The 1989 Canterbury Rock guide described the Dunedin rock scene as ‘a soul centre’:
‘With but three lonely crags to feed their physicality, and unfettered by the cosmopolitan influences and competitiveness of a larger centre like Christchurch, its denizens represent the purest expression of the introspective adolescence that lies usually hidden in us all. Going there is a pilgrimage in which climbing rocks is only a minor part . . .
There may be some truth in the put down (although I don’t get the introspective bit), but don’t let that put you off – Dunedin’s charms can be hidden, and not easily revealed.
Bring your surfboard, kayak, fins and mask as well as your rack. Enjoy the crags and their magnificent environment, one of the best kept secrets in the country – Dunedin’s amazing coastline, secluded coves, stunning white sand, laid back locals, shags and oystercatchers, perfect surf and dodging Hooker sea-lions on long committing coastal traverses: maybe climbing is only one part of the experience after all.
The first record of crag climbing around Dunedin dates back to the 1930’s, when groups of Alpine Club members would jump on the tram, don their nailed alpine boots and head for the Silverpeaks. The notorious Big Chimney at Big Rock (access described in Bishop’s ‘From Sea to Silverpeaks’, p85) was the test piece of the time. Big Rock, the other Flagstaff outcrops and Mopanui (another favoured cliff on the hill above Waitati) hold little interest now for rockclimbers of the new millennium.
The Pinnacle–Epicentre of Dunedin Rockclimbing
The pinnacle at Long Beach gained attention in the 50’s and quickly became a training ground for aspiring alpinists. Protection against injury was deemed to be primarily ‘through the skilled use of hand and footholds’, augmented by slings and pitons. In the early 1960s Bob Cunninghame returned from the UK and introduced the use of nuts (originally standard steel engineering nuts with the threads machined out) and other runners, sparking a jump in standards, and culminating in his ascent of Cunninghame’s Crack, the nemesis of many a climber over the years. Laurie Kennedy writes: ‘Bob called it Kindling Crack – on an unsuccessful attempt he had used a wooden wedge (UK style) for protection, and then a week or so later found someone else had half filled the crack with wedges for aid. We went back the next week with a saw to clean up, producing quantities of firewood for the next BBQ.
Bob then used a couple of jammed pebbles to sling runners around and made the first ascent in September 1966. He also incorporated the first girdle traverse of that side of the rock at around the same time. Cunninghame adds – ‘After the effort with the wooden wedges – actually the week after the first ascent – I placed two old soft steel pitons for protection. I really hammered them in so they couldn’t be removed to try to protect the rock. I had an early attempt in March 1966 but found the loose sand and rubble in the crack a bit time consuming and ran out of daylight! I reversed all the way down from the crux.’
The 1970s saw the rise of an influential new generation of Dunedin climbers who made their marks on the NZ climbing scene – Calum Hudson, Murray Judge, Bill Denz, Phil Herron, Merv English and many others who honed their skills on the Pinnacle and Dunedin’s second crag, Mihiwaka, which was developed according to the emerging ‘clean climbing’ ethic, a reaction against pitons and bolting. By then EB’s (specialised rockclimbing shoes) had replaced the alpine boots, and climbers gradually began to realize there was more to climbing than alpinism – and summits.
Hudson was scathing in the OSONZAC newsletter of the time when he found evidence of a piton placement there, ending with the plea, ‘ So please everybody, keep Mihiwaka clean and let’s not have anyone else lowering themselves to the level of this mad basher’. In 1977 a zealot removed all the fixed pitons from the pinnacle, prompting a complaint to the NZAC bulletin that ‘many of the routes were now dangerous, causing a 60 foot fall by one of NZ’s leading rock climbers, resulting in a broken back’. The reference seems to be Calum Hudson’s fall from near the top of End Rib, but he was soloing at the time, so piton removal can hardly be blamed (Hudson also doesn’t recollect major piton removal around that time). Incidentally, Hudson was the founding member of the Long Beach Broken Back Club, which has at least 6 members. Although some examples of rusting ironmongery still decorate the main cliff, the Pinnacle has none – it appears they were never replaced, possibly because Friends came on the market soon after and revolutionised crack protection.
The 1980s – Main Cliff Development
The main cliff cracks had been used for aid climbing practice since the 60’s, but it was not until 1980 that UK master John Allen and his apprentice Dave Fearnley emerged to open the main cliff to free climbing exploration with a couple of epic forays. Next on the scene in the 1980s was Graham Love. Armed with wire brush, crow bar and bolt kit, he picked off the majority of crack lines and the legendary Crime and Punishment. He has to be considered the major influence in the ‘Golden Age’ of Long Beach development, 1983–86.
A young Al Mark found an outlet for his energy and adolescent larrikinism, bolting the faces between the lines with desperate clips and sandbag grades (the 1987 guide lists several Al’s 19s’, which average out at about grade 21) and by 1987 only contrived fill-ins remained to be done, apart from some testpieces from the talented Jeremy Strang/Andy Milne partnership, still the hardest routes in the area ten years later.
The Dark Ages
The new route fever had not died however, and Dunedin climbers desperate for virgin rock turned to the dubious charms of Walkway and Ramset crags and Port Chalmers Quarry (also visited by the Cunninghame-Kennedy team a quarter of a century earlier), which have since thankfully returned to their dank, vegetated original state with only the occasional rusting coach-bolt to mark the labours of Al Mark, Simon Cox, Ross Cullen, Andy MacDonald and others.
With the departure of the major activists from Dunedin in 1988, Greg Aimer set out on a mission to make climbing safe for the masses. He placed bolt anchors along the top of the Pinnacle to create a consumer top-roping area and retrobolted several climbs. His plans to sanitise Long Beach were cut short by his own departure from NZ.
The construction of the NZAC Regent Theatre climbing wall in 1990, a 23m artificial wall with bolt-on holds in the centre of town (now dismantled in 1998 to make way for a phantom multi-levelled carpark) and the opening of the World Fitness Centre indoor climbing wall heralded a trend towards sportclimbing. Many 80’s Long Beach routes quickly became unfashionable as rockclimbers turned their backs on run-outs and natural pro to concentrate on closely spaced bolt protection and technical difficulty. Long Beach was already dated, and the future of Dunedin climbing was now to be in Wanaka and Payne’s Ford.
After nearly a decade’s dormancy in local new crag development, Steve Carr returned to the climbing scene and in 1996 almost singlehandedly developed the Mapoutahi Crag. The quaint Karitane Rock was ‘discovered’ by Marcus Thomas, and in the winter of 1998 Murray Judge, the most indefatigable activist of them all, bolted the Railway Cutting Crag to initiate a wave of development in the Doctor’s Point area which would yield 50 routes in the following 18 months, mainly from Judge, Carr and Dave Brash. The petrol drill and a willingness to climb on less than perfect rock have opened up new horizons in the Dunedin region. The first serious investigations of the Otago Peninsula sea-cliffs have only just begun. Many of the routes, and even whole crags may be of dubious quality, but at least something’s happening now!
Even though 80+ routes have been developed in the last two or three years they are mainly moderate routes, often trad style and put up by 1980s (or 1970s) bred climbers. With the exception of Mike Simpson, the new generation of climbers is still looking elsewhere for their challenges. True, the rock resources here are limited for hard climbing, but perhaps another reason is that the climbs are hard won, requiring exploration and battle with difficult access, poor rock, sea, and lichen. Shortage of cliffs around Dunedin has never been a problem, only climbable rock, and the Judges, Hudsons, Loves, Marks and Carrs of the future will continue to unearth new crags from amongst the choss with the aid of petrol drill and crow bar.
There may be Superbowls here – you’ll have to work to get to and develop them, and the total experience will always be much richer than the climbing experience alone.