Rock climbing in Australia: where to find the best routes and pitches
Australia may be the world’s flattest continent, but it is packed with enough vertical topography to occupy any climber for many lifetimes. Most famous are the Grampians and Mt Arapiles, though there is no shortage of other world-class crags.
Sydneysiders luxuriate in their famous bay, but the city is bounded to the west by the towering bulk of the Blue Mountains and its paradise of cliff-lined valleys. In Tasmania, granite-like dolerite forms into endless cracks and, every so often, unique free-standing ‘poles’. But climbing Down Under is more than just about rock, it’s about the bush: giant gum trees, explosions of flowering wattle, mobs of kangaroos and that rare-to-find quality, solitude.
Four hours west of Melbourne an anomaly appears. Rising from the wheat fields are what appear to be the ruined walls of a crumbling fortress, its ramparts crusted with moss and topped with a Telecom tower. Closer inspection reveals the walls are far from crumbling, but are formed from perfect silica-rich sandstone. And amid the labyrinth of buttresses, pinnacles and gullies roam climbers who spend their days climbing some of Mt Arapiles’ 3000- plus routes. In the 1980s, Arapiles put Australian climbing on the map. A ragtag collection of ratbags and dropouts lived full-time in tents and spent their days competing for new routes. Soon, word spread, and in 1985 legendary German climber Wolfgang Güllich visited, climbing Arapiles’ most famous route, Punks in the Gym (32/5.14a) – the world’s hardest at the time. Arapiles is no longer at the cutting-edge, but it’s still a place of pilgrimage for climbers at all levels, from those coming to repeat Punks in the Gym to absolute beginners.
Forty-five minutes east of Arapiles, the Grampians rise from the flat Wimmera plain. Set among its rocky ridges and valleys is near endless bouldering, and sport and trad climbing on perfect sandstone. Taipan Wall – a 70m-high tsunami of steep orange sandstone – is the crown jewel. Many climbers say it’s the best cliff in the world, and if one route were to epitomise Taipan’s perfection, it would be Serpentine (29/5.13b), two pitches of sublime climbing up the proudest part of the wall. If the best route on the world’s best wall isn’t the world’s best route, then what is? But Taipan is just the beginning, the 167,219-hectare park holds literally hundreds of crags and many thousands of boulders for climbers to explore. Best of all, most days your only companions will be soaring wedge-tailed eagles and the odd wallaby.
New South Wales
An hour west of Sydney, the hazy mass of the Blue Mountains looms on the horizon. ‘The Blueys’, as it’s known to locals, is a contender for Australia’s best sport climbing destination. Renowned for its crimpy orange sandstone, the sheer volume of rock is astounding. Most climbers come for the sport routes, but those seeking more adventure should abseil into the green depths of the mighty Grose Valley, exiting the 150m-high walls by climbing one of the hundreds of multipitch routes.
In the desert, 400-suicidal-kangaroo-kilometres north of Adelaide, lie the Flinders Ranges. This ancient range holds one of Australia’s best and least visited crags, Moonarie, an orange sandstone escarpment that sits on the edge of Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre of mountains. The climbing here is something special, the red desert-polished sandstone is superb, while the big cliffs yield long, demanding pitches that are rendered just that little more serious by the remoteness and solitude of your surroundings.
About an hour from Hobart is the Tasman Peninsula, a rugged cape lined with massive dolerite cliffs. The peninsula holds a series of unique, narrow dolerite ‘poles’. Most famous is the Totem Pole, a 60m-high, 4m-wide tower sticking out of a narrow gap between the mainland and a larger monolith behind it, the Candlestick. The first climber to reach its summit, the legendary 1960s hardman, John Ewbank, described it thus: "Take a matchstick, change it into dolerite. Multiply it 1600 times. Stand it upright in a heavy swell, then swim away before it topples over." The route is an adventure: after abseiling down to ocean level, climbers swing across the wave-torn gap, then climb "the Tote" via two superb pitches. At the top it’s not all over – getting off requires swinging 60m above the sea back to the mainland.