Sunday, October 11, 2015

Crux columns: climbing wars--or Victoria versus the rest!

Climbing wars — or Victoria versus the rest!

Far be it for me to fan the flames of interstate rivalry on the rock but our rockclimbing history does include periods of character building that seem to be less prominent in the climbing scene today. For many at the time, it was simply part of what 60s American climber and philosopher Lito Tejada-Flores called the ‘games climbers play’. Climbers, he argues, determine the rules that govern activity on the rock. And off the rock? Well, you be the judge.

During the 1960s, the emergence of the clean-climbing, hard-hitting John Ewbank saw the pages of the national climbing magazine, Thrutch, often filled with bitter recriminations, usually following one of his acerbic articles on ethics. Comments in his 1970 Supplement to Rock Climbs in the Blue Mountains are typical of his feelings about the bolting brigade and the state of local cliffs: ‘This great legacy of rusting steel is an unfortunate hangover of the “Golden Age of Bolting” when every man and his dog was placing bolts with missionary zeal in every section of unbolted cliff he could get his drill tip into.’ Flicking through recent copies of Rock, this sounds strangely familiar.

Oblivious of this, Rick White, Chris Meadows and Greg Sheard headed south to the Blue Mountains in January 1969 to hone their jamBing skills following the discovery of Frog Buttress a few months earlier. Sheard recalls the scene that confronted them: ‘There were bolts everywhere and we decided to chop a few. Then we went to a Sydney Rockclimbing Club meeting and Chris had a few drinks. And next thing, some guy turned up and introduced himself as the Safety Officer. He was a bit stroppy and Chris was understandably a bit put off and was going to have a severe discussion with this guy’s head using both of his fists.’ It was not a good start to fostering cordial interstate relations.

Around this time, a ‘Victoria versus the rest’ conflict emerged. Veteran Queensland climber Ian Thomas — who, incidentally, now lives in Victoria — has a simple explanation: ‘Because Victorians were incredibly up themselves.’ Whatever the reason, the Victorian faction was led by a vociferous Chris Baxter — dubbed ‘Radio Australia’ by his then adversary and jamBing el supremo, Rick White. One focus of disagreement was the Arapiles classic, The Rack, put up by Ewbank and graded 18. Despite their best efforts, the Victorians literally fell about trying to climb it, claiming it had been deliberately undergraded. When visiting South African Iain Allen sailed up it confirming Ewbank’s grade, the silence was deafening — except from north of the Victorian border, that is! To rub it in, Rick White put together a home movie of him ripping up the demanding Frog Buttress classic, Odin, flaunting his obvious jamBing expertise to the throbbing music of Deep Purple! But it was more like a red rag to a bull when it premiered in Victoria. 

‘There was the absurd interstate rivalry between Victoria and New South Wales and Victoria and Queensland,’ Chris Baxter recalled. ‘And a lot of that was due to the lack of contact. It was childish on all sides. I suppose it was taken seriously and the letters would fly back and forwards through Thrutch and that would trigger it off. And there’d be raiding parties down to free Victorian routes or free NSW routes or whatever it was…’

In the early 1970s, White put up what he claimed as the hardest aid route in the country, The Antichrist, M6, on Mount Maroon. Within weeks, Chris Dewhirst and Peter McKeand put up Lord Gumtree at Mt Buffalo in Victoria, grading it M7 — it was the hardest in the country. White and a youthful Robert ‘Squeak’ Staszewski immediately drove to Buffalo, climbed Lord Gumtree, announcing that it was barely M6! The columns of Thrutch were smoking as the insults and accusations flew!

Ian ‘Humzoo’ Thomas was an emerging star at the time and recalls reading about the interstate rivalry in the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club magazine well before he met any of the protagonists: ‘I remember pissing myself laughing at articles by Greg Sheard about him chopping bolts in the Blue Mountains. So in ‘71 when Squeak 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!’ With the hostilities at their peak, Thomas was only too happy to turn up the heat, as Rick White recalled: ‘His offhand reference to Grampians classics as “loose, crumbly lines on Mt Crumblebar in the Crapians” did little to improve interstate relations.’

Humzoo (Ian Thomas) climbing in the Warrumbungles around 1975 (Keith Bell collection).
Early in 1973, simmering interstate climbing rivalries reached fever pitch. Thrutch published a letter from a disgruntled reader, cancelling his subscription and accusing the magazine of becoming an ‘ego tripper’s soapbox and…an editorial policy seemingly devoted to fostering interstate squabbles’. He had a good point — in the same issue, Queenslander Trevor Gynther complained about ‘specialists’ downgrading certain climbs at Frog Buttress — namely The Nemesis; Chris Baxter whinged about inaccuracies in the publication in not mentioning that Rick White had used a top rope on his recent climb of Lord Gumtree; and Staszewski accused the Victorians of over-bolting climbs at Mt Buffalo. White had had enough and refused to write anything for a climbing magazine for the next 20 years!

The tension between Victorian climbers and the rest was palpable at the Easter 1973 climbing meet at Porter’s Pass in the Blue Mountains. A Victorian climbing delegation attempted Flake Crack at Wirindi, failing in front of the assembled gladiatorial mob of Queensland and New South Wales climbers, then promptly got into their cars and drove home in disgust.

But all’s well that ends well. John Ewbank became a musician; Rick White and Chris Baxter patched up their differences and became good friends; Greg Sheard concentrated on giving up smoking; and Ian Thomas still thinks Victorians are up themselves. And interstate climbing rivalry was never heard of again. Well, almost.

(First published in the Australasian Climbing Journal, Crux Number 5)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Zoo,

re your comment " Ian Thomas still thinks Victorians are up themselves"

Are you now regarded as a Victorian (otherwise known as the Mexicans to us in Qld)