Upper Gara Gorge Rock climbing466 routes in crag
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This guide covers the climbing areas in the Upper Gara Gorge. Gara Gorge is part of the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. All the cliffs (apart from the Ring-pull Boulder) are in the National park as is the access to these areas and should thus be treated accordingly. Enough said!
The Gara Boulders, with their easy access and proximity to Armidale have long been a popular venue for a quick afternoon sortie or a lazy day’s climbing. There is a large variety of routes with everything from straight up jamb-cracks to clip-up sport-routes. Most lines are short (8-15m) and have easy walk-offs or a rap-station nearby. A light rack plus a few brackets should see you through just about everything. The other areas described in this guide are located further down the gorge and are suited more to at least a half-day effort. Climbing at the Kitchen is similar to The Gara Boulders while the Sea Cliff is entirely Sport climbing and the Bastille and the Fortress are slightly more serious with a mixture of styles and routes between 25 and 100m in length.
So there you go, you want, we got - there’s really something for everybody. If after looking at all the climbs you feel like something else, then there are enough boulder problems to send you mad for weeks. Friction slabs, sharp little crimp-fests, cheese-grating slopers and even big, friendly, overhanging jug-hauls.
What more can I say: “Ring now, but don’t send any money!”
Gara gorge is part of Oxley Wild Rivers National Park and access is open:
Gara Gorge is located 16km south-east of Armidale’s CBD. To get there, take the Grafton road east out of Armidale then turn right onto Castle Doyle road (just after the 100km speed limit signs) This road goes onto Blue Hole road, turning to dirt straight after the cattle grid, takes you to the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. Once at the river follow the road right until it comes to a turning circle/parking area at the beginning of the walking track. This is the focus of most of the bouldering in the area. Access to the second car park referred to in the rest of the guide has been blocked to vehicles. To get there walk up onto the ridge and follow the old car track along until it stops. This is the old ‘Car Park’. From the old car park there are several ways of getting into the gorge. Either follow the well defined track which leads east along the ridge to drop down to the Roadblock area and the Mad Woman’s Breakfast boulder, or veer left (north) from this track at its start and walk straight down towards the Hope Buttress region. To get to the Thick As Thieves / Private Sector area, scramble up past the upstream end of Hope Buttress, then head straight across, past a small gully, then on to the main gully, the main water course. Another way to access the Thick as Thieves and Schoolgirl area is to follow the walking track from the first car park until you are above them, and then drop in via the riverbed (about 500m).
Where to stay
Camping is frowned upon in the Gara boulders picnic area but the NPWS seem to be amenable to bush camping as long as you adhere to the usual rules about fires etc. Another option is the Pembroke Caravan Park which is just before the turnoff as you leave town on the Grafton road. They offer everything from basic tent-sites to fully furnished cabins. There is also an amazing variety of hotels, bed n’ breakfast and pub accommodation in town. For your food needs there is a choice of three large supermarkets as well as a multitude of fruit shops and heath food stores. If you feel like catching a feed in town, there are plenty of restaurants, cafes and pubs, the New England Hotel has a great brassiere that serves good food in a nice atmosphere and is the watering hole for most of the local climbers - just look for the scruffy mob waving their arms around in the air. All your climbing needs as well as the latest information on routes and access are available from Armidale Outdoors.
Basically, the climbers of Armidale are a pretty laid back, free thinking group and as long as you don’t go out of your way to put people’s noses out of joint you’ll be amazed at how helpful they can be. The quickest way to piss people off is by ripping off projects. There are a few devoted locals making an effort and putting up quality new climbs. A lot of time, hard work and even money goes into their endeavours (cracks can be projects too) and there is too much unclimbed rock around to justify destroying someone else’s motivation. Any routes marked as such or not in the guide should be left alone. The simple courtesy of asking first may save you from being stripped naked and being staked out for the crows to pick your eyes out. If putting up new routes is your thing then please feel free. The only request is that you avoid placing hangers or conspicuous bolts around the Gara Boulders as we are already viewed as an environmental menace by the NPWS - bolting in National Parks is actually illegal.
Ironically, the Garra boulders area was discovered by accident by Rob Dixon and Brian Birchall whilst returning from a day at Nettle Buttress. The year was 1975. On this day they completed “Hope” (16) and “Charity” (14). Development continued through the following years with one of the best being the classic easy route “Illusion” (13).
1978 saw the arrival of the infamous Joe Friend in Armidale. Foregoing the short routes of the Boulders he went further down the gorge to the Bastille, unearthing it’s first route “Geronimo” (20) though a rumoured wooden peg found on the first ascent may point to the possibility that Friend may have been beaten to the cherry. Friend went on to do more routes over the river at the Fortress such as the frightening off-width “The Chop” (18).
1980 was the first real route-finding rush of the area. Inspired by Birchall’s “Savage Amusement” (20) (now 22 since the large spike was inadvertently removed) Mark Colyvan and John Latanzio climbed “Inertia” (22) and “Anticipation” (18) respectively. 1981, and the pace was kept up by Colyvan’s superb “Psychosomatic” (23) arguably one of the best routes in the area if you have the bottle for the first few moves. The same year saw the first sport-route (not recognised as such at the time) with Al Stephens’ ever-popular “Heavy Metal” (18).
1982 and the year of greatest productivity with over 20 new climbs developed in the area. This was also the year of one of the greatest controversies in the local scene. Frustrated with waiting for Ed Sharpe to break free from his alleged weekend hangovers and finish his project at the Private Sector, Paul Bayne finally went out and rope-soloed the first ascent of “Never-Ready Eddie”. Tempered by everyone’s plea’s (no-one wanted to find Paul’s body at the dump) Paul eventually called the route “Slackers and Robbers” (22) Also in this area was Latanzio’s Trajectory (18) which met an unpleasant demise when the bottom half fell down the slab. It has since been resurrected by Gordon Low. Straightened out with a couple of new bolts it has become a testy little 22. Other notable routes of this year were Colyvan’s “Private Sector” (22) and the classic overhanging crack “Thick as Thieves” (21). The same year saw a renewal of interest downstream where a direct finish was added to Geronimo (at the Bastille) compliments of Colyvan and Stephens. Across the river at the Fortress Bayne made significant inroads into freeing the classic double roof “Kiss Me Deadly” (22M1).
The next few years were a bit of a veritable new route drought with interest being focused in other areas. Two exceptions were Colyvan’s scary Don’t Get Cute” and Geof Robertson’s ascent of “The Hot Pearl Snatch” (26). Present on the day Stephens seemed more chuffed at the fact that Colyvan had been beaten to the ascent rather than the fact that New England now had it’s very own 26, even if it was less than ten metres long.
1988, the bicentennial year, brought a small stir with Brendan Halliburton producing 5 new routes, all in the area of the Swimming Hole. Most have since been lost in the mists of time but one standout is the excellent, exciting traverse “Careful He Might Hear You” (17). Before leaving town he also bolted a line left of “Don’t Get Cute” but the first ascent of “Leaving on Your Mind” (21) was left to the opportunistic Colyvan to clean up the following year. 1989 must have been the year for cleaning up as Stephens was also on detail. When Graeme Stewart was kidnapped by his wife and unable to return and free the last bit of aid from “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (25) Stephens was the first in to snaffle it up.
The following years brought a lull in activity though some interest was shown in the Bastille. Several routes were put up. Of these, “Innocence” (18), courtesy of Stephens, is probably the best easy slab this side of the divide.
The summer of 93-94 could be seen as a reemergence of the Boulders to the centre of attention. Too hot to climb anywhere else, Stephens and local boy Ben Christian focused on a few short tricks at the private sector. The pair managed to successfully pull a few rabbits out of their sleeves with Stephens’ “Yoda” (24) (just as popular as it is short!) and Christian’s exciting “Ninja” (22) being the picks of the litter. Shortly later Christian came down with severe tendonitis and everybody else’s attentions were elsewhere.
1995 started off with a bang with Christian letting everyone know he was back by quickly dispatching his old project “Black Dog” (25). The following day Gordon Low had finally lost enough weight to drag his sorry arse up “Sweet Surrender” (24), ending his two-year affair with the line.
Later that season Christian cleaned up an abandoned project next to “Sweet Surrender” on the “Shooting Star Buttress” to produce the frightening “Rodney’s Garibaldi Metwurst” (26-and quite a poisonous mouthful!). Finally heeding the plaintive bleating of would-be suitors, too scared to do the route without dangling slings all over it, Christian has since re-bolted “The Metwurst” to make it a little more consumer-friendly.
Downstream, between the Bastille and the Fortress, Low began development at “The Kitchen”, which is at water level, with several others in tow. The best routes so far are the easy classic “Get Nuked” (15) done by visiting Brisbanite Bill Briner, though it has been recently pointed out that Paul Bayne actually soloed the first ascent 10 years ago, and Low’s more recent “Lean Cuisine” (23).
Winter 1995 saw the arrival of The Swiss route-machine Andreas Audetat.
With his strong fingers and European sportclimbing tactics Audetat was the one to drag New England, kicking and screaming, into the new age during 95 and ‘96. Though most of his efforts were focused further down the gorge, Audetat did do many high-calibre routes around the Boulders and further downstream. Below the Fortress, Audetat teamed up with Low and Tim Hill to Develop The Sea Cliff. Best routes here are Hill’s “Se A Cabo” (26) and Audetat’s extremely powerful “Ravage” (29). Up on the Bastille Audetat bolted and quickly completed (in two days) the striking yellow streak on the main face to give a product with “No Frills” (29). At the Fortress Low and Stephens continued to unearth the goodies through the early months of ‘97 with the hit being Stephens’ “Morning Glory” (22) -”What’s the story?”
At the boulders Audetat managed to fill in nearly all the gaps on the Shooting Star Buttress - the best being “Hitman” (29) as well as grid-bolting a large boulder in the farmer’s property. The “Ring-Pull Boulder” (anonymously named by a stunned local) has almost a dozen skin-ripping classic sport-routes on it but unfortunately a recent change of ownership and the usual litigation fears has closed this area to climbers.
Since the departure of Audetat back to Switzerland and the discovery of new sport climbing areas on the sandstone of the coast, development in the gorge has once again gone into hibernation, with the exception of the occasional route by the regular local crew. One of these was the so-called last great problem on Motor-head Buttress. “Paper, Scissors, Rock (25) finally submitted to a siege tactics onslaught by Matt Rizzuto and Low, with Rizzuto finally claiming the glory of success. But don’t be fooled, there is still a veritable cornucopium of unclimbed rock down there. Stephens is still sniffing out the occasional classic and Low is still making hopeful forays to the Bastille to waste tape on his optimistic project. Rizzuto, as well as tearing his way through the local test-pieces, is gradually notching up a good collection of hard boulder problems in the V5+ range.
So if you ever get fed-up with long approaches and slogging uphill to your favourite crag, remember why we climb in Gara gorge - because it’s not there!
Pay us a visit, there’s plenty rock for everyone.©
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