Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Why climb? The next generation muses...

Brian Moes
(from the late 1990s) : The great thing is that whether you’re climbing 22 or 31 or 14, it’s such a personal thing. For some people, climbing a 17 is something equivalent to another person climbing something much, much harder. And that’s the beauty of climbing—it’s such a personal thing. You have to be really careful that you don’t get arrogant and start thinking that you’re better than other people.

Alison Moes (from the late 1990s): I think it’s almost the grace of it sometimes. Like it’s almost dancing when you move on a cliff. I really love that. I think it’s a combination of things like with the power and stuff like that. I like that as well. I think it’s also an achievement thing. It’s actually taught me a lot about ways of setting goals and reaching your own goals because it’s such a short-term thing. You can have one climb that you can really set your mind to and if you get it, it’s a really good feeling of achievement.

‘Tash’ (from the late 1990s): If I’ve climbed something that for me is really challenging, and I manage to get to the top of it, and I manage to get to the top of it with pretty good technique and all of that and I feel really great about it, it is the most euphoric feeling in the entire world—apart from sex. It is fantastic. It is a great feeling. I can’t explain to anyone apart from a climber or someone who is really into their sport. When they do something that was a real challenge and they just kick its arse, they know how good it feels. It’s just fantastic—it just makes me want to cry. No honestly, it’s the best feeling in the world. That’s why I climb because of those moments—they’re few and far between but they happen.

Picture: Climbers' camping area at The Pines, Mt Arapiles. Michael Meadows collection.

Attitudes to climbing through the years...
Michael Groom
(from the 1970s)
And people say, ‘Well, what are you going to do now with your life?’ But I feel so content with what I’ve done that I have no burning desire to go out and test the limits, or push the limits. I feel in some ways very fortunate that I do feel content that I’ve done so much with the early part of my life. It’s been a good life. There wouldn’t be too many things I’d change. I was able to find my passion or calling early in life—and that is, climbing—and even luckier after my second chance at it, to be able to re-live it, and continue living it after the problem with my feet; and then luckier again still by being able to earn a living from it. But as some people say, you make your own luck.

Picture: Three generations...Michael, Donn and Harry Groom. Michael Meadows collection.

Scott Camps
(from the 1970s)
I guess it became more of a personal journey—that’s what I really liked doing. I think it’s very important that a first ascentionist should be heavily active in repeating routes, particularly in a local area because you’re always broadening your knowledge and you know what you’re comparing it against. I know for a fact, a lot of the young guys haven’t done Out of the Blue and Into the Black [Tibrogargan] or Phaedra [Mt Maroon]—all those classic cutting edge routes for their time. That’s really important if you’re going to run around and beat your chest and demote routes that have previously been done and you don’t have anything to compare them against. You don’t understand how well people were climbing back then—climbing with hexes, small stoppers and a basic rack of Friends on this hard technical stuff.

Robert Staszewski
(1970s to present)
The cornerstone of rockclimbing is that the climber must bring himself [sic] to the standard required by the climb, not lower the climb to your standard. If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing rockclimbing—that’s the first ethic of rockclimbing.

Picture: Robert Staszewski above the east wall on Mt Maroon, 2000. Michael Meadows collection.

Ian Thomas
(1970s to present)
Climbing gives you the time to sit down and minutely examine your immediate surroundings—a ledge, ‘There’s a rock on the edge of the thing’; ‘No I won’t touch that’; ‘There’s another rock. Look at that one—I wonder how that got there.’ It’s a funny little microscope that you have. I remember those sorts of thoughts back then. Part of the deal is you can’t get rid of that no matter where you go. If you’re sitting at a meeting and two tables are put together, your fingers can’t help but slip in between those two tables and form a little finger lock. You can’t help but feel under the table for the undercling. You can’t walk down a city street without accidentally brushing a brick and giving the mortar a bit of a tap. So I think those sorts of things are just fantastic, even if I never climbed again I would be doing that. Just driving around the countryside you can’t help but look at cliffs and things. If you travel overseas, you look at a cliff and you can’t help thinking, ‘There’s probably a route there’; or ‘There is a route there.’ That sort of stuff is with you and I don’t think that changes.

Picture: Ian Thomas in a tendon-flexing engagement with Scarab at Bundaleer, 2000. Michael Meadows collection.

Dave Gillieson
(1970s to 1990s)
I think that climbing and caving gave my life purpose and developed strong self-reliance and tolerance of others. When I was in dead-end jobs, the prospect of the weekend dominated my thoughts and kept me focussed. I made lasting friendships with people who I could rely on absolutely. I have been in difficult situations with them in deep New Guinea caves and in the Himalayas. Those shared experiences forge strong bonds that transcend geographical location.

Marion Darveniza (nee Speirs)
(late 1960s and 1970s)
[Climbing gives you] a wonderful sense of achievement and freedom. It certainly tests your problem solving skills. Perhaps it has given me the confidence to try new things and knowing that I have got good balance.
Picture: Marion Speirs in the Warrumbungles, 1967. Hugh Pechey collection.

Greg Sheard
(late 1960s to present)

I guess climbing’s something that gets into your blood. You always enjoy going back to it. I gave it away for 20 years and still came back to it for different reasons. It’s something about the mountain, the climb, the exposure and the enjoyment of it. I don’t make a tick list. I don’t climb to increase the grade. If a climb’s enjoyable I go and do it. It’s always something you go back to. You run into a lot of people who retire from climbing but they’ll still go and do it occasionally…For me, it’s not trad [traditional] climbing—the ultimate is the multi-pitch climb, regardless of whether it’s easy or not. It’s a different style of climbing. It’s as different from Frog Buttress as Kangaroo Point is from indoor climbing. I think the long multi-pitch climbs are the ones that offer the enjoyment that is most likely to appeal to people because you run across people who run across those climbs and they say, ‘This is great. This is not doing 22s, 23s, 24s—this is doing a 13 which is phenomenal.’

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

Rick White
(late 1960s to 1990s)

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Grade 15 climber or a Grade 30 climber—there’s always something you can’t climb, you just can’t climb the next level. It doesn’t matter how good you are, there’s always going to be someone better. So everybody climbs and has excitement at their level of difficulty and their level of mental power. It’s different for all people, of course. It can be widely applied to people because of that—you don’t have to be the best climber to have a good time out on a crag with your friends…I think that’s the attraction of climbing. And of course you can improve and you can test yourself, you can test your physical strength, you can test your mental strength. It tests all those sorts of things in people.

Picture: Rick White a few months before his death. Jane White collection.
Donn Groom
(from the early 1960s)

I’d define myself as a mountaineer more than a rock climber or bushwalker. My whole life has revolved around the outdoors. I suppose, and has me at the point now where I could never contemplate living for too long in any suburban setting, having lived so close to the forest at Binna Burra where at night while you sleep, the whole forest tries to move in with you—or on our boat at night with your ear only inches from the sea swooshing past—or in the Alaskan bush at night scared shitless waiting for a twig to snap in case it’s a brown bear. It’s a bit off-putting for me to sleep in a city and all you hear is police sirens etc at night. I can't stay there for long.

Picture: John Larkin collection.

Ted Cais
(early 1960s to the present)

Improvements in rockclimbing standards mostly result from some creative individual having the appropriate mental desire with reference to achievements of the previous generation. Interestingly, the rules of the previous generation often had to be changed for technical progress. Thus the ethic of the mountaineer “the leader never falls” had to give way for the harder climbs requiring dynamic and committing moves. Then the “clean climbing” ethic of the trad climber was replaced with the redpoint goal of the sport climber on pre-protected routes too steep and sustained for resting and arranging gear. More disturbing, perhaps, is the mainstream popularity of climbing bringing crowds to crags once utterly desolate for us in the 70’s. Such crowding creates a new set of logistical issues including environmental impact, liability and resource management so the times are no longer simple. People can now make a full-time living from climbing (guiding and producing gear, for example) so this commercial angle inevitably creates significant conflict.

Picture: Ted Cais and Greg Sheard on the summit of Tibrogargan after climbing Clemency, 1998. Michael Meadows collection.

Les Wood
(1960s to 1980s)

A lot of it's chicken and egg, isn't it? I don't know where things start—whether you end up being a climber because you've got certain characteristics or whether those characteristics develop because you've been a climber. For me, I've got some ability to stay calm in a stressful situation and I think some of that might be a reflection of just learning how to cope on a cliff. I've had a few cases where things have been really quite hairy. Everybody has. The epic's a part of the game. If you don't keep calm and quiet and work things out as best you can, you're going to come unstuck in a big way. I think some of that's carried over into my life. I think life needs a bit of salt and pepper in it—you can't all be bland; you need things spiced up; something that's going to get the adrenalin going, I suppose. And for me, it was climbing.

Picture: Les Wood collection.

Pat Conaghan
(late 1950s to 1980s)

It must have been the adventure, I guess, I don’t know. I guess I was always a sucker for seeing what was on the other side of the hill or seeing if you could go someplace that looked a bit difficult. I don’t know. I guess we’re all a bit like that…it’s taught me to be more tolerant, more patient about things. And it taught me humility. When you’re climbing, you are often in situations where you’re forced to endure intolerable situations, even life-threatening situations because if the weather changes, for example, you could freeze to death in the next half day or something if things don’t work out. I suppose you become dependent on other people in those situations. And I suppose it’s given me a greater respect for natural history and landscapes.

Picture: On the summit of Tibrogargan after the 1st ascent of Northeast Buttress in 1964. Pat Conaghan collection.

Ron Cox
(late 1950s to 1980s)

I was much attracted by the adventurous aspects of it and the danger, of course. It wasn’t really dangerous but one felt it was dangerous. It just seemed so much more thrilling than doing ordinary bushwalks. We were dissatisfied. Queenslanders are now proud to be Queenslanders but for us, it was the sticks, really, and maybe I’m speaking for myself here but what I was looking for was high mountains without trees on them. What Queensland provided was low mountains covered with trees. People love this now—we’ve got more appreciation of the trees and nature. We didn’t have this at all. I’d read all the mountain books and what I wanted to see was high, craggy mountains with rock and ice and Queensland didn’t have that. The nearest thing to it were the cliff faces.

Picture: Ron Cox in Grenoble in 2000 with the Belledonne Range behind him...the start of the Alps. Michael Meadows collection.

John Comino

Look, I think the thing that it gives you, as you well know, is this beautiful sense of freedom. That’s what it gave me, plus vantage points to take photos.

Picture: John Comino at a training session at Kangaroo Point in the late 1950s. Ron Cox collection.

Hugh Pechey
(1950s and 1960s)

You ask my wife— ‘Not another bloody rock!’ She doesn't usually use the word ‘bloody’, of course. 'I don't know what you see in these rocks!' When I say that I want my ashes scattered on Mount Barney, she just looks at me and shakes her head.

Picture: High Pechey contemplates the south face of Beerwah during a solo ascent in 1954.

Graham Baines

Motivation, satisfaction…getting to the top was satisfying but I realised there’s a shortcoming in that response because, sure there’s an exhilaration in having got there and looking at the grand view and feeling good, but there must have been something more to it. I realised it must have been the problem-solving on the rockface and particularly in the context in those days there weren’t guides. Although there were established routes people could describe to us, we were also sometimes exploring new routes. And it’s as if I came to the conclusion that that must have been an important element in the satisfaction.

Picture: BBW collection.

Neill Lamb
(1st new climbs on Tibrogargan after World War II, 1950s and 1960s)

You’d often be for some time on some tiny little stance and you’d admire the bloody texture of the rocks and the feel of the rock—so there was a definite feeling for the rock.

Picture: Neill Lamb collection.

Marg Kentwell (left)

Earlier on, people went because they knew what they were doing. And then we get all the leisure industry and shops selling everything and anybody and everybody goes out and they don’t know what they’re doing. They get stranded in their boats, they have to be rescued by a helicopter or some rot—there is a difference in attitude there. I won’t say the wrong sort of people are going—everybody’s entitled to go and do whatever—but in the earlier times, people knew more of what they were doing. They were less likely to get into trouble.

Bernice Noonan (right)

We were all experienced in a good sport and we all enjoyed it and unless we all pulled together we weren’t going to get there. I didn’t feel that the men were superior or that there was a difference because of the sexes. I never felt that at all. It might have been there for some people but it never bothered me… When I was 27, I had a cerebral haemorrhage and I was paralysed for a while and that part of my life ceased. The doctors told me, ‘No more sport.’
Picture: Neill Lamb collection.

Alan Frost
(1950s and still climbing)

And I guess when you start doing that [climbing], it never leaves you really, does it? Everything’s just so much more urbanized and pressurized and so on. So many people just don’t get out, really, and don’t get any opportunity to appreciate what it is like not to be living in a concrete jungle…it’s so good to be out on one of these climbs or faces or wherever it might be in great weather, but it’s also good to be there in terrible weather because that’s the mood of the mountain…it gets under your skin and you need to go back again.

Picture: Peter Barnes collection.

Peter Barnes
(late 1940s to the present)

…as one of many animals that are most closely associated and tied up with the environment and dependent on the environment that we live in, I think if we separate ourselves from that environment, we are the loser…I get fairly touchy if I can’t get out into the hills. I don’t spend any time on the beach, I like to get out into the hills, into the rainforest, the waterfalls, the creeks. I like lying back and looking at the stars at night, looking at flowers and birds and animals—if possible, photographing them. I think that’s where I belong.

Picture: Peter Barnes collection.

Russ Kippax
(Co-founder Sydney Rockclimbing Club: late 1940s to 1970s)

Camaraderie was always important all through the bushwalking thing, gatherings for any excuse—birthdays, and we’d cart half a sheep down to Bluegum and have a party. That was a very big part of bushwalking and rockclimbing just continued on in the same way. I think the challenge of being on top—I still look at a mountain now and think I’d like to be up there, even if it’s only a conical hill.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Raoul Mellish
(late 1940s and 1950s)

We started on our own bat, Reg Ballard and myself. As far as I was concerned, it all came back to that wonderful sight [Tibrogargan]…winter time and the clarity of the air and the outline of that beautiful mountain…I had the urge to paint in those days but I wasn’t doing much about it. I was looking forward to it. But I had that urge to go and climb it and we did that. You get bitten by a bug, don’t you, and away it goes.
Picture: Raoul Mellish (left) and Coll Taggart on the east face of Mt Warning, 1949. Raoul Mellish collection.
Jon Stephenson
(late 1940s to present)

[It was] partly the people but it was largely the places—and largely the environment. But over the campfire at night a few people tried to explain why in earth they did it and I never thought they did very well. I had no idea. I couldn’t explain it. I could not explain it…I’ve been back to some of the places and what I didn’t accept was that they are so exceptional. The environment was so…wow! I’ve been back to Mt Barney a few times after a long period when I wasn’t there and I was so astonished that it was such a handsome place. It was for that reason, I’m sure, that I got absolutely sucked in. I couldn’t put it aside. I still find good forest, rainforest especially, and one can walk through it by yourself, it’s like going into a church.

Picture: John Comino collection
Bert Salmon
(1923 to World War II: ‘the spiritual father of Queensland climbing’)

Why do they climb? I have often wondered…but I have never been able to satisfy on the point. Some are born climbers; nothing can keep them from the mountains. They keep on climbing until they die—or until they slip, which often means the same thing. Others not so apt often join climbing parties to learn the rudiments of the game. For these we carry a rope, but we do not use it if we can avoid doing so.
Picture: Bert Salmon collection.
Nora Dimes
(Regular climber throughout the 1930s)
Should you believe, with Addison, that the proper study of mankind is man, you may have met in your researches a mountaineer. He is one whose soul is blent of heights and depths, and in extreme cases his admiration of the tallest and newest building in town is confined to the possible hand or footholds on the facade. I have known one such, seized suddenly with the climbing fever, clamber onto a foot-wide parapet and walk airily along it seven stories above street level.
L. M. R., Sunday Mail, 1932.

What is it that makes city toilers expose themselves to the dangers, hardships, and discomforts that must accrue from scaling sheer walls of rock when they might admire the great peaks from terra firma? Is it because they believe that reward is proportionately great: that he who gains the crest of the mount will discover beauties undreamt of and experience a full measure of the elusive joys of achievement? Yes, maybe they do compensate for the toils, doubts, and difficulties experienced before anyone, no matter how adept at the sport (they call it good sport), can reach the summit of a real mountain.


Rockclimbing has become more and more part of everyday society, as the cover of Qantas's Frequent Flyer magazine (above) demonstrates. And despite all the debates over ethics, one thing is for sure: people will continue to climb for many and varied reasons. Here’s the first of a collection of Australian climbers’ thoughts on this from across the ages...

Freda Du Faur

(1915: Australia's first mountaineer)

Every now and then a voice seemed to rise from nowhere in a faint cry. Again and again I have started up, sure that some one was calling me, to confront only the silent, snow-clad mountains. Some stone falling from the heights, the gurgle of an underground stream, or the wind sweeping into a hidden cave and raising an echo from the distant ridges—clear and distinct it comes, this call of the mountains, sometimes friendly and of good cheer; but often eerie, wild, and full of melancholy warning, as if the spirit of the mountains bade you beware how you tread her virgin heights, except in the spirit of reverence and love.

[Freda Du Faur, The conquest of Mount Cook and other climbs: an account of four seasons’ mountaineering on the Southern Alps of New Zealand, London, George Allen and Unwin, 1915]
Where do we go

from here?

The very nature of sport climbing, along with a huge increase in the numbers of climbers, has led to some perhaps unforeseen consequences: climbing crags on private land have been closed down across Australia; climbing access to previously public cliffs—the Three Sisters in New South Wales and Crookneck in Queensland, for example—is increasingly being banned; and there has been a growing concern over environmental degradation of climbing areas. This has compelled rockclimbing clubs to align themselves more forcefully with conservation ideals. Perhaps it has come full circle...the climbers emerging from the earliest bushwalking clubs in Australia at the end of World War II generally had a close association with wilderness. This was not so apparent with new climbing clubs emerging in the 1960s, many of whom saw climbing and the environment as separate issues. With increasing pressure on the environment, there has been a return to the importance of conservation amongst newcomers, many of whom began their vertical journeys in climbing gyms rather than on an isolated, scrubby cliff, several hours’ walk from a carpark. This does not mean that one form of climbing is any better or worse than another. It is simply suggesting that things can’t go on as they are without a significant change in attitude, particularly towards bolting—or perhaps gyms and practice cliffs like Kangaroo Point in Brisbane will become the only approved destinations for hard climbing in Australia. The debate over bolts is as old as the practice itself, stemming from the early 1950s in the Blue Mountains, in particular, but increasingly, national parks’ regulators are taking more notice of the permanent damage it does to rock surfaces. And it’s worth remembering that it’s only in the past decade or two of the 100 year history of modern climbing in Australia that bolting has become accepted as the majority practice.

Picture: Rob Hales on the final headwall of the north face of Leaning Peak, Mt Barney, September 2003. Michael Meadows collection.


Early in 2005, the strange hiss of an electric bolt drill echoed around the overhangs on Tibrogargan. I’d just finished Prometheus II, an exposed climb below Cave Five with Greg Sheard, Jane White (pictured) and Cass Crane. I felt a great sadness, watching the trachyte powder drifting down as a couple of climbers forced their way up through the previously impossible overhangs. Just to their north was the classic Trojan, climbed in 1966 by Les Wood and John Tillack. And a few metres to the south, Overexposed, another special route climbed by Les Wood and Donn Groom the same year. No bolts were placed (or carried) on the first ascent of either climb. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the current era that the claim for the longest climb in the country is a route which uses almost 100 bolts—the difficult 568 metre Lost Boys on the north face of Mt Warning by Tim Balla and Malcolm Matheson. A significant achievement according to the rules of today’s game—but even more difficult, perhaps unclimbable, without bolts. I wonder how far we can honestly say we’ve travelled when we consider this in light of the first tentative steps taken by the first European climbers in Australia, more than a century ago.

Picture: Jane White reaches easier ground after the delicate traverse on Prometheus II. Michael Meadows collection.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Climbing for adventure

Wendy Steele and sister Katie ( closest to camera) high on the north face of Leaning Peak making the 1st female ascent, September 2003. At 410 metres, it is arguably the longest bolt-free climbing route in Australia.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

Bolts and the Buttress

The first bolt was placed at Frog Buttress in 1981 in a climb called Yodel up the Valley. It was repeated shortly after by Rick White and Kim Carrigan who found the bolt to be unnecessary. But the practice has continued. Rick White died hoping that Frog Buttress might one day reclaim its bolt-free status. The crag that he played a major role in developing over the years has been central in identifying Australia as an international rockclimbing destination. The clean climbing ethic that created Frog Buttress was one of its foundation pillars. Some have begun removing the bolts they placed in their climbs there following Rick White’s death but it will take more than a few fine gestures to turn around the bolting juggernaut that dominates modern Australian rockclimbing. Ethics — including climbing ethics — will always remain the domain of the individual. But to have one bolt-free crag in Queensland (or Australia, for that matter) would make a powerful statement in the current environment. It would be akin to the impact American environmentalist-climber John Muir had on the early days of exploration and development of climbing in Yosemite. And perhaps it would go some way towards acknowledging the central role that clean climbing ethics played in pushing Queensland to the forefront of Australia rockclimbing in the early 1970s. Surely that alone is worthy of such recognition.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

Women’s place

By the mid 1980s, as female climbers in Australia were beginning to establish themselves on the hard sport routes. Louise Shepherd in the early 1980s was climbing in Yosemite, Nyrie Dodd led Passport to Insanity, one of the hardest climbs in Australia, and visiting French climber Christine Gambert bagged India, even harder. It was clear that women could mix it with the men on the most difficult routes in the country. Within 12 months, American Lyn Hill would be described as the world’s best rockclimber—male or female. In 1990, Hill’s former arch rival in climbing competitions, Catherine Destivelle, soloed the Bonatti Pillar in five hours. Hill went on to make the first free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in 1993, taking 23 hours, climbing part of the route in darkness—an extraordinary achievement. In the same year, 1993, Scottish climber Alison Hargreaves became the first person to solo all classic North Faces in the Alps in a single season. Two years later, she was the first woman to solo Everest but was killed in a huge storm on K2 along with six others a few months later. In 1991, 52 year old Junko Tabei became the first woman (and 11th person overall) to climb the Eight Summits—including Carstenz Pyramid—reaching the top of Kosciuszko. Bridgit Muir became the first Australian to climb Seven Summits—excluding Carstenz Pyramid—two years later.

Out of the gym

From the early 1990s in Australia, women returned to rockclimbing in numbers seen only in Queensland between the wars in the 1930s. It seems that the climbing gym culture played a significant role in this. Whatever the reasons for the sudden upsurge in interest, throughout the 1990s, women began to rediscover a place for themselves in Australian climbing culture. Ironically, their battle for acceptance was not so very different from the struggle by their European sisters, 100 years before. Strong female climbers were soon a regular sight on crags around the country and no route, regardless of how intimidating it might be, was out of bounds. Adventure climbing was firmly on the agenda for some, at least. One milestone in Queensland was in 1998 when Jacqui Kiewa and Wendy Steele (pictured) became the first women to climb the East Face of Mt Barney—32 years after the first ascent.

Picture: Wendy Steele collection.


Rick White

Rick White returned to the Himalayas for a second time with Michael Groom in 1991 to climb Everest, but the trip ended in disarray with White having to fly home urgently to attend to a business crisis. With a long-time financier going to the wall, White was virtually forced out of Mountain Designs with huge debts. But by 2000, he was getting restless again and set up a small, hi-tech sleeping bag design and manufacturing company. In 2001, he was invited back to Mountain Designs by a new owner as adviser in research and development of new products, or, as he wryly observed, ‘as a walking historian’. His extraordinary business career had come almost full circle. It was during this period of re-adjustment that White had to confront a new and unknown challenge—a muscle-wasting illness called inclusion body myositis: ‘It was diagnosed in 1991 after I came back from Everest and I suspect I got it in 1990 after going to Cho Oyu. I definitely had it before I went to Everest because I was getting weak and then I got stronger by training but as soon as I stopped, it just went boom…really, really weak.’ For someone who had made a career out of climbing and who had played a major role in Australian climbing for more than a quarter of a century, it was a bitter blow. But his approach to this was characteristic of the attitude which propelled him into the ranks of Australia’s top climbers. White took up coaching a small group of talented sport climbers and insisted on taking part in significant milestones at Frog Buttress until his death from a brain tumour in 2004.

Picture: Rick White abseiling down Infinity at the 1998 Frog Buttress anniversary. Michael Meadows collection.

Twenty years ago today...

The 'discoverers' of Frog Buttress (from left) Rick White and Chris Meadows, with Jane White, prepare to climb Corner of Eden in November 1988 on the 20th anniversary of the first ascent. Ironically, it was their last climb together: Chris Meadows took his own life in 1991 and in the same year, Rick White was diagnosed with a muscle-wasting disease that effectively ended his active climbing career.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection. Posted by Picasa

Challenges for Michael Groom

Queenslander Michael Groom (pictured) had decided that climbing would be a big part of his life at an early age. With a grandfather like Queensland wilderness pioneer Arthur Groom and a father like Donn Groom, he probably had little say in the matter! By the early 1980s, was well advanced in his quest to climb the highest mountain in the world. It all started at age five when he was looking at Mt Barney with his father, Donn, who explained that Mt Everest was about six times higher! In 1982, Groom made several trips to the Himalayas with Australian climbers Tim McCartney-Snape, Lincoln Hall, Geoff Bartram, Greg Mortimer and Andy Henderson and following a season in the French Alps in 1986, he found himself on Kangchenjunga (8598m). But a decision he made to turn back close to the summit probably saved his life. The following year, he and his climbing partner John Coulton reached the summit of Kangchenjunga in a howling wind. A nightmare descent began as, snowblind and hallucinating, they stumbled along in the darkness. When Groom removed his boots, the ‘black rot’ of frostbite had reached the arches of both feet. For most, it would have meant the end of a climbing career—but not for him: ‘Losing my toes really changed my outlook on life in that unless you experience a situation where everything that’s so important to you is very nearly taken away, you don’t really appreciate how much it means to you.’ He realised that somehow, he’d been given a second chance and that’s when he decided to take up mountaineering with a vengeance.

The five highest mountains in the world

Groom joined Rick and Jane White’s expedition to Cho Oyu in 1990 and they attempted a new route before retreating. With the rest of the team suffering from either altitude sickness or exhaustion, Groom climbed to the summit alone up the standard route. His determination to climb Mt Everest (8848m) was rewarded on 9 May 1993 when he stood on the summit of his dreams. The following year he climbed K2 via the Abruzzi Ridge and 12 months later, became the first Australian to climb Lhotse (8511m). In 1996, he was back on Everest as an expedition guide when a huge storm swept across the region. In its wake, eight climbers on the south side of Everest died, including his employer, New Zealand climber Rob Hall, and another of Hall’s guides, Andy Harris. It was three years before Groom returned to the Himalayas. At noon on 16 May 1999 with partner Dave Bridges, he climbed the last few metres of solid ice to the tiny pyramid summit of Makalu (8481m), becoming the first Australian to climb the world’s five highest peaks.

Illustration: Michael Groom on the summit of Cho Oyu, The Courier-Mail, 1990.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The East Pillar

of Shivling

In May 1981, Rick White and Greg Child joined Britons Doug Scott and Don Whillans, along with Frenchman Georges Bettembourg to climb Shivling’s East Pillar in Nepal (pictured). They were stormed in for two days at the halfway point where White celebrated his 35th birthday. Jubilant after making the first ascent, but weakened from a lack of food, White and Child began their descent on very steep ice. They reached a small notch in the ridge and were just about to sit down for a rest. White continues:
The snow started slipping but we didn’t have axes because somehow or other Doug and George had the axes and Greg and I had hammers. But you can’t self-arrest with a hammer—you can’t belay with a hammer as Greg found out, so he got ripped off the belay and we went tumbling down. We fell 200 metres, 250. We were really lucky because there’s a col between the two peaks—Shivling’s got two peaks—and we landed in this little valley. I blacked out and woke up at the bottom and I thought, “O shit, my arms are working”—and we were fine. It all happened so fast. If we’d slid a little bit to the left we would have gone over a six thousand foot drop.
Doug Scott remained a close friend of Rick White's until White's death in 2004. The 13-day East Pillar route was the most technically difficult climb ever done at altitude and remained unrepeated for 15 years.

Picture: Rick White collection.
New games: new names

Kim Carrigan’s and others’ adoption of European sport climbing techniques and training strategies set up a framework for climbing in Australia that has persisted from the late 1970s. Until that time, a handful of mostly weekend climbers in the country had ever contemplated training as special preparation for climbing. This was a turning point when ‘climbing’ became many different things. The gradual dominance of sport climbing, most usually accompanied by a reliance on bolting, toproping and multi-day sieges of one pitch problems, pushed ‘traditional’ or ‘adventure climbing’ to the periphery—even creating new names for what in the past was simply ‘rockclimbing’. But traditional climbing persisted and pockets of resistance remain. This trend continues today and although the divisions between various genres of climbing remain blurred, the dominance of sport climbing is apparent in the pages of Australian and international climbing magazines and websites. The focus of the experience has shifted with numbers seemingly playing a more central role than other criteria. This was exemplified by publicity around the one-pitch Punks in the Gym at Arapiles by German climber Wolfgang Gullich which claimed to be the world’s hardest route in 1985. Few, if any, climbers in Australia would have known that it was the same year in which pioneering Lakeland climber Bill Peascod died on the 1st stance of a climb in Wales. He was climbing with Don Whillans at the time—Whillans himself died in his sleep exactly three months later. Six years after his 1st ascent of Punks, Gullich was also dead—killed in a car accident in Germany.

Picture: Rick White and Ted Cais gear up for climb at Frog Buttress, 1987. Michael Meadows collection.

Climbing high

For almost a decade, Fred From was a significant force in Queensland climbing. He refused to use either climbing boots or chalk. Raised on a farm at Coominya, just west of Brisbane, From soon acquitted himself on the Frog Buttress classics, leading Conquistador in fine style. By this time, the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club had fizzled out and a new University of Queensland Climbing Club had started up with From its ambassador. He had soon added new routes on the steep columns of Crookneck, at Girraween and Knapps Peak. In 1984, Fred From set out on his greatest adventure—an attempt on Everest via the West Ridge. Tragically, he fell to his death, tripping on his crampons, while searching for another Australian climber, Craig Nottle, who had fallen in the same way, at the same place. It happened on From’s 28th birthday—9 October. At the same time as From fell to his death, another Australian expedition was on Everest forcing a bold new route, White Limbo, up the Great Couloir the North Face, climbing Alpine-style without supplementary oxygen. Of the team, Tim McCartney-Snape and Greg Mortimer reached the summit.

Illustration: The Courier-Mail, Brisbane.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

East Barney solo

Robert Staszewski (pictured) made the first and only known solo ascent of the east face of Mt Barney in March 1979. He was on the brink of an ethical epiphany following years of climbing at Girraween, about to reject the use of bolts as protection. He climbed the east face route using a combination of free-soloing and a back rope, anchored to a belay, which entailed climbing each pitch twice. Staszewski found himself facing a dilemma as he contemplated the crux of the climb which entails lassooing a tree and pulling up the rope, hand-over-hand. He had thrown a nest of nuts and carabiners around the infamous tree, planning to climb the exposed pitch as others had done before him. But there was a problem—the rope had jammed, but not on the nest of nuts and carabiners, and he could not see how reliable it was. Eventually, he swung out over the huge drop. When he reached the tree he saw all that held the rope was a small loop, jammed in between the tree and the rock!

Picture: A younger Robert Staszewski muscles up Electronic Flag at Frog Buttress. Paul Caffyn collection.

Climbing solo

Rick White made the first solo ascent of Ball’s Pyramid in 1979 in one hour 45 minutes while on a trip there with members of the University of Queensland Climbing Club. It was a time when soloing was becoming popular amongst the experienced core of climbers in Queensland and beyond. White recalled that Ball’s Pyramid was his best solo performance:
It’s not technically hard but then again, with the style of the rock on those kinds of sea stacks, you can climb quickly. If you read any article written by solo climbers, it always has the same theme—the way you can focus and just flow over the rock. It’s not often you have to think about a crux move because you’ve got to have it pretty much wired in your mind and you can do it—if you have to think about it you’re likely to fall off it.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

Climbing by numbers

In Australia by the mid 70s, another generation of young climbers was filling in the gaps at Frog Buttress and various other crags around the country. With Rick White pursuing his business interests in Mountain Designs and other climbing projects, this cohort was a lot more mobile than in previous eras and many moved from crag to crag, picking off the prime routes as they pushed the upper limits of the possible. It included Greg Child, Chris Peisker, Kim Carrigan, Mike Law and Nic Taylor. In January 1976, Taylor was the first to break from the pack, climbing Australia’s first grade 24—Country Road, at Mt Buffalo. Peisker was hot on his heels and produced Horrorscope at Mt Arapiles, a climb of equal difficulty. The gauntlet had been thrown down. Taylor spent almost a year in Queensland, much of it climbing with White. Then it was time for something special, as White recalls:
Nic and I hatched a plan to go to Mt Buffalo and simply blow everyone away by doing a hammerless ascent of Lord Gumtree. I guess we picked Lord Gumtree because it was the hardest, I had prior knowledge and we had not forgiven the uncharitable locals after our second ascent a few years earlier. Thinking back, it’s hard to justify hammerless climbing. Why make a hard aid route even harder by leaving behind some crucial gear? I guess as Lito Tejada-Flores would say it’s just another game climbers play. Pitches that were easy on pegs now became M7 and we weren’t at the crux rurp pitch yet! I led all the hard pitches with grades of M6, M7 and M8. When we finished, we ran into Roland Pauligk, whose home-made nuts had helped to solve the crux, and convinced him he should make a smaller size. Thus the RP size 0 was born.
One new face on the Queensland scene was Coral Bowman. The expatriate American spent some time working with Rick White in his growing Mountain Designs business but found time to make the hardest female ascents in the country, including Insomnia and Black Light at Frog Buttress. Two years later in 1978, she was regularly climbing the hardest routes graded then at 24—and put up a new climb at Maggies Farm on Mt Maroon, Little Queen, grading it 22. Rick White teamed up with Greg Child in 1978 on the 10th anniversary of the discovery of the cliff to climb Decade, and do the first free ascent of Impulse, grading it 24. Boundaries are there to be pushed and in April that year, Chris Peisker climbed Australia’s first grade 25, Ostler, at Bundaleer in the Grampians. It was the country’s hardest climb for just five months—Kim Carrigan found Procul Harum at Mt Arapiles in September, pushing the grade up to 26.

Illustration: The Mountain Designs logo.

White punks on chalk

Over the Christmas-New Year period in 1974-75, Rick White and Robert Staszewski made a bold attempt to climb a new route on the FitzRoy in Patagonia. Surviving a near-death experience with a huge loose block, they returned to Australia where White set about expanding his climbing equipment business and Mountain Designs was born. A few months after their return, 21 year old Boston climber Henry Barber arrived in Brisbane at the start of a short climbing holiday in Australia. White had met him in the Yosemite Valley, two years earlier. Barber introduced two new elements into Australian climbing, both destined to create controversy—gymnasts’ chalk, used to improve a climber’s finger grip on small and sloping holds, and a new climbing ethic. Barber (pictured) left Australia six weeks later with an impressive record: 14 new ascents, 39 climbs on which he eliminated aid, and claiming the hardest route in the country. The use of chalk caused a major debate. Victorian climber Nic Taylor had returned from a season in Yosemite around the same time as Barber and he, too, was sold on the magical qualities of the white powder. But many local climbers, including Rick White, spurned the use of chalk for years, arguing in part that the unsightly tell-tale white marks climbers left in their wake was like a series of ‘how-to’ dots others could simply follow up a cliff.

New ethics, new debates

But it was Barber’s ethical style that was the biggest challenge to local techniques. It had become common practice by then for hard climbs to be put up by ‘hang-dogging’, either falling or resting on a runner, then starting to climb again from that point. If Barber rested or fell on a runner, he always lowered off, pulled the rope through, and started from the bottom again. He was brimming with confidence and frequently used long, unprotected runouts. It was this latter aspect of Barber’s climbing ethics that appealed to Ian Thomas and Keith Bell who teamed up to do a series of long, serious climbs in the Warrumbungles and the Blue Mountains. Barber had a significant impact on many local climbers, if only in changing their attitudes on dress sense. Almost overnight, everyone seemed to be climbing in white cotton trousers! The debate over the impact of ‘Hot Henry’s’ visit was very much alive three years after his brief visit when the first edition of the climbing magazine, Rock, was launched, edited by Chris Baxter. Strangely, Queensland climbing did not rate a mention, despite Rick White's support for the venture through a full page Mountain Designs' advertisement. Meanwhile in the deep north, Trevor Gynther had been busy developing new rhyolite cliffline near Binna Burra with various partners, calling it Whitenbah Wafers. Competition for new climbing areas was keen and one of Gynther’s tactics was to name and grade the best lines before he had climbed them! The Brisbane Rockclimbing Club Mark I was virtually defunct and it would be 10 years before Mark II emerged. The collapse seemed to be catching as across the continent, the Climbing Association of Western Australia, too, folded. It would not re-emerge until encouraged by visits from the east coast by Kim Carrigan in 1986, and Mike Law and Louise Shepherd, three years later.

Illustration: 1st issue of Rock, 1978.

Bootlaces and Beerwah

Ian Thomas (pictured) and Robert Staszewski teamed up in 1973 and almost immediately took on the hardest classics in southeast Queensland. One of their chosen climbs was a long bolt route Sid Tanner had put up through the Beerwah overhangs in the Glasshouses. It turned into an epic with them spending an unplanned, rainy night on the climb and having to bail out, leaving their gear behind on the face. The recovery process proved to be a challenge, as Thomas recalls:
It led to the singularly most dangerous thing I have ever done in climbing which was abseiling over the whole thing, tying three ropes together and tying them to small bushes at the top—because that’s all there was—and throwing it over, so there’re three rope lengths hanging down. I lurched off the top one—it was my old Miller’s rope—and the friction was incredible. And I sort of ground my way down to the overhang, dropped below the overhangs and you’re way out in space. I couldn’t obviously get back in 50 feet to get the gear so I just had to keep on going down. I went down another 20 feet and suddenly came to a knot and realised I had no idea how to get over a knot. What was this? I was spinning around and around. I didn’t have any tapes to make a prussik loop or anything like that. I didn’t know how to do it. In the end, I took off one shoe and took the lace out of it and made a little loop to stand in and then that took my weight off and I was hanging by one hand from the knot and unclipped the carabiner from above the knot. So I was hanging totally by one hand 300 feet off the ground. But my foolish mistake was that the second rope was a 9 mm and I’d only clipped in one cross crab so I basically fell the next 150 feet down onto the next knot—dong! [laughs] Squeak’s eyes were out on stalks. And mine were as well.
Surviving Beerwah, Thomas eventually moved south to Mt Victoria in the Blue Mountains to run a retail outlet for Rick White’s expanding climbing business although strangely, even though it was in the thick of climbing activity there, it never really seemed to succeed. Back in Queensland, Steve Bell and Dave Kahler continued climbing new routes at Mt Maroon, Frog Buttress and the cliffs on Ngungun while more new names appeared on new route descriptions—Kim Carrigan, Trevor Gynther, Rhys Davies and Joe Friend. Meanwhile, Robert Staszewski had turned his attention to Girraween, climbing the first of hundreds of routes there he found over the next two decades.

Picture: Ian Thomas collection.

First Australian ascents in Yosemite

Rick White at Frog Buttress in 1973 shortly after returning from becoming the first Australian to climb both The Nose and the Salathe Wall in Yosemite National Park. And his matter of fact assessment of the Yosemite experience? ‘It didn’t particularly influence me because there was nothing there that we weren’t doing. It was just bigger. I guess it was an introduction to big wall climbing and it’s a different game, suitable for places like Patagonia and even the Himalayas, where I went later.’ On his return to Queensland, White found Ted Cais had linked up with Ian Thomas after the Porter’s Pass climbing meet and the three of them began to push the limits at Frog Buttress again, making the first free ascent of Corner of Eden, and climbing new routes like Venom, Child in Time and Black Light.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

Into the maw of The Minotaur

One of the strongest memories of the Porter’s Pass climbing meet for Ted Cais was his second ascent with Rick White of the intimidating John Ewbank classic wall climb, The Minotaur. ‘Rick and I had been thugging up cracks for most of the time on our Easter 1973 national climbing meet so I was more than ready to indulge in my preferred edging style,’ he remembers. ‘That night, while everyone else was quaffing quarts of ale at the Mt.Victoria pub, I retreated into my mind seeing myself sailing away on the line of thin edges past the notorious loose flake. And so it was the next day, but first I launched out with no gear except for hammer and lost arrows to place the one key pin at the flake (pictured) before reversing back to finally gear up and go.’

Picture: Ted Cais collection.
Porter's Pass climbing meet

With the interstate climbing ‘war’ at its peak, a large contingent of Queensland and Victorian climbers joined their New South Wales colleagues at the Easter 1973 climbing meet at Porter’s Pass. One emerging new climber at the time was Ian Thomas or ‘Humzoo’—the nickname stemming from his early penchant for playing the voice-generated instrument called the ‘hum-a-zoo’. He recalls being aware of the interstate rivalry well before he met any of the protagonists. ‘I remember pissing myself laughing at articles by Greg Sheard about him chopping bolts,’ he recalls. ‘So in ’71 when Squeak [Robert Staszewski] and I went down there, the first thing we did was not climbing, but we got our hammers out and chopped bolts. It just seemed to be the thing to do!’ To the exuberant Thomas and the ambitious Staszewski, it was simply good fun. Thomas recalls the interstate tension at the Porter’s Pass climbing meet when, in front of a highly critical audience, Chris Baxter retreated from Flake Crack, packed up his car and left. ‘That Queensland versus the south is mirrored in the wider community, too,’ he muses. ‘Maybe we were enacting something which is there culturally anyway. I’m not sure.’ With the hostilities at their peak, Thomas delighted in fanning the flames, referring to Grampians’ classics as ‘loose, crumbly lines on Mt Crumblebar in the Crapians’. It did little to improve interstate relations but it was the source of great mirth.

Picture: Ted Cais, Rick White, Trevor Gynther and Rick Jamieson contemplating the great climbs on the steep walls around Amen Corner at Wirindi, 1973. Ted Cais collection.

Beyond the Buttress

The first recorded climb on the Girraween granite near Stanthorpe—Late Afternoon Flake (pictured)—by Dave Gillieson and Richard Sullivan. Gillieson recalls the moment:
Right at the lip I had to take time to place a small leeper bolt, more psychological protection than real. Surprisingly this held a fall on the first free attempt later on. Beyond that, the angle eased, and I was able to reach a small ledge about two centimetres wide. From there, the crack continued cleanly for thirty metres, just off vertical but with a rounded edge. I laybacked about ten metres up to a point where a chockstone allowed me to stand and enjoy the situation. It was an exciting lead and very committed, with a fair bit of rope drag. From there, an off width crack continued, the angle easing all the while, to the upper slope of the dome. I brought Richard up to me and we soloed up to the top. We scrambled down off the dome as the sun set, the rock glowing ruby red in the twilight. That night we downed a bottle of the local rough red and celebrated a fine climb.
Over the next 15 years, around 1,000 new routes were put up there with Sullivan, Robert Staszewski, and brothers Stuart and Scott Camps involved in most of them. Steve Bell, who was active at Frog Buttress and in developing the cliffs on Ngungun, in the Glasshouses, linked up with Lesley Rivers to climb a new route, Urea Crack. Meanwhile in central Australia, Andrew Thomson and Keith Lockwood climbed 140 metres up the Kangaroo Tail on Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) before being ordered down by a park ranger.

Picture: Dave Gillieson collection
Coomera Gorge: 1st descent

In December 1972 in the heat of another Queensland summer, Donn Groom, Ted Cais and I decided to try something entirely different—a descent of the Coomera River Gorge from its source in the border ranges of Lamington National Park. Donn had pioneered abseiling into the Coomera crevice for guests at Binna Burra lodge years before, but no one had made a descent of the entire gorge. We started our journey at the headwaters—where the graded walking track crosses the barely-flowing stream. One hundred metres into the scramble we had our first swim across a pool of dark green, freezing mountain water. Around us the lush, deep green vegetation hung from the walls and small waterfalls sprayed into the gorge on both sides from dizzying heights. It was a magnificent place. We swam through several more rock pools and slid down a huge log angled down a steep cataract before reaching our first impasse—an overhanging waterfall, disappearing into the dark depths of the canyon. Ted started the abseil and swung heavily into the cliff under a big overhanging rock, finally shouting from below above the roar of the water that he was safe. Donn and I followed, discovering that the rope ran out about four metres above the surface of the pool below us. Pulling the rope down after us meant that we were committed—there was no easy way back from here. And there was no other option—we had to jump. Donn went in first, taking one end of the rope with him and we sent our waterproofed packs across to the other side of the pool on a makeshift flying fox. We could hear the water boiling ahead of us and it suggested one thing—another big drop. And it was! A sinuous water race plunging 50 metres into an unseen pool below. The roar was incredible and we had to shout at the top of our voices to be heard above it. It was a slippery, sliding descent, festooned with long strands of algae of the deepest green. The sheer walls, rising up perhaps 100 metres above us, were matted with a wild array of different kinds of vegetation. Donn left his pack behind for this one. When Ted and I reached him, he was on a small ledge, six metres above the pool. Another jump—the third so far.

The Hidden Falls

Donn peered over the edge of the next big drop—it was steep, partly overhanging, and he thought he recognised it as the Hidden Falls—the last big drop in the canyon before the 70 metre Coomera Falls. He had looked up at the lip of the canyon where we now stood many times before, wondering what it was like up here. Now he knew. And for the first time, we looked down into the Coomera Crevice. But there was a problem—there was nowhere close to the top of the falls to anchor our abseil rope. Donn hammered in an angle piton and was set to use this but Ted and I spotted a large tree about six metres above him on the side of the gorge. I cut 20 metres from the emergency rope we carried—an old No 3 laid nylon—and we made a long sling, linking the tree and the peg. We threaded our two 40 metre ropes through the sling and Donn disappeared over the edge. His shouts from below confirmed it was the Hidden falls and he was down—we had made it. We quickly joined him and swam through the pool, wading downstream to the top of the Coomera Falls, descending it in two abseils. After a quick lunch, it was a one kilometre rockhop downstream to the start of the ‘Mystery Track’, a steep climb up near-vertical slopes, swinging off small trees and tree roots. It was a fast way into and out of the Coomera Gorge discovered some years before. We arrived back at Binna Burra Lodge seven hours after we had left.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

Queensland takes
the lead...again

From the early 1970s, Rick White continued to push the boundaries of hard aid and free climbing in Australia, driven by a strong ego and a powerful drive to reach the top echelons of his calling. By 1972, he was ready to take the lead and with Ron Collett and Ted Cais, they climbed a direct start to Beau Brummell on Mt Maroon's big east face. White wrote: ‘The route is significantly harder than all other routes I have ever experienced. The climb is awkward and sustained jamming up a 30 degree overhanging corner-crack which runs straight into a roof (aid). There are no rests. Once the roof is reached, the idea is to hang off one lousy hand jam and quickly place the first aid—you have approximately 15 seconds to solve the situation.’ They called it Valhalla and graded it 22 M2—the hardest in Australia. A few months later, Bryden Allen eliminated the aid moves from The Kraken at Wirindi (formerly Mt Piddington) in the Blue Mountains, creating Australia’s second grade 22 climb. White made the second free ascent of The Kraken a short time later, confirming that Valhalla was its equal.

Working on Maggie’s Farm

In May that year, Rick White and Ted Cais blitzed a new climbing area on the southeast corner of Mt Maroon which they called Maggie’s Farm. Along with a queue of other top climbers at the time—Coral Bowman, Chris Peisker, Ron Collett and John Hattink—they steadily climbed one new route after another. In a matter of days, White and Cais climbed 23 new routes at the cliff, commuting each day from Frog Buttress where a national climbing meet had attracted about 20 people from interstate and overseas. During that event, White put up Conquistador with Sydney climber Warwick Williams—Queensland’s first and Australia’s second Grade 21. White completed his Maroon odyssey with a solo mixed free and aid girdle traverse of the east face in November, calling it Animal Act, finishing up the classic, Ruby of India. Frog Buttress was not forgotten but climbing had slowed there. Nevertheless, White and Cais led more hard new routes including Elastic Rurp, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Noose, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Iron Mandible.

Picture: Tony Kelly, Greg Sheard, Rick White and Ron Collett sort gear on Mt Maroon. Within weeks, White and Collett joined with Ted Cais to climb Valhalla. Michael Meadows collection.