from pure sporty sport multi, to sketchy hardcore aid-fests.

Stephen seconding P2 of
Ticket Danger (200m 6c)

Having been to the famous Gorge in summer previously, it was surprising to arrive at the Gorge on the edge of winter and find it freezing cold and surrounded by snow-capped peaks. In my last visit, navigating the town overlooking the Gorge -La Palud Sur Verdon- was an exercise of rally-esque precision driving, now it was almost deserted, with the majority of the shops shut tight for the season. In summer I'd been contending with climbers for routes, and with traffic through the narrow streets of the town, but neither would prove to be an issue this trip. Suffice to say,  there's something particularly ominous about rapping hundreds of metres into the Gorge to start of a fairly committing big-ish route, knowing that there's no one around for a "last ditch rescue" if it all goes properly pear-shaped.

Slopey, slippery, slinky, slabbing...
(But with an awesome view!)
This trip we tackled Ticket Danger (7-Pitch 200m 6c) which is regarded as a bit of a trade route these days. The first pitch (6c A0) was -with the exception of the thrilling finale- disgusting, shaley, chossy, hideousness, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone... Fortunately, every pitch afterwards was delectable. Pitch 2 was incredibly demanding for a 6c (21) almost immediately off the belay, and continued to be an exercise in exposed, balancy thinness up a blunt arete, which I'm not ashamed to admit that I only just managed to climb cleanly. The next 3 pitches were fairly continuous slabbing on beautiful rock, with an improbable traverse (at the grade) to cap-off the finale of Pitch 5. Next up was a bizarrly steep and juggy pitch of 6a (17???), which paved the way for the mega classic finale (which I'd climbed a few years previously) up an immaculate stemming corner.

The fixed Tyrolean across the Verdon River.

The day had proved to be a baptism by fire for Steven (who had never climbed the incredibly tricky footwork-intense climbing of The Verdon), but after sending the final pitch it certainly seemed he had it sorted. Afterwards, we treated ourselves to a 1L stein of beer and a meal, and then down came the rains to bestow upon us an unpleasant night dossing in the woods.

Le Duc in all its terrifying glory.
The line of Serie Limitèe (300m 7a)
tackles the right side of the main face.

On the 2nd trip we set our sights on Serie Limitèe (8-pitch 300m 7a) on Le Duc, a stunning monolith accessed from river-level (and via an exhilarating Tyrolean), upon which I'd previously climbed a 7-pitch 6c+ during my last visit. I'd heard excellent things about this route, but arriving at the base I was somewhat unimpressed: sure, the rock looked great and the line was imposing, but it was also just another Verdon grey-slab multipitch. Fortunately, my first impression would prove to be utterly wrong.

Stephen hangs out on the belay below P2.
The first 4 pitches were indeed long, slabby slab pitches, but the rock -water washed over eons- had more in common with glacial-polished granite than conventional limestone, and lent itself to a very unique style. The 2nd pitch in particular was intriguing, with seemingly improbable wandering around up the face to link features, including a mind-blowing finale up a weird offset corner-feature.

The technical corner finale of P2.
You know it's bloody cold when
your partner is climbing fingery
slab in fingerless gloves.

The end of the 4th pitch took a left turn away from the slab, and into overhanging, juggy terrain. After all that low-angle stuff, it was a shock to the system to be suddenly deposited below 120m of imposing steepness, with 150m of air below you. Our biggest challenge during these initial pitches was the sheer bloody cold! Outside of mountaineering, I've never -even in the depths of winter in Tasmania- been forced to bring (and subsequently wear) so much cold weather gear on a multipitch before. Gloves, Socks, Thermal Shirt, Soft Shell, Downie, Beanie... If I was belaying every layer of clothing was going on, and if I was climbing I was probably cursing the bone-aching pain in my fingers. During the first 4-pitches it actually got so bad that both of us contemplated bailing, yet our philosophy of "lets just see what things look like from next belay" kept us moving upwards and slowly getting warmer. Now, standing below the 4 improbably steep headwall pitches, we were both tolerably warm (despite the arctic chill), and properly impressed with the task at hand.

Mega exposure from the start of P3.

Pitch 5 featured an actual series of colourful Tufas (seriously! At Verdon!), which comprised the crux and was quite bouldery (and utterly nails for 6c+), and I hate to admit it but I blew the final move of the boulder-problem on the onsight. After that it got all airy up a series of ledges and a juggy, overhanging prow to an amazing eagles perch with oodles of exposure. The following pitch (6c+) had quite a few hard complex-pocket sections, but no shutdown crux, and at 40m was a pleasure to onsight, with sprawling vistas of sweeping exposure to keep you engaged. The crux pitch 6 (35m 7a) was sustained and steep, as it wandered its way up a vaguely connected series of features, before culminating in a particularly bouldery crux and an ensueing tricky slab. Once again, I was bloody stoked to score the onsight (especially as this one harboured a true shut-down style boulder problem, after so much otherwise endurancy climbing), and we soon found ourselves below the final pitch.

At this point in time, our journey became somewhat haphazard. Being on the cusp of winter, the days were short and the nights were long, and with overcast skies the dark was likely to come even sooner. Though we'd managed to locate the majority of the abseil anchors of the descent route, we were concerned about the difficulty in finding the top abseil, especially in the dark. This was because where we would top out wasn't the same place as the abseil route, and we'd need to circumnavigate the cliff edge to find the rap station tucked amongst vegetation and boulders. As such, the goal was to smash out the final pitch in lightning-fast time and summit while it was still light.

Forgoing ditching our alpine weather gear, or even trading the pack, I started up the final pitch (6c+) at breakneck speed, and managed about 5m of climbing before slipping off. Huzzah! Pulling back on, I made a few more metres before struggling with the steepness and the weight of the pack, and falling off again. Go team! After much complaining, my final effort took me to the summit, having -probably- lost more time as a result of the falls than if I'd taken 5min to shift the gear and climb the pitch rationally. Fortunately, by the time Stephen joined me on the top, it was still daylight, and -as it would turn out- all of our worrying had been for naught, as the track was well-worn and pretty cruisy. Within 10min of topping out we were doing the first of what would prove to be 5 long abseils to get back to the ground, battling rope-snagging scraggly vegetation to arrive back on terra firma right as dark arrived. With the help of our headlamps we were back at the car another hour later.

A stunning view down The Gorge
from the summit of Serie Limitèe.

Heading back to La Palud Sur Verdon, we attended the only fine dining restaurant in town, where I once again disgraced Australia's culinary reputation by flipping past all of the exquisite French and Italian cuisine in the menu, and buying a greasy burger and a latte (Stephen did his best to counter my heathen ways by ordering Duck and white wine), because after a long day in the cold that's all that I really wanted .

We climbed for one more day at Verdon, where I had a few gnarly successes, and concluded the trip by ending off-route on a 7b and -despite coming immeasurably close to onsighting it- eventually took a monstrous whip past numerous spaced bolts, before heading back to our home at Apt, for the final few days at Buoux.

Stephen coming to grips with mono-pocket dynamic moves
on Fin de Siecle (7a).

With our trip coming to a close, and so many awesome objectives already achieved (I'd already far  exceeded my goals for the trip), it was time to try and put some time into something audacious and closer to my real limit. After ticking a classic granite-esque arete (Rose des Sables 7a), I tried an awesome incredibly steep pocketed route (Os Court 7b+) which -though unfortunately chipped- featured powerful, pocket-jumping moves with negligible footers, but -ultimately- featured a single move I couldn't do consistently. Dismissing that, I moved on to another 7b+ (Stranger than Paradise) which looked closer to my preferred angle (being only slightly overhanging), and played to more of my strengths, being a cross between Siurana crimps, Buoux pockets, and Taipan-esque slippery, scoopy weirdness. The first lap was a loooong debacle as I tried to piece it together, and my next lap wasn't much better. On my 2nd day on it, on my 4th lap I accidentally debacled my way all the way through all the hard moves to literally the final move to the anchors, which is certainly no harder than gr21... only to completely fuck-it up by grabbing the wrong hold. Turns out that I hadn't expected to do anywhere near as well as I had, and hadn't really practiced any of the upper part, preferring instead to focus on the harder crux sections. I had another shot that day and got through the main crux, but fell off lower down (on a section that would prove to be the redpoint crux for me).

"Au Revoir, Aussies". A
fine farewell from France.

Devastated, I left my gear on the route with a view to coming back the next day, and retreated dejectedly down the mountain, only to find that Buoux's reputation for crime had finally caught up with us, and one of our windows was smashed, with approximately $70 worth of junk stolen from our car. Now the stolen gear was annoying, but the real problem was the broken window and the insane excess we'd have to pay to the rental car company if we couldn't fix it ourselves. Fortunately, the Belgians in charge of our campsite had the solution, and pointed us in the direction of a window repairer. They also supplied us with some duct tape for some "temporary" repairs, proving that Les Cedres really is a full-service campground . Surprisingly, the repair process turned out not to be so difficult, and we'd eventually end up with a fully repaired and indistinguishable new window, with only 180 less Euro in our pockets.

"Perfect sending conditions, dude!"

Another day, another day on the project. Once again, despite my best efforts, I failed on the project all day, never quite achieving the same high point as I had on my 4th shot. I was struggling with the sun (there's only about 2 hours per day that the route isn't in the sun, so for the rest of the day I was just Stephen's dedicated belay bitch), and with the fact that I was now feeling totally worn out. Success seemed far away, and I was running on a short fuse.


Stephen rests on the laurels of his
success by... ummm... doing some

Elsewhere, Stephen managed to succeed at his objectives for the final week, both of which took him outside of his comfort zone to achieve, thus adding more depth and value to his ultimate success. Resting on his laurels now, Stephen went into "patient, tolerant belayer-mode" for the last full-day at Buoux. And so it was in the style of cliche endings, that I finally managed to succeed at the route (not blowing the top move this time!!!) on my last possible shot of the day, of our last full day. Done and dusted, the weight was gone from my shoulders, and we could have a laugh for the remaining half-day at Buoux.

We decided to fill that half day by visiting a climb that -to me- has attained unparalleled status in the domain of hard sport climbing: Agincourt. Gaining access to the top of the cliff, we rapped in to check out this infamous line, and in the fading light rounded out a damned awesome trip to Buoux.

Me, having a play on Agincourt. Steep
and exposed. "One day... maybe".

So, a quick review of Buoux as a climbing destination:

Southern France, and the areas surrounding Buoux are summery, beautiful and friendly, with a plethora of convenient locales to investigate or to stock up supplies. Despite our break-in, crime didn't seem too prevalent (with a bit of strategic forethought), and there's a chance that I brought the break-in on myself by leaving my MP3 player visible from the outside.

The routes are awesome and all have an extremely short approach. They're somewhat on the runout side, but generally not dangerous. Though polished, the polish isn't too terrible (and probably comparable to Ceuse), and though sandbagged, I would argue that they become "less sandbagged" as the grades get higher. The style of climbing is beautifully powerful, pockety and yet technical, with a predisposition to slabby/face-y/very slightly overhanging.

In short, I absolutely loved the place, and would readily recommend it to any prospective travelers.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

(T)radical Testpieces in the Blueys

So, I've been back climbing again (post-injury) for a while, and lately I've been feeling somewhat guilty...

Guilty about the amount of time I've spent putting up new bolted routes and climbing sporty sport, at the expense of my favourite disciplines: Trad, Multipitch and general Obscurity.

Neil Monteith's photo of me working my
Wonga Pigeon Project. The hard part is
where all the chalk is on the arete.
Don't get me wrong, I love developing new routes, and I thoroughly enjoy Sport climbing... but I believe that climbing is an all-encompassing activity, best enjoyed in its many varieties (much like a Whitman's Sampler, whereby lately I've been eating only Peppermint chocolate and missing out on all that hideous, hideous Turkish Delight lying in wait just around the corner, haunting my nightmares)...

And thus, having mostly mended from my injuries, and being well into the process of growing some muscles (again), I arbitrarily decided to dedicate the next month (or so) to repeating some of the hard-ish Trad testpieces of the Blue Mountains that have somehow managed to escape me over the last 8 years.

The thing is, so many of these classic Trad routes -especially the somewhat harder ones- get talked about by all of us Blueys trad climbers all the time. We make bold statements like "Hell yeah, I'm up for that! Let's do it mate! Let's sort a date to lock it in!", and then we just never get around to climbing them. I'm certainly not excusing myself, I'm as bad (or possibly worse, since I have no life outside of work and climbing, and thereby have more time to get his stuff done). Lately, I've grown sick of waiting for all of these stars to align (read: trying to get other psyched climbers to fully commit), I've become tired of the procrastinating and speculating from others. One way or another I was going to get these routes done, and if I couldn't sort out steadfast climbing partners, I would call in my trusty belayer-on-call: my dad!

Grasshopper (70m 2-Pitch Trad 25)

Simon Carter's photo of Mike Law on
Grasshopper (70m 25), taken from his
Blue Mountains Climbing - 2015 Ed.
Anyone who has seen Simon Carter's photo of Mike Law on this stunning route knows the appeal of it. Though relegated to a small corner-photo in the 2 most recent editions of the guide, the image presents a stunning 50m pitch of varied splitter crack on a vibrant orange face, which narrows to a hairline seam-crack in the top 20m. Somehow escaping a first ascent until 2008 when it was climbed as an aid route at M5, Mike Law worked it on top rope and freed it placing all gear on lead in 2002, and since then it's had clean repeats from Zac Vertrees, Tom O'Halloran and Tom Samuels (I haven't heard of any others), all of whom are -would you believe- kinda strong-ish (I guess).

I knew the route well, not only from frothing gallons over the photos of it (Simon was kind enough to send me some high resolution versions of his photos for me to obsess over quite a few years ago), but from having looked across at it for literally hours while developing 2 new bolted routes on the blank face to the right (Cicada and Cricket) a bit over 4 years ago. It had escaped my efforts because of its reputation: the crux is often quite wet, it looks hard, and because a good friend of mine had had a bad fall at the crux a few years ago, in which he ripped gear, injured himself and bailed. Needless to say, I was rather intimidated, and so had joined the ranks of the procrastinators: "Hell yeah, I'll have a crack at that... one day... maybe..."

Thom Samuels flashes Grasshopper back
in 2012 (photo: Ben Jenga).
With my new resolution to get these routes done, I raced out to Pierces Pass after a morning dental appointment (hooray for wisdom teeth, right?), and hiked in from the top to inspect the climb. I knew the way in via Rigby Hill well from my previous bolting efforts in the area, and soon enough I had my rope running the length of climb, and it was time to check out my objective.

A quick aside here, if I may:

To be honest, I really struggled with whether or not to try for a true ground-up attempt at the crux pitch. Normally, ground-up is my strongly-held belief when it comes to trad, and I agonised about what to do before heading out there for the inspection. My rationalisation for the top-down inspection was based on knowing that the crack is often wet and vegetated at the crux, being concerned about the fiddly, specific and spaced gear, and apprehensive that if -like my friend- I had a mini epic getting up it (or took a bad fall), I might be demotivated and -also like my friend- never get around to coming back for the tick. At any rate, now that I've confessed to my inferior style of ascent, permit me to continue my story.

Looking down the line of
from just below the top.
On rap I chalked up the key holds, sussed the gear I would use (all of which I was going to place on lead: there would be no pre-placed gear on this one, meaning that the gear would be quite spacious at times), pulled out about a kilogram of vegetation from the crux section, and dried out the now empty crack with a chamois. In the interest of being straight about my approach to how I climbed this, I admit that I also did a giant lap on Top Rope Solo which -over the course of about 1.5 hours- allowed me to figure out my various sequences for this 50m monster, add a bit more chalk, and decide how I was going to place the gear. Most importantly, though I didn't have all the moves "dialed" as such, I knew roughly how I was going to try and approach them, and had enough confidence to wholeheartedly tackle the runout crux section where my buddy had previously called it quits. At that point it got dark, I bailed, and went home.

Would you trust this belayer? Actually,
I'm not even climbing yet and already
he's showing more attention than any
climber at Villawood ever did.
The following Saturday (1st July) I headed back out to Pierces Pass East Side with my trusty belayer in tow. My Old Man had previously belayed me when I'd sent the first of my bolted routes here (Cicada, 65m 2-pitch 24/25), so he knew the score. It's so easy to walk past Grasshopper as you head down the main Pierces Pass walking track, as it's positioned at a strange angle to the track, and the splitter crack isn't immediately obvious without a decent inspection (perhaps that's why it went for so long without being climbed), but every time I head down the track -even if for other objectives- I always pause to stare in admiration and pay my respects. In my not-so-humble opinion, Grasshopper might well be the single best "line" I've ever seen in the Blue Mountains.

From the base of the route there's a short, poxy gr15 dirty, shallow corner to a cosy ledge and the start of the crack proper. With my Old Man properly installed and comfortable there, I racked up and set off...

Looking down the lower (gr21ish)
section of Grasshopper.
The first 25m is about gr21, and makes for a great warmup both physically and stylistically. It follows a fairly continuous crack line that harbours some genuinely tricky moves as you move about in the crack and on the face. There is great -spaced- gear throughout, but the gear is very specific and fiddly, and both of the hard sequences on this section (including the punchy final crux, which is at the top) has you pulling moves above (good) gear. I oozed my way up this section, thoroughly enjoying the journey and placing all gear on lead, to find myself halfway up the climb at a small ledge (with a set of loweroff anchors off to the side). There's a no-hands rest at this stance, so I chilled there, shifted the (surprisingly small) rack of gear on my harness into its correct place for the next section, and composed myself.

3m off the stance is the gear that protects the crux. The gear is only "okay" (being in polished, rounded, somewhat wet and muddy rock), but I plugged in numerous pieces and equalised them together in the belief that "something would hold" and reversed back to stance. In hindsight, looking at Simon's photos of Mike on the crux, I realise that he must've dug out even more vegetation than I did, as it looks like he got different gear in the seam-crack at this section, which may have been superior to what I was using. At any rate, my harness was now super-light: I only had a total of 5 Wires and 1 cam to protect the entire top 22m of the climb, which contains all the hardest climbing.

The start of the crux. Soooo awkward.
All too soon it was go-time, and I was off. The crux starts by moving your feet to the same height as your gear, then an awkward move as you try and layback off the edge of the tips crack. From there you get a slippery, narrow "podded" part of the crack, (where you could pre-place extra gear, but literally cannot place gear on lead), and now you're at the crux of the crux: trusting a "dot" for your left foot and a trifle bigger dot for your right foot, standing tall off slippery hold and pouncing to a good fingerlock and some gear. I'll readily admit that I hesitated a moment before committing to the pounce (a fall from here is still safe, but quite big, and you have a chance of hitting the slab on the lower section in the same way my friend had when he injured himself), but made the move despite my doubts, and stuck it with a cry of relief.

A view of the crux section.

Wacking in a bomber wire, the following moves are super-sustained gr22 slightly steep face climbing, with only a few (read: 3) worthwhile wires in 10m of climbing. The moves are classic Blueys thinness -featuring beautiful rock in a classic position-, but -best of all- you're doing it well above stonker gear, following the hairline seam to the anchors like some sort of yellow-brick road to the Emerald City. Absolutely beautiful.

5m from the top you reach a stance where you can chill (and get your dad take photos), wack in another wire, and commit to the upper crux: a gr23ish boulder-problem with a small wire at your feet protecting the move. It's not too hard, but its the sort of move you really have to "want", as it culminates in a very snatchy pounce from an awkward body position. Hesitating again as I eyed off the victory hold, I coiled, pounced, and it was done!

Chilling on the jugs before the upper

A few fairly juggy moves protected by an RP lead to a stonker #3 cam, a rather thrilling slopey mantle to reach the top anchor, and I'd sent Grasshopper 1st shot on the day as a giant pitch, placing all gear on lead. I'll call it a tick on the "2nd lap" (but with the caveat that my first Rope-solo lap was a loooooooooooong lap).

Looking at the clock it was only 11am, so I lowered off and stripped my gear (which is quite easy to do when you have an 80m rope), shared a victory sandwich with my dad (huzzah!) and decided to try and tackle another trad testpiece (and old nemesis of mine) in the arvo. We blasted back up the short-but-intense Pierces Pass Walking track, and were on the road again by midday.

Victory Sandwich (or Salad, according
to this photo)!
Regarding the route... Well, I think I've probably heaped enough praise on it already, but I will say a few more words about it: It's probably middle-tier 25 if you do it placing all gear on lead, maybe hard 24 on pre-placed gear (and a bit less scary through the crux). The climbing is 3-star mega classic, but the sections of "less than perfect" rock and somewhat wet and muddy patches (especially through the crux) do devalue it a bit -in my opinion-, so I'll settle for 3-star classic (as opposed to Mega classic). It's not dangerous, but the gear is spaced and is very particular, especially if placing it on lead. A ground-up attempt (especially now that I've gardened it) is totally safe, but -unless you're a Zac Vertrees or a Tom O- be prepared to aid past the crux to get the rope above it to work the moves, as it's sequency, bouldery, and committing. It's quintessential trad following a crack, but doesn't really have much crack climbing in it (though some crack skills will help). If anyone wants any beta, or my gear list (or even the full video of my Send for some live-action beta), feel free to hit me up for the info.

Get on it!

Bad Moon Rising (35m Trad 23)

Okay, so maybe it was a bit ambitious, but I was riding on a high from the Grasshopper send, so I gunned it back to Mount Victoria, out to Zig-Zag crag, past the malevolent (and frankly, downright evil) Transcendental Meditation (35m Trad 22) (while, quite deliberately not looking at it for fear of breaking into apoplexy), and all the way to Bad Moon Rising, an intimidating steep crack with a very hard crux.

A photo of me attempting Bad Moon Rising back in January 2014.

It's an intriguing-looking climb, with the hideously disgusting shale-choss start (that makes Dogface look good) soon forgotten about when you cross the threshold into the initial pleasant stemming corner. The corner steepens and gets progressively harder, before launching into a fully-fledged tips-undercling traverse beneath a large roof, culminating in extremely bouldery moves to gain a hold past the lip, turn-the-roof, and get established on the headwall above. It's a particularly outrageous crux, as the end of the roof forms an arete with the opposing walls, producing one of the most exposed positions you can find in climbing.

Giles Bradbury on Bad Moon Rising (35m 23), placing the
crux gear mid-crux, the same way that I do it.
First climbed in 1980 (!!!) by Rod Young and Ant Prehn, it was once regarded as a testpiece trad route (there's an iconic photo of Giles Bradbury on the crux, clipping the fixed wire that existed there once-upon-a-time), but is now largely forgotten about. I'd had a crack at it 3.5 years ago, and Onsighted to the main crux, battled at the crux for about 45min, eventually gotten past it and gone to the top. At the time I'd written it off as "too hard for me".

But that was years ago... I'm stronger and bolder and -frankly- far more awesome than I was back then... This route should be easy now!

Yeah right!

The sweet stemming corner at the start.
Photo from back in 2014.

Still belayed by my father (who wasn't very impressed with the disintegrating shale-ledge stance, and distinct lack of any real belay anchor), I had him keep me off belay until I got a few pieces of dubious gear behind the shale-features, as I grovelled up a landslide of rubbish rock to gain the crack proper. Fortunately, there's a hard-to-spot stonker bit of gear here which stops you going splat (from about 6m up), and also protects the challenging V1 boulder-moves that follow. Once in the crack, it's all sweet... Seriously, if it weren't for the manky start, this would be yet another Trad classic.

Whipping off Bad Moon Rising... An
exciting fall as you swing around the
arete (followed by much cursing!).
At this point the rock is great, the gear is good (lots of small-medium wires) and the climbing is fun. The stemming gets a bit more strenuous as you get higher, the corner gets steeper, and the vegetation gets a bit more... um... pervasive... Yes, up until this point fun times are had by all. Then you reach the point where the corner stops at the roof, and you follow the thin crack outwards under the roof to the lip. This section of the climb is notorious for being quite vegetated, and I was dismayed to see that it was far more overgrown than it has been when I'd tried it previously. Gardening on lead as I tentatively traversed out from the safety of the corner, tic-tacing my feet on small holds, and tenuously using the intermittent underclings I could find amongs the vegetation. I gave up trying to dig out enough space for gear and just gunned it to the end of the roof, where I stitched it up with so much gear I probably could've hung a portaledge from the nest and had a ledge-party with all my mates. After procrastinating ("I'll just shake out on these bad holds for a bit longer"), I eventually committed to the crux, totally punted it, and went for the lob. D'oh!

Pulling back up, I did some more gardening (unearthing a crucial undercling that still had chalk on it!), and then proceeded to bumble around the crux sequence for another 30min or so. I could do the moves, but not at anything near 23 (try 25++), and I was trying to find a way of climbing it at roughly the grade of the route. In the end, I settled for a sequence which I would regard as solid gr24, but was doable -albeit committing- and was going to be the way I tackled the route on the Send.

Mmmm... vegetated... "Damn horticulture
crap... some Global Warming will take care
of you!"
Photo from 2014.
By this time it had gotten dark, so I stripped the route and bailed, but was back again the following Sunday 9th July, this time belayed by a very hungover Rene Provis (who had been at a wedding the day before, and was struggling not to vomit as watched me while I climbed). I knew the gear I needed, I knew the moves, but despite this I was still doubtful that I could Send it due to the hard, scary and gymnastic nature of the crux. I didn't really feel "mentally" warmed-up enough to succeed.

Looking from the corner out towards the
crux (after all my gardening efforts).
The tick in the roof marks the hidden
Nevertheless, I was off-and-running. I sketched my way up the mank start, laughed my way up the stemming corner, appreciated my way through the roof traverse (it was great being able to have actual holds and gear to protect it, now that the vegetation was gone), and suddenly I was back at the crux, stitching up the last bits of small gear and eyeing off the move. The crux itself commences by stepping up onto a really high, small, slippery footer and fingering the undercling crack. You do a quick foot-swap, hump the arete-feature (using the leg wrapped around the opposing side of the arete to keep you stable), take a small undercling-sidepull in the roof, and span past the lip of the roof blindly to gain an "okay" hueco feature. From here you core-up and release the left hand, cutting loose to match the hueco, at which point I flick my right foot up and get a heel-toe cam above my head. Now totally upside down I place a 0.4 cam (where the fixed wire used to be), then switch to desperately trying to rock over my right heel while pressing with the outside edge of my foot on the (mostly) blank wall to gain some upward momentum. Eventually I tag an okay ringlock, rock a bit more, and make a biiiiiiiiig stretch to a mega jug. Another piece of pro, and then it's exposed jugging to the top.

Sending Bad Moon Rising!
And like a dream I was at the top, once again ticking the route placing all gear on lead. As Rene was too unwell to second the route, I had the joy of jumaaring back up the route on second to to get my gear back, but by midday it was all done and dusted, and we were off to climb some easier stuff at Zig Zag (stuff more suited to Rene's present state of sobriety).

I can see why this was once a hardman testpiece, and I can see why it's out of fashion. If it got more laps to keep the roof clean of shrubbery (and maybe a bolt belay to start, since there isn't really any gear of note for the first few meters), I don't see anything to prevent it becoming a classic on every crack-climbers ticklist once again. Sure, it's super-cruxy, but the crux is gnarly, acrobatic, strenuous and ridiculous for a trad route Most importantly: it's immeasurably memorable. I'd definitely recommend the route as a "lower-tier classic" even with the rubbish start. What do you guys think, would a bolt belay below the route be acceptable?

So, two rad trad crack testpieces done and dusted... Why not try one more and go for the hat-trick?

Supercrack (70m 3-pitch Trad 24)

The original Rock edition with Lucas Trihey
climbing Supercrack.
Another of those "every crack climber knows about it, but no one ever climbs it" kind of climbs. Lucas Trihey scored the First ascent with Bruce Cameron back in 1996, and purportedly described the crux pitch 3 as "Australia's answer to Separate Reality" (in Yosemite Valley). I'd heard stories of a 9m perfect-hands roof-crack which needed 8-9 x BD #2's to climb, and I can only imagine that Lucas was frothing when he saw it, as it is quite the find indeed. I also couldn't really find any info on anyone else actually free-climbing it clean in recent years, which -of course- piqued my interest further. Having said that, considering Lee Cossey cleaned up a long-standing trad project nearby (at grade 28, no less) and some of the other strongmen who've passed by it on the way down the gully over the years, it seems likely that it has, in fact, been repeated (probably by some local crusher for whom it's "no big deal").

"It's up there!", Steve points to
Supercrack P3 (20m 24) in the
background, with P2 (20m 17) to his
Well, a punter like me climbing it clean would be a "big deal", in my opinion.

My friend North-Face Steve (Tangent: apparently his real name is Steve Winnacott... I once had an embarrassing experience when I was to meet up with a "Steve Winnacott" in Biship, California, and didn't actually know who "Steve Winnacott" was -as I've always known him as "North-Face Steve" (can you guess which company he works for?)) has been working hard to free a rad trad project of his, but was being stymied by some strenuous hard-trad pitches. He confided that he was looking for some burly crack training, and it just so happened that I had the perfect candidate for him...

Steve Old Skools his way up P2 (20m 17).
Consumer Advice: Bring some BIG cams.
We made our way out to the Gardens of Stone National Park bright and early on Saturday (8th July), and down to the Rain Cave. If you haven't been to Rain Cave, it's an impressive weatherproof feature, quite deep and sheltered from all but the most determined of wind-backed rain. But -more importantly- it has a smattering of well-bolted and interesting sport routes in the gr22-24 range, all of which are well worth your time when the Blueys is properly flooded. Mega or not, Sporty Sport was not our goal for the day, so we exited the cave and continued down the overgrown and loose gully in search of a Separate Reality look-alike. It's not a long hike, but it is a bit of a scrub bash if you remain in the gully proper, so here's a Top Gear Top Tip: If you scramble along the ironstone slabs on the left side of the gully all the way down from the Rain Cave, it's faster and easier to get to Supercrack.

At any rate, eventually we found our way to the start of the route. Pitch 1 (25m 12) is just a dirty grey grade-nothing slab which can -literally- be walked around, which we promptly did. Now on the tier above, we could see that Pitch 2 (20m 17) looked pretty good, but -surprisingly- it could also could be scrambled around, bringing you all the way up to the money pitch. We resolved to tackle Pitch 2 as a warmup because -as opposed to P1- it actually looked funky and consisted of real climbing. We did, however, scramble up to the belay below P3 to deposit our gear before skittering back down to begin the climbing.

Steve was up, and as it turns out P2 is pretty gnarly for a 17. An easy trench leads to some wide stemming with tricky pro (unless you remember to bring a #5, which we'd managed to leave in our packs, now on the belay above us). Committing to the moves above some rather dubious gear, he discovered that the climbing isn't as hard as it looks, but is -in fact- super old school, as the steep bridging becomes chimneying, accompanied by a spot of ye olde Body Squeeze. He polished it off, feeling much warmer now, and got his first real look at "Australia's answer to Separate Reality", where I soon joined him (yes, I climbed P2 this time, I didn't just walk around it again).

Standing on some tic-tac footers through the roof.
In reality, it probably does overhang about 9m, measuring from where it first gets steep to where you've turned the lip and are established in the juggy chimney above, though -to be honest- its not a true uninterrupted roof crack. This is because the roof itself is a huge bell-arch, and consequently there are often little tic-tac footers on one side of the arch or the other. Regardless, it's a soaring and inspiring line, and after getting a good look at it I was inspired and confident: I love thuggy cracks (especially roof-cracks), but they are few and far between in our neck of the woods.

Double-Fist Jams to glory!!!
With the high winds and the low temperatures, it was full arctic as I set about the Onsight attempt, which commenced with some easy low-angle climbing before the crack switched gear from slab to roof almost immediately. Double-placing pro to protect these moves (I wasn't sure I'd be able to stop and place more gear), I launched into the crack, which featured almost perfect jams and enough features for me to heel-hook or press against without having to jam my feet in the crack proper. After the first few moves there was a beautiful sculpted jug outside the crack which was perfect for placing more gear, then it was back into the bowels of the earth for a for more moves before gaining a small tic-tac footrail, from which I could get into an extreme stemming stance and place some more gear. At this point the jams widen to perfect fists, but with "reasonable" footers the jams were still great, despite the angle. After some more stemming and more gear, I transitioned to facing the other direction in the crack (with a stylish cut-loose, of course), and was now facing the final moves to gain the lip.

Me turning the lip... and fucking stoked!
Though I was definitely getting pumped, I was feeling super-solid (let's face it, if you've got the guns and the technique to jam a roof crack, a #2-sized jam is basically the best jug in the world) and was plugging in gear all over the place, expecting it to get hard (in which case I'd be running it out, rather than trying to place gear). But at this stage, it wasn't the pump that was going to kill me, it was the frigid cold, as I couldn't' feel my hands at all and my forearms felt "sluggish".

Steve splitting his groin to achieve the bridge on his flash.
Launching at the final sequence, which -bafflingly- involves climbing down around a blocky feature to gain the lip and a hidden jug, I was fairly confident that it was in the bag. From the stunning position right at the edge of the roof, I plugged in one last cam, grunted through a few more steep jams, and it was over; I'd onsighted supercrack! The easy ironstone chimney was dispatched with no great effort, I built an improvised anchor on a bollard at the top, and lowered back down the route so that Steve could have a crack at it.

Steve on his way to flashing Supercrack.
His effort was awesome, to say the least. Just back from an injury, and without the experience at steep crack climbing, he was full of doubt and kept talking down his chance at success. But by Jove he put his critic (namely: himself) to rest, as he scrapped his way through the roof, somehow contorting himself into utterly ridiculous positions in his desperation, but battling on anyway. Despite being shorter than me, he managed to get the same stemming stance in the roof (I can only assume he literally performed "the splits" to achieve this, since *I* was ripping my crotch seam to achieve it at my height), and then -once again- going all Cirque De Soleil as he pretzeled himself at the lip of the roof. By his own admission he was almost "off" several times, but somehow stayed on and kept battling. He made noise and fought hard, and I totally got into the spirit of things as I cheered and harassed him up the route.

Steve's victory roar: "roar!"
And then, impossibly, he too was in the chimney above the roof, panting like he'd just run a marathon and whooping for joy. Steve had managed to flash the route on my gear. Hell yeah! After topping out, he decided that he was too destroyed to try and back-climb the crack to get the gear back, so -after he returned to terra firma- I went up again for a gear-retrieving "victory lap".

Steve's tape job. Notice how un-mangled his hands are?

Now, regular readers will know my stance against taping for cracks, but in this case I'd made a tiny exception to the rule: I'd used (literally) a single layer of tape (so < 1mm of extra thickness) to my hands, knowing that this sort of sharp rock and this type of climbing would shred my hands if they were totally unprotected, and possibly prevent any chance at a redpoint burn if I blew the onsight. Furthermore, because this sort of crack is one that is definitely easier with a few layers of tape (or hand jammies), I didn't feel like I could consider the challenge of the crack "complete" if I applied any real volume of tape. While this "almost no" tape mentality was okay for the Onsight lap, and I came down with only a few scratches after the tick, the second lap was a total hand shredder, and every jam was torturous as more and more layers of skin were devoured by the rock. As the gear was already in-situ and I'd already ticked the route, I went for the "speed repeat", and hammed it up a bit more with some crack-campusing and unnecessary cut-looses (how often do you get to do that while double-jammed in a roof crack?), but suffered for it as -after downclimbing the route and removing the gear-, I returned to the ground with shredded meat masquerading as hands, for which my planned career as a hand model was forever over. Even at work now, I regularly get comments by colleagues about my beaten up and bloody hands. But regardless, I am satisfied that I tackled the crack (size) as the it was presented, with nothing to make it easier by amending handsize (even if only co-incidentally).

Notice how mangled my untaped
hands are... 5 days after the
With the double-send done and the gear retrieved, we headed right down the gully to the Main Wall, where another classic hard-ish trad testpiece -Sacred Ground (65m Trad 23) resides. It was too late in the day to have a crack at it, but we were both inspired, and made plans to return in the next few weeks to launch up that one as well.

"Sure mate, I'll do it. Let's lock in a date to make it happen", right? Hopefully not. I think we're both pretty psyched to get it done!

And in other news, Steve is back on his mega Wolgan project next weekend, so with any luck he'll have some positive news about crushing the crux pitches on that, aided by his newfound muscles from climbing Supercrack.

So, my review of the climb itself:

Me on the Send of Supercrack, climbing into the sunset...
I can't comment on P1, but it looked rubbish. P2 isn't very hard, but it's a cool (and slightly intimidating) line, and made for a totally worthwhile warmup, which I thoroughly recommend doing. P3 is -obviously- the money, and is completely unique in the Blueys (in my opinion). Though probably soft at 24 (even for the true onsight), it is the sort of pitch that would definitely be even easier with decent taping. Having said that, if you don't mind devaluing the difficulty of the route, I'd recommend taping properly, as my ruined hands are a testament to what happens when you fail to do so. In some ways its the Gas Krankenstation (Nowra Route) of Blueys trad: It's all mega jugs (assuming you can pump and jam #2 in the same way a normal climber can hang off a bucket-jug all day long), it just comes down to having the endurance to slog it out and carry the extra weight of the gear, and having the head to deal with placing and climbing "above" gear. Though harder than Gas Krankenstation (Krankenstation also has mega jug feet the whole way, to say the least), it carries the same novelty and outrageousness that goes with climbing horizontally for such a length at a relatively tame grade. I don't think it compares to Separate Reality, and it's not without it's faults, but damn it's fun, and I recommend it for sure. I'd suggest bringing 6-7 #2's, 1 x #1 and 1 x #3 for the route itself (though you could safely and confidently do it with less, for the onsight I was glad to be able to double-place and commit to each sequence confidently), plus some extra gear for the belay and a top anchor.

I also had the chance to spend yet another day sieging away at my Wonga Pigeon Project (<sighs>). With any luck I'll have some other RadVentures to share in the next few weeks. I've definitely got plans in that vein.

For now though, be safe.