Monday, July 06, 2020

Farewell to a pioneering Australian climbing icon

 Donn Graeme Groom 
 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.




Above the Binna Burra cliffs in the early 1960s (Photo: John Larkin)


    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.’




Donn belaying his young son, Terry, on Binna Burra's east cliffs (Photo: Donn Groom)




Donn's son Michael at age five (Photo: Donn Groom)


    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.



On the first pitch of East Crookneck during the first free ascent with Les Wood in 1966 
(Photo: Wendy Straker, Donn Groom collection)


    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.’



Climbing on Tibrogargan in the mid-1960s (Photo: Donn Groom)


    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.’




Paul Caffyn, Donn Groom and Alan Keller on the summit of Federation Peak following their second ascent of the Blade Ridge and North West Face in 1969 (Photo: Paul Caffyn)


    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.


Leading Double Column Central on the Organpipes, 
Mount Wellington, Hobart, 1969 (Photo: Paul Caffyn)


    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.


On the summit of Low Peak, Mount Rolleston, Arthurs Pass National Park, New Zealand, following a winter ascent of the Rome Ridge, 27 September 1975 (Photo: Paul Caffyn)


    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.


Climbing above Rome Gap on a winter ascent of the Rome Ridge on Mount Rolleston, 
Arthurs Pass National Park, New Zealand, 27 September 1975 (Photo: Paul Caffyn)


    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.




The Groom mud brick house at Taheke (Photo: Michael Meadows)


    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!’



Testing his new knees, Logan's Ridge, Mount Barney, March 2007 (Photo: Michael Meadows)


    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.



With his trusty Mamiya 2 1/4 square camera in the Coomera River, 23 December 1972 
(Photo Michael Meadows)




Abseilng into the unknown with Ted Cais watching on the first descent 
of the Coomera Gorge, 23 December 1972 (Photo: Michael Meadows)


    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.



Mount Geryon, Du Cane Range, Central Highlands of Tasmania (Photo: Donn Groom)


    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…

Monday, May 25, 2020

Limits of the known -- book review by Paul Caffyn

Title:  Limits of the Known
Author: David Roberts
Published: 2018
Publisher: W.W. Norton UK
Website: www.wwnorton.com
Contents: 306 pp; no photos, 2 maps
Cover: hardbound
Price: $36.46 Book Depository UK
ISBN: 978-0-393-60986-8
Review: Paul Caffyn





David Roberts is not a bad mountaineering adventure writer. His first book titled The Mountain of My Fear was published in 1966, a gripping yarn of four young university students having a go at the committing west face of Mt Huntington in a remote Alaskan range.  From that classic tome of a first blooding with a serious face climb, he went on to author another 27 books about mountaineering, polar exploration, history and anthropology. The closest one to New Zealand being an account of Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expedition and his incredible survival story (Alone on the Ice  2013).

His latest book and sadly probably his last, is an exploration of what drives the human race to tackle adventures. A prologue relates a 2015 trip by the two surviving members of that first 1966 Alaskan mission back to Talkeetna marking the 50th anniversary of the climb. Talkeetna is an end of road accessible airstrip from where climbers gather to wait for weather to fly in for climbing the likes of McKinley (Denali) or unclimbed virgins.

David noticed a lump on the side of his neck but is assured by his mate it is only a cyst. However, it is not a cyst, and back in the big smoke, a round of scans and biopsies reveal aggressive throat cancer. Rounds of both chemotherapy and radiation leave him a shadow of his former self, barely able to walk a city block with the aid of a stick.

After the initial prologue, David moves onto an assessment of Fridtjof Nansen and what drove him to design a boat what would survive crushing in the Arctic Ice and lead the Fram expedition, which involved sailing the vessel into the ice north of Bering Strait, and then hoping the westward drift of the ice pack would take Fram closer to the North Pole than any other expedition had been. Once Nansen realized the drift would not take them anywhere near the pole, he set off with one companion, a dog team, provisions for a couple of months and two collapsible kayaks. Nansen was keen to attain the North Pole. Long story, but it is a remarkable eight-month story of survival in a winter wasteland of ice. And the Fram eventually was released from the ice pack’s clutches, returning to Norway not long after Nansen and Johansen also returned to civilization.

The second chapter is titled Blank on the Map and if you have read the book by the same name, it is about Eric Shipton and what drove him to his ‘untraveled world’ of Asian mountain ranges, glaciers and valleys that had not been previously sighted by Westerners. Shipton was a member of five Mount Everest expeditions between 1933 and 1951 but didn’t have much time for the big military style organized mountain conquests. Shipton and his mate Bill Tilman pioneered the lightweight expedition style. ‘If it couldn’t be planned on the back of an envelope, it wasn’t worth doing’.

Although I was expecting further chapters on more of the most famous adventurer/explorers, David Roberts moves onto a burgeoning interest in the ancient cliff dwellers of the USA south-west, the people who ground steps out of steep sandstone buttresses providing access to granaries and where they lived. Roberts wrote several books about his research into the remote gorges and mesas, but this seemed to diverge from what I saw as the overall slant of the book, what drove adventurers to do what they did.

The First Descent chapter was of more interest to me, with tales of white-water and rafting adventures that David was tasked to cover as a writer. Particularly in this chapter he writes about how the degree of commitment with expeditions has changed, from the 50s and 60s when even a written letter may have taken months to reach civilization and chance of rescue was zilch, to these days with blogs updated nightly with photos and text and a helicopter evacuation is only a sat phone call away.

The First Contact chapter has much on gold exploration in New Guinea in the 30s, and how the natives viewed sometimes quite savage encounters with the white miners.  The Undiscovered Earth chapter is about caving and the challenge of seeking the deepest (and the longest) hole in the world. New Zealand’s big caves don’t rate a mention but having been the geologist on a 1973 expedition to the highlands of western New Guinea, which was tagged ‘The Search for the Deepest Hole in the World’, I thoroughly enjoyed being brought up to date with the international challenge to get a depth record.

His last chapter titled The Future of Exploration pulls all the threads together, his terrible time with treatment for the throat cancer and the evil cancer metastasis into lung nodules. Writing seems to be his salvation from a physical body slowing down, even though he can’t type anymore and has to either write long hand or dictate to his wife Sharon. The last few paragraphs are tear jerkers.

Apart from an author mugshot on the inside of the dustjacket, there are no photos at all, just two rather small-scale maps that you need a microscope to read the place names.

With most of David Robert’s mountaineering and polar books in my collection, I thoroughly enjoyed his new tome, though saddened and sympathetic to learn of his fight with cancer.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Farewell to a quiet achiever...

Rudolf Edmund 'Ted' Cais

12 November 1947 — 20 December 2019


Ted in fine form at Frog Buttress in 1998 (Michael Meadows collection)


From his first tentative steps on to the rock as a teenager in south-east Queensland in 1960 until he emigrated to the USA in 1974, Ted Cais pushed Australian climbing standards to new heights. Although not as adept at — or indeed as interested in — marketing his personal achievements like some of his peers, he nevertheless leaves behind an unforgettable legacy of bold and visionary climbing routes, but perhaps more importantly, layers of camaraderie and personal experience that extend well beyond climbing into everyday life.

Perhaps the major influence on Ted's early life was his father, Rudi, who fled Czechosolvakia as a university student when the Nazis invaded during World War II. He fought in the free Czech forces before escaping to England to join a tank regiment and it was there that he met Ted's mother, Joy. They married and moved back to Prague after the war where Ted was born in an army hospital. But when the communists took control of the country in 1948, life became difficult for Rudi because of his background. It was then that they managed to emigrate to Australia where Ted — who would be their only child — recalled days living on a cattle station in Queensland’s Gulf Country:
There I had a gentle old mare to ride about on, bare backed of course, lethal snakes to avoid, giant spiders dropping off the ceiling at night, crocodiles lurking in the fresh-water creek, hot sand with bindi-eye stickers to cross barefoot, brilliant stars like never before or since, and suffocating, humid heat. The galvanized iron roof would creak and crack ominously at night during contraction after the blazing sub-tropical sun set. There was no electricity so our lighting was by acetylene lamps; a primitive outpost that by its very nature built self-reliance.
In 1955, the Cais family moved to Brisbane where Rudi — a skilled carpenter — built the family a house at Mt Gravatt, then on the fringes of the capital. Ted's father worked as a taxi driver for most of his life in Brisbane. He was a voracious reader and could debate anyone on almost any topic from economics to the Markoff chain — a mathematical probability theory that started Ted off on his own successful career as a research chemist. Rudi was a brilliant chess player — teaching Ted the art — and on Sundays when a group (including expatriate British climber Les Wood) would gather at the Cais family home — then at West End — Rudi would deliver food to them every few hours while he played chess with up to six different opponents simultaneously. It was around this time — the mid-1960s — that climbing started to feature more prominently in Ted's life. But in his own words, his interest in outdoor adventures began some years earlier with a chance meeting:
Around 1960 I was introduced to Bert (Albert Armitage) Salmon who kindly passed on his trove of knowledge about the Glass House Mountains, Scenic Rim and walking tracks around the Binna Burra and O'Reilly's lodges on the Lamington Plateau. Walking was a simple affair, outfitted with an army surplus canvas satchel and sandshoes. We had no GPS, cell phone, walking poles, rescue choppers or other conveniences now deemed necessary for a safe outdoors experience. Our bush icons were Bernard O'Reilly and Arthur Groom, and I still have their classic books, Green Mountains and Cullenbenbong and One Mountain After Another. They were early recreational explorers naturally imbued with a love of the land and rugged pioneer spirit so thought little of heading off solo into the unknown with just a few supplies on their back. We were slightly better equipped through Paddy Pallin whose gear was available at the Scout Shop in the Valley although not as cheap as army surplus. Canvas and cotton (waxed or oiled) were still the best materials at the time and I remember my first Hotham down bag that ensured toasty nights.
Undoubtedly influenced by Salmon, on 9 October 1960 — a few weeks before his 13th birthday — Ted made a solo ascent of Crookneck's steep, loose, crumbling North Face. It was the first ascent route by Harry Mikalsen in 1910 and this information would have almost certainly been passed on by Salmon. Ted recalls the moment:
My dad knew Czechoslovakian emigre farmers who scrabbled an existence out of a pineapple farm in the Glasshouse mountains and we often visited them. Something about the gnarly scowl and impressive rock wave feature shimmering through the heat haze halfway up Crookneck's north-west side proved irresistible. The basic desire was not so much technical rock gymnastics but getting to the summit of these enigmatic rock monoliths. After all, I had to find out what was on top! I repeated this solo ascent at least five more times and the most memorable one was just after a bushfire had raged over the entire mountain rendering the grass trees along the summit ridge into smouldering blackened stumps. They survived of course and will outlast all of us. To this day the scent of burning bush has a most evocative effect.

  Climbing as a teenager in the Glass House Mountains (Ted Cais collection)


His first climb with Bert Salmon was the East Face of Beerwah in the Glass House Mountains on 14 October 1961. Over the next several years, Salmon introduced the eager young adventurer to all of the easily accessible summits in south-east Queensland. But by 1964, Ted began to drift away from his mentor’s influence. He joined the YMCA Ramblers bushwalking club to continue his fascination with south-east Queensland crags and to extend his climbing skills on the Kangaroo Point training cliffs using a safety rope — something Salmon frowned upon as unethical. During his undergraduate years, he joined the influential University of Queensland Bushwalking Club (UQBWC) where he met others who would help to shape his pathway into climbing:
I also teamed up with Craig Rowley and Dennis Stocks for ascents of the Mast [The Steamers] and Glennies [Pulpit] and later climbed with Hugh Pechey who was president of the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club in 1965. Bert’s legacy stayed with me for some time but in some respects inhibited my development since it was hard to lead the more difficult climbs of the day with the 'no fall' maxim he imbued. This conservative approach required three static points of contact with the rock at all time limiting climbing to about grade 12. My new heroes became Ron Cox and Pat Conaghan of the UQBWC whose exploits I read about in the annual UQBWC magazine, Heybob. I then started climbing with John Tillack when I was an undergraduate at the University of Queensland and my standard accelerated to keep up with his natural ability.

Despite his break with Salmon, Ted always respected his mentor’s willingness to share his knowledge and passion of the Queensland bush:
He bequeathed me his priceless collection of photograph albums and I am ashamed to have let these disappear in some dusty archive … they properly belong in a Queensland historical archive.
It is a request — voiced again during his last days — that remains to be fulfilled.

Bert Salmon was one of three major climbing influences Ted identified in his life. The second was expatriate British climber, Les Wood. Les spent just 12 months in Queensland in 1966 and pushed climbing limits here to the equal of anything in the country. It was at this time that Ted began to realise his ambition and abilities as a climber and Les was one who encouraged him to follow his passion. Les recalls that young Ted wasn’t into climbing all that much when they first met in 1966 — but by year’s end, things had changed significantly. Ted re-calls the shift:
Les taught me boldness even though we did only about a dozen climbs together during 1966, his single year of influence, when he coaxed me upwards into the grade 16 zone. He brought his experience of British climbing to Australia and quickly applied this by pushing standards in the Glasshouses.
Les had the same effect on a young Ron Farmer and others including Lance Rutherford, when they met by chance on the East Face of Tibrogargan.

Donn Groom was a central figure in Queensland climbing culture at this time. One of the founding members of the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club (BRC) in 1965, he partnered Les on many of his memorable and still classic new routes around south-east Queensland. But when Donn left for an extended climbing trip to Tasmania, Ted linked up with Les for a blitzkrieg of memorable second ascents, including the imposing East Crookneck — their first climb together. It was a route that Les and Donn had climbed virtually free a few months earlier. Next was Clemency on the east face of Tibrogargan — 'a very competent lead', according to the perfunctory notes in Les Wood’s diary. Coming from the circumspect Brit, it was the ultimate compliment. Ted later described the challenges of climbing Clemency and its significance at the time:
The lousy protection, thoughtful balance moves, difficult route finding and problematic escape make it a memorable classic in the grade. At the time it was a tour de force and rivalled Lieben on Crater Bluff in the Warrumbungles as a breakthrough.

Repeating Clemency with Greg Sheard in the late 1990s (Michael Meadows collection)


After Clemency: (from left) Ted, Greg Sheard, Ron Farmer, Bryden Cais (Michael Meadows collection)


The impacts on his life and climbing ambitions extended beyond south-east Queensland:
At this time other huge influences by their accomplishments and writings were Bryden Allen with his guide, Rockclimbs of NSW, and John Ewbank with his articles in Thrutch. Lieben (17) and Heartstopper (18) became the ultimate hard routes to aspire to. Our ropes were still laid (twisted cable) nylon and we usually carried a Stubai peg hammer with half a dozen blades and channels. Under Les's influence we also started supplementing this vast rack with brass machine nuts and ball-bearing races threaded on rope as our first primitive chocks.
When the fledgling Brisbane Rockclimbing Club published its collection of archival documents at the end of 1966, Ted's name was on 13 of the 45 listed climbing trip reports — the highest single contributor — including a range of second ascents and new exploratory routes in the Glasshouses, Binna Burra and The Steamers. He swung leads with Donn Groom on the first free ascents of Queensland’s hardest climbs — Donn’s own routes, Alcheringa at Binna Burra, and Flameout on the south west buttress of Crookneck. Ted had emerged not only as a leading, enthusiastic and skilled climber, but also as an accomplished writer and artist with many of the BRC climbing guide sheets over ensuing years a result of his careful and creative hand. His penchant for producing pithy cartoons of various moments was a testament to his wide-ranging creative skills. But it was climbing that was increasingly taking up more of his time:
A dilemma that surfaced fully around this period was the conflict of continuing university to become a research scientist (my dad's dream) versus dropping out to be a full time climber (my dream). My intense mental dedication to climbing in 1966 caused me to have to repeat second year at University in 1967. And so this cycle continued with my oscillation from periods of hard climbing only to retire, hit the books, struggle through final exams and then back to bushwalking as a prelude to getting into shape for climbing again.

A bold 'lead' of Olos at Kangaroo Point in 1968 (Ted Cais collection)

On 7 January 1968, his climbing ambitions received another major fillip when he met Rick White, crossing paths at the Kangaroo Point cliffs. Immensely fit and strong after a summer of working as a labourer, Ted virtually soloed Cox's Overhang that day, using just one runner and impressing those of us present with his steely resolve and the power to do one-arm chin-ups. He soloed Olos around this time as well and led the fiery Pterodactyl (18) on sight with Dave Reeve, inspiring a blossoming of new routes at KP which, since the late 1940s, had always been considered a practice cliff. This visionary shift resulted in it eventually becoming a popular sports climbing destination. But as Ted recalled in 2002, it was Rick White who pushed him to greater heights:
Rick taught me mental stamina. Although I had raw power and technique I still suffered a nervous disposition lacking enough self confidence to fulfill my true potential. Rick on the other hand was tough and blessed with vision and mental drive. I drifted with the tide vacillating between climbing and studies but he had a plan with goals and worked to achieve them. We complemented each other well and several times on new routes I would figure out the technical moves only to back off and have Rick punch the route through to the finish. More often we were friendly rivals and I usually was the first one to repeat Rick’s new routes at Frog Buttress, although Barry Overs filled this role for a while.
His first major new route with Rick was the classic jamB crack, Infinity (19) at the newly-discovered crag, Frog Buttress, on 7 December 1968. It is akin to the classic Eternity at Wirindi in the Blue Mountains. Ted always had his own strong ideas about climbing and its broader connection with bushwalking and the environment and this passion compelled him to seek out more challenging and inaccessible destinations rather than being content with ticking off new routes at Frog Buttress. He readily joined with other climbers of the era for various adventures including the authors, Greg Sheard, Ian Cameron, Lance Rutherford, Ross 'Cecil' Allen and John Leah.

 He was always up for an adventure: Red Rock Gorge, Black Canyon, Lamington National Park, 1969 (Michael Meadows collection)


Ted supported Rick White's introduction of a clean climbing ethic into Queensland, coinciding with the increasing availability of jamB protection, aluminium 'crackers' initially made and sold by John Ewbank, later replaced by the lighter and better designed American Chouinard hexentrics. This period — in the late 1960s — saw Ted re-thinking his 'old-school' approach to climbing.
I finally started systematic training for climbing mostly with free weights as an extension of my olympic weightlifting at University. These weights were home made from 1 inch [2.5 cm] steel discs cut out to make portholes in ships' plates that we 'borrowed' from a local shipyard. Hundreds of pounds of these unwieldy monsters were clandestinely dragged through the impossible slime of the Brisbane riverbank mud and into a small getaway row-boat that almost sank under the excess ballast. We also started circuit training at the University gym (a curious British commando regimen, it seemed) and eventually enjoyed true bouldering on the rough gritstone of the Tarragindi boulders.
Ron, a fellow student, accompanied Ted on these training activities. Ted had such power that usually he could complete each exercise set twice in the time Ron did one. It was typical of Ted's generosity that he saved one exercise until last. This required ascending a thick old rope hand-over-hand style without using legs for assistance and where Ted always lost. His weight-lifting skills were unexpectedly called into action on one of several exploratory trips to recce a possible new route on the north face of Mount Warning where the longest climb in Australia, Lost Boys, was later established. Ted stopped for a beer at the Tyalgum pub where he proceeded to deadlift a huge boulder from the floor onto the bar, thereby winning a free beer, much to the chagrin of the wide-eyed locals.

Rick White had moved onto the big walls in preparation for his historic Yosemite visit, still some years away, but Ted always considered his forte to be short, highly technical routes. He also dabbled with aid climbing over the years but saw it as far too restrictive. His new aid routes included KP's Hanger Wall (with Neil Lamb and Pat Conaghan in 1966), the first pitch of the Beerwah bolt route (with Pete Giles in 1967), Barnacle Buttress and Wages of Fear (both in 1968 at KP with Pete Giles and John Pickard respectively) and finally a quartzite roof in Brisbane’s western suburbs, Tarantula.

But Ted’s love of exploration — with a climbing edge — always seemed to have more pull, luring him back to rarely-visited slopes and faces in the Glasshouses and elsewhere for potential routes — or merely for the experience. It was how he discovered Queensland’s second longest climb — Dreadnought — a multi-pitch trad route:
Located on the south-east wall of Tibrogargan and a wonderful first-ascent outing in May 1970 with my longtime friend Mike Meadows. Actually I coveted a new route up the steeper and blanker section to the right that I was already calling Microjug Wall. Still, Dreadnought was more reasonable fun even though we found old engine valves driven in the lower section from some past failed attempt. Mike even led a tricky bit after I backed off but after that I got revving and everything fell in place.
On that climb, Ted and Michael camped in Cave Two on Tibrogargan overnight and it was there that they met a youthful Ian Thomas for the first time. The friendships forged on that day have remained strong ever since. Earlier that year Ted joined Donn Groom and Michael Meadows for a committing  first descent of the Coomera Gorge from its source.

For all of us at this time, climbing was inexorably embedded in a passion for various forms of motor transport, with Ted often leading the charge:
Other interesting diversions for me included exotic motorcycles such as the Velocette Clubman, CZ scrambler and pristine Matchless 500 single I fully restored. The Meadows brothers also got me into rallying and I cultivated an affection for old Peugeot cars, particularly the 203. Rally-proficient cars featured prominently in the early Frog exploration days as the access road was dirt with several pinches that became extremely challenging in the wet. Rick too was not mainstream in his choice of vehicles and in particular his classic Citroen Light 15 was just the ticket to blast up the greasy clay hill in reverse as the final recourse to getting in.
Ted thoroughly enjoyed exploratory four wheel drive trips with Ron during their time together as PhD students in Chemistry. These ranged from what is now called Red Cliffs through the lower Glass House Mountains peaks and on extended trips to places such as Double Island Point and Fraser Island. Ted tackled photography with the same intensity and perfectionism characteristic of his other activities and a wide range of high quality camera brands — Leica, Rollei, Miranda — came into contact with the pair of white silk gloves he always insisted on wearing to protect them.


 White silk gloves always kept his cameras clean, regardless of the rest of his body (Michael Meadows collection)


 Astride his immaculately-restored Velocette Clubman (Ted Cais collection)


Back on the rock, he joined with Rick to open a new climbing area on the south eastern flank of Mount Maroon — Maggies Farm — climbing several hard new routes there on the mixed cracks and faces. Australia’s first national climbing meet at Porter’s Pass in the Blue Mountains at Easter, 1973, saw Ted demonstrate his expertise as the first Queensland climber up several Mount Piddington classic routes. One stand-out was his second ascent of the 'spooky' Ewbank wall climb, The Minotaur. In the lead-up to the Blue Mountains trip, Ted and Rick had partnered to climb several imposing new routes at Frog Buttress — Black Light, Child in Time and Badfinger — as well as making the first clean ascents of Odin, Erg and Pollux.

 Ian Thomas lured into abseiling from a very rusty bolt with frayed blind cord from Ted's Indooroopilly house veranda with Michael Meadows looking on (Ted Cais collection)

After Porter’s Pass, Rick headed off to Yosemite and in other climbing directions with Ted seeking out new regular climbing companions: ‘I started climbing more with the feisty Humzoo  (Ian Thomas) who approximated Don Whillans in build and temperament (at least according to what we read about Whillans).’

 Ian Thomas and Ted contemplate another memorable FFA at Frog Buttress in 1973 (Ted Cais collection)
 
The combination seemed to encourage Ted's penchant for pranks to new heights and his close friends — including all three authors — suffered multiple indiscretions over the years from electrified doorknobs, a dead cat down a chimney, rotting crab shells hidden under a rear car seat at the height of summer (the car had to be sold as scrap!), holes punched through plaster walls, dousing a motorbike helmet with the foul-smelling and highly inflammable ethyl mercaptan, being left behind to survive on pippies on some remote beach, unexpectedly pushed into hedges, and the inevitable avalanche of dirt, leaves and twigs that would shower down on his climbing partners as they negotiated the crux of a route — all accompanied by his maniacal laughter. Strangely, his appetite for humour seemed to evaporate when the tables were turned!

The young chemist in his laboratory preparing another evil concoction to test out on his 'mates' (Michael Meadows collection)

Ted, Ron and Michael once went in search of a lost aeroplane around the southern side of Mt Lindesay, ending up climbing to the summit and down to a shelf on the south-west side for lunch, watching the eagles soar beneath. On returning to Ted's Indooroopilly house, he decided he needed to top up the liquid nitrogen in one of his experiments, so they took off for the university via the local dump for some makeshift rally driving in his Peugeot 203 on a dirt, glass-covered track that encircled the tip. Ted thought that Ron’s predicament of being thrown around on a petrol drum seat in the back while the back doors flew open was hilarious. A few wide bridging moves saved the day. They had wondered why Ted's housemate and fellow scientist Mark Sceats had not joined them: now they knew! Several unsuspecting visiting interstate climbers were also lured into a circuit of the dump in the back of Ted's Peugeot (sans seating) on more than one occasion.

 Another trip to the Indooroopilly dump for spurious reasons (Ted Cais collection)

Before he left Australia, significant first and second ascents abound: think about climbs like Clockwork Orange, Venom, Juggernaut and many more — lots more. Observers were always astounded at his strength and his technical footwork. On 6 April 1974 as he was about to launch into the final stages of his PhD — a complex mathematical treatise on polymers — he made his last Australian climb before emigrating to the USA: the first free lead of Rick White’s Conquistador at Frog Buttress, Queensland’s first grade 21:
After that I hung up my boots and made the final concerted effort to finish my PhD and depart for America to become a permanent exile. There I met John Stannard who was the last major influence on my climbing. He was a reticent purist whose efforts defined the Shawangunks as the Eastern-U.S. haven for adventure trad climbers but then this chapter of my life is another story.
Ted's PhD Thesis, 'The copolymerization of vinyl chloride with sulphur dioxide', was monumental in size, as well as comprehensive in both theoretical and experimental accomplishments.

But away from the research labs in the US, he soon established his reputation as a climber of note in the 'Gunks where his partner was the legendary John Stannard, 'Hot' Henry Barber’s muse. Ted managed a fine ascent of the amazing Foops — a climb akin to Kachoong at Mount Arapiles — but on steroids! He was admired by the uber-hero of bouldering, John Gill, the person who invented that modern, extreme incarnation of the sport, by introducing a training and gymnastics' attitude to ascents — an approach that was right up Ted's alley. One of Ted's old climbing mates from his Australian days, George Harrison, also joined him for some climbing in the ‘Gunks.

Ted's day job was as a research chemist, specialising in the development of compounds which stung, stank or stained and all three of us — his close ‘mates’ — unwittingly became experimental subjects before he left Australian shores! In the USA, he initially worked for Bell Laboratories, later moving to Mitsubishi Chemical America. As his research and development expertise continued to expand, he produced seven patented products and processes as the lead inventor. One of these was for work done at Bell Laboratories with the rest resulting from his work with Mitsubishi. After Xerox was forced to license its patents, he was involved in research that extending photocopying technology. Ted's other patents were also applicable to this field. He published a considerable body of academic work in peer reviewed professional literature, two with Ron as a co-author. Ted's published papers rose from two in 1975 to a peak in 1984, followed by the typical slow decline as he became a senior researcher with expanded responsibilities. His last paper in polymer chemistry was published in 2001. His most heavily referenced paper has had 198 citations.

Despite his scientific achievements, his passion for climbing and outdoor adventure was never far away. On a return holiday visit to Australia in 1980, he roped two of the authors (Michael and Ron) into an attempt on Vidler’s Chimney on the eastern side of Mount Lindesay. Climbed just once before in 1954 by a team of four (including John Comino) from UQBWC, Ted had obsessed about a second ascent. Needless to say, the almost vertical, loose dirt slopes inside the chimney, coupled with endless rope tangles, soon dissuaded us from pursuing it beyond the second pitch. But it was another adventure and it summed up Ted Cais to a tee.


 On the slopes of Mount Lindesay in 1980 (Michael Meadows collection)

His regular visits back to Queensland every few years saw him link up with his old climbing buddies (and some new ones) for a day or two on the rock. His level of fitness and strength seemed to remain at an extraordinarily high level throughout that time, stemming from his consistent climbing activity across the Pacific:
During a visit back to Australia in 1987 I was in my best climbing form ever, having worked up to the 5.12s in the ‘Gunks. So I had this glorious day with Rick and Mike at Frog under a perfect blue Queensland sky cruising up some classics awash in waves of nostalgia watching Cap’n Fists jam away like in some time warp and wishing I could stay. One always appreciates things more by their absence.

 He was always at home on fierce, technical crimpers (Michael Meadows collection)


On other trips he revisited Clemency with Greg Sheard and in May 2003, after a warm up at Kangaroo Point, attempted Air Time over Pumistone with Phil Box, followed a few days later by a trip to Glennies Pulpit for a wonderful day out. Michele, Rick, Cass Crane, Cameron Featherstone and Phil participated in some of these adventures.

Typically, Ted always felt that some of his more memorable climbs were those that he never completed once musing: 'It is often instructive to learn from our failures as success only seems to confirm our bad habits.' He was a self-confessed follower of the ethics of the period rather than a trendsetter but like Frog Buttress’s principal developer — Rick White — railed against bolts being used there. He believed to the end that the possibility of keeping it as Australia’s great clean-climbing crag was an opportunity lost.

Ted Cais was always more concerned with quality — of the moment, the experience, the friendships — rather than quantity. He never publicised his climbing achievements, always valuing camaraderie above all else. The climb was most often secondary to the strong relationships he maintained despite spending the last decades of his life on the other side of the world. He had a confident personal philosophy that enabled him to make sense of his life experiences, even including those infuriating pranks directed at his closest friends. A deeply intellectual thinker, he was aware of global trends and when he retired, sought out a simple life in Arizona with his second wife, Michele, and their beloved dogs. He once wrote: 'One great maxim of life is to "know thyself" and climbing is an excellent medium for attaining self knowledge by training the quiet mind. Fitness and mental equilibrium are added benefits that enhance the quality of life.'

His pancreatic cancer diagnosis came barely five weeks before his death. In typical style, Ted shared with his family and close friends his decision to eschew chemotherapy because of the scientific uncertainties around its curative claims coupled with the medical certainty of the inevitable poor quality of life that would ensue. To the very end he was lucid, sharp-witted and as always, offered a brutally honest yet skilfully adept take on current issues. Ian Thomas was one of the few of his Australian mates who visited him several times in his modest home in Benson and Ted’s appreciation was patently obvious — devising a particularly intricate prank that resulted in Ian falling from a boulder problem into a patch of spiny cactus and rolling into the foul-smelling den of a pack of Javelinas, creatures with the longest canines of any mammal in North America: an ultimate acknowledgement of friendship!

 A reunion at the Dugandan Hotel near Frog Buttress in 1998
(from left) Michael Meadows, Ted, Greg Sheard and Ian 'Humzoo' Thomas (Michael Meadows collection)

Despite the decades and tens of thousands of kilometres that separated us, whenever any of us spoke to him either in person or electronically, it was as if we had seen each other barely days before. He maintained a strong email correspondence with several long-time friends and the contents of these covered a broad range of topics. Each topic was treated with customary thoroughness and depth. They are truly a rare treasure to those blessed with his thoughtfulness and strength of spirit. And when we sat together after a day’s climbing on the verandah of the Dugandan Hotel on one of his Australian visits, the memories and stories flowed freely — like the cold beer. It was as if he had never left and to an extent, remains so. Indeed, it was one of these moments that was the catalyst that led to the research and writing of the Australian climbing history book, The Living Rock.

He is survived by his first wife Kirsten, their two children Bryden and Carly, and his second wife, Michele.

 A recent picture of Ted with one of his many epicurean passions -- cheese (Michele Cais collection)

His passing is a reminder of the significance of an extraordinary period in Australian climbing history in which he played a central role. It is particularly poignant as those characters who defined that era are gradually slipping away. Despite his long physical absence from these shores, Ted’s contribution to Australian climbing culture should be remembered for what it was — a visionary, far-reaching impact that placed people and experiences above all else. He never sought the limelight and yet his achievements and influence deserve as much recognition as anyone of that era.

Ted Cais is arguably the best unknown climber that Australia has ever produced. A high-achieving scientist who craved adventure. He thought deeply about ethics. He worked out. He was a master boulderer. He was an off-width monster. He was an aggressive prankster with a one-sided sense of humour. And he was our good mate.

Rest in peace ‘cobber’.

Ian Thomas, Ron Farmer and Michael Meadows

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Between the persona and the private


John Theodore Comino

Born: Brisbane, 2 June 1929

Died: Brisbane, 16 January 2019



John Comino (left) and Jon Stephenson on the summit of The Thumb, Hinchinbrook Island, following their first ascent in 1953 (Photo: Geoff Broadbent)

It was only recently that I learned of the death of John Comino at age 89, an innovative and pioneering climber-bushwalker, who pushed the boundaries of the possible during an intense period of outdoor activity in 1950’s postwar Queensland. John was an integral part of a small core of adventurers who formed the influential University of Queensland Bushwalking Club (UQBWC) in 1950. Along with my peers and, I suspect, many others, I was lured into the world of bushwalking and climbing by reading the exploits of John and his cohort in the pages of the UQBWC magazine, Heybob. We planned our local forays into the Southeast Queensland wilderness based on the vivid accounts of first ascents and dramatic events, but more often, encouraged by the engaging perceptions of landscape and environment and our place in it.Although I did not know him personally, I’ve drawn together these memories from a series of interviews with him between 1999 and 2003. 
When I first spoke to John Comino 20 years ago about those halcyon years, he recalled the precise set of circumstances that led to the formation of UQBWC. In December 1949, he was attending a UQ Science Camp near Mount Coolum on the Sunshine Coast when a fellow student, Jon Stephenson, asked him if he wanted to climb to the top of the low-lying peak. It was the view from the summit that day that triggered something inside John to pursue the heights with a vengeance.
As a result of that Science Camp and people picking around the bush — and we were happy about the climb up east Coolum — we decided we’d form a bushwalking club. Now I’d heard of bushwalking in 1946 from Ross Barber and Graham Jarrott — a remarkable photographer. They were telling me about how they went bushwalking. And I said, ‘What do you want to walk in the bush for? What’s this in aid of?’ And I thought, ‘What a waste of bloody time.’ That was my first introduction to the name bushwalking.
Despite his early misgivings, in the first few months of 1950, he and others — including Dave Stewart, Stephanie Henson, Ian McLeod, Geoff Broadbent, Bob Waring, Sid Williams and Jon Stephenson — formed the UQBWC. The original idea was to have a small group of about a dozen keen walkers — but the first trip to Mount Elphinstone at Brookfield attracted around 120 people! Jon Stephenson decided to ‘prune back’ the numbers by climbing the mountain at breakneck speed — and it worked as John recalled:
I think a lot of them thought it was going to be little boysies and girlsies holding hands tiptoeing through the tulips but this was not the idea at all from our point of view. So those with the wrong idea found that it was very difficult physically because we were virtually running. We moved very fast and had to deplete them by attrition. That diminished the number from 120 down to about 30, maybe 20.
It was the start of an extraordinary chain of events that set up the framework for the development of postwar climbing and bushwalking in Queensland. Bert Salmon had dominated the climbing and walking scene between the wars but John sensed that a changing of the guard was imminent:
Bertie Salmon used to have the Alpine Journal — he had every issue of the Alpine Journal since it was first published bar one issue and he was quite proud of this. He spent a lot of time and money all his life. It was the pride of his life this Alpine Journal, believe me. He used to sit and read about all of this stuff and I used to think, ‘Well, how bloody dull.’ We were brash I suppose — so I didn’t give Bert his full due, by any means.
It was around this time that his nickname, ‘Johnno’ was coined:
I was always what I would call antisocial. When I started at university, I purposely changed my persona to be ‘Johnno’, the life of the party, instead of the introverted wallflower that I’d been previously all my life. I’m probably about normal now [laughs]. But that was my persona.
On the next UQBWC trip — to Mount Barney’s North Peak — ‘Johnno’ struck up what would be a lifelong friendship with the inimitable Bob Waring. They shared a powerful desire to reach summits in the shortest possible time so when the group stopped for lunch, gazing up at the massive hulk of East Peak, Bob Waring was puzzled. ‘Why are we all sitting around?’ he asked. ‘Aren’t we going up there?’ The group leader, Sid Williams, tried to dissuade them but John and Bob headed off regardless, promising to return in 20 minutes. Perhaps predictably, they were back before the rest of the group had finished their sandwiches!

This no-nonsense ‘just do it’ approach quickly came John Comino’s defining characteristic.

Shortly after the formation of the UQBWC, he was also involved in another Queensland milestone — the Brisbane Climbing Club (BCC), the second such organisation devoted to climbing activities in Queensland [Bert Salmon started the first around 1926]. Although the UQBWC lasted well into the 1980s before being superseded by amongst others, the current UQ Mountain Club, the BCC lasted barely eight months. Its demise had nothing to do with climbing — but Communism! John’s version of the meeting that saw the club torn apart differs in places from others’ accounts but essentially captures the spirit of the times. Essentially, the instigator of the club, Kemp Fowler — a New Zealand radar technician — was accused of having Communist sympathies. An extraordinary general meeting of the BCC called by Bert Salmon, Jon Stephenson and Raoul Mellish (amongst others), asked noted geologist Dr Fred Whitehouse to address the gathering. John rembered the tone of the meeting that evening:
'Can you trust your companion when he’s holding your life in his hands?’ was essentially the prĂ©cis of what he [Whitehouse] was saying, and if he’s not the same political persuasion as you — namely a Communist — then beware, take care.
John and others claim that Fred Whitehouse had ASIO connections which led him to make the accusations, demanding that club members declare their support either for King and country — or for Communism.
The idea was to expel Kemp Fowler from the club. Kemp walked out, the schism was broad and deep. [Secretary] Shirley [McKenny’s] affiliation in working with Kemp made her walk out. My association with Shirley made me walk out. Waring’s association with me made Waring walk out. So we all walked out down Edward Street, fuming: ‘They can do whatever they like with their club if that’s the way they feel about it.
But while a difference in political ideology may have led to the demise of the BCC, it did little to prevent the climbing activity that followed. Friends split by the incident soon realised that their common love of the outdoors overrode any political differences and climbing activities resumed.



John Comino soloing the first ascent of The Pinnacle, the Steamers, in 1952 (photo: Jon Stephenson)
  John was the first to repeat the exposed traverse above the north face of Leaning Peak soloed by Bob Waring in 1949 and was soon pursuing the last unclimbed summits in southeast Queensland — in the Steamer Formation on the Main Range near Killarney. In 1952, John and Bob soloed the steep north face of The Pinnacle in the Steamers, making the first ascent. In January 1953, John joined with Jon Stephenson, Geoff Goadby, Geoff Broadbent, Dave Stewart and Ian McLeod to make the first ascent of the Thumb — a pinnacle on the side of Mount Bowen on Hinchinbrook Island.
It was three days going up there to do Mount Bowen and for those three days we just about sweated blood. It was right in the middle of summer. It was hot as hell. And when we got up on the top that night we could see in the distance a thunderstorm coming and thereafter it rained and rained. It averaged eight inches a day for 10 days.
It was actually a cyclone and as they approached their objective, John described his plan of attack to climb the steep, weathered granite to the summit of The Thumb:
I was going to take a flying leap at it but they said, ‘No! No! Don’t be silly’ — or something — and dissuaded me from jumping across. It was about from you to here [1.5 metres] away and dropped away to nothing but I reckon I could have taken a running jump — woomph — and stuck. I suppose that would have been foolish but I was quite confident I could do it so I expected I would have. They dissuaded me from doing that.



On the summit of Leaning Peak, Mount Barney, 1954 -- from left, John Comino, Italian Consul Felice Benuzzi, 
Geoff Goadby, Peter Barnes and (rear) Alan Frost (photo: Peter Barnes)

Following their successful ascent on Hinchinbrook Island — and a subsequent escape from the cyclone — John met up with Jon Stephenson and Alan Frost to guide Bert Salmon up the long south face of Mt Beerwah, remembering it as the most enjoyable climb he did: "We were using ropes then. Bert had never used a rope before, or so he said. He was shit-scared to say the least."

Unlike many of his peers, John was not an avid reader of climbing literature nor did he have an interest in climbing history. He heard about Bert Salmon through Jon Stephenson who was keen to maintain contact with the 1930s climbing pioneer but to John, he was just ‘an old bloke who was working at Ag [Agriculture] and Stock’ although he remembered Salmon’s white, curly hair.

In December that same year — 1953 — he joined Jon Stephenson again, this time to make the first (and still the only verified) ascent of Vidler’s Chimney with George Ettershank and Ron Moss. He had few recollections of the challenging climbing conditions:
The idea to get up Vidler’s Chimney is to climb up faster than you’re sliding back. That, in essence, is what it is, but it’s terribly exposed.

 John Comino instructing in climbing techniques at Kangaroo Point circa 1958 (photo: Ron Cox)

In the following years, John became one of the stalwarts — albeit initially a reluctant one — conducting climbing training sessions at Kangaroo Point cliffs for UQBWC members.
They were started off by ‘Cleat’ [Alan Frost] and Peter Barnes because they were boarders at St John’s College in River Terrace. They used to spend weekends mucking around with climbing practice. Alan Frost was a friend of Geoff Goadby’s and that’s how Geoff got to know Peter. The three of them used to do some climbing practice over there. Geoff was keen on showing people who wanted to climb how to climb. I thought this was a dumb idea. I wasn’t very enthusiastic. I think Geoff took the first couple of climbers. We were trying to dissuade people from climbing, let’s say, because it’s a dangerous pursuit because if you think you’re just going to go out and climb solo on something very dangerous, you’re going to have an accident for sure. And it would reflect back on the club. As far as the bushwalking club [UQBWC] was concerned, we weren’t officially into climbing. If there were a few ratbags among us who went climbing, that was OK — they weren’t doing it under the auspices of the club.
It was at one such Kangaroo Point training session that he first met Ron Cox. He learned that Cox had managed to climb a buttress on the lower cliffline — a route that still bears his name — and that it had reputedly repelled all other attempts. A small group of climbers was standing around the base of the cliff, discussing the route.
I don’t know whether they’d been in our class earlier in the afternoon or not. It was just about going home time and I think it might have been Ron who was just about up to the top of it when we went to have a look. That was about 100 yards downstream from where we were. I thought, this fellow can climb alright, he didn’t need any instruction. Then I got baited into having a go at it. I said ‘You insolent little bastards, I’m not going to be dared on this. I’ll take you on!’ [laughs] And so I did. I was belayed from above and it was very safe. Stephanie was there, too, and I think this was after we were married. It was quite a good climb until you get to this Cox’s Overhang and I thought that this was quite difficult and I couldn’t reach the handholds — they were about two or three inches out of reach. I was standing on tippy toes sort of thing and stretching as hard as I could stretch but they were a few inches out of reach.
Describing Ron Cox as being built ‘like a bloody spider’, he decided to make a lunge for a crucial handhold.
I wouldn’t have got over that thing without the rope.Anyway I got up there and after that I think Ron thought, ‘Well, this fellow can climb’ and that’s probably what caused him to look me up about the Crookneck thing some time later.
The ‘Crookneck thing’ was, of course, the first ascent of the East face route in 1959. John had attempted East Crookneck some years before with Bob Waring but had realised it was beyond him.
"I shinned up this column and I’m standing on top of the thing. Bob said, ‘Can you see anything from there?’ As I was standing there — the column’s only about eight inches diameter — I could feel the thing starting to peel off the side. I said to Bob, ‘Get away from down the bottom there, I think I’m coming down. Just get out of the road.’ I don’t know what I would have done if it had peeled right off. I ended up putting my arms around the thing and sliding back down it [laughs]."

John recalled that when he and Bob Waring first contemplated climbing Crookneck, the gear they had was rudimentary, to say the least:
I’ve seen young people out at Kangaroo Point with thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment draped over them and I thought, ‘Oh God, climbing was never like this!’ We rappelled over here [the East Face] to see if there was a route that would go. We thought it would from the bottom…We decided that one of these days we’d go back and do that and we reckoned if we took some wooden chocks about 18 inches long down to about four inches long and a big hammer, then we could whop these into places that we could see. They wouldn’t be permanent pitons but they’d more than do the job.
On their recce of the climb, they had abseiled down to a large ledge [the second stance] they dubbed the Eagle’s Eyrie — and then had climbed back up to the summit ridge. But in September, 1959, John found himself standing below the east face with Ron Cox and Pat Conaghan.
So Ron and I went up and we had these etrier things that he and Pat had made up — marvellous things to use — it’s like a hangman’s noose [a prussik knot] that you wrap around the rope and slip up the rope. A good idea but there was only one catch: I’d never used them before. I’d never seen them before and I’m starting up on what I think is the most difficult pitch, the beginning of the thing…Where we started the climb, there was no column and, Holy Mackeral, there was an awful shortage of handholds. As far as I recall, you get up as far as you can and then traverse about 20 feet [six metres], diagonally. That first part there is where we used the etriers, as I recall. Of course, I was swearing about the things but once you got the hang of them they were marvellous to use. But it’s only in the beginning part of the climb we used them. It’s fairly easy up to the overhang but Ron had conveniently put a piton in before the overhang…You’d clip onto them and you were safe.
John reached the Eagle’s Eyrie just before nightfall so he and Ron settled into a bivvy while Pat sheltered at the base of the climb. The slow pace of climbing was testing his patience.
"It wasn’t until after the Eagle’s Eyrie that I led because I was so cheesed off with Ron taking so much time. After the Eagle’s Eyrie it’s just a stroll. Ron was super, super cautious because he hadn’t done that part before. When I got the opportunity — I didn’t like to say to him, ‘For God’s sake hurry up will you?’ I said ‘Look, I’ll do this part’ and he said ‘Righto’, so I went straight off up to the top. We ended up getting to the top of the mountain in darkness, holding a torch in my mouth."

John Comino was from a generation who saw climbing and bushwalking as inextricably linked — and it may explain one of his most enduring memories of his years spent exploring the wilderness regions of southeast Queensland:
It was after the climbing club’s climb of the north of Beerwah — coming back in the truck, the most outstanding thing in any of the climbing was the view at sunset — a red sky and an absolutely full moon beside Crookneck with Beerwah purple-black. In the back of this truck it was the most beautiful scene I’ve ever seen in my life. We’d had a good day climbing Beerwah on the inaugural trip and that scene sticks with me.
He had a strong belief that anyone who ventures into the outdoors should understand their limits — and he had little time for those who indulge in self-promotion based on their climbing achievements:
"I thought that all this self aggrandisement was a lot of bullshit. That’s frankly what I thought then and it’s what I think now. And this is what I see as a danger in climbing — if you have that mentality then you’re going to kill yourself or someone who’s with you very easily. That’s the downside of climbing. The other downside is that if you have such a high opinion of yourself you can over-climb and if you outclimb yourself, you should bloody drop dead or get back your own way, not get a helicopter to help you. You shouldn’t outclimb yourself; you should know your capabilities. That’s what I believe anyway. It worked for me because I’m still alive but a couple of other people aren’t."

John Comino leaves behind a rich personal legacy — a string of daring and sometimes outlandish tales that still hold their own today in terms of achievement, without the fanfare of self-promotion that seems to have become almost de rigueur in today’s social circles. He and his cohort have inspired generations perhaps because his no-nonsense approach seems to better reflect the real world of bushwalking and climbing we have inherited. It brings to mind one of my favourite quotes, entirely appropriate in describing the essence of John Comino’s contribution to the pantheon of Australian climbing history.

The history of mountaineering is about the firsts, mosts, and disasters, but behind the dozens of famous faces are countless mountaineers whose rewards have been entirely private and personal — Rebecca Solnit.