Now New Zealand has some pretty amazing rock to be climbed: the polished limestone of Paynes Ford and Pohara, the grippy granite of Charleston, and the special schist of Wanaka and Queenstown to mention just a few. Yet still each year hundreds, if not thousands, make their pilgrimage across the pond to the towering cliffs of Mount Arapiles.
We who have the Southern Alps as our backdrop might scorn this quartzite outcrop that is Arapiles lifting up from the flat Wimmer plains of Victoria, and claimed by Ozzies as a mountain. But we don’t have a mountain that hosts over 2000 routes to play on, all within a short stroll from a campsite in the trees, nor one that hosted the hardest climb in the world for a bit (Punks in the gym was put up in 1985, at grade 32). It’s beauty lies in the cracks, the slabs, the jugs: there is simply a route to suit everyone. As the sun rises across the flat farmlands, it casts shadows from the gumtrees of the campsite, and paints the cliffs in a wash of red; you don’t need anything more to get you inspired for a day, week or even years exploring the routes on offer.
There are so many climbs to cut your teeth on it’s impossible to mention them all, so I’m just going to mention a few. And yes some of these are your ‘classics’ (which may be best avoided if you’re heading there on a holiday mission, unless you like to queue), but others are a little more obscure…or ‘specialist’. If you’ve been to Arapiles, upon your return to native soils you’ll probably be asked “So, you’ve been to Arapiles…did you try the Squeeze Test?”. It’s a classic must-do evening activity, a right of passage. So, to prepare you, on the way through to Arapiles stop off at the Mountain Shop in Ngatimuk and read the unusual sign by the door about this infamous challenge. If this notice doesn’t put you off, after settling into the campsite, establishing your spot and meeting your neighbours over the flickering light of the fire, head along the path by headlamp and try it out, test your time. No, it won’t make you a better climber…but it will make you an Arapiles veteran.
Onto the actual routes… Necrophiliac is a great way to practice your crack-climbing, a left-trending crack that seems more committing than its grade 15 suggests. If it leaves you yearning for more, try Cruxless Knickers next door, a thinner crack and two grades harder. Or look behind you and head up Wizard of Ice, a classic 20, where thrutchy jamming is required. This area is quite a good spot to find some shade if you time it right too.
Head up to the Frenzy Pinnacle for the remote atmosphere and find a trove of mixed and trad. routes; including Spring Offensive, a 3-starred 24. Hidden in this nest of tougher grades is Viagra, a cruisy 2-pitch 15 with an optional jamming crack to start and a fingery second pitch.
Tiger Wall has almost 120 routes on it, from grade 8 to 27, many of which can be mixed and matched. Kaiser Resignation is a choice 15 which matches the first two interesting pitches of Kaiser with the crux pitch of Resignation to make a classic and beautiful route. I’m sure you’ll agree as you face the crux, pull up through the roof and cruise onto easier ground as you reach the final belay.
Death Row Pinnacle hosts some spectacular single-pitch climbs which can be quite a refreshing relief from the multi-pitch missions that you can get sucked into. Birdman of Alcatraz is supposed to be one of the best 23’s at the crag following a beautiful flake up the wall. Death Row (18) is a great 3D problem as you can often get caught in the cell before escaping to the great moves above whilst Garden Gnome is a short and fun 17. An easy crack start before heading up the steeper grey face above to find the climbs’ namesake.
The Watchtower Area holds some beautiful lines: Skink, a 3-pitch grade 18 follows a beautiful crack for its crux. Meanwhile, Auto Da Fe is a sustained and varied 3-pitch 21 with slab, crimps and heel-hooks rolled into a 90m route. One of my favourite routes of the trip was Brolga, a 120m 3-pitch grade 16, where you weave your way up the slab between well-extended gear – it’s dancing on perfect rock.
Before I begin to sound like a guidebook, I feel that the following tale will more accurately sum up the nature of climbing and potential days spent at Arapiles. Having tested my head for tight-spaces on the Squeeze test, done forwards and backwards, I had qualified for the even more niche “Mr Chicken”. Now,
Mr Chicken receives 3-stars but no grade in the latest guidebook, possibly because it is hard to really tell if this is climbing, it could be caving but you’re never actually underground. The route begins ~80m off the deck after climbing the first three pitches of Watchtower Chimney, a beautiful 2-starred grade 12, which has amazing bridging moves. You follow the detour sign, rather than climbing out around the roof, and head towards the dark, narrow crack. “I’ve waited 10 years to do this climb”, said my climbing partner as he removed his harness and headed into the tight rift. Soon he had blocked out the light, and despite the clear blue skies and sunshine I had to put on a belay jacket. After a lot of huffing and puffing, to-ing and fro-ing, he had made it past the second constriction surprising another climber as he popped out by the piton-protected 3rd belay stance of Watchtower Crack. Now, after shuttling the gear through, it was my turn to play and despite having to take my helmet off I was soon through. We were ready to re-assemble the rack and ropes and head up the beautiful crack into the sun on the final pitch (16). When we reached the top, my climbing partner decided that perhaps it might be at least another 10 years before he tries the route again! I, being a little smaller, would quite like to try it from the other direction – anyone keen? So after ten years of climbing in Arapiles, you can still find climbs to do from your bucket-list, and perhaps some which probably should always remain at the bottom of that bucket! The routes are beautiful: they can be bold, they can be dark, they can be spectacular…and I’m sure you’ll have a great time whatever you choose to play on.