Wednesday, October 05, 2005

East Barney solo

Robert Staszewski (pictured) made the first and only known solo ascent of the east face of Mt Barney in March 1979. He was on the brink of an ethical epiphany following years of climbing at Girraween, about to reject the use of bolts as protection. He climbed the east face route using a combination of free-soloing and a back rope, anchored to a belay, which entailed climbing each pitch twice. Staszewski found himself facing a dilemma as he contemplated the crux of the climb which entails lassooing a tree and pulling up the rope, hand-over-hand. He had thrown a nest of nuts and carabiners around the infamous tree, planning to climb the exposed pitch as others had done before him. But there was a problem—the rope had jammed, but not on the nest of nuts and carabiners, and he could not see how reliable it was. Eventually, he swung out over the huge drop. When he reached the tree he saw all that held the rope was a small loop, jammed in between the tree and the rock!

Picture: A younger Robert Staszewski muscles up Electronic Flag at Frog Buttress. Paul Caffyn collection.

Climbing solo

Rick White made the first solo ascent of Ball’s Pyramid in 1979 in one hour 45 minutes while on a trip there with members of the University of Queensland Climbing Club. It was a time when soloing was becoming popular amongst the experienced core of climbers in Queensland and beyond. White recalled that Ball’s Pyramid was his best solo performance:
It’s not technically hard but then again, with the style of the rock on those kinds of sea stacks, you can climb quickly. If you read any article written by solo climbers, it always has the same theme—the way you can focus and just flow over the rock. It’s not often you have to think about a crux move because you’ve got to have it pretty much wired in your mind and you can do it—if you have to think about it you’re likely to fall off it.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

Climbing by numbers

In Australia by the mid 70s, another generation of young climbers was filling in the gaps at Frog Buttress and various other crags around the country. With Rick White pursuing his business interests in Mountain Designs and other climbing projects, this cohort was a lot more mobile than in previous eras and many moved from crag to crag, picking off the prime routes as they pushed the upper limits of the possible. It included Greg Child, Chris Peisker, Kim Carrigan, Mike Law and Nic Taylor. In January 1976, Taylor was the first to break from the pack, climbing Australia’s first grade 24—Country Road, at Mt Buffalo. Peisker was hot on his heels and produced Horrorscope at Mt Arapiles, a climb of equal difficulty. The gauntlet had been thrown down. Taylor spent almost a year in Queensland, much of it climbing with White. Then it was time for something special, as White recalls:
Nic and I hatched a plan to go to Mt Buffalo and simply blow everyone away by doing a hammerless ascent of Lord Gumtree. I guess we picked Lord Gumtree because it was the hardest, I had prior knowledge and we had not forgiven the uncharitable locals after our second ascent a few years earlier. Thinking back, it’s hard to justify hammerless climbing. Why make a hard aid route even harder by leaving behind some crucial gear? I guess as Lito Tejada-Flores would say it’s just another game climbers play. Pitches that were easy on pegs now became M7 and we weren’t at the crux rurp pitch yet! I led all the hard pitches with grades of M6, M7 and M8. When we finished, we ran into Roland Pauligk, whose home-made nuts had helped to solve the crux, and convinced him he should make a smaller size. Thus the RP size 0 was born.
One new face on the Queensland scene was Coral Bowman. The expatriate American spent some time working with Rick White in his growing Mountain Designs business but found time to make the hardest female ascents in the country, including Insomnia and Black Light at Frog Buttress. Two years later in 1978, she was regularly climbing the hardest routes graded then at 24—and put up a new climb at Maggies Farm on Mt Maroon, Little Queen, grading it 22. Rick White teamed up with Greg Child in 1978 on the 10th anniversary of the discovery of the cliff to climb Decade, and do the first free ascent of Impulse, grading it 24. Boundaries are there to be pushed and in April that year, Chris Peisker climbed Australia’s first grade 25, Ostler, at Bundaleer in the Grampians. It was the country’s hardest climb for just five months—Kim Carrigan found Procul Harum at Mt Arapiles in September, pushing the grade up to 26.

Illustration: The Mountain Designs logo.

White punks on chalk

Over the Christmas-New Year period in 1974-75, Rick White and Robert Staszewski made a bold attempt to climb a new route on the FitzRoy in Patagonia. Surviving a near-death experience with a huge loose block, they returned to Australia where White set about expanding his climbing equipment business and Mountain Designs was born. A few months after their return, 21 year old Boston climber Henry Barber arrived in Brisbane at the start of a short climbing holiday in Australia. White had met him in the Yosemite Valley, two years earlier. Barber introduced two new elements into Australian climbing, both destined to create controversy—gymnasts’ chalk, used to improve a climber’s finger grip on small and sloping holds, and a new climbing ethic. Barber (pictured) left Australia six weeks later with an impressive record: 14 new ascents, 39 climbs on which he eliminated aid, and claiming the hardest route in the country. The use of chalk caused a major debate. Victorian climber Nic Taylor had returned from a season in Yosemite around the same time as Barber and he, too, was sold on the magical qualities of the white powder. But many local climbers, including Rick White, spurned the use of chalk for years, arguing in part that the unsightly tell-tale white marks climbers left in their wake was like a series of ‘how-to’ dots others could simply follow up a cliff.

New ethics, new debates

But it was Barber’s ethical style that was the biggest challenge to local techniques. It had become common practice by then for hard climbs to be put up by ‘hang-dogging’, either falling or resting on a runner, then starting to climb again from that point. If Barber rested or fell on a runner, he always lowered off, pulled the rope through, and started from the bottom again. He was brimming with confidence and frequently used long, unprotected runouts. It was this latter aspect of Barber’s climbing ethics that appealed to Ian Thomas and Keith Bell who teamed up to do a series of long, serious climbs in the Warrumbungles and the Blue Mountains. Barber had a significant impact on many local climbers, if only in changing their attitudes on dress sense. Almost overnight, everyone seemed to be climbing in white cotton trousers! The debate over the impact of ‘Hot Henry’s’ visit was very much alive three years after his brief visit when the first edition of the climbing magazine, Rock, was launched, edited by Chris Baxter. Strangely, Queensland climbing did not rate a mention, despite Rick White's support for the venture through a full page Mountain Designs' advertisement. Meanwhile in the deep north, Trevor Gynther had been busy developing new rhyolite cliffline near Binna Burra with various partners, calling it Whitenbah Wafers. Competition for new climbing areas was keen and one of Gynther’s tactics was to name and grade the best lines before he had climbed them! The Brisbane Rockclimbing Club Mark I was virtually defunct and it would be 10 years before Mark II emerged. The collapse seemed to be catching as across the continent, the Climbing Association of Western Australia, too, folded. It would not re-emerge until encouraged by visits from the east coast by Kim Carrigan in 1986, and Mike Law and Louise Shepherd, three years later.

Illustration: 1st issue of Rock, 1978.

Bootlaces and Beerwah

Ian Thomas (pictured) and Robert Staszewski teamed up in 1973 and almost immediately took on the hardest classics in southeast Queensland. One of their chosen climbs was a long bolt route Sid Tanner had put up through the Beerwah overhangs in the Glasshouses. It turned into an epic with them spending an unplanned, rainy night on the climb and having to bail out, leaving their gear behind on the face. The recovery process proved to be a challenge, as Thomas recalls:
It led to the singularly most dangerous thing I have ever done in climbing which was abseiling over the whole thing, tying three ropes together and tying them to small bushes at the top—because that’s all there was—and throwing it over, so there’re three rope lengths hanging down. I lurched off the top one—it was my old Miller’s rope—and the friction was incredible. And I sort of ground my way down to the overhang, dropped below the overhangs and you’re way out in space. I couldn’t obviously get back in 50 feet to get the gear so I just had to keep on going down. I went down another 20 feet and suddenly came to a knot and realised I had no idea how to get over a knot. What was this? I was spinning around and around. I didn’t have any tapes to make a prussik loop or anything like that. I didn’t know how to do it. In the end, I took off one shoe and took the lace out of it and made a little loop to stand in and then that took my weight off and I was hanging by one hand from the knot and unclipped the carabiner from above the knot. So I was hanging totally by one hand 300 feet off the ground. But my foolish mistake was that the second rope was a 9 mm and I’d only clipped in one cross crab so I basically fell the next 150 feet down onto the next knot—dong! [laughs] Squeak’s eyes were out on stalks. And mine were as well.
Surviving Beerwah, Thomas eventually moved south to Mt Victoria in the Blue Mountains to run a retail outlet for Rick White’s expanding climbing business although strangely, even though it was in the thick of climbing activity there, it never really seemed to succeed. Back in Queensland, Steve Bell and Dave Kahler continued climbing new routes at Mt Maroon, Frog Buttress and the cliffs on Ngungun while more new names appeared on new route descriptions—Kim Carrigan, Trevor Gynther, Rhys Davies and Joe Friend. Meanwhile, Robert Staszewski had turned his attention to Girraween, climbing the first of hundreds of routes there he found over the next two decades.

Picture: Ian Thomas collection.

First Australian ascents in Yosemite

Rick White at Frog Buttress in 1973 shortly after returning from becoming the first Australian to climb both The Nose and the Salathe Wall in Yosemite National Park. And his matter of fact assessment of the Yosemite experience? ‘It didn’t particularly influence me because there was nothing there that we weren’t doing. It was just bigger. I guess it was an introduction to big wall climbing and it’s a different game, suitable for places like Patagonia and even the Himalayas, where I went later.’ On his return to Queensland, White found Ted Cais had linked up with Ian Thomas after the Porter’s Pass climbing meet and the three of them began to push the limits at Frog Buttress again, making the first free ascent of Corner of Eden, and climbing new routes like Venom, Child in Time and Black Light.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

Into the maw of The Minotaur

One of the strongest memories of the Porter’s Pass climbing meet for Ted Cais was his second ascent with Rick White of the intimidating John Ewbank classic wall climb, The Minotaur. ‘Rick and I had been thugging up cracks for most of the time on our Easter 1973 national climbing meet so I was more than ready to indulge in my preferred edging style,’ he remembers. ‘That night, while everyone else was quaffing quarts of ale at the Mt.Victoria pub, I retreated into my mind seeing myself sailing away on the line of thin edges past the notorious loose flake. And so it was the next day, but first I launched out with no gear except for hammer and lost arrows to place the one key pin at the flake (pictured) before reversing back to finally gear up and go.’

Picture: Ted Cais collection.
Porter's Pass climbing meet

With the interstate climbing ‘war’ at its peak, a large contingent of Queensland and Victorian climbers joined their New South Wales colleagues at the Easter 1973 climbing meet at Porter’s Pass. One emerging new climber at the time was Ian Thomas or ‘Humzoo’—the nickname stemming from his early penchant for playing the voice-generated instrument called the ‘hum-a-zoo’. He recalls being aware of the interstate rivalry well before he met any of the protagonists. ‘I remember pissing myself laughing at articles by Greg Sheard about him chopping bolts,’ he recalls. ‘So in ’71 when Squeak [Robert Staszewski] and I went down there, the first thing we did was not climbing, but we got our hammers out and chopped bolts. It just seemed to be the thing to do!’ To the exuberant Thomas and the ambitious Staszewski, it was simply good fun. Thomas recalls the interstate tension at the Porter’s Pass climbing meet when, in front of a highly critical audience, Chris Baxter retreated from Flake Crack, packed up his car and left. ‘That Queensland versus the south is mirrored in the wider community, too,’ he muses. ‘Maybe we were enacting something which is there culturally anyway. I’m not sure.’ With the hostilities at their peak, Thomas delighted in fanning the flames, referring to Grampians’ classics as ‘loose, crumbly lines on Mt Crumblebar in the Crapians’. It did little to improve interstate relations but it was the source of great mirth.

Picture: Ted Cais, Rick White, Trevor Gynther and Rick Jamieson contemplating the great climbs on the steep walls around Amen Corner at Wirindi, 1973. Ted Cais collection.

Beyond the Buttress

The first recorded climb on the Girraween granite near Stanthorpe—Late Afternoon Flake (pictured)—by Dave Gillieson and Richard Sullivan. Gillieson recalls the moment:
Right at the lip I had to take time to place a small leeper bolt, more psychological protection than real. Surprisingly this held a fall on the first free attempt later on. Beyond that, the angle eased, and I was able to reach a small ledge about two centimetres wide. From there, the crack continued cleanly for thirty metres, just off vertical but with a rounded edge. I laybacked about ten metres up to a point where a chockstone allowed me to stand and enjoy the situation. It was an exciting lead and very committed, with a fair bit of rope drag. From there, an off width crack continued, the angle easing all the while, to the upper slope of the dome. I brought Richard up to me and we soloed up to the top. We scrambled down off the dome as the sun set, the rock glowing ruby red in the twilight. That night we downed a bottle of the local rough red and celebrated a fine climb.
Over the next 15 years, around 1,000 new routes were put up there with Sullivan, Robert Staszewski, and brothers Stuart and Scott Camps involved in most of them. Steve Bell, who was active at Frog Buttress and in developing the cliffs on Ngungun, in the Glasshouses, linked up with Lesley Rivers to climb a new route, Urea Crack. Meanwhile in central Australia, Andrew Thomson and Keith Lockwood climbed 140 metres up the Kangaroo Tail on Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) before being ordered down by a park ranger.

Picture: Dave Gillieson collection
Coomera Gorge: 1st descent

In December 1972 in the heat of another Queensland summer, Donn Groom, Ted Cais and I decided to try something entirely different—a descent of the Coomera River Gorge from its source in the border ranges of Lamington National Park. Donn had pioneered abseiling into the Coomera crevice for guests at Binna Burra lodge years before, but no one had made a descent of the entire gorge. We started our journey at the headwaters—where the graded walking track crosses the barely-flowing stream. One hundred metres into the scramble we had our first swim across a pool of dark green, freezing mountain water. Around us the lush, deep green vegetation hung from the walls and small waterfalls sprayed into the gorge on both sides from dizzying heights. It was a magnificent place. We swam through several more rock pools and slid down a huge log angled down a steep cataract before reaching our first impasse—an overhanging waterfall, disappearing into the dark depths of the canyon. Ted started the abseil and swung heavily into the cliff under a big overhanging rock, finally shouting from below above the roar of the water that he was safe. Donn and I followed, discovering that the rope ran out about four metres above the surface of the pool below us. Pulling the rope down after us meant that we were committed—there was no easy way back from here. And there was no other option—we had to jump. Donn went in first, taking one end of the rope with him and we sent our waterproofed packs across to the other side of the pool on a makeshift flying fox. We could hear the water boiling ahead of us and it suggested one thing—another big drop. And it was! A sinuous water race plunging 50 metres into an unseen pool below. The roar was incredible and we had to shout at the top of our voices to be heard above it. It was a slippery, sliding descent, festooned with long strands of algae of the deepest green. The sheer walls, rising up perhaps 100 metres above us, were matted with a wild array of different kinds of vegetation. Donn left his pack behind for this one. When Ted and I reached him, he was on a small ledge, six metres above the pool. Another jump—the third so far.

The Hidden Falls

Donn peered over the edge of the next big drop—it was steep, partly overhanging, and he thought he recognised it as the Hidden Falls—the last big drop in the canyon before the 70 metre Coomera Falls. He had looked up at the lip of the canyon where we now stood many times before, wondering what it was like up here. Now he knew. And for the first time, we looked down into the Coomera Crevice. But there was a problem—there was nowhere close to the top of the falls to anchor our abseil rope. Donn hammered in an angle piton and was set to use this but Ted and I spotted a large tree about six metres above him on the side of the gorge. I cut 20 metres from the emergency rope we carried—an old No 3 laid nylon—and we made a long sling, linking the tree and the peg. We threaded our two 40 metre ropes through the sling and Donn disappeared over the edge. His shouts from below confirmed it was the Hidden falls and he was down—we had made it. We quickly joined him and swam through the pool, wading downstream to the top of the Coomera Falls, descending it in two abseils. After a quick lunch, it was a one kilometre rockhop downstream to the start of the ‘Mystery Track’, a steep climb up near-vertical slopes, swinging off small trees and tree roots. It was a fast way into and out of the Coomera Gorge discovered some years before. We arrived back at Binna Burra Lodge seven hours after we had left.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

Queensland takes
the lead...again

From the early 1970s, Rick White continued to push the boundaries of hard aid and free climbing in Australia, driven by a strong ego and a powerful drive to reach the top echelons of his calling. By 1972, he was ready to take the lead and with Ron Collett and Ted Cais, they climbed a direct start to Beau Brummell on Mt Maroon's big east face. White wrote: ‘The route is significantly harder than all other routes I have ever experienced. The climb is awkward and sustained jamming up a 30 degree overhanging corner-crack which runs straight into a roof (aid). There are no rests. Once the roof is reached, the idea is to hang off one lousy hand jam and quickly place the first aid—you have approximately 15 seconds to solve the situation.’ They called it Valhalla and graded it 22 M2—the hardest in Australia. A few months later, Bryden Allen eliminated the aid moves from The Kraken at Wirindi (formerly Mt Piddington) in the Blue Mountains, creating Australia’s second grade 22 climb. White made the second free ascent of The Kraken a short time later, confirming that Valhalla was its equal.

Working on Maggie’s Farm

In May that year, Rick White and Ted Cais blitzed a new climbing area on the southeast corner of Mt Maroon which they called Maggie’s Farm. Along with a queue of other top climbers at the time—Coral Bowman, Chris Peisker, Ron Collett and John Hattink—they steadily climbed one new route after another. In a matter of days, White and Cais climbed 23 new routes at the cliff, commuting each day from Frog Buttress where a national climbing meet had attracted about 20 people from interstate and overseas. During that event, White put up Conquistador with Sydney climber Warwick Williams—Queensland’s first and Australia’s second Grade 21. White completed his Maroon odyssey with a solo mixed free and aid girdle traverse of the east face in November, calling it Animal Act, finishing up the classic, Ruby of India. Frog Buttress was not forgotten but climbing had slowed there. Nevertheless, White and Cais led more hard new routes including Elastic Rurp, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Noose, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Iron Mandible.

Picture: Tony Kelly, Greg Sheard, Rick White and Ron Collett sort gear on Mt Maroon. Within weeks, White and Collett joined with Ted Cais to climb Valhalla. Michael Meadows collection.