On Saturday, Taipan Wall – the best crag in Australia – reopened after being closed for just under a year. Team VL decided to head there to share its fine orange sandstone with our northern compatriot and the King of Coolum cave, JJ O’Brien. We were a little worried that we might have to queue for routes, but we decided to risk it anyway because, as I told John and Simon, this is Victoria.
Sure enough, we got to Taipan on a glorious spring day – blue skies, sunshine, cool temps – to find one other party at the wall, a couple of aid climbers plodding up the Seventh Pillar. There were more people bouldering at Trackside than there were at Taipan. We warmed up the traditional way on the Taipan traverse and put up gear on the first pitch of Mr Joshua (surely the world’s best 25?), and gradually a couple of other climbers wandered on up, but there were definitely no crowds or queues. Nor were there the next day when we returned again.
Personally, I find having world class crags to yourself to be one of the delights of climbing in the Grampians, but it does say something about Victorian climbing. For one, it doesn’t seem like we have that many climbers for such a populous state, which if correct means that from a purely statistical sense there are probably not many hard climbers to visit somewhere like Taipan where most of the best routes are 25+ (and even then not easy for the grade).
Historically, it’s nearly always been the case that Victoria hasn’t produced many hard climbers. Most of the best rockclimbers in the State are the same people who were climbing hard routes ten years ago, or even 20 years ago, people like Malcolm Matheson and Dave Jones. There are a few exceptions, but the majority of Victoria’s best route climbers have been ring-ins, people like Nathan Hoette, Nick Sutter, Stuart Wyithe, and many of the hardest routes have been climbed by interstaters or overseas visitors.
Why this is so is a good question. There’s no doubt that Melbourne being so far from the two best crags, Mt Arapiles and the Grampians, is a big factor. It takes a lot of time, commitment and expense to climb in Victoria. Whereas climbers in Sydney have much easier access to rock with bouldering in Sydney itself and the Blue Mountains and Nowra both within two hour’s drive. Perhaps it is the nature of the climbing itself, certainly we don’t have as many sport routes as the Blue Mountains. While there are better routes in the Grampians and Mt Arapiles, they are often not as easy to access or work. I haven’t done a comparison, but I suspect in Victoria we also have far fewer hard routes for climbers to try.
Beyond that, I wonder if it is lack of decent accessible climbing gyms for Melburnians. Easily the two best gyms are both in the outer Eastern suburbs and are great if you live out that way, but if you live close to the city or in the Northern or Western suburbs the closest roped gyms are rubbish for training, with poorly set routes that may go years without being changed (seriously) or simply an insufficient number of routes hard enough for training. Then there’s Burnley and one small bouldering gym. I wouldn’t be surprised if climbing took off in Melbourne with just the advent of one or two good-sized inner city gyms with first-class training facilities.
Of course, of late there have been a couple of extra factors. In the past three years for periods of up to a year or longer vast parts of the Grampians have been closed to climbers. How many people stopped climbing when the northern Grampians closed? It would be interesting to know. Twenty years ago if a fire or flood occurred in a national park it was closed for maybe a week, these days it will closed for a year. Then there are new camping fees in Victoria that make staying in roofed accommodation look reasonable in comparison to going sans-shower. So much for climbing being a cheap and accessible sport.
It’s a matter of indifference to me personally as to how many people climb at Taipan Wall or how many good climbers there are in Victoria, but I guess I see it as symbolic of a greater problem. I think it’s important for people to get outdoors – so that they can learn to appreciate and value our wild places, but also because it’s good for your health and your soul. Unfortunately, in Victoria, less people than ever seem to be getting out to the crags, and ultimately that’s a bad thing. For everything but the queues.