Sunday, October 09, 2005

Raoul Mellish
(late 1940s and 1950s)

We started on our own bat, Reg Ballard and myself. As far as I was concerned, it all came back to that wonderful sight [Tibrogargan]…winter time and the clarity of the air and the outline of that beautiful mountain…I had the urge to paint in those days but I wasn’t doing much about it. I was looking forward to it. But I had that urge to go and climb it and we did that. You get bitten by a bug, don’t you, and away it goes.
Picture: Raoul Mellish (left) and Coll Taggart on the east face of Mt Warning, 1949. Raoul Mellish collection.
Jon Stephenson
(late 1940s to present)

[It was] partly the people but it was largely the places—and largely the environment. But over the campfire at night a few people tried to explain why in earth they did it and I never thought they did very well. I had no idea. I couldn’t explain it. I could not explain it…I’ve been back to some of the places and what I didn’t accept was that they are so exceptional. The environment was so…wow! I’ve been back to Mt Barney a few times after a long period when I wasn’t there and I was so astonished that it was such a handsome place. It was for that reason, I’m sure, that I got absolutely sucked in. I couldn’t put it aside. I still find good forest, rainforest especially, and one can walk through it by yourself, it’s like going into a church.

Picture: John Comino collection
Bert Salmon
(1923 to World War II: ‘the spiritual father of Queensland climbing’)

Why do they climb? I have often wondered…but I have never been able to satisfy on the point. Some are born climbers; nothing can keep them from the mountains. They keep on climbing until they die—or until they slip, which often means the same thing. Others not so apt often join climbing parties to learn the rudiments of the game. For these we carry a rope, but we do not use it if we can avoid doing so.
Picture: Bert Salmon collection.
Nora Dimes
(Regular climber throughout the 1930s)
Should you believe, with Addison, that the proper study of mankind is man, you may have met in your researches a mountaineer. He is one whose soul is blent of heights and depths, and in extreme cases his admiration of the tallest and newest building in town is confined to the possible hand or footholds on the facade. I have known one such, seized suddenly with the climbing fever, clamber onto a foot-wide parapet and walk airily along it seven stories above street level.
L. M. R., Sunday Mail, 1932.

What is it that makes city toilers expose themselves to the dangers, hardships, and discomforts that must accrue from scaling sheer walls of rock when they might admire the great peaks from terra firma? Is it because they believe that reward is proportionately great: that he who gains the crest of the mount will discover beauties undreamt of and experience a full measure of the elusive joys of achievement? Yes, maybe they do compensate for the toils, doubts, and difficulties experienced before anyone, no matter how adept at the sport (they call it good sport), can reach the summit of a real mountain.


Rockclimbing has become more and more part of everyday society, as the cover of Qantas's Frequent Flyer magazine (above) demonstrates. And despite all the debates over ethics, one thing is for sure: people will continue to climb for many and varied reasons. Here’s the first of a collection of Australian climbers’ thoughts on this from across the ages...

Freda Du Faur

(1915: Australia's first mountaineer)

Every now and then a voice seemed to rise from nowhere in a faint cry. Again and again I have started up, sure that some one was calling me, to confront only the silent, snow-clad mountains. Some stone falling from the heights, the gurgle of an underground stream, or the wind sweeping into a hidden cave and raising an echo from the distant ridges—clear and distinct it comes, this call of the mountains, sometimes friendly and of good cheer; but often eerie, wild, and full of melancholy warning, as if the spirit of the mountains bade you beware how you tread her virgin heights, except in the spirit of reverence and love.

[Freda Du Faur, The conquest of Mount Cook and other climbs: an account of four seasons’ mountaineering on the Southern Alps of New Zealand, London, George Allen and Unwin, 1915]
Where do we go

from here?

The very nature of sport climbing, along with a huge increase in the numbers of climbers, has led to some perhaps unforeseen consequences: climbing crags on private land have been closed down across Australia; climbing access to previously public cliffs—the Three Sisters in New South Wales and Crookneck in Queensland, for example—is increasingly being banned; and there has been a growing concern over environmental degradation of climbing areas. This has compelled rockclimbing clubs to align themselves more forcefully with conservation ideals. Perhaps it has come full circle...the climbers emerging from the earliest bushwalking clubs in Australia at the end of World War II generally had a close association with wilderness. This was not so apparent with new climbing clubs emerging in the 1960s, many of whom saw climbing and the environment as separate issues. With increasing pressure on the environment, there has been a return to the importance of conservation amongst newcomers, many of whom began their vertical journeys in climbing gyms rather than on an isolated, scrubby cliff, several hours’ walk from a carpark. This does not mean that one form of climbing is any better or worse than another. It is simply suggesting that things can’t go on as they are without a significant change in attitude, particularly towards bolting—or perhaps gyms and practice cliffs like Kangaroo Point in Brisbane will become the only approved destinations for hard climbing in Australia. The debate over bolts is as old as the practice itself, stemming from the early 1950s in the Blue Mountains, in particular, but increasingly, national parks’ regulators are taking more notice of the permanent damage it does to rock surfaces. And it’s worth remembering that it’s only in the past decade or two of the 100 year history of modern climbing in Australia that bolting has become accepted as the majority practice.

Picture: Rob Hales on the final headwall of the north face of Leaning Peak, Mt Barney, September 2003. Michael Meadows collection.


Early in 2005, the strange hiss of an electric bolt drill echoed around the overhangs on Tibrogargan. I’d just finished Prometheus II, an exposed climb below Cave Five with Greg Sheard, Jane White (pictured) and Cass Crane. I felt a great sadness, watching the trachyte powder drifting down as a couple of climbers forced their way up through the previously impossible overhangs. Just to their north was the classic Trojan, climbed in 1966 by Les Wood and John Tillack. And a few metres to the south, Overexposed, another special route climbed by Les Wood and Donn Groom the same year. No bolts were placed (or carried) on the first ascent of either climb. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the current era that the claim for the longest climb in the country is a route which uses almost 100 bolts—the difficult 568 metre Lost Boys on the north face of Mt Warning by Tim Balla and Malcolm Matheson. A significant achievement according to the rules of today’s game—but even more difficult, perhaps unclimbable, without bolts. I wonder how far we can honestly say we’ve travelled when we consider this in light of the first tentative steps taken by the first European climbers in Australia, more than a century ago.

Picture: Jane White reaches easier ground after the delicate traverse on Prometheus II. Michael Meadows collection.