Dual Pilgrimage

Paul’s phone call was initially puzzling. It seemed I’d spaced on the cut-off date for laying down a deposit on this year’s Pinnacle Sports Social Club rock trip. Had he called me just to make me aware that I couldn’t join them at the Blue Mountains? It seemed odd. Shortly, the true intent of the call became clear. They’d had a few members pull out of the trip and were seeking more numbers to share the adventure and, of course, the economic burden of accommodation and food. My funds seemed ample and my schedule is currently as barren as the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter, so I jumped at the opportunity.

In a serendipitous coincidence, the trip would also overlap with the running of the Bathurst 1000, arguably Australia’s most important race (all Melbourne Cup nonsense aside). Seeing as how I’d always wanted to make a pilgrimage to both locations, it appeared that all the stars were beginning to align for a spectacular journey.

My stay in the Blue Mountains kicked off when I awoke in Blackheath Memorial Park to a strange dream about George W Bush. My compadres were yet to arrive, but I got in contact with Nick, a friend from MTS who now lives and works in Sydney and is a regular punter in the Bluies. We popped down to a nearby crag called Barden’s Lookout for an introduction to the sandstone delights of the mountains.

As one of the few world class climbing locations in Australia, the Blue Mountains deservedly hold an esteemed reputation amongst climbers of an antipodean persuasion. It is hallowed ground, something of a mecca for lovers of the vertical in what is a very old, very flat continent. In living up to these expectations, the mountains do not fall short. The sheer amount of climbable rock is astonishing. There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of routes either commonly frequented or awaiting their first ascent. There is certainly more than a lifetime worth of climbing in the region. As a climber from Australia, I’d often be asked if I’d spent much time in the Blue Mountains and it seemed like a criminal oversight that I hadn’t. However, I was finally here, standing under the famous orange, yellow and black striations formed some 300 million years ago by sedimentary deposits.

Climbing in the Blue Mountains has a long and colourful history. In fact, it could probably be considered the birthplace of modern climbing in Australia. It was here that John Ewbank, inventor of the grading system as adopted by Australia and New Zealand, cut his teeth. The mountains offer a little for the beginner, but mainly cater to the intermediate to advanced climber with many burly, overhung pumpfests on offer. Most of the crags feature some sort of imposing cave structure that make me weep with inadequacy.

On a side note, it is my humble opinion that the Ewbank grading system is the most simple and effective system for grading rock climbing in the world. My four point plan for world peace is the global adoption of the following standards:
1) Ewbank grades for rock and European grades for alpine.
2) European sizing for shoes
3) Universal power points, preferably the US or UK model.
4) The fucking METRIC SYSTEM

Anyhow, I digress. My companions began to arrive and we collectively ventured out to begin climbing in earnest. The weather was spectacular, if a little warm, and the multi-coloured cliffs were resplendent in the October sun as we scaled their faces. As a group, we ascended a series of fun sport routes and enjoyed the mountain panorama over lunch. All quite agreeable.

On Sunday, I took my leave of the group to complete my second pilgrimage, the journey to Bathurst. This was an adventure in itself. I arrived at the train station to discover I’d missed the only service for the day. Always carry a permanent marker in your bag, the necessity of a hitchhiking sign could strike at any moment. I got picked up by the second car that passed me, driven by a good old bloke who was a Navy veteran of WW2 and an impromptu tour guide. He took me all the way to Bathurst and I hoofed my way out to the track.

I have many memories of watching the race with my old man on the television, both as a confused youngster and beer-swilling adult. Since then, I’ve always wanted to sit amongst the eucalypts as the cars scream down Forest Elbow before winding up to 300km/hr along Conrod Straight. As an experience, Bathurst lived up to my expectations. The sound of the screaming engines as each car shot by gave me goosebumps with every passing lap. One thing that was unexpected was the relatively good behaviour exhibited by the fans. I’d always expected the trackside to be alcohol fuelled bedlam, but apart from the odd singlet-clad bloke passed out in the detritus of empty tinnies and a Four’n’Twenty pie wrapper, it was surprisingly tame.

Due to a race stoppage, I was unable to stay for the entirety of the race. I left with the intent of getting the train back, only to find it had booked out. Trains can book out? That’s a first for me. So it was back to the side of the road where I thumbed my way to Lithgow and was able to watch the final lap of the race through the window of a Pizza Hut. Good times.

Back in the mountains, the adventures continued. We climbed when we could and ventured elsewhere when the weather played silly games. One rainy day was spent exploring a long, now defunct rail tunnel that had accumulated a colony of glow worms following many years of disuse. The following night, three of us were trapped overnight in a grand old pub containing what is reputedly Australia’s oldest flushing toilet after a freak snowstorm blocked the roads. We also did the tourist thing and checked out the Three Sisters, which I have to say were very underwhelming after the sublime vistas of the Grose Valley.

Once the skies cleared once more, we were back at the crag, climbing as hard as our bodies and skills would allow. My personal highlights were the three pitch “Bellbird Wall”, a conservatively bolted but very fun sport multipitch with a tricky arête and a killer chimney climb with a lot of exposure, as well as a short and sweet overhanging affair with copious amounts of heel-hookery.

Something that grabs you about the Blue Mountains experience is the tangibility of the climbing community. All the tourist attractions and scenic lookouts seem almost a sideshow to the true purpose for which this piece of Earth was intended. Everywhere, you get a sense that someone is climbing just around the corner, that the girl serving you coffee probably sends Grade 28, that the restaurants and bars are simply refuelling stations for tomorrow’s crank. It’s an exciting atmosphere to be in and you can’t help but share the collective enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, as with most holidays, it was all over too soon and there were many potential experiences left undone. Hopefully, I’ll make it back someday with more strength, experience and a full trad rack, but for now it’s anyone’s guess when that might be. The plan for the next two years is rough at best. As the saying goes, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Best not to rely too heavily on schedules and see where the breeze takes me. That is how I ended up on this trip in the first place, after all.

For any Australian rock climbing enthusiasts out there (or if you just happen to be in the neighbourhood), I’d highly recommend making a pilgrimage of your own someday. The spirit of climbing and adventure is alive and well in the Blue Mountains.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
November 2014

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?