John Ewbank passed away recently (you can read his obituary here), and as a tribute to him we are publishing the brilliant keynote address he delivered at the Escalade Festival in 1993 at Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains. What follows is the text from that speech.
Thank you ladies and gentlemen. It’s a great pleasure to be here and I’m pleased to see you all here as well, it would have been a real pain in the arse talking to an empty room. I want to thank Lucas Trihey, who organized this festival for inviting me here to speak. It’s an honor to be remembered after all these years, and a privilege to be asked to present my own bent and twisted visions of some of the stuff that went down, or I should say some of the stuff that went up, back in the dark ages.
When Lucas first telephoned me in New York to extend his invitation, I asked for a few weeks to decide. I was actually thinking about a trip home, (I sound like that jingoistic Peter Allen song now, you know the one -“I Still Call Australia Home”) but I guess the truth is, that if I do still have a home anywhere on the planet anymore, it probably is, for better or for worse, back here in the land of Bazza McKenzie. So it was a very timely invitation, and I am very pleased to have accepted and I hope that in my own foolish manner I can make the next hour entertaining, and even a little illuminating, in its own circuitous fashion.
Over the telephone Lucas was very modest about the scope of this event. In my mind’s eye, I imagined a small affair – a packet of crisps and a slide projector – attended by a few old fossils like myself, John Fantini, John Worrall, Wilbur King… the Big Crackster of course, (that’s Chris Baxter up from Melbourne). I could see us circling our wheelchairs around the pie cart and being attacked by a bunch of extremely muscular naked young men, all covered from head to foot in chalk dust and throwing rocks at us while taunting us with numbers from outer space: Thirty! Thirty-one! Thirty-two! Wheeling ourselves around the parking lot, taking our medications, and waiting for the cavalry to arrive in the form of an avalanche of tattered sandshoes.
So to find it all so civilized and attended by over two thousand people is quite a shock, and to find so many accomplished climbers presenting such a wide range of topics makes it especially gratifying that you should be here to listen to my segment. If anyone had told me thirty years ago that I would be addressing some of the most accomplished climbers in the world right here in the Mount Victoria cinema, I would, I have thought they had a kangaroo loose in the top paddock: Greg Mortimer, talking about his ascent of the North Ridge of K2. Jon Muir, who climbed Everest without oxygen; Greg Child, with a slide show of his recent route up the Nameless Tower in the Karakorum. Kim Carrigan, Mark Baker, and Malcolm Matheson – three truly exceptional rock climbers. And if anyone had told me that climbing would become as popular as it is today, I would have thought they were definitely a brick short of a load. To witness how far Australian climbing has developed is quite amazing, and to be remembered for my contribution is very touching.
I still find everything about the entire subject of climbing as exciting as ever, and as soon as I felt nervous about presenting this address I welcomed it as a sign of that excitement. Climbing, to me, was always a door through which I could enter a place of serious controlled excitement – a sweaty and dirty Holy Communion. If one does it well enough for long enough it becomes an existential state of grace. The Ironmongery, which I allude to, was in some ways the key, and the Dreamtime was the emotional landscape it helped to open.
As I told Lucas, I am incapable of any blow-by-blow accounts. If, at times, I appear to be completely missing the point of my own address, believe me I’m not. Imagine we’re on some cliff we’ve never seen, doddering around in all directions. We will find the connecting bits, and they will all relate, even though the line may wander at times, obeying the natural laws of rock land. It will go somewhere. We may not reach the top but we’ll have some fun along the way and see more than just the few square inches of rock immediately in front of us…the rock we grip and are simultaneously gripped by. To climb well is to turn your back on the world and yet simultaneously embrace it.
For my first detour I would like to propose two points: The first is that by the act of climbing we externalize something within ourselves and make it tangible within a ritualistic framework which is then comprehensible, repeatable, and sharable, at least to some degree, and if only by other climbers. We could think of this first point as being part of that which we bring to the cliff. The second point is that if we then try to alchemise that experience into words we are almost asking for trouble – and then there is no end to it – the questions, the words or the trouble. We could think of this second point as being part of that which we take from the cliff.
Now as far as attempting to capture the spirit of the ‘Sixties and early ‘Seventies these two points probably succeed as examples of the type of endless rantings to which I subjected one and all at that time. It was easier then of course; like the fine from the Bob Dylan song, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” To continue the detour even further with a line from one of my own songs “Each time I open my poor mouth, I cheapen my poor heart.” To give the blow-by-blow account I referred to would cheapen whatever it was and in doing so cheapen my own heart. And it would be boring, probably to you in the listening and to my own tongue in the telling. Besides, a lot of that stuff is in the guidebooks, and it’s all on the cliffs themselves for that matter; a few peg scars, a few rusty bolts. To capture the spirit and the ethos of the times with their attendant freedoms and restrictions, and the characters that were a part of them – that’s what interests me here. But to capture that is like trying to take a photograph of a dream…
Most climbers know that to try to express the whole racket in words is to risk sounding like an absurd Monty Python sketch, so rather than risk the embarrassment, they go for the cliches and avoid the center that can only be hinted at. Myself, I prefer to aim for the core, however cryptic and however futile. To this end, Lionel Terray’s ‘Conquistadors of the Useless’ will probably remain the best title that’s been given, (or ever will be given), to any book about climbing. Even Leonard Cohen – who may someday be canonized by the Manhattan Chapter of the Vatican as the Patron Saint of Vertical Foolishness – even Leonard would have trouble topping a title as good as that.
Another thing I remain fascinated by is the manner in which climbing allows for tremendous individualism while simultaneously engendering an extraordinary level of collective tribal consciousness. Living, as we do, in a fragmented and secular society, the act of creating this odd yet unifying Dreamtime of our own, however foolish and however minor, may be one of the most priceless aspects of climbing; an aspect that, (so far at least), has not been bought and sold, packaged and promoted through the mass media then trivialized and sold back to us as this month’s fashion accessory.
This “Collective Social Dreamtime” which I’m speaking of is epitomized by climbers grouping together in tribal fashion. From Camp 4 in Yosemite to ‘The Heights’ in Llanberis to the Pines at Arapiles, the rituals and the totems of belonging remain the same. The guidebooks, climbing magazines and a gigantic body of climbing literature have become the archive of its existence. However, the personal Dreamtime is to be found in a more savage suburb of the heart, that is, on the climb itself. To paraphrase what might be the most infamous remark made by the self-serving Malcolm ‘Mad Mal’ Fraser during his tenure as Prime Minister: going walkabout isn’t meant to be easy…
To create one’s own Dreamtime is of course a contradiction in terms: the traditional Dreamtime carries with it the implication of inheritance. Nevertheless, the allusion is not entirely without basis, however personal. I still draw spiritual sustenance from pivotal moments that I experienced on various climbs; and if this sounds like a lot of mystical nonsense, be thankful you didn’t have to listen to me in full spate a quarter of a century ago.
The main reason for making this allusion is because of what I see as the connective power of climbing – the manner in which it can create a bond that connects the climber and the landscape. This connection to and with the earth is of course central to the Dreamtime, but I am not using this analogy of the Dreamtime simply because I am in Australia. Nor am I using it as small change in the cheap contemporary currency of those who wish to appear environmentally holy. And I certainly hope it won’t be construed as one more simplistic championing of the old noble savage routine – an alienated and condescending construct if ever there was one.
I’m using it because it’s the best example I can find to illustrate one of the aspects of climbing that I’m most interested – that is the act of climbing as a spiritual activity and viewing the cliffs as repositories of spiritual experience and tribal knowledge. That is to say cliffs as ‘sacred sites’.
I’m using this indigenous cultural ‘model of belief’ in contrast to, say, the traditional European cultural model of belief, because in the case of the latter we’re faced with a legacy of man-made structures – from the simplest stone circles to the largest and most elaborate cathedrals. These ‘monuments of belief’ often dominate the landscape they are built on. They become not so much a ‘part of the landscape’ as the focus of the landscape and all that surrounds them. The intention of their design is not to ‘blend in’ or ‘be a part of’, it is to ‘stand out’ and ‘be apart from’. Other than those sites the land was viewed in only utilitarian terms – for how it might best be changed in some way or another and then ‘put to good use’in producing crops, housing, rent etc…
Of course the two models are not all opposition and contrast; the most obvious Aboriginal comparisons of actual man-made cultural legacies that are tangible legacies that are actually imprinted on the landscape are the rock paintings. In the caves of Arnhem Land for example this painting has been going on for over 30,000 years; some of the images are older than the famous images on the walls of the Lascaux Caves in France. Naturally these aboriginal cave paintings and other sites that are repositories of traditional art are indeed often considered sacred, but – and this is the big difference – so is much of the land itself – sites where no human ‘alterations, improvements or additions’ of any sort have been made to the landscape – in the form of paintings, buildings or anything else. These ‘countless other sites’ are repositories of something less tangible than traditional rock paintings or artifacts of any sort – they are the sites where the stories of the Dreamtime are believed to have occurred and where they might be re-told or conjured up. In all these ‘countless other sites’ the sacred is the invisible that goes along with and is inseparable from the site itself. The sacredness of these sites is passed on as part of an oral tradition, but, other than that, there is no sign to the uninitiated that the sites are in any way special.
To get back to the main point I’m trying to make: What may appear to be a totally nondescript hillside could well be a sacred site. A place need not be as dramatic as The Three Sisters or Uluru to qualify as a sacred site. The things that are needed to ‘create’ a sacred site are ritual, belief and tradition. Therefore this creation can occur in the imagination, as opposed to it being the result of anything being built. Nothing needs to be constructed or changed in any permanent way to make a site sacred: Nothing needs to be done to it; it is already sacred just as it is. In fact, to build anything on it or to change it in any permanent way could be to destroy it as a sacred site.
Some of you might remember when Christo came to Sydney in the late ‘Sixties. He employed a small army of climbers to place bolts and rigging to wrap the cliffs of Little Bay in plastic. I was out of work at the time and could have used the money, but I couldn’t get into it somehow. Of course the cliffs were unwrapped again a few months later and it would have been fun in many ways. I can’t even remember exactly what my objections were, but it was connected with what I’m talking about today – different but connected somehow. Some of the old bolts that were placed to hold the plastic wrapping in place are probably in the cliff still; they were certainly still there a few years back; I know because the last time I went surfing at Maroubra I went specially to look!
It’s all very funny in retrospect; The State Government spending public money on wrapping Little Bay created a huge fuss at the time, just like when the Art Gallery of New South Wales announced it was buying a Jackson Pollock – Blue Poles – for half a million bucks! There had been a similar outcry when the cost of the Sydney Opera House had gone over the eight million dollars that had been ear marked for it! Eight million for the Opera House; can you imagine! It costs that much for a house in Erskineville these days! Anyway…where was I?
Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Songlines’ is a wonderful book that explores some aspects of the great importance that storytelling and songs played within traditional Aboriginal culture. It’s a bit fanciful in places but nevertheless, one line in particular struck me: “The songs become a blueprint for finding a way in the universe.” Now I’m not for a second trying to imply that climbs have this same power, but the connection is there. I remember thinking as I finished that particular chapter, ‘Yes, that’s what the climbs were… steep dreams and vertical songs’.
One of the interesting aspects of turning a piece of rock into a sacred site by the act of climbing it and recording the details of it, is that we then superimpose special values on it, even if these values are comprehensible only to other climbers. Another is the proprietary interest which the climbers involved often feel. This is why they are constantly fighting about each other’s behavior: “You used two bolts, while I used only one!” “But you scratched it – you scratched my sacred place.” “Oh, I put chalk on it – but I didn’t leave a piton!” “Piton! You chipped a foothold big enough to sleep on!” Climbers are obsessed with an experience they wish to share, but which they do not wish to be altered or lessened.
I think it is becoming increasingly important for climbers to see cliffs and mountains within the context of a broader landscape, and to realize that these outcrops, these ‘bones of the planet’ are already sacred, just as they are, to many people other than climbers. The rising popularity of so-called ‘wilderness experience’ holidays points towards the desire to fill a need which is far more fundamental than merely wanting to see new places – thus the increasing conflicts of interest worldwide, especially in the national parks.
A large number of white Australians, since the moment of the very first settlement, have generally suffered from a chronic and well-documented sense of alienation from the landscape in which they found themselves. A similar sense of dislocation is expressed in the European homelands of these settlers, and in many cultures throughout the world – a sense of alienation from the land upon which we live, a lack of spiritual nutrition. The same applies – perhaps even more famously – in the United States. I believe it was Sitting Bull who scorned the term ‘The Wild West’ by succinctly pointing out that the locals had never felt there was anything ‘wild’ about the place at all until the arrival of the Europeans – whose insistence that the land needed ‘taming’ made it ‘wild’ simply by default.
As new climbs are created using an increasing amount of bolts, their very existence comes to resemble and embody the traditional European model of changing the landscape, taming the landscape and leaving the landscape looking different. Within the intense and microscopic world of an often slow journey up a cliff, a bolt becomes as huge and obvious as, say, a skyscraper in an otherwise empty desert. Generally speaking, it would be true to say that the ethos of climbers used to be to leave as few bolts and marks of passage as possible. This ethos almost seems, for some, to have reversed to a position of leaving as many marks of passage as possible. It is almost as if we have lost the ability to believe in the value and the validity of our own experience and our memory of it until we have tagged it in some tangible fashion, – traditionally this has been done by giving the climb a name and a grade and a description in a guidebook.
Increasingly the cliff itself displays the proof of the passage as well – the line of pegs or peg scars, bolt hangers and quick draws and the trail of chalk. Each in its own way becomes evidence that ‘the climb’ does indeed exist as an actual and separate entity outside of our own memory and experience of it. However, it also begs the question: At what point does this need to permanently alter the landscape to ‘create’ a climb start to detract from the way the landscape looked without the climb?
In my opinion, for Australian climbers to blindly follow the modern French and Spanish model of wholesale bolt mania, especially retro bolting, would be a disaster. This is especially so in light of the vastly different size of these countries and their population density and other variables. If every cliff in the world is blindly transformed into something which resembles an indoor climbing gym, climbers will be immeasurably poorer for it.
I visited some such cliffs in France last summer and my reaction was mainly one of sorrow. Some of the actual climbs were certainly incredibly impressive, but the overall effect left me wondering. There is the famous anecdote of the young man in California around the turn of the century who asked for advice as to where to invest his money. He was told “buy land.” “Why?” he asked. “Because they ain’t making any more of it,” was the reply. The same applies to cliffs. They ain’t making any more. Once the cliffs have been bolted to death, i.e., once they are no longer wild places in any sense of the word, we rob ourselves of the opportunity of entering a landscape where we can dream.
Even though I’ve been a naturalized Australian citizen since I was a teenager, and feel more at home in Oz than I do in England, in a sense I will always be an ex-patriot Brit, and therefore I feel I have a perfect right to make fun of my country of birth. However, visiting some of their cliffs, one has to face the fact that they do sometimes get it right in certain respects. For the cliffs in England to have stayed looking so good after so much use says a great deal about the approach which the English have applied to developing their cliffs from one generation to the next.
Here at home in the Blueies, who would put a bolt in Clockwork Orange? In the center who would go and pour concrete over Uluru? When the cliffs we cherish have been loved to death, climbers will not be able to lay the blame at the feet of some anonymous national or local government agency, nor will we be able to point accusing fingers at some convenient scapegoat in the form of a big, bad multinational. In many cases much of the blame will, in all fairness, lay fair and square with the climbers themselves. Modern technology, along with the dramatic increase of the number of climbers, seems to have set modern climbing on a head to head collision course with preservationists and land conservationists, as well as simple nature lovers.
There is a famous story about the sculptor who was asked how he carved the perfect elephant out of a piece of white marble. “It’s easy,” he replied, “You just chip away everything that’s not the elephant.” There is a connection between this story and the act of climbing. Perhaps more especially the act of putting up new routes. As the number of climbs and the number of climbers increases, it is getting harder and harder for young climbers to find that chunk of rock out of which to make their own elephant. The tools we had in the sixties may look as though they were from the Iron Age, but we sure had plenty of raw materials to work with. There were so many cliffs and so few climbers and climbing was such a low profile activity that it was easy for the impact of what we were doing to evade public scrutiny.
Obviously everything has changed; climbing has become a mainstream activity and the most accessible and high profile branch of it is sport climbing. It is up to climbers themselves to try to develop it in such a way that it does not ruin trad climbing areas or create such a backlash among the non-climbing public and land management bodies that climbing is banned altogether.
It’s a lost cause for the old guard to try to lay down the laws of the land, and I hope I won’t fall prey to being guilty of that charge. The best that can be done is to gracefully suggest options. In terms of climbing it is only the young who have the tendons and the tenacity (not to mention the power drills, the tight buttocks and the spandex). Each succeeding generation naturally feels the desire to outstrip the achievements of the past – which they must, for muscles and ambition are there to be used, not merely flexed. At the same time each succeeding generation has less and less raw material to work with so the imperative to exercise restraint and show a sense of reverence for the cliffs themselves increases as the amount of unclimbed rock decreases. It’s a tough place for climbing to be right now; luckily not nearly as bad here as in some countries where many of the popular cliffs are completely climbed out except for the possibility of adding an absurd eliminate to an already worthless eliminate or a direct variation start to an indirect variation finish. Somehow there needs to be room for both styles of climb to co-exist. It seems to me there’s more space for that to happen here in Australia than in a lot of other countries.
The famous ‘Last Great Problem,’ which climbers have been forever trying to solve, may in the end, turn out to be nothing more than the ability to leave the unclimbable alone. I respectfully suggest that only the greatest climbers of the future will be able to develop the nerve and the confidence to exercise this ability. This is neither Zen nor New Age Wimpspeak. It is the hieroglyphics of the human heart feeling the ancient need to connect with the timeless beauty of the earth itself without damaging it.
So now, having deluded myself into believing that I can talk about climbing in a reasonably calm manner, I find myself staggering through the same minefield as twenty years ago. At that time I became so embroiled in the issues such as bolting that I felt I had to stop climbing altogether. Having myself placed hundreds of bolts and having also removed hundreds, the dance routine became confusing and enervating, to say the least. Of course, I was too young and too silly to see the difference between the beauty of an activity and the politics which may surround that activity. I now realize this dichotomy exists everywhere, in everything – music, songwriting… the gulf between music and the music business, for example. The most important thing I can say to young climbers today is that I personally lost the guideline between having an adventure and simply beating one more cliff into submission. And when that happens, everything becomes pointless.
For those who want climbing to be just another sport and nothing more – vertical billiards or overhanging golf – I find myself turning back into the abrasive teenager and saying ‘Whoopy Doo!’ For those who want it to be something more, I say ‘Good luck!’ When Bernard Shaw was accused of being too subjective in his criticisms, he replied, “I always try to be as subjective as possible.” It is in this same spirit that I make no claims at all to any objective viewpoints. I was too close to it then, and although it may sound absurd, I still feel too close to it, even now. The intervening years have done very little to change the way in which I view the whole shenanigan of buggerising about on steep bits of the planet. I still obsess about it every day, no matter where else I am and no matter what else I’m doing. After countless gigs as a musician, I still find myself feeling more at ease on a cliff than on a stage. Quite independent of the level at which one is climbing, I believe that the act has the potential of being a transcendental activity, comparable to so-called high art and the traditional spiritual disciplines: instability, foolishness, sheer hard yakka, and occasionally risking everything for moments of grace and lucid, visionary awareness.
Most climbers would agree that the bonding process that takes place in the area of one’s earliest climbs remains throughout one’s life, no matter that one may go on to do more difficult and longer climbs elsewhere in the world. For example, I’m thinking of Kim Carrigan coming home to Australia and opening a climbing store right here in the Blue Mountains. I don’t believe that what brought Kim back to this area was simply being Australian. I think of Wolfgang Gullich, who remained obsessively devoted to his own teenage area, the Frankenjura. Or the English climber Joe Brown, opening his store in North Wales, the scene of many of his greatest early climbs. I don’t think we’re just talking mere pragmatism here – marketing opportunities – I hope these examples are more than just romantic projections on my part. I like to think there are many other examples right here in this room right now…
Speaking for myself, I remain especially spiritually connected to two areas: the gritstone outcrops of Yorkshire, still just as big and as wild in my mind as they seemed to me as a thirteen-year-old; the other is the sandstone cliffs right here in the Blue Mountains. Whenever I return to Australia to play music, I always make time to visit. I end up skulking around my old haunts and some of the new areas and various cliffs I wanted to climb but never got around to – checking things out, looking to see what sort of shape the cliffs are in; soloing the odd easy favorite, or trying to explain to my non-climbing companions the content within the silence of the stone; Comical little jaunts really, the currawongs always sound the same; God knows what I expect to find, but the good part is that I always find it; the tricky part is that having found it, I still don’t know what it is.
It’s like the Zen koan quoted by RD Laing in his essay ‘The Bird of Paradise’: “the truth I am trying to grasp is the grasp that is trying to grasp it.” (This essay is included in ‘The Politics of Experience’ – a collection of essays which emphasize the validity of personal experience and is particularly relevant to activities such as mountaineering and rock-climbing). In it this radical Scottish psychiatrist (who is known as an ‘anti-psychiatrist’) manages to get closer to some of the central issues of the climbing experience, – at least in the printed word and even if in a somewhat obtuse manner – than most climbing writers. Greg Child, in an account of a difficult climb, touches on the same theme when he makes the observation that “Blood may be thick, but experience may be thicker…”
So I want to try to present an overview of the scene as it was, where it came from, where it traveled, even to some extent why it traveled in the manner it did, to where it now stands.
When my family immigrated to Australia I’d just turned fifteen, and to say I was pissed-off is an understatement of Himalayan proportions. Immigrants were called ‘Ten-Pound Pirates;’ that was the amount it cost to migrate. The Australian government paid the rest, God bless ‘em. There wasn’t enough room in the baggage allowance for me to bring my rope, piton hammer, three pitons, three slings and three karabiners. (Three must have been some sort of magic number for me.) For me, the decision to migrate seemed like a catastrophic blunder; I believed that the center of the universe was the gritstone outcrops of Yorkshire; I had a trip planned to the Isle of Skye and a hit list of Lake District classics to get through.
All I knew about Australia was from the immigration pamphlets – it was supposed to be always hot and sunny with lots of beautiful beaches. The people who wrote the pamphlets knew enough about the appetites of the prospective migrants to emphasize the abundance of that which they would be willing to cross the world for – jobs and sunshine. The pamphlets certainly didn’t show any cliffs. All I heard about was a flat land full of deserts and snakes and sheep and kangaroos and duck-billed platypus. I liked the duck-billed platypus part.
We moved to Wollongong and I started at Mt. Kiera High School. Started is the right word – I only went once. Up above the town is Mt. Kiera, with cliffs on two sides, and that was the high school that I was interested in, the one up there, not the namesake that I was enrolled in. So every morning I’d set off for school and walk around the corner to an overgrown block. I’d disappear into the lantana bushes and change into a pair of sandshoes and shorts, stash the uniform and the books, and then set off running to the top of Mt. Kiera. It was like Clark Kent and the telephone box minus Lois Lane, and I was just smart enough to never wear my underpants on the outside. I’d spend the day doing boulder problems and scaring myself silly, then run back down, change into the school uniform, wander home, have a cup of tea and invent another day at the office. I had a good imagination! This went on for three weeks before the letter from the school principal arrived… but that’s another story altogether.
One weekend I came across a group of scouts who were abseiling down some small cliffs. They had manila ropes and slings and steel karabiners from Austria, and everything. They told me they’d gotten the stuff from a shop in Sydney called Paddy Pallin. I got very hot and excited and hitchhiked to Sydney the next weekend. Paddy’s was located at 201 Castlereagh Street, on the second floor, and you can forget King Tut’s Tomb. There were piton hammers, hemp waistlines, karabiners and pitons from Austria – it seemed as if everything was made in Austria in those days. Paddy’s catalogue was a four-page black and white fold out sheet, with really good little diagrams. It was a beauty. I used to look at it for hours. To own a Paddy Pallin H-Frame Rucksack was to own the world. To have one of his sleeping bags as well was to be a master of the universe.
Many years later I worked for Paddy, selling climbing gear. He was a real gentleman and a pleasure to be around, with a great enthusiasm for just being in the bush and everything about it. It was an enthusiasm which he sustained throughout his life. We had a deal where I’d never work Saturdays and could take time off for special trips. Mondays I’d always turn up exhausted and spend the day pushing the levers on the cafe bar machine in the lunchroom. On Fridays I’d turn up with my bag already packed and loiter around the counter all day – sort of orbiting on the spot. The other three days I used to hide in the back room and do chin-ups. I was a lousy investment, but he was pretty easygoing. He went off on the bush walk to end all bush walks a few years ago, and he isn’t coming back this way. In fact he’s probably there by now, selling groundsheets to the angels.
However the most important thing that came out of that day when I hitch-hiked up from Wollongong was that Paddy put me in touch with the Sydney Rock Climbing Club – the SRC. They had a reputation for drinking, womanizing and always having the biggest campfire. Pretty heady stuff for a fifteen-year old! At that point most rock climbers also did a lot of bush walking and vice versa, so there was a lot of mixing between the clubs. The ‘Sydney Rockies,’ as they were known, had a bit of a reputation amongst the Sydney bush walkers, who were known as ‘the Bushies.’ Both groups centered their activities in the Blue Mountains. These were in turn referred to as ‘The Blueies.’ These Australianisms had me smiling all the way back to Wollongong ‘The ‘Gong;’ I was imagining hundreds of Rockies carrying their ropies and booties and slingies in their ruckies as they went off to climb the cliffies in the Blueies.
The club secretary wrote back and put me in touch with one of the members, a very eccentric young man only a few years older than myself. His name was Peter Draffin. He was a resident student at the very expensive Cranbrook School in Sydney; his parents were some sort of colonial overlords on a plantation in New Guinea. He’d write and tell me about upcoming trips. I made myself a thing called a Yukon Frame, from a design in a scout manual. It was made from wood and stretched canvas, onto which you could strap a kit bag or whatever; it looked like the H-Frame of the village idiot. I got a Caltex road map, scaled at something like twenty-five miles to the inch, and set off hitchhiking to the Blue Mountains one Saturday morning to try to meet up with the weekend trip to Mt. King George, which was actually represented on the Caltex with a tiny black triangular symbol. I thought I’d simply find everybody camped in a field at the end of the road that was shown leading to it. I had no reason whatever for thinking any of this except sheer optimism.
When I finally arrived at sunset I found everything was upside down from what I’d imagined it would be. The little dirt road had led me to the top rather than to the bottom, and there was no climber’s pub and no campground, and no field, and no farmer to ask directions from. After I’d walked the final three miles without seeing a soul, it occurred to me that this wasn’t the Lake District. I looked down into the Grose Valley at more cliffs than I’d ever imagined and lit a campfire. It was a mild night but I still lit a very big campfire. I didn’t have a sleeping bag so I put on my extra clothes and went to sleep. I kept waking up and throwing more logs on the fire and wondering where all the climbers were. I found out several weeks later that they’d been camped down in the Blue Gum Forest, two thousand feet below; all six of them.
The next trip I was able to get away on was held at Narrow Neck. The SRC would hold these special instructional weekends every now and then, mainly to teach the basics to bush walkers who wanted to go canyoning or to start climbing. I arrived to find maybe sixty people camping on every bit of level ground in and around the old Psyncave. There was a lot of drinking, a very large campfire and a bit of womanizing going on, so I knew it was the right place.
Now when Peter had written that we would be sleeping in a cave, I imagined something from a German fairy tale, as in deep, dry, cavernous with a flat floor covered in leaves, an entrance hole – snug, you get my drift… I didn’t realize that in Australia the expression ‘cave’ can mean just an overhang of rock. So the fact that it was now winter and I still didn’t have a sleeping bag didn’t concern me at all until about eleven o’clock, when everybody started crawling off into their Paddy Pallin Hothams and Fairydown Everests. It was one of those nights that seem a universe away from the same spot in midsummer. The wind felt as if it had just left the South Pole and was in a hurry to get to the tropics before it gave itself frostbite. In fact, it was probably about zero and the wind was creating what the American newsreaders love to drawl on about as ‘a wind-chill factor of so-and-so degrees below the mercury reading.’
It’s a funny thing how to be poor is a source of such excruciating embarrassment when one is young. To admit that I didn’t have a sleeping bag became unthinkable. My Yorkshire accent was so thick as to be almost unintelligible. Then there was the Yukon Frame, which had created a minor sensation, and on top of it all was my total lack of anything that resembled climbing equipment. To now admit that I didn’t even have a sleeping bag would have been the final straw. ‘Bugger me dead’ I thought to myself ‘They’ll never let me come climbing with them again!’ I decided to finish the half-empty flagons and keep the fire going all night – a demented case of death before dishonor. Luckily a climber named Bob Ryan put two and two together and did a diplomatic whip around, collecting a huge pile of spare clothes, which he handed to me. “Here’’ he said. “Put this lot on!” I went to bed looking like the Michelin man and I still hardly slept a wink, but I never forgot the way Bob looked after me that night.
The next day was very cold and crystal clear. The wind was still blowing and a whole crocodile of us did a climb called Giuco Piton. When we got to the top we walked to a good lookout spot. In one direction we could see Dogface, the Three Sisters, and Mt. Solitary and way off in the distance the cliffs of Kings Tableland. In the other direction was Boar’s Head. Somebody was ranting about some great old volcanoes somewhere called the Warrumbungle Mountains. Just the name alone was enough to get me going! The Warrumbungles! I think that might have been the exact moment when I decided that Australia wasn’t such a bad place after all, it seemed like the whole joint was full of cliffs! Admittedly, a lot of the ones I was looking at were the wrong color… red, orange, yellow – coming from Yorkshire I imagined all cliffs should probably be black or white or shades of gray. It was all a bit much really. How come the people who wrote the pamphlets hadn’t mentioned this lot?
To paint a picture of the times gives me the excuse I need to speak of the people who were around that weekend. Because it was my first introduction to climbing in Australia, those forty-eight hours remain etched in my memory. Many of them may be names of people you’ve never heard of, but they meant the world to me. If I sound sentimental, it’s because I am; having grown up with no real family in any normal understanding of the word, and now finding myself adrift in a strange land, some of these people became the first family I ever had in many respects. It may be true that I put my neck out quite a long way on several occasions but it’s equally true that climbing almost undoubtedly saved my life…I hope none of you were expecting the old froth and bubble; a few heroics and the usual cliché or two and then throw-in-the-odd-amusing-anecdote-and-leave-it-at-that approach.
I met Colin Putt that weekend, a sort of jack-of-all-trades outdoor adventurer. I think the only other occasion I met him was a year or so later, on a small boat called the Patanella moored down at Rushcutter’s Bay. He was preparing to sail to Heard Island in the Antarctic to climb Big Ben, in the company of Warick Deacock and others. Colin told some funny stories about trying to climb Carstenz Pyramid in New Guinea. I especially remember a conversation he was having with a rather pretentious young guy about skiing. The guy was being very boring and technical, obsessing about bindings and poles and edges and the differing virtues of various brand names which he kept repeating like a magic incantation. Eventually he asked Colin what length skis he preferred. I loved Colin’s reply, and I still cherish it to this day. “Oh, I don’t bloody know! As long as they fit across the back seat of the Holden they seem to work pretty good!”
Kevin Westren was there that weekend. He was one of the leading lights of the SRC. He even had a pair of P.A.’s. Kevin was in his mid twenties and, for some odd reason, which I still to this day do not understand, was known as ‘Old Father Westren’. He was a gentleman climber in what you might call the English tradition, very much into doing things right and with a great sense of style, and if that sometimes meant running it out, well that’s what you did. The stuff he did then is still good now – Knight’s Move, Cave Climb, En Passant – that sort of stuff. I used to love those climbs; I’d do them over and over. In fact, I might even do a few next week! And Kevin’s two younger sisters, Lucille and Jeanette, both older than me – but that never stopped me fantasizing about sharing very small belay stances with the two of them. There was Trevor, Kevin’s younger brother; he used to smoke a pipe that was nearly as big as he was.
There was Jim Sutton. He was about 6 feet 2 inches with bright red hair and, as I found out later, he’d always travel with his H-Frame half-full of beer and chain-smoke Marlboro cigarettes. There was Fred Kitchener, who got down on his hands and knees in the pub in the Wolgan Valley one night and started barking at a dog, which then bit him on the nose. I was very fond of Fred. He always used to bring a loaf of fresh bread and keep it on a small ledge in the Psyncave, which was named in his honor- it was called ‘Fred Kitchener’s Bread Shelf’. Sandra Cosgrove was there that weekend, straight out of a Victorian gothic novel, the complete eccentric bohemian, swearing and drinking and smoking a pipe. I was awe-struck by Sandra Cosgrove! Her boyfriend, Dave Tanner, an English climber possessed of a great wit, another pipe smoker of course, he used to smoke ‘Three Nuns’. Chris Reagan, a ‘Marlboro Man’, a bit of a phenomenon, just naturally very strong, intense, and at the same time very funny and he didn’t mind taking a few risks either. He took me up a few climbs early on and he was great to climb with; you could always manage to have a bit of an adventure. If you can imagine an equal mix of Jacko and Lord Byron you won’t be too far off the mark. He’d drink in the pub ’til after dark, run to the bottom of the Three Sisters and solo the West Wall in the floodlights. I thought he was Christmas on a stick.
Just a few more; I wish there were time to talk about them all – there were some great characters around; John Davis and Ian Logan. John was one of the best climbers and went on to do the first ascent of Balls Pyramid and a lot of other really good climbs. He was probably the first of the serious climbing photographers in Australia, along with Peter Jackson in Victoria.
Ian weighed in at about fourteen stone and he used to climb with this special rope, I don’t know where he got it from but it was one and three-quarter inch circumference; everybody used to call it his ‘elephant-catching rope’. Ian was a great example of John Ohrenschall’s oft-quoted observation: “Climbing would be a truly great and wonderful thing – if it wasn’t for all that damn climbing.” A favourite book among climbers around that time was The Ascent of Rum Doodle, a satirical account of climbing a mythological underwater mountain; Ian would often just sit in the cave all day, drinking tea and smoking his pipe and reading Rum Doodle until it was time to go to the pub.
Bob Ryan was another pipe smoker; a year or two later he did the first ascent of Dogface, with Trevor Westren and Eric Saxby. They put up a bolt ladder, to the right of the crack line that is now Titan. First they tried bolting up somewhere near what is now Gigantor, but the rock was so bad they couldn’t get across the first shale band. I think the whole thing ended up taking about three weekends and they spent a night on it. A few years later I went and chopped it, but I don’t think it caused any hard feelings. A few years further down the track Bob and I had a nice day out on the Silberhorn and Mt. Tasman, and Eric and I tried some rock face on Mt. Cook, so they can’t have been too upset about it. Besides, it was nothing personal; I also chopped two of my own bolt ladders, which had taken hundreds of hours to put up, so nobody really minded too much.
Bob married the younger of the Westren sisters, Lucille, and took her away to the land of the long white cloud. I never got to share those tiny belay stances, but earlier today I had the pleasure of meeting their fifteen-year-old son, Ben Ryan, who just won the men’s intermediate sport climbing competition that was a part of this festival. He’s over from New Zealand for a few weeks of rock climbing – brought his own sleeping bag and everything; you can all keep your clothes on.
So it’s a very comical image now to look back at all these young and not so young men, and a few women, slouching about in various dusty caves beneath the unknown cliffs of Australia, all smoking their pipes. Oh yes, Shirley Wilson, she was another pipe smoker. And Peter Messenberg, – he used to smoke a Meerschaum – very classy! All puffing away like mad in perfect imitation of the photos of the far away tweed-clad loonies in the books from the other side of the world!
The thing you need to understand is that there existed a very strong link between climbing here and climbing in England, through both the climbing literature, and also through the folklore and oral tradition as brought over by a small but steady stream of immigrants. So these two very different sources of information were influencing the development and approach to climbing in the Blue Mountains. The Rhum Dhu Climbing Club in the late ‘fifties was in many ways typical of clubs that existed in England, especially in the North, during the ‘fifties. It was started as reaction to what its members perceived to be the stodginess of the SRC at the time. There was an emphasis on drinking, smoking a lot, not taking any of it too seriously, having a good time, falling off and being willing to take a few risks now and again. This is all in the spirit of working class Northerners who dominated the scene in England at that time. But this model was taken from the folklore, from the oral tradition, which the migrant climbers brought with them. Eric Saxby, Dave Tanner, Bryden Allen, Alan Gordon, even myself to a tiny degree. All of us carried this with us in the early ‘sixties, just as Doug Litchfield and some of his mates in the Rhum Dhu had in the ‘fifties.
Now you must keep in mind that this is all well before the publication of Joe Brown’s ‘The Hard Years’ or Dennis Gray’s ‘Rope Boy,’ books which give considerable coverage to aspects of climbing such as motor bikes, working in factories, getting drunk, falling off and generally pissing about. In other words, rock climbing as a lifestyle within a workaday social context. So when I speak of the other link with English climbing, that is via the climbing literature, we’re talking literature with a capital L; much of it, not to be too harsh, was a comfortable, cozy, rather proper, public-school-stiff-upper-lip adventure story. So this is the literature that crossed the hemispheres. It was usually written by people with double-barreled surnames or an entire mouthful of initials, sometimes both. Exceptions to the rule, such as the wonderful writings of Colin Kirkus and Menlove Edwards, just didn’t seem to make it across the equator.
Now, this is not to say that some of the men who wrote the books that were deemed worthy of crossing the world were not themselves great climbers. They often were. The trouble is the style in which they wrote was often reflective of a colonialist mentality that might be described as ‘Diluted Kipling’ and the content of course was often Alpine or Himalayan. The tradition of 19th Century English peak bagging in the European Alps usually carried with it this same symbolic unfurling of invisible Union Jacks – however unstated it might have sometimes been. Long holidays on the Continent were in any case the preserve of a small and privileged class. Whymper and a handful of others were the exceptions to the rule. Early and mid-twentieth century Himalayan peak bagging had similar undertones of empire building.
Not that the English were the only ones at it, far from it! Nor are these observations in any way meant to detract from the individual motives or actual accomplishments of the climbers themselves. In those days, if you wanted to climb something big, you had to be on what usually amounted to a national team. To compound things even further, the team itself, at least in England as late as the ‘fifties, tended in turn to be selected on a class basis, as much as on actual climbing ability. I mention these asides simply to point out the social and political climate in which these climbs were made. When Edward Whymper climbed the Matterhorn it became front-page news, having a similar – albeit somewhat lesser – propaganda value for the English as landing on the moon had for the Americans a century later. But the fact that Edward climbed it for Edward and not especially for England could hardly be a headline for the London Times in 1865. After all, you did that sort of thing for King and Country, not to scratch a very personal itch.
The 1953 English Everest Expedition has always fascinated me, its very success touted by the British press as a victory for England and the Queen! The empire-building mentality taken to the limit whereby this massive bump on the surface of the earth was symbolically transformed into one more jewel that could be embedded in a funny looking gold hat, to be placed on the head of a young woman in London. It’s interesting to speculate as to whether Hunt or Hillary would have been knighted if their success had not occurred in the year of the new monarch’s coronation; my own guess is that they would have been. But forgive me! Now I really do digress. Spank me with a red-hot chalk bag.
What I wanted to say was about the pipe smoking is that the pipe was the token taken from the literature. The literature with the capital L! It might mention The Lake District or North Wales and virtually everybody in these books always seemed to be smoking a pipe. And sometimes they even had photos of a brave nutter leading some desperate looking route with a pipe clenched in his teeth! And tweed jackets! But I don’t think the tweed jackets ever made it over. I’m trying to remember if I ever saw a tweed jacket disappearing up a cliff in the Blueies … The woolly hats made it and I dutifully wore mine through an entire summer – I thought it was illegal to climb without it; thirty-five degrees Celsius? Want to do a climb? Right, let’s make ourselves really miserable and put on the woolly hats! I even went so far as to buy a pair of leather shorts! The particular photo that prompted that purchase had probably been taken in Austria, home of the mighty Stubai factory! Such foolish innocence.
A similar thing happened after the visit of a brilliant American climber in the ‘seventies. His name was Henry Barber and he climbed wearing baggy white painter’s pants and a white flat cap. For months after he departed, the cliffs were covered in young men wearing white pants and hats! And I guess there’s a contemporary version occurring right now that I’m unaware of, a particular brand of tights perhaps, or a certain style of climbing boot? So that Sunday night, as I hitched back to Wollongong I had a new dilemma: Should I be saving money to buy a sleeping bag or a pipe?
A month or two after that first weekend, I ran away from home and moved to King’s Cross. Dave Tanner and Eric Saxby lived on the same street and looked after me until I found a job and rented a room of my own. We’d go away every weekend. Hardly anybody had a car so we’d all go on the train or hitch. Some weekends there might be forty climbers, other weekends only three or four. If you wanted to climb regularly you didn’t have too much to choose from in the way of partners, you took whoever you could find. This would often lead to hilariously mismatched rope-mates. The situation reminds me of a joke I heard in New York a few weeks back: The city slicker who tires of the bright lights and leaves to live in the backwoods of Montana. He’s been there in his little shack for two months without seeing a living soul. One morning there’s a knock on the door; he opens it to find this grizzled toothless old-timer standing there. “Howdy stranger!” says the old guy. “I’ve got a shack over the other side of the mountain, and I’d like to invite you to a party at my place. There’ll be dancing and drinking and fighting and some wild crazy sex!” The city slicker jumps at the chance. “I’d love to come” he says, “How should I dress?” The old-timer stares at him in amazement. “Dress?” he repeats. “It don’t matter a damn how you ‘dress’! There’s only gonna be you and me!”
So that’s a rough outline of how things were here in New South Wales in 1963. Dave Rootes and Russ Kippax – who had been the main men in the area and had founded the SRC in the early fifties, were gone. To climb in the Warrumbungles might involve two full days hitching each way. Bungonia Gorge had only about four recorded climbs. The coastal cliffs were totally unclimbed. The Blue Mountains had hardly even been scratched and the townships here were mostly in a state of disrepair, far removed from the trendy havens which they are today. Katoomba was filled with empty hotels and guesthouses converted into retirement homes and private hospitals. It was where you got rid of the wrinklies! The main street was a cross between an old folk’s retirement village and an open-air lunatic asylum.
The climbing scene, nationwide, to the extent that it existed at all, was regionalised. We were vaguely aware that some climbers operated out of Melbourne and climbed in the Grampians. We knew climbers were active in Tasmania. There were even some rumors about Brisbane and the Glasshouse Mountains. But each area was really quite ignorant of the other’s existence. So it was like a tiny secret society of no-hopers, (a great Aussie expression that one!) – surrounded by surfboards and footballs and tennis racquets and water skis.
And of course Australia itself was a very different place back then. It’s quite amazing really, only thirty years, but the difference is staggering. There were no jumbo jets and the age of cheap airfares was still in the future. The cost of a round-trip airfare to London was the same as to buy a rundown terrace house in the centre of Sydney. To go to Europe was a once-in-a-lifetime luxury, except for the very rich. Most people still made the trip by boat, a six-week voyage. Now I’m not comparing the situation to, say, the opening chapters of Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, – but the fact is there was still a very real feeling of isolation from the rest of the world’ the “rest of the world” meaning Europe and North America of course. To still be referring to the countries to the Near North as being in the Far East is the continuing measure of a rational need and at the same time it is a perfect metaphor of our national mental displacement! Greenwich Mean Time creates a peculiar state of mind when transposed to the Antipodes…
On my first few weekends away with the SRC I kept hearing about Bryden Allen. It was ‘Bryden Allen this’ and ‘Bryden Allen that’. I thought to myself, “Ah ha! These two guys must be the Joe Brown and Don Whillans of Australia”. I asked if they always climbed together. They said, “Who?” I said “Bride and Alan…”
Bryden had just about run out of partners by that stage. He was in fact climbing with a partner by the name of Ted Batty, who as everyone loved to point out, lived up to his name by tying onto the same rope as this famous Mr. Allen. Around this time Bryden published “The Rock Climbs of New South Wales” probably the first real rock climbing guidebook ever produced in Australia. I hurtled down to Paddy’s and bought a copy and read it two or three (hundred) times. That was it. Then I started: ‘Bryden Allen this’ and ‘Bryden Allen that!’ But wherever the club went, Bryden always seemed to be someplace else. It was like the Scarlet Pimpernel and no less a feat on Bryden’s part, for the fact is, he was the club president! Now I had to meet this guy, you understood…
The stories were rampant: Death marches to unknown cliffs, getting lost and benighted (good fun!), running out of water (sounded serious!), tight ropes galore, lousy belays and long runouts with poor protection. At least half the people who’d climbed with him said they never wanted to climb with him again. Add to this the fact that he wanted to climb all the time and you see why he was running out of partners. It was a problem I ran into myself a few years later. From the stories I’ve heard it’s a problem that John Fantini also became very familiar with.
I should add, by the way, that behind all these embroidered horror stories there were in fact quite a few grains of truth. I did the second ascent of a lot of Bryden’s climbs, using more or less the same gear, and they definitely had the funny quality that makes you want to close your eyes and pretend you’re not really where you are and doing what you’re doing – if you know what I mean.
Bryden grew up in the hills outside Canberra and went to England as a kid. He returned to Australia, having become an expert rock climber, to find himself transported from the extensively developed cliffs of England to a veritable treasure-trove of untouched rock. He was like a shark in a feeding frenzy. My favourite fantasy Australian climbing team in fact would have to Bryden and John Fantini when they were both in their prime and firing on all four. Their combined momentum would have taken them clean off the planet.
Now it was obvious that if I was to ever get any good at this pulling-yourself-up business, I needed a regular mate and mentor. This guy Bryden was the answer to my prayers, but the bugger was never around! I gave up all hope of a casual meeting on some windy cliff top and decided to simply phone him up and offer my services. I dialed away. The voice on the other end said, “Hello. Bryden Allen”. I couldn’t get a single word out of my mouth. I panicked, hung up the telephone, and felt depressed for days afterward. It was an early lesson in what results when bravery and cowardice occur within the very same instant.
A few weeks later I finally met Bryden at Lindfield practice rocks. It was a very hot summer’s day and he was alone and bouldering in just a pair of shorts. We were the only people there but straightaway I knew who he was. His arms were about the same thickness as my legs, and his legs – well his legs in those days made mine look like a pair of walking sticks. I watched him do a few hard problems and I thought ‘Jesus Christ, this guy must have muscles in his shit.’ I used to look like a whippet that needed a good night’s sleep and a dozen T-bone steaks. His consuming project at the time was to climb Echo Point, near Katoomba. He’d already used up five partners on it and was desperate for a sixth. I’d never even seen it, so when he asked if I was game I just tried to look very cool and said, “Sure!”
We became something like the odd couple. He was twenty-three and I was fifteen – a very – how shall I say it – abrasive? Competitive? Combative whippersnapper. And Bryden was very tolerant of my comic posturing; at the same time he wasn’t willing to just take all my crap without getting up to a few tricks of his own to put me in my place. When we got to Katoomba he made up a game where I wasn’t allowed to look at our proposed route until we got down the track as far as the bridge at Honeymoon Point on the Three Sisters. When we arrived there he had a really smug expression on his face and said okay, I could turn around and have a look. I turned and looked and nearly started crying! I thought this guy’s even more of a nutter than they said he was. Then I started to think he was pulling my leg, so I started smiling right back at him. A few minutes later I realized he wasn’t joking or pulling my leg at all. To admit that I’d suddenly lost all interest would be to miss my great opportunity to show him how fearless I was. On the other hand, to go ahead with it would almost certainly turn me into a gibbering wreck. The cliff gave me a stomach cramp, just looking at it, but I couldn’t back down, so I decided to take the gibbering wreck option and managed to exercise enough self-control to say something like “Mmmm. Looks good!”
In the end we spent five days on it, over three attempts, with two nights on the shale ledge and one night hanging in Boson’s chairs. The method we used to get up is so hilarious in retrospect that it probably bears recounting. On the constantly overhanging top half Bryden would simply drill until his arms and hands were too tired to hold a hammer. Then he’d set up a hanging belay, tie everything off and haul up the H-frames and a length of flexible electron ladder – the stuff cavers used. To conserve karabiners he would only clip, say, every fourth bolt. My bit consisted of grabbing onto the ladder, unclipping and flying off into space. I’d climb up, he’d haul me back onto the rock, and I’d unclip again and swing back into space, and so on until we were both together again. We’d then get everything hopelessly tangled, and confused, and then finally repeat the whole process. My knuckles were white for weeks and I was talking to Jesus all the way. Bryden’s and my birthday are only one day apart and the weekend we got to the top happened to be those two days. Bryden had turned twenty-four and I’d turned about fifty-five.
The Echo Point bolt route, as it became known, had its second ascent two years later. It took them two days and they had their own horrendous epic on it, my favourite image is John Davis spending the night on an inflated air mattress suspended in a web of slings, hanging free from a bolt – the world’s first portaledge!
A year or so later I went back with Steven Lucas and we chopped it, using hacksaw blades and a pair of stilsons, a good system – quick and clean. . It was only climbed three times, and that included the first and last ascent! Steve was killed on his motor bike on the Sydney Harbor Bridge just a few months later.
The thing is I wanted to climb the crack but it, was pointless as long as the bolt ladder was there, running up more or less right next to it. It was still a bit sad, though, to see it go. I then did the crack with John Davis. It took us two days. We used a lot of aid on the top crack. It was about 20 and M4. It was finally repeated about 8 years later by Kim Carrigan and Rourke Muhlen. They did it mainly free. It now stands at about 22 and M2. It’s a great piece of rock with a very brooding atmosphere.
Bryden and I climbed together regularly. We’d spend the weeknights at Lindfield rocks, bouldering with pencil torches in our mouths. He had a little workbench in his room near Sydney University and we’d make brackets and file the bolts down to size. We made our own skyhooks there as well. When the first imported ones came over from America several years later, it was interesting to see that the design was almost identical.
The best contraption of all was the thing Bryden called the crackajack, which didn’t work at all but was a good idea at the time. It was made from two lengths of rod, each about three inches long. One piece was solid, about three-quarter inch diameter with an external thread. The other was hollow with a larger diameter and a corresponding internal thread. This piece had a winding lever attached to it and both pieces had sharp teeth filed into the ends, if you can picture it. The Inquisition would have loved it. The idea was to crank it up in any crack from three to six inches wide, hang from it on a sling and then place a bolt runner. The trouble was you needed two hands to get it started! Also, the lever wasn’t long enough to exert enough torque to get the teeth to bite, but none of this mattered to us; we loved it anyway and carried it everywhere in its own special bag made from green japara cotton. After a while it sort of took on a life of its own, like a talisman. I don’t think we ever used it successfully, but I remember trying on several occasions. I personally preferred wooden wedges and at one stage I was so crazy about them that a casual observer would have thought I was on the way to build a small bungalow at the top of the cliff.
I should say that Bryden was actually a very safe climber. Most of the horror stories were just a result of him leading stuff that was too hard for his seconds to follow. Add a few overhangs, a waist belay and no jumars and there you go – instant epic.
Bryden came up with the bolt and removable keyhole bracket plate as it is still used today. Aesthetically speaking, this is still the best system in the world, and the fixed bracket European version and the ringbolt is a real eyesore in comparison. Bolts had already been used before, but Bryden came up with what became known as ‘carrots’. Dave Roots and Russ Kippax and company had already used the old screw-in terrier bolts on their ascents of Fuddy Duddy at Narrow Neck and Tooth & Nail at Boar’s Head. Various people had experimented with expansion bolts and ring bolts of different types. Bryden was a great champion of bolts, and given the pitiful nature of what else was available it’s hardly surprising. But he always made a point of using as few as possible.
What I couldn’t figure out was why nobody was using jamb protection. I realize now that one of the reasons is because it doesn’t feature in the literature that crossed the equator. The pipes did, so everybody dutifully smoked them. But the awareness of jamb protection had traveled across on the grapevine. Even though they weren’t commonplace in England, I’d seen them used on Gritstone and in the Lake District and I’d even practiced putting them in down at the local quarry, along with the mother’s clothesline and all that. In fact, it’s very funny looking back on it now, but the clothesline seems to feature in virtually every account of getting started back then in the north of England; I used mine doubled.
I have this image of all these scruffy boys, all unknown to each other, sneaking off to our respective quarries, placing our Joe Brown statues on top of a suitable boulder and then going at it like demented ferrets. Of course it’s not as dramatic as it sounds. These quarries usually less than ten meters high, but they were important training grounds in their day. And I’m not talking Orders of the British Empire or knighthood’s here. I’m talking about something much closer to the spirit and seldom-bathed body of William Blake and his visions of angels and dark satanic mills; rusty bedframes, old car tires, broken down prams and twisted sheets of corrugated iron. I was taken to my first indoor climbing wall last month, right in the centre of Manhattan, and I thought it was very impressive, but still, not quite up to the old Calverly Quarry, with the jackdaws and the bluebells and the nettles – imagine the techniques we might have developed if our mothers had owned spin dryers!
Let’s leave the clothes lines and talk about those Joe Brown statues: by the time I was organizing my life around washing days – (which in Bradford is Mondays and Fridays, don’t ask me why, it just is – in the north of England these traditions are as unchallengeable and as unchangeable as the seasons) – Joe Brown and Don Whillans had become so mythologised that if I had ever so much as found one of their cigarette butts it would have been like finding the Shroud of Turin; I would have built a chapel on the spot and made an altar, placed the cigarette butt on top, said a prayer and then sat down forever.
The power of myth increases with time and distance and the relationship between Britain and Australia provided both in ample proportion. By the time a story reached the ears of the hungry young men in the dusty caves beneath the cliffs in Australia, it would have been embellished to such a degree as to make the Book of Kells look like just a lot of almost unmarked paper.
Let me tell you a very funny and also absolutely true story as just one example. I became pen friends in 1964 with a Melbourne climber by the name of Peter Jackson. Peter was an absolute climbing nutter, a totally fixated basket-case raver, who, when he was in high gear, could give Ken Wilson, the founding editor of Mountain magazine, and Britain’s most notorious raver, a good run for his money. Peter also had a very able apprentice in the ranting game in the form of a very big young fellow by the name of Chris Baxter, which is a separate volume unto itself. Chris, of course, is now the editor of the Australian magazine Rock. There is some sort of inevitable global logic in this connection which makes me smile in wonder!
Anyway, Peter and I would write to each other all the time about our respective exploits and try to top each other’s hyperbole. I used to call him ‘The Musclelini of Arapiles’. The Victorians got their own back a few years later by calling Dogface ‘Ewbank’s Sand Pit’.
Peter’s obsession with Joe Brown had reached such a frenzied pitch of adoration that it made mine look like a few perfunctory genuflection’s. Peter was also a very serious body builder. He’d train with free weights all the time; he was very body conscious. So a lot of his obsession started to center not so much on Joe’s climbs but on Joe’s body, and particularly on his hands, which were reputed to be unusually large. This is especially funny in view of the fact that Joe is actually quite short and of a very average build, but as we’d never actually seen the man himself, except as a tiny dot on some grainy old photos, Jackson’s imagination had open slather to run wild; Hands that were reputed to be ‘unusually large’ weren’t large enough for Jackson; his Joe Brown developed hands bigger than King Kong’s: the little finger alone could flick a tramcar clean across the Yarra.
Peter and I went climbing in England in ‘65 and by that time Joe Brown had his own climbing store in the village of Llanberis – which – to Peter, had become Rome and Mecca, combined, with the Ganges running through it. Peter’s plan was in place even before the boat sailed out of Melbourne, and his own beloved cliffs, such as Bundaleer, Rosea and Buffalo, had all turned into just pieces of fluff, compared to the possibility of seeing, and, heaven help us, actually touching, Joe Brown’s hands! His plan was to simply walk into the store, ignore any sales assistants who might thwart him, head straight for Joe, shove out his hand and announce, “G’day! I’m Peter Jackson from Australia”. Peter’s theory was that common courtesy would naturally oblige Joe Brown to extend his own hand, which Peter would then grab like a jug at the top of an off-width. Which is exactly what happened, and exactly what he did. The most remarkable part of the story, though, is the fact that he was ever willing to let go – that they are not still there to this day, spoon feeding each other with their free hands and Jackson still pumping away with the other. Later that summer I hitchhiked to Chamonix and the Dolomites via Paris and I developed a similar plan of my own in case I ran into the French movie actress Brigette Bardot, who I was madly in love with, but it was a lot more than just the hands that I was interested in…
But to get back to where we were with jamb protection: The other reason it wasn’t being used was that by the dictates of popular wisdom it would be useless in sandstone, that in the soft rock it would just pull through. Of course, it sounds crazy now, but if enough people say something enough it becomes a case of the emperor’s new clothes. I made up a set anyway, hexagonal building nuts with the threads drilled out, and soon enough we were all using them. John Davis started using ball races for wider cracks. Circular, brittle, smooth and shiny, they’d always fall out after you’d spent five minutes hanging around trying to get them in. They enjoyed a very limited popularity for about two weeks.
I started to become increasingly interested in trying to keep the cliffs looking as natural as possible, without breaking our necks in this process, and quite a few of the other climbers felt much the same way, while another group tended to lean more towards bolts. And so began the sad soliloquy: To bolt or not to bolt. It was more than just a question – it was the opening salvos of the great bolt wars of the ‘Sixties.
I became a treacherous double agent. After having murdered the impossible on Echo Point and Vespians Wall I received orders from high command to return to the scenes of the crimes and dispose of these embarrassing souvenirs of rusting monkey business. It was like a hardened eighteen-year-old hooker trying to atone for the innocent sins of the sixteen-year-old virgin! My duplicitous maneuvering became positively torturous in its complexity!
On a more metaphysical level I invented a new method for calculating the amount of available daylight and the position of the sun, ambitious indeed, which went something like this: If my companion was terrified and insisting on a bolt I’d look into the sky and move the sun downward, make a great show of doing some mental calculations and then explain to my hapless companion that we were almost out of daylight and there was not enough time to place one. If, on the other hand, I was terrified, I’d move the sun back up into the heavens and create all the time in the world that was needed put one in. Eat your heart out, Galileo! Isaac Newton took a pounding as well. The principle that ‘what goes up must come down’ began to include the condition that ‘it must reach the top first’ Alas, poor siege tactics! I knew them well! And as far as protection went, his famous dictum was paraphrased as ‘what goes in must come out’.
It was during his period of rapid changes that Bryden and I did our second route on Bluff Mountain together. Unlike our first climb of about a year previously and on which we’d placed quite a few bolts, I was hoping that our collection of nuts would allow us to climb this one without placing any bolts at all. It’s a good quick cautionary tale that says a lot about the tempo of the times. About half way up I reached a sloping shelf and made an anchor with two medium nuts. When Bryden arrived he looked at it and we started having one of those funny domestics which climbers come to love. I went into my best Galileo routine and threw in the old Joe Brown look for good measure – which would normally be a knockout combination – the Ali shuffle followed by a right cross – but Bryden wasn’t buying; hard words were exchanged until I finally won him over with those three famous words – delivered with total conviction: “Mate! It’s bombproof!”
He disappeared around a bulge and then after a while the rope stopped moving. It was very windy and we couldn’t hear each other very well so I started leaning out on the slings to see what was happening. As was standard for the time I was using a waist belay. Just as Bryden clipped into his first runner, a sling over a spike, both my bombproof belay nuts popped out. It was an early, unintentional but very effective use of what I think is now referred to as ‘hang dogging’. Bryden started screaming words to the effect of ‘What’s going on’ and I kept shouting back words to the effect of ‘Nothing! Nothing!’ – As I tried to clamber back onto the shelf with one hand and keep the rope around my waist with the other.
It was the one time he got really angry and he even went so far as to threaten divorce and an end to our climbing partnership – the moment we got to the top! In retrospect, that’s actually the funniest and most interesting aspect of the incident: The fact that, despite the extremely volatile nature of the situation, neither of us seems to have even thought of going down. Of course, a divorce, top or bottom would have meant that Bryden would have had sole custody of the cherished crackajack, and could have even denied me weekend visitation rights, so it’s just as well for me that we somehow remained friends, and good friends at that. That little spike he’d just put the sling on is one of my personal sacred sites…
By the time I got back from Europe in ‘67 the Americans were discovering nuts and we were discovering hard steel American pitons, Chouinard and Leeper. Glossy climbing magazines from England and America started to appear, and – this is the most important thing – the time delay between the climbing literature and what was actually happening overseas shrank from about twenty years to about two weeks! I wrote my guidebooks to climbing in the Blue Mountains and started our own grading system. I was so appalled by the uselessness of the English system and the confusions of the European’s that it seemed best to just dump the lot in Sydney Harbor and start again. The top English grade at the time was ‘Extremely Severe’, which was a very interesting grade indeed. To lead an extreme could include anything from waltzing up something that resembled a steep set of stairs to finding yourself whimpering on an overhanging greasy nightmare, with no visible holds and nothing for protection except a tied-off twig held in place by a band aid.
In all my rantings and writings over the years I’ve never said anything much about grading, so now might be the chance I’ve been waiting for. For a start was the fact that the grading systems being used in other countries all had an inbuilt and totally unrealistic glass ceiling, which tradition made it very difficult, almost impossible to change. For another thing they were all using subdivisions which created false psychological barriers. Further to this they were not working at all well in their country of origin, so why the hell should they work half a world away? A very important aspect as well was Australia’s great isolation from what was then a very Eurocentric focus in world climbing, and especially a British focus. Because a trip to climb in England was out of the question for most Australian climbers, this created a constant state of confusion about grading climbs at all. Largely, this was simply a reflection of the notorious ‘Australian Cringe’ which permeated all aspects of life down under during the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. So there existed this strange situation where climbers in Australia were putting up climbs and not being able to grade them because the frame of reference for doing so was actually 12,000 miles away! Of course, climbs were graded, using the same system as in England, but lurking beneath this was the constant question, “But what would this be graded in Wales or the Lake District?” What we needed was something simple, and more importantly, something that was consistent and our own.
My reasons for starting the grades so low came from a desire to demystify and redefine at what point climbing starts. There exists to this day the fallacy that climbing has to be difficult and is in some way a specialized activity that needs truckloads of shiny things. I simply wanted to start with the very basic activity of walking uphill as being grade one, and to let the hill get steeper at its own pace. To pretend that there is a magical and definable point at which walking ends and scrambling begins, or scrambling ends and ‘real’ climbing begins, is just plain foolish. It might make climbers feel like special extras in The Planet of the Apes, but apart from that all it does is foster the myth that climbing is somehow an activity that can only be done by those people who identify themselves in the world as ‘climbers’. Personally I get a buzz out of being able to say to a little kid who’s just been told to “Get down off that wall!” by his mother, “That was good! What grade was it?” The bottom grades should be child’s play, as indeed they are and were meant to be.
I personally never liked the old adjectival way of grading climbs because it implies that there exists a universal criterion of ability. In other words, the guidebook writer or whoever, and the grades themselves are to some degree predicting the experience the climber can have, or should have, on a particular climb. When I was nineteen I worked as a climbing instructor for Manchester Education Department. Most of the kids were in their mid to late teens, often the same age as I was, but sometimes we’d get groups of real little ones. We wouldn’t take them out on the cliffs; we’d just take them hiking over the moors, but, if we had been allowed to take them climbing, I used to think what a pity it would be tell them that what they’d struggled up was graded ‘Easy’. It’s not fair to tell a six-year-old who has just clawed their way to top of Cero Torre that the official pay off – the guidebook rating – for their heroic effort is that it was ‘Easy’! Similarly, when I tried to make a living instructing climbing a year later in the Blue Mountains. (A doomed and futuristic endeavor, that, if there ever was one! Talk about optimistic – I must been out of my mind!), I was never too thrilled to tell someone that what we had just climbed had been ‘Mild Severe’, when to them it was maybe the most intense thing they had ever done.
One thing I was very vocal about at the time was to emphasize that the system should be thought of as open-ended from the get go, not be thought of as in any way having reached a ceiling. On a personal basis, I wanted to ensure that what was being done should not be interpreted as any indication of what was possible.
One criticism I’ve heard is that there are too many numbers. Take away 1-6, which are there for small children and total beginners, and what remains is, interestingly enough, comparable, more or less, to the total number of subdivisions currently used in England and the U.S.A. Not that this is in itself any justification: to follow these countries simply because they have thicker, glossier, and more expensive magazines, and a bigger population of climbers, is no guarantee of anything at all.
A more pertinent criticism is that the grade doesn’t take factors such as loose rock, length of climb, quality of protection, seriousness, etc. into account. My response to this was and still is: “That’s what the words are for”. The numerical grading system was never meant to stand alone. It is interesting that the British climbers (historically a very literate subculture in a traditionally most literate country), should be leading the gang worldwide in the mumbo jumbo mystification steeplechase. No combination of numbers, letters and symbols will ever convey information as accurately as words when it comes to describing these factors of a route. If, for example, there is no protection on pitch four for ten meters, what is the problem with saying the following words: “On pitch four there is no protection for ten meters”? If the climb is very sustained, why not try communicating this piece of information by using words such as “The climb is very sustained”. Does anyone need to be told by a complex series of symbols that a ten-pitch route ten miles away from the closest road is going to be a different outing than a one-pitch climb on a roadside crag? What is the problem here? If a climb is seriously dangerous because of loose rocks, I think this fact can be communicated reasonably well by using the following words: “This climb is seriously dangerous because of loose rocks”.
A guidebook should not be confused with Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Grades are only meant to be, and can only ever be, a subjective and approximate rating. This desire of the techno-geeks to make everything exactly classifiable within some obscure computer program is truly pathetic. This silly star system is another thing that gets me wobbling sideways. Do climbers not have their own eyes in their own heads? Do climbers really want everything to be given to them before leaving the ground? Do they want potential surprises (both the good and not so good) taken away from them before leaving the ground? Why bother leaving the ground at all? The so-called three-star classics get worn to powder while other perfectly good climbs remain virtually unrepeated. Spread it ’round a bit! Leave the guidebook in the bag and look at it after the climb! Give yourself a thrill! Bring back ‘the four F’s,’ as me and my old mate Alec Campbell used to recite to each other: “Fail on it, Fall on it, or Fly up the Fucker”!
As increasing numbers arrive upon these shores in silver spacecraft with bags full of shiny gizmos and badges bearing letters such as UIAA and BMC, the pressure to conform and be good little colonists may escalate. Froggy Ringbolt will turn up with croissants and Perrier in cute picnic hampers – oh, they will be as tempting a bunch of primates as ever walked upon the earth! Caveat emptor: leave room for the wildness. And when they start trying to sell you the newest and best grading system, it might be worth looking ’em in the eye and in your best Australian accent telling them that you “do not want the uncooked crustacean”. (Other favourite Australianisms that come to mind as appropriate responses might be “Stop banging the rhubarb,” and – my personal favourite, – “Get under the house!”) Just a thought, take it or leave it. This is no call for isolationism. It is a call for national individualism and to resist European and American cultural imperialism – be it in the form of mass culture or something as microscopic as climbing.
Anyway, back to 1966…virtually all attention worldwide shifted temporarily, from the traditional European centers (The Dolomites and Chamonix) to the granite cliffs of a valley in California, the name of which we didn’t even know how to pronounce. On the tongues of Australian climbers it was initially read to rhyme with ‘nose bite’. The most famous climber in Yosemite at that time had a funny name, too – Royal Robbins. For me, this was a heaven-sent opportunity to even the score with Jackson and seize the hyperbole jackpot of all time. There was no question that I’d taken a severe beating in our attempts to create our own Joe Browns. Mine was never much more than super human, whereas Jackson’s was an extra-terrestrial. I took no chances with this Robbins character. For a start he never slept and he’d never been known to eat any food. I allowed him the occasional sip of water. He once used forty-three tied-off RURPS in a row. And that was to get to the bottom of the hard bit. He fell off, ripped everything and landed on his head, stood up, did a few one-arm chin-ups and went straight back up and did the move. In the hyperbole stakes I blew Jackson clean out of the water!
I started a little workshop in the front room of the house where I lived with Valerie Kennedy and started making crackers in a few sizes. It slowly increased until it went from quarter inch swaged wire jobs all the way up to four and a half inch behemoths that could kill a man with a single blow; Carrying the bigger ones almost guaranteed to make failure a foregone conclusion; despite all the lightening holes, the sheer weight of them made it virtually impossible for even the strongest leader to actually get off the ground at all. In the end I was making twenty sizes and sending them all over Oz, as well as New Zealand and we even sent some to Hong Kong and South Africa. I started subbing the work out to an engineering shop in Redfern so I had time to climb again.
So the sixties moved along; I’d started a little climbing magazine of our own called Thrutch in the early days, and seemed to be constantly writing articles, trying to formulate an aesthetic which would incorporate the new technology without losing the elements of risk and uncertainty, elements which had always been taken for granted but which now started to look as if they might need a National Trust Preservation Order.
The climbs got harder, sure, but only within a parallel framework and to the same corresponding degree that equipment got better and ethics changed. So they got harder and they became incomparably easier. The great bolt war festered and flared, take no prisoners. A lot of new improved equipment became available. In a word, things got complicated.
Down in Melbourne, Jackson’s proteges were hammering it out at Buffalo and Arapiles and on the cliffs of the Grampians – John Moore, Bob Bull, Chris Dewhurst, and Phillip Stranger. John Worrall, Alec Campbell and John Pickard had appeared on the scene in Sydney. Later there was Keith Bell, Ray Lasman, Peter Giles and Greg Mortimer. Rick White, Ted Cais, Don Groom and company up in Brisbane. There was Peter Aitchison and friends in Canberra. These are just a few names that come to mind right now; there were a lot of others. The trouble with starting any sort of catalogue of names is that it’s bound to be incomplete… Bob Craddock, Greg Lovejoy in Victoria, Michael Douglas in Tasmania…it’s impossible to remember them all off the top of my head.
I tried to start up some sort of loose national network that would encourage hard climbing and cross the regional boundaries, and at the same time foster a sense of community and cultivate a sustainable ethical approach that would allow us to use the new technology to our advantage, rather than to our ultimate disadvantage. We called ourselves the Australian Climbing Group and we fell apart soon enough, due in no small measure to intense competition and personal rivalries; but it was a good try, and we did manage to have one magnificently eccentric club dinner in Hobart, and where I met the Tasmanian climber Valerie Kennedy. Valerie came up to Sydney a few months later and we moved in together in Paddington and did quite a few hard climbs over the next few years. She seldom led, but she was a very strong climber and as a second she was quite fearless. She also had a boundless faith in my leading ability, which was totally delusional but gave me a high standard to live up to.
By the early ‘seventies I became so disheartened by the bolting wars and the associated ethical arguments that I decided to abandon ship entirely and concentrate purely on music. Various climbers would come round the house and try to re-inject some of the magic, but I was an obstinate patient. Joe Friend was one. Mike Law was another. Michael actually managed to get me away on a few new routes. One day I went to watch Michael and Kim Carrigan bouldering and there was no question that I was seeing some hot stuff. Michael and Kim both started out very much as traditional climbers. It sounds funny to hear myself referred to as a ‘traditional’ climber, but it does have some truth to it. In my fantasies I was really always Fred Botterill on that lovely slab on Sea Fell in 1903 and I guess I did try to approach the whole business with a very keen awareness of the past.
Around 1974 the scene suddenly blossomed. Greg Child, Andrew Penney and Giles Bradbury were all in there, and they in turn were joined by many others who I never met, Peisker, Baird, Smoothy, Moon, Wagland, etc. So a whole new generation was out there and they took full advantage of that new grading system and just started adding those numbers! There was no need to form any subcommittees and blow a year’s climbing on paperwork and arguing in the pub. Later still, what I call the ‘Preparing the Virgin for Sacrifice’ wars started – that is, the starting-at-the-top-and-doing-it-all-before-you-actually-do-it routine which has now become common practice. Fortunately for me that was no longer my battle and I was glad.
Many years ago I spent several months working on a book in which I tried to formulate some of the same ideas of which I’m speaking today. Oh, it was very ambitious, with chapters with headings such as ‘Climbing as an Art Form’, ‘Climbing as a Sport’ ETC. and at the end of it all I threw it all into the flames. Holes everywhere, everything contradicted and fell over itself. Nothing panned out. It still doesn’t and it remains a mystery, but I find myself in the embarrassing position of having to admit that the thirteen-year-old boy might have been right all along – climbing may be as good a way to serve one’s time as any; it may even be better than most.
I want to thank you all for turning up and taking the time out to be here. I hope something I said was of some value – I tried to speak from the heart. I get so tired of climbers not speaking from the heart. It’s such a silly and trivial business really, but then, so are most of the other things with which people busy themselves in this world…
Today is Anzac Day and without wishing to sound maudlin or pretentious I’d like to dedicate the spirit in which I’ve tried to speak to the memory of someone who was perhaps my closest climbing companion, at least in matters of the heart. He held me on several potentially disastrous lead falls, on the south side of Bungonia, in the Warrumbungles and in the Blueies. His name was Alec Campbell. My nickname for him was ‘Menluff’ – a lighthearted tip of the hat to both Alec and the great English climber, John Menlove Edwards. Alec was conscripted to fight in Vietnam. When he came home he went straight into the nuthouse. I used to visit him there and sit on the bed and listen to his ravings, most of which would have me in stitches of laughter. A few weeks after being discharged he took a gun and blew his brains out.
Eric Dark was a climber back in the ‘thirties and ‘forties. He made the first ascent of Belougeries Spire and Crater Bluff in the Warrumbungles, along with Dorothy Butler. By the time I met Eric and his wife, the writer Eleanor Dark, he was in his seventies and living in a beautiful old house in Katoomba. Alec and I would visit him there in the evenings after a day out climbing and we’d sit around the fire and swap stories. I even tried to get him to come out with us but his body wasn’t up to it anymore, which was a pity, because his spirit was perfect. That just came to mind. I’m not sure why, but it’s all connected somehow…
I’ve mentioned the names of many climbers tonight. However, two of the biggest influences on my own approach to high angle silliness were not directly connected with climbing at all. One was The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, and the other was The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I’d like to try to start winding down this debacle of an address with one of my favourite quotations from Mr. Van Golf Ball. I should perhaps first explain that the ‘bulb trade’ he mentions is a reference to a national obsession that became known as tulipmania – an early form of a futures exchange, so speculative and widespread that it actually started to undermine Holland’s monetary system and was eventually banned by the government. So the very simple and beautiful act of growing a flower was transformed into something similar to grown men groveling about on the floor of the stock exchange. Part of a letter from Vinny boy to his brother, in 1885:
“You must let me maintain my pessimism about the art trade as it is these days, for it does not at all include discouragement. This is my reasoning… Supposing I am right in considering that curious haggling about prices of pictures to be more and more like the bulb trade. I repeat, supposing that, like the bulb trade… so the art trade… will disappear as they came, namely rather quickly. The bulb trade may disappear, but the flower growing remains. And I for myself am contented, for better or for worse, to be a small gardener, who loves his plants”.
My heroes were Fred Botterill, Menlove Edwards, Bryden Allen, Joe Brown, Royal Robbins… it’s a long list; there are many names on it. I probably shouldn’t be using the word ‘Heroes’. It implies a certain naivete; I should probably be more modern and use the expression ‘Role Models,’ but there is something so fundamentally different in the concepts that I have no choice other than to stay out of step and stick to the word ‘Heroes.’
Young climbers today have their own lists of new names, and a lot of the indefinable attraction of the whole racket is somehow woven into the connecting thread which unites the eras and places these various names represent. Even now as a broken down old fart, I feel a tremendous kinship with some of these young climbers; even though they are doing stuff technically far harder than anything we were doing in the Jurassic period. At the same time I feel an unbreakable bond with climbers of my own and previous generations. The central focus of the fetish of most young contemporary climbers has moved closer and closer to the pure beauty and sheer technical difficulty of a single move – whereas the central focus of my fetish was how far back the last runner was.
But it’s all just relative: I actually did my first ‘real’ climbs, believe it or not, in an old pair of tricouni nailed boots that were several sizes too big and which had been lent to me by the Physical Education Instructor who ran the school climbing club. Quote – and I promise I’m not making it up – I remember it perfectly – the kids used to repeat it to crack each other up – “It’ll teach you the value of proper footwork – precision’s the key in this racket!” His name was Peter Hitt – I swear I’m not joking, a great name for a PE Instructor! He was right too; it did teach the value of precise footwork! But anyway, the point I actually wanted to make is that from a Titanic sized pair of Tricounis with several layers of thick socks to a tight pair of slippers with no socks it’s all relative – or at least it can be: If you’re truly interested in taking a walk on the wild side you still can – and it really doesn’t matter what you’re wearing on your feet when you’re shitting in your pants.
To find an entire new generation of climbers arguing about what is basically the same old stuff with new twists makes me feel very optimistic. I hope I will be forgiven for still caring enough to have thrown in my two cent’s worth. Bolting, chipping, gluing, starting from the top, preparing the virgin for sacrifice, hang-dogging, pink pointing, red pointing, having or not having beta… It’s enough to drive a man into the grip of the grape.
It may serve us well to remember though, that just as aid climbing, as an end in itself, became more or less passe – or at least not the ultimate skill to aspire to – the times will change again and today’s hardest and most highly-prized bolted sport routes may well come to be viewed as the quaint relics of a passing phase that climbing had to go through. Climbs achieve their own market value within the psyche of each new generation. Personally I believe that the wheel will turn a full 360 degrees and that the most valued climbs of the future will once more be routes where all that exists is the illusion of the absence of previous human passage – as opposed to those climbs which bear the rusting or stainless steel evidence of it.
You’ve all heard the old chestnut about the guy who’s accused of necrophillia: The Judge asks him how he pleads. The guy says, “Not Guilty Your Honor; I didn’t know she was dead – I though she was English!” My only excuse for telling such a politically incorrect (and I think wonderful) joke – as if an excuse were needed, which, in my heart of course I know it’s not – is that it leads me to Messner’s great phrase, “The Murder of the Impossible”. To want to murder the impossible is a very understandable and timeless human conceit and to carry the act out should, and must, in the end, be forgivable. But to then spend gigantic amounts of energy trying to have a relationship with the corpse is probably not the most satisfying way of conducting a love affair. The implication I’m hedging around and that I’ve been alluding to for the past hour or two – is that the act of climbing might be a manifestation of a love affair with the earth itself, and that a living partner may be somewhat preferable to a dead one. A bit more trouble perhaps…
As the cliffs and mountains of this world pass from the care and stewardship of one generation to the next, the attendant ceremony of the changing of the guards often becomes an antagonistic exercise rather than a liberating ritual. Given the fact that none of us can say exactly what it is that we are trying to guard this is almost to be expected. Seeing as the worst possible scenario in any quest for the Holy Grail would be to actually find the bloody thing, it is this very inability to define just exactly what it is that we think we are guarding that might be its saving grace.
Finally, having crossed the page from the terrible infant without the sleeping bag to the old fossil invited to speak at Escalade, I’d like to take advantage of the moment and share one more experience: Yesterday I went out climbing with Rohan Reynolds and Ray Lasman, two old pals from way back when. Rohan still lives in Sydney, Ray in San Francisco these days. George Harrison came along from New Zealand, and Dennis Gray from England. We had about two hundred and thirty years on the planet between us: five creaky-boned creatures from around the world, grunting our way up a sixty-million year-old cliff.
The company was good, the climbing was excellent and the weather was perfect. Despite my own strange travels of the past twenty years, the act of returning to these cliffs which shaped so much of my life was like being embraced in the arms of an old and trusted friend. I hope these cliffs may remain in good health to extend that same embrace to future generations. Muscular young bodies come and go; the cliffs and the shadows remain.