Friday, October 07, 2005

Climbing for adventure

Wendy Steele and sister Katie ( closest to camera) high on the north face of Leaning Peak making the 1st female ascent, September 2003. At 410 metres, it is arguably the longest bolt-free climbing route in Australia.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

Bolts and the Buttress

The first bolt was placed at Frog Buttress in 1981 in a climb called Yodel up the Valley. It was repeated shortly after by Rick White and Kim Carrigan who found the bolt to be unnecessary. But the practice has continued. Rick White died hoping that Frog Buttress might one day reclaim its bolt-free status. The crag that he played a major role in developing over the years has been central in identifying Australia as an international rockclimbing destination. The clean climbing ethic that created Frog Buttress was one of its foundation pillars. Some have begun removing the bolts they placed in their climbs there following Rick White’s death but it will take more than a few fine gestures to turn around the bolting juggernaut that dominates modern Australian rockclimbing. Ethics — including climbing ethics — will always remain the domain of the individual. But to have one bolt-free crag in Queensland (or Australia, for that matter) would make a powerful statement in the current environment. It would be akin to the impact American environmentalist-climber John Muir had on the early days of exploration and development of climbing in Yosemite. And perhaps it would go some way towards acknowledging the central role that clean climbing ethics played in pushing Queensland to the forefront of Australia rockclimbing in the early 1970s. Surely that alone is worthy of such recognition.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection.

Women’s place

By the mid 1980s, as female climbers in Australia were beginning to establish themselves on the hard sport routes. Louise Shepherd in the early 1980s was climbing in Yosemite, Nyrie Dodd led Passport to Insanity, one of the hardest climbs in Australia, and visiting French climber Christine Gambert bagged India, even harder. It was clear that women could mix it with the men on the most difficult routes in the country. Within 12 months, American Lyn Hill would be described as the world’s best rockclimber—male or female. In 1990, Hill’s former arch rival in climbing competitions, Catherine Destivelle, soloed the Bonatti Pillar in five hours. Hill went on to make the first free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in 1993, taking 23 hours, climbing part of the route in darkness—an extraordinary achievement. In the same year, 1993, Scottish climber Alison Hargreaves became the first person to solo all classic North Faces in the Alps in a single season. Two years later, she was the first woman to solo Everest but was killed in a huge storm on K2 along with six others a few months later. In 1991, 52 year old Junko Tabei became the first woman (and 11th person overall) to climb the Eight Summits—including Carstenz Pyramid—reaching the top of Kosciuszko. Bridgit Muir became the first Australian to climb Seven Summits—excluding Carstenz Pyramid—two years later.

Out of the gym

From the early 1990s in Australia, women returned to rockclimbing in numbers seen only in Queensland between the wars in the 1930s. It seems that the climbing gym culture played a significant role in this. Whatever the reasons for the sudden upsurge in interest, throughout the 1990s, women began to rediscover a place for themselves in Australian climbing culture. Ironically, their battle for acceptance was not so very different from the struggle by their European sisters, 100 years before. Strong female climbers were soon a regular sight on crags around the country and no route, regardless of how intimidating it might be, was out of bounds. Adventure climbing was firmly on the agenda for some, at least. One milestone in Queensland was in 1998 when Jacqui Kiewa and Wendy Steele (pictured) became the first women to climb the East Face of Mt Barney—32 years after the first ascent.

Picture: Wendy Steele collection.


Rick White

Rick White returned to the Himalayas for a second time with Michael Groom in 1991 to climb Everest, but the trip ended in disarray with White having to fly home urgently to attend to a business crisis. With a long-time financier going to the wall, White was virtually forced out of Mountain Designs with huge debts. But by 2000, he was getting restless again and set up a small, hi-tech sleeping bag design and manufacturing company. In 2001, he was invited back to Mountain Designs by a new owner as adviser in research and development of new products, or, as he wryly observed, ‘as a walking historian’. His extraordinary business career had come almost full circle. It was during this period of re-adjustment that White had to confront a new and unknown challenge—a muscle-wasting illness called inclusion body myositis: ‘It was diagnosed in 1991 after I came back from Everest and I suspect I got it in 1990 after going to Cho Oyu. I definitely had it before I went to Everest because I was getting weak and then I got stronger by training but as soon as I stopped, it just went boom…really, really weak.’ For someone who had made a career out of climbing and who had played a major role in Australian climbing for more than a quarter of a century, it was a bitter blow. But his approach to this was characteristic of the attitude which propelled him into the ranks of Australia’s top climbers. White took up coaching a small group of talented sport climbers and insisted on taking part in significant milestones at Frog Buttress until his death from a brain tumour in 2004.

Picture: Rick White abseiling down Infinity at the 1998 Frog Buttress anniversary. Michael Meadows collection.

Twenty years ago today...

The 'discoverers' of Frog Buttress (from left) Rick White and Chris Meadows, with Jane White, prepare to climb Corner of Eden in November 1988 on the 20th anniversary of the first ascent. Ironically, it was their last climb together: Chris Meadows took his own life in 1991 and in the same year, Rick White was diagnosed with a muscle-wasting disease that effectively ended his active climbing career.

Picture: Michael Meadows collection. Posted by Picasa

Challenges for Michael Groom

Queenslander Michael Groom (pictured) had decided that climbing would be a big part of his life at an early age. With a grandfather like Queensland wilderness pioneer Arthur Groom and a father like Donn Groom, he probably had little say in the matter! By the early 1980s, was well advanced in his quest to climb the highest mountain in the world. It all started at age five when he was looking at Mt Barney with his father, Donn, who explained that Mt Everest was about six times higher! In 1982, Groom made several trips to the Himalayas with Australian climbers Tim McCartney-Snape, Lincoln Hall, Geoff Bartram, Greg Mortimer and Andy Henderson and following a season in the French Alps in 1986, he found himself on Kangchenjunga (8598m). But a decision he made to turn back close to the summit probably saved his life. The following year, he and his climbing partner John Coulton reached the summit of Kangchenjunga in a howling wind. A nightmare descent began as, snowblind and hallucinating, they stumbled along in the darkness. When Groom removed his boots, the ‘black rot’ of frostbite had reached the arches of both feet. For most, it would have meant the end of a climbing career—but not for him: ‘Losing my toes really changed my outlook on life in that unless you experience a situation where everything that’s so important to you is very nearly taken away, you don’t really appreciate how much it means to you.’ He realised that somehow, he’d been given a second chance and that’s when he decided to take up mountaineering with a vengeance.

The five highest mountains in the world

Groom joined Rick and Jane White’s expedition to Cho Oyu in 1990 and they attempted a new route before retreating. With the rest of the team suffering from either altitude sickness or exhaustion, Groom climbed to the summit alone up the standard route. His determination to climb Mt Everest (8848m) was rewarded on 9 May 1993 when he stood on the summit of his dreams. The following year he climbed K2 via the Abruzzi Ridge and 12 months later, became the first Australian to climb Lhotse (8511m). In 1996, he was back on Everest as an expedition guide when a huge storm swept across the region. In its wake, eight climbers on the south side of Everest died, including his employer, New Zealand climber Rob Hall, and another of Hall’s guides, Andy Harris. It was three years before Groom returned to the Himalayas. At noon on 16 May 1999 with partner Dave Bridges, he climbed the last few metres of solid ice to the tiny pyramid summit of Makalu (8481m), becoming the first Australian to climb the world’s five highest peaks.

Illustration: Michael Groom on the summit of Cho Oyu, The Courier-Mail, 1990.