Ross Taylor talks to Roland Pauligk
RP. The initials are iconic. For climbers they conjure up all kinds of memories: tiny brass wires sitting new on your rack, shiny and angular and coated in a light sheen of oil; fiddling a bolt plate over a rusty old carrot; contemplating a runout above the small comforts of a green number three RP, its scratched, dull head buried deep in a crack. Memories comprised of a strange mixture of pleasure, fear and relief.
RPs are the quintessential Australian-made gear, as true blue as gum trees, VB and bogans. Funnily enough, though, like many of the best things about this country, RPs are made by a blow-in, an escapee from communist East Germany, who fled his home country just before the final gap in the Iron Curtain slammed shut with the erection of the Berlin Wall.
Those initials – RP – stand for Roland Pauligk. And while the angular perfection of RPs may fool you into thinking they are mass produced in a factory, RPs are handmade, built to exacting standards in a tiny garden shed in Roland’s backyard in the seaside suburb of Mordialloc in Melbourne. For more than 30 years, hundreds of thousands of RPs have been shipped from that small shed to trad climbers all around the globe.
Wherever they went, RPs extended horizons, opening up new possibilities on trad gear as the best and boldest climbers put them to use protecting cutting-edge ascents. From death routes like Johnny Dawes’ Indian Face (E9 6c) in Wales, to our own Punks in the Gym (32) at Arapiles – RPs were there.
Today it’s hard to comprehend the impact of RPs, given the incredible wealth of climbing gear on offer, but back in the late 1960s the options for protecting routes were far more limited. Chris Dewhirst, one of the leading climbers of the late-1960s and early-1970s, witnessed the very first time passive protection was used in Australia:
‘When I first started climbing there were only three ways of protecting yourself when you led: you could put in a piton, you could drill a bolt or put a sling over a bollard. One day at Arapiles, Bob Bull fronted up with his pockets full of hexagonal engineering nuts with the threads drilled out, and he put them on a sling and he said:“This will revolutionise climbing.”
He put one into a crack in the back of Castle Crag and then he hung off it and said, “Look what it can do.” The next day John Moore and I went home and drilled out about 50 of these different sized nuts.’
As memories often are, Roland’s is a little clouded; he doesn’t remember where he got the initial idea of making RPs from. The first nuts he recalls seeing in Australia were made by Welsh company Clog and this probably sparked his interest in making them. In 1969 Roland produced his first ‘RP’, although they were different from today’s – they were made from cast aluminium (melted down from scrap) and ranged right up to size 11 or 12. Mike Law remembers them fondly: ‘I borrowed one massive RP, maybe it was a size nine, you could have killed a black dog with it. The wire was as thick as your finger and quite rigid and the actual nut on the end probably weighed half a kilogram, it was quite a lethal implement.’ Roland himself still uses these massive RPs – ‘my lifesavers’ – and they have pride of place on his rack.
Shortly after making aluminium RPs, Roland began experimenting with smaller sizes made out of brass. Initially, he drilled the wedges and ran the wire through the top, as per most regular nuts today, but the tight radius of the wire over the top of the very small nut head meant it broke too easily. The second generation of RPs similarly had the wire running over the top but were also soldered. However, this setup was still too weak and it wasn’t until the third generation that Roland struck gold. This time he stuck the wires into the head and soldered them using silver. Liberated from the weakness created by swaging on the cable, Roland was able to manufacture a very small, strong wire, and a new generation of climbers could tackle routes previously deemed unprotectable.
It seems hard to believe now, but while Roland started making RPs in the early 1970s it took a while for climbers to realise their potential. ‘I didn’t sell any until the mid-70s,’ he says. ‘I showed them around, but because they were new, some said wedges like this would never catch on.’
Despite the naysayers, by the mid- to late-1970s RPs were starting to gain a reputation, particularly after the first aid ascents sans pitons of big aid routes at Mt Buffalo like Ozymandias and Lord Gumtree. ‘I think it was Rick White and Nick Taylor and for some reason they spread the word around,’ recalls Roland. They couldn’t have done it without RPs. Then it really started and I had to make a decision to do this full time or not do it at all.’ In 1978 Roland gave up his job as a welder and boilermaker and went on a big trip overseas, almost entirely financed by selling RPs along the way. On his return in 1979, he began full-time production, concentrating on the small brass models after deciding the aluminium RPs were too much trouble to make.
The brass RPs revolutionised Australian climbing, particularly at Arapiles. Law says, ‘[RPs] basically turned Arapiles into a sport climbing area. Suddenly there were hundreds of routes that went from being unprotected to being perfectly protected.’
Glenn Tempest expresses a similar sentiment: ‘We were putting up routes at Arapiles that we didn’t know were fairly hard routes in those days. We knew they were reasonably hard, but not as hard as they probably were on a world scale – and part of that was because of RPs. After about the late-1970s we began to realise what we actually had and everyone was really proud of RPs. Everyone was like, “Wow, these are RPs, these are Australian.” It was a really big thing.’
Law says RPs also gave Australian climbers a big advantage when they travelled. ‘I went overseas in 1981 and repeatedly the locals would sandbag me on to various climbs. And I would turn up later and they would say, “How was it?” And I would say “I fell off it a few times.” And there would be an incredulous gasp and they would say “You fell off! How was it?” And I would say “Good, good, the gear’s really good.” “What do you mean?” I would show them these little brass nuts and they would fume and stomp around in a hissy fit.’
It was not just for Australians that RPs would revolutionise trad climbing. I spoke by email to the editor of Scottish Mountaineer and numerous guidebooks, Kevin Howett.
‘In 1984 we started a concerted development of Glen Nevis cliffs – a period of rapid development not seen prior – which became the best venue in Scotland for hard traditional climbing,” he told me. “The reason we were able to do so was that we had RPs for the first time and they suited the tiny, shallow cracks that are typical of the schist of Glen Nevis – otherwise many of the routes would have been unprotected.’
In the States too, RPs made a massive difference. Chris Peisker, one of the leading climbers of the late-1970s and early 1980s, became Roland’s de facto US distributor. He tells the story:
‘I took some RPs to the States on my first trip in 1975, I found that there were certain climbs in Eldorado Canyon that were supposedly unprotected, but I managed to get in the odd RP here or there, making a huge difference. A few of my mates asked me if I would bring back a set for them the following year. Then about three or four months before my departure the following year I had this idea that I should just ask Roland to make up a hundred sets or so and I would take them back and sell them. At the time I was really worried because I didn’t have much money and it was a big investment for me. I thought I might be stuck with them for four or five months. But the fact is within a week of arriving in Boulder they were all gone and I had a list of people wanting another 300 sets.’
The only problem for Roland was demand always succeeded supply. Being a perfectionist he didn’t trust anyone else to do the silver soldering and so production was limited. As Peter Canning – Roland’s main climbing partner through the 1970s and 1980s – says: ‘Roland is very critical. If he has a slight little imperfection in the top of the brass where the solder has left a little dip he won’t sell them – he will give them to his friends or use them himself, but he won’t sell them.’
At 72, Roland is partly retired, but he still churns out small numbers of RPs. He shows us part of the soldering process for the camera, his hands still steady as he holds the bright flame and the solder. Roland doesn’t know for how much longer he will make RPs. I ask him if any of his children will take over the process. ‘No way. They were interested a little bit once, but I told them don’t bother, don’t waste your time. They are making so much more money doing what they do now.’
While they are no longer as widely available as they used to be, RPs are still well-known. In the UK for instance, RPs are so popular the initials are widely used as a generic term for small gear.
Roland didn’t have an altogether easy path to Australia. Born in 1938 in the town of Gross – Bademeusel on the Neisse River, 200 metres from Germany’s border with Poland, Roland lived through one of the most bitterly contested fronts of the Second World War. His father was killed fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front in 1944, leaving Roland’s mother to raise her four children alone. Roland tells me that for a six-week period in 1945 Gross – Bademeusel was the front line and the family were evacuated. ‘We left in February and then we went back in September, so naturally we weren’t there when the real stuff happened. But we moved in stages and certainly you know, when we weren’t too far away, we heard grenades whistling over the top and bombing.’
I ask Roland what it was like after the Russians came. ‘It was pretty tough. But it soon quietened down, at first it was chaos, you know the Russians they were pretty…pretty… They were alright but they got drunk and then they started shooting around everywhere.’
The family were fortunate to gain the protection of some Russian officers who boarded with them. ‘My mother cooked for them. I mean in the beginning we couldn’t sleep in our house, they broke into the place every night – they were after the women. Once the officers moved in we were safe, naturally no one came in any more. They pinched stuff from neighbours, potatoes and stuff and cooked for us. They were good with children you know. I still remember they gave us mashed potatoes and sugar water, it was really good.’
Roland doesn’t say much about his teenage years, only that life settled down quickly after the war and as long as you didn’t say anything bad about the Russians you were fine.
I ask him about his escape from East Germany. ‘Well, escape sounds a bit drastic. I had to leave illegally because you couldn’t leave, but it was still open, it was a year before they built the wall. I left in 1960 and they built the wall in late 1961.’ Compared to others, Roland’s escape was relatively prosaic, ‘I went early in the morning and I pretended to go to work, I hopped in the train and we all put our identification cards up in the air and they couldn’t check everyone because it was chock-a-block. So as long as you had a card you could go through and I just stayed on the train. West Berlin was like an island in East Germany and they flew us out.’
Roland’s departure wasn’t without cost. It would be many years before he was allowed to return to see his family and it was only in 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that he was free to go back without any restrictions.
For the next two years Roland lived and worked in Bavaria, before finding an advertisement calling for people to immigrate to Australia. ‘I’d always wanted to work overseas, but in East Germany they only ever sent the top brass. So I thought that’s a good idea. They made it sound so nice and all, six hours sunshine on average and everything is cheap and one doesn’t have to work much.’ So in 1963 Roland moved to Australia.
While RPs are world-renowned, what is less well-known is that from 1966 up until the mid-1970s and the arrival of the ‘new wave’ – including climbers like Law and Tempest – Roland was one of Australia’s best climbers. Tempest says that when Roland started climbing, ‘He was probably one of the top very small group of hardmen. Even when I was very young you knew he was one of the HBs of the climbing world, these really strong, solid guys who don’t actually say that much but just do these amazing things. Things like Monarch at Buffalo.’
I ask Roland a bit more about Monarch (22). ‘I think they had done harder climbs, but it was just this ugly thing, an off-width you know. You had to jam with your elbows more or less, you put your whole arm in and then pulled it back and hopefully it stuck. People were putting on three or four jumpers just to fill the crack. Nowadays even I wouldn’t touch this.’
But well before climbing Monarch, Roland was good. In fact, it literally took a matter of weeks for him to be climbing as well as the best of the day. Roland started climbing in 1966 on a Victorian Climbing Club beginner’s trip. One of his first climbs was his first ascent of Narcotic (17) at Bundaleer. The ascent is described in Grampians Selected Climbs: ‘After the leading climbers of the day had finished flailing, Roland Pauligk (on only his fourth day climbing) apologised for intruding, tied into the rope, and immediately thrashed his way to glory.’
I have led Narcotic and even though Roland did it with one aid, it is a long, sandy, trying lead that is still runout even on a modern rack. It’s hard to imagine leading it as a beginner on the gear available in 1966. Funnily enough, my dad (Rob Taylor) was there that day. ‘My first memory of Roland was that he just sort of appeared out of nowhere – he had never been sighted before – and he led this really flaky, unprotected pitch,” he tells me. ‘Everyone was incredibly impressed because he didn’t have an awful lot of climbing experience.’
Cracks would always be Roland’s strength, as he tells me: ‘With jamming you know, it is really my safest. If there is a jam or a jug I will always use the jam. I stick my hand in and it stays.’ Tempest agrees, ‘He couldn’t crimp a small hold to save his life, but if he could get his hand on it there was no way he was coming off, you could probably sling his arm and just belay off it.’
As a youth Roland did two years of gymnastics, it is to this he attributes some of his strength. I ask him if he was any good, ‘No, that is probably why I stopped. My father was very good, in my village they always said “You’re not as good as your father!”’
Roland probably also had a head start in other ways. ‘I did tree climbing in Germany; I started because I joined a few people putting rings on birds. When I got here in 1963 I just went bush by myself for a while, sometimes I slept in a hammock in the trees. I climbed up trees just to have a look, took pictures.’
Chris Dewhirst tells me about the first time Roland made an impression on him: ‘I distinctly remember being in a campsite in the Grampians near Mt Rosea and he was into tree climbing. He had built these spikes himself and he strapped them to his boots, then he would throw a strap around a tree and he could climb anything, it was pretty awesome to watch.’
It was probably the mix of strength and a good head for heights that meant Roland was a natural at climbing. Dewhirst says: ‘He was able to go from no climbing experience at all to pretty close to the top straightaway – within weeks he had got it.’
Trying to get information from Roland about all the routes he has done is difficult. For one he struggles to remember route names and, secondly, he is modest about what he has achieved. As Law says: ‘He didn’t think of himself as a hard climber, he just went out and did things – and that’s the mark of a good climber, they’re not trying to keep up with their ego. They’re just “Yeah, it looked wide and hard, so I went and did it.”’
Despite this, when I ask Roland what his hardest route was he answers me instantly: ‘Kama Sutra, it was the hardest one. I did the fifth free ascent.’ Even today, despite its relatively modest grade, Kama Sutra (23) regularly spits off modern climbers. More impressively, Roland didn’t have cams when he climbed it. ‘I was hanging around for ages trying to get in gear.’
The same year Roland started climbing, 1966, is the year he met an English immigrant called Ann Richardson. They ended up marrying (although they are now separated) and having three children together, Ryan, Karl and Yvette. Ann was also an exceptional climber. Two of her more renowned ascents at Arapiles are Christian Crack (21), which she led six months pregnant, and the thin and bold Wraith (21). Both of these ascents were not far off what the top male climbers were achieving, as Roland says, ‘I must say on face climbs, you know on Wraith, on this sort of stuff, she was better than I was.’ Pete Canning tells me: ‘She was the best woman climber in Australia, before Louise [Shepherd] started climbing.’
Roland was distinctive at the crag for reasons apart from his climbing talent. In the iconic shot of Roland on Monarch, you notice the big cockatoo sitting on his shoulder. For many years Roland had pet cockatoos that were with him wherever he went. As Glenn Tempest recalls it made climbing at the crag with Roland unique: ‘I was always amazed to climb around him, just because of these birds – his cockatoos swinging around his head and then landing on him and picking at his gear. He could let them go when he got to Araps and they would fly around the crag and then they would just come back in the evening.’
Chris Peisker remembers them less fondly:
‘The birds would fly around and land on Roland’s shoulder while he was climbing. They wouldn’t necessarily land on another climber, but they would land on their leading ropes and they were quite skilled at unclipping ropes from karabiners. They could actually hold the gate open with one claw and take the rope out with the other claw. They did that a couple of times. They were diabolical. Another time I was belaying Roland in the Wolgan and these birds were on this ledge about 20 metres above me and they were picking up rocks in one claw and then they would hop along the ledge until they were above – very deliberate – and then drop them off, trying to hit me.’
These days Roland still visits his block in the Grampians with his son Ryan. They tend to their fruit trees and climb together. Like his father, Ryan is a natural climber, but doesn’t seem fussed by grades.
And Roland still loves getting out to the crag. ‘This is one of the reasons I stayed in Australia,” he tells me. “I liked the bush straight away, the landscape. Climbing occupied everything, from planning for the next to week to making gear.’ While climbing doesn’t consume Roland the way it used to, you can still see he loves it. At the end of the interview he shows us his rack, his fingers flicking through an antique collection of gear, his eyes brightening with enthusiasm as we talk about old climbs.
In 1968 my dad climbed a ‘scrubby monster of route’ with Roland on that prehistoric spine of dolerite in Tasmania called Geryon. Roland led my dad up massive off-widths, breaching the 400-metre-high face on wooden chocks. At the top they were benighted in light rain and had to share a sleeping bag. It was one of the few times they climbed together, but my dad says Roland was always a strong, confident partner, full of good humour and stories – stories I grew up with.
My father climbed with Pauligk several times, and as a kid with my family, I used to visit Pauligk in the Grampians, and would sit around a fire while the adults told stories. Many nights I fell asleep on my mum’s lap to the rich bass of Roland’s voice, his German-accented English rounding off the Rs, his tales like carefully polished gems. When I began climbing at 13, Roland gave me my first set of RPs. They held pride of place on my small rack, their brass heads gleaming with promise. I still have most of them today, their heads now scratched and dull, crusted with dirt and blood, but alive with stories, full to the brim with those desperate moments when life is compressed to a single purpose—placing that next piece of gear. Perhaps this is Pauligk’s greatest gift to climbers, these little scraps of steel and brass, each one a promise, a path to transcendence of life’s ordinary way.