Sunday, October 11, 2015

Crux columns: transport trauma

Transport trauma

From the very first time that climbers were lured onto the heights the issue of transport to and from crags has been a significant one. Before the widespread use of cars in Australia around the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, climbers resorted to more simple means of travel. The earliest recorded ascents of mountains in Australia usually involved the use of horses to get close enough to the destination. For example, Patrick Logan rode to the base of Mount Barney to make the first European ascent in 1828. At the time it was the highest-known peak in the country.

An early climbing party returns from Mount Lindesay (background), Christmas 1933 (A. A. Salmon collection).
Almost a century later, one attempt to reach the base of the Steamers – a rhyolite complex of pinnacles near Warwick in southeast Queensland -- resulted in the would-be climber being attacked by ‘numberless eaglehawks’ that swooped on him from above. Perhaps it was one reason the Steamers remained unclimbed until 1950 despite a reputed 100 pounds reward for a first ascent being offered by a Warwick businessman. The first climbers to stand on the summit -- Bob Waring and Jon Stephenson – got there by motorbike. Despite their achievement, they never received the reward.

But before the postwar climbing boom in the early 1950s, the 1930s crowd relied more on their initiative and endurance. Bert Salmon and Lyle Vidler made the first ascent of Egg Rock in the Gold Coast hinterland in 1928 after catching a train to Nerang, then walking 40 kilometres to the pinnacle, climbing it and walking back to the station. All part of a good weekend out! Much earlier, the hardy Clark sisters had cycled 70 kilometres back to Brisbane on the same day they made the first female ascent of Crookneck in the Glasshouses in 1912! 

Raoul Mellish chats to a local farmer near Mount Barney with Bob Waring's Indian motorcycle in the foreground. Waring was on his way to make the first traverse of an exposed ledge on Leaning Peak, 1949 (Raoul Mellish collection).

A common form of postwar transport for members of the short-lived Queensland Climbing Club in 1950 were motorbikes. And the bold Bob Waring was perhaps a standout here. Not content with mere ownership of a convenient form of transport, he insisted on testing its ability to get there as fast as possible. He was a daring climber, soloing several first ascents in the Steamers and on Mount Barney – routes that modern climbers have backed off even with the array of modern equipment available.  Waring left Australia to work as an engineer overseas in the mid-50s and entered the famous TT motorcycle race around the Isle of Wight. He was in third place and was outraged when his bike expired.

Another daring duo from Queensland during the late 1940s and early 1950s was Peter Barnes and Alan Frost. They were both super fit and could climb at an extraordinary speed. Frost was the first to climb all seven peaks of the huge expanse of Mount Barney in a day. They’d think nothing of jumping on Barnes’ old Indian motorbike and riding off at 10 o’clock at night to climb one of the Glasshouses by moonlight.

Despite the onset of the sixties, it seemed that the cars of the 1950s ruled. It probably had something to do with their cost but virtually all of the new wave of climbers who emerged in Queensland in the late 1960s seemed to have old cars, and more often than not, French ones! Rick White destroyed his Morris 1100 in a few months driving up the cobblestone track to the newly-discovered Frog Buttress. He moved ‘up’ to a 1952 Riley – which he drove to the Blue Mountains and back -- then to a 1948 Citroen Light 15. meanwhile, Ted Cais’s obsession with motorbikes – a CZ, various Japanese models and a restored Velocette Clubman – was broken when he lapsed into a Peugeot phase with 203 and 403 models suffering under his relentless pursuit of perfection, not only on the rock. 

A rudimentary rack on the bonnet of John Shera's Mazda 800 en route to The Glass Houses in 1968
(Michael Meadows collection).
Perhaps following the tradition set by the rapid Bob Waring, there has always seemed to be an unusual urgency amongst climbers in getting to the climbs. In Queensland, perhaps it was the influence of competing in car rallies by climbers like my brother Chris Meadows, John Shera  and myself, but the last few kilometres into a crag, on dirt, always seemed to be particularly exhilerating.

But the mantle for the most outrageous climber-driver of that era in Queensland at least was the inimitable Greg Sheard. The proud owner of an ageing black Hillman Minx, Sheard used his doubtful mechanical skills to extract an unreasonable amount of power from the small, inefficient engine and believed that both he and the car were indestructible. He was almost right. Sheardie took many spectacular falls as a bold lead climber in the late 1960s in his frenzied efforts to be the first to eliminate aid from the hardest climbs in Queensland at the time. He still believes Rick White kept the secret of Frog Buttress from him for months because he was convinced Sheardie would try to remove the aid moves in the early ascents there. 

Sheardie (pictured left giving up smoking in 1968) once drove his car almost to the base of the classic climb, East Crookneck, defying logic and gleefully leaving an ageing landrover wallowing behind him. His secret was speed – at all times and in all circumstances. We often spent more time making roadside repairs to the Sheard Hillman on the way to a climb than on the climb itself. But all good things come to and end.  The moment Sheardie announced that he had ordered a brand new Torana, tweaked to his personal specifications, the Hillman was fair game. Ted Cais was first to strike painting a swastika on the doors and the slogan, ‘Hitler is king! along one side. Needless to say, within hours, the Hillman was pulled over by police – even Queensland cops couldn’t miss that – and the car was ordered off the road. When  Sheard, again foolishly, made this announcement at a Kangaroo Point climbing afternoon, I decided to test out a theory of mine and dropped a 100 kg section of railway line from the cliff top onto his boot. As I suspected, it crashed straight through!  Following that episode, even the wreckers wouldn’t take it so he dismembered the car with an axe.

It was all part of climbing – and still is, of course. Perhaps not the axe.

(First published in the Australasian Climbing Journal, Crux Number 4)

1 comment:

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