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Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Climbing in Canterbury

I arrived in Christchurch with low expectations of the climbing opportunities. The aftershocks were dying away, but I was told that Quake City’s outdoor lifestyle was still on a severe cut down following the disaster of February 22nd. To my relief, I found almost immediately a keen climbing partner who wanted to get onto the rock as much as possible. The rumours were somewhat true – the earthquakes had caused havoc in some areas – the famous Castle Rock crag was obliterated, and many other hilltop crags were bombsites with huge collapsed sections of rock. But amongst the rubble, we managed to hunt out some stellar rock climbing around the Port Hills, Banks Peninsula, Canterbury High Country, Mount Cook, and the West Coast. All within a few hours’ drive from the city of dreams. I’ll introduce to just some of the places that make Christchurch, in my opinion, NZ’s best climbing city.

Another gorgeous evening at Cattlestop

Wunderbar Wall was found hanging on the hillside above Lyttleton, on the eastern flanks of the Port Hills. The twenty metre high wall of dark volcanic rock was intimidating; with the rough cut track dropping steeply away from the base. Though of similar origins to our favourite ignimbrite, there was no pocket-pulling to be found, but still great friction. My debut climb on South Island rock was abysmal – I pumped out near the top of Nettle (18) and had to be lowered down shamefully after my fifth or so attempt at the crux, my ego stinging. But this was just the beginning, and I was already addicted to the post-work climbing buzz on real rock and awesome locations.

Nettle (18), Wunderbar Wall

Albert Terrace is the lowest crag in the city, hidden in a bushy gully at the base of the hills. The face was short and easy – only one 19 poked through a crowd of 13s and 14s. We used the evening to practice multi-pitch anchor setting and rope management on hanging belays, leading and speed-seconding up the twelve metres of juggy delight.

Taking risk into our own hands at Albert Terrace
Cattlestop has become Christchurch’s favourite crag since it was the first crag officially open post-quakes. As such the rock is sweaty-smooth and even the crack lines are well bolted, to the trad climbers’ disgust. But despite those minors, the rock was solid, the climbing was challenging, and plenty of feel-good top-outs were hauled up. Clipping into safety you could take a moment to contemplate life and the mountains and all that was good. Escaping the city for the evening and watching the sunset over the Southern Alps made for an aesthetically satisfying end to the day. We would climb till dark, rap off at sunset and drive back to see the city lit up from the heights.

Transmitter Crag is also a long chunk of volcanic rock sitting on the summit road, but for the unique-factor, this one is engulfed in pines. A plush trail leads you for twenty minutes through the forest until you find yourself underneath huge red bluffs. The base of the crag is well undercut so almost every climb starts with a cruxy overhang to haul over, or end up sweating on the ground. The crag is often dirty from the tree debris, which makes the climbs feel more adventurous and pioneering as you brush needles away to find good holds. The rock is sharp and abrasive and the dark walk inevitably ends in gorse. All in all, a great night at the Transmitter always ends with plenty of bloody knees, torn hands, and a chalk bag full of top notch climbs.

Grappling up Big Ben's Arete, Transmitter Crag

Otepatotu is too hard to pronounce so we call her Ote for short. Further afield from the comforts of the Port Hills lies the sprawling tangled mass of the Banks Peninsula. This land of extinct volcanoes is disguised by peaceful farmland and vivid blue harbours. And of course, there are climbable rocky outcrops and lava dykes scattered everywhere. Otepatotu is home to a trove of long, easy grade climbs which suit the eager but novice trad climber perfectly. I made my debut climb on natural protection up Diploma (12), a glorious arête with a fat crack just begging for gear. Enjoying the freedom that comes from placing your own pro, I wrapped my way around the buttress topping out on the belay slab with horrendous rope drag but astounding views over Akaroa and the hilly peninsula. Ice creams in quaint old Little River finish off a well rounded day-trip.

Rose rapping off another sweet route, Otepatotu

Mount Somers perplexes some climbers – it’s not cragging unless it’s next to the road, but if it’s not alpine rock why bother walking in! But for a cruisy Friday night tramp, it’s not completely unbearable, and the three hour trail through sub alpine bush takes you to a South Island’s very own Pinnacles hut. Huge fluted columns of rhyolite and tall blobs of andesite catch your eye on the eastern flanks of Mount Somers when you finally stumble onto the deck. The only sport climbing is on the Pinnacles, four deceptively large blobs of andesite. The holds are chunks of rock set in a fine rock slurry, and climbs like Crunchy Nuggets (16) beckon you to ‘climb the nuggets and hope they don’t crunch’. It was hot work as shade was a commodity, and each tough climb would require a commute to a small waterfall to cool off. With a trad rack Mount Somers would be far more worthwhile to go explore the higher multi-pitch finger cracks and watch the weather creep over the Main Divide from the summit.

Tanner on West Pinnacle, Mt Somers

Castle Hill is a world bouldering mecca of sorts, but not often do you hear about the 300 odd bolted climbs on offer up the towering boulders where crash pads won’t save you. Maybe for good reason, the easy grades are mindless powdery slabs, and the harder grades are thin, blank flakey lines which make you think How is this even possible…! Next time we’ll leave the rope behind and stick to the bouldering.

Sebastapol Bluffs is home to New Zealand’s first recorded rock climb. Tom Fyffe soloed the now classic Red Arête (15, 3 pitches) in the 1890s just before making the famous first ascent of Aoraki/Mt Cook. The massive red slabs to the side of the Mount Cook road are well overshadowed by the alpine giants of Sefton and The Footstool as you drive in but awesome multi-pitch routes make for a great climbing adventure to survey the heights of the park, and to ponder what mountain you’ll pick off next.

Adrian cresting the mantle of Red Arete, Sebastapol Bluffs

Charleston is West Coast climbing at its best. Spectacular sea cliffs tower forty metres above the crashing Tasman Sea. The routes are thought-provoking and atmospheric, and there’s always plenty of air under your heels. The Shark’s Breakfast (18) is one of the crag’s mega classics, from the corner of the Cathedral wall you traverse a long diagonal seam out towards the ocean with the surf only a few metres below at high tide. From a belay cave at the arête you bridge up a chimney to top out and take in the sensational views up and down the coastline. Almost all the routes are natural pro, but easy-medium grades so it’s accessible to the beginner trad climber. That said, you can be easily lured to the triple-star gems of the awe-inspiring Wonder Wall – often juggy starts lead to thin pumpy moves at the top – The Stinger (17) especially demands serious respect!

Reaching high near the top of Racing in the Streets (16, 2 pitches), Charleston

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