It was amidst the vertiginous sandstone walls and smooth-trunked gums of the Blue Mountains that John Ewbank became one of Australia’s foremost climbers of the 1960s. His accomplishments were many. At 18 (in 1966) he climbed Australia’s first 21 (with a rest), the powerful crack of Janicepts at Mt Piddington, a line which would have to wait another eight years before Mike Law finally freed it (Janicepts still repels plenty of people today). At the venerable age of 19, he published his landmark guide, Rock Climbs in the Blue Mountains, in which he ditched the old English-derived adjectival grading system and introduced the elegant, open-ended numerical grading system we know and love today. He almost singlehandedly developed the mighty vertical chosspit of the Dogface, forcing a number of tenuous, scary lines up its crumbling, barely-held-together sandstone. He established Australia’s first climbing magazine, Thrutch. All this – and other feats too numerous to mention – before retiring from climbing in the early ‘70s at just 24.
Born in England in 1948, John migrated with his parents to Australia as a teenager. Initially it was not a happy move. In his talk for the 1993 Escalade festival, entitled Ironmongers of the Dreamtime (from which I will liberally quote), he wrote ‘For me, the decision to migrate seemed like a catastrophic blunder; I believed that the centre of the universe was the gritstone outcrops of Yorkshire.’ However, it didn’t take long for him to discover the Blue Mountains, and so began a second phase of his love affair, one that was to last throughout his life.
The young Ewbank quickly got involved in the local scene. He was taken under the wing of one of the leading climbers of the day, Bryden Allen, with whom he formed a somewhat unlikely partnership. Ewbank described it thus, ‘He was 23 and I was 15 – a very – how shall I say it – abrasive? Competitive? Combative whippersnapper.’ At around this time the prevailing aid climbing ethos was giving away to the concept of ‘clean climbing’ and Ewbank embraced the new movement with near-religious conviction, even chopping bolt ladders that he himself had put up just a year before. This anti-bolt feeling was one that would last throughout his life, at Escalade John said:
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.
As part of the clean climbing mania Ewbank even began manufacturing his own chocks, known as ‘Crackers’. John described them, ‘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 1967 John released his new guide, it included what is now known as the Ewbank System of grading. In the guide he describes it as ‘revolutionary’. And it was, being the first open-ended system, or, as it he described it the guide, ‘This system starts, it has no finish.’ In 1993 he reflected back on it, ‘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.’
At the same time John was also beginning to explore the Dogface, that terrifying wall formed by the collapse of a mighty flake of rock, leaving behind a horror of soft sandstone. Victorian climbers, looking to insult John, called it ‘Ewbank’s Sandpit’. All the big routes of the wall were climbed by John – and given suitably grandiose names – Colossus (M6), Goliath (16,M6), Titan (18,M6), Gigantor (M5). To this day they remain intimidating, rarely repeated lines. Among some of his other notable ascents, with local climber, Alan Keller, he also climbed the first (aided) ascent of the Totem Pole in Tasmania, with the two spending the night weathering a big storm on top of the pole following their ascent. Afterwards Keller swore he could feel the pole swaying during the night.
The ‘60s was definitely Ewbank’s era, at Escalade he said, ‘By the early ‘70s 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.’ In 1972 he moved to New York to pursue his music career. It was there he lived up until his death, although he would return to Australia from time to time and still occasionally pull on his climbing shoes to attempt some adventure climbing in the Grose Valley. It seems that his love for climbing never really died, ‘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.’
I never got to meet John, but we corresponded by email when I was the editor of Rock magazine. I enjoyed his emails immensely, he was very funny, and he still had a genuine interest and love for climbing. To me, he seemed like the climbers’ climber, a man who not only enjoyed the physical act of climbing, but also thought deeply about the rock and the meaning of it all. I will leave the last word on the meaning of it all to John, in a quote which seems especially pertinent to our times, ‘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.’
All of us here at Vertical Life would like to express our condolences and best wishes to John’s family and friends. He will be sorely missed. You can, and should, read the full version of John’s talk for the 1993 Escalade Festival here.