Monday, September 12, 2005

The 'spiritual father' of Queensland climbing

Albert Armitage 'Bert' Salmon was born in Queensland on the numerically-auspicious date of 9.9.1899 and started climbing while in his early 20s. He has often been referred to as ‘the spiritual father of Queensland climbing’ but his influence was much broader. He started the first climbing club in Australia around 1926 and made several visits to the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, in the early 1930s on climbing trips. He and New South Wales counterpart, Dr Eric Dark, are the pre-eminent figures in influencing the development of climbing in Australia between the wars (World War I and World War II). Salmon and his cohort most probably were influenced by the ethics of early British gritstone climbers like Dean Frankland and Fergus Graham, renowned for their preference for soloing climbs in the Lake District around this time. In the early 1920s, the modern system of using a rope to safeguard a leader on a climb was virtually unknown in Australia. Like many climbers at that time, Salmon believed that using a rope on a climb was dangerous, and he had a point—without a reliable belay, a falling climber attached by a rope to others would more than likely pull everyone off the cliff. Although many felt Salmon took this attitude too far, the dogged Queenslander made a point of emphasizing the lack of reliance on a rope in the numerous accounts of his exploits from the late 1920s until World War II. Australia’s first mountaineer, Sydney climber Freda du Faur, wore an ankle-length skirt when she made the first female ascent of Mt Cook in New Zealand in 1912 and this fashion persisted in Australia until the late 1920s. But within a few years, a remarkable change would free women, in particular, of the long garments that had plagued them from their very first steps into the mountains. Throughout the 1930s, women were climbing in shorts and sandshoes in Australia and setting the trend that continues, albeit with some modifications, to this day.

Picture: A. A. Salmon collection.

The Clark sisters and companions on the summit of Crookneck, 1912:
the first female ascent. The picture is from Thomas Welsby's book,
The Discoverers of the Brisbane River, published in Brisbane in 1913Posted by Picasa
The first women on Crookneck

On Empire Day, 1912, the first women stood on the summit of Coonowrin or Crookneck (see photo above). Three sisters—Jenny, Sara, and Etty Clark—cycled from Brisbane with ‘male companions’ and began their attempt at dawn. They were joined by Willie Fraser, 22, an engineering student, Jack Sairs, a local, and George Rowley, a photographer. Wearing ‘voluminous gym clothes’, the three women began their climb up a new route on the mountain’s southwest corner, today known as Clark’s Gully. It is one of the earliest recorded uses in Australia of the now accepted technique of using a rope to belay climbers. They scrambled through small shrubs until an impasse required the use of the rope, where one of the women had ‘a rather exciting experience’: ‘The rope was let down through a crack in the rock at the side of which she was standing. As she stepped off onto another little corner the rock gave way and left her swinging for a moment in mid-air, some 100 ft above the ground. Fortunately, the rope was good, and in strong hands, and she soon gained a fresh foothold and she soon clambered into safety.’ The descent was uneventful and following a hearty lunch, the women insisted on cycling back to Brisbane—a 70 kilometre trip—arriving at 10 o’clock that night.
'The birth of

modern climbing'

Henry ‘Harry’ Mikalsen (pictured left) was born within sight of Coonowrin or Crookneck in the Glasshouses and as a boy, had searched the north face, working out a possible route to the summit. On 11 March 1910, climbing alone, he carefully picked his way up through the huge loose boulders and occasional overhangs and he was on top. The ‘unclimbable’ spire had fallen to a 23 year old local lad, attracting barely a mention in the local press: ‘The feat was not accomplished without difficulty and danger; but although he was urged by his friends and family not to make the attempt, he was fully determined to get to the top. Once there he was satisfied. He stayed for an hour on the summit, and made the descent without mishap. The trip took about three hours from start to finish, and as his home is at the foot of the mountain, he was watched with anxious eyes and could be seen the whole time.’ Mikalsen’s achievement was recognised in Thomas Welsby's writings—the first major historical work to include climbing activity in Queensland, possibly Australia—and Mikalsen's success on Crookneck is identified by some as the beginning of climbing ‘as a pastime’ in Australia.

Picture: The Discoverers of the Brisbane River, Thomas Welsby.
Archibald Meston in North Queensland

Towards the end of the 19th century, quirky Queensland adventurer Archibald Meston led several expeditions to explore the north Queensland rainforests, claiming the first ascent of numerous mountains in the region, despite sometimes conflicting information. He was a prolific writer, producing possibly the first extensive collection of writing about mountains and wilderness in Australia. As he stood on the summit of the second highest mountain in Queensland, Mt Bellenden Ker—claiming the first ascent in 1889—he was inspired, and responded in his characteristic style:
For some time not one of us could find a voice. All was distinctly visible, in the perfectly clear atmosphere, in a radius of, at least, 100 miles in all directions. We were silent in the awful presence of that that tremendous picture that had laid there unaltered since Chaos and the Earthquake painted it in smoke and flame and terror in the dark morning of the world! It was a hall of the Genii of the Universe, the Odeon of the eternal gods with its immortal floor paved with the green mosaic of land and ocean, and overhead the arched blue roof flashing in diamonds and prismatic radiance to the far skyline on the edge of
the dim horizon. Eastward rolled the calm Pacific, visible from the Palm Islands in the south to Cooktown in the north. The white surf breaking on the Barrier Reef was a long white line on the slumbering azure of the slumbering ocean.

The West Peak of Mt Barney

Harry Winifred Johns was a teacher at Milford School, a few kilometres north of Mt Barney. He was a very active man, passionate about mountains and used his bicycle to travel the countryside in search of adventure. He cycled to Sydney three times, once with his second wife. In 1904, aged 30, Johns and three companions scrambled to the summit of Mt Barney’s West Peak—the first recorded Europeans to stand there. Johns felt compelled to draw on his knowledge of the classics to describe the moment:
At length the eye, unable at first to accommodate itself to the unwanted range of vision, expands to receive picture after picture, grand in its immensity, glorious in its beauty, and—ah! the sea, the blue sea, plainly showing and looking like a wall far up above what appeared to be the horizon. At length a feeling of insecurity steals o’er one, and compels the gaze below. Oh, ‘how fearful and dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low.’ Below us is an almost unfathomable abyss, a sheer 2000 ft, the trees below diminished to shrubs, ‘almost too small for sight.’ The brain swims at the contemplation of the immeasurable depths, Tartaurus itself. ‘Bis patet in pracceps tantum tenditque sub umbrus. Quantus ad aetherium caeli suspectus Olympum.’
The translation of the quote in Latin, provided by emeritus Professor David Saunders of Griffith University, is: ‘The abyss opens twice as steeply and stretches into the shadows as looking to Olympus in high heaven.’ Clearly impressed by the huge cliffs on the south face of West Peak, Johns and his colleagues felt themselves being drawn close to the edge:

An invisible, awful spirit seems to beckon us on over the edge of the precipice, a frenzied impulse seizes us to leap far out over the abysm, out into the vacancy, down, down to glide smoothly and swiftly to Avernus, the reeling brain at rest for ever. ‘Facile descensus’ beats our ear, but with a start we recoil, and shudderingly draw back from the fearful sight, and hurriedly retreat from the dangerous proximity.
Resisting the urge to leap into oblivion, they built a cairn and left a shirt worn by a member of the party as a flag. Perhaps affected by the nature of the climb and their experience on top, they estimated the West Peak summit to be 180 feet (about 60 metres) higher than the East Peak!

Picture: From the summit of Leaning Peak, Michael Meadows collection.