Friday, September 16, 2005

Federation Peak

One of the few remaining unclimbed summits in Australia, Federation Peak in southwest Tasmania, became the focus of postwar attention in the south. As early as 1946, Tasmanian Bill Jackson had attempted to reach the top and on a second attempt in January 1947 with Leo Luckman, got to within 60 metres of the summit. Carrying no rope, they were forced to turn back in bad weather. It was left to a team from Geelong College in Victoria—Bill Elliot, Fred Elliot, and Allan Rogers, led by John Bechervaise—to reach the summit on 27 January 1949 by what is now called the Bechervaise Gully. The team completed their ascent during a spell of perfect weather, climbing a chimney on the southeastern face. Bechervaise described the climb:
For the first one hundred and twenty feet there was a long lead with an awkward step out of a “sentry- box” across a sloping slab, but safety of the party was assured by a “running belay” through a chock-stone wedged deep in a crack. Above this there is the first good stance, after which a slight overhang must be negotiated within sixty feet or so. This is fairly strenuous. After this, the climb becomes much less difficult and a very steep gulch, amply provided with holds, leads, in about four hundred feet, to the summit.
The first woman to climb the peak was Shirley Ward, who led a team to the top the following year. Bechervaise went on to become a distinguished Antarctic explorer, as well as a consultant to the Australian outdoors magazine, Walkabout.

Picture: Len Brazall on a gendarme near the summit of Federation Peak in 1953. Jon Stephenson collection.

Geoff Goadby on the steep, loose east face of Mt Warning in 1949. This was his second ascent of the face with Raoul Mellish and Reg Ballard. Drawing on his yachting experiences, Goadby was instrumental in introducing the use of ropes for climbing in post-war Queensland.

Picture: Raoul Mellish collection.Posted by Picasa
The Waring ledge

Brisbane-based Bob Waring had climbed Mt Barney several times by 1949 and his friend Jon Stephenson mentioned a possible route to the summit of Leaning Peak along a steeply-sloping ledge which ran out across the top of the 500 metre north face. Waring recalls: ‘I decided to check this out without delay, and was soon there by myself inching along the ledge, initially quite wide, but decreasing to a foot or so directly above the sheer wall down to the distantly whispering creek above the Portals. I was then confronted by a short vertical pitch, with a 15 foot high pile of thick slabs on its right side, appearing solid enough to chimney up against to the summit. I pushed against them with my right hand to confirm this, and had to immediately flatten against the wall as the whole lot collapsed and engulfed me in a large cloud of acrid rock dust as they jack-knifed out into space and spent the next 10 minutes thundering down into the gorge. I then climbed the wall and was on the summit of Leaning Peak, exactly 14 minutes since stepping on to the ledge. Rapelling down about 80 feet to the small saddle, I joined my bushwalking (only) companion waiting there, and we returned to camp.’ Although Raoul Mellish accompanied Waring on the trip to Mt Barney, he believed it would have been ‘madness’ to follow him along the ledge. Following this achievement, Waring gained a reputation for being a bold climber and later repeated the route—known as the Waring Ledge—with John Comino.

Picture: Pat Conaghan collection.
The end of an era

World War II (1939-1945) virtually stopped climbing around the world, apart from specialised mountaineering training given to troops in Europe and the United States. Bert Salmon had dropped out of the climbing scene just before the war with his stubborn rejection of roped climbing, placing limits on what was possible. As he approached 40, Salmon described ‘mountain climbing’—as he called it—as safer than dodging motor cars, crossing the street. Ironically, 40 years later, he was struck by a motor car near his retirement home at The Grange in Brisbane and suffered an injury preventing him from visiting his beloved mountains. He had introduced hundreds of young men and women to climbing in Queensland and was active until the 1960s—the ‘spiritual father’ of Queensland climbing made his last trip up Mt Lindesay on 2 May 1964, his 27th ascent of the mountain! Described by some as arrogant and stubborn, even obnoxious, he was nevertheless a significant figure in the development of the first mass climbing movement in Australia. In 1980, Bert Salmon, aged 80, was still enthusiastic about climbing and the mountains of southeast Queensland, and explained that although he had never used a rope, his teams often carried one to help ‘inadequate’ climbers past difficult points. In his twilight years, he had a change of heart about the use of rope in climbing. ‘I’m older and I see the error of my ways,’ he confessed. ‘Not everyone has the ego that carried me through.’ He died on the 5 May 1982, aged 82.

Picture: Bert Salmon below Crookneck's east face. A. A. Salmon collection.
Between wars

Virtually all of the early mass climbing activity in Australia before World War II was in southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales with Bert Salmon and his coterie the instigators. Eric Dark inspired a smaller group of climbers to make first ascents in the Blue Mountains and Warrumbungles and in the late 1920s, two key figures emerged in Tasmania—Fred Smithies and Gustav Weindorfer. Smithies climbed around 80 peaks in the state, adopting the same unroped style as the Queensland cohort. He made the first recorded winter ascent of Cradle Mountain in 1924 and reached the summit of Frenchman’s Cap in 1931. Like his Queensland climber-photographer counterpart, Bert Salmon, Smithies captured many of his exploits on film. Apart from a handful of isolated ascents, climbing was virtually unknown in the rest of the country until after World War II. Anticipating the end of hostilities, the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club formed in 1944—the year that climbing in Victoria formally began. Compared with the standards of climbing in Europe and the United States at the time, activity here was very limited. But it was a period in which Australia was experimenting with its own version of climbing. Eric Dark and his Blue Mountaineers adopted European traditions that accepted the logic of belaying and the safety factor implicit in the use of ropes. Salmon and many of the Queenslanders followed a purist climbing ethic, akin to pioneers like American John Muir in Yosemite and some of the early Lake District climbers in England. It led to different directions in the development of climbing in Queensland and New South Wales. Although mass climbing in Victoria started almost two decades years after activity in Queensland and New South Wales, from the beginning it adopted a ‘modern’ approach in terms of use of ropes and protective equipment like pitons and quickly emerged from its slumber.

Picture: Queensland climbers in the Blue Mountains 1934 serenaded by George Fraser on bagpipes. Ken Rogers collection.

The 1st ascent of the Arethusa Falls

In 1931, the Blue Mountaineers set out on their biggest challenge—the first ascent of Arethusa Falls in the Grose Valley. The first attempt by Osmar White, Lowe and Jim Starkey in August 1930 ended in failure as darkness caught them before they had reached the crux—the cliffs above the falls. The following year, Dark, White, Lowe and Starkey set off again, and although delayed by heavy rain, climbed to the top of the falls and camped there for the night. Next morning, they surveyed the 100 metre cliff above them. Eric Lowe was optimistic:
The climb to the first ledge looked possible if we could get to the top of a massive rock about 30ft high. After many attempts we managed to throw a rope across a projecting point of the rock, and with a man on each end of the rope pulling it into the side of the cliff, I went up hand over hand. The top of the rock was a reasonably wide and flat platform with a grass tree growing on it. To this I attached the rope and Dr Dark came up to me. But what had looked possible from below proved utterly impossible when tried from the top of the rock.
From the top of the rock, they could see a solution. Jim Starkey had to swim 50 metres in a strong current across the pool at the base of a waterfall and then edge up the cliff where he was able to lower a rope to their ledge. Dark and Lowe pulled up on the rope and they were within striking range of the top. But the battle was not over yet. Eric Dark took the lead, as Lowe related:
It was a very fine climb. He started along a narrow crack that just gave toe space, with a similar crack 6ft above for his hands. These two cracks ran parallel across the sheer face of the cliff, gradually rising to a projecting tongue of rock. He worked along slowly and carefully; the projecting tongue was extremely difficult and the least error in judgment meant disaster. The climber’s body was forced out by the jutting rock, and balance was tested to the utmost…From this point he zigzagged up a narrow track that sloped so steeply as to make the last 30ft of climbing the most dangerous of all. We were very relieved and elated when he reached the top of the ledge. We came up ourselves with a safety rope around our waists.
At the top of their climb, they traversed to make a final pitch out of the gorge. At the base of the last cliff, they found a long, dead sapling with steps cut into it. Clearly someone else had visited this area before. They leaned the sapling up against the cliff and used it to scramble to the top. Creative use of rope techniques and a passion for a first ascent had come together to reward them.