Chelsea Brunckhorst takes a look at one of the best climbers Australia has ever produced and finds as much as her legendary strength it was her short attention span that made her excel at onsighting.
WORDS Chelsea Brunckhorst
IMAGES As credited
Onsighting isn’t a lost art, but somewhere along the quest for difficulty, redpointing opened the doors to ‘the impossible’. While the latter has a pull of its own, the enchantment of onsighting – a beguiling route, a compelling puzzle, the path untravelled – never loses its flavour. It remains the ultimate examination, the absolute paradigm by which climbers are judged.
Onsight genius endures as a trait coveted by climbers, and perhaps the most well-known Australian climber for onsight flair is Louise Shepherd. It was probably two or three years ago now, but I still remember the first time I met Louise. It was on the weathered deck of her then main street home in Natimuk. The front door still advertises ‘The Climbing Co.’ insignia, paled by the sun of many Wimmera summers. Like many successful female climbers, Louise is of short stature. That day she had a boyish buzz cut, silvered over the years, and loose, dirty clothes. She was barefoot. Under her arm she clasped a folded Wild magazine, and on her face she flashed a brilliant smile.
When I call Louise years later to profile her for VL, she is as I remember her from our brief first meeting: unerring, yet down-to-earth and full of laughs. Initially I thought hers would be quite a straightforward story: ‘Woman out-shines men in the early ’80s.’ On reflection, some of her achievements have little to do with being a woman.
Louise Shepherd is famous for onsighting Trojan (25). It takes a hanging crack on the sombre back wall of the Pharos, a swirling pillar of orange rock at Arapiles that Keith ‘Noddy’ Lockwood describes in his old guidebook as deserving ‘to have the ocean washing against its base and gannets wheeling around to highlight its true atmosphere as a rock stack in an ancient sea.’ The route looked so strenuous in 1981 that Louise climbed the first couple of metres of overhung laybacking with no rack. When she got to the first jug, she pulled up her rack. Louise was the first person to onsight it, male or female.
In 1981 if you were climbing grade 24/25, you were a gun. ‘To onsight these routes, placing the gear – that was pretty exceptional,’ says Simon Mentz, who started climbing in the late ’80s.
‘The thing is too, at Arapiles it’s not just about the grade,’ he continues, ‘these climbs Lou onsighted – Trojan, Warmonger (24), Strolling RHV (24), Cliffhanger (25) – still spank good climbers today. It’s not straightforward sport climbing, limestone style – you know, endurance routes. These have got funky cruxes that require a high degree of technique, and to onsight them is very impressive.’
Louise also onsighted the unrelenting Life in the Fast Lane (24) on the proud buttress of Arapiles’ Wailing Wall, as well as the nearby Paladin (24), a sly crack on a smooth wall that regularly spits climbers off.
One route Louise didn’t onsight but very nearly did was Denim (26), a beautiful line hidden in a dark recess behind Johns Pinnacle at Arapiles. She had one fall down low, and on her next shot climbed through that, going on to the top placing gear. The other remarkable thing about this ascent is that Louise left a crucial piece of gear behind – so she hung around in the middle of the hard climbing, had someone on the ground clip the piece of gear onto one of her ropes (she was climbing on double ropes), hauled it up, placed it, and kept going. Considering the difficulty of that section past the bulge, it’s quite an extraordinary ascent.
When Louise onsighted Trojan, she probably also became the first woman in the world to onsight grade 25 (7b/5.12). And her efforts weren’t confined to the intricate riddles of Arapiles, or even Frog Buttress, where she nearly onsighted Voices in the Sky (25) (falling only when a hold broke). In 1980–82 Louise travelled the world with her then boyfriend Kim Carrigan, and along the way she onsighted famously hard climbs of the time, including Separate Reality (now 5.11d/24, but at the time graded 5.12a/25), which is a iconic Yosemite roof crack, 200 metres high above the enduring Merced River; and Crimson Cringe (5.12a/25), which top climber Mayan Smith-Gobat describes as a ‘long, sustained and extremely intimidating route.’ It starts with a big run-out on chicken heads. Mayan says the crux is a ‘thin finger crack with big, powerful locks between holds. From there on it is pure endurance hand-jamming for 30 metres, ending in a powerful undercling traverse.’ In the USA Louise also came close to onsighting Tales of Power (5.12b/26), doing it with one fall.
In the UK Louise onsighted London Wall (E5/25), a flawless crack on a striking vertical orange wall in the Peak District. She also did Lord of the Flies (E6/26) in North Wales, a classic line that, with its run-outs and sustained climbing, has a reputation for being bold. According to Noddy, ‘Her ascents astounded the British climbing scene; “Lord” had to wait another decade for a British female ascent.’
For a time, Louise Shepherd was probably the best female climber in the world. ‘I’m sure she made an impression on a lot of guys when travelling the globe too,’ Simey reckons. ‘Here she was, this spunky woman with a radiant smile onsighting as hard as the guys. I had a huge crush on her.’
As a strong female climber in the early 1980s, Louise was also – and remains – quite an inspiration for a lot of women. As Noddy says in his Arapiles: A Million Mountain book, ‘Women climbers were still relatively unusual at this time. Louise’s ability, and her forceful approach, contributed greatly to the strong impressions that [she and Kim Carrigan] left of Australian climbing. Her importance as a role model in women’s climbing in Australia and further afield at this time would be difficult to overstate.’
Louise also provided a voice for female climbers. After Wild magazine announced in its autumn 1986 issue that the Grampians classic Passport to Insanity (now 27) had been freed by Adelaide medical student Nyrie Dodd and claimed it was ‘grade 24–28 depending on the climber’s hand size,’ Louise piped up, writing in a subsequent issue that this was ‘an unprecedented departure from convention, which states that one must grade a route according to how difficult one found it, despite individual advantages.’ In a later interview, she said you ‘wouldn’t dream of questioning a tall male climber who’d done a climb saying that it was 24 to 28 depending on your reach, or something like that, you know?’ Later on, after her 1994 Arapiles guidebook was published, Louise was criticised for including photos of too many of women climbing – an absurd criticism.
Being of the fairer sex myself, it is hard to sing praises about women – particularly, influential women – without presenting like a maniacal, bull-headed, polarised feminist. I have never thought of myself as one of the sisterhood – I guess I have grown up in an era and a society where women share many rights with men. Interestingly it was a very awkward story that allowed me to see things from another perspective: Apparently, some time in the ’80s when Louise was climbing in France’s Verdon Gorge, a bunch of photographers suddenly swung their cameras around at her. Louise was climbing topless. When I ask her if the story is true, she laughs and says, ‘It was hot, so I took my T-shirt off, tucked it into my harness and kept climbing. I’d probably done the same in Australia at different times. It was a hot day and it was the South of France – the women go topless on the beaches there, so I didn’t think there was any big deal about it.’ Her relaxed response made me think, well, what is wrong with that, actually? But more than what she chose to wear or what she chose to say, Louise has inspired many female climbers, because she is proof that, unlike many sports, climbing seems to equalise women and men, because women have some strengths men don’t, and vice versa.
Louise Shepherd was 20 years old when she first discovered climbing. She was introduced to the idea by her then boyfriend Kym Smith, who had never been climbing but knew someone who had. ‘It was the late ’70s in Adelaide and there was one bushwalking shop, but no shop that sold climbing gear,’ Louise explains. ‘We bought a completely wrong rope – it was a marine rope, one of those plastic ones that you put a match to and it melts and sends up black smoke and turns into a blob of plastic!’
‘We went to the Grampians and walked up Elephants Hide, a slab quite close to the town of Halls Gap, trailing this bright yellow marine rope behind us. Kym was tied into one end and I wasn’t tied into the other – I was just soloing up. I don’t know what we thought we were doing! [Laughs]’
Growing up in Adelaide, Louise and her two brothers, Chris and Lincoln, spent many weekends scrambling on a tiny, remote, rocky island off the coast of South Australia, accessed by boat and protected by the Southern Ocean’s raging swells. Their father is a marine biologist and dived all day doing his research while Louise and her brothers ran across the island wild, doing what kids do.
By 1983 Louise had moved to Natimuk, a stone’s throw from Arapiles and now home to a small host of rockclimbers. ‘I’m pretty sure it was Easter ’83 when we first slept in the old house. Kim [Carrigan] bought it in auction in early ’83 for about ten or eleven thousand dollars. I know Chris Baxter bought the house next door, on his bank card, for $5000.’
Like many other climbers during that time, Louise was living on the dole. ‘It was fairly high unemployment in the early ’80s and was very commonplace for a lot of young people to be out of work. But to be honest I wasn’t really trying to get work. I was into climbing and it was quite convenient that the Commonwealth was paying a lot of us to be unemployed. The rules weren’t very stringent back then. In fact it was very relaxed. You could have the dole posted out to you! It was the dream time to be unemployed. Nobody hassled you.’
It left plenty of time for climbing. What resulted from the marriage of a too-good unemployment benefit and Arapiles, one of the world’s greatest crags, was an unprecedented climbing scene that shaped Australian climbing for years to come. As Simey – who wasn’t around but has the perspective of someone who arrived shortly after – puts it: ‘Kim Carrigan, Jon Muir, Malcolm [Matheson], Mark Moorhead, Louise’s brothers, they were all very talented, gifted climbers. Louise was part of an impressive climbing scene and may not even have been aware of it. Everyone was driving each other on, I suspect – and you don’t realise how well you’re climbing if everyone around you is climbing so well. You look back on it now and think, that was a pretty amazing little scene Australia had.’
While many climbers today are weekend warriors, in those days climbers lived at Arapiles for months at a time. ‘There was no such thing as rest days,’ says Louise. ‘There was one day a week when we used to go to Horsham, get some food, and have a shower at the caravan park. That was a Monday, from memory. I would work in Melbourne for three or four months over summer. Spring I’d go climbing at Arapiles, winter I’d go to Frog.’
‘I don’t remember doing heaps of climbing in a day – maybe a climb in the morning, and then a climb in the afternoon. If you were doing a couple of 24s in a day you’d be pretty shattered after that.’
Aside from fitness and an obvious natural talent, I am curious as to what made Louise such a great climber. I am told by numerous sources that one of her greatest strengths is her ability to hang around placing gear. ‘I had my first leader fall on Electric Warrior (20) at Arapiles,’ Louise tells me. ‘I can’t remember who taught me to lead in the very beginning, but I know Kim Carrigan helped my leading a lot. In the sense that he would put me onto climbs he thought I could do. Electric Warrior was one of these, and I remember him saying something about getting more gear in. I thought, “Nah, I can’t stop,” and there was a big jug I could see above. So I kept going, and of course it wasn’t a massive jug, it was a massive sloper. And I came whistling off. My leg caught underneath the rope and I ended up upside down with my head about a metre off the ground. And back then nobody wore helmets. Kim lowered me the metre to the ground [laughs], and said, “I think you should put more gear in.” [Laughs again] I think I learnt a lesson from that – it’s actually not a bad idea, it’s a good strategy in fact, to hang around, get more gear in, come down a bit, have a rest – if you can get a rest – go up. So I guess I got pretty strong from just hanging around putting lots of gear in.’
With endurance like that I ask her if there were any climbs when she didn’t think she’d make the onsight. ‘Oh, they were all like that!’ she says. ‘All the climbs I onsighted I’d just scrape up them. I remember doing Warmonger onsight, that’s a 24. I didn’t fall off it, but I remember thinking “I could fall of this move, I’m gonna fall off, I’m not falling off,” and somehow getting up it.’
‘Having said that, there were quite a few climbs that I did fall off. I fell off Marbuck (24) – I was hoping to onsight that because Malcolm had onsighted it. But I didn’t; I fell off it, and then I did it second shot.’
Considering her success, and that a few routes she did were considered bold, it is remarkable that Louise hasn’t had any major accidents or injuries. When asked to comment, she says, ‘I haven’t had any bad accidents, but I have had some potentially bad accidents. When I was a beginner, I broke a hold off at Moonarie and I fell, possibly 10m. That really rattled me. I remember putting one piece in and thinking “I don’t even need to put this piece in because it’s so easy,” but then falling off and realising that actually, it was very lucky that I had put that piece in, because otherwise it would have been a factor-two fall onto the belay. And it could have been really disastrous. Apart from that, you’re right, I haven’t had – touch wood! – any other major incidents, injuries or accidents. I think it’s because I’m actually a fairly cautious climber. I’ve probably done some fairly bold leads, but I didn’t think of myself as being bold. I just thought that I was strong enough to hang around, figure out the moves, and put more gear in.’
When asked if she has any weaknesses, Louise says, “Yeah… Oh, heaps! I get very bored very quickly on climbs, so I don’t have a lot of persistence when it comes to working routes. If I start falling off loads of times I throw in the towel very easily. Maybe it’s an acquired taste and perhaps I could get it. But then I think, why bother? I have limited time to go climbing! [Laughs] I’d rather go and do things onsight.”
After a pause she adds, ‘Sometimes I look back on how strong I must have been and think: Oh man, I should have just worked on those really hard routes! But onsighting was just the tradition at the time. I don’t have any major regrets in that area at all.’
Amazingly, only last year (at age 54) Louise repeated Boy Racer, which is high up on Arapiles’ Tiger Wall and graded 22. ‘I think it’s probably a bit harder than 22,’ says Simey. ‘A lot of good climbers don’t onsight Boy Racer – Chris Abernethy, Rob Oliver. Louise had onsighted it probably 30 years ago, but has never been on it since. Anyway, she got it first go again, whereas I fell all over the place thinking it was absolutely desperate. It’s intimidating, and hard, and I just thought, wow, she’s still got it.’
‘I think onsighting preserved the adventure for me,’ Louise waxes. ‘It’s that adrenaline, and the mystery. What I like about climbing is that you’re under physical pressure. You’re getting pumped, your fingers are giving out, you don’t know exactly how good that last piece is. All this stuff is going on in your head. And at the same time you’re trying to figure out how to get up the next bit of rock. I like the struggle, and the mystery of what’s coming, and you’ve got to try to figure it out before you get pumped and fall off.’
‘I think,’ she continues, ‘if I’d grown up in another era – a later era, maybe it would have shaped me into being a different climber. Perhaps. I don’t know.’
As I leaf through old, dog-eared climbing magazines from the ’80s, the ones with Louise Shepherd lighting up the cover – one with Louise on a grade-25 first ascent in Moonarie garbed in the vivid fashion of the day; another a snapshot taken by Kim Carrigan of Louise onsighting Trojan – I can’t help thinking about the first times I heard about Louise; through the polished pages of my Arapiles guidebook and pricked ears by dimming campfires. I think the thing I like most about Louise is how down-to-earth she is. Her favourite climb at Arapiles is Arachnus (9). And when I ask her why climbing is important to her, she says, ‘It’s a good way to connect with people. One way of keeping friendships alive is by having shared experiences. And climbing is a big part of that for me. I like sharing that joy and passion with other people.’