Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The challenge of the Fly Wall

New South Wales identity Dr Eric Dark (pictured at the top of the cliff) headed a small group of local climbers called the Blue Mountaineers. As the name suggests, the Blue Mountains west of Sydney were their playground. The group, also known as the Katoomba Suicide Club, had devised a test climb that all new members had to complete before being allowed to join. It was up a steep, eight metre sandstone wall—the Fly Wall—and the Queensland contingent visiting the area in 1934 was champing at the bit to have a go. But there was a problem—Eric Dark insisted they use a rope tied around their chests as a belay. ‘I put the rope on,’ Salmon recalled, ‘and then I took it off!’ Eric Dark, the president of the Blue Mountaineers, retorted: ‘You won’t!’ Ignoring him, Salmon replied: ‘I am going to try, anyway,’ and he started up the climb unroped, to the horror of the Blue Mountaineers looking on. ‘I tried my level best for Queensland and for my own reputation,’ Salmon said, ‘and I succeeded in climbing to the top of the wall without the rope. That was the first time it had ever been done! Dr Dark was amazed.’ Now it was Salmon’s climbing partner George Fraser’s turn. He dutifully tied the rope around his chest and started up the wall but after a few metres, the feisty Scot (pictured above) shouted, ‘Blimey, ‘I’m going to climb it without the rope, too!’ In true ethical style, he downclimbed to the base of the wall, flung off the rope, and climbed it ‘as surefooted as one of those mountain chamois that roam the Alps in Switzerland’. The Fly Wall was noted for its ‘rudimentary’ finger and foot holds and at one point, climbers had to jump for the next hold. A miss would have seen the Queenslanders injured or worse. Salmon and Fraser had shown-up the locals, perhaps the catalyst for the interstate climbing rivalry that persists today.

Picture: A. A. Salmon collection.

Brisbane climber Muriel Patten on the final few metres of the first female (and unroped) ascent of the 1st Sister in the Blue Mountains in 1934. She was one of a large group of Queensland women climbing at this time as part of the first mass climbing movement in Australia.
Picture: A. A. Salmon collection.Posted by Picasa
Women's place on the heights

Women found themselves at the centre of Australian climbing culture throughout the 1930s with Queensland hosting the first and most extensive mass climbing movement in the country. The Blue Mountains was the only other place in Australia where some climbing activity was underway but the unique and extraordinary movement in Queensland saw large numbers of men and women, in roughly equal proportions, regularly scaling the heights in southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales. Bert Salmon and his cohort of climbers had formed an informal club in 1926—the first known climbing group in Australia. Women’s prowess on the rock was obvious and acknowledged in newspaper and magazine articles of the day. With women regularly making the most difficult ascents in southeast Queensland, they began to seek new horizons and in January 1934, 16 Queenslanders travelled to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains on a ‘rock-climbing holiday’. They met with the doyen of New South Wales climbing, Eric Dark, and he showed them his favourite climbing locations, including the Three Sisters, the Boar’s Head at Narrow Neck, and Orphan Rock. Early one Sunday morning, with 300 people watching from a nearby lookout, Salmon and 21 year old Muriel Patten climbed the first of the Three Sisters. The Katoomba Daily was impressed:

Miss Muriel Patten, a petite and daring Brisbane girl, claims a record: that she is the only woman to scale the first of the Three Sisters. One section of this climb is extremely difficult and hazardous: particularly for a lady…The Dr [Dark] informs us that, to his knowledge, no lady has previously scaled the first of the Three Sisters although there are several instances of ladies attaining the summit of the second and third members of the group…To make the job complete, Messrs Salmon, Fraser and Rogers, (accompanied by Sid Marsh, Katoomba) scaled each of the Sisters and, to lend a touch of novelty, Mr Fraser
played Scottish airs on the bagpipes. A big crowd was present at Echo Point and watched intently the progress of the daring climbers—Miss Patten in particular.

The success of Muriel Patten on the Three Sisters and the publicity it received in Brisbane and Sydney probably spurred her good friend, Jean Easton, into action. Shortly after dawn on the 11 March that year, she made the second female ascent of the 1st Sister, climbing with two of the Blue Mountaineers but this time, using a rope. Brisbane’s Courier-Mail praised her accomplishment this time:

Another Brisbane girl has made mountaineering history. Miss Jean Easton, of the Department of Agriculture and Stock, is the second woman to scale the perilous Katoomba crag known as the first of the Three Sisters. Less than two months ago Miss Muriel Patten while on a holiday visit to Katoomba achieved the honour of being the first woman to perform the feat. Miss Easton who is a fellow employee of Miss Patten at the Department of Agriculture, is also an enthusiastic mountain climber, and has been a member of parties that have scaled most of the difficult peaks in Southern Queensland. She has the reputation of being one of the best lady mountaineers in the State.

And Jean Easton’s reason for climbing? She replied succintly: ‘There is a thrill in seeing a view with which few other people have had the opportunity of becoming acquainted.’

Picture: A typical climbing group on Tibrogargan in 1935, Nancy Hodge collection.
The first Queensland climbing fatality

Newspapers in Brisbane and beyond reported the first climbing fatality in Queensland on New Year’s Eve, 1928—that of 22-year-old Lyle Vidler. He was transfixed by the possibility of climbing a new route on Mt Lindesay up what was called ‘the Great Chimney’, a huge crevice (pictured left) that split the cliff on the mountain’s eastern side. Vidler had left Brisbane alone by train on Christmas Eve, cycling to the mountain, and when no word had been heard from him three days later, a search began. As the party climbed the steep grass slopes towards the cliffline, an eerie mist hung in the air. Bert Salmon, who was among the searchers, climbed to the summit alone and finding no evidence that Vidler had reached it, knew where to look next:

Reaching the crevice at its base, I climbed about 50 ft, and then saw the body of my friend suspended in the crevice far above me. When I reached the place, I found that the body had been caught between the base of a large stinging tree and one of the walls of the rock chimney. It was held from under the armpits by vines and a number of dead branches. The haversack, torn from the body lay a few feet away. From the moment I reached him I was convinced that Mr Vidler had been killed instantly.
Just after midnight on New Year’s Day, 1929, the rescue party received permission to bury him at the base of the crevice, where he lies today.

Picture: A. A. Salmon collection.
Climbing 'the living rock'

In early November 1927, Bert Salmon (pictured), now 28, and Lyle Vidler, 21, set out to climb one of the last virgin summits in Queensland—Egg Rock. They caught the train to Nerang and walked 35 kilometres into the Upper Numinbah valley. An inspired Lyle Vidler recalled the evening: ‘Darkness fell long before we spied the light of the inn at Advance Town but a glorious full moon illuminated the dusty road and the dim aisles of the bush, whilst the purling rapids of the Upper Nerang sang in our ears as we plodded along to the incessant chirrup of crickets, and other small bush sounds…After a short walk, we were rewarded with a first glimpse, through the tree tops, of the goal which had drawn us so far on foot. A few hundred yards brought us to a clearing from which we had an uninterrupted view of this tremendous rocky column. Bathed in the flood of moonlight with the star-studded velvety sky above and the high mountain walls beyond, the Egg Rock suggested a huge antediluvian monster of unheard-of dimensions rearing his colossal head in an endeavour to overlook the confines of his primeval domain.’ They were up at dawn next morning and began their climb, unroped, as Vidler recounts: ‘Slowly we advanced up the sheer wall, aided here and there by the presence of stunted and hardy plants which projected invitingly from small cracks in the living rock.’ After around 100 metres of climbing, they reached the summit at five past six in the morning. The two friends built a cairn around the trunk of ‘a small oak’, a flag pole for what had become Salmon’s traditional calling card—a small Union Jack.

Picture: A. A. Salmon collection.