Workin’ ‘Oliday – Oli Grounsell in Oz

In ‘Australia, It’s Just Not Miserable Enough’, British nice-guy-crusher, skidmark-cleaner and sometime-party-boy, Oli Grounsell, spends a year down under

Roped climbing – 5/5
Bouldering – 4/5
People – 2/5
Summer Weather – 1/5
Winter Weather – 5/5
Cost of Living – 5/5 on AUD, 2/5 on GBP
Party scene – 4/5 (certain elements could be cheaper)
Food – 5/5 (great Asian food in #Melbourne)
Booze – 4/5
Pubs – 3/5 (you just can’t beat British pubs)

When I first arrived in Australia I don’t really have a plan beyond earn a bit of AUD and then go climbing. Earning a bit of AUD, however, was harder than I thought it would be.

On a flying visit Oli showed his brother Ben some of Oz’ delights, including Great Expectations (V10) at Mt Fox, the Grampians. Image by Oli Grounsell

On a flying visit Oli showed his brother Ben some of Oz’ delights, including Great Expectations (V10) at Mt Fox, the Grampians. Image by Oli Grounsell

On my first visit to Northside Boulders I asked Reuben The Boss if he had any jobs going, ‘No’ he said. In the aftermath of this short interview I was left to draft several CVs tailored towards jobs I didn’t want, detailing ‘experience’ that I didn’t have: gardener, barista, chef, builder etc. Not surprisingly (and perhaps to the great fortune of the Melbourne’s house and garden owners not to mention coffee snobs), all I got in reply were more No’s. As luck would have it, though, I had ‘enjoyed’ several conversations about rugby, a game about which I understand almost nothing, with that slacker Charlie Creese who ‘works’ at Northside. He had the job I wanted – cleaner – and he informed me that Reuben was now in fact looking for a cleaner.

So, armed with years of cleaning experience, Reuben granted me the pleasure of hoovering the gym mats and from this blessed vantage point I was able to deduce that Reuben didn’t enjoy waking up everyday at bird’s fart to open the wall by 6.30am. This was my way in, I thought, and after making a super special effort to remove every last skidmark from the toilet, I dropped a little hint ‘I could do this shift if you wanted’. And that was that. Hours and hours of corporate training later there I was, the boy behind the desk and on a meteoric rise through the employee ranks. Taking the reins on this early shift I was able to wheedle my way into the Northside crew, hoovering, removing skidmarks. drilling plastic onto walls and ‘crafting’ the finest soy, decaf, iced, deconstructed lattes this side of Sydney Road (#Melbourne).

It was most enjoyable, and under the influence of this enjoyment my initial plan changed. Instead of disappearing off after a few months, I appeared to have stayed the year. The balance between an easygoing city and Taipan Wall at the weekend is pretty good, and the winters here are amazing. If you think mid-teens and blue sky is hard work you should try a midwinter hangover in Bangor (North Wales) to test your moral fibre and psych. Anyway, before we get lost in those fond work-a-day memories I guess we should talk about some rock climbing.

It was the footage of Ben Cossey on Groove Train (33), shown to me by Derw Fineron on a wet winter’s day in Llanberis that first got me psyched on Oz. As the rain lashed down outside, dry, biting crimps above big run outs looked oh so tempting. Derw was raving about it and I knew his brother Wiz had enjoyed a mega time in Oz. I was sold.

Fast forward a year and there I was. Seeing Taipan for the first time was rather incredible and even after a year of climbing on it at the end of a good day as the sun sets and casts its orange glow it still blows me away. I never did climb Groove Train, Derw neglected to inform me that to reach those delicious runouts on the upper headwall I had to do the 6ft lurch on the lower section (Groovy, 28) of which I only managed to latch one in 25 times. I did climb its little, brother Snakes on a Train (32), though, which was amazing and allowed me to experience the headwall and take a big fall from the last (hard) move. But, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly disappointed not to do Groove Train as it is one of the most enticing single pitches of climbing in the world. You can’t do everything.

The author lapping up Eau Rouge (23), one of the best of the grade in the Grampians. Image on Liam Postlethwaite

The author lapping up Eau Rouge (23), one of the best of the grade in the Grampians. Image on Liam Postlethwaite

Despite Taipan being brilliant and all that, I found I got the most out of the Grampians down south. It’s just more rugged down there and the drive to areas like the Lost World is breathtaking. Being a bit wilder, the south leaves the option for some quite adventurous days out and two of the most memorable would have to be all-trad mega roof of Welcome to Barbados (29) in the Red Cave and the famous Passport to Insanity (27) up at The Fortress.

Welcome to Barbados doesn’t feature the most amazing moves, but the line and whole aesthetic of the cave is pretty stunning. For me, the highlight of this route was the last 15m. Whilst the first 35m is more typical pulling, this final section is a squirm and shuffle that favours a climber who enjoys having their knees in their face. I love having my knees in my face, Nathan Lee, my partner that day, doesn’t enjoy having his knees in his face, and at the end of a rather long day, on his third go, energy reserves rapidly depleting, I was having a good old chuckle as he struggled along. Fortunately, he wormed his way across and the taste of success washed the taste of his knees from his mouth. I was granted the joy of stripping the 50m roof followed by a very pleasant evening by the fire.

There were only a few times when I went out bouldering over winter when I thought, ‘Yep, this is proper bouldering weather’, but on the day I went up to climb the 135m Passport to Insanity I thought ‘This is too cold, even for bouldering’. Fortunately, I had recruited fellow Brit Gwen Lancashire for this bitter day out and Gwen isn’t one to shy away from hardship.

Arriving at the base of the route I was immediately impressed by the massive feature and the crack that split it and straight away put on all my layers. Gwen racked up and off she set – ‘Ooooh, it’s a bit cold!’ – slowly but surely inched her way up. Fortunately, this cliff is north facing so does get the sun and as I belayed I willed the creeping light closer and closer. Once it eventually graced me it started its way slowly up the wall towards Gwen. Unfortunately for Gwen, as the wall finally came into full sun she reached the belay, which is pleasantly shaded by the big roof. I went up to meet a shivering yet happy Gwen. What ensued on the second pitch, a 6m downwards sloping roof, was a horrible mixture of numb and pumped hands, which resulted in a slight loss of feeling in my thumb for the next week. In the roof I would look at a hand, will it to stay on, and then take my other hand out the crack. I did this several times and on my final, final go, got to the end of the roof on leaden arms and hands that felt completely separate to my body. Good times.

Tasmania was my final – and greener – full stop to my time in Australia. As soon as the ferry landed in Devonport, Jack Lawledge and I felt at home. The air was cooler, the scenery less sun-kissed and the conditions hard to predict. If you enjoy the scenery and feel of the Tasman Peninsula I would recommend that you spend some time in Scotland and Ireland as it feels very similar.

Heather Florence jamming her way up Skyrocket (20) at the Organ Pipes, Tasmania. Image by Oli Grounsell

Heather Florence jamming her way up Skyrocket (20) at the Organ Pipes, Tasmania. Image by Oli Grounsell

Hype can be the enemy of experience and so I was expecting the Totem Pole to be a bit of a let-down, because routes with such reputations usually are, but I can confirm it is an incredible day out. On first sight the thing looks like it is going to fall down, yet as you get closer to it confidence in its structural integrity grows. I actually ended up doing this route twice, and in hindsight on the day Jack and I first went down the sea was completely wild with huge waves rolling through the thin chasm either side of the pole. Abseiling into the zawn the sea was rather excitable, yet I had just abseiled 60m in and wasn’t about to jug out.

‘How does it look mate?’ Jack called.

‘Yeah, fine.’ I replied.

‘The sea okay?’ Jack questioned.

‘Yeah all good kid.’ I shout with a grin on my face.

As Jack came down the occasional wave height was above me on the belay, but Mother Nature favours the bold and being on the lee side I didn’t seem to be getting wet. The same could not be said for the first few metres of the actual climb though, and like most women I don’t think Mother Nature was too keen on Jack.

He set off, with his feet at my head a few practice waves tickled his toes. Still smiling I watched as a big ol’ swell came in and as he closed his cute little eyes the water engulfed him. I was all good though, Mother Nature watching me with a soft spot in her heart. After an exciting entree both the Deep Play (24, the most popular first pitch) and second pitch of The Free Route (25 the arête where the business is) offer superb, thought-provoking climbing. Arriving at the top all was left was a little tyrolean. Fortunately, we hadn’t dropped the ab rope and after rigging up I let Jack go first, because he is heavier and all that.

We also mucked around at Ben Lomond and on the Organ Pipes, which both offer further technical arête, jamming and face climbing delights, yet the real cherry on our Tasmanian pie was the Tyndalls. With a two-day weather window on our last two days on the island we sped over to arrive in a mist-engulfed carpark. It’s a very good thing we didn’t grin and bear it and go in regardless as we would have definitely gotten lost. Fortunately, we woke at 6am the next morning to perfect blue skies and visibility beyond 10m. With a month of walking under our belts the approach was cruisy (minus getting slightly confused) and we arrived at the abseil for Sea of Mirrors (26) at 11am.

The author getting a taste of Arapiles onsighting Trojan (25). Image by Heather Florence

The author getting a taste of Arapiles onsighting Trojan (25). Image by Heather Florence

The next three, 45m pitches of climbing were pretty brutal on the fingers and toes after a rather go go go month, but enjoyable nonetheless. I was pretty pleased to onsight Sea of Mirrors after an exhausting first pitch where my main focus was willing none of the little pebbles and crimps to snap. Pulling up onto the belay ledge I was feeling lucky just as my right foot ripped a pebble. Clinging on with sheer tenacity, and the fact I really couldn’t be arsed climbing the first pitch again, I regained composure and pulled up onto the ledge for real this time. As is always the case with this style of climbing, the next two pitches were no giveaways and we arrived at the top feeling we had gotten our money worth. The best part of the upper pitches is a section of wall where the angle kicks back a bit and you end up on much steeper climbing on equally questionable, yet much bigger pebbles. Taking in the views one last time we descended and 24 hours later we were back in the coffee-loving real world.

‘Why not stay in Australia?’ is the question I’ve been asked a few times. Well, with such good wages, climbing and general ease of living Australia is certainly a very tempting country. But the summers are just too hot. On my last two days Down Under temperatures reached 42°C and quite frankly it was just not fun and being on the beach did not feel healthy. In the UK, the culture/lack of good weather means that when you see blue skies, or grey skies for that matter, you get outside. When you aren’t outside on these days you feel like you are wasting opportunities. When you transfer this mindset to Australia you end up in a weird position where you feel like you should be out doing something on the super-hot, blue-sky days, but in reality it’s too hot to do anything. I was not a fan of this. A few weeks ago I arrived in China, it was 5°C, but aside from not understanding what anyone says I felt at home. Going outside is hardwork, climbing even more so, but I love that feeling of satisfaction you get when you come in after a miserable day at the crag. You just don’t get that in Australia, not miserable enough.
Oli Grounsell

This piece appeared in Issue 24 of Vertical Life, to download the full issue – and all back issues of the mag – for free click here.

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