Nervous about rock climbing in the outdoors? Don’t have the gear but want to give it a go? Aaron Lowndes, from the Melbourne Climbing School, gives us an insight into a day in the life of a Climbing Guide
Let’s just say his typical day is slightly different to most.
Looking after beginners in the outdoors is always a daunting task, one that requires a high level of alertness and constant concentration. My job as a Rock Climbing guide, spending a full day watching out for clients, can be mentally exhausting but the rewards far outweigh the cost.
T-minus 1 day: Final Prep
I sit down at the computer and open up Weatherzone to check the weather, the Parks Victoria page for any new alerts, and the state emergency service for any other alerts in the surrounding areas.
Parks Victoria will sometimes close off an area for a few days to perform pest control, controlled burning etc, but these planned events are emailed to me well in advance. Right now, I’m just looking for unforeseen alerts – usually there aren’t any and that is still the case now.
Time to Pack Albus
Now it’s time to organise and pack MCS’s trusty Subaru Forester ‘Albus’ with all of the climbing equipment we will need.
We’ll need ropes, helmets and harnesses as well as a few odds-and-ends in it that I take on every trip – first-aid kit, guide books, spare carabiners etc.
I have 12 participants on tomorrow’s trip, so I take 13 harnesses and helmets, just in case one extra shows up and wants a go (it has happened before!).
Morning of – 6.30am
I am due to meet the group at 9.00am at the Werribee Gorge car park, so waking fairly early and driving ahead of the traffic is much better than rushing at the last minute. I quickly shower, breakfast and make a coffee-to-go, then blow a kiss goodbye to my wife and my son.
The group has arrived a couple of minutes early and eagerly jump out of their cars and surround me. Once everyone is assembled, I give a short introduction/welcome and outline some basic rules, especially with regards to protecting the environment and then I hand out the harnesses and helmets, and divvy up the gear to be carried amongst the group.
We set off walking, 40 minutes in all. On the way I get to know the group leader and a couple of the participants – it is always interesting hearing where people come from, what work they do and what brought them into the outdoors.
Arriving at the cliff face (we approach from behind and above it), we are greeted with an amazing view over the landscape. While they take in the view and catch their breath from the walk, I explain the basic safety rules when near a cliff face like this – it is critical that helmets are always worn, and nobody approaches closer than 2m from a cliff-top without being tied to a safety rope.
Geoff and I walk to the top and with the equipment left there, I quickly set two large ‘anchor’ systems, dropping long climbing ropes from each of them. That done, I perform a final check and, satisfied, we head back down to the group. It is now just after 10.00am and we’re well on schedule!
After checking everyone’s harnesses, I select 3 of the participants from the group and use them as demonstrators to show the others how belaying and climbing works. This is the bulk of the day’s activity – climbing ‘alone’ isn’t really something that is done very often at all and is very dangerous.
Instead, we employ a rope system using the climber tied to one end, and the ‘belayer’ at the other end acting as a counter-weight. There are methods to make this much easier than it sounds and this is what I am teaching. The third participant in the group is simply a fail-safe backup for the belayer, in case anything unexpected happens.
Lunch time. We all stop at the same time, sitting down out of the way of other climbers to talk and enjoy the packed lunches we brought. Since one of the climbs was significantly easier than the other, everybody had a go and had made it to the top. I offer to move it to a harder climb and everyone agrees.
While everyone else is still eating and relaxing, I am at the top, making the adjustments.
Time to set up the abseil. I leave the group with Geoff and head to the top once again to rig using the last rope. Once done, I call down to ask if one of the groups of 3 would like to try abseiling. One group readily agrees and I get them to meet me at the top with their belay-devices.
I’m not sure about other guides, but for me, Abseiling is one of the more fun activities to run on these guiding days.
One by one, I tie participants into the safety rope and set them up on the abseil line. I coach them slowly through the process of abseiling and, making sure to take some amazing photos for them, I watch as they slowly descend.
Some participants take to abseiling fast, some much slower, and some freeze up near the start and need me to gently coax them into moving again. I am never forceful, always understanding and as a last resort I am always ready to haul them back up to the top or lower them to the ground if they need me to. Either way, Abseiling proves to be one of the more popular activities for the group.
From my vantage point up at the top of the abseil I can simultaneously keep an eye on the larger climbing group with Geoff and the abseilers near me waiting for a turn, all while taking pictures and keeping the abseiler’s safety rope taught. Talk about multi-tasking!
Although I am up there for the whole afternoon, I enjoy myself with the amazing views, the wind in my hair, the delight of taking great photographs and coaching the excited participants through their fear. We continue until all of the participants have had their fill and find themselves tired.
As the participants complete their last climbs for the day, Geoff and I take down the equipment from the top of the cliff, and pack it up, ready to be carried out.
The participants pack their gear and Geoff and I divvy up the group equipment again. We begin the 40 minute walk back to the cars.
I usually find myself surprised that the participants who are chatty on the way back were the ones who were more reserved earlier in the day. Climbing tends to open people up like that. Others who are physically exhausted remain quiet, climbing can be pretty tiring!
We head home, tired but happy with a day’s work done well and a group who enjoyed themselves thoroughly. After I drop Geoff off and head home, there are 2 final tasks to do – I still need to check and sort all of the gear as I unpack it into the gear store, (but over the years I have become pretty efficient at it) and lastly – boot up the computer again, load my camera and prepare the photos for delivering to the clients.
All in all this is a wonderful, rewarding job, although for anyone planning to get into it – getting qualified to this stage is no easy feat!
**This recount from Aaron describes a day he had recently when guiding at Falcon’s Lookout at Werribee Gorge State Park near Bacchus Marsh.