Wednesday, October 05, 2005

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.

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