Sunday, October 11, 2015

Crux columns: the origins of Australian climbing

The origins of Australian climbing 

There’s a lingering perception amongst many Australian climbers, young and old, that rockclimbing here is a recent phenomenon. And it is, when compared with its English predecessor, invented in the 1880s. There’s a common misconception that rockclimbing in this country began in southern Australia shortly after World War II. But its origins go well beyond publicised tales of activity here in the 1950s and 1960s. In this first contribution to Crux, I want to look at some of the individuals and ideas that helped to shape modern Australian climbing.
On June 6, 1926, Albert Armitage Salmon, better known simply as ‘Bert’, and his climbing partner Alan Clelland climbed the imposing east face of Tibrogargan in the Glasshouse Mountains, 70 km north of Brisbane. It was one of the earliest known occurrences in Australia of someone climbing a peak by deliberately choosing a route other than an existing, easier path. And for 26-year-old Bert Salmon who had started climbing three years earlier, it marked the start of an extraordinary two decades of activity. 

Bert Salmon soloing on the north face of Coonowrin (Crookneck)
in the Glass House Mountains, Queensland, 1932. (A. A. Salmon collection)
Within three years of Salmon’s historic ascent in Queensland, another influential climber—Eric Payten Dark—emerged south of the border. Like Salmon, Dr Dark, as he was later known, pioneered the exploration of new climbing routes in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, and the Warrumbungles in central western New South Wales. But when it came to climbing ethics, the two could not have been further apart. Whereas Salmon—a staunch monarchist—shunned the use of rope, Dark—a socialist, and 10 years older—was probably the first to introduce European roped climbing techniques into Australia.

Adventures in the Blue Mountains
In 1929, Dark and a small cohort of local climbers formed the Blue Mountaineers, otherwise known as the Katoomba Suicide Club. They used rope and rudimentary belaying techniques, including an ‘unethical instrument’ to place belays, described as ‘a two metre long ice axe with a deeply curved pick and a notch to hold the rope where the shaft entered the head’. Dark opposed the use of ironmongery and followed the ethical doctrine of legendary English rockclimber Albert Mummery—that a rope should never be used as an aid for climbing but solely as a precautionary measure.

By the early 1930s, climbing had become a mass activity in southeast Queensland and to a lesser extent, the Blue Mountains. The two movements evolved independently until January 1934 when a contingent of 16 Queenslanders travelled to Katoomba on a ‘rock-climbing holiday’. They met up with Eric Dark and were ushered into Blue Mountains’ climbing culture with visits to the Three Sisters, the Boar’s Head at Narrow Neck, and Orphan Rock. It was the first Australian rockclimbing meet.

Early one Sunday morning, with 300 people watching from a nearby lookout, Salmon and 21 year old Brisbane climber Muriel Patten climbed the first of the Three Sisters, unroped. It was the first female ascent—a memorable event made even more so by Queenslander George Fraser pumping out tunes on his bagpipes as they climbed!

The next challenge was the so-called ‘Fly Wall’, a steep, eight metre sandstone cliff that budding Blue Mountaineers had to climb before they could join the club. The short climb was noted for its ‘rudimentary’ ledges and at one point, climbers had to jump for a handhold. As the Queenslanders lined up to try the route, a problem emerged: Eric Dark (pictured at the top of the cliff above) insisted they use a rope tied around their chests as a belay. ‘I put the rope on,’ Salmon recalled, ‘and then I took it off!’ Eric Dark, the president of the Blue Mountaineers, retorted: ‘You won’t!’ The feisty Queenslander ignored him. ‘I tried my level best for Queensland and for my own reputation,’ Salmon said, ‘and I succeeded in climbing to the top of the wall without the rope. That was the first time it had ever been done! Dr Dark was amazed.’Within minutes, George Fraser (above) had become the second person to solo the wall, perhaps inadvertently sowing the seeds of the mostly friendly interstate climbing rivalry that persists today. The Queensland contingent then headed to Narrowneck where the exposed Boar’s Head awaited them. This time, with a sheer drop of more than a hundred metres below them, they used the rope!
It’s clear from these and other stories of climbing activity throughout the 1920s and 1930s, that friendly rivalry and ethical debates have influenced the development of climbing in Australia from the start. A scan of current online climbers’ discussion forum topics suggests little has changed. But what seems to be missing is an awareness of the high ethical standards that defined Australian climbing for the first 20 years of its existence.

The beginning of modern Australian rockclimbing?
Bert Salmon always referred to Henry Mikalsen’s 1910 first ascent (solo) of the 300 metre pinnacle, Crookneck, in the Glasshouse Mountains as the birth of modern Australian climbing. And well before the exploits of Salmon and Dark became more widely known, Australia’s first mountaineer, Freda Du Faur, was rockclimbing on the sandstone cliffs of Kuringai Chase near her Sydney home as she prepared for a series of historic first ascents in the Southern Alps of New Zealand from 1910 to 1912.
It’s also important to acknowledge that it is highly likely that most peaks in Australia had been climbed by Indigenous people, perhaps thousands of years before white settlement. The incorporation of all landscape features into Indigenous cosmology demands a respect for place that cannot be isolated from the activities we define as climbing today.
Whenever Australian climbing could be said to have started, it was Bert Salmon and Eric Dark who popularised it in Australia. They helped to change it from an occasional activity by the odd—and sometimes very odd—adventurous individual, to a sport that attracted significant numbers of men and women between World War I and World War II, particularly in Queensland. It was this movement that shaped the idea of climbing here until an explosion of clubs and standards following World War II pushed Australian climbing ever closer to its current global prominence.

 (First published in the Australasian Climbing Journal, Crux Number 1)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bert is my Great Uncle. How nice to read about him. Thanks for posting. Regards, Hayley.