The Pit

Part crag history, part explication of the bolting process, SIMON BLAIR, introduces us to the new Blue Mountains crag, The Pit

This article originally featured in Issue 13 of Vertical Life, you can download all issues of the magazine – including the latest – right here

This article originally featured in Issue 13 of Vertical Life, you can download all issues – including the latest – right here. In the first season of the TV series Spartacus, the eponymous gladiator-hero is vanquished from the arena by his master for failing to capitalise on his notoriety in a decisive fight. His punishment is to be sent to… the Pit! Cue darkening clouds. Thunder rolls. Doom beckons. The Pit is where there are no rules or quarter given. Spartacus becomes the ‘Thing in the Pit’ with huge wagers riding on his ability to triumph in bout after brutal bout. Apart from their shared names, The Pit of this imagined ancient Rome and The Pit of the Blue Mountains have two other similarities: the echoing roars accompanying extreme physical exertion and the spirit of fighting to the death.

I always wondered how people find new crags. Is it chance or rumour, or fate? According to Emil Mandyczewsky, it’s Google Maps. He pours over satellite imagery to find where the topography suggests there may be prime cliff lines and then ground truths it. Such was the case with the Pit. Unusually, this discovery was only about ten minutes walk from his house on Radiata Plateau, the same bushland reserve that holds the IMAX crag of Elphinstone.

There is no way to walk in to The Pit. One must abseil into the belay ledges and then climb out using a via ferrata. This makes for interesting logistics when first arriving. You have to identify the right path and then know where the abseil station is. The abseil is steep, so you have to clip in some ‘draws lest you end up stranded in space. After a long day of sending you may be tired, but the via ferrata exit takes no prisoners, particularly if you’re carrying your pack.

Visiting Frenchman Aurel Gelot on Magnitude (25), Sunny Side. Image by Kamil Sustiak

Visiting Frenchman Aurel Gelot on Magnitude (25), Sunny Side. Image by Kamil Sustiak

If you want to develop a crag you are going to want people to develop it with. The arduousness of long days with drills, glue, bolts and buckets of sand (more on that last ingredient later) are eased by great company and camaraderie. But these people are not easy to find. How many understand the nuances of creating new rock climbs anyway? Not many. Until recently I didn’t know much about the dark furnace of secret industriousness that yields sport crags.

Here’s what I learnt. To bolt a climb you need to be able to see a line. It’s a bit like snorting coke in Surry Hills but you’re outside and chasing natural highs. Sometimes it’s a clear, striking line like the grade-28 crack Pit Fighter, one of the first lines climbed at the Pit. Sometimes it’s a distinctive feature you want to link to and then from. Sometimes it’s intuition alone. Then you need to bolt it. On steep Blue Mountains routes you’ll probably have to bolt it twice. Why? You’re rapping in from the top with your heavy drill kit and the wall is steep, so you need to attach yourself to the wall to bolt anything more than the anchors. The quickest and easiest bolts to use are dynabolts. So surely you can just do this the whole way down and you’re finished? Ahh, you just died. You see in soft Blue Mountains sandstone dynabolts are strong enough to hang off but you don’t want to fall on them. Your dynabolt is a temporary bolt you use while you place much deeper glue-in staple bolts. These are the ones you will climb on. Once the glue has set.

So it’s all done right? First ascent time! Well, hold on just a sec. The rock itself often needs some…reinforcement. And here we enter the contentious realm of climbing etiquette and I shall endeavor to be as honest as possible. Diplomatic tact is called for. Let us don wigs, white gloves and sip chardonnay in the gardens of Versailles for a few minutes. It would be wondrous if sandstone were like granite. Just there, monolithic and resolute. However, as anyone who’s had footholds explode up here at some point knows, the rock in the Blue Mountains can be a bit moody. I love the place, but I was once climbing at another new area in the late ’90s when a large undercling ripped off while clipping on a long run out. I hit the ground on rope stretch and serious injury was averted only by the excellent reactions of my belayer. To minimise such incidents, our rock needs some help sometimes. Some therapy.

Did you know that when you’re resting on giant flakes, wonder jugs, gifts from god, they are often reinforced with glue and there may even be multiple long metal pins through them to give added resistance to torque? Developers are doing rock surgery and they’re doing it to create amazing climbs, to keep you safe and your belayer too, because Petzl hasn’t made a helmet yet that will protect you from a 2m-long sandstone flake through the crown chakra. Also many more footholds would explode on you if the route developers hadn’t swung a pre-emptive Mjölner at suspect-looking protuberances long before you ever even heard about the new area.

Some of this work is unknown to you because it’s been artistically performed and the glue is mixed with sand from the belay ledge to look like rock. Other times the glue is just smeared across the wall like excess vegemite that missed the toast and reinforcement work is there in the open like air conditioning shafts on the Pompidou Centre. It varies from crag to crag and it depends on the developers, how much time they had, what music they were listening to and what Satan was surreptitiously instructing when the lyrics were played backwards.

And what about the bolts? Surely they’re paid for but some association, collective fund or Gene Roddenberry’s Galactic Federation? No, in Australia they’re paid for, in most cases, by the people who bolt the climbs. Often they’re bought as long bits of reinforcement steel, which are then turned into bolts in home workshops. Emil showed me his garage bolt-making set-up. Ten steps from his coffee machine he has everything he needs to turn a long piece of steel into a set of shiny, silver cold-bent staple bolts. The bolts may not cost much in money but they represent a lot of invested time and skill.

Simon Blair executing the prancing unicorn move on Sword of Damocles (27), Pit Fighter Side. Image by Kamil Sustiak

Simon Blair executing the prancing unicorn move on Sword of Damocles (27), Pit Fighter Side. Image by Kamil Sustiak

Imagine you’re telling this story to someone who hasn’t climbed before. A business graduate perhaps, ‘So you’re telling me there are these outdoor individuals who make these metal bolts, abseil down tall cliffs, glue them into the wall, hammer loose rock off the same wall to create “rock climbs” many other people get to climb and they pay for their own materials and they don’t get paid anything for all this effort? They must be freakin’ crazy!’

I was intrigued to find out what drives developers. Emil reflected on this over a civilised cup of tea from his thermos one summer day at The Pit. In his tennis star–style visor he gazed to the forested horizon in careful contemplation. He surprised me with his answer. What drove him, he said, was a blend of adventurous spirit and selfishness. The excitement of forging climbs in new places where no one had climbed before was real and first ascents were an added bonus. He acknowledges it’s not the kind of thing many people would relate to, and that it’s quite different to the arduous athleticism of climbing. It’s just a different kind of fun.

I was surprised because I thought – apparently naively – that there must be some altruistic aspect to it. Looking around the Pit one is struck by how well everything has been put together, from the abseil station to the glued-in via ferrata and the fixed ropes to help you navigate the different sectors. But no. All selfishness apparently. Well, Emil clearly takes some especially ‘selfish’ delight in the pleasure other people have climbing his routes. I’ve seen him sitting at the crag, even on days when he’s injured and can’t climb, talking with visitors about the moves, offering helpful beta and asking what they thought about the climbs. Whether he will admit it or not, I’m convinced Emil likes it that he’s gifting people cool stuff to enjoy!

After bolting comes climbing and the walls of the Pit really deliver. After a first visit in 2014 I’ve returned several times now. On the Sunny Side, Magnitude is an amazing 25 and the warm-up route of the crag (all the warmer because it’s in the sunshine most of the day). Then there is the awesome and long Rolling Thunder (26), which surges through roof after roof to a last-move mono. Further right, turn the tendon-tensility level up for climbs like Astral Traveller (29) or Einfingerkuppenaufleger (34), which was bolted by Emil and offered to German young gun Alex Megos. Megos dispatched it during a flying visit to The Pit between morning attempts on the hardest climb at Elphinstone and afternoon training at the Blackheath Bouldering Club. (And that was a rest day!) On the Pit Fighter side, the larger of the two sectors, awaits a smorgasbord of classics to smoke your forearms. There are some harder ones in the mix like Logan Barber’s Ebola Noodles (29) and Tom O’Halloran’s Baker’s Dozen project. But climbs on this side are mostly from 27 to 29 with Sword of Damocles and Mono no Aware being two of the best but hardest 27s in the Mountains. Yeah, they’re 27. And they’re also 7c+, if you know what I mean.

The Pit is a worthy destination and such places take time and effort to develop. The spotlight is usually shone on those who train, obsess over individual routes and send the hardest climbs showing what is physically possible. But this particular ray has settled upon those who blast with their battery-charged machetes up walls of untouched rock for the benefit of many. Let us salute their valiant efforts, their volunteered weekends, their garage bolt-making savor-faire, their hold reinforcement ingenuity and their forging of literal paths for others to follow. Their ‘roads less travelled’, dotted with cairns, so often become worn paths that many know well and walk with relish in their gait.
Simon Blair



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