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Sunday, October 11, 2015
Close to the edge: imagining climbing in southeast Queensland
Close to the edge: imagining climbing in southeast Queensland
Michael Meadows, Robert Thomson and Wendy Stewart
[Note: We wrote this article based on our first tentative exploration of Queensland newspaper archives, former climbers' diaries, documents and recollections. It was the basis for a conference paper and was subsequently published in a modified form in the academic history journal, Queensland Review 7(2), 67-84, 2000]
In 1992, the Climbing World Finals event in Birmingham
attracted around 5,000 spectators watching 24 males and 16 females compete in
two separate competitions for prizemoney.
In this entertainment spectacular, super-fit young athletes climb walls
using artificial hand and footholds, racing against the clock to determine who
will claim the title of the world’s ‘best’ climber. In the same year, climbing appeared as a demonstration sport
at the Albertville Winter Olympics.[i] In the same year, the first indoor
climbing gymnasium in Australia opened its climbing wall. There are now around 80 operating
around the country under the auspices of the Australian Indoor Climbing Gyms
Two years earlier in 1990, the Australian Sportsclimbing
Federation was formed. It is
registered with the International Union of Alpinist Associations (UIAA) the
umbrella organisation for all mountaineering and rockclimbing associations
worldwide. In April last year at
an event in the Blue Mountains called Escalade,
19 of the country’s highest-ranked female and 17 top-ranked male climbers
competed. It was the eighth
climbing competition held in Australia since 1996 and some participants went on
to compete in the World Cup—an international climbing competition. A significant increase in female
participation in rockclimbing coincides with the advent of climbing gyms in
Australia. Perhaps one reason for
this is the central place of fitness in the lives of many young people. Indoor climbing was quickly adopted as
an interesting and effective way of getting and keeping fit—something confirmed
by proponents of sports medicine.[iii] The
increasing popularity of rockclimbing in its many forms has prompted studies
from varied perspectives—for example, analysis of hand and finger abnormalities
specific to climbers;[iv] analysis of
rockclimbers’ injuries;[v] climbers’
ability to deal with occupational hazards;[vi]
identifying climbers’ higher than average ‘sensation-seeking dispositions’;[vii]
and the effects of climbers on the cliffs themselves.[viii] The growing popularity of rockclimbing
has itself presented traditional climbers with the contradiction that their very
presence in wilderness locations acts to ‘transform, tame, and degrade nature’.[ix]
At one climbing gym in central Brisbane, an upstairs section
of the building features a room where climbers can relax, hang out, shoot some
pool and listen to music—an Internet café without the Internet. By the mid-1990s in Australia, climbing
had become part of the Extreme Games, a nationally televised event which
includes such sports as skateboarding and hangliding. It regularly features as a ‘cool’ activity in action feature
films like The Eiger Sanction, Cliffhanger, where the central character
is a climber. Rockclimbing is an
important activity which frames the latest manifestation of Mission: Impossible II. Secret agent
Ethan Hunt’s impossible antics on the huge walls of the Colorado Rockies at the
start of the film features rockclimbing in a way which encapsulates the very
themes of this conference—ethics, events, and entertainment. The much publicised involvement of Tom
Cruise in his own stunts for the film in turn frames rockclimbing as the cool
activity for the new millennium.
From its earliest imaginings as a recreation, rockclimbing now
finds itself straddling leisure and sport in the panoply of popular cultural
activities.[x] But it is not only the activity of
rockclimbing itself which has moved to centre stage in popular culture. What began as specialist outdoor
equipment—from boots to backpacks—now makes up the wardrobes of generations of
people who will never climb a cliff-face nor set foot on a walking track. But this does not mean that those who
climb have ignored this powerful cultural influence—far from it. Climbers have appropriated aspects of
popular culture—like fashion, music, and style—and incorporated these into the
discourse of climbing. Clearly,
climbing is cool—a central part of popular culture—and consumer-friendly. Popular media images from mainstream
print and broadcast outlets to those in niche magazines play an important
discursive role in ‘imagining’ climbing.
But it is far from being a new phenomenon. In the second half of the 19th century, as the
idea of mountaineering became fashionable in parts of Europe, mountaineering
clothing and equipment became especially popular among British tourists ‘even
though one in a hundred got close enough to the icefields to make good use of
their outfits’.[xi] As ever, consumer culture remains ‘a
culture of the spectacle’ and perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the various
modes of modern rockclimbing.[xii]
Alongside what has become the popular face of climbing, are
diverse and parallel inflections of this cultural activity, each powerfully
defined by sets of ethics that militate against particular practices—even if
safety is a consideration. For
example, in climbing competitions, ‘sport’ climbers don’t need to carry some
safety equipment because it has been previously placed on the artificial
climbing walls they scale. Citing
ethics as a reason for rejecting this approach to climbing, some prefer to
climb in places which enable the use of ‘natural’ protection (lightweight
devices that can be wedged into cracks and removed without causing significant
damage to rock). This ethical
stance is one of the hallmarks of what is now termed ‘adventure’ or ‘traditional’
climbing. The diversification of
climbing has been one inevitable consequence of the complex interaction of
market forces and popular demand.
The ‘event’ of the first ascent has given way—in the popular imaginary
at least—to events of a different sort, more likely to be featured on national
Rockclimbing as a cultural practice emerged in Europe as a
pastime, separate from its predecessor—mountaineering—late in the 19th century. It began as a peculiarly
European and masculine phenomenon with a strong British influence. Some have described the nature of its
emergence as ‘vertical colonialism’ with the idea of climbing being exported by
British mountaineers seeking new challenges in the Americas, Africa and the
But alongside this notion of climbing as a global/colonial phenomenon are
other, local influences—as Bricknell reminds us, leisure practices, like
climbing, are historically produced and socially constructed.[xiv] Kiewa takes this further, describing
leisure as ‘an interactive process of self-construction’.[xv] The experience of climbing, like other
leisure activities such as tourism—with which it has historically had a close
association—takes place in different spatial, temporal and subjective contexts
and this has led to the emergence of ‘different imaginings’ of rockclimbing in
different sites around the world.[xvi] We examine one of these sites in this
While the emergence of mountaineering, then rockclimbing,
within a masculine framework continues to influence climbing in the new
millennium, there have been—and continue to be—some significant challenges to
that.[xvii] Prominent female climbers like
Elizabeth Burnaby LeBlond had emerged late in the 19th century at a
time when the mountains were considered no place for women. The Ladies Alpine Club was formed in
England in 1907. Three years later
across the Pacific, Australian Freda Du Faur became the first woman to climb
Mount Cook in December 1910—and was in the party to complete the first Mt
Cook-Mt Tasman traverse. De Faur
followed this astonishing achievement up with several first ascents in the NZ
Alps. An extraordinary movement in
southeast Queensland 20 years later saw female climbers playing a major
role. The 1930s might well be
called Queensland’s (and Australia’s) ‘golden age’ of climbing. Our research suggests that it
represents a significant moment in the invention of Australian climbing.
While a dominant figure during that era was the enigmatic
Queenslander Bert Salmon, several female climbers emerged at that time claiming
first ascents of local and interstate summits. Muriel Patten and Jean Easton stand out as confident and
pioneering in their contribution to this ‘imagining’ process. Salmon regularly climbed with women and
large parties of male and female climbers made numerous ascents of southeast Queensland’s
most challenging summits. Patten
was the first woman to climb the First Sister in the Blue Mountains in 1934 and
Easton became the second a few months later. We take a closer look at this important era later in this
Our aim here is to look at some influences on the emergence of
the idea of climbing in southeast Queensland. The examples we use here are drawn from our current research
project which has already gathered a rich array of material concerning early
climbing history in Queensland and beyond—newspaper articles, newsletters,
magazines, historical society journals, climbing guides, letters, diaries,
photographs and oral histories.
But we also suggest thinking about climbing as a text—a dynamic process;
a set of practices—discursively produced.[xviii]
Australian—and more specifically Queensland—climbing and
climbers have been ‘imagined’ in a particular way (Anderson 1984). While the idea of mountaineering
certainly preceded the emergence of climbing in Australia, the very nature of
the landscape here meant that climbing was bound to take on a different persona
from its European antecedent.
Figuring strongly in this discursive construction was the unique
geographical make-up of southeast Queensland—with its diverse collection of
volcanic mountain peaks within range of a major population centre[xix]—along
with a climate that encouraged the emergence of leisure activities like
walking, scrambling and climbing.
This particular combination of discourses played a crucial role in
shaping modern Australian climbing.
We suggest that this activity in southeast Queensland in the 1930s
played a major role in the emergence of modern Australian climbing culture.
The theme of this conference—ethics, events, and
entertainment—suggests ways in which we might understand climbing from its
earliest incarnations to its current place in mainstream popular culture. And we intend to use these themes
within a broad cultural studies approach as a framework for our paper. Here, we draw from Grossberg’s notion
of the ‘radically contextual’ nature of cultural studies as ‘a discursive space
elements which inform much of our understanding about climbing and its place as
a popular cultural practice.
Climbing as event—first ascents
It is just
over 200 years since the first recorded European ascent of a peak in southeast
Queensland. In general, the record
of early Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ascents of southeast Queensland
mountains is not easily accessible. Much of the information concerning possible
early ascents of the mountains of the southeast is either oral history,
recorded by non-Indigenous settlers and academics, or anecdotal as recounted by
non-Indigenous sources. Such reports tend to be either unpublished or included
in broader histories of settlement and exploration. While Aboriginal interest in the mountains of the southeast
for millennia is undeniable—all of the peaks in southeast Queensland are
incorporated in Aboriginal creation stories—it is their interest in climbing
them that is problematic.[xxi]
little doubt that Aboriginal people could have climbed all of the mountains in
southeast Queensland—if they had needed or wanted to. There is clear evidence of Indigenous people’s ability to
climb trees and vines so there is little doubt that it was physically
possible. But why would they want
Aboriginal people accompanied Thomas Archer in 1841 when he climbed Beerwah in
the Glasshouses—there is some suggestion that they showed him the way! But there was a belief at the time that
a spirit lived there and local Aboriginal people kept away, fearing that anyone
who climbed it would go blind.
This did happen to Andrew Petrie who was the first recorded European to
climb the mountain in 1840.[xxii] Various accounts of stories about
places like Mount Barney[xxiii] and Mount Lindesay[xxiv] centre on Aboriginal ascents of the
mountains—but with dire consequences.
However, there are numerous versions of a story of Aboriginal people
climbing Mount Lindesay using vines hanging down the cliffs prior to the 1840s
when these were destroyed by a bushfire.[xxv]
first ascent of Mount Lindesay by a non-Aboriginal person has long been assumed
to be in 1872, there is strong evidence to suggest that the mountain’s first
European climber reached the summit around 30 years earlier. It seems highly likely from the
available sources that William Thornton (later Collector of Customs), J.
Kinchela and a third man used vines to reach the summit sometime before the
reported bushfire in the late 1840s.[xxvi]
of southeast Queensland which attract many thousands of recreational climbers
and bushwalkers today were equally attractive to the first non-Aboriginal
people to document their presence.
Cook’s sighting and naming of The Glasshouses, north of Brisbane, and
Matthew Flinders’s subsequent recorded first ascent of one of the group,
Beerburrum, on 26 July, 1799, marked a new age of exploration in southeast
Queensland and played a significant role in the process of ‘imagining’ the new
after Flinders’ ascent in The Glasshouses, the first ascent of Mount Barney by
Captain Patrick Logan on 3 August 1828 played an important role in determining
that it was not Mount Warning but a
separate massif altogether. This
ascent by Logan took place just four years after the establishment of the
Moreton Bay penal settlement. It
seems clear that from this that the British invasion brought more to the colony
than shipload of convicts and their overlords. Clearly, the idea of mountaineering was amongst the colonial
baggage. The Brisbane Courier (1872) records the first few ascents of Beerwah in
The Glasshouses in 1841 along with the presence of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt
(who also climbed Beerwah) in the region a few years later. Climbing activity increased in
southeast Queensland as settlers moved into the area.
important period in which rockclimbing could be equated closely with
exploration offers an opportunity to investigate the history of the idea of
climbing in a local context.[xxviii] Climbing was well-established internationally at this time,
with the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1787 before the onset of the ‘Golden
Age’ of mountaineering (1854-1865) during which around 180 great European peaks
were climbed for the first time—the last being the Matterhorn in 1865.[xxix] This era, and in particular, the reporting of these
exploits by the colonial press, played a significant role in the emergence of
the idea of climbing—in an Australian sense.
At the turn of the 20th century, a
number of young adventurers from the Boonah district in southeast Queensland,
began scrambling on the nearby peaks and ranges. Following the lead of Milford school teacher Harry Johns,
these early century enthusiasts made numerous ascents of the West Moreton, Main
and McPherson Range peaks in the years to about 1918. There had been occasional climbers and scramblers in
southeast Queensland before this time, but the Boonah ‘Wayfarers’, as they
called themselves, were a new development—they were regulars who viewed
climbing and scrambling as a recreation and a pastime, a point which is quite
evident when we read the newspaper and diary accounts of their exploits.
Whilst the ‘Wayfarers’ were
significant, it is perhaps more accurate to view them as part of a wider
climbing and scrambling culture which emerged in southeast Queensland at this
time, rather than as trail blazing pioneers—and here it is worth noting that
not long after the ‘Wayfarers’ appeared, other regulars started climbing and
scrambling at the Glasshouses, north of Brisbane.
In all, it is quite remarkable that
a climbing and scrambling culture emerged in southeast Queensland in the early
20th century. The ‘mass
discovery’ of the countryside, for example, did not emerge until postwar in the
UK but there was what the British press described as ‘a hiking boom’ in 1931.[xxx] Climbing and scrambling were different
and so far, our research suggests there were no comparable developments
elsewhere in Australia at this time.
It also seems unlikely that local climbers and scramblers had any
significant contact with contemporary British and European mountaineers. Obviously, the ‘Wayfarers’ and the
other early century climbers emerged within a context. In the decade or so before the
‘Wayfarers’ appeared, rambling, cycling and a number of other outdoor pursuits
had become popular amongst the Brisbane and provincial leisured classes.
Harry Johns had been introduced to
the local peaks by R. A. Wearne, one time Ipswich Technical College Principal
and amateur geologist, who took Johns along on rambles in the foothills at Mt
Barney and elsewhere. Throughout
the later 19th century there had been a number of notable one-off
ascents made in southeast Queensland by adventurers such as Murray-Prior and
Pears who climbed Mt Lindesay in 1872.
Before this, in the early 1860s the Roberts /Rowland border survey teams
traversed the McPherson Range, climbing all the peaks en route (the exceptions
being Mt Lindesay and Wilson’s Peak).
In the early 1840s, the Dixon survey team established a station on
Flinders Peak and the Petries and others made a number of ascents of Beerwah in
the Glasshouses. In the early
years of the Moreton Bay settlement in 1828, Logan climbed Mt Barney and
Cunningham had climbed Mt Mitchell.
There is a sense in which the
Boonah ‘Wayfarers’ and the other early 20th century climbers and
scramblers extended prevailing European ideas of climbing.
Throughout the later 19th century, mountaineering and climbing received a good deal of coverage in the
southeast Queensland press, with numerous accounts of local and overseas
ascents appearing in the newspapers.
One of the earliest items, aptly titled ‘The Mania For Alpine Climbing’[xxxi]
(a report of a mountaineering disaster at Mont Blanc) appeared in the
Queenslander in 1866. It was
followed in 1871 by a brief account of an ascent of Mt Warning[xxxii]
and in the following year by an account of the Murray-Prior/Pears Mt Lindesay
From about the mid 1880s,
mountaineering and climbing articles started to appear in the local newspapers
more regularly. In 1886 there was
Grenville Kingsley’s rollicking account of his and the Collins brothers’ Mt
followed a few months later by Thomas Welsby’s remarkable series on his
scrambles in the Glasshouses.[xxxv] In 1890, Borchgrevink’s dramatic
Ripping Yarns-style account of his and Brown’s Mt Lindesay ascent appeared,[xxxvi]
provoking a Mt Lindesay first ascent debate in the pages of the Brisbane Courier.[xxxvii] In 1894, John Hardcastle’s account of
his Wilson’s Peak ascent was published.[xxxviii]
followed in 1895 by ‘Quixote’s’ account.[xxxix]
Throughout this period, there were
reports and accounts of ascents in north Queensland—Sayer and Davidson at
Bellenden Ker in 1887;[xl] Tyson at
Hinchinbrook Island in 1893;[xli] Le Vaux
and Moreton at Bellenden Ker in 1897;[xlii]
and Le Souef at Peter Botte in 1897.[xliii] Archibald Meston’s romantic series of Queenslander articles on his Bellenden
Ker and Mt Alexandra expeditions appeared in 1889,[xliv]
along with numerous letters disputing his claims and protesting at his
In addition to these local
accounts, reports of Meyer’s ascent of Kilimanjaro appeared in 1888[xlvii]
and Sir William McGregor’s ascent of Mt Owen Stanley appeared in 1889,[xlviii]
and there were accounts of Fitzgerald’s New Zealand mountaineering expedition
Kolb’s ascent of Mt Kenya in 1897[l] and the Duke
of Abruzzi’s ascent of Mt St Elias in 1897,[li]
to mention a few.
In the early 20th century, the coverage continued, though with a significant increase in the
number of local articles. Accounts
of ascents of Mt Lindesay appeared in the Queenslander
and Brisbane Courier in 1902, 1904,
1910 and 1913.[lii] Accounts of ascents at Mt Barney
appeared in 1904, and 1914.[liii] One of the most significant of the
early climbers was Boonah schoolteacher William Gaylard. From around 1910, he added numerous
ascents of peaks and cliffs in southeast Queensland the Blue Mountains to his
long list of achievements.[liv]
the Brisbane Courier and the Queenslander regularly reported on
climbing exploits at this time and published photographs when they were made
available. The last great
challenge to climbers was Coonowrin (Crookneck) in The Glasshouses group. It was climbed in 1910 by Harry
Mikalsen. Two years later, three sisters
made the first female ascent of the mountain and the first ascent of the
southern face of Coonowrin (also known locally as Crookneck). On 26 May 1912, Sara, Jenny and Etty
Clark were accompanied by Willie Fraser, George Rowley and Jack Sairs. Jenny, Etty, Willie and George had
cycled from Brisbane two days before.
They climbed Tibrogargan on 25 May and Crookneck the
next day. The women wore
‘voluminous gym clothes’ for the climb and then cycled back to Brisbane
afterwards. These events prompted
several articles, including Welsby’s 1911 ‘Crookneck Climbed by Two Sturdy
follow-up on Mikalsen’s Crookneck ascents) and George Rowley’s 1912 account of
the Clark sisters’ Crookneck ascent[lvi] that also
included summit photographs of the climbers on Crookneck and Tibrogargan.
Throughout this period, accounts of
the Boonah ‘Wayfarers’ ascents and rambles appeared in the Boonah and Ipswich
newspapers, including William Gaylard’s 1912 ‘Fresh Worlds to Conquer’,[lvii]
in which he invited the recently successful Crookneck climbers to try their
hand at the Fassifern peaks.
However, perhaps some of the most interesting of the newspaper articles
are the exchanges—the 1890 Mt Lindesay first ascent dispute; the
various attempts to establish Mt Lindesay ascent chronologies;[lviii]
advice for would be climbers;[lix] the 1910
Mt Lindesay ascent dispute;[lx] references
to ascents by new routes;[lxi] and local
climbing photographs that accompanied the account of the Clark sisters’
Crookneck ascent. Publication of
climbing photographs soon became a regular occurrence in the pages of the
In all, the coverage given to
climbing and scrambling in the earlier southeast Queensland press is quite
remarkable, and at this point our research suggests that it was unmatched
elsewhere in Australia. Indeed by
the early 20th century, it is apparent that the local newspapers had
become an established forum, where notable ascents were brought to wider
attention and various climbing issues were periodically raised and debated.
Clearly, the southeast Queensland newspapers were an important site for
imagining climbing, with the press playing an integral role in promoting and sustaining local
There were a number of ways in
which climbing was portrayed in the late 19th and early 20th century southeast Queensland newspapers—ranging from folly;[lxii]
through Meston’s romantic account of his Mt Alexandra ascent, complete with
quotes from Milton’s Paradise Lost;[lxiii])
to various overseas reports where mountaineering was presented within the
framework of European exploration discourses and as part of the wider process
of defining landscape and making it culturally intelligible. However with the exception of Meston’s
articles, Borchgrevink’s account of the 1890 Mt Lindesay ascent (which in many
ways anticipates his later Antarctic writings) and perhaps a few others, the
local articles generally approached climbing and scrambling from a different
angle. So by the late 19th and early 20th century, a new idea of climbing had emerged in the
southeast Queensland press with local articles portraying climbing and
scrambling as something that was possible, as a social activity and as
The emphasis had shifted from
prevailing British and European notions of climbing as exploration, as a
specialist activity, or as the domain of an Alpine Club elite.
To an extent, the newspaper
coverage climbing and scrambling received was similar to that given to other
adventure-leisure pursuits such as sailing and cycling.[lxv] However it is also clear that climbing
emerged in its own right as an established newspaper theme, with the various
reports and articles for the most part reflecting local climbing
discourses. Significantly, our
research suggests that the late 19th and early 20th century ideas of climbing as a social activity—as entertainment—continued in
the southeast Queensland press until about the late 1930s. So even through the late 1920s and
early 1930s, when local climbers such as Bert Salmon and his crowd were
regularly making more difficult ascents, climbing was still imagined in the
press as a social activity, as entertainment, rather than as a sport or a
specialist activity—and we see this in the dozens of climbing articles and
reports which appeared in the newspapers in the 1930’s.[lxvi]
It is difficult to quantify the
extent to which the press influenced and shaped the development of a climbing
and scrambling culture in southeast Queensland in the early 20th century—and this is an issue we are still considering. Obviously there were other influences,
and here we are looking at the role of individuals such as Harry Johns at
Boonah in the 1900’s and Bert Salmon in the 1930’s, the rise of leisure and the
prevailing leisure discourses, the proximity of the various peaks to centres of
population, improvements in transport, the appearance of the National Parks
Association in the 1930’s, and so on.
Certainly though, the indicators
suggest the newspaper coverage was a significant and at times a leading
influence—and the fact that the coverage continued for more than 50 years from
the mid 1880’s, that reports and accounts of nearly every notable ascent made
in southeast Queensland until the late 1920’s seem to have been published in
the local newspapers, and that some of the climbers themselves kept albums of
the various newspaper climbing articles, all point to a substantial press
influence. In all, it would be
difficult to explain the appearance of the typically southeast Queensland climbing
culture which emerged in the early 20th century without the
influence of the local press in promoting local climbing and scrambling
discourses and forming the way in which local climbers imagined climbing.
Climbing culture in the 1930s—the ‘golden age’
the first few days of 1929, the press reported the first climbing fatality in
southeast Queensland. The story of
the death of the 22 year old Lyle Vidler on Mount Lindesay, dominated press
coverage. Significantly, Vidler, a
climbing companion of Bert Salmon, had died in a solo attempt at a new route up
the mountain. Vidler lies buried
at the base of the cliff. Albert
Armitage (‘AA’ or ‘Bert’) Salmon began his climbing career in earnest in 1925. In 1927 he formed a mountaineering club
in southeast Queensland with Vidler his protégé. At least two other climbing clubs formed in Queensland
around this time, possibly as early as 1926.[lxvii] In New South Wales, the Blue
Mountaineers climbing club was formed in 1929. By 1930, Salmon had emerged as a dominant and influential
figure in climbing in the southeast—and in Australia.
counterpart, in many ways, was Dr Eric Dark, one-time New South Wales
Government Health Officer. Dark
began climbing before Salmon and ventured into Queensland in 1913 to climb both
Mount Lindesay and Mount Barney. While
the two climbed contemporaneously, their methods could not have been more
different. Dark adopted the
European method of using rope as a safety device on his numerous ascents,
climbing some bold new routes in NSW in the Blue Mountains and the Warrumbungles. He was inaugural president of the Blue
Mountaineers, a climbing club based in the Blue Mountains. Salmon’s climbing ethics shunned the
use of rope, except as ‘moral support’.
This approach was adopted by the large parties of men and women who joined
him in his many adventures. They
climbed in lightweight sandshoes or barefoot and there are numerous newspaper
stories and photographs which bear testament to their unroped ascents of Mount
Lindesay and The Glasshouses during this time. Salmon and his climbing partners left an impressive array of
first ascents and new routes across the southeast. Their 1934 visit to the Blue Mountains made history when
Muriel Patten became the first woman to climb the First Sister. On the same visit, Salmon and one of
his climbing companions, George Fraser, scaled the ‘Fly Wall’ at Katoomba
without a rope, much to the amazement of Eric Dark who had insisted that they
use a rope for safety. Salmon said
that at the time he had ‘tried my level best for the honour of Queensland
and my own reputation’.[lxviii]
It was during
this period that women made the first ascents of Mount Lindesay and Leaning
Peak on nearby Mount Barney. It is clear from the diaries, newspaper articles
and photographs of the period that women made up a substantial proportion of
climbers in this era.[lxix] One of these was Lexie Wilson,
sister of George Fraser who was one of Salmon’s regular climbing partners. Shortly before her death aged 91,
earlier this year, she described how members of her Brisbane climbing group
would meet for lunch each day outside Wallace Bishop’s jewellers in Queen
Street to plan their weekend’s climb.
The activities of this group was a forerunner of the emergence of
recreation as a key cultural activity in Queensland. Details of their exploits entertained readers of the Brisbane Courier, later The Courier-Mail, until the outbreak of
World War II.
age’ of the 1930s marked the end of a significant era in the development of
climbing in Australia. It had
enabled women to take on the most difficult ascents and to claim first ascents
of their own. It had fostered the
emergence of a climbing culture which incorporated significant numbers of
women. Kiewa describes how contemporary female
climbers get a sense of empowerment and control from their involvement in
climbing.[lxx] It seems reasonable to suggest that their predecessors in
the 1930s experienced similar feelings.
Ironically, it would be another 60 years before women returned to
climbing in the same relative numbers.
The idea of rockclimbing had experienced a discursive shift from
exploration to recreation—with elements of sport—demanding more of its
participants than being first to the top.[lxxi]
important development in Queensland seems to be unique in terms of its extent
and the way in which it attracted so many young women. Climbing was also popular at the time
in the Blue Mountains, largely through the influence of Eric Dark. Available evidence suggests it was less
popular and involved women to a lesser extent than in Queensland. Nevertheless, climbing in the Blue
Mountains was a popular activity and was promoted as ‘a health-giving sport for
women’ in one article by the Australian
At Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains of
NSW, systematic rock-climbing as a pastime and exercise for women was initiated
as a means of encouraging visitors to the mountains to explore their unknown
beauties, but it so soon gripped attention that rock-climbing for its own sake
has attracted numbers of devotees, enough to establish a rock-climbers’ club
which includes both men and women members.[lxxii]
Queensland and New South Wales, the idea of rockclimbing had been enshrined in
popular culture, well before the war.
For the rest of Australia, it would remain a post-war phenomenon.
Ethics and post-war
By the late
1940s in Queensland, there were few unclimbed peaks or large rock outcrops
left. This period was marked by
the emergence of university climbing and bushwalking clubs. The first named climbs and climbing
guidebooks appeared at this time, coinciding with the banishment of climbing
articles from the popular press.
This signalled a significant discursive shift in ways of constituting
the climbing landscape.[lxxiii] As theorists like Demeritt argue, it represents a way
of conceiving of nature as ‘both a real material actor and a socially
constructed object’.[lxxiv] In many ways, control of this
process of representation was relegated to the editors of club newsletters and
magazines. Mainstream newspapers
were now interested in climbing only when it complied with post-war news
values—accidents, deaths and sensationalism.
influence of Bert Salmon remained—he climbed well into his 70s—introduction of
ropes and other rudimentary climbing equipment changed the face of Queensland
climbing forever. The introduction
of ropes as an integral part of rockclimbing practice represented a significant
ethical shift in modern climbing in Queensland. Eric Dark had long used rope as a safety device in his first
ascents of rock faces in the Warrumbungles but Salmon’s influence north of the
border was profound. The use of
pitons—metal blades hammered into rock crevices for protection—emerged at this
time as part of rockclimbing practice.
University of Queensland Bushwalking Club was host for a wave of young men and
women who focussed on remote, wilderness areas like The Steamers—a formation of
rock pillars on the Main Range, east of Warwick. The first of three incarnations of the Brisbane Rockclimbing
Club emerged briefly at this time.
Climbers from both clubs set about putting up bold new routes on the
steep east face of Tibrogargan in The Glasshouses requiring the use of climbing
equipment and sophisticated rope techniques.[lxxv] One member of this pioneering
group, Jon Stephenson, went on to lead major expeditions to the Karakorums,
near Pakistan, and participated in the 1957 Trans-Antarctica Expedition.[lxxvi] Apart from New South Wales, climbing began to spread to
other parts of the country. The
1950s seems to have been a catalyst for the idea of climbing to emerge in the
southern States and the West.[lxxvii]
At the close
of the 1950s, climbers searched for new and more difficult routes. One of the most significant was the
ascent of the east face of Coonowrin (Crookneck) in 1959 by a party of
university climbers, led by Ron Cox.
Cox led a number of new routes on major cliffs of southeast Queensland
and was the first to descend the huge east face of Mount Barney, using the new
rope techniques and equipment.[lxxviii] In 1966, an expatriate English
climber, Les Wood, joined with several local climbers—particularly Donn
Groom—to put up a series of difficult routes on cliff-faces in the
southeast. Even today, they are
rarely repeated because of their technical difficulty and their unprotected
nature. At the same time, Donn
Groom, son of the founder of Binna Burra Lodge in Lamington National
Park—Arthur Groom—developed a climbing cliff near the lodge and often partnered
Wood on his visionary ascents elsewhere.
When Les Wood moved to Tasmania, a brief lull settled on climbing
activity in the southeast.
Late 1960s, a
new wave swept through the climbing community, applying a new ethical approach
which rejected the use of pitons for protection in favour of wedged aluminium
chocks based on the very latest American-designed equipment. Much of this climbing gear was
manufactured locally until the cost of more sophisticated versions of it made
in the United States began to fall.
This new wave emerged at the time of the so-called ‘ecological
revolution’ of the 1960s which saw mountains and climbing gaining popular
appeal.[lxxix] While this was a movement which was
of particular significance in the United States, it had a huge impact in
Australia. The influence and power
of popular culture at the time is evident in the names of new climbs which
emerged. Especially influential
was the popular music scene, with many climbs able to be accurately dated on
name alone—Magical Mystery Tour, Badfinger, Electric Prune, Conquistador
are all climbs put up at Mount French during the late 1960s and early 1970s and
reflect the dominance of rock music culture. This link between music and the study of social life is
another aspect of climbing culture yet to be undertaken although some have
recognised its potential.[lxxx]
South of the
border, Sydney-based climbers Bryden Allen and John Ewbank had a powerful
influence on climbing ethics, particularly railing against the overuse of
expansion bolts drilled into cliff faces for protection. Ewbank and Allen consistently made
first ascents of what were at the time, the hardest routes in Australia in the
Blue Mountains and The Warrumbungles.
Debates on the ethical dimensions of climbing raged in what was
Australia’s major climbing magazine, Thrutch. Although published by the Sydney Rockclimbing
Club, it featured a round-up of climbing news and issues from across the
country. Ewbank’s approach to the
use of more ethically- and environmentally-friendly protection was quickly
adopted by climbers from the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club, led by Brisbane
stalwart, Rick White. This phase
saw the dominance of new jam-climbing techniques which opened up previously
unclimbed cliffs and routes.
Jamming involved climbing vertical and overhanging cracks in cliff faces
using wedged fingers, hands and feet rather than relying on ledges as hand and
footholds. White started up a
climbing importation business which subsequently grew into one of Australia’s
largest commercial venture in outdoor recreation, Mountain Designs. Queensland was once again at the forefront of
rockclimbing as a recreation in Australia. This culminated in the discovery and development of Mount
French—a cliff near Boonah—in 1968.
Within three years, it had become Australia’s premier climbing crag with
climbers from the UK and the USA visiting regularly to test out the many
ethical shift in the nature of climbing took place in 1985 with the ‘overnight’
arrival of chalk as a climbing aid in Australia. Popular amongst North American climbers for some years
previously, chalk is used by climbers to absorb sweat from fingers and hands,
thus improving their grip on rock surfaces. It was quickly taken up around the country and by the early
1990s, it was rare indeed to see a climber who did not carry a small bag filled
with chalk dust.
same time as the arrival of chalk, the use of expansion bolts as protective
devices on climbs in Queensland began to increase. This, too, represented a shift in the ethical dimension of
climbing which had been established since its very emergence in
Queensland. The ethical debate
continues. Climbing as a cultural
practice now boasts many thousands of participants Australia-wide and impacts
significantly on cultural policy, particular in relation to issues such as
tourism and the environment. For
example, the development of Mount French as a rockclimbing cliff was a major
factor in the area being declared a National Park in the 1970s. The links between climbing and tourism
have existed since the 18th century when the popularity of
mountaineering began to attract tourists to Chamonix in the French Alps.[lxxxi]
By the early
1990s, ‘sport’ climbing emerged alongside ‘traditional’ or ‘adventure’
climbing. Largely focussing on
gymnasiums, this new approach represented an alternative to the dominance of
the era of ‘adventure’ climbing—it was a sport which could be undertaken almost
entirely indoors. Equipment
developments have continued at an alarming rate, drawing mainly from the
technologies of the United States.
Now, rockclimbing has again attracted media interest but relegated to
events such as the ‘Extreme Games’ or the Climbing World Finals—a circuit of
sports-climbing events held throughout Europe, attracting television coverage
featuring participants who are treated (and paid) like rock stars.[lxxxii]
entertainment and spectacle has re-emerged, reclaiming media space but this
time as a central element of popular culture. Within climbing discourse, the central place of ethics as a
defining characteristic of climbing has moved to centre stage.
culture emerged in southeast Queensland out of a range of often competing and
contradictory discourses—from Aboriginal creation myths, a unique landscape,
the influence of the European idea of climbing and charismatic and visionary
local individuals. The role of the
colonial press was crucial in this imagining process with extensive reporting
of the activities of local climbers, particularly from the turn of the 20th century. The 1930s, in particular,
represent a defining moment in the evolution of climbing culture in Australia
with significant numbers of men and women engaging in practices which framed
the development of modern rockclimbing.
This climbing culture seems to have had its genesis in southeast
Queensland although the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, can also claim to be a
centre of activity from the 1930s.
It is clear from the sketchy evidence available, that the use of ropes
for protection was more the norm in the Blue Mountains than in Queensland. The hardy Queenslanders—influenced by
Bert Salmon—shunned the use of ropes except in emergencies. Perhaps it was the case that Queensland
climbing culture placed more emphasis on the social rather than the technical
side of climbing. Maybe it was
this important difference that contributed to the greater popularity of
climbing in southeast Queensland, particularly amongst women. This high female participation rate in
what is still regarded as a high-risk sport ended with World War I and was not
to re-emerge for another 60 years.
These ideas resonate with Kiewa’s study of the community of rockclimbers
in southeast Queensland. She
concluded that female rockclimbers tended to place more emphasis on
relationships inherent in the climbing process—in other words the social—than
on the physical challenge of climbing.
This emphasis on the social aspects of climbing was not so strongly
present in the attitudes of the male climbers. However, the more experienced they were, the more they
tended to emphasise the importance of the social.[lxxxiii]
By the end of
World War II, coverage of climbing had all but vanished from the news pages of
Queensland’s newspapers but re-emerged in niche publications catering for the
emerging numbers of bushwalkers and climbers. A post-war focus on consumerism and nation-building by the
popular press meant that climbing as a recreation was featured only in
Representations of climbing were relegated to the specialist newsletters
and magazines of a growing leisure culture. So as climbing had become more technical and bold, popular
media interest focussed on the failures rather than the successes. First ascents of new routes were significant
only if it meant that new summits were reached and as we have argued here, this
had largely been achieved by early in the 20th century.
While the idea of climbing in Australia was produced from
colonial histories, it continues to be socially constructed—imagined in a
specific spatial, temporal and subjective context.[lxxxiv] We suggest that climbing should be seen
as a dynamic notion—a set of cultural practices which constitutes rockclimbing
‘landscapes’ and enables climbers to engage in interactive processes like
identity/self-construction and camaraderie.[lxxxv]
seeks to begin to make sense of the cultural place of rockclimbing in relation
to ideas such as ‘exploration’, ‘recreation’, and ‘diversification’. It has begun to examine the role of men
and women in the development of the contemporary rockclimbing industry. Climbing itself has become a
community cultural activity—one might even argue a culture industry—with its
own language, signs, symbols and style.[lxxxvi] It is in this context that the role of
the media in this process becomes important to examine. The media in all their varied forms
represent a cultural resource and a primary discursive site for imagining
climbing.[lxxxvii] The oral histories yet to be gathered
potentially offer another rich cultural resource and a further insight into how
Australian culture is made.
[i] Dan Morgan, ‘It began with the piton. The challenge to British Rock Climbing in a Post-Modernist
Framework’, in Leisure: Modernity,
Postmodernity, and Lifestyles, Publication
No. 48, ed Ian Henry, Leisure Studies Association, Brighton, 1994, pp.
[ii] See the association’s website at www.austclimbinggyms.com.au.
[iii] C. M. Mermier, R. A. Robergs, S. M. Mcminn, and V. H. Hayward,
‘Energy expenditure and physiological responses during indoor rock climbing’, British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol.
31, issue 3, 1997, pp. 224-228.
[iv] S. R. Bollen and V. Wright, ‘Radiographic changes in the hands of
rock climbers’, British Journal of Sports
Medicine, vol. 28, issue 3, 1994, pp. 185-186.
[v] J. P. Wyatt, G. W. McNaughton and P. T. Grant, ‘A prospective study
of rock climbing injuries’, British
Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 30, issue 2, 1996, pp. 148-150; R. Schad,
‘Analysis of climbing accidents’, Accident
Prevention and Analysis, no. 32, 2000, pp. 391-396.
[vi] Paul M. Jakus and W. Douglass Shaw, ‘Empirical analysis of rock
climbers’ response to hazard warnings’, Risk
Analysis, vol. 16, issue 4, 1996, pp. 581-586.
[vii] S. J. Jack and K. R. Ronan, ‘Sensation seeking among high- and
low-risk sports participants’, Personality
and Individual Differences, no. 25, 1998, pp. 1063-1083.
[viii] P. E. Kelly and D. W. Larson, ‘Effects of rock climbing on
populations of presettlement eastern white cedar on cliffs of the Niagara
escarpment, Canada’, Conservation Biology,
volume 11, issue 5, 1997, pp. 1125-1132; and R. J. Camp and R. L. Knight,
‘Effects of rock climbing on cliff plant communities at Joshua Tree National
Park, California’, Conservation Biology,
vol. 12, issue 6, 1998, pp. 1302-1306.
[ix] Barbara R. Johnston and Ted Edwards, ‘The commodification of mountaineering’,
Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 21,
no. 3, 1994, pp. 450-473.
[x] Peter Donnelly, ‘Social climbing: a case study of the changing
class structure of rock climbing and mountaineering in Britain’, in Studies in the sociology of Sport, eds
A. O Dunleavy, AW Miracle, and CR Rees, Texas Christian University Press, Fort
[xi] Lynne Withey, Grand Tours and
Cook’s Tours: A history of leisure travel, 1750-1915, Aurum Press, London,
1998, p. 214.
[xii] Alan Tomlinson, ‘Consumer culture and the aura of the commodity’,
in Consumption, Identity and Style:
marketing, meanings and the packaging of pleasure, ed Alan Tomlinson,
Routledge, London, 1990, p. 31.
[xiii] Peter Nettlefold and Elaine Stratford ‘The production of Climbing
Geographical Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 1999, p. 132.
[xiv] Louise Bricknell, ‘Leisure? According to who?’ in Leisure: Modernity, Postmodernity, and
Lifestyles, Publication No. 48, ed Ian Henry, Leisure Studies Association,
Brighton, 1994, p. 45.
[xv] Jacqueline Kiewa, Climbing to
Enchantment: A study of the community of traditional climbers in southeast
Queensland, unpublished PhD thesis, Faculty of Business and Commerce,
Griffith University, Brisbane, 2000, p. 383.
[xvii] Withey, p. 208; Nettlefold and Stratford, p. 131.
[xviii] Michael Real, Supermedia, Sage, Newbury Park, 1989; Nettlefold and
Stratford, p. 131.
[xix] N. C. Stevens, Queensland
Field Geology Guide, Brisbane, Geological Society of Australia (Queensland
[xx] Lawrence Grossberg, ‘Cultural
Studies’, a keynote address at the International Communication Association
annual conference, Sydney, 11-15 July, 1994.
[xxi] , John G. Steele, Aboriginal
Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River, University of
Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1984.
[xxii] Reginald Wise, ‘A climb up Coonowrim (sic)’, Queenslander, 23 September, 1916, pp. 21, 29; Steele, p. 174;
Michelle Grossman and Denise Cuthbert, ‘Forgetting Redfern: Aboriginality in
the New Age’, Meanjin, 4, 1998,
[xxv] Lang 1861; Mary E. Murrray-Prior, ‘An ascent of Mount Lindsay
(sic)’, Queenslander, 1 November.
1902; William Gaylard, ‘Mount Lindsay (sic): story of a successful climb—some
tense moments’, Brisbane Courier, 2
August, 1913, p. 12.; N. C. Hewitt, ‘Mt Lindesay fatality: former ascents
recalled’, Beaudesert Times, 25
[xxvii] See F. W. Whitehouse, ‘Early ascents of the Glasshouses’, Heybob, vol. 8, 1966, p. 74; Benedict
Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism, Verso, London, 1984.
[xxviii] This idea of discourse is drawn from Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Tavistock,
[xxix] John Cleare, Mountains of the
World, Crown, New York, 1975, p. 16-17.
[xxx] Alan Tomlinson and Helen Walker, ‘Holidays for all: popular
movements, collective leisure, and the pleasure industry’, in Consumption, Identity and Style, ed A.
Tomlinson, Routledge, London, 1990, p. 233.
[xxxi] ‘The Mania For Alpine Climbing’, Queenslander, 29 December 1866.
[xxxii] ‘The Southern Border’, Queenslander, 1 April 1871.
[xxxiii] ‘Ascent of Mount Lindsay’, Brisbane Courier, 18 May 1872.
[xxxiv] ‘A Trip Up Mount Barney’, Queenslander, 6 November 1886.
[xxxv] ‘To the Top of the Glass Mountains’, Queenslander, 12 June 1886.
[xxxvi] ‘Ascent of Mount Lindsay’, Queenslander, 26 July 1890. A brief initial report appeared in the
Brisbane Courier, 14 July 1890.
[xxxvii] ‘Ascent of Mount Lindsay’, Brisbane Courier, 15 July 1890; Brisbane
Courier, 19 July 1890; Brisbane Observer (the evening ‘Courier’), 26 July 1890.
[xxxviii] ‘A Day Amongst the Clouds’, Queenslander, 12 May 1894.
[xxxix] ‘Where Three Rivers Rise’, Queenslander, 28 February 1895.
[xl] ‘Mount Bellenden-Ker’, Queenslander, 9 July 1887.
[xli] ‘A Climb on Hinchinbrook’, Queenslander, 30 December 1893.
[xlii] ‘Bellenden-Ker—A Successful Ascent’, Queenslander, 27 November
[xliii] ‘The Ascent of Peter Botte’, Queenslander, 1 May 1897.
[xliv] ‘The Bellenden-Ker Expedition’, Queenslander, 12 October 1889.
[xlv] ‘Revisiting Bellenden-Ker’, Queenslander, 27 February 1892.
[xlvi] ‘Wild Country and Wild Tribes XIV’, Queenslander, 10 April 1897.
[xlvii] ‘Kilima-Njaro Conquered at Last’, Queenslander, 14 January 1888.
[xlviii] ‘Ascent of Mount Owen Stanley’, Queenslander, 20 July 1889.
[xlix] ‘Climbing in the New Zealand Alps’, Queenslander, 31 October 1896.
[l] ‘Mountaineering in Africa’, Queenslander, 3 April 1897.
[li] ‘Ascent of Mt Elias’, Queenslander, 4 December 1897.
[lii] ‘An Ascent of Mount Lindsay’, Queenslander,
1 November 1902; ‘Climbing Mount Lindsay’, Queenslander, 23 January 1904;
‘Successful Ascent of Mt Lindsay’, Brisbane
Courier, 19 May 1910; ‘Mount
Lindsay—Story of a Successful Climb’, Brisbane Courier, 2 August 1913.
[liii] ‘An Ascent of Mount Barney’, Queenslander, 15 October 1904; ‘A
Climb Up Mount Barney’, Queenslander, 20 June 1914.
[liv] ‘Alpine Climbers’, Blue
Mountain Echo, 17 January 1919.
[lv] ‘Crookneck Climbed By Two Sturdy Queenslanders’, Queenslander, 18 March 1911.
[lvi] ‘A Week-end at Glass-House Mountains’, Queenslander, 1 June 1912.
[lvii] ‘Fresh Worlds to Conquer’, Fassifern
Guardian, 14 June 1912.
[lviii] ‘Ascent of Mount Lindesay’, Brisbane Courier, 19 July 1890; ‘Ascent
of Mt Lindsay’, Queenslander, 1 November
1902; ‘Mount Lindsay—records of Ascents’, Brisbane Courier, 6 October 1923.
[lix] ‘Climbing Mount Lindsay’,
Queenslander, 23 January 1904.
[lx] ‘Ascent of Mount Lindsay’, Brisbane Courier, Queenslander, 1 June 1910; ‘The Ascent of Mt Lindsay’, Queenslander, 4 June 1910.
[lxi] ‘A Week-end at Glass-House mountains’, Brisbane Courier, 1 June
[lxii] ‘The Mania For Alpine Climbing’, Queenslander, 29 December 1866.
[lxiii] ‘Wild Country and Wild Tribes’,
Queenslander, 10 April 1897.
[lxiv] See ‘To the Top of the Glass Mountains’, Queenslander, 12 June 1886 and the various ‘Wayfarers’’ reports,
including ‘Ascent of Wilson’s Peak’, Fassifern Guardian, 8 August 1910.
[lxv] Examples include ‘A Cruise Round Moreton Bay’, Queenslander, 29 March 1873, and ‘Cycling Trip—Warwick to
Cunnamulla’, Queenslander, 17 July
[lxvi] Examples include ‘Mountain Climbing is Great Fun’, Sunday Mail, 29
May 1932, ‘Up Among the Peaks—Joys of Mountaineering’, Telegraph, 29 March
1934, and ‘Let’s Go Mountaineering’, Queenslander
Annual, 4 November 1935.
[lxvii] Clem Lack, ‘Mountain Climbers of Queensland’, The Sunday Mail Magazine Section, 10 July 1938.
[lxxi] Pierre Bourdieu, ‘Sport and Social Class’, Social Science Information, vol. 17, part. 6, 1978; and ‘How can
one be a sports fan?’, in The Cultural
Studies Reader, ed S. During, Routledge, London, 1993.
[lxxii] Nina Lowe, ‘Rock-climbing: A health-giving sport for Women’, The Australian Woman’s Mirror, December
22 1931, p. 22.
[lxxx] L. Kong, ‘Popular music in geographic analysis’, Progress in Human Geography, vol. 19,
issue 2, 1995, pp. 183-198; S. J. Smith, ‘Beyond geography’s visible worlds: a
cultural politics of music’, Progress in
Human Geography, vol. 21, issue 4, 1997, pp. 502-529.
[lxxxv] Kiewa, p. 383; Aviv Shoham, Gregory M. Rose and Lynn R. Kahle,
‘Practitioners of Risky Sports: A Quantitative Examination’, Journal of Business Research, no. 47,
2000, p. 248.
[lxxxvi] Dick Hebdige, Subculture: the
meaning of style, Methuen, London, 1979.
[lxxxvii] Antonio Gramsci, A Gramsci
Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, ed David Forgacs, Lawrence and
Wishart, London, 1988; Renate Holub, Antonio
Gramsci: Beyond Marxism and Postmodernism, Routledge, London, 1992.