Tom Hoyle unfurls the the glorious past of the Castle Hill Basin to see what makes it so special
WORDS: Tom Hoyle & IMAGES: As credited
Castle Hill Basin has come of age as a world class climbing area; even if the world doesn’t yet know or care.
Yes, the Lycra Age horrors remain; slippery, slabby sport routes with bad holds and bad bolts. And yes, the late 1990s ‘bouldering boom’ problems at Quantum Field and Spittle Hill still don’t seem to have any holds. But lurking at the head of the basin, looming above the thousands of lesser climbs at other fields that so often flatter to deceive, are the big, bold lines of Flock Hill. Here, the heroic efforts of the local few have made Castle Hill bouldering into something majestic. It hasn’t been a simple path to greatness, and the evolution of the tactics and vision to climb these monsters has been a fascinating mix of foreign ideas and local dedication.
Bouldering is both the purest manifestation of climbing and the least impressive form of a sport historically defined by the dangers of elevation. It is, at once, the height of cool and spectacularly lacking in coolness. Despite its booming popularity, bouldering retains this conflicting dualistic nature; it is the physical act of climbing, but objective danger has been largely removed; the vertical is engaged, but falls are short and impacts cushioned by immense thicknesses of foam; it demands the hardest climbing moves ever done, but involves hardly any climbing at all.
Despite my belief that a deadpoint to a perfect one-pad edge is a great move whether at the top of a 300m wall or in the roof of a cave three feet off the ground, I’ve always been a little bit self-conscious about bouldering. The truth is bouldering IS the ignominious sub-genre of climbing. I can’t say I’ve ever crawled into a dusty cave to look at some dank, chalk-smeared edges and felt proud to be a boulderer. At a New Zealand Alpine Club debate in 2009 discussing the apparent death of alpinism, bouldering was identified as the insidious disease infecting the sport of climbing. You could see the dismay in the eyes of the grizzled former alpine elite as they spoke of the shame and dishonour of bouldering being the most popular form of climbing; things fall apart, the centre does not hold.
Even as a keen boulderer, I still sympathise with their position. It’s hard to feel comfortable with being an aficionado of a sport in which the pinnacle achievement involves starting on your bum in the dirt. Slave to past perceptions, I still wanted climbing to be about going higher, not starting lower. Thankfully, I no longer fret about the ‘right’ time to tell my workmates that my biggest achievement in climbing is slightly bigger than the office photocopier. In recent times, as history has seemingly come around full circle, boulder problems are now high as well as hard and suddenly it is okay to be a boulderer. Bum-scraping sit-starts have given way to iconic problems like Nalle Hukkataivals’ Livin’ Large (V15) at Rocklands in South Africa; a problem significant for its majestic combination of height, difficulty, danger and aesthetic line; all the elements alpine climbers look for when selecting a goal. While not all boulder problems are high, and not all boulderers attempt highballs, finally it seems bouldering can hold its head up.
Locally, Castle Hill makes an interesting case study of the history of bouldering. Despite being home to some of the most beautiful rock formations anywhere, Castle Hill limestone has never been suited to classic route climbing; the moves are too insecure, the lines too unlikely and besides, when you are squeezing with both hands just to stay on, how do you clip? There is the odd stunning route, but in the days before bouldering the area was an enigma: home to lots of amazing rock that nobody could really find a sensible, enjoyable way up.
In the late 1990s ‘bouldering boom’, early adopters Obe Carrion and Boone Speed made a visit to Castle Hill on their Frequent Flyers world tour. This charismatic pair made their way up some obvious but unclimbed projects, ticked some of the local test-pieces and fell off some V3s, walking away as frustrated and inspired as any other climbing visitor. Castle Hill stayed on the map, the rock was too aesthetic, too extensive and too distinctive not to capture the attention of climbers all over the world, but it never became as popular as some had predicted. It was too far from the climbing population centres of Europe and North America, too slippery for Australians (now there’s an irony) and too technical for everyone but the most analytically obsessed.
Nevertheless, the local hardcore continued to climb new problems at a consistent pace. Harder and harder projects fell and the search for steep and athletic rock led to sit starts to those projects; but some of the bigger, tougher lines, especially at places like Flock Hill, remained unclimbed. Plenty of tall problems were put up in this era, but these were usually in the V1-4 range and taller hard problems were rare, the major exceptions being Ivan Vostinar’s Crash and Burn (V10), Derek Thatcher’s Jaws (V8) and Sebastian Loewenstein’s Cosmic Energy (V8) and The Outcast (V8). None of these is on the scale of modern Flock Hill monsters, but they are big enough to hurt yourself (especially before pad proliferation) and involve hard climbing up high. Crash and Burn (2001) can probably lay claim to being the first example of the new school Castle Hill problem; a great line, hard (V10+) and high enough to stop you from trying it without a good collection of pads. But most of these early more difficult tall lines owed a debt to the previous era of route climbers, as many had old toprope bolts installed. A bolting ban in introduced in the ‘90s meant that option was removed from other big lines, so when those projects were done, the tall problems dried up. The lower, blanker, but easier to clean boulders of Quantum Field remained the most popular and so as the list of established problems grew, so too did the international reputation of Castle Hill as a technical horrorshow. The easy problems were difficult to impossible, the hard problems sometimes easier, sometimes inscrutable and the big names stayed away. In the end, it took visits from a few Australians and the world’s most famous rock climber to help the locals bring Castle Hill to its long-foretold potential.