I started rock climbing about three years ago. Since then, I only ventured outside to real rock a handful of times. I learned to climb in a gym. I took day trips or strung a few days together at the Gunks. I thought I was a climber. I was wrong.
The last ten days spent climbing at Castle Hill on New Zealand’s South Island taught me what climbing really is. It’s not a sweaty gym with dubstep blaring and colored plastic blobs marking routes. At Castle Hill, maybe the Mecca of bouldering, its a religious experience.
The two main areas at Castle Hill, Spittle Hill and Quantum Field, contain more than 3000 problems. You could walk around the perimeter of these two areas in less than an hour, but spend weeks examining its many nooks and crannies. That said, climbing there is a trial by fire. Its slabby limestone style demands intense technical climbing and superior balance. Boulderers accustomed to using power in order to overcome technical faults (like me) will have a hard time adjusting to Castle Hill. Brains are just as important as brawn here.
In the gym, foot and handholds are obvious by sight. At Castle Hill, it wasn’t uncommon for us to walk up to a climb well below our grade, drop our stuff and stare at it for a while, flabbergasted. “Huh? This is a V1? Where are the feet?! Are you sure we’re in the right place? There are no feet!” We spent a lot of time rubbing our hands on the rock and mumbling to ourselves, searching for parts of the rock that had more friction than others as a blind person would read braille. Our eyes were useless, we had to read the rock in a different way. Castle Hill makes one’s technical faults obvious.
Of course, any outdoor climbing will be vastly different than indoors. While many gyms (big ups, Brooklyn Boulders) do a great job approximating the outdoor experience with creative features and superior routesetting, nothing can replace the real thing. Footholds that seem tiny in the gym are enormous outside, and instead of being marked by giant stripes of fluorescent tape they’re camouflaged among millions of other tiny bits and blotches. Outside, falls are awkward and less protected; no amount of spotters and crash pads compensate for the huge pads at a gym. Simply topping out on a slabby climb is a skill that you can only get outside. Problems like that just aren’t set in the gym, because most gyms don’t have flat top outs. It’s more dangerous to mantle up on a horizontal slab than just jumping down from a jug, so gyms don’t build those features. Climbing inside can get you in shape physically, but it doesn’t come close to preparing you mentally for climbing outside.
After a few days, we started to trust our feet on tiny dimples and awkward smears. Movement become more efficient as we relied less on power and more on technique. As our time at Castle Hill drew to a close, we were able to send problems at grades harder than we’d ever climbed outside before. It wasn’t easy, but we left Castle Hill more complete climbers. In the end, ten days felt short, and we’re making plans to return soon.
When to go: Like nearly everywhere else, spring and fall have the most consistent temperatures for climbing. We were there in spring and it felt a bit crowded on nice weekend days, but most of the time we had the place to ourselves. It can get busy with families and sightseeing tourists during the summer.
Where to stay: Camp at Craigieburn Forest for $6 per person. Rainwater, a vault toilet, and a picnic shelter are provided. Hot showers are available at Flock Hill Lodge ($5) or a campground in Springfield ($1 for four minutes) Flock Hill Lodge also has backpacker accommodation for $31, or if you’re in a group, rent a house in Castle Hill Village.
Where to eat: The Sheffield Pie Shop has delicious sweet and savory pies. The Supreme (beef, bacon, onion, cracked pepper) and chicken/camembert/spiced apricot were both delicious for around $5. The Darfield Cafe and Bakery has awesome coffee and pastries and is a great place to kick back on a rainy day.
Note: There are no shops within 45 minutes of Castle Hill. Springfield (20 minutes) has a few cafes and gas stations, but you’ll have to go to Darfield for groceries. Load up on peanut butter and broccoli on the way. There’s also a public library in Darfield with a great staff and free wifi.