In ‘Song of the Sirens’ first-time Arapiles visitor, Andy Szollosi, discovers the timeless magic of climbing at the Mount
Rising on the horizon is the silhouette of Mt Arapiles – a sprawled out giant turned to stone, slumbering on the plains of northwest Victoria. I’ve been driving for hours, and the mountain waits ahead of me, like it’s waited for so many others before. Local Indigenous people knew it as Djurite, and they climbed its steep cliffs to find the sandstone they used to make tools. In 1963, Bob and Steve Craddock and a bunch of their friends made history by putting up the first rock climbing routes on the mountain’s steep easterly face, including a 145m-high mega classic they named Siren (9). In Greek mythology, it was the beautiful and otherworldly sirens’ song that would lure sailors to be dashed upon the rocks of doom.
‘Welcome to Paradise!’ These words greet me shortly after I roll into The Pines – a large stand of tall pine trees, planted a long time ago by someone who understands the climate here. When the heat of the summer becomes unbearable, these pine trees provide much needed shade for the scattered tents. The millions of pine needles in the breeze also create a sound not unlike what I’ve always imagined the call of the sirens to be: soothing, close, yet forever out of reach.
The welcoming words are coming from Reese Doyle, a tall, lean Alaskan who is the walking definition of ‘dirtbag’. He’s been out on the rock all day and is absolutely knackered, but when he learns I’ve just arrived, his eyes light up, ‘Fuck yeah dude, let’s get you on the rock, frother!’
The full moon rises behind us as we top out. We wander back to the campsite in the twilight, arriving to The Pines in time for dinner preparations. I am amazed to find a whole bunch of my Tasmanian friends around one of the campfires although I’m not entirely surprised either. The world is a small place for the like-minded.
I settle into the new routine with ease. I wake each day with the birds, breathe my way through a yoga sequence, brew a coffee, eat brekkie, then head out for a climb. My aim is to cement my trad leading skills. Arapiles is a place where you can turn up and regardless of your experience or ability, usually find someone to climb with. And if you don’t, all you have to do is pick a group of dirtbags and cook them a meal. The next day they will become your faithful companions on the rock. Guaranteed.
I befriend an old timer wearing a bright purple hemp hat. His name is Eddie Ozols, and he started climbing in the early ’70s here at Arapiles. He’s got a number of first ascents to his name. Eventually he gave up climbing, started a family and never thought he’d return to it. But he’s kept all his gear and after a 30 year break is climbing again.
We climb together for four days and I pick up some good tricks. He tells me to always keep the rope ahead of my legs, instead of letting it let it run behind my calves, to prevent getting flipped upside down in case of a fall. Eddie points out that often the crux is not the move but placing the gear to protect the move. As the days pass I realise that the crux is often not the hardest move or placing gear, but the magical moment when I overcome my fear.
Ever since I was a kid I have dreamt about free-soloing big cliffs. The ability to transcend fear to achieve the improbable has always fascinated me and I remember watching Alain Robert scale skyscrapers on TV when I was about five years old and saying to Mum, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up!’ She didn’t share my enthusiasm.
Mt Arapiles is wonderful for soloing. There are a number of world-class routes that are easy, the rock is solid and the aesthetics off chops. And some routes have otherworldly voices drifting around them, as the rogue wind caresses the cliffs of Djurite.
Over the week I befriend Harrison, a young American bloke who’s just come from Yosemite. He’s made the move from the States to Halls Gap in the Grampians, works at LiveFast Cafe three or four days a week then drives out to Arapiles for his days off and traces lines of grace on the rock. He’s a neat climber, and we share a similar philosophy; we plan for an onsight solo of Siren.
I wake Harrison 30 minutes before sunrise. We grab our shoes, chalk bags and start walking while the birds greet us with song. I have Siren’s route description memorised, and look for the dead tree that marks the top of the first pitch. We put our shoes on, chalk up, fist pump, then go up.
The ground drops away below, the sun rises. Golden light envelops us and warms our backs as we knock off the first two pitches without any difficulty. Then comes the ‘step across the chasm’; a delicate traverse across a sloping slab with a certain-death drop below. Don’t look down. Breathe. Don’t fuck up.
We are near the top of the third pitch, nearly 100m off the ground. We are committed. Harrison has taken the lead, but he waits for me, under a precarious overhang. He’s about to launch into a sequence that appears irreversible. I spot the line across to his right. He’s off-route.
The actual way ahead is a fairly smooth, slabby traverse to some rings. I look at it for at least a minute, visualising the sequence. It’s not as bad as it looks I tell myself. I step out. The feet are solid, hands are only for balance. I push up and I’m at the rings. Top of the third pitch.
Harrison follows and we launch into the crux, a delicate layback corner. I can hear otherworldly singing. It’s beautiful, haunting, but it’s coming from the wrong way. It’s singing to me from the bottom of the chasm. I remind myself this climb is only grade 9. It’s well within my ability. I step up and lie back onto my extended hands, pushing, pulling. It’s only five or six moves but the exposure is incredible.
Harrison takes the variants on the way up, I stick to the standard route. We meet at the top. Big hugs. Then he says he’s going to downclimb! I can’t believe it. I settle for the walk back down the Pharos Gully track. We have the best breakfast afterwards, back under the pines. The sirens return to silence.
During the last few days of my stay at Arapiles, I hang out at the ‘Pines Plaza’, the location of which, Eddie assures me (being at the top of The Pines and closest to all the climbs), means that it’s the ‘Hardcore’ camp. It was set up by one of Arapile’s current permanent residents, a girl with purple hair called Smasher who has been living out here for eight months. They have kitchen shelves built from old crates and a large, blue tarp to shelter the fire pit and the couches from rain.
I start chatting to a tall highliner called Chris Wallace. He is looking for something to do. I ask him if he wants to solo Tip Toe Ridge (6) and I’ll take some photos. He’s keen and when he grabs his shoes I’m surprised to see that his they are actually an old pair of hiking boots that have more holes than soles.
‘Yeah they should be fine’, he assures me, ‘I climbed the Bard (12) in these, and Tip Toe Ridge is much easier.’
True to his word, he solos the route without problems and even downclimbs the crux near the pinnacle for me to get some wicked shots of him on the overhang; the photographer in me is over the moon!
After the climb we meet on the summit of the mountain and chat about highlining, eventually making a plan for a sunrise highline photo shoot. Chris’ mate, Dan Sinanian, is also keen to join.
I wake them before first light and we start the hike up to the highline, which is strung right across the top of the Organ Pipes. Chris decides to take Muldoon (13), the most direct line up to the top. The sun rises just as he starts up, just him and his shoes. Efficient and elegant, he flows up the wall with gentle confidence that comes with thousands of hours of practice. By the time I reach the top of the cliff, both the boys are ready to highline.
Dan goes first. He slides out onto the line. Carefully and fluidly, he mounts the line, balancing on his haunches, then stands up. His hands are up high and he is walking the line, the concentration on his face illuminated by the sun. The plains are still covered in mist and the light is magic.
While Dan floats in free space I begin to hear the now familiar otherworldly singing. The Song of the Sirens. This time, though, it’s different. Instead of luring me down from below it is all around, encompassing, glowing. Instead of evoking fear, I am overcome with joy. I hoot and holler at Dan’s performance. This is the song of friendship. The song of existence. The song of life.
The Pines are far below; they whisper with the Wind. Slowly, the camp stirs. It’s another day in paradise.