Balls Pyramid – Rock of Ages

For a piece on the latest ascent of Balls Pyramid – a scientific trip with the goal of collecting phasmids to beef up the breeding stock and the Australian Museum – download issue 22 of Vertical Life here.

Michael Meadows looks at the past, present and future of Balls Pyramid

Balls Pyramid – one of Australia’s most iconic climbing destinations – lies in the Tasman Sea, 600 km due east of Port Macquarie on Australia’s east coast. Officially, 53 men and one woman have reached the 552m summit. Why officially? Because on 1 July 1986, ‘recreational climbing’ on the remnant volcanic caldera was banned by the New South Wales government. Ironically, it was climbers’ discovery of a rare stick insect living on the Pyramid – the giant phasmid – that contributed to the ban. Subsequent attempts by concerned climbers and others to challenge this controversial decision have fallen on deaf ears. Frustration over a lack of communication with the management authority and inconsistent justifications for the ban have prompted some climbers to ignore it, with several ‘phantom’ ascents of the pinnacle in recent years – despite the threat of a $5000 fine. The outcry suggests flaws in the current management regime, which many people think needs to be re-examined. 

The remarkable sharkǯs fin of Balls Pyramid rising from the ocean, at 562m high the worldǯs tallest volcanic stack. Ian Hutton

The remarkable sharkǯs fin of Balls Pyramid rising from the ocean, at 562m high the worldǯs tallest volcanic stack. Ian Hutton

Two recently published Australian books have redirected the spotlight back onto the pinnacle and, more importantly, challenged the rationale that has prevented climbers from visiting this extraordinary place. The first book, in 2015, was by businessman-adventurer Dick Smith, Balls Pyramid: climbing the world’s tallest sea stack. It is based on Dick’s 1980 ascent of the Pyramid on what was then his second attempt. But it is in the most recent publication, South Pacific Pinnacle: the exploration of Balls Pyramid, in July 2016 by two climbers that the true value of the Pyramid as an Australian cultural resource is forcefully made. The book, edited by historian-zoologist Jim Smith with arguably one of Australia’s most experienced climbers, Keith Bell, offers a broad-ranging scientific, cultural and historical account of how Balls Pyramid has achieved its iconic status. And it tackles the issue of the climbing ban head on. 

balls-pyramid coversJim was on the second ascent of the Pyramid in 1969 and at the time wrote a book based on his and other climbers’ observations of that historic expedition. It remained unpublished for 47 years. With 14 participants, led by climber-filmmaker John Davis, the ‘69 ascent was the largest climbing group to visit with the primary aim of making a documentary of the ascent. Jim was expedition zoologist and collected an exoskeleton of the giant phasmid stick insect that was last seen 40 years before on Lord Howe Island. The original population there – 25km away – was killed by rats that escaped from a wrecked ship in 1918. The first inkling that the giant phasmid had survived on the heights of Balls Pyramid came when another climber, Dave Roots, who, with Rick Higgins, made two different one-day attempts to reach the summit in March 1964. A photograph of a large, black insect taken by Dave was confirmed by entomologists to be the long-thought-lost giant phasmid. 

While climbers have railed at the ban since its introduction, they were silent at a critical time. When the initial management plan regarding access to climbers was published in 1986, just one climber responded – Jim Smith. Three other submissions opposed climbing on the Pinnacle. When the ban was announced, Dick Smith made a loud public protest, threatening legal action, although this did not proceed. And climbers are by no means unanimous that climbing should resume, with several prominent figures voicing their support for environmental concerns to overrule climbing desires.  

Major criticisms of the Lord Howe Management Board’s approach include its reluctance to engage in discussion, with correspondence commonly unacknowledged, and inconsistent reasons provided in support the ban: justifications have moved away from protecting the giant phasmid to possible disruptions to nesting sea birds and, most recently, to the dangers of climbing itself. 

In his detailed and superbly illustrated volume, South Pacific Pinnacle, Jim Smith presents a strong argument for the ban to be lifted, canvassing expert opinion from a wide range of scientists and climbers who have experienced Balls Pyramid firsthand, and concluding that properly-vetted climbers do not present a significant risk to the environment of Balls Pyramid. Smith calls for there to be dialogue between members of the board, scientists and climbers (commonly one and the same), all of whom have a stake in ensuring this special place is preserved in its natural state. 

There are two main objections to climbing cited by the Lord Howe Island Board. The first is that climbing activity disturbs bird life with the possibility of introducing predators and pathogens. Citing scientific sources, Jim argues that this could easily be managed through strict quarantine procedures. The precipitous nature of the nesting environment and the limited routes used by climbers a couple of times a year, would have a negligible impact on nesting birds. The second key objection by the board is that the Pyramid is too unstable and dangerous for climbing. Keith Bell has seen more of Balls Pyramid than anyone and this, coupled with his extensive experiences climbing in the Alps and all over Australia places him in perhaps the strongest position of anyone to make such a judgment. He has dismissed this assertion by the board absolutely and has written to them to challenge their perception. He received no acknowledgement or reply. He and others argue that the greatest danger on Balls Pyramid is getting on and off the island safely. 

Jack Hill (left) and Jack Pettigrew about to swim ashore in 1965. Dick Morris

Jack Hill (left) and Jack Pettigrew about to swim ashore in 1965. Dick Morris

South Pacific Pinnacle: the exploration of Balls Pyramid is presented primarily through the eyes of climbers – the only people who have spent significant time on the precipitous heights and much of the book is devoted to this human interaction. Balls Pyramid was first sighted and named in 1788 by Lt Henry Lidgebird Ball – master of one of the 11 ships of the First Fleet on its mission to colonise New South Wales. Despite unreliable tales of various attempts on the Pyramid in the late 19th century, the first recorded landing was in April 1882 by a New South Wales Department of Mines team. The first photograph of Balls Pyramid was taken on that expedition. 

The first serious attempt to climb it was in 1922 by Fijian-based Logan H Morrisby and his unnamed brother. Even then, the swell and the presence of sharks were key elements in determining whether a landing was possible. Regardless, according to an account in the Sydney Sun, Logan made landfall and began his attempt alone: 

Mr. L. H. Morrlsby, whose monkey-like skill as a climber I well know, from an experience in Fiji, began his long and patiently-awaited climb on the north-eastern side, which is the most favorable aspect. After a three-hour clamber of an exceedingly dangerous nature, he managed to reach as far as about 700 feet. This is as high us one can manage with bare hands; any further progress is only possible with proper mountaineering appliances, and then only us far as half-way, after which the cliffs are unscalable. 

As Logan climbed down from the ledge known by climbers today as ‘Gannet Green’, his hat ‘was torn from his head, the birds accompanying the assault with what sounded like villainous language’. 

The next serious attempt was in May 1962 by a well-organised team from the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club. The club had already completed bold winter expeditions to Southwest Tasmania in 1957 and 1959 – Pinefreeze 1 and Pinefreeze 2 – climbing three of Geryon’s four peaks. But Balls Pyramid laid down its trump card – the weather – and they were forced to abandon their quest without setting foot on rock. In March 1964, Sydney climbers Dave Roots and Rick Higgins made two attempts, each restricted to a single day by the refusal of local boat operators to leave them on the Pyramid overnight. They were back on a chartered Sydney vessel in November that year and reached the top of Winkelstein’s Steeple on the southeast ridge before weather intervened once again. An 18-minute film of this attempt was shown to members at the inaugural meeting of the Brisbane Rockclimbing Club in Brisbane in October 1965. 

A first ascent was looming, although a 1964 advertisement in the national climbing magazine, Thrutch, did not give too much away. It read: ‘Balls Pyramid – another trip to Lord Howe is imminent, and anyone interested should contact Bryden, Qualifications – 50 pounds ($100).’ Bryden Allen managed to attract a well-trained team of the best local climbers of the day: Dave Witham, John Davis, Jack Pettigrew and New Zealander Jack Hill. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Ben Sandilands was on hand to record the historic moment when, on St Valentine’s Day 1965, the four Australians stood on the summit for the first time. The following day, Jack Pettigrew climbed it again with Jack Hill for the sake of Australian–New Zealand relations. Jack Pettigrew later observed that one of the keys to their success was finding a local boat operator who was willing to leave them on the Pyramid for two weeks. 

The successful 1965 climbing team (from left): Don Wilcox, Jack Hill, John Davis,Bryden Allen, Dave Witham, Sydney Morning Herald reporter Ben Sandilands and Jack Pettigrew. Jack Pettigrew

The successful 1965 climbing team (from left): Don Wilcox, Jack Hill, John Davis,Bryden Allen, Dave Witham, Sydney Morning Herald reporter Ben Sandilands and Jack Pettigrew. Jack Pettigrew

The second ascent team in 1969 included three women – Rona Butler, Carol Williams and Nancy Maiden – with Rona (Dot Butler’s daughter) being the first and only woman to have reached the summit. Rona later changed her name to Iluna Bluewater. In March the following year, another team of Sydney climbers made the first ascent of the west ridge and although Keith Bell and John Worrall contemplated a skyline traverse, logistical difficulties prevented their idea from becoming reality. Keith was back three years later with Greg Mortimer in late February 1973, and convinced the Lord Howe Island locals to abandon them alone on the island for seven days. Their bold objective was an alpine-style traverse – up the southeast ridge and down the west. Keith was primed following several successful seasons in the Alps and Dolomites and was ready for anything – almost. They summited at 3.30pm on the second day and were on their descent when news came of an approaching cyclone. Despite increasing mist, rain and violent wind gusts, they were determined to get as low as possible – and as close as possible to their emergency food and water supplies on the western end. Their abseil ropes frequently jammed, necessitating climbs up to free them, but by 5.30pm, in cyclonic conditions, they reached a 2m by 1.5m cave, 70m above their supply cache. Keith recalls that it was then that Cyclone Kirsty unleashed her fury: 

It was like sitting in a box in a grandstand watching all the action in front of you. Every now and then, waterspouts would go zooming into the air way above us, perhaps as high as 300 ft (100m). The sea was whipped into a frenzy of whirlpools and huge waves that came from every direction with such force that the water was completely white with spume and foam for a 500 yard (500m) radius around the pyramid. 

It made a deep impression, too, on Greg Mortimer: 

It was a maelstrom, an amazing unleashing of natural forces – a great vortex of wind, water and birds, like a column, hanging in the air in front of us and seeming to blast right over the top of the Pyramid. It was frightening. 

Two days later the conditions eased, but they were forced to abandon their gear and swim out to the waiting launch. Friends on Lord Howe Island retrieved their equipment and returned it to them a week later. 

Expeditions that followed sought new objectives on the Pyramid, with Kevin Lindorff, Iain Sedgman and Peter Watson making the first ascent of the east face in 1975. In December 1980, a University of Queensland Climbing Club team of five climbers – Chris Frost, Jeremy Scrivener, Mark Morwood, Cameron Schroder and Brian Springall – were joined by Rick White, who was planning an audacious solo ascent. Rick first tried a new route but retreated because of poor rock quality. He then climbed the southeast ridge with Brian and, the following day, soloed the route in an hour and 45 minutes, reaching the summit a few minutes after Chris and Mark. Their climbing objective achieved, the UQ team made the first circumnavigation of the Pyramid on airbeds, shadowed part of the way by a large shark! 

 Subsequent ascents have included three members of the Army Alpine Association in December 1980, and a 1984 blitz by three international teams from Japan, France, and the USA. The last ‘official’ group to summit was in May 1986 – Keith Williams and members of the Three Peaks Outdoor Club. Since then, occasional ‘unofficial’ ascents have continued in defiance of the ban, encouraged by Dick Smith who in 2014 offered to pay the $5000 fine for any climbers caught in the act. 

Jim Smith’s conclusion in South Pacific Pinnacle: the exploration of Balls Pyramid, based on the available evidence – along with his invaluable documentation of the climbing history of this Australian cultural icon – makes a powerful argument that properly vetted climbers do not present a significant risk to the environment of Balls Pyramid. Perhaps, as one 2009 submission to the board by scientist-climber Zane Priebbenow suggests, the heart of the issue appears to be a reaction to a ‘misguided fear of bad publicity and concerns with injury than it is with conservation’. It appears to be a commonsense suggestion. 

But is anyone listening? 

Michael is the author of The Living Rock (RRP $39.95), it can be ordered online directly from the author at livingrockpress@gmail.com (postage $10 to the East Coast, $5 for Brisbane area).

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