Sunday, October 11, 2015

Crux columns: ghosts and The Glass Houses

Ghosts and The Glass Houses

The 300 metre high peak, Crookneck, in the Glass House Mountains north of Brisbane was one of the last summits in Australia to be claimed by Europeans. In 1886, Queensland explorer and climber Thomas Welsby described ‘a great falling away of stone’ on the east face of the mountain. Seven years later in 1893, the Royal Society of Queensland heard details of another landslide revealing ‘a huge fissure’ following a sustained period of heavy rain that caused massive flooding in Brisbane. And so the climb known today known as East Crookneck was born. But it would be more than half a century before climbers seriously considered the east face as a possible ascent route.

The mountain, called Coonowrin by the Kabi Kabi people, has always been an object of fascination for Europeans. Towards the end of the 19th century, speculation on the possibility of someone climbing the peak was rife with one local sage insisting: ‘It has always been said by old bushmen that Crookneck cannot be surmounted.’ Another scribe in 1885 made a bold prediction—curiously accurate, as it turned out: ‘I don’t doubt that when the railway makes these [mountains] within reach of the Brisbane tourist, many will try then ascend, but without engineering skill being brought to help it will not be done.’ Pragmatic local explorer William Landsborough simply reminded them that if the mountain was in England ‘it would have been climbed a dozen times’.

But it wasn’t until 1910 that 23-year-old local lad Henry Mikalsen (pictured above) made the first ascent, solo, up the treacherous, loose north face. ‘The feat was not accomplished without difficulty and danger,’ the Brisbane Courier reported. ’The trip took about three hours from start to finish, and as his home is at the foot of the mountain, he was watched with anxious eyes and could be seen the whole time.’ Pioneer climber Bert Salmon always referred to this first ascent of Crookneck as the birth of modern climbing in Australia.

 Two years later, on Empire Day 1912, three sisters—Jenny, Sara and Etty Clark—became the first women to reach the elusive summit, climbing a new route on the southern side now known as Clark’s Gully. It is one of the earliest recorded instances in Australia of the now accepted technique of belaying. One of the Clark sisters tested out the system unexpectedly, as this account of the climb suggests: ‘As she stepped off onto another little corner the rock gave way and left her swinging for a moment in mid-air, some 100 ft above the ground. Fortunately, the rope was good, and in strong hands, and she soon gained a fresh foothold and she soon clambered into safety.’ Etty Clark managed to get halfway up the climb, 36 years later, observing: ‘When I climbed to the top…we girls took off our skirts and finished the climb in knee-length bloomers. They didn’t have shorts in those days.’

In the early 1920s, Philip Webster and his brothers, Tom, George and the ‘partially handicapped’ Norman, found a new climb on the south side of Crookneck which follows most of the existing Salmon’s Leap or tourist route. Strangely, this is the only climbing route in southeast Queensland bearing Salmon’s name, but it is one he never claimed. During the 1930s, with climbing booming in southeast Queensland, Crookneck was one of the favoured destinations. On one trip in September 1934, Salmon took a record group of 26 people up the mountain, encouraged by the irrepressible George Fraser playing ‘Highland airs’ on his bagpipes from the summit! Around this time, Salmon and another 30’s stalwart, Cliff Wilson, made an extraordinary first descent of west Crookneck.

The first serious attempts to climb the east face began in 1950 when Bob Waring and another University of Queensland student, Jim Gadalof, abseiled down the fiercely overhanging route. They had no abseil devices—not even a carabiner—adopting the classic method for the painful 75 metre descent. Waring discussed the possibility of climbing the face with John Comino, a co-founder of the University of Queensland Bushwalking Club (UQBWC). Comino abseiled down to a small ledge, dubbed the ‘Eagle’s Eyrie’, and climbed what would eventually be the last pitch of the route. But the real problem was what lay below.

This was the challenge for university physics student Ron Cox who began his drawn-out project to climb the face in June 1959. Cox read Guido Magnone’s 1955 book, The West face of the Dru, and was inspired to apply the same techniques. ‘That was the great era of artificial climbing in the Alps,’ Cox recalls, ‘and reading that and other books and magazines I became very interested in artificial climbing which had its apogee at that time. So that’s how we started doing that sort of thing.’ He teamed up with UQBWC friend Pat Conaghan and the two set about making their own gear for an attempt on East Crookneck—etriers and wooden wedges in Cox’s father’s furniture factory, and pitons cut from steel plate. Cox recalls the pitons were flat with no wedge: ‘I remember on one occasion going to a guy who had a little forge in Margaret Street—unimaginable now—and I gave him some of these pitons and got him to hammer a taper into them. I remember using one of these on East Crookneck and the head snapped straight off!’

Ron Cox engaged in the assault on the east face of Crookneck,
The Glass House Mountains, 1959 (Pat Conaghan collection).

Cox found ‘great piles of ironmongery sitting at the foot of the cliff—big spikes, 30 cms long’— perhaps evidence of previous attempts. Climbing on weekends and belayed by a range of partners, Cox slowly advanced up the route over the next three months. ‘It was vertical: that’s the essential thing’, he recalls. ‘And in a sense, to that point in Queensland, we were climbing things that weren’t vertical that had a bit of a slope.’ It was arguably the first serious application of double rope, aid climbing techniques in the country. Although he had adopted the European approach, he still imposed ethical limits, rejecting the use of bolts ‘because they made anything possible’.

Cox had quickly established himself as one of the best—and safest—climbers in the Brisbane-based cohort and had already made his mark on the cliffs at Kangaroo Point, climbing the route now known as Cox’s Overhang on a top rope, early in 1959. Described by Comino as ‘built like a bloody spider’, Cox was one of the few at that time who could climb the overhang free. The climb was probably the hardest in Queensland. Comino remembers being impressed by Cox climbing the route and then being challenged to have a go himself—on a top rope: ‘Anyway I got up there and after that I think Ron thought, “Well, this fellow can climb” and that’s probably what caused him to look me up about Crookneck some time later.’

Pat Conaghan bivvying during the first ascent of the east face of Crookneck in 1959 (Pat Conaghan collection).

Following his 7th attempt on East Crookneck and with just 25 metres of the route left, Cox decided it was time for a first ascent push. He asked Comino to come out of retirement to join Conaghan and himself and the trio gathered below the face on 18 September. Cox reached his previous high point in about three hours and called for Comino to follow. Conaghan described the experience in the 1960 edition of the UQBWC magazine, Heybob: ‘Comino had not climbed artificially and for a while was floundering in the technicalities. Adjectival phrases floated down consistently and at one stage, having already discarded his hat, he threatened to throw his etriers away too. He was soon, however, heard quietly praising the possibilities and efficiency of these mechanical contrivances and by late afternoon had joined Ron on the ledge.’ The stance was just big enough for two people and with the light fading, Cox and Comino set up a bivvy. ‘I retired to my own little protected ledge under a large roof near the start of the climb,’ Conaghan recalls. ‘During the night, heavy showers of rain carried by a N-W wind fell. I wondered if the boys were getting wet on top.’

Cox began climbing the final pitch at 11.00 am the next morning, as Conaghan describes it: ‘First up the crack, then out onto the wall, then back into the crack again. A piton here and there was needed but progress was fairly quick for this face—25 feet an hour. So the gap between Ron and the top narrowed.’ Conaghan dozed and was woken at 1.30 pm by the sound of some big blocks crashing down as Cox cleaned out the exit chimney. He crawled onto the summit ridge at 1.55 pm.

In these pre-jumar days, it was almost dark by the time Conaghan reached Comino on the last stance and with a torch dangling around his neck, Conaghan kept climbing: ‘Ron yelled directions from above—where to look for the next piton, or find essential holds. A flash of my torch would reveal the route for the next few feet, then followed moments of fumbling for holds as the torchlight danced fitfully, at waist level.’ Conaghan recalls the moment he reached Cox on the summit ridge: ‘A cold wind was blowing on top and the night was crystal clear. Stars sparkled brilliantly and a full moon was just rising from the ocean.’ Comino, ‘festooned in a tangle of rope, etriers, wedges and links’, soon joined them and they scrambled up the last 20 metres to the summit together. Their entry in the log book read: ‘First ascent East Crookneck—8th attempt—40 pitons, 7 wooden wedges—last man up at 8.30 pm.’ Conaghan recalls they had some trouble finding the path down Salmon’s Leap but there was another reward on the descent: ‘A huge gleaming mass stood out against the western sky. It was Beerwah, lit by a silver moon.’

Despite the epic nature of the climb, it was a significant achievement, although Cox remains circumspect about its impact: ‘I felt very elated doing it and very embarrassed in retrospect at not having done it cleanly at all. I guess I could have done it more cleanly but at the time we were not aware of purer forms of climbing. We just went up and looked at it. I would say I learned to climb on East Crookneck which is not the ideal place to learn to climb. Since we couldn’t climb very well we took a long time to get up.’ In 1961, Cox repeated the route with Peter Hardy, a member of Rhum Dhu, a radical offshoot of the Sydney Rockclimbing Club. On a top rope, Hardy managed to climb much of the second pitch free using the chimney, rather than following Cox’s original peg line on the left hand wall.

But it remained essentially an aid route until expatriate British climber Les Wood’s visit to Queensland in 1966. His impact on raising standards in Australia at that time was similar to that of a young Sydney-based climber called John Ewbank. One of Wood’s first Queensland targets was East Crookneck, urged on by his close friend and climbing partner, Donn Groom. ‘We found most of it could be climbed free and that the etriers were necessary in one place,’ Wood recalls, consulting his diary. ‘The last pitch was done in very heavy rain. Three and a quarter hours. A good route. I remember Donn saying that he thought this was one of the big challenges in the Glasshouse Mountains.’

The last aid move on the climb—at a huge bell-shaped overhang—was eliminated by an energetic Greg Sheard and Chris Meadows in 1969. But another challenge has loomed: five years ago all climbing on Crookneck was officially banned—allegedly for ‘safety’ reasons. But strangely, voices can still occasionally be heard drifting down from the heights on Crookneck—perhaps those of the ghosts of climbers past, determined to keep alive the spirit of adventure on this memorable crag.

 (First published in the Australasian Climbing Journal, Crux Number 2)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very good read.

I'll let you in on a secret though, the voices are because we never stopped climbing it ;)