Adiós ocean. Hola rock. We left the Abel Tasman behind and headed out to the Golden Bay area, a single destination in mind. Paynes Ford Scenic Reserve is well-known as a prime rock climbing spot, with over 200 climbing routes along several large, limestone walls. The Hangdog Campground, a minute and a half walk from the entrance to Paynes Ford, housed ourselves and our tent for $10 a night, along with a hodgepodge of climbers from all over the world, staying in every manner of tent, caravan, and vehicle. When we offered to pay our dues upon arrival, Troy, the terminally chilled-out head of the place, waved us away with a leading smile and the comment “Pay us when you leave.” Which somehow seemed to drift into the unsaid “Because you’ll never leave …” And indeed, it appeared to be one of those places. We met a couple of people in the camp who had come for a couple of days, or a week, and were still there – climbing every day – months later. We’ve already said we’ll be back, for a longer stint next time. (Although we did actually manage to check out after two nights.)
We headed out of camp bright and early after our first night there, eager to do our first bit of climbing in New Zealand. The sun was shining, making a good effort to dry up the last of the damp rock that remained after several days of rain. Excitement!
Perhaps the first thing we noticed was that rock in New Zealand is different from rock in Australia. Limestone vs. sandstone. Hard vs. soft. Sturdy vs. Break-y. Climby vs. fall-y. More than once, I grabbed on to a nib or a nub or a narrow strip of rock and tugged at it apprehensively, fully expecting it to break off in my hand. More than once, it did not. I’m not much of a climber. When we got chatting with the others, and compared my six months of very sporadic, generally indoor, climbing with their years of intense devotion that had taken them to crags around the world, it really brought to light how long you can chase this sport and have it still be challenging.
Still an amateur, I was – without question – challenged on this wall. There were a handful of climbs in a grade that I could attempt, so I did. Sport climbs are graded on a scale based on difficulty. This scale is quite subjective, as different body types and styles mean that some people find certain climbs significantly harder than someone else might. This scale can be noticeably “harder” in some regions (perhaps where the climbers are better) and is also completely different, depending on where you are in the world. (A 20 in Australia is roughly a 5.10c in America and 6b in France.) I’m going to go on the assumption that you don’t know very much about climbing because, up until a few months ago, I didn’t either.
There are two main ways to climb a wall; by leading it, or by top-roping it. A top rope is just what it sounds like: a rope fed through a bolt or carabiner or what-have-you, securely attached at the top of a climb, which you then attach securely to yourself. As you climb up, your belayer (your buddy on the ground) takes in slack on their end of the rope the entire time so that you’re always well protected, if you should fall. Of course, with this method, you first need to get a rope to the top, which generally involves someone leading it.
When you lead a climb, you start at the bottom of the wall, looking up at a blank – save for a few bolts – canvas. You are attached securely to one end of the rope, and the other end of the rope falls loosely into your belayers hands, who is standing on the ground right beside you. The goal at this point is to reach the first bolt on the wall, where you can make yourself secure (read: not fall on and subsequently crush your belayer). The first bolts at Paynes Ford seemed to be a lot higher off the ground than they were at ye olde indoor climbing gym in Sydney. Once you make your way off the ground and find a steady enough place close to your first bolt, you remove one of your precious, life-saving hands from the wall, grab a quick draw (essentially a bit of rope – but not rope, really, more like webbing – with a metal clip on either end) from your harness, clip the draw into the bolt on the wall, pull up slack from the rope dangling from your harness, grab it with your teeth, pull a bit more slack, clip it into the draw on the wall, and then replace that precious, life-saving hand back on the rock. When your belayer pulls your slack tight, you are officially safe. Clearly, lead climbing is a whole different ball game to top rope. Not just physically harder, there is a psychological aspect as well. You are often in a position to take some very real falls. Bolts can be several metres apart, and if you stuff up, you are falling the distance to your last clip. You are, in theory, safe the entire time. There’s a huge amount of trust that you’re placing in your partner and in your gear, and it makes the experience seem about 1000 times more real than being able to lean back on your top rope at any time. I led my first climb at Paynes Ford. And then a few more. It’s exhilarating and calming at the same time. Having the confidence to move, when you know that having a poorly positioned foot or a weak hold could send you down the wall is a big step up from what I’d been climbing before. This confidence is slowly and grudgingly growing, not least from being stuck on a portion of given wall (several times) with Tim coaching me patiently to let go and climb. I can’t wait to get on the next wall.