Flick through any guidebook in Australia and the chances are you will come across the name Mike Law. Few people, if any, have come close to putting up as many new routes Downunder, and there have been years – particularly when he was new routing in the Grose Valley – when his contribution could be measured in kilometres rather than metres.
But Mike’s contribution to Australian climbing goes much further than that. From his early days as a ’70s wunderkind to his role now as an Elder Statesmen, Mike has always been one of the most outrageous climbers of his generation: outrageously talented, outrageously lucky to survive, outrageously attired and pushing the boundaries of the sport in various outrageous ways that few others could get away with.
As one of the central figures of the Australian climbing scene through the last 40 or so years, Mike has either witnessed or made much of Australian climbing history, which makes his new autobiography A Law Unto Himself an important contribution to the repository of Climbing Lore – as well as an extremely entertaining ride through a long and varied climbing career.
To celebrate the release of his book last week we caught up with Mike to speak about his book and send some curly questions his way.
One of the greatest insights VL has ever gleaned from popular culture came from The Simpsons. When searching for the reason why a series of events occurred the entire family speculate on the profound before Homer refutes the idea that there is a moral or a greater meaning by stating “it is just a bunch of stuff that happened”. What are you trying to achieve in reflecting back on all the stuff that has happened?
It is still just a bunch of stuff, but for me it has meaning (climbing was my family) and for others it might be amusing. It’s an irony that I swam through the stuff that happened in a daze when I was younger, and now I want to make sense of it.
Why did you choose to write a book now?
We had a week off and it rained. It took most of the next year to check by re-reading every guide and mag every printed..
It appears you are at pains in the book to call into question your authority as historian, why?
Though I am a Law, I don’t want to pretend that I am The Law. Everyone has their own spin on events, but I’ve tried to be as factual as possible. I got a few surprises about dates and who I was climbing with when I was fact-checking.
So why should people still read the book then?
IMHO it’s good and has LOLs and will make you ROFL.
The book makes a solid contribution to questioning the idea the past was a time of pure motivations and even purer ethics. Maybe that objectification is a natural symptom of nostalgia or that the assumptions made about the past are not that robustly interrogated, so in that spirit what are the top three myths about the way climbing was conducted in the old days that you think should be busted?
1. “We were bold and heroic like no-one today. I could climb hard off the couch and harder after an autopsy. Today’s climbers are limp widdlers and I was doing death-leads while youse guys were still on the tit with no motors skills” – Obviously we weren’t fearless and we used lots of attempts, shady ethics, and pre-inspection; some routes had lots of undeclared aids. On the plus side, downclimbing was an important form of security.
2. “All old routes were death” – Actually there were lots of routes that were well protected, at least at the crux.
3. “We knew what was going on” – Actually we didn’t seem to understand the rhythmic majesty of the seasons or which way cliffs faced, and were often climbing on freezing south facing cliffs in winter or melting our boots, forearms, and brains under a burning sun.
The book reads as very fast-paced, pushing from one vignette of information to another almost relentlessly, was that a stylistic decision or just your natural pace?
It’s a cut and paste world. Every cliff and every day needs a different way of thinking.
What was the hardest thing about writing the book?
Not climbing for a week.
What do you see as the book’s contribution to climbing history?
There were a lot of cool stories that were being lost, not just because they are important to me, but because they add depth to people’s experience when they go climbing or visit a new area. Saving images from dusty albums is pretty worthy too.
Jared Diamond, in his work The World Until Yesterday, discusses the importance to formative societies of the transmission of lore through the telling of campfire stories. In Victoria people camp when they go climbing, in NSW not so much. Drawing on Diamond’s idea you have said that the climbing cultures of these two states in particular mean the way information is passed on is different and intimated that NSW might be the poorer for it. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
In Vic everyone camps (‘cos the cliffs are far away) and a lot of the shared wisdom is passed on over smoky fires. Someone else’s epic might stick in your brain and save your life. (Victorian climbers are a wee bit more ept because of the trad climbing thing, tho locals tell me this isn’t always true). In daytripping NSW, as well as being immersed in the low thought sport climbing mode, many people don’t camp. They miss hearing all this passed-on experience.
In that same book Diamond also explores the notion that primitive cultures have a very conservative approach to risk, the example being tribesman in Papua New Guinea do not go jumping around in the jungle because if you break your leg, you’re dead. What does this say about a society that embraces and valorises the risks inherent in rock climbing?
When you’re young, safety is surviving something once, when you get older, it’s everyone you know surviving for 50 years. It’s a white middle class sport (Asians are just over-achieving whities I reckon) performed by people with a comfortable way of life. In the absence of regular life and death situations we need to be stretched and will go out of our way to find odd rituals that make us feel like successful animals.
Climbing, what’s the point?
The only way is up, baby.
The title of your book – Law Unto Himself – insinuates you were free to transgress whatever rules you wanted to, do you feel like your actions over the years have been anchored within a particular ethical framework?
That was the publishing team’s title, but it is probably accurate. Ethics are a flexible constraint to the climbing game, gravity is fixed.
Are there any actions as a climber in the past that you regret?
There was a girl I didn’t kiss and a dyno I didn’t take. For years I was haunted by the thought that I’d killed Alan Gledhill by modifying his rucksack. When Nic Kaz died, for a while I thought I was entirely responsible, not nice. I missed Have a Nice Flight at Araps, damn damn damn.
It’s well known that you have altered a number of the new routes that you have done in the past, do you still think there is a place for altering routes so that they can be climbed?
Bad bolting is an eyesore and bad chipping is even worse. Despite all the hullaballoo, it seems as popular as ever. A lot of the driver for chipping disappeared when good glue arrived in the ’90s.
If punk infected the ethic of climbing in the late ’70s and ’80s what is the dominant aesthetic and philosophy of the modern climbing fraternity? Is there one?
Convenience and conservatism, but for every movement there is a counter movement. There are less lifestyling dirt baggers and lifers, more weekend heroes and sport tickers. The commoditisation of climbing has led to it being marketed as a safe consumer sport, through gyms and sport climbing, so it’s a slick experience, like a fantasy fuck. No wonder people get upset when it all goes wrong and they die. I like getting scared; I just don’t like dying.
Do you have any climbing heroes?
John Stannard (USA), Peter Croft, Lee Cossey, Zac Vertrees. The guys who put up Wings of Steel and Hall of Mirrors in Yosemite, they were reviled but their routes were the hardest aid and free big walls for many years.
Many people are of the opinion that you were the most talented Australian climber of your generation, is there anyone that you think was better?
I think Mark Moorhead may have been more talented; he never got a chance to prove it. Kim could get his power to the ground very well, and was much more organised. Charlie Creese was great, but his fingers were stronger than his tendons. It’s hard to climb without a scene and other hard routes; Giles dragged the Blue Mountains into this century pretty much single-handed.
Is it true that you could do a one-arm chin-up the first time you tried?
Probably, I was witlessly strong when I could only climb 15s.
Why do you think you have been so obsessed with climbing new routes?
In the same way that climbing is many things, so are new routes. They can be an exploration, an artistic creation, a consumer product, a great day out, or a memorable one. As Russ Clune said, I need to piss at the base of every tree I see.
You are famous for not sleeping that much, do those hours awake add up to a greater productivity or does the restlessness of insomnia take its toll?
Sleeplessness is not productive and leads to lots of useless predawn stressing and meandering, unless of course I’m bolting. Nappy wrangling has helped fill the grey hours before dawn lately.
You test a lot of gear and bolts, stressing it for failure and understanding the physics of that failure, a lot of people climb for a very long time without knowing much more about their gear than how it works, where has this interest come from?
Because we were so dependent on (badly conceived) gear in the past I’ve always been fascinated. The soft wedding cake rock in the Blueys obviously required careful study. Our feeling of bomber or death came from empirical evidence based on little climbing falls. The few big falls can pull gear and shatter security
Fatherhood seems like a pretty big deal, how has it changed not only your life but also you?
It’s certainly a constraint, but I’ve spent 55 years running around doing whatever I wanted , so I don’t mind a bit of responsibility. I’ll try a bit harder not to die, but also to get out more.
Where is climbing going in the future and are you going there with it?
I think trad will become more important with the more committed climbers, if only to differentiate themselves from the fast food gym bunnies. Maybe all first bolts should be chopped to keep the hordes away. I’ll try and hobble along after the future.
Where are the pressures that are going to be applied to climbing in the future going to come from?
Interesting, 10 years ago there were enough climbers around that land managers had to take us seriously. I think there are less climbers around now which reduces pressures on climbing. We are sensation-seeking tourists, and only a few locals have a long-term view.
The cliché tells us that everybody has one book in them, we assume this means you’re done?
Maybe I’ll have to poop the next one out. I’d like to write something less factual, but literature about climbers is a bit dull. Greg Child and I were rabbiting on that having a child was the cheapest form of immortality, but actually, giving up racing or mountaineering is quicker and more effective, so is writing a book.
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