Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Mt Geryon: 1st winter ascent, 1960

Ron Cox had emerged as a dominant figure in the Queensland (and Australian) climbing scene and always saw his activities as part of a bigger picture. In August 1960, he set off with Pat Conaghan, Peter Reimann and Basil Yule to attempt the first winter ascent of Mt Geryon in Tasmania’s Central Reserve. It was a bold move and Cox’s laconic style captures the essence of how they came to be there:

They’d never climbed snow before. Their only knowledge of the art came from text-books…They started up the face, climbing on high angle snow, kicking steps and using their axes as an aid to balance. For safety’s sake, they belayed as in rock climbing, except that their belay anchors were axe shafts driven deep in the snow. As they climbed, they learned.

The team split up with Reimann and Yule completing the first winter circuit of the Ducane Range from the Labyrinth to Falling Mountain. Cox and Conaghan decided on an audacious attempt to traverse Geryon’s four peaks from north to south. No one had done this before, even in summer. They climbed Geryon’s North Peak again, bivouacking in a snow cave near the summit. But the weather closed in, as Cox writes:

The thick mist and freezing conditions, added to the immense technical difficulties of this winter climb, were more than enough to scare the usually optimistic duo into retreat. Descending the mountain, they narrowly averted disaster when Cox, climbing down a steep couloir of snow and ice too quickly and too carelessly, slipped and fell 150 feet. Conaghan held him on an ice axe belay. Had the belay gone, they would have fallen over a thousand feet down the western face.

Their first experience on snow and ice did nothing but whet their appetite. Although they failed to traverse the mountain, they had made the first winter ascent of Geryon’s North Peak—climbing it twice. Later that year, they made the first full ascent of the Bowie Ridge on Mt Cook with Cox making the summit of New Zealand’s highest peak twice in his first season. It was an extraordinary transformation. Cox and Conaghan returned to Geryon in the sweltering summer of 1961 to make the first traverse of all of Geryon’s peaks. Within four years, Cox and Reiman would be climbing in the Alps, Cox moving to Grenoble in France to work. He is still living there today, now retired. Conaghan has since travelled the world, visiting various remote regions in his capacity as a geologist. Hardy, too, felt the call of the bigger mountains and eventually went on to climb in the Himalayas, the Andes, Canada, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and Africa with his wife, Margaret. ‘On my first climb,’ Hardy recalls, ‘I knew it was what I wanted to do.’ It was an extraordinary era, defined by an extraordinary cohort of adventurers, all emerging from the University of Queensland Bushwalking Club.

Picture: (from left) Peter Reimann, Basil Yule and Ron Cox in Tasmania, 1960. Pat Conaghan collection.

A long abseil

Over Easter 1960, Ron Cox, Grahame Hardy and Basil Yule made the first descent of the 350 metre East Face of Mt Barney, following the line of the chimney splitting the face (pictured). Carrying every bit of rope and ironmongery they could muster, they had descended three pitches without incident when, with the light fading fast, Hardy abseiled over the edge in search of a bivvy ledge. Cox captured the mood in his diary: 'Fourth abseil off tree. Hardy led. Darkness and mist arrive together (7 hours so far). Hardy lets out agonising scream from the darkness below causing Cox and Basil to nearly have kittens. Turns out Hardy has come off diagonal abseil and hit head on rock. But for crash helmet, and fact that head is extraordinarily solid, would no doubt have been knocked unconscious.' They managed to find a small ledge but with light from a full moon soon spilling across the face, they decided to continue their descent, reaching the base of the vertical wall about 1.00 am. At dawn, they skirted the foot of the wall, finding a trickle of water and their first for 24 hours. It was typical of Ron Cox's adventures in southeast Queensland which commonly seemed to become epics.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection. Posted by Picasa
The 1st ascent of East Crookneck

Ron Cox began his epic on a biting, cold winter’s day in June 1959. With Pat Conaghan belaying, he slowly and carefully put into practice double rope and etrier techniques they had read about in books. Using homemade pitons, he managed to climb just 10 metres the first weekend. On the next attempt he reached the first stance, 20 metres above the base. And so it continued for the next three months until Cox decided that a team of three strong climbers would be needed to complete the route in one single push. He asked John Comino to join Conaghan (pictured left) and himself and on 18 September 1959, the three sorted out their gear at the base of the climb. Three hours after starting up the climb, Cox had reached the Eagle’s Eyrie—the second stance. They had decided to bivouac here but it soon became clear that there was room for only two. As Cox and Comino settled in for the night 50 metres above, Conaghan nestled into a cave at the base of the climb directly below, sheltering from the heavy rain squalls that swept across the mountain during the night. It was a late start next day and the three eventually scrambled onto the summit in darkness. Their entry in the log book read: ‘First ascent East Crookneck—8th attempt—40 pitons, 7 wooden wedges—last man up at 8.30 pm.’ The homemade wooden wedges and pitons Cox had placed deep in the crack remained there for years, protected from the weather by the overhangs. It was the steepest and most difficult climb in Queensland, albeit employing liberal use of aid. Ironically, it reflected the siege tactics that had already begun to emerge on the big walls in Yosemite, as well as offering a prescient glimpse of tactics now de rigueur for the hardest new routes, particularly in sport climbing. It marked the beginning of a new era in Australian climbing, not only for the way in which it was climbed, but for the vision it represented. It was the first sustained use of double rope and aid techniques in Queensland—probably Australia—literally learned from books. Cox and his cohort were interested in the existing climbing routes, but they were more concerned with what lay beyond. From the beginning, it was clear that Cox was drawn more towards mountaineering than rockclimbing and within 12 months of his success on East Crookneck, he was testing these skills—again based on what he had read.

Picture: Ron Cox collection.

Pushing the limits

As Cliff Richard and the Shadows burst upon the popular music scene, university physics student Ron Cox launched a three-month siege on a spectacular crack on the imposing east face of Crookneck in the Glasshouses. In doing so, perhaps inadvertently, he set up a template for the development of the next stage of modern Queensland rockclimbing. Formed in a huge rockfall in 1893, East Crookneck is perhaps the most attractive and purest line of any climb in Queensland. It starts from the base of the mountain, weaving through a series of balancing, truncated trachyte columns to the first stance, nestled at the base of a deep, overhanging chimney. The route continues up, with wide bridging moves needed to negate the effect of the relentless overhangs. A final bell-shaped overhang demands a series of delicate, exposed, balance moves to reach the safety of the second stance. A stone dropped from this point lands about three metres out from the base. Climbers in the early 1950s had nicknamed this stance the Eagles Eyrie and had abseiled down to it—and climbed up from it—several times during their early exploration of the route. From the Eagles Eyrie, a short, easier pitch leads to the shoulder below the summit. Every climber in Queensland had mentally climbed the route but none had actually done it. Bob Waring and Jim Gadaloff had first abseiled down the 70 metre face in October 1950
(pictured above). John Comino had made a half-hearted attempt at climbing the first pitch around 1954 and had earlier abseiled down to the Eagles Eyrie. But the full route—particularly the savagely overhanging middle pitch—had never been climbed. Perhaps that was the challenge Ron Cox needed.

Picture: Bob Waring collection.
First Australian at the South Pole

While his former climbing partners grappled with the heat of a 1956 Queensland summer, Jon Stephenson (pictured) was about to start the journey of a lifetime. He had left for Antarctica from London in November that year, three days after finishing his PhD thesis on the geology of Mt Barney. In December 1957, he set out with colleague Ken Blaiklock to cross Antarctica with a dog team. They reached the South Pole on 19 January 1958.
On his return from Antarctica, Stephenson then led
a 3-month expedition in 1960 to the Karakoram in Pakistan. After having collected a range of scientific data, Stephenson contemplated a possible attempt on K12 (7428m). He was awestruck by the surrounds as he explained in a letter to Bert Salmon: ‘This is quite fantastic country and surely the most thrilling in the world. Never have I dreamt of such magnificence on such a scale—it is astounding. Granite rock with spires and needles to rival Chamonix.’ The party set up Camp II and began searching for a route up the ridge, finding a crevasse barring their way—40 metres wide and 30 metres deep. Another Queensland climber on the expedition, Keith Miller, described the scene:

The chasm was spectacular. Never in my life have I seen such a place. Often it was necessary to climb between great slabs of ice as though pot-holing. The skyline silhouetted giant icicles 20 ft. long some 100 ft. above one’s head, just waiting to drop off. Twenty minutes down there was enough to find an escape route out up to the other side and many prayers were offered.

The wind raged for the next three days and they were tentbound. They deciding to retreat to base camp but first, Miller and Stephenson would ‘have a quick look at the ridge and try to reach the summit’. Miller continues:

What an abortive attempt we made. Within five minutes of leaving camp we were swallowed up in cloud. Then came a white-out in which it was impossible to discern the demarcation between ground and atmospheres. At this time we were advancing along a steep ridge when suddenly Stephenson walked over the edge and simultaneously I went through an ice hole. When we extracted ourselves we quickly descended to camp to be greeted by, “That was a quick excursion to the top!”

On the descent, Miller was struck by a block of falling ice and required hospitalization. Stephenson and a porter were the only ones fit enough to make one last summit attempt. But shortly before they were due to leave their high camp, the porter, too, fell ill. Stephenson decided to climb on alone:

The view was just extraordinary—and it kept getting better as you got higher. I couldn’t believe it. You just started to see further and further—you could see that horizon wasn’t flat, it was curved. And there was K2 and the other high peaks I could recognise…I got as far as I could and I sensed that I was going more and more slowly. You get to the point where I was counting my steps and I could only do 20 steps and then I’d have to rest. I could see how far I had to go and I judged that I’d be on the summit at five o’clock that night. In the end I took a round of photographs and had no difficulty in saying, “OK, it’s time to turn around.”

Jon Stephenson had reached 7000 metres—the highest point reached at that time by an Australian without supplementary oxygen. It was a record that would stand for many years. An American team on the summit of Masherbrum (7821m) that day for the first time could almost have waved at him. It was the 6 July 1960. Stephenson subsequently returned to Australia as Professor of Geology at James Cook University and spent years climbing and walking on Hinchinbrook Island in the 1980s and 1990s. He climbed Logan’s Ridge on Mt Barney in 2002, aged 71.

Picture: John Comino collection.

The modern Australian climber, circa 1958

By the mid to late 1950s, climbing down under had become ‘an exhilarating and exciting pastime’, according to the magazine Australian Outdoors. One article described ‘the modern Australian climber’ in these terms:

Climbing is a young man’s game and you will find few climbers over 26. The average age seems to be from 16 to 22 but there are exceptions of course. You start by combining bushwalking with rockclimbing and after 26 you grow out of climbing and stick to bushwalking and mountaineering. Basically, the rock climber’s attitude is somewhat immature; it is a search for danger and glory. It is for the excitement of risking your life on a cliff face and the immeasurable self-satisfaction you feel when you reach a point where above you there is only the sky. Above all, rock climbing is character forming. It develops both individuality and mateship, it pits your physical endurance to the highest test, it makes you feel the utter smallness of man in the face of raw nature and makes you humble. It is the best school your son can attend.

The writer seemed oblivious of the presence or achievements of female climbers in the pantheon of Australia’s climbing history—Freda du Faur, Marie Byles, Dot English, Jean Easton, Muriel Patten—not to mention the international achievements by climbers like Elizabeth Le Blond, Annie Peck, Miriam Underhill, Claude Kogan and Gwen Moffat. But it reflected the postwar domination of male membership of climbing clubs in Australia. Whereas in Queensland, at least, women and men climbed in roughly equal numbers before World War II, from the late 1940s, climbing in Australia had become a noticeably male domain. It would half a century before women would return to climbing in numbers equivalent to those active in the 1930s.

Rumblings and the Rhum Dhu

Formation of the Rhum Dhu group within the Sydney Rockclimbing Club (SRC) in 1958 shook the foundations of the New South Wales climbing and bushwalking establishment. Frustrated with the slow pace of the development of climbing—a national trend at the time—Rhum Dhu was formed by disgruntled climbers with three simple aims: disbanding all forms of organization; drinking; and the opening of new climbing areas. The move almost split the SRC but the dissenters were instrumental in opening up new climbing areas like Medlow Bath, Cahill’s Lookout (the Rhum Dhu area), and Sublime Point. Both directly and indirectly, Rhum Dhu influenced the imposition of a six month moratorium on climbing on existing crags to encourage the search for new routes. In these early years of climbing in New South Wales, there were four accidents and two deaths. This was around the time that climbing began in Western Australian where small, scattered groups of enthusiasts began to explore and climb the crags in the southern half of the state.

Geoff Goadby (left) and Alan Frost inside the amazing Shell Rock on the western shoulder of Beerwah, in the Glasshouse Mountains, following their second ascent with Peter Barnes of the West Chimney route, 20 October 1956, a month or so after Alan Frost's first ascent of the route with Dave MacGibbon.

Picture: Peter Barnes collection. Posted by Picasa
The West Beerwah chimney

Bert Salmon had discovered a huge hollow boulder, perched precariously above Beerwah’s western cliffs in the Glasshouses in the 1930s. He had called it Shell Rock and it had been a popular destination for him and his cohort before World War II. Jon Stephenson ‘re-discovered’ it around 1949 with Clarrie Bell who called it ‘Draper’s Sanctuary’ after he found the name ‘Draper’ carved on the rock inside the cave. It became a popular destination again with the early 1950s climbers. All visits to Shell Rock had been from above: a 150 metre climb or abseil down from the western shoulder of Beerwah. And everyone who climbed around inside the huge shell would have peered down the steep chimney leading up into it from below. Peter Barnes (pictured) recalls: ‘We used to regard it for many, many years as Johnno’s Chimney—Johnno Comino—because he’d been looking at it and wanting to do it for many years and just had never got down to it.’ The climb up West Beerwah starts from the bottom of the western cliffs and meanders for two or three rope lengths over easy rock and through low scrub to where the slope steepens. Two more pitches and you are in a huge chimney that splits the headwall leading to the western shoulder. The next pitch is a steep 50 metre struggle over an awkward bulge, then up a series of cracks, mostly filled with dirt and small trees, reaching the sanctuary of the amazing Shell Rock. The climb to the western shoulder is up a clean 10 metre corner, followed by scrub-bashing to the top. Another who had peered down the exit chimney from the safety of Shell Rock was Alan Frost—and he decided to do something about it. Alan Frost and Peter Barnes were two extraordinarily fit young climbers who blitzed their way around the crags in the southeast since they began climbing at Kangaroo Point in the early 1950s. For some reason, Frost ended up making the first ascent of the route with a relatively inexperienced Dave MacGibbon. Barnes recalls the time, too:

I don’t know how it happened—but he teamed up with David MacGibbon who later became Senator MacGibbon. MacGibbon didn’t do much climbing but liked the thought of climbing. I’d taken him up south Crooky, north Crooky, Minto Crags. I didn’t know he’d done any more climbing than that but the next thing I heard was that he and Alan Frost had done the west chimney of Beerwah and David MacGibbon with him. Alan Frost said it was the most frightening experience of his life so he reckoned it should be done properly. So the boys better go and give it another nudge. He and I and Geoff Goadby screamed up there one day and had a great time.

Both Alan Frost and Peter Barnes are still actively walking and climbing in southeast Queensland and beyond.

Picture: Peter Barnes collection.

Buildings and bridges

From the late 1920s, climbing cultures had emerged in Queensland and New South Wales, but even back then, not all the activity was directed at local crags. Climbers’ attention turned to other obvious challenges—buildings and bridges—and night ascents of various structures around Brisbane and Sydney were commonplace. Climbers here were doing no more than following a long-established international tradition.

The 'Queensland mountaineer'

In 1935, climber-journalist Nora Dimes was a regular contributor to local newspapers, describing climbing activity and local climbers. In one article, she described the ‘Queensland mountaineer’:

He is one whose soul is blent of heights and depths, and in extreme cases his admiration of the tallest and newest buildings in town is confined to the possible hand or footholds on the fa├žade.

Post-war climbers are no different and virtually every major climbable building in the country has fallen, usually under cover of darkness. Brisbane climber Neill Lamb recalls enthusiastic support from ‘accomplices’ Bernice Noonan and Margaret Hammond in the 1950s:

I remember we used to go out and climb the Story Bridge—we’d shoot up after dark. And one day we’d made our own flag and we’d called ourselves The Abominables and so we had this flag sewn up—this great big Abominable Snowman—and we had a lot of fun. We climbed up the bridge and we had a bottle of champagne and we sat on top and put the bloody flag up on the flagpole. Of course, we were all back there next morning at first light to see if the flag was still there.

Another young Brisbane climber, Graham Baines, once spent two days hitch-hiking to Sydney in the mid-1950s specially to climb the Harbour Bridge. He was caught and questioned by police but let off with a warning. He even compiled a 1950s climbing guide to Brisbane’s bridges—including five different routes on the Story Bridge. Amongst his ‘conquests’ were the Glen Innes Town Hall and the Brisbane GPO Clock Tower. He once planned to abseil down the side of the Brisbane City Hall Tower, sticking large footprints on the side as he went. He hid in the bell tower one night with 60 metres of rope wound around his body, under his clothing, but at the last minute, had a change of heart, and gave himself up to the cleaners next morning. The tradition of climbing almost any upright object has continued with Brisbane’s Story Bridge (pictured) and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in particular, having had hundreds of ascents by climbers—always at night to avoid unnecessary attention—and long before either destination became a destination for guided tours.

Politics and police

In the mid-1960s, one of the most popular movies doing the rounds of Australian climbing clubs was a film of top French Alpinists Gaston Rebuffat and Rene Desmaison climbing the Eiffel Tower with gendarmes in hot pursuit! Back in Brisbane in 1968 and 1969, several large politically-inspired signs mysteriously appeared on the sheer face of the MMI Building, at that time, the tallest in Brisbane. It required some ingenuity to devise a belay for Greg Sheard as he gingerly traversed out across a vertical face on small, friable holds to place them. We used a length of wood, cut so we could wedge it in a chimney that runs up beside the face. One of the signs declared ‘QLD—Joh’s police state’, a reference to the then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his government’s draconian laws prohibiting public assembly. As it turned out, that particular sign was placed directly opposite the windows of a popular commercial radio station and although its presence was discussed openly on air, the content of the sign remained a mystery to listeners, such was the paranoia that existed in the Sunshine State at that time. Another popular climbing destination was a church tower at Toowong before the challenge of climbing as many buildings in Brisbane as possible—again at night—took over. There were some close calls with police and security guards but no-one was ever arrested. During the 1980s and 1990s, police scrutiny of climbing activities around the city has increased and several local climbers have been arrested and fined for trespass following various activities on the city’s bridges. But the challenge remains.

Picture: Hugh Pechey collection.