Tom O’Halloran is currently in the Grampians after coming down for the Grampians Bouldering Festival last week with his partner Amanda Watts and daughter Audrey. To get the festival off to a roaring start, he sent the Wheel of Life (V14/15) on the Friday before the festival. We’ve finally caught up with him to ask him some hard-hitting questions about his ascent.
We know your daughter Audrey regularly advises you to ‘be like water’, with that in mind how did the Wheel go down?
She has always been a good spiritual leader for me. Like any good three-year-old, if something doesn’t go your way, crack the shits and try even harder. Repeat. That’s how my first day on it felt. In September, some friends and I drove down to the Gramps for the weekend with the goal of climbing in the cave. Jake Bresnehan has been working The Wheel over a few trips this year and is always easy to convince to come down. And Matty Cochrane was keen to put Dead Can’t Dance to rest.
Day one that trip I felt like junk! Ultra junk! I had no growl and felt as strong as a soggy kitten. I’d been sick for about seven weeks prior to heading down and I think that, plus the drive, cooked me. It was fun though! First time I’d been back in the gramps since 2013! Time flies! I re-climbed Cave Man and Dead Can’t Dance that day and worked on Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow gave me an arse whoppin’ I didn’t appreciate! I just didn’t have the pull! But I kept on pulling on. Psyche was high, how could it not when you’re in the bloody Grampians!
Day two of the trip was better. My everythings hurt and my other bits did too, but it didn’t seem to matter. Psych was too high to listen. I was able to redo Sleepy Hollow, which was rad. I did my best to try and link some of the problems together. Sleepy Man link and Cave Rave link mainly. They seemed like the two key sections. I was smoked at the end of the day, we all were. We’d pulled on a lot that day, working out every subtlety and trick we could. I felt a long way off the Wheel on that trip to be honest. The prospect of climbing it all was daunting.
The drive home, we were just talking training for the whole 12 hours! What do we need to do to make it possible. Stronger in the shoulders, more endurance through the core and some better forearms.
With that in mind I trained at home for our family trip in October.
Day one of our family trip was good. We got up to The Cave in the afternoon for a quick session. I redid all the individual problems on my first try, then did Cave Rave and Sleepy Man first try as well. That express weekend trip had been so valuable, it meant I knew what I was doing straight away. Everything felt massively easier! Maybe I was going to do it this trip. That was a scary thought! Bloody hell, I’m going to have to try this from the start now. Holy smokes, do I have to? I really want to do it, but getting into redpoint mode is scary. It’s easy to dance around, trying sections and working out extra little tricks. But stepping up to actually properly try sending is another thing entirely. This is when you are really invested, there’s no going back!
The next day we, the family, all headed back up to The Cave. I warmed up and it all felt good. After a bit of a rest while Amanda warmed up and Audrey did some ‘Audrey boulders’, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I just need to pull on from the start.’ It was scary. I set up my pads, Amanda and I set Audrey up with her food and the iPad, I grabbed my shoes, chalk bag and knee pads and walked to the bottom of the cave.
I strapped everything on and chalked up. Big deep breath in and out. So it begins. Go. As I climbed, it wasn’t really in my mind that I was on redpoint. It was more of a ‘Let’s see where I get to,’ attempt. Everything was feeling good though. As I pulled into the crux of Sleepy Hollow, everything felt good, I decided to try really hard and rip the holds off the wall. Sometimes you just need to pull hard! Then I was at the rest before Cave Man, how did that happen? Oh well, I feel pretty good, let’s just keep climbing Tom. The rest of it felt quite surreal. I just kept climbing and it all felt easy. I was just in that state of flow I think. I felt weightless. One of those moments that only come along very, very rarely.
That was until the last couple of moves where it started to look like I was about to do it. I started to freak out a little that I was actually going to realise a crazy childhood dream. But I kept my head and went to the top.
I guess it was the ‘Be like water’ version of Audrey, not the temper tantrum version.
You’ve done a lot of big things, what does climbing the Wheel represent for you?
The climb itself has always been on a pedestal of difficulty. Hardness embodied in perfection. It is just so RAD! It is probably one of the best pieces of climbing I will ever do. It is such a unique feature of radicalness. I’m really psyched with how quickly I was able to do it. I was kind of worried our ten day trip wasn’t going to be enough time. I think it shows me how far my climbing has come. Exciting to see how much further it can go. I think this may be a bit of a turning point for me. I’m really psyched.
When you topped it out, we heard you got some chalk in your eye. Was it chalk or was something else going on?
I can’t tell you how many times I watched the footage of Chris Webb on the second ascent of The Wheel back in the day. I must be most of the view counts on that video. It looked so improbable. So unfathomable to do something like that. But so beautiful. I think I might have climbed a 26 at that point. Climbing The Wheel, that shit was for the real deal proper climbers! For the pros! Sure it kind of sat there in the back of my mind, ‘Imagine if I could climb that one day.’ But the reality seemed… unreal. Over the years, more top climbers got themselves through the roof. People I had on massive pedestals of total awesomeness and brilliance. Dave Graham was in Dosage! Ben Cossey is a hero!
I still feel like Little Tom from Brisbane. Just a kid trying to work stuff out and climb. As I pulled through the last couple of moves I felt my heart start to go. I started to hyperventilate. I was about to climb The Wheel!
I’ve always found it hard to accept myself as a good climber. But now I have climbed something that I thought only the best climbers could do. It’s hard to believe I’ve reached the pedestal I created all those years ago. I think mostly I’m blown away by how easy it felt and how quickly I did it. I thought it was going to become a crazy epic battle over multiple trips and years. But instead I have just become my own hero. It’s hard to articulate.
How would you situate the Wheel of Life in the climbing canon?
For the type of climbing that it is, it’s right up there! For me at least. In the bouldering, sport climbing, fair weather version. It is such an insane feature. Holds and features from the very start to the very end in a beautiful, snaking line. Not spoiled by anything. Is there anything else like it in the world? That’s what makes it so special I guess. The same reason Taipan is so special. There is nothing else like it.
What makes a boulder or a route so special?
I think Wolfgang said something like, ‘A classic is the easiest way up a wall.’ I’ve probably bastardised the quote, but it’s something like that. It’s hard to disagree with that statement. There are a stack of other reasons why a piece of rock can become special. There’s plenty of special ones I’ve done, whether it’s for its history, the style, the setting or something completely personal. It’s not often all this manifests into one climb though. For me it did with The Wheel.
How many days did you put it into?
Four days in total. The beta finding weekend in September. LOTS of climbing that weekend! Then had a quick session on Thursday and was able to do it first try on Friday. Far quicker than I thought it would take.
Did you do any special training or preparation for the Wheel ahead of coming down here?
The weekend mission was invaluable for working out what to train for. Basically we went nuts for two days working on all the sections. Then on the drive home we frothed on what we needed to do to train. I started with the theory of, ‘What’s sore? That’s what needs to get stronger.’ Mainly my shoulders and across my back as well as core. I also had woeful endurance on that trip. I’d been working my proj at The Underworld all winter. It’s 16 moves long, and I’d spent all winter trying to put five moves together at a time! No lactic acid had been detected in my body for months!
So I wrote myself a training program. I TRXed, did a bunch of levers and other core exercises, as well as 4x4s on the boulder wall and circuits. I’m really psyched on training at the moment and learning a lot about it. It’s super fun! Can’t wait to get into more!
Do you have any cheats, tips or beta secrets for Wheelie aspirants?
Hmmm nothing ground breaking. Get over strong for the problems. The rests are not super awesome unless you are kind of fresh when you get to them, so you need to power up. You can’t get there pumped and try and get it all back, it won’t happen! Your core gets a real workout in the roof, get it resilient to being inverted and activated for a while! Your forearms need some blood, too. Get them ready to pump!
You did the alternate finish rather than the classic gaston move of Dead Can’t Dance, it looks like it requires a fair bit of tension, why did you choose that method?
It felt like it suited me a little better. Or at least felt more lockable while pumped. Although I also find the gaston move pretty okay. The alternate sequence feels like it’s a bit more controllable for me though. It does take a while to do and you need to keep everything super tight. It’s probably the most strenuous section for your core. Nothing is really holding onto anything substantial, it’s all just squeezy tension. The release with your right toe from the jug to toe hook at the lip is a real make or break moment. You just need to squeeze the juice out of everything and try and drive your foot through the wall. Really easy to miss the catch. I missed it a bunch while doing laps of that boulder. I just kept practicing it over and over. I didn’t want to drop that move on link.
A few people commented on the gradual shedding of garments as you made your way through the cave, was that to reduce weight or was there something else happening? (Some people are asking why the shorts didn’t come off?)
The shedding of garments was a complete spur of the moment thing. I started taking it off because I was losing circulation in my legs. I had no idea if they would come off easily while hanging upside down. Luckily, they did, could’ve been tricky if they didn’t. It was only that day that I had worked out the knee-bars, so before I took them off I had to run through the rest of the sequence in my head to make sure there wasn’t another left knee-bar left on the climb. Same for the right one.
Funny thing happened though when I took them off. It suddenly felt like I was just on another training lap of Cave Rave. Having a little token rest before getting into the last sequence. I really tried to connect with this feeling. It would’ve been really easy to psych myself out. But I just kept repeating, ‘You’ve been here before, you’re just running a training lap, everything is all good.’ The chalk bag came off because everything else was already off.
The shorts came off a few hours later.
You were actually down for our event, the Grampians Bouldering Festival, so in a way we can probably take a fair bit of the credit for your ascent. Do you have anything important to say to us?
In all honesty it is a lot of your doing. We would never have come down for a bouldering trip at this time of year otherwise. Nice one fellas! The Festival was a real hoot! It was a lot of fun and I’m glad we came down for it. Anyone who didn’t make it this year needs to pull their finger out and get down here for the next one. You guys are the best and made it something special!
One project goes down, another is always on the horizon – what’s next?
The Underworld project, Hump of Trouble – 16 moves, no rests, even the two clips you need to make are hard! I reckon it’s something like two V13s on top of each other. After about 25 days I managed to climb the second of the two V13s. The first one I haven’t managed yet. I reckon it’ll have to be 36? It’s f%&$ing hard! And totally rad! Need to wait until next year though. The season is over for this one.
Schweinebaumeln (35) at Elphinstone – Big, proud, awesome line! Pumpy and hard and oh so awesome! I’ve spent a bit of time on it and have done it in a couple of good sections last year. Two days on it so far this season and it feels better than ever. Can’t wait to get home and sink my teeth into it.
Biographie (36) at Ceuse – SO BLOODY GOOD! We are planning on getting to Ceuse next year. I’m so psyched to get back on this. It was HOT when I was there in 2015. Made things difficult. I was able to do some good sections though, despite the heat, which was fun and very encouraging. Great to really feel it and see what it is I’ll need when I return. I’ll start focusing on training for this in the next month or so.
There is also the rest of the Grampians Bouldering guide! Plus all the blocs that are yet to be found! And the routes everywhere else!! It’s all a bit overwhelming!!