Punks in the Gym

birdbath

Sticking the infamous ‘birdbath’ hold. Photo (c) Jed Parkes

Just over 30 years ago something extraordinary happened at Mt Arapiles. A visiting hot-shot German climber called Wolfgang climbed a route called Punks in the Gym, it was the hardest rock-climb in the world. Ever since that day the route has continued to entrench itself deeper and deeper into folklore as Australia’s most famous and iconic hard climb.

If the stone could speak, this wall could chew your ear off for hours. The reputation for difficulty has bought many ego’s to the wall to create a somewhat bizarre and comical history. Whilst much harder climbs now exist in Australia, Punks still retains its reputation of ‘test-piece’ status.

The climb had bolts put in it by a Swiss dude, Martin Scheel. This was done in a time when chipping was considered ok. He took his chisel and improved a hold, now affectionately known as the birdbath. Unfortunately he still couldn’t climb it. Cue Wolfgang, the hotshot, coming to Arapiles on a trip and climbing it with the finest of moustaches and matching short shorts.

The challenge had been laid down, he had established the ‘ultimate examination’ in rock-climbing. You see it’s not all about big biceps and strong fingers on this one. Good footwork and body position is critical, skills only learned by climbing real rock. You can’t just be a punk training in a gym to get up it. Unfortunately there are some among us (including myself in past days) that think climbing a hard rock climb will win some kind of kudos and respect from the world. This leads to people obsessing over climbing such a climb as Punks.

The next protagonist in the story is Andy Pollitt, someone who took obsessing over a climb to dizzying new heights. After trying the route for some 60 days over many years, the crux ‘birdbath’ hold supposedly crumbled. Leading to a hold entirely made of glue to be added to the wall in its place. As the ‘birdbath’ currently exists, it’s quite a big hold; first joint, positive and room for four fingers. Ironically the glue used to replace the crumbled hold has snapped, twice. So now to look at the ‘birdbath’ you’ll see two fracture lines where the glue has snapped as people stand on the hold. Super glue runs down the wall a little from the repair job and half the inside of the hold has no texture due to the super-glues slippery finish.

Now some people get their knickers all in a knot about the fact this hold exists, that you hang off an artificial hold. Whilst I don’t think what’s been done is great, I think it’s a funny history. What’s been done has been done and any do-gooder questing to impose their ethics will just add the list of idiots doing dumb things. It still climbs well and should be enjoyed as we would any other piece of history.

The classic photo of Wolfgang on Punks.

The classic photo of Wolfgang on Punks.

Pheww what a crazy saga the story of Punks is. In my mind it has done nothing to reduce the desire of aspiring crushers to climb it. It stands out in my climbing life as the most meaningful climb I’ve ever done. That’s entirely due to all the history and the enjoyment of dancing out my own story on that incredible wall. I first made my way out to Arapiles in 2006. I had been climbing a bit over a year and was cutting my teeth on some of the easier trad routes. I was so in love with climbing but still desperately needed to trade some of my youthful enthusiasm for experience. I dreamed and hoped that if I kept at it maybe I could climb hard stuff one day. Imagine climbing something really really hard, like a 27 maybe. That seemed pretty far-fetched though. I’d only seen guys with big muscles doing that sort of stuff, my skinny composition seemed somewhat lacking.

What a journey the next decade proved to be, a veritable smorgasbord of climbing delights taking place all over the world. Always maintaining some of that youthful enthusiasm whilst I slowly acquired more experience. Unfortunately it didn’t last forever, 2013 saw me lose that spark. Putting way to much emphasis on climbing hard I just stopped having fun with climbing. It had become too much like work and all I felt like I was doing was trying to prove myself through something that’s pretty silly really. Nobody but me cares what routes we climb, and it’s a cruel irony that everybody else recognises this when we don’t. My fingers were tweaky from training and my elbows gave me no relief from chronic overuse symptoms. I was done.

It was about then that I found a new game to play, I got into skydiving. Pushing climbing to the side for the first time ever since I discovered it. I’d forgotten how good it is to be a beginner again. To see everything as being so sparkly and new and exciting felt invigorating. After a while I started climbing a bit again. Happy to just be out at the crag pottering about on routes I’d climbed before. It was just a good way to hang out with my mates. Not to mention how ridiculously awesome it was to be making new friends, flinging ourselves out of a plane together time and time again.

Long story short, I quit the skydiving job I had in February 2015. It felt so exciting to leave, realising how much of a toxic cess-pool the work environment had become. I had regained my psyche for climbing. I set out to the nearest climbing gym and went hard. I didn’t have any special training nonsense going on, I just tried really hard and often as I could. All my niggling injuries were gone, time had healed the me both physically and mentally. Time away had proven the best possible thing for my climbing.

The next few months saw me continually surprise myself whilst climbing. I went to Flinders Island with a bunch of folks, climbing some of the harder established routes. I went to the Star Factory and led the trad test-piece ‘The Grand Adjudicator’ (27) on my third burn(only just!!). For a laugh a bunch of us entered the Tasmanian State Titles, that’s right an indoor climbing competition! I told myself it would be awesome just to make the finals. Somehow I qualified equal first, and might have even won but for a dodgy judging decision. I was shocked. Still not ready to start working again, I thought heading to Arapiles to hang out with a pretty girl seemed like the most appropriate life choice.

So that’s exactly what I did. Again it felt so good to be back climbing, just cruising along at the crag in the company of people I like was enough for me. I had an idea in the back of my head that I should go try Punks, again just for a laugh with nothing to lose. I’d had a couple of goes on a top rope a few years prior so had a rough idea about what I was getting myself into. Sure enough I surprised myself by feeling strong on the moves. After a short time working out the moves I was falling off going to the birdbath, what most people consider the crux. Then on my next shot I stuck it, stood up onto it and promptly fell off. D’oh! Next shot saw the same thing happen. Many people have fallen off the top, but not many do twice! A quick tweak of my beta found me on the upper slab once again, desperately urging my shoes to stick to the footers. They’d been resoled twice and left a lot to be desired. Still better than what Wolfgang had on his feet I’m sure.

I rested on some shitty holds above the crux for what seemed like and eternity, not wanting to blow the very last move to a good hold. A move I found very tricky for some reason. With some bellowing and carry-on I made it through, a look of disbelief on my face as I pulled onto the top ledge. It seemed I entered a dream state, it couldn’t possibly be real, that didn’t just happen. The emotions felt were as complex as the climbing below. Jed lowered me off, a hootin’ and a hollerin’. It was done.

Obviously its an experience I’ll never forget, but for different reasons to other climbs. Finally the redpointing process had been nothing but awesome fun. I was genuinely stoked just to be climbing the fabled stone, trying to be present and just enjoy the movement. Whilst it represents the culmination of a decade of studying the art of climbing movement, the experience also stands out in my mind as a culmination of the mental process of rock-climbing. Now hopefully thats a lesson that stays with me for life.

Even more importantly than a silly climb; things went swimmingly with that very special, very pretty girl…

If you want to see a video of the route, check out my friend Robbie’s video below:

(disclaimer: now I talk about boring stuff like grades, yawn…)

Q. How did I jump so many grades?

A. Prior to Punks my hardest redpoint grade was 29. However I had come within a whisker of climbing a handful of routes graded 30/31. So people keep asking me how I jumped so many grades at the upper end of the spectrum. The truth is Punks is suited to taller people. I’m six foot tall with a plus 7cm ape index. I also seem to have a talent for the technical stuff. I was never strong so had to faff my way through the hard moves. So I guess the style of Punks is right up my alley, I love the crimpy stuff. So I think that’s how I did it relatively quickly, 12 tries this trip over 7 or 8 days? So my answer is I only skipped grade 30, even though I’ve top-roped a trad route that grade. What I really think about all the grade nonsense however all that is who cares, we only worry about it to compare ourselves to someone else which seems dumb.

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