Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Warrumbungles

Throughout the 1930s, Eric Dark pioneered climbing in the Warrumbungles, a group of spectacular volcanic spires in western New South Wales. In 1933, he returned the area with a group from the Sydney Bush Walkers, including Marie Byles and Dot English (later Dot Butler). English’s habit of walking and climbing barefoot gave the name to her autobiography published some years later—The Barefoot Bushwalker. She recalled the experience: ‘This was my first introduction to technical climbing. Accustomed to rushing up and over rock faces barefoot and unroped, jumping for likely-looking holds, swinging about on scant bits of vegetation growing out of the cliffs, it was a new (and somewhat painful) experience to be tied on to a restraining rope, hooked over impeding belays, obliged to ‘stop and make sure two holds are secure before relinquishing the third’. Eric Dark was impressed with her climbing ability and they set out to climb Crater Bluff (pictured above). With them was a Polish climber, ‘Mr Paszek’, nicknamed ‘Pan’, who had climbed in the Dolomites in his youth and in the Swiss Alps as a member of the Tatra Mountaineering Club. They walked around to the Green Glacier, on the southern side of the Bluff, carrying a 60 metre rope. The first 200 metres was easy and then they roped up. It was here that 'Pan' turned back. The lithe Dot English took the lead and climbed up a steep crack in the face. Dark led through and reached the top. Perhaps influenced by news of the practice in Queensland, they lit a small fire on the summit to alert local people of their success but the inevitable happened—it spread and they were cut off from their descent route. Dark had to piggyback English across the embers as she had no footwear. On the same trip, Dark and Eric Lowe climbed all but the last 60 metres of what is known today as Diagonal Route on the north face of Crater Bluff.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

The Katoomba Suicide Club

Sometime in 1929, 40 year old New South Wales doctor Eric Payten Dark began scrambling on the multicoloured sandstone cliffs at Narrow Neck in the Blue Mountains. He first climbed on the cliffs and waterfalls of the Shoalhaven River almost 20 years earlier while still a medical student at Sydney University. Dark saw a photograph of Mt Lindesay on the Queensland-New South Wales border in an atlas in 1911 and, like Lyle Vidler 15 years later, became fascinated with the idea of climbing it. He eventually reached the summit in 1913, making what was probably the first solo ascent. At the same time he climbed Mt Barney. Dark fought in World War I and returned from his experience, affected by Mustard gas and ‘deeply disturbed by the brutality and stupidity of trench warfare’. This experience no doubt had a profound affect on his developing socialist ideas. In 1922, he married his second wife Eleanor, destined to become one of Australia’s great historical novelists. The couple moved to the Blue Mountains in 1923. It is unclear what attracted Dark back to climbing but living amongst some of the most spectacular clifflines in Australia must have had an influence. By 1929, he had found climbing companions in writer Eric Lowe and a youthful Osmar White, as he recalled:
Lowe and I were 40, Eleanor more than a decade younger, and Osmar in his early 20s. We began with easy climbs on the Second and Third Sisters and the Orphan Rock. The more we climbed the more we liked it; so one evening, around a fire in our sitting room, we decided to form a club which we called the Blue Mountaineers. We adopted as our theme tune a fascinating little phrase from Petrushka, which was whistled as we walked to a climb.
This was the first rockclimbing club in New South Wales—the Sydney Bush Walkers had formed two years earlier in 1927—and included some local police. At that time, Eric Dark was unaware of climbing activities north of the New South Wales border nor of the association of climbers that had formed around Bert Salmon from 1926. The Blue Mountaineers included his two regular climbing partners as well as his wife, Eleanor, editor of the Blue Mountains Echo, Frank Walford, and Paddy and ‘Shrimp’ Carson. From the beginning, the Blue Mountaineers used rope and rudimentary belaying techniques—32 mm yacht manila or heavy sash-cord for their belays. They also used what they called their ‘unethical instrument’ to place belays in the galleries of Castle Point and on one pitch of the 1st Sister. It was ‘a two metre long ice axe with a deeply curved pick and a notch to hold the rope where the shaft entered the head’. They also experimented with some heavy locally-made pitons but abandoned them early on as impracticable. Eric Dark opposed the use of ironmongery and followed the doctrine of former English rockclimber Albert Mummery—that a rope should never be used as an aid for climbing but solely as a precautionary measure.

A record crowd of 15 people climb Crookneck, 3 September 1933

Queensland’s climbing women became big news in the 1930s. The 1934 efforts of Queensland climbers Muriel Patten and Jean Easton in snatching the first female ascents of the First Sister in the Blue Mountains from under the noses of their southern sisters was taken up by Brisbane newspapers with gusto. The Truth proclaimed: ‘This exploit astonished the less adventurous Southerners, who have not taken mountaineering so seriously, and did not realise that the Queensland girls have left the rest of Australia far behind in this exacting and exciting sport.’ There were many articles and photographs published in the local press about their exploits on the crags in southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales. One full-page story in the Brisbane Truth in 1934 featured glamorous studio photographs of these ‘modern maids of the mountain’. The story explained they were all members of a climbing club, started by Bert Salmon in 1926:

There are 15 girls attached to the club, among whom are several very capable and daring climbers…Jean Easton (Windsor) and Muriel Patten (Wooloowin) are the leaders of the women’s section. These two agile maids caused a stir recently when, during a holiday in the Blue Mountains, they accomplished some very dangerous and difficult climbing among the rocky pinnacles of those ranges…Miss Easton probably has done more mountaineering than any girl in Brisbane. She and a girl companion were the first two girls to reach the summit of Mount Lindesay (4300 feet) and holds a similar honour in connection with the treacherous eastern face of Tibrogargan (Glass House group)…Recently a party of 18 members of the club climbed the formidable east face of Tibrogargan and the precipitous heights of Crookneck in company with a Fox Film cameraman…The girls in the party were Jean Easton, Muriel Patten, Lexie Fraser, Hazel Rigby, Ena, Lydia and Kathleen Robinson, Shirley Miller, Ellinor Byth, Valerie North, Mary Hansen, and Sonia Dimes (of Beerburrum). The girls’ climbing attire consists of shorts, blouse or jumper, sandshoes and no stockings.

Picture: Cliff and Lexie Wilson collection.