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Arapiles, Australia

Arapiles, Australia

Alison Osius

IT HAD BEEN a slow morning, rainy. Wolfgang was lecturing on training, Kurt singing, Didier smoking, me eating borrowed prescription anti-inflammatories.

But now we were at the base of India, 29, which several years ago was Australia’s hardest route, a bulgy, gold-colored wall with white-and-gray streaks. Kurt had just re-named it “Kurt’s Execution.” He had also just given it the finger. He and Wolfie were taking turns. It was like watching rockets take off: launch right German, launch left German.

Wolfie had done the route before, and waxed pedantic. Kurt, his clowning sidekick, had been working on it for days and could do the crux beautifully, but his feet kept popping from the steep smears above. He was falling off all over the place. “Can’t keep your silly mind on it,” a friend scolded him.

Wolfie wandered off while Kurt had a rest and a smoke. “I know I can do it,” he said. “Just concentration.”

He lifted his shoes again. The ABC camera began rolling. Six hand cameras raised. Twenty-two spectators sat up straight.

Kurt started up, palming and pinching on the overhanging wall. He passed the crux strongly. Abruptly, his foot skidded. He dropped.

“Please … beat me,” he asked. He lowered off, panting, to sit. Flies crawled on our faces.

He looked up again, alert as a beagle. “Oh, Gott, here comes Wolfgang.” They spoke in German.

Wolfgang rolled his eyes. “How can you fall off that move? It’s impossible.”

Kurt’s head dropped on his arms. “I have to do this climb, I have to do this climb,” he chanted. “Everybody in Germany will hate me if I don’t.”

* * *

In recent months, it had seemed safe to assume that professional climbing contests were the scene. In the past, however, the only “climbing contest” you really heard about, the California Bouldering Championship, was like a charming county fair. The atmosphere was mostly low key: people wandered about sharing news of which climbs were easy scores, or even which move sequences worked on certain routes. But in 1985, things changed for good when Italy introduced the First International Professional Rock Climbing contest, a three-day circus heavily advertised on billboard and airwaves, viewed by thousands—and, in what was truly unheard-of, with prize money as reward. Prize money—when the top rock athletes in this country sadly decide against buying a David’s Cookie because (said in injured tones), “It’s 70 cents?!” Then, in 1986, the second Italian contest featured a prize car, more money, more rivalry; less talk and sharing.

Overall, more was the word. Climbing competitions suddenly proliferated in Europe. France added indoor contests. Meanwhile, in the States, extra bouldering competitions sprang up East, West, and in between.

Many climbers, however, find the trend faintly horrifying. Some folks, for example, were first attracted to climbing because they wanted to get away from competitive sports. “Climbing is something I do for myself, not against someone,” they’ll say. Others are, and may even admit to being, very competitive, but they’d like to keep climbing a game, not take that long step into the realm of the professional.

So, OK. The colorful, thronged, commercial contests seem to have left far behind the idea of climbing’s spiritual side. Ah, yes … well, it’s no use railing against progress, particularly against steps already made.

Actually, climbing competitions don’t offend this writer. I just generally like sports performances—and whoever thought of the ski runs of say, Jean-Claude Killy, as less than noble?

Granted, it would be bad if climbing contests drew thousands more to further crowd our cliffs, but I don’t think climbing will ever become that popular.

But I would truly be sad to see meets, whose existence is a longstanding, grand tradition in climbing, take a back seat to the competitions; to see meets, which are often exchanges and often sponsored by national mountaineering clubs, fade or even die out. International meets in different countries have for many, many years been hospitality, culture, international gestures of friendship in which locals showed foreign guests around their turfs. Meets also seemed, for many young and not-so-young climbers, the big time—hosted and attended by greats; noticed; written up, often. They were non-competitive. Ostensibly.

When I decided to go to the meet my friend Louise Shepherd had organized at Arapiles, the center of Australian rock climbing, for autumn 1986, I wondered if the event might represent some sort of showdown. I asked my 18-year-old hotshot friend Jim Surette if, given the choice, he’d attend a competition or a meet. “Oh, the competition,” he said easily.

Louise, an exceptional climber who runs with the international hard-core, surely had great drawing power, especially when you throw her humor and spark into the equation. But, with competitions all the rage, would many, or would high-caliber, climbers appear? Then, protectively perhaps, I decided this example didn’t count. Because Australia is so far away from everywhere else, it wasn’t fair to compare its magnet factor to that of a European country.

Plus you had to consider the scare factor. Arapiles has a reputation for cliffs so steep climbers trash their egos and elbows. One-third of the Araps regulars supposedly have tendinitis, and innocent tourists came in for nasty surprises.

Not to mention that many climbers have heard or read of Australian anti-Americanism. Of a route listed as “Dead Americans,” the guidebook author Kim Carrigan, for years Australia’s leading rock climber, editorializes, “There should be more of those.”

But when I walked into Louise’s home at Natimuk, the town nearest Araps, the first thing I saw was Wolfgang Güllich of Germany. Wolfie, the guy getting attacked by lightning bolts—in those silly ads for Edelweiss ropes. Wolfie, one of the best climbers in the world, and one of the sweetest-tempered. With him was the mobile-faced Kurt, affectionately known as Kurtel, who was wont to pick up a guitar and start banging out chords amidst a conversation. The two had just come from making a film in Yosemite, for which Wolfie had soloed the gigantic overhang called Separate Reality, and were on their way to climb in China.

Kim Carrigan was here, too, though he’d recently moved to Switzerland and become a triathlete. In fact, only the week before he had also married one—and here was Herself, Meg, with him now. Geoff Weigand, Kim’s peer and frequent partner on rock, had just pulled in from Sydney. A year- and-a-half ago, he and Kim had done the first ascent of a 5.12 in Yosemite they dubbed America’s Cup. “When you get good enough, you can take it back!” they had crowed at locals.

Then into the kitchen walked Didier Raboutou and Jean-Claude Droyer. Didier, five feet, five inches or so and very slender, is one of France’s premier rock climbers, a consistent star on the competition circuit. Jean-Claude is perhaps France’s best-travelled climber.

The previous season Didier had been part of a team of four sponsored by a French mountaineering magazine to travel to different crags and competitions. The other climbers who, like me, were staying at Louise’s might have been expected to think this was a great idea. But, “That would suck,” said one. “Being told where to go and what to climb.”

Didier, I had heard, barely cracks a smile at the competitions, though he told me he likes their excitement and pressure. At this meet, however, he showed a calm, contained enjoyment of the easy counterbalance, managing much humor on little English. Turning over my hand to look at a rope burn, he said, straight-faced, “Too much washing?”

Six years before, I had been to a meet in France at which I’d had a very good time. I'd been uncomfortable in the mornings, however, when everyone lined up and, in an embarrassing process, paired off to climb. Louise’s philosophy for this meet, however, was Fend For Yourself. And in this country, it seemed, anything else wouldn’t have been fitting. As John “Crunch” Smoothey informed me, “The only organization Australians are interested in is the DSS.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Department of Social Services, dear. The dole.”

A contest, of course, must by its nature be organized. You’re sent to one climb or boulder problem after another, in sequence, sometimes waiting in tents before your turn so you won’t have the benefit of seeing a competitor solve a route. You are indeed told where to go and what to do.

* * *

I stayed at Louise’s, but up to 100 people—English, American, Japanese,—made up a changing campground kaleidoscope by the cliffs. This campground, only a decade ago, was practically deserted.

In fact, the local scene has always been small; everybody knew everybody. Isolated from the rest of the climbing world, Australia’s pace was in fits and starts, spurred by visits from foreigners. Australian rock climbing really began in the late 50s through two Englishmen, Bryden Allen and John Ewbank, and thus its styles and ethics originally reflected those of the British.

But the big push came in 1975 when Henry Barber of North Conway, New Hampshire, came to Australia: it was never the same again. Barber picked plums at a dizzying pace. He climbed many, many routes up to grade 23, and of equal significance, he made futuristic attempts to climb routes such as Manic Depressive, later done at 25, two grades harder. Australians had looked at such routes, even thought they might “go,” but not tried them. Henry made Australia take an intuitive leap.

Still, in the late 70s, Chris Peisker seemed a loner most of the time at Araps, except on weekends. But from about 1980-85, the place went wild with an explosion of hard new routes. But it was a contained explosion—Araps was the fiery center in a small world. Among the most visible climbers were Kim Carrigan, Louise Shepherd, and her two brothers. The first two travelled widely overseas, scoring high on the turfs and in the appraising eyes of foreign climbers. 1984-85 brought European traffic, and techniques honed on Europe’s steep limestone, to Australia. One of the most significant visitors was Wolfgang Güllich, who, after a gargantuan six-day effort, created the showpiece Punks In the Gym (grade 32), a route as hard as any in existence today.

Lincoln Shepherd said the local scene during those unruly glory days “used to be more punked out, more anti-social, more ‘I’m bored.’ It was very elitist.”

The scene was nuts, too. During “mice plagues,” climbers trapped mice all night and threw them in the fires, or did worse. They threw aerosol cans in the fires, too.

The guys wore huge earrings, punk and Mohawk haircuts, women’s clothes in flaming colors. All of which they flaunted abroad. Other climbers thought they were hyper-weirdos—or emulated them.

Until about three years ago, if a climber from overseas came to visit Arapiles, everyone knew it, and he might be sandbagged (sent up on a hard route described nonchalantly) into extinction. But more and more climbers have been drawn to Araps as the area has become a winter hot spot. Today internationalism reigns. With so many good foreign climbers around, it’s harder for a local to be at the top. “In a lot of ways it’s healthier here now,” said Lincoln Shepherd, “less elitist.” Less anti-American, probably; certainly the locals were warmly hospitable with their many visitors. Today, too, the sartorial self-proclamation has faded at Araps, because the rest of the climbing world’s getting into drop-dead colors. Australia is a step ahead.

But the frontier spirit has hardly vanished. One day Geoff Weigand and I arrived at a route to find two climbers starting up. We settled down to wait. When the pair’s leader beat a (mostly airborn) retreat, a newly arrived New Zealander named Alan jumped up to tie in.

“Come on, mate,” said Geoff pleasantly, “we bagged it. We’ve been waiting for ages. Bloody New Zealanders,” he, an animated character, joked. “You come over here, take our dole, steal our routes, steal our women.” Said Alan, scornful, “I’d take your dole and I’d take your routes—but I wouldn’t touch your women.”

Today Araps is populated by no fewer locals, but less ferocious ones. For various reasons, top climbers strayed from the scene or sport. Mike Law, the flamboyant “Claw,” a leader of the scene since he was 15, is a confirmed urbanite. He avoids campgrounds and “their autistic young males,” races motorcycles, plays bridge, and concentrates on doing new routes on the sea cliffs of Sydney. The said cliffs sport slimy, crumbly, peeling rock; winos; barbed wire; broken glass and gravestones. Kim Carrigan is in Switzerland. Geoff Weigand took a year-plus off for elbow rehab and bicycle racing, and is only beginning to climb again. Mike Moorhead died on Makalu in the Himalaya.

The Australian climbing scene is infused and dispersed, but a death reverberates through it. Everybody knew the person.

Everyone knows a lot, in fact. And what he doesn’t know he reads in the trade’s magazines, whether it’s regarding local slander (a favorite pastime), or Louise’s love life.

The climbing meet both symbolized Australia’s new diversity, and the fact that, like the Australian community, the idea of the meet goes on. For one thing, this meet hardly lacked the excitement of competition.

Scraps of conversation reflect the intensity of the rock warring:

“Did you flash it?”

“No, third try.”

“Steve flashed it?”

“One fall.”

“I flashed the direct start, then fell off the rest.”

“You idiot.”

“Kim had some crazy sequence. People are doing it easier these days.”

What struck me about the competition here, however, was that it was up-front, playful. In the past, I’ve gotten some put-downs that were wounding because of the pretense of off-handedness.

At a professional contest, competition is also honest and up-front, but it’s serious business. People’s reputations, endorsements, contracts, commercials, films, expeditions, et al are at risk.

In Australia, however, failure was pretty funny. One day after I had done poorly—pumping out, I fell off every move on a climb after I had supposedly done the crux—Geoff instantly said, “Serves you right. Think you can come over here and cruise our routes!”

All the locals were more than generous when I or any visitor got up something hard.

Evenings at Louise’s tended to be hilarious flack (usually aimed at Wolfgang, who would look an innocent appeal) sessions, or people talked of elbows. Midway through the meet, I had such sharp pains I had to take two straight days off. And diets. People talked about diets a lot. “I am so totally fat,” said Wolfgang. “Sometimes it is difficult to breathe.”

Wolfgang gave his views on competitions. “I hate them. I want to do routes I have dreamed of. I do not want to climb to try to beat other people off the rock.” But he will be in a competition soon “because I hate work even more.” Actually, the only slated competition was an eating contest; Australian climbers are as well known for these as anything. This one featured three weight categories—light, medium, and mega—and 17 rounds of pastries, breads and milkshakes. Townspeople walked by, wearing expressions that said, “The horror.” One year someone drank seven thick shakes at a competition. He got the record, but he also got hypothermia.

My last day at the meet I climbed with Louise at a quiet cliff in an area called the Grampions, after passing through groves of twisting trees to reach these hills that rose right out of the plain. We heard koalas rat-tat-tat and were startled by the sight of a dead snake on the path (most Australian snakes, I’d found out late in my stay, are terminally poisonous). As I had on the other days I’d climbed with her, I found myself telling Louise my life story. Louise is a combination of inscrutable—because she often makes no editorial comments on what has just been said, or skips the little reassurances that frantically would-be tactfuls like me are always sticking in—and terrifically open. She doesn’t care who thinks or knows what about her, or who she’s arguing with and whether it might be impolitic.

The meet was memorable in its internationalism, but ultimately, in the context of its context, the overhangs and the cracks and Louise and the gang. Like her, the local climbers seemed remarkably unfazed and outspoken. They laughed at the American pastime of bolt-chopping. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” they said. They were sometimes arrogant, but were good-hearted and consummately tolerant. They seemed to forget grudges and fights easily, seemed pretty unflappable when old boyfriends, old girlfriends, and new spouses showed up. You can call it callous, or you can call it a pretty cool way to go through life.

* * *

Today I’m doing reps on a Cybex machine, a creature I’d never heard of until now; getting blue slime and ultrasound rubbed into my elbows; being juiced with electric shocks that make my arms jump around the table.

Recently, a climber asked me dubiously if my trip for the meet had been worthwhile. I thought he had my injured elbows in mind. But he was referring to the fact that I hadn’t climbed much at my outer limit—I’d done a handful of 24s and 25s and tried nothing above. Actually, he put it pointedly. “You went all that way and didn’t even do anything hard.”

Surprised, I said, “of course it was worth it. It was great.” Later, I wondered whether, if it had been a competition I’d travelled to in Australia, I might be less indifferent. Rankings at a contest matter more. People go to one to have some fun—but mostly they go to compete.

Just as climbing is as safe or as dangerous as you want to make it, it is as competitive as you want it to be. The difference between the competition at a contest or a meet, I think, is that a meet, like climbing in general, retains a sense of teamwork. Though one often feels very alone on a difficult section, overall you are a duo: talking, coaching, exhorting. In a competition, of course, people are glad to see each other fall.

The magic thing about climbing is the bond that forms, symbolized by the rope that links. Competitions, where an official, not a partner, stands by checking your progress, have foregone that aspect. This is not wrong, just different, and competitions have other rewards.

But that difference, I hope, will guarantee that meets retain their place, and not as removed cousins to their glamorous relatives. Meets, if you want them to, can add pressure and inspiration to performances, can offer some—maybe many—of the thrills of competitions. But they kindly pad things out.

* * *

Kurt worked on India every day. At various times his friends came, watched, straggled away. The day I came along was his last chance; he and Wolfgang had to leave the next day for China. With the cameras rolling, with all of us roaring with joy, Kurt finally crossed India, too.

The Japanese climbing magazine, IWA TO YUKI, covers news and photos, many in color, about mountaineering all over the world, climbing gear, high-altitude medicine and much more. Although published in Japanese, it has a summary, photo captions and maps in English. The yearly subscription for six issues is 7380 yen, including sea mail. Send to IWA TO YUKI, Yama To Keikoku Sha Co. Ltd., 1-1-33 Shiba Daimon, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 105 Japan.