Thursday, September 08, 2005

Hooked on climbing

This is the story of adventure climbing in Australia—a philosophical approach to exploring the landscape that barely survives in the new millennium. But it is equally the story of special groups of people who developed a special relationship with their local environment.
Like many others you will hear from in my story, I moved into climbing through bushwalking. With my brothers Chris and Tony, I climbed Mt Barney for the first time in the winter of 1966, beginning a lasting association with that peak which has seen us climb it by various routes close to 100 times. And like many young climbers, we read anything to do with climbing we could lay our hands on. One of our great inspirations was the University of Queensland Bushwalking Club magazine, Heybob, which, over the years, has documented the exploits of some of the early pioneers of climbing in Queensland. We began retracing their steps and in February 1968, we climbed the first ascent of the north face of Leaning Peak on Mt Barney—a 410 metre climb over two days on steep slabs of granophyre which entailed a bivouac on a ledge 60 metres from the summit. We were hooked!

Sharing the country

Indigenous people explored many of the high places in Australia for millennia before the white settler invasion. Creation stories inscribe every aspect of the landscape into Indigenous cosmology and some describe ascents of various peaks, often with dire consequences for those who ventured beyond the lowlands. Sharing the country with the original custodians demands a particular kind of respect for such places and consideration of the impact of activities like climbing. The climbers and their stories you will read about over the next few months often were the first Europeans to explore other well-known crags in eastern Australia. The definition of what has become one of the world's most popular extreme sports has constantly changed since human beings took the first faltering steps towards the heights. However, the impact of globalisation has made differences within a country like Australia perhaps less obvious over the past two decades.

The map is from J. G. Steele (1984) Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press.Posted by Picasa

Researcher-climber Robert Thomson who has spent years trawling through archival materials to gather much of the information presented in this blog.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

'The living rock'

The nature of climbing in Australia varies significantly from state to state. Queensland has a climate generally more favourable than most for year-round activity with the exception of a few steamy, sub-tropical summer months. A defining feature of many of the crags that became so attractive to climbers in Queensland was the presence of significant vegetation—from the smallest algae and lichen to large trees, splitting the rock. This ‘living rock’ is a particular of Queensland climbing, particularly on the low-angled cliffs where Queensland climbing culture was created (see ejournalism for a more detailed discussion of this). But regardless of differences in the terrain, there is no doubt that Australian climbing is a product of many different influences, both global and local. A distinctly Australian form of climbing that has developed on crags across the country over the past 175 years has drawn heavily from its European and North American origins. But each climbing community around Australia and beyond has its own stories, its own histories. This story is an attempt to tell the story of one relatively small community in a particular place, tracing the origins of climbing through the eyes of those who ‘invented’ it. I will rely on photographs and observations from almost 100 different climbers—some have passed on, others still feel the lure of the heights, and a handful are still out there climbing.

On almost any evening in the centre of the Queensland capital, Brisbane, rockclimbers gather at Kangaroo Point cliffs to scale a floodlit 25 metre high cliff overlooking the Brisbane River. This level of activity is a relatively recent phenomenon in the long history of climbing in Queensland. It is only in the past decade or so that rockclimbing has become attractive and accessible to almost anyone across the country. The number of female climbers in Australia has been growing steadily and only now is approaching the proportions who regularly climbed on the crags of southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales throughout the 1930s. The arrival of the European phenomena of first, sport, then gym climbing have been catalysts for the spectacular increase in the numbers of climbers—particularly women—now tackling the hardest of an estimated 35,000 recorded climbing routes in Australia.
The author/blogger

...enjoying life on Scarab, Bundaleer, in 2000.

Picture: By Ian Thomas, Michael Meadows collection Posted by Picasa