Blue Mountains – Ed Lamb

I arrived in Australia for work back in April and other than visiting the local climbing wall in Darwin had not managed to get anything done, so when Paul H suggested I contact Alice for a pre-New Year trip I leapt at the chance.

The question of where to go was largely decided by where Alice and I were. I am in Darwin in the cyclone season and although there is rock up here I’ve been told it’s not the best, and Alice was travelling around Queensland and New South Wales. I had bought a copy of Rock magazine that had a front page article, ’10 Classic Moderates from the Blue Mountains’, so off we went.

I met Alice in Paramatta just outside Sydney and we drove up to the Blue Mountains just after Christmas for a few days. The drive up into the hills took about an hour and a half, a quick bit of breakfast and purchase of a helmet and a few other bits of kit that had been forgotten or not brought left us ready and prepared. I had brought the new ‘Blue Mountains Climbing 2010 edition’ a few days before Alice arrived and was very keen to get out and about.

Climbing in new areas is always exciting but can be slightly daunting, especially when a new grading system has to be learnt. Having read the Rock article which was claiming that anything between 17 and 22 was a moderate I was surprised to find that the grades represented an approximate range of HVS 4c to E3 6a. I’m not unhappy to consider myself a bit of a bumbly, especially recovering from injury, but have to say that if I went to the Peak and got up an E3 6a I wouldn’t be having a ‘Moderate’ day (it would be a hyper day with much celebrating in the pub after!)!

For me the trip the trip was a real chance to get my trad leading head back together after an ankle break, for Alice more time to practice and push her grade a bit. So Alice and I headed from Katoomba to Mount York and had a walk along the ‘Sunnyside’ crag to see what we thought….

The climbing in the Blue Mountains is on sandstone that varies from very good to terrible quality. As you drive around the area it becomes apparent that there is vast amount more rock to be developed. The light, orangey brown sandstone, is not as hard as Gritstone but generally tougher than the Southern Sandstone. Climbs tend to be steep and as we were to find fairly bold as there is limited gear. Cracks and chimneys are common at the lower end of grades with faces and slabs at the higher end.

Mount York is recognised as having some of the better, lower grade climbing. After a brief look at the guide and bottom of the ‘Sunnyside’ crag, and applying the tenet of ‘Discretion being the better part of Valour’ we started on a 12 called ‘Flap’. ‘Flap’ turned out to be a good route, albeit harder and bolder that we expected for UK sub-4b climb – a useful learning experience that made sure we generally stuck to easy routes with the occasional exception.

Alice and I quickly learnt that the starring in the guide book was fair and that the three and four star routes were absolutely brilliant. Our first day continued with ‘Lischenbak’ (10**), an attempt of ‘Currawongs and Chocolate Cake’ (17**) – our first dealing with the Ozzy carrot bolt, ‘Obituary’ (14****), and ‘Refusal’ (14***). Of these, ‘Obituary’ and ‘Refusal’ really stood out both being solid corner cracks with good gear. After reading Rock, and prior to realising that ‘Moderate’ isn’t necessarily moderate, we had hoped to have a go at ‘Exhibition Wall’ (21****) seemingly a national treasure and the first sports route in the Blue Mountains. Alice and I climbed ‘Obituary’ and ‘Refusal’ after a day of pushing up from 10s to 14s and watched some fairly good locals having a go happy in the knowledge that as bumblies we were in good company.

Our first day had got our leading heads on, given us a feel for grades, and had made us think about gear. We drove back out of the mountains aiming for a curry and rest.

Day 2 saw us at Mount Piddington. It was a warmer day and we found ourselves in the ‘Flake Crack Area’ in the “Faith’, ‘Hope’, ‘Sincerity’ and ‘Charity’ area. Alice led up ‘Faith’ (8***) followed by ‘Sincerity’ (13***) really well, the latter a slab with carrot bolts with one tricky move at three quarter height. I had got into the crack and off-width/chimney style of climbing and led the first pitch of ‘Hope’ (15***) and Charity (13*) on which I reached into a horizontal crack to find a big lizard glaring at me!

After four good routes, a decent chat to some expats and their son who was attempting ‘Flake Crack’ (17*****), an awesome looking hanging flake that would have been really good to do and well within our obvious ‘Moderate’ ballpark – not! We moved on.

At this point a mixture of misunderstanding, recommendations from locals and the heat saw me attempting the first pitch of ‘The Eternity’ (18*****) another regional and possibly national treasure thinking it was a 15. The pitch is 22m long and follows a steep crack that changes width from fist jamming to finger crack at the top. The hint was in its other name, ‘Yorkshire Crack’!

I did well and the climbing was superb, good jams and feet on the wall, with gear where needed if you had the right size. The low crux went well a relatively hard short sequence of fist and hand jams and then up the wall. I came off almost able to touch the belay ledge on a tricky move above my gear and was utterly gutted to then find a hidden hold that would have made life much easier. I was shattered at the top and I have to thank Alice for her understanding as I was completely annoyed with myself for the next few hours! Alice followed me up after I had got top rope from someone to get to the belay and did really well and breezed through the upper move I had fallen on.

At the bottom a quick check of the guide resolved everything. We had misunderstood the recommendation and I began to feel quite chuffed at how well we had done on it. It is a superb route, one that I would really have liked to get up first go. It has gone down on my ever growing list of ‘Ones that got away….’, but I’ll be back for it I hope (I seem to add more to this list than I tick off it which is a bit of a pain!).

Tired and having run out of time before the New Year’s Eve celebrations, we went back to Mount York for half a day, this time the ‘Dragons Tooth’ Area. This area is on the ‘Shady Side’ of Mount York and surprisingly has a very different feel to it.

It took us a few minutes to sort ourselves out and work out how to get down the entrance/exit gully that had had a flash flood carrying a few trees down it but eventually found the ‘Dragon’s Tooth’ (12***) a widen corner crack that really took our fancy but seemingly had no gear. We moved on around the corner to ‘Fohn’ (15***) and started on that as it had some gear and bolts. Our first thoughts on the ‘Shady Side’ were that it looked a bit chossy and not as clean, you could tell that not as many people climbed in the area, however we were surprised and ‘Fohn’ was good.

Having persuaded Alice into one more climb before returning to Sydney we went back around to ‘Dragon’s Tooth’ and I felt my way up the first few metres until I found a superb thread in the crack. Feeling much happier I climbed the rest to emerge into the heat and sun of midday. Alice made her way up and sadly that was the end of a brilliant few days.

The last route definitely fitted into the TWMC ethos of New Year’s Day climbing chimneys and hideous cracks, except it wasn’t hideous, lacked slime and moss and gloop, and strangely the collection of freezing people standing around in boiler suits – but we did try…..just not very hard!

A superb few days in a lovely area on excellent rock, definitely an area to spend a few weeks in!

A few notes on gear, places to stay and travelling around.

Gear – Racks – Alice and I were relying on my UK rack of gear and six carrot bolt hangers, I’ll come back to them). If you are considering going to the Blue Mountains I would suggest doubling or tripling up on cams of various sizes as well as making sure some big sizes are carried. Many of the cracks tend to be more parallel and continuous than in the UK and if a lot of gear is used a UK rack with a good spread of gear sizes quickly gets depleted (Paul H and I found a similar problem in Joshua Tree but took most of two racks which partly helped.).

Gear – Carrot Bolts – Firstly, don’t complain you whinging pomes! The Ozzies invented them, they are a unique piece of their climbing history and they love them if only for these reasons. They started as a mild steel bolt hammered into a drilled hole. They’re apparently weakest if you pull along their axis – a straight pull-out so don’t do it (although when you see one for the first time they are fairly daunting and the thought of loading them at all is horrifying!). Modern ones are stainless and reportedly generally strong. You probably need around ten of them.

To use we have been told (and I’m not taking any responsibility for this at all so go and get trained properly or don’t do it), place your newly purchased bolt hanger over the bolt head, place screw gate or crab through hanger and then flip so spine is against rock – this will keep hanger on bolt but remember that some skinny biners and wire gates won’t hold hanger on bolt. Then carry on carrying on…They are visually low impact to the point that they can’t be seen at times. We got on okay with them but a helpful hint is to keep the hanger plates in your chalk bag for when you need them – you cannot clip the hanger first and thread it over the bolt head. Also if you can back them up do so.

Gear – Clothing etc – Take a hat and sun block, take a spare hat. Australia has had a terrible summer this year and a few weeks later I had hail in the Blue Mountains so don’t be complacent take a warm things as well.

Gear – Water – Take lots. Alice and I got through I think at least three litres each.

Travel – Places to stay – All the little towns in the Blue Mountains have back-packers, B&Bs, and hotels. We ended up staying near Sydney which was a pain but just what happened,

Travel – Transport – You could do all the climbing we did by Train and hitching or walking. But a car will get you straight there. If you got a camper van and/or tent no one seems to mind people staying in some of the car parks above crags. Driving at night take your time A wombat or kangaroo can wreck a car and people have been known to die in the crashes caused by them.

Rest days – canyoning, walking, good pubs and cafes, some caving – there’s plenty in the Mountains and then you have Sydney and its surroundings as well.

Locals – Lastly we met some lovely people who were very friendly and helpful.

Other Locals – Be careful of reptiles some of the snakes are poisonous……and the spiders can be fun too…..

[nggallery id=15]