Simon Madden vents his spleen on everything from loud music, human waste and unethical climbing practices that threaten the natural serenity of the Grampians.
The walk up Flat Rock in the Grampians is one of the great walk-ins in Australian climbing. A fluted skin of water-worn sandstone tilted up at an angle that is steep enough for its name to be a lie – it always makes me think of my younger cousin Bluey and his flame-red hair. As you plod up under the cutting straps of a too-heavy pack, craggy outcrops drop below you until you crest the top and there before you across the amphitheatre is the greatest wall in the country – the Taipan Wall.
On a crisp Autumn morning the other side of the amphitheatre is still in shadow and though I can still make out the distinct features of the gob smacking rock architecture, in the murk it looks mysterious and intimidating, even foreboding.
Somewhere in those shadows are Serpentine, Groove Train, the Invisible Fist of Professor Hiddich Smiddich and Mr Joshua – routes so good, Spinal Tap should invent a new system for categorising how good they are. They are 11s on a scale that goes only to ten.
The breath that I lost on the hike up instantly fills my lungs, and with a swelling chest I storm down into the valley, partly because I’m buoyed by psych at climbing and secondly because if I do storm, I can try to convince myself that I’m not shitting bricks. The wall might be amazing but it is equal parts terrifying, and that dichotomy is a large part of its allure.
On either side of the snaking trail, the post-2014 fires regrowth is thickening and the charred soil is starting to solidify again. As I trundle along the ribbon of track, mixed in with the sounds of birds comes a dull, rhythmic thumping, buzzingly out of place. Crossing the swampy creek at the lowest point of the valley, the thumping forms into the more recognisable shape of music and as we come to the first clutch of boulders in the popular Trackside bouldering area there are about 10 or so young punks lolling on bouldering pads and falling off problems to a too-loud soundtrack of music coming from a tinny Bluetooth speaker pushed to it’s limits.
With Taipan Wall looming above the bush, Nalle Hukkaival contemplates his next move on pitch two of The Great Affair (33), Tapian Wall, the Grampians. IMAGE CREDIT: Kamil Sustiak
Instantly my chest deflates and my hackles go up. The scene has so much bad juju there may as well have been a voodoo sacrifice being performed. Speaking of which, the voodoo sacrifice is probably the most appropriate punishment for the person that I heard one Easter had a cat on a leash at Hollow Mountain Cave, a cat in the National Park, on a leash! If not voodoo sacrifice that person should be put in a stockade in the middle of Horsham and have rotten vegetables thrown at them. But I digress.
Maybe the music – the genre of which is irrelevant in that its presence alone was unsettling and out of place – is sending my Spidey Sense into extreme agitation making me hyper vigilante, but as I look around the boulders, all I see are ills. There are tick marks – chalk marks that climbers use so that they know where the best part of the hold that they are going for is – on the boulders as long as your forearm, big white stains that are far too visible and clearly haven’t been brushed off after someone has been trying the problem they mark out. The ground under one of the most popular problems, the classic Sick Nutter (V5), looks ten centimetres lower than it used to be, carved out by a thousand bouldering mats and ten thousand treading feet that have loosened dirt so that the rain could carve it out even further. Caught in the branches of one of the spikey shrubs off to the side, a couple of plastic wrappers flutter insecurely in the wind. It’s a bad scene filled with the detritus of humanity.
I don’t say anything though, I just step through the throng while making terse nods, and start up the hill. Over the din, the Alpha Males can be heard spraying beta at those who are bouldering like dogs pissing on their territory. Perhaps the teenagers look too menacing, perhaps I don’t want to be ‘that guy’, perhaps I don’t know how to structure a comment like, “Can you turn your music off you clowns” effectively. Instead, I just get angry at them and then at myself.
The premise of climbing is to respect the land that we love
Away from the amphitheatre floor the path steepens towards the Taipan Wall. All the while the unwanted soundtrack drifting up mocked my own complicit silence. Up a few switchbacks it rises. Anger is such a useless emotion, it just makes you dumb and feckless though when the heat does drain out of my head a million witty, cutting things that I should have said, rush in. The French call it l’ésprit de l’escalier – the spirit of the staircase – all the brilliant lines that come to you once you leave an encounter. As I play out the imaginary conversations in my head I’m left impotently shaking my fist at the sky, I may as well be Grandpa Simpson and have an onion on my belt. So much for the old guard having a responsibility to pass on what they know to the young, not gonna happen if the only thing we are doing is passing by…
AN UNWELCOME ENCOUNTER
The track up has had a lot of work done on it because lots of people take it. It is well-bedded in by the thousands of footsteps that have made the pilgrimage to Taipan. Wooden steps protect some areas, retaining walls stop erosion on others. Nearing the top, I turn a corner and stop dead. There is a human shit on the ground right on the path. Incredulous, it takes my brain a moment to process it – it can’t be, can it? Is it? It is. It might not have been steamingly fresh but it wasn’t hardened into a brick either. They didn’t go in the drop dunny before they left the car park, they didn’t carry it out in a poo-bag, they didn’t even step off the trail and dig a hole 20 centimetres deep. Someone – and up here it probably wasn’t the young punks in Trackside – had done taken a dump on the path, neatly folded some toilet paper over it and put a rock on top as if it was some kind of sculpture in testament to their stupidity.
If you can't handle the disorientating vertigo, this rest, on Mr Joshua (26) is one of the best you will ever take on a route. IMAGE CREDIT: Simon Madden
I stand looking at the human waste and thinking that it perfectly rounds out the “list of things that are causing us problems in climbing”. My pack feels a little heavier. On top of everything else, nothing good will come of treating our natural places like a toilet.
I am definitely not against bouldering – I wrote the bloody bouldering guidebook for the Grampians. And I am not against crowds, crag-party psych has provided some of the conditions for some of my biggest climbing successes. I don’t want to be a NIMBY. But I am wary that as our family swells under the pressure of becoming SHRN, as gyms spread like cinnamon fungus and what was once a connection with wild places becomes a fitness craze, we have to be wary of behaving like idiots, drawing negative attention to ourselves and ruining the bush that we all say we love. We take access for granted precisely because in the sparsely populated past we were able to – our impact and visibility were minimal because our numbers were minimal. Most of us don’t think twice about access, instead assuming it is our right to climb whatever we want and wherever we want and that is just not the case. Some areas have already been closed to climbers due to our impact and there are continual rumblings of ill feeling that threaten to burst into bigger seismic shifts in the climbing landscape. If we keep shitting in our own nests things are going to get way worse.
THE WISDOM OF BEER
In a private conversation with the one-time yard glass sculling world record holder Bob Hawk, Paul Keating once quipped that Oz was at the ‘arse end of the world’. The tyranny of distance between the derriere and the rest of the civilisation is bad if you prefer being in the cultural, political and economic thick of it, but it is pretty bloody good if you raise two fingers and say ,“up-yours!” to the thickers, preferring instead global irrelevance and untouched wide open spaces.
One of the beneficial symptoms of being the world’s bum has been that up until now, our climbing crags haven’t been that crowded. It is still not that uncommon to rock up to a cliff and have no one but you, your climbing partner and a circling wedge tailed eagle within cooee, but that is changing fast and our crags are becoming more popular, the infrastructure becoming more strained and our impact becoming more pronounced. We may not have the heaving throngs and traffic jams that are common in many of the European crags but we have to be better than the Euros, for our own sake.
With the stench of faeces in my nostrils, music ringing in my ears and discontent clouding my mind, when I finally do make it to the cliff I am utterly and inconsolably terrible. The weight of everything conspires to ensure it is a high gravity day – the worst kind. Though I was at the best cliff in the country it was one of the worst days on rock I have ever had.