Wednesday, 24 June 2015

All The Way Down (of Climbing Vans and Granite Slabs)

"Where you are now you can't even imagine what the bottom will be like...

Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything..."

-Tyler Durden, Fight Club 

No, this isn't some tragic tale of the shit hitting the fan, but rather a celebration of my continuing descent (read: plummet) in the opposite direction to what is typically considered by society to be the "correct" path through life. I just thought that the above Fight Club quote seemed strangely appropriate from the perspective of those amongst society walking the "road most traveled".

So, what journey into climbing bumb(li)ness would be complete without a Van to live your life of psuedo-squalor in? Within a few weeks of returning from Tasmania (in March) I'd picked up a 2002 Mitsubishi Delica 4WD Van (3.0L V6 Petrol), a vehicle I'd been researching for a while as a prospective CragVan™.

Here she is in all her Soccer Mum glory!

THE CragVan™


First up, I needed to build a bed frame. 

My objective was to make just a single bed (so I could maximise the available free space for more gear), and to have it elevated enough that I could utilise the empty space beneath it. I also wanted to leave one of the "dicky seats" in the back in situ, so that I could take a 2nd passenger if necessary, and also have a conventional seat to use if bad weather trapped me in the CragVan™ for an extended period of time. 

The limitation to all of this was that the only existing mounting points I had to use were the ones previously used by the seats I'd removed, which -from the perspective of a bed frame- were not ideally positioned, and also were only on the floor. Thus, any frame I built needed to be structurally self-sufficient so that side-to-side and front-to-back movement didn't compromise its integrity.

Spot the crucial missing LEGO brick.
Inevitably, I recruited my Old Man to assist in this task. We took some measurements, drew up a few rough drawings and discussed strategy. We resolved to work with wood because -basically- we were both too inexperienced (read: incompetent) to work with steel or pre-fabricated components, and -though possibly more time consuming- it would probably be cheaper.

So, with the concept of this aforementioned bed firmly entrenched in our collected minds, I went off to the Grampians and Arapiles, and returned to find that my Old Man had drawn up a complete schematic in 46 "simple steps" to build this frame. You remember in LEGO kits how the assembly instructions would involve adding a few components in each step, eventually resulting in an awesome Ice Planet spaceship (inevitably with one crucial missing LEGO brick that you forgot to add in Step 12, which would doubtless result in explosive decompression if the ship ever actually managed to leave Earth's atmosphere)? That is exactly what my Old Man had drawn up!

So, with the construction plans signed off. We purchased the materials and set to work (cue an A-Team-style montage music track):

Visualising the layout... It might've been easier just to leave it at this.
Step 1 in the Old Man's 46 "Simple Steps" to Success. The side-wall frame to start the ball rolling.
Is it a train? Is it a Billy Kart? No, but it IS starting to look a BIT like a bed frame.

The 85% assembled frame. The holes drilled in the bottom (and the obvious
bracket on the side are positioned to align with the 3 existing mounting points.

Fully assembled and ready for painting.
I figured that since we were doing this properly and not cutting any corners, I might as well paint and carpet it in order to make it more homely. It probably took us 3 full days of work to BUILD the frame, but it also took us another 3 full days of work to paint and carpet it:

After the 3rd layer of paint. Mmm... Invigoratingly Grey.
Gluing on the carpet. The wood and vices were to ensure that it bonded well in the
obvious "high stress" area. I found out the hard way that if you push TOO hard
on the carpet when the glue is still wet, it comes through the carpet and gets all
over everything.
Finished and ready for use!

So, with the frame finished, we wacked it in the back of the van. We then bought some foam, cut it to the appropriate size, re-sewed the mattress cover to the corresponding size, and voila! the CragVan™ Bed was complete.

But -aside from the many other minute modifications necessary to make a TRUE CragVan™, one thing was essential before it would be homely enough to live in: curtains! But alas, the frustrating shape of the Delica's window recesses meant that the conventional approach to van curtains wasn't quite as straightforward as it might appear. And so, after much debate (and many trips to Bunnings searching for inspiration), we decided on using the remaining Marine Carpet I'd purchased, cutting it into sections to fit each of the individual windows, and attaching it to the window with the help of velcro. Perhaps not the most aesthetic solution, but one that is cheap, effective, simple and "good enough".

As it turns out, my Old Man was apparently a seamstress in a past life, and masterfully sewed more than 40 velcro strips to the carpet, while I was relegated to cutting the carpet to the appropriate shape, and gluing the velcro to the windows (really, I'm surprised they even let me play with scissors).

The CragVan™ so far... Bed, Mattress, Sleeping Bag, Window "shutters", Esky, Stove... And a case of Boags. Awww yeah!
NOTE the velcro strips marking the "removed" window shutter. That one is cut in two separate halves so that I can leave my "blind spot" uncovered without having to take the entire "shutter" down.

And so, with the last MAJOR hurdle completed. It was time to take the CragVan™ out for a field test...



On Sunday 21st June, Stephen Varney and I decided to head down to Booroomba Rocks to tackle some Canberra granite to practice for our upcoming trip to Yosemite (and to see if we could survive 3.5 days without killing each other... probably a good thing to know before spending 5 weeks in close confinement Big Walling in Yosemite).

Ahhh, Granite... Pain, friction slabbing, ridiculous runouts, tiny wires trapped between crystals that may or may not shatter... How I've missed thee...

Stephen Seconding me on my "made up" Pitch.
Great position and exposure!
For the first day we hit up the North Buttress, and started the day with Fiasco, a 6-pitch 2-star 18. The climb was reasonably entertaining, but hardly mind blowing. After finishing Pitch 4, I decided that the upper pitches looked too easy, and decided to invent a 50-metre pitch (at about Grade 20, and moderately bold) following a series of flared, thin, incipient cracks that snaked along a blunt arete. It was great, technical, thin climbing and just bold enough to be exciting (I'd argue that it was better than any pitch I'd done on Fiasco), though I still have no idea what exactly it was I'd climbed (or if it even HAD been climbed before).

I ended up below the 2nd pitch of Yellow Brick Road, and decided to continue up that. This pitch is particularly memorable because it has a single solitary bolt 1m off the belay, then an 7m runout through the hardest moves of the pitch before you get in some good gear behind a loose flake. Fortunately, the hardest moves are off the belay itself, and if you do fall during the runout (or, more likely, break something off) you're mostly just going to hurtle through the air and bounce off the slab below... provided your belayer manages to dodge you as you fly past.

We followed this adventure up with Incisor, a 3-star, 3-pitch trad 19. All 3 pitches on this one were unique and enjoyable in their own way. The first has some exciting and strenuous undercling and layback moves under, around and up past the "incisor" (a huge fang-shaped flake hanging steeply off the wall like a Sword of Damocles). The second (crux) pitch has a boulder-problem start, some technical thin crack climbing, some outrageous arete moves on nubs (and no protection), and a final traverse and fused-seam which I found highly technical. The final pitch involved some tenuous (and unprotected) moves up an enormous detached flake, which you then have to step across to gain a thin slab and perform a tricky mantle (still unprotected) before a simple ramble to the top. All in all, a great climb.

This is what a granite Mega-Classic looks like. Me Onsighting Integral Crack (20)
On Tuesday we went to the South Buttress, and I warmed up on the "must do" climb at Booroomba: Integral Crack (20). Often, a Super-Duper-Hyper-Mega-Mega-Classic doesn't tend to live up to its reputation, but this one did not disappoint. Aside from being a soaring, aesthetically beautiful line, the climbing is varied, challenging, a touch runout, and not at all what I expected. For every finger-lock you do, there are some thin face moves, a tips-layback, and funkiness up token granite flakes. There is tonnes of gear on it, but on each of the hard(er) sections, the crack fuses (hence the reason it gets hard) and there's no more gear for a while... So you ultimately end up doing all the hardest moves above your gear. I scored the onsight, and can safely say that this is one of the best pitches at the grade I've ever done on Granite.

Stephen then got his thrutch on and headed up the Old-School Roy's Crack (14) (only an old-school, beard-stroking thrutch-fest could possibly be called "Roy's Crack"). After that, I decided to get on a climb described in the guide as "The Best 21 at Booroomba": African Walking Tree (21). The climb looks pretty average from the ground, and had the guide not advised me otherwise, I would probably have just kept right on walking. I'm bloody glad that I didn't. African Walking Tree is a stellar pitch, with some thin, powerful (bolt protected) face-climbing to start, then a tricky and varied friction slab with spaced gear, culminating in an awesome corner-ramp-thing with bizarre and unique moves all the way to the anchor. I managed to forget to take many runners, so had to settle for placing very little gear on the entire 30m pitch, but that only added to the excitement.
Stephen styling "Anything So Nothing" P1 (20)
on Second.
For our final day, we went to the Central Slabs (near the North Buttress) with the goal of climbing Anything So Nothing, a 4-pitch 23 friction slab following a series of eye-catching water-streaks that run the length of the wall (and reminded me of Eurobin Falls at Mt Buffalo). From the ground it was obvious that much of the route was wet (the water streak was actually a water streak), but I was keen to give it a go, and jumped on the first pitch (which goes at gr20). In typical "old school granite friction slab" style, the pitch was quite run-out (especially at the start, climbing above some pretty average gear) but follows an obvious series of features/weaknesses, and so doesn't succumb to the "tedium" that many friction slabs suffer from. After risking life and limb, and battling right to the top of the pitch trying to avoid using half of the crucial holds (which were under the wet streak), I broke off a small crystal handhold I was using, and whipped onto the only bolt on the pitch: an old bash-in mild-steel carrot which I'd "clipped" with a wire. Dammit! Stephen styled the pitch on Second, and upon arriving at the belay it was obvious we wouldn't be continuing up this route... the upper pitches were proper wet.

Instead, Stephen headed up Jetts Sett P3 (18) which was conveniently next to the belay we were already on, and -in itself- was a funky steep layback crack-system with a few off-width sections to stem around. At this point the rain was moving in, but by the time I joined Stephen on the belay it had diminished enough that I was psyched for just oooooooone more pitch of climbing, and set off up High as Kites (20).

Well, every good trip needs a good epic, and this route was mine. It's first bolt is at about 10m, with some possible side-runners (if you start up the correct crack on the right), but no viable gear if you climb direct from the belay we were on (the belay below Fiasco P5). After clipping the bolt, hard-ish, runout friction slabbing ensues, with a particularly committing move left to gain a good seam (and a nice 0.3 cam placement) when your feet are about 6m above the bolt. I didn't want to commit to the move without SOME protection, and ended up standing on smeared feet, crimping a single miniscule sidepull for at least 20 minutes while I struggled to come up with SOME protection, and struggled to convince myself to do the move (since I really didn't have a choice). Predictably, while standing in this slippery stance for 20 minutes, the weather gods opted to smite me further, and it started raining. Granite Friction Slab + Rain = Awesome.

Here is the bit of gear I came up with to protect a 12m+ fall:

Psychological gear placement only, right?

Eventually I committed to the move, didn't fall off and die (unless this is some weird quasi-existential Sunset Boulevard blog update), got a good 0.3 cam placement, clipped one more bolt, and managed to find 2 more bits of gear to protect the remaining 20m of friction slab climbing (which -though not AS hard- still were far from easy). Stephen seconded me on it, and put in the good fight to get it clean as well.

Looking down at Stephen Seconding me on High as Kites (20). The 1st bolt is just below his feet, and the next bit of gear you can see quite some way above him is my "wonderful" wire placement. Exciting!

So, what to say about a climb like this? Perhaps the same thing as I would say about Booroomba Rocks as a climbing destination:

I enjoyed it in a somewhat masochistic, "great in hindsight", "probably not for everyone" kind of way. There are great climbs and great epics to be had here, but the price is a bit of effort, a willingness to adopt a slightly-bold mentality, and get a bit "old school". Booroomba has a staunchly old-school ethic which seems to involve next-to-no retrobolting, many tricky gear placements, bold climbing, and the various new(er) routes there tend to conform fairly closely to this standard. If nothing else, it makes it unique in a grid-bolted world. 
Stephen and I didn't kill each other either (or at least, they haven't found his body yet to know otherwise), so I guess that we're full steam ahead for Yosemite in September-October. Thanks for an entertaining weekend, Stephen!

NEXT TIME ON: The Climbing Obscurist:

A few weeks ago I bolted two more lines out at the Medlow Bath rap-in, climb-out area "The Sporting Complex". Both are about 35m long single-pitches in the 24/25 range, and consist of involved, technical face climbing with much thinness over some amazingly attributed rock.

The line on the left is my Being and Nothingness Project, and starts up an easy slab to the main face. After this there is an intense reachy/crimpy crux to gain the face, then an easier section of face/corner climbing to below the main bulge. After this it follows the vibrant orange streak through sustained small edges and pocket pulling all the way to the anchor, to produce an intense finale with a surprising number of varied pocket moves.

The line on the right is the Leviathan Project. It starts up Smoko (23), then heads right at an obvious traverse line, which lands you right in the middle of sustained techno-crimping to a stance. Some easy climbing leads to the middle crux, which is thin and very body-position dependent as you move around a rooflet-flake and into more easier climbing. The money, however, on this route is the upper bulge, which takes the steepest part of the face and moves through some bizarre slippery pockets following two parallel streaks: one black, one orange. The moves through this upper section are outrageous, especially when you add the amount of climbing you've done to get there, and the exposure below you.

I'm heading out tomorrow to do a few laps on Top Rope Solo before trying for the FAs over the weekend. I'm seriously psyched for these two beauties.

Hopefully, for my NEXT update, I'll be able to share some photos/videos of the First Ascents of these lines (assuming I succeed).

Be safe out there.

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