Saturday, September 17, 2005

Climbing with 'the spiritual father'

The following edited account was published in the Italian Alpine Club journal, Lo Scarpone, in 1953. It is written by the former Italian Consul in Brisbane, Felice Benuzzi, a climber and author, who here describes his climbs in the Glasshouses with Bert Salmon in 1950. The translantion is by Dr Claire Kennedy of Griffith University.

Sea travellers who leave Brisbane with its flowering gardens, and Moreton Bay, infested with sharks, and turn north once at sea will see rising out of the mainland on the left a series of 10 very strange peaks, each one separate from the other. Captain Cook, who was the first European to see them about 200 years ago, called them the Glass House Mountains because they brought to his mind the outlines of glass houses in Yorkshire. I have never visited the glass factories in Yorkshire and I don’t know why they have such a curious form. These peaks that burst into the sky from the plain—one here, one there, as if by a very peculiar caprice on nature’s part—are different in form and height but none is higher than 500 metres. Beerwah, the highest and the easiest, has a pyramid shape with a rounded-off peak like a kind of crooked beret and vaguely resembles the Antelao.

‘Pity’, says Bertie, ‘that it’s not 2000 metres higher. What a beautiful mountain we would have close to the city. And up there, wouldn’t a little glacier be at home?’

‘I agree’, I answer, ‘but what would the pineapple growers have to say about having a glacier flowing under their feet. They’d have to change their trade.’

As the car travels along the road through a monotonous forest of eucalypts, we can see the other peaks. The nearest one is Tibrogargan—massive and round with red-brown rock in the first rays of the Spring sunshine. And further on, the absurd Coonowrin or Crookneck, that rises up from a conical base to look like the bell tower in the Campanile di Val Montanaia in the Dolomites. Bertie knows all these mountains like his own pockets. He’s been coming here for 30 years, off and on, in good weather and bad, and has explored all the faces. He’s bivouacked under the sheer cliffs and has taken up hundreds of young climbers in south Queensland who see him as an expert and lovable guide—a kind of spiritual father.

‘How is it,’ he said to me when I met him, ‘that you’ve been in Brisbane for almost a year and with your passion for mountains you haven’t yet been on the Glass House Mountains?’

‘I was waiting to go there with Bertie Salmon,’ I replied. ‘And now here we are.’


We arrive at the face of the virgin east wall of Crookneck that from close-up, looks like the petrified spray of a giant fountain. The layers fanning out reinfoirce this impression. It’s not stuff for our teeth—at least not today. The shadows are longer when we start climbing the usual route from the south. Spiny bushes sting our hands and the rock is crumbly. Bertie suggests a more interesting and direct variant where I realise very quickly that I am out of condition. The last time I touched rock was a year and a half ago at the rockclimbing school at Fountainbleu. ‘Damn old age!’ I stammer in Italian. In anger, I throw away into the empty air the holds that come off in my hand one by one. Bertie laughs and I have to draw on all of my national pride to keep up with the agile and thin Australian 50-year-old. The wall of the so-called variant is no higher than 25 metres and soon we are again on the usual route that takes us easily to the crest, free of vegetation, and onto the summit marked by a trigonometric structure visible from below.

The sun setting in a cloudless sky illuminates an enchanted panorama of nearby peaks with their strange Aboriginal names with meanings unknown even to Bertie—Tibrogargan, Beerwah, Ngungun, Tunbubudula Twins, Ewan, Miketeebumulgrai. Who knows? Maybe the Aborigines had legends and traditions linked to these mountains? But who would know them? They stand on a vast plain, covered by dense forest, interrupted here and there by cultivations of pineapples and the distant Pacific, now the colour of lead. Bertie extracts the summit log book from its cover and passes it to me. I open it curiously. What do these mountains say to those who were born and who grew up in this land?

On the first page there’s a memoir of the first climber, Henry Mikalsen in 1910, and a newspaper cutting of the time that describes that victory, that climb, in ingenuous and picturesque words. In the following pages I find the signature of my companion at least 20 times. Many are nocturnal ascents by the light of the moon via the usual route from the south; not many climbs from the west; and those from the north you can count on one hand. At least there are not those political references that abound in our summit log books and refuge books. There’s no ‘viva o morte’ [‘long live…’ or ‘death to…’]. Blessed Australia! But the usual stupidities confirm for me that humanity in the antipodes is not so different from those in the Alps or the Apennines. ‘We are the three musketeers’, write three young people. ‘If you want trouble, come to us!’ And their signatures and addresses follow. Two young immigrants apologise if they’re not yet able to express themselves in English and describe their enthusiasm in moving tones of German. No Italian names.

The sun is close to setting as we descend by the north face. Here, according to the summit log book, a solitary climber, thinking he was grasping a piece of jutting rock, instead grabbed the tail of a carpet snake—not a poisonous snake, fortunately, but eight feet long. Only at one point it is a bit delicate and we have to use the rope and after a brief but enjoyable climb we are at the base. The forest is quieter than ever now. The sky has become the purest colour of apricot. From a farm we can hear a woman singing as coming from another world. When we get to the car, in the infinitely clear night sky, the Milky Way blazes like the whoosh of a cold flame.

Alan Frost, Jon Stephenson, Geoff Goadby and Peter Barnes: 1st ascent of Glennies Pulpit in the Fassifern valley, 1954.

The climb was to farewell Stephenson who left to study in London a short time later. Peter Barnes, Geoff Goadby and Jon Stephenson established the first regular climbing routes on the lower cliff at Kangaroo Point in the area around the present day Cox’s Buttress. This core group of climbers were passionate about climbing and their experiences on the peaks of southeast Queensland. It was nothing for them to drop everything and jump on a motorbike and head out to the crags, almost regardless of the time. This extract from Peter Barnes’ diary captures something of the climbing culture that drew these young adventurers together:

Being a most glorious night and a full moon, Peter Marendy and I decided to ‘do’ Crooky. Just before we left at 8 pm, Tom Waters (who had never before had climbed a mountain) decided to come too. Set off on T’s 100 and made Glasshouse at 9.15 pm. Pulled up past Murphy’s and arrived at summit at 10.10 pm. Tom crossed the ledge without any trouble or hesitation at all, both on the way up and down. Scene was as lovely as ever…Saw 2 paddy melons in the track before Murphy’s. Arrived back 12.45 am.
Picture: Peter Barnes collection.Posted by Picasa

Jon Stephenson takes in the Hinchinbrook Island panorama en route to the 1st ascent of The Thumb on Mt Bowen, January 1953.
Picture: John Comino collection. Posted by Picasa

Hinchinbrook Is: the 1st ascent of The Thumb, 1953

One of the last sought-after unclimbed summits in Australia in 1952 lay just off the north Queensland coast on Hinchinbrook Island—the Thumb, a granite monolith high on a ridge of the Mt Bowen massif. In August that year, John Bechervaise led a team of schoolboys to the island on an Australian Geographical Society-sponsored trip, reaching 100 metres below the summit. In January 1953, a team from the University of Queensland Bushwalking Club stepped off the train at Ingham with the prize firmly fixed in their eye—Jon Stephenson, John Comino, Geoff Broadbent, Dave Stewart and Ian McLeod (pictured). Taking advantage of the track cut by the Bechervaise expedition, they made fast time and were soon confronted by the last great problem—climbing the cliff leading to the top of the Thumb. John Comino recalls:
I was going to take a flying leap at it but they said, “No! No! Don’t be silly”, or something. And dissuaded me from jumping across. It was about [1.5 metres] away and dropped away to nothing but I reckon I could have taken a running jump…woomph!…and stuck. I suppose that would have been foolish but I was quite confident I could do it, so I expected I would have. They dissuaded me from doing that. So we went around to the left…We must have had a rope because I helped the others up. It was a very open chimney, if that. A bit of muck had to scraped away and some vegetation. I ended up standing on Steve’s [Jon Stephenson’s] shoulders and getting the rubbish scraped away. It was fairly easy but required a little bit of gymnastics.
Once above the first difficult section of the cliff, Comino recalls they could see the summit looming above them in the sweltering tropical sky:
From here there proved to be an easy climb, without packs, to the top of the Thumb, and a cairn was built and capped with a three inch diameter quartz crystal we found lower down the ridge and brought up for just such an occasion. A magnificent view to the south stretched before us, down to Zoe Bay, flanked by its lush green low lying jungle, dissected by clear streams, and bordered by drowned mountain ranges.
And a feeling of exultation on top? ‘Nuh!’ Comino admitted, ‘we just wanted to drink some water!’ Within a few days, they got their wish with the arrival of the ‘wet’ and found themselves wading through swollen creeks as they made their way back to the ferry pick-up point, looking over their shoulders for floating logs with sets of eyes in them.

Picture: John Comino collection.

Victorians make their mark

Southwest Tasmania's Federation Peak was again the focus of climbing activity in 1952 when John Young, Joan King, Brian Wells, Burnie Rymer from the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club (MUMC) climbed what became known as the MUMC Route, probably the hardest and most serious rockclimb in the country at that time. The formation of the MUMC by Thomas Cherry, Graham Laver and Eric Webb in 1944 is regarded by many as the formal start of climbing in Victoria. As the MUMC team grappled with the weather and steep rock on Federation Peak in Tasmania, a member of an Australian Museum expedition to central Australia, N. J. Camps, donned sandshoes for a solo climb-and probably the first European ascent of Uluru, losing four fingernails on one hand as he lunged for a crucial hold. Climbing in Victoria was becoming more popular and the Victorian Climbing Club (VCC) formed by Peter Crohn and John Young in 1952 with members making first ascents of routes in the Grampians that year. In the early years, there was a considerable crossover in membership between the VCC and the MUMC.

Picture: Donn Groom collection. Posted by Picasa

Reds under the beds

Sometime in the early part of 1951, a special Brisbane Climbing Club meeting was called and Dr Freddie Whitehouse, a respected lecturer in geology from the University of Queensland, was billed as the guest speaker. Whitehouse had already made a name for himself as a climber around southeast Queensland but as soon as he rose to speak, it was clear he had an agenda which had little to do with climbing. This was the era when Federal politics in Australia—as in many other countries—was dominated by anti-communism and Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies had done his bit to create an atmosphere of near-paranoia about communist infiltration of Australian institutions—even bedrooms! In this ‘Reds under the beds’ atmosphere, universities came under particular scrutiny because of the likelihood of them becoming a breeding ground for ‘leftish’ and ‘pro-communist’ views. The accounts of Whitehouse’s speech that evening vary considerably but what is consistent in the recollections is that he made explicit links between communism and climbing. His target was the founder of the Brisbane Climbing Club, Kemp Fowler, who had been questioned by customs officers on his arrival in Australia for possession of ‘leftish’ literature. Several climbers from that era have suggested that Whitehouse had close links to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and learned of Fowler’s suspect political affiliations through these. Some have even suggested that Whitehouse was an ASIO agent! Others suggest it was Bert Salmon, a staunch monarchist, who raised the alarm. Whatever the trigger, Whitehouse’s challenge for climbers was to choose to align themselves either with King and Country or with the forces of darkness. Fowler was one of the world experts in radar technology and this may have brought him to the attention of the authorities as well. The present global political climate has some curious parallels with the environment more than 50 years ago. But the aim was to expel Kemp Fowler, a suspected communist. A lively debate ensued and what had become a group of close friends, was suddenly divided. Comino recalls the evening:
The basis of it was, as Freddie [Whitehouse] said, if…the country’s being infiltrated by “Reds” and you’re climbing with someone who’s a communist trying to bring about your downfall somehow or other, then you can’t have complete confidence in the person you’re climbing with…Well, that was the philosophy—that was the tale we were given, anyway.
Following the debate, Kemp Fowler stormed out of the meeting followed by a group of his supporters. It was the last meeting of the Brisbane Climbing Club, barely 12 months after it had started. Although the contrived political situation caused some established friendships to remain tense for years, in the end, climbing was the catalyst that brought people back together again. There must be few, if any, other examples anywhere of a climbing club being effectively shut down because of the political persuasion of its founder. They were heady days indeed.
More ascents in the Steamers

Two weeks after his first ascent in August 1950 of the Mast in the Steamer formation, Bob Waring returned for a third time with the founder of the Brisbane Climbing Club, former New Zealand mountaineer Kemp Fowler. Their goal was the first ascent of the Funnel and he was still chasing the reputed 100 pounds reward. The duo slept in a cave about a hundred metres from a huge flake they intended to climb to the summit. It rained during the night and at 6.00 am on 2 December under an overcast sky, they started their climb. Waring led confidently up to a large ledge at the top of the flake and Fowler came up to belay him on the next pitch. Jon Stephenson later described their route:
The overhang directly above the ledge proved impracticable, and Waring was forced to make an exposed traverse of thirty feet followed by a strenuous sixty feet of vertical work, and thus reached the first belay point on this severe pitch—a small gum tree. This manoeuvre required almost all their one hundred and twenty feet of rope, and took an hour and a half. But the problem was solved, and from a timbered step, a careful scramble, heightened by a close experience
with a falling rock, took them to the flat summit area, more extensive than that of the Mast.
At the time, it would have been amongst the hardest climbing routes in Australia. But Waring was not yet content as one more summit in the Steamer formation remained unclimbed—the Pinnacle. This spire is about half the height of the Mast and is separated from it by a narrow crevice, 30 metres deep. He returned two years later with John Comino and the pair began by climbing a 30 metre pitch (pictured above), unroped, up the north face to the foot of the crevice separating the Pinnacle from the Mast. ‘Thence a traverse, followed by a difficult set of pitches—some verging on the severe—brought the climbers to the last virgin summit.’ Waring recalls an incident in the crevice which almost led to his demise:
A large rock wallaby came bounding along the narrow traverse ledge and landed at high speed directly on my right thigh, almost knocking me off into space, then slammed away again onto some small ledges and disappeared. A second, smaller one, presumably a female, which was following, then arrived from the same direction, but just leaped into the 80 foot drop down into the scrub below. We did not think this was a very good start for the climb.
However, Comino, who was watching the presumed dead animal, was stunned to see it get to its feet after several minutes and bound off, apparently uninjured. Despite his three first ascents of the Steamer formation, Bob Waring and his several companions never received the promised 100 pounds reward.

Picture: John Comino collection.

The Steamers from the air.

The formation is named because of its resemblance to a boat sailing west. From left, the features are the Prow, Funnel, Mast, Pinnacle and Stern.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection. Posted by Picasa

First ascents in The Steamers

Towards the end of August 1950, Queensland climbers Bob Waring and Jon Stephenson set off to climb the first new route in Queensland since Bert Salmon and Cliff Wilson made the first descent of the West Face of Crookneck in 1934. Their destination was a series of rhyolite outcrops in the Main Range near Killarney, southwest of Brisbane, called The Steamers. Waring had developed a reputation for being equally daring either climbing a cliff face or riding his Norton motorbike. Some years after leaving Queensland, he entered a motorcycle TT race around the Isle of Mann and was shattered when he was forced to withdraw with mechanical problems! But back in Queensland in 1950, there was a new challenge for Waring, as he recalled:
The next challenge arose from the rumours that a prize of a hundred pounds had been offered in the previous century by the Emu creek sawmill for the first ascents of the Steamers, and was never claimed. This encouraged Jon Stephenson and I to plan an assault on the Mast, considered the easier one of the three. A few weeks later, carrying my new 3/4" sisal rope and mounted on my 1941 unsprung Model 18 Norton, we rattled up to Warwick and turned left for Emu Creek. Some hours later, after many creek crossings, mostly of the wet variety, we staggered into an abandoned loggers hut, and the following morning proceeded up to its western end. To make any progress this required throwing our ropes down top of the dense scrub and walking on them, as we approached the rock walls from the shaded south side.

Jon Stephenson remembers Waring as a ‘somewhat radical’ engineering student and takes up the story:

One of his youthful pastimes had been climbing trees, and he had amazing agility on cliffs and seemed to be quite unaware of exposure. No one seemed to have climbed the Steamers, including the Mast and the Funnel. So we went up on Bob's motorbike for 2 days. We swarmed up to the Mast, and Bob (pictured above) proceeded to climb to the top at great speed up the west buttress. I followed and felt concern as I got higher. I had an incident with a loose slab but eventually got to the summit to join Bob. I had a rope and he protected me coming down. I recall we startled a rock wallaby which sprang off to its death. In the afternoon we had a look at the Funnel, using a great rock flake with a chimney behind it, north and west of the huge east buttress. At the top of the flake, Bob started traversing along a ledge to the west and believed he could see a good route ahead around the corner. I’d had enough after my scare on the Mast. I seem to recall urging Bob to make a second visit to protect himself with a companion. We returned to Brisbane on the bike.

Picture: Bob Waring on the summit of The Mast, 1st ascent 1950. Bob Waring collection.

The Sydney Rock Climbing Club is born

From the early 1950s in Australia, outdoors’ organisations seemed to breed overnight, resulting in an era of club-related activity. Long-standing clubs like the Sydney Bush Walkers, founded in 1927, grew stronger as a result of this increasing interest in the outdoors. Towards the end of 1950, 19 year old Russ Kippax travelled north from Sydney in search of adventure. With a friend, he climbed the east face of Mt Warning and Caves Route on Tibrogargan. He had been scrambling on rocks and cliffs around Sydney since he was about 10 and joined the Sydney-based Rucksack Club when he was 16. By the late 1940s, he and his friends had started to use ropes for protection as their scrambling was becoming more serious. In 1950, made their first fully roped traverse of the Three Sisters. Kippax was an avid reader of climbing books but he laughs as he recalls the gear and the techniques he and his climbing partners used then:
I’ve still got my jacket with great score marks across the back. That’s all we had. It wasn’t until much later that we used crabs and things. Paddy Pallin was always a very good friend and I’d go into his shop and say. “There are some things called pitons, can you see what you can find?” And he’d wire off the England and the first lot of pitons I got were a bunch of great massive things that had come from the British army commandos.
With a core of climbers emerging, Kippax formed the Sydney Rockclimbing Club (SRC) but recalls he was far from overwhelmed by numbers initially:
I can count them—eight at the first meeting. But very quickly, people came out of the woodwork everywhere. We put up a notice up in Paddy Pallin’s—it used to be upstairs in George Street in those days right alongside the railway station—and then people…started coming out of the woodwork; people who had climbed in Europe and who were living out here and who saw the notice.
The early climbers put up some remarkable routes in 1951 including climbs on the West Wall of the Three Sisters, Malaita Point, and Narrowneck Bluff. They found a way up the face of King George the following year. The Blue Mountains, with its hundreds of kilometres of sandstone cliffs, was about to claim its place as one of the Australian focal points for the emerging sport of rockclimbing—with a distinctly Australian style.

Climbing in the 1950s

The only type of rope readily available as a climbing aid during the 1950s and early 1960s was Australian sisal but it was unreliable in holding a lead fall. It cost about three shillings (about 30 cents) for 10 ft (about 3 metres). Although nylon ropes were adopted as the international standard shortly at this time, it was almost a decade before synthetic rope was readily available in Australia over the counter. Until then, climbers obtained nylon ropes from visitors or ordered them from overseas suppliers at great expense. But underlining all of the advice provided for members was the principle that the leader must not fall. It had influenced climbing in Australia to this point and it would be a decade or more before equipment advances and climbing attitudes shifted to accept the principle that a lead climber can fall safely. In the 1950s, it was simply out of the question. A fall by a lead climber would almost certainly result in serious injury or death.

The Brisbane Climbing Club 1950

In April 1950, the Brisbane Climbing Club was started by climbers in the Brisbane Bush Walkers Club (set up in 1948), and the University of Queensland Bushwalking Club (formed in 1950 by Jon Stephenson and John Comino). It was the first climbing organisation in Queensland since Bert Salmon’s group started it all in 1926 but it was destined to be a short-lived affair. Brisbane Climbing Club outings with new members (pictured above) were very much in the vein of Bert Salmon’s climbs before the war—large groups on well-trodden paths. But individual members would soon change that.
Picture: Peter Barnes collection.