Wednesday, September 28, 2005

East Crookneck free


Perhaps the piece de la resistance for Les Wood (pictured) during his 1966 sojourn in Queensland was making the first (almost) free ascent of East Crookneck. Swinging leads with Donn Groom, they used some aid on the first pitch and then another aid move to climb the last big overhang on the second pitch. Les Wood continues the story: ‘We found most of it could be climbed free and that the etriers were necessary in one place. Much of the climbing was wide bridging around overhangs and the last pitch was done in very heavy rain.’ Shortly after the climb, Wood teamed up with Ted Cais who led an all-free version of the first pitch. The first free ascent of the climb was made by Greg Sheard and Chris Meadows in June 1968. Crookneck's southwest buttress was another problem that attracted the attention of Les Wood and Ted Cais in 1966. They started a new climb there that would eventually be called Flameout:
My first attempt was in August 1966 with Les Wood but he backed off the second pitch realizing this would probably be the first VS [Very Severe] in Queensland. So I returned in the heat of November with Donn Groom and he passed the overhang that was Les’s previous high point with two points of aid but took a whipper on an upside-down peg—it held—before figuring out the thin moves above. For a while this was indeed the hardest route although John Tillack claimed an equally difficult climb named Medusa on the organ-pipe columns somewhere on Beerwah’s northwest flank.
Donn Groom and Ted Cais were emerging as the strongest and most consistent leaders amongst the cohort of Queensland climbers of the mid-1960s. In July, Groom teamed with long time friend John Larkin to climb Alcheringa on the vertical rhyolite columns of Binna Burra’s east cliffs, again vying for the hardest climb in Queensland. Cais later made the first free ascent, eliminating the few aid moves. Cais played a key role in the last new route climbed by Les Wood during his Queensland stay by solving the tricky first pitch puzzle on Overexposed. Wood and Groom joined forces again to complete the route which offers sensational, exposed climbing through a series of small, shallow caves on the southern edge of the summit overhang on Tibrogargan. In the pre-cam and hex days, there was little protection on the route but modern equipment has helped to make it less psychologically challenging. Nevertheless, the aura surrounding the climb has meant that it is rarely repeated.

Picture: Les Wood-Donn Groom collection.

Seeking Clemency

On his return to Queensland after the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club's Warrumbungles climbing trip in 1966, Les Wood teamed up with Donn Groom again to put up the first route on the high southeast face on Tibrogargan in the Glasshouses. It was classy and clever route-finding through sometimes steep and poorly protected rock. 'Things like that didn't really bother me,' Wood recalls. 'I always felt that I was a very cautious climber. I was climbing within myself. I only ever had one real fall and that wasn't in Queensland. That was because something broke. I always I felt I'd got things covered but I suppose things can become uncovered if you're doing a few things that you can't reverse and you find yourself stuck-but that [climb] seemed OK to me.' The climb was probably the hardest climb in Queensland at the time and up with the most difficult in the country. Wood's diary records the climb having 'a few VS [Very Severe] moves, delicate and a bit technical'. He continues: 'I think I used a piton for aid. I seem to remember in those days people weren't at all touchy about using aid-you'd whip one in without thinking about it. But now they put those bloody bolts all over the place anyway.' They called the climb Clemency after Wood's close friend and climbing partner John Clements who had just been killed in a climbing accident in Scotland.

Picture: Les Wood-Donn Groom collection.
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Out and beyond

In March 1966, Les Wood began his assault on Queensland putting up the climb,Trojan, weaving its way through the summit overhangs on Tibrogargan in the Glasshouses. ‘We went up there and let it unfold,’ Wood recalls. ‘It was just exploring really. I don't even remember if there was a guidebook. I don't remember finding it hard. Quite exhilarating. And I thought, “This has got a bit of class to it.” I don't know why “Trojan”—like something was hiding, maybe?’ Climbing every available weekend, he soon teamed up with Donn Groom and with Brian Driscoll, climbed a new route on Beerwah, calling it Slipknot, after a climb on White Ghyll in the Lake District. A week later he was back on Beerwah to climb Whynot, again with Groom. At Easter, he joined the BRC climbing trip to the Warrumbungles, seeking out the classic, Out and Beyond. ‘It had had only one ascent, classed as hard severe,’ Wood remembers. ‘It has a most impressive first pitch. So I did that but from the end of the traverse I had to retreat because Col Hocking didn't want to second it as he was getting married three weeks later. We did Vertigo and added a final pitch to it. The next day I went back to Out and Beyond with Ted Cais and John Tillack. John was a bit worried. Ted decided not to come. I can't remember why. I remember the route—really nice. I suppose, fairly exposed.’

Picture: Ted Cais collection

A new climbing ethic

In Queensland in 1966, more than 30 new routes went up on crags in southeast Queensland, many of them destined to become classics. It was a combination of the formation of the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club, the emergence of several talented local climbers, and the influence of quietly-spoken English expatriate climber, Les Wood. Linking with local climbers Donn Groom, Ted Cais and John Tillack, Wood’s 12 month stay in Queensland took climbing standards to a new level. But he left behind something far more lasting—an approach to climbing that in many ways transcended the old bushwalking-climbing nexus. He drifted into climbing as a 17-year-old in 1961 at university in Durham, England, when he met John Clements who became a long time friend. Surviving an audacious first season in the Dolomites (‘The Dollies’), Wood later worked and studied in Canada, the United States, doing little climbing, and managed to arrange a 12 month contract as a demonstrator in Geography at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. He arrived via New Zealand almost broke, borrowing five pounds from an uncle there to get him to Brisbane. He managed to find a share house, the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club and Donn Groom:
Donn was then at Binna Burra and seemed to have a perfect life in that he and his brothers had taken over the lodge and they seemed to have two years on and one year off. He was an avid climber and a really nice bloke. We got on very well together and he had a car—I didn't have one in the early days—so we started going to the Glasshouses. I think I'd got a background that was unusual to many of them. I was climbing Hard VSs [Hard Very Severe]—but I was only just into those things. I'd fallen off Vector trying to follow John [Clements]. But I was doing Hard VSs without too much trouble and some big routes like Mickledore Grooves—back in the old days it was a route with a reputation—long runouts and no protection. Climbing before I left England occupied all my life. It wasn't like a sport, it was a way of life more than anything.
It was this ethic that Wood brought with him, instilling it into myriad Queensland climbing generations since. One of the interesting aspects of Queensland climbing culture is that each new wave of climbers seem to have had little knowledge and/or interest in previous generations of climbers. While individuals certainly stand out, for most, climbing history seemed to have more to do with events that happened last year rather than a decade or more before.

Picture: Les Wood collection.

John Ewbank leads out on the 17th pitch of his girdle of the Wirindi cliffline, The Masterpiece. Although in this photograph, taken during the first ascent in March-April 1967, he carries an etrier, it was not used. John Worrall (belaying) and Ewbank swung leads on this climb.

Picture: Donn Groom collection
The times they

were a-changin’

New South Wales climber John Ewbank picked up on a popular Rolling Stones’ hit of the time and penned an article on climbing ethics for Thrutch entitled, ‘Here comes your 19th breaking runner’. Perhaps it was a clue as to the career change Ewbank would take on with gusto within a decade. But he had plenty to write about in 1966—he had just put up the hardest climb in the country at Mt Piddington in the Blue Mountains, a single pitch route called The Janicepts. He used jamming techniques to climb it—an approach virtually unknown in Australia at the time. Although climbers had used jamming moves on routes in Australia before this, no-one had applied the technique in such a sustained way. Most climbing relied on using existing hand and foot holds—jamming moved climbing technique into a new zone and Ewbank quickly became the unrivalled master although he revelled equally on the steep walls of the Blue Mountains. He is pictured (above) making the first ascent of the direct finish to The Eternity, at Wirindi in February 1967. But his activity was not confined to sandstone—in the December heat in the Warrumbungles that year (1966), climbing with partner John Worrall, he made the first ascent of The Crucifixion, a steep, 250 metre line to the right of Lieben on the west face of Crater Bluff.

Victorian milestones

In Victoria at this time, climbers began to use reamed-out nuts threaded with rope slings as protective devices as new routes multiplied on the cliffs of the recently-discovered Mt Arapiles. Two significant climbs done this year included the classics, Eurydice and Watchtower Crack, led by Bob Bull and John Fahey respectively. This was the year that a new wave in Victoria was champing at the bit and names like Chris Dewhirst, John Moore, Chris Baxter, the Gledhill twins—Alan and Geoff—and later, Roland Pauligk (creator and manufacturer of the famed RPs) were starting to appear on new route descriptions. They would dominate Victorian climbing for years. But all the activity in Victoria was not at Mt Arapiles—in February 1966, Ian Speedie, Mike Stone, Ted Batty, and Reg Williams made the first ascent of the huge granite north wall of Mt Buffalo, calling the climb, Emperor. Six months later, Dewhirst, Moore, Philip Seccombe and Philip Guild spent three days on the Mt Buffalo north wall, climbing Fuhrer.

Picture: Donn Groom collection.