Wild Crag: Cape Woolamai Video

Wild Crag: Cape Woolamai Video

Phillip Island is famous for two things: penguins, and the motorcycle grand prix. In 2006, I sold T-shirts at the Moto GP, stationed at the circuit’s “Turn 1”, named Doohan Corner after the five-time 500 cc World Champion Mick Doohan. There, views of the circuit’s Southern Loop fell away steeply into the wilds of Bass Strait.

As I drove back to mainland, crossing the San Remo Bridge, I barely noticed the low-lying arm of mute green land branching across the horizon. It turns out, few climbers deem it worthy of attention, anyway. One climber writes on the local Internet forum, Chockstone.org: “Go whale watching instead.”

The narrow promontory protrudes – shaped like a femur bone – headlong into Bass Strait. Along its southern coast is a series of deep coves, broken by crumbling headlands. This disjointed flank of harsh, pink granite is a crag known to climbers as “Cape Woolamai”.

My first Woolamai “horror story” was my husband’s: In the mid-1990s, he, his sister and two other climbers visited an area known as Pulpit Rock and The Pinnacles – the latter, three granite seastacks extending out to sea. Mac – who wasn’t my husband at the time – had just placed his first cam at the base of the second pinnacle when he heard an almighty crash! His sister and his friend Tim had dislodged a “fridge-sized” block from Pulpit Rock.

But, tales of Woolamai’s “chossiness” date back even further. In 1963, climber John Fahey copped a rock to either the head or the shoulder, during an attempt to climb the great off-width now known as Carious Crack, which curves up a 75-metre wall called The Big Cliff. His climbing partner Peter Jackson ended up doing the climb instead, taking the complete novice Les Whitely up as his second.

In the 1950s Steve Craddock associated the place with smell of sulphur, which came from all the rockfall.

Only two years ago, while my friends Stuart Hollaway and Róisín Briscoe climbed in a windswept bay called the Red Rock Area, I watched as Stuart paused near the top of one of his routes on the Balcony Slab – a great, leaning piece of architecture perched at what seems like the end of the world. He motioned Róisín (pronounced Ro-SHEEN) out of the way before throwing down a solid block the size of a breadloaf. Crash.

Yet, Woolamai’s charm has lasted decades. In the ’70s, it was the bearded Chris Baxter who climbed so many lines between existing lines, that a true topo of all his variants looks like a printed barcode. In the noughties it was my friend Stuart; a short, lively ginger ninja, whose habit of wearing loose running shorts climbing betrays his vintage. Stuart is a school teacher at Wesley College, but he spends his summers guiding clients in New Zealand’s mountains.

He’s said himself that Cape Woolamai “is a bit like climbing in the mountains.” That is, pointless, fun (until the situation becomes dire), and governed by the wiles of the weather. You can traverse several miniature peaks at once. Or, scale the same miniature peak several ways. The rock, like that of the mountains, varies in quality. In a sense, it’s not really a climbing destination, but a giant playground.

“Sometimes we’d stop climbing and just throw foam [from the waves] at each other,” said either Craddock or Jackson (I can’t remember which!). “It wasn’t really about the climbing.”

When I wrote the Cape Woolamai Rockclimbing guidebook, I spent hours in front of my computer screen, trying to craft scenes of Woolamai that convey its charms: the romantic hues of evening settling into Western Port; the surf mist of Woolamai Beach; the impatient throes of Bass Strait; wheeling seabirds combing invisible air currents high above deep coves; the nauseating sea pulsing below climbers’ feet…

To solve this dilemma, somehow I convinced videographer Brett Williams to rap off a trad anchor into The Abyss, a wave-swept chasm between two seastacks. With the swell licking at his heels, Brett filmed Stuart attempting his “last great problem” in The Abyss, a proud arête. Below is footage that captures some of what I yearned to tell in words.

Chelsea Brunckhorst

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