19 April 1937 — 23 June 2020
|Donn Groom on the second ascent of the North West Face |
of Federation Peak 1969 (Photo: Paul Caffyn)
Donn Groom’s pathway to outdoor adventure was almost predetermined in one sense. His father, Arthur, was a pioneering explorer, writer and photographer — a visionary and passionate advocate for the environment who began urging for the preservation of old growth forests and wilderness in southeast Queensland from the late 1920s. Arthur enlisted his own evocative journalism to describe the solo journeys he made into the wild rainforests of the McPherson Range on the Queensland—New South Wales border, illustrated with stunning photographs of remote vistas never before seen by newspaper and magazine readers. Dozens of his articles and images were published from 1929 and it was this body of work, along with the National Parks Association he was instrumental in launching in 1930, that kick-started the environmental movement in Queensland. In 1933, Arthur joined with another staunch conservationist, Romeo Lahey, to set up Binna Burra Lodge as a holiday destination at the edge of what would later become Lamington National Park.
This was Donn Groom’s heritage — and his backyard. He was the eldest of four — with brothers Tony and Richard from his father’s second marriage and sister, Linda, from the third. Donn always regarded his influential father as a mountaineer and explorer rather than a rockclimber and seemed to mould his own life along those lines. Another early influence he acknowledged was Italian maestro Walter Bonatti. Donn read everything he could about that extraordinary mountaineer’s life and even wrote to Bonatti on one occasion, asking him about the belaying techniques he had used when he made his daring solo ascent of the Southwest Pillar of the Dru in the French Alps in 1955. ‘Never got an answer though,’ Donn admitted with a wry smile.
In the early 1950s, he would chase wild goats around the top of the rhyolite cliffs at Binna Burra but eventually found a group of like-minded adventurers in Brisbane, including members of the Brisbane Bush Walkers. He joined them for scrambles in the Glass House Mountains which seemed like ‘peanuts’ after his early exploits on the heights at Binna Burra. Over the next five years or so, he was part of a cohort of early Queensland climbing royalty, including Julie Henry, Neill Lamb and legendary British expatriate climber, Bill Peascod, who joined with Donn and Neill in May 1956 to put up two new routes on the big south face of Beerwah in the Glass House Mountains — Pilgrim’s Progress and Mopoke Slabs.
A week later at the Steamers, near Killarney, the trio put up an innovative new route on the Funnel, calling it Reptile. Neill Lamb’s brief diary notes read: ‘Bill, self and Donn did new route up Funnel. Incident with goanna. Hole in wall, 80 ft chimney. Rapelled down, rope jammed, off at dark.’ It wasn’t the last time Donn’s climbing efforts extended beyond sunset but it was Bill Peascod’s last new route in Queensland — and perhaps ever — as his new pursuit as an artist gradually took over his life.
Donn’s climbing days were abruptly cut short when, as a telephone technician, he was transferred to Cloncurry for four years. It could not be further from his beloved mountains and he was far from happy. But when he returned to Binna Burra in 1965, he made up for lost time by starting the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club It was a major turning point in Queensland (and Australian) climbing history. The club attracted members from four existing southeast Queensland outdoor groups — the Brisbane Bush Walkers (BBW), the University of Queensland Bushwalking Club (UQBWC), the Binna Burra Bushwalking Club and the YMCA Ramblers — and its objectives echoed the philosophy espoused by his father: ‘To rockclimb and instruct interested people in rockclimbing; and to abide by and assist in maintaining conservation laws and create interest and preservation of natural beauty and wild life.’
Les Wood left England seeking work as a geography tutor and discovered both the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club and Donn Groom on his arrival in the Queensland capital, early in 1966:
Donn was then at Binna Burra and seemed to have a perfect life in that he and his brothers had taken over the lodge and they seemed to have two years on and one year off. He was an avid climber and a really nice bloke. We got on very well together and he had a car — I didn’t have one in the early days — so we started going to the Glass House Mountains. I think I’d got a background that was unusual to many of them…Climbing before I left England occupied all my life. It wasn’t like a sport; it was a way of life more than anything.
Meeting Les was a defining moment in Donn's life while Wood recalled that he, too, had found a soul mate: ‘He always seemed to me to be like a big kid. We got on really well together and I always found him to be one of the most gentle people I’ve ever known. He’s so kind, it’s not true. He’s got an attitude to life I wish I could borrow a bit.’ The duo put up a series of visionary climbs in southeast Queensland that remain classics to this day — routes like East Crookneck (free), Clemency and Overexposed. And only then Donn began to look closer to home — he was 28 when he climbed his first new route, Way Out, on the bubbly rhyolite of Binna Burra’s east cliffs with long-time friend, John Larkin. Donn recalled how it all began:
I used to look down on the cliffs for a long time before I realised that they were perhaps climbable. I started with John Larkin doing Alcheringa and did some more with Les [Dislocation, Gravedigger]. I even climbed one with Dick Smith (the electronics man). He called me up a while back and reminded me of it. I don't remember the climb, however, it probably would have been Swansong — that was the only climb I ever took guests from the lodge up.The classy Alcheringa was the hardest route in Queensland in 1966 and soon had an equal in terms of difficulty when Donn teamed up with a youthful Ted Cais to climb Flameout on the Southwest buttress of Crookneck. Ted Cais recalled a failed early attempt on the route with Les Wood: ‘I returned in the heat of November with Donn Groom and he passed the overhang that was Les’s previous high point with two points of aid but took a whipper on an upside-down peg — it held — before figuring out the thin moves above.’
In that same year, Donn orchestrated the first ascent of Mount Barney’s 300 metre East Face with John Tillack and a very hungover Les Wood, who remembers nothing of the climb. Tillack was forced to lasso a tree to overcome the crux although Donn climbed it free as a second. The route is rarely repeated because of its remote, serious and runout nature — a true adventure climb that was at the top of Donn’s list of ‘last great problems’ in southeast Queensland.
It was an extraordinary era in which Donn Groom, Les Wood, Ted Cais and John Tillack together shaped the future of rockclimbing in Queensland — but the next generation was waiting in the wings: Donn introduced his young son, Michael, to Frog Buttress shortly after its discovery in the late 1960s. Around this time, Michael — then five — remembers his father stopping at a lookout of Mount Barney and as they gazed at the view, Donn explained that Mount Everest was about eight times higher. ‘And that has stuck in my head,’ Michael recalls.’ That was the door to the path leading to Everest. It’s just one of those things; it just got into my head and never got out until I climbed it.’
In 1967, Donn headed for Tasmania with friends, John Larkin and Bob Fick, walking the Overland Track and then into Frenchman’s Cap, wrecking their feet in the process. Donn’s resulting article, ‘Scaling Tasmania’s Peaks’, was published in Walkabout that year and included several of his large-format photographs. He had started carrying a heavy 2 1/4 square camera with him, emulating his father whose grandiose images of wilderness helped to inspire the Queensland national parks' movement almost four decades earlier.
I first met Donn Groom 52 years ago on the evening I attended my initial meeting of the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club. I remember him warmly welcoming me, my brother Chris, Greg Sheard and John Shera into the small community of local climbers. John, Chris and I had made the first ascent of the north face of Leaning Peak on Mount Barney a few days earlier and Donn generously acknowledged our achievement. It was an inspiration to meet someone of Donn's stature who welcomed us as friends. Ian Thomas joined the BRC a few years later and although he met and climbed with Donn only a few times over the years, he recalls the influence that he and Les Wood had on his own emerging passion for the heights:
Those early blokes did influence me through their writings and also the very first guide book I think Rick [White] put together for the Glass House Mountains — a little guidebook — and in there was Les Wood and Donn Groom: their names loomed large. Clemency and all those sorts of climbs, Overexposed, Trojan and all the rest of them — they were to me just the pinnacle of horror. You’d shake and quiver in terror thinking about them. They really left me feeling awed. So they were actually inspirational through what they’d done, not through any meetings.In 1969, Donn joined a Brisbane Rockclimbing Club Easter trip to the Warrumbungles, teaming up with the irrepressible Greg Sheard for some memorable moments. Greg recalls one, in particular, as he traversed towards Donn who was belaying him on the first pitch of the Bryden Allen/Ted Batty classic, Out and Beyond:
As Donn was sitting there, he was dropping little pebbles which grew into bigger and bigger rocks. I’d had a bad experience on Tibro and I was a bit anti-dropping rocks but this looked really interesting — and I figured that if Donn Groom could do it, so could I. We ended up reaching the stage where we were taking it turns climbing up a little bit and collecting more rocks, coming back down to the ledge and dropping them over, timing how long they’d take to reach the bottom until we finally heard a lot of screams from below and suddenly discovered that the track actually went underneath us. So we abandoned rock-dropping and continued upwards.Donn was back in Tassie within 12 months, this time with his first wife, Roma, and their two sons, Michael and Terry. They lived for two years in the Berriedale Caravan Park in Hobart and Donn began climbing in earnest, joining the Climbing Club of Tasmania (CCT) and linking up with the likes of Reg Williams, Mike Douglas, John Moore, Tom Terry, Peter Jackson and Phillip Stranger:
We climbed on the Organ Pipes quite a lot — a tremendous atmosphere, quite alpine at times, right above the city of Hobart — and we often got caught in the dark. Later on I climbed with Allen Keller — he was a real bushwhacker that one — a real Crocodile Dundee character with the accent to go with it all! He came from somewhere near Ipswich but I only knew him in Tassie. He was a mad caver as well and I spent a whole weekend underground with him and Paul Caffyn trying to follow some shit of a hidden passage — the weirdest weekend I ever had. I don't particularly like caving and they had me on a couple of times and left me for dead, right when my trog lamp went out in a very nasty spot. You carry an emergency kit of a tobacco tin with a candle, box of matches, and a lamp pricker. You have to clear the jet with the pricker, candle and box of matches. The bastards wouldn't wait for me and I was getting quite panicky in a shit of a tight spot. So weeks later, when the three of us were doing the second ascent of the Blade Ridge and the North West Face on Federation Peak, they made me do the crux chimney pitch even though I hate chimneys! But I decided to get my own back while they were climbing the chimney pitch below me by some spectacular boulder rolling. I managed to scare the shit out of them! We decided to celebrate our climb of Federation when we got back to Hobart and went up to the Organ Pipes — drank a bottle of Claret between us and climbed a new route we called Claret Corner, and finished that one in the dark, too.
Over the next few months, he and Paul linked up for a dozen or so new routes on the ‘Pipes but the lure of Frenchman’s Cap remained:
I remember going in to Frenchman’s with Paul one time in shit weather with all sorts of grand notions about climbing new routes on the southeast face and even having a look at the then unclimbed east face. We camped below it for a couple of days in mist and rain listening to waterfalls off the overhangs above. The rain stopped and the mist slowly lifted like a giant curtain on this monstrous white fang of a mountain — it’s made of quartzite — dripping and as slippery as shit. Every foot the mist rose our determination dropped the other way — freaked us out, so we packed up and pissed off home. But I never worried with these sorts of failures — just being there was enough.But the pull of snow and ice prevailed and although his knees were starting to fail with early signs of arthritis, Donn joined a small Climbing Club of Tasmania group, including Reg Williams and Mike Douglas, and headed for New Zealand’s Southern Alps. It was a largely unsatisfying trip, mainly because of bad weather and indecision — until Donn’s adventurous spirit prevailed, devising a shortcut to the summit of Tutoko under a teetering icefall: ‘It took hours off the climb and, in fact, we made it, which felt good.’ He was hooked:
I remember walking up the Matukituki Valley towards Aspiring — not that we had Aspiring in mind just yet — but we hadn’t seen sign of the mountains because they’d been covered by cloud for days. I didn’t really know what a true alpine scene was. Suddenly, as we walked up the main valley, another opened to the right towards Aspiring and we could see this incredible ice fall — a mess of falling ice through a hole in the clouds — nearly freaked me out but I knew, then, I was in the mountains and wanted to do something about it.
He returned to the Southern Alps for a couple of seasons — teaming up variously with George Harris and Robert Staszewski — but either the weather window did not arrive or other obstacles emerged. Close to the summit of Aoraki-Mount Cook on the Zurbriggen Ridge with Rob, they came across an injured Japanese climber and were forced to abandon their attempt so they could organise a rescue. But despite the disappointments, just being in the mountains was enough. Donn recalled a later trip into Everest basecamp with his now mountaineering son, Michael:
As we walked up — hadn’t seen any of the really high ones at all — and I was wondering what all the fuss was about, when around a corner came a bloody monster and once again I felt like I really hadn’t seen mountains before. Of course at that stage, I could do bugger all about it but it was an amazing experience to see the genes through Mike still pushing on in a way and for me, that trip to base camp was one of the most satisfying trips I have had into the mountains anywhere. Alaska was a special place for me, however.
Around 1980, Michael moved to Alaska to live with his father and for 18 months they climbed together, with Michael making several first alpine ascents. Eventually, Donn and his second wife, Mary, decided they would sail back across the Pacific on their yacht with their two young sons, Joshua and Danny. Like climbing, sailing had captured Donn’s imagination:
It seems a lot of climbers become sailors for some reason, so with me and after my knees just wouldn’t work any longer with arthritis, sailing seemed to fit the bill. It’s the same sort of freedom, I guess, especially when you take off as we did, across to New Zealand.They had been dreading the long haul across the Pacific but it was sailing down the west coast of North America that proved to be the most frightening — encountering huge seas, a massive Russian fishing fleet and motoring, exhausted, into a fog-bound West coast port in the dead of night, relying solely on radar for navigation, only to discover next morning they had anchored in the middle of a circular harbour surrounded by hundreds of luxury apartments.
But they didn’t quite make it to Australia, settling in the small North Island community of Taheke, where another of Donn’s innovative visions emerged. They needed a house so he built one himself out of mud bricks. The extraordinary building that resulted was actually scoped as a possible location for Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, Lord of the Rings. Donn designed and installed a hydro electricity system by tapping into a local stream, generating more than enough power for their needs. He and Mary organised workshops for local people interested in adopting the relatively simple, energy-efficient mud brick construction process and ‘Waheke Mud’ was soon well-known in the district and beyond. Donn believed that sharing this low-cost construction method had the potential to ease the housing crisis that bedevils most countries, including New Zealand.
Donn’s love of the sea enticed him to build another, albeit smaller, yacht in his backyard shed — an old-style bay sailer — despite managing to accidentally saw off his left thumb and first finger during construction. The vessel had a relatively short sailing life when it was damaged by another boat which broke its moorings during a storm.
I had drifted away from climbing for two decades while Donn was exploring the world but we reconnected in 2003 when I started gathering material for my book on Australian climbing history — at the same time that I reconnected with rockclimbing. Donn and his former climbing partner, Les Wood, were amongst the first people I wanted to interview. In fact, my inquiries put them back in touch with each other again after a break of more than 30 years. Donn and I exchanged telephone calls and emails across the Tasman and, in his own inimitable way, he outlined his practical and philosophical approach to adventure and the importance of mountain landscapes in his life. A few years later — with both of his dodgy knees now replaced — he returned to Brisbane for a visit and in typical fashion, had agreed to a trip up Mount Barney to test them out. This time three generations of the Groom family — Donn, Michael and Michael’s son, Harry — were there, along with Donn’s longtime climbing partner and friend, John Larkin. Halfway up Logan’s Ridge, Donn asked me to take a photograph of him attempting to climb a small overhang. ‘I’m sending this to my surgeon,’ he laughed. ‘He said I’d never be able to do anything like this again!’
Donn always welcomed others into the close-knit world of climbing and he inspired many of us to explore the outdoors with enthusiasm, passion and humour. What struck me most about him in those early days — and it remained a central part of his character — was his humility. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, I saw him often on my regular visits to the climbing cliff he had developed at Binna Burra. I have strong memories of sharing a late afternoon beer after a day on the rock, our legs dangling over a significant drop beneath the unfenced veranda of his house which was typically built into the side of a cliff. Tragically, bushfires in November last year destroyed both the house and Binna Burra lodge although there are plans to rebuild both.
It was almost almost 50 years ago — two days before Christmas in 1972 — that Donn persuaded Ted Cais and I into joining him on the first descent of the Coomera Gorge from its source. It was a serious and committing canyon that required us to jump or abseil down sizeable waterfalls into deep, dark pools, knowing that it would be extremely difficult or impossible to climb out. Somehow we made it through, using some innovative anchors and I remember Ted’s furrowed brow on more than one occasion as we worked out how to proceed. But with Donn at the helm, it was merely another adventure. He managed to lug his precious Mamiya camera through it all unscathed. The memories of that extraordinary day have remained vivid in my mind.
The term ‘icon’ is bandied around a lot these days but it perfectly describes Donn Groom — the pre-eminent figure in postwar climbing in Queensland — and it reflects the multilayered contributions he has made to broader climbing and mountaineering culture. But Donn was much, much more than a climber — he was a pioneering adventurer, photographer, writer, innovator and sailor, with all of these pursuits and passions imbued with generosity, humility and humour.
Reflecting on his life in 2014, Donn summed up the powerful link between himself and the landscape — and the myriad ways that lives become interconnected, intertwined through shared experiences of the natural world. He wrote:
Dad was a climber of the Bertie Salmon era and also did not use ropes. His sandshoes on extra large feet were almost as tight on him as modern rock shoes, so he had to cut holes to relieve pressure on his toes. This was a trick I used for quite some time until I was introduced to rock boots by Les Wood. Les had a huge influence on my climbing. He was a superb climber brought up in the UK and was influenced by climbers such as Joe Brown and Don Whillans. He used lots of their rock climbing techniques and equipment and introduced these ideas to Queensland climbers. We got along well together, our styles complementing each other. His great climbing ability often had me struggling as I seconded. Occasionally, I was able to help out on the face climbing which I enjoyed. I learnt a lot from Les and was sorry to see our team split up when we went to different parts of the world. Perhaps my greatest satisfaction in the climbing scene was in passing on my love of climbing to my son Michael when he came to visit while I was living in Alaska. Mike was into motocross bike racing at the time, but very frustrated with the expense and fierce competitive atmosphere of the sport. He was looking for something new. At the end of my climbing career, with bad knees and developing arthritis, I took him up a few alpine peaks in Alaska and on his return home to Australia, I gave him crampons and an ice axe for his 21st birthday. Almost the next letter from him had him setting out for Kanchenjunga and a climbing career that I had only dreamt of. While history did not repeat itself exactly, the genetic repetition running through our family certainly did. And, it all started on the sunny crags of Southeast Queensland…