Obituary: Ian ‘Foxy’ Ross 1949 – 2019

In the latest issue of VL, no 30, we’ve run an obituary for Ian ‘Foxy’ Ross by Chris Dewhirst, however, we were actually sent a number of short recollections of Ian by other friends, and so we thought we’d publish online so that people can read them here.

For those that don’t know Ian Ross, he was one of the early climbing pioneers of Victorian climbing, and the popular Black Range crag, Black Ian’s Rocks (better known to local Aboriginal people as Lil Lil) was named by climbers after him.

Ian Ross climbing on Castle Rock near Christchurch in New Zealand. Image by Keith Lockwood

Ian Ross climbing on Castle Rock near Christchurch in New Zealand. Image by Keith Lockwood

I am trying to recall when I first met Ian ‘Foxy’ Ross. I suspect it was at Mt Cook Village about 1973; probably Wyn Irwin or the Hermitage Bar. He was an Australian friend of Dave White’s and Foxy had just come down to the village after a couple of stunning first ascents with Bill Denz on Douglas. At that time there were not a lot of mountaineers unattached and available at Mt Cook—even fewer competent ones—so anyone who could belay and didn’t panic when times got rough was immediately in the frame as a potential second. About this time I had my eye on the Balfour Face of Mt Tasman but all my potential climbing partners declined my generous offer to come along; perhaps put off by its fearsome reputation garnered by the several failed attempts and descriptions from the first ascent.

Here is where Foxy came in. He was keen, enthusiastic, naive, and impressionable; in fact everything I needed for a second. So before he wised up, we trundled off up and over Silberhorn and down to the foot of the Balfour Face. The grand idea was that he would lead the rock on the bottom half and I would finish up the near-vertical ice covering the top half.  Unfortunately all the rock was covered by verglas and we needed to wear crampons the whole way. So I recall leading most of the route. Even with the newly invented Chouinard picks, it was pretty gripping stuff especially the traverse at half-height. Just above the traverse, Foxy dropped all the hardware (mine of course) and so retreat back down the face was no longer an option. As can be imagined some robust opinions were on offer.

We finally got to the summit of Mt Tasman in the late evening and only just made it along the ridge and down to Mt Silberhorn by dark. The route down the ridge in the gloom was tiresome. Later, Foxy claimed to anyone who would listen, that this was where he saved my life. He fell down a medium sized crevasse onto a snow bridge. I joined him down on the bridge out of the wind and there we spent the night. His rationale in this life-saving endeavour was that by doing this he stopped me falling down the next snow-covered crevasse, which was bloody enormous.

I joined Foxy in Melbourne at Easter 1973 and one evening had an epic rock climb in the Werribee Gorge finishing well after dark. On the plus side, he introduced me to Chris Dewhirst and we left Foxy to stay working in Melbourne while we went off to Arapiles. I don’t recall ever actually roping up for a climb with Foxy again.

In more recent years Foxy and partner Jacqui moved to Queenstown and most winters we would spend a couple of days together on the slopes. It was great to spend a day with Foxy who regarded a hard day’s skiing as starting at 10am finishing at 2pm with time off for a long lunch.

Right now, what I miss most about Foxy was his uncanny ability to offer a firm opinion on something about which he knew little, coupled with his unfailing generosity and optimism.

Left to right: Alan and Geoff Gledhill, Ian Ross on ground, Chris Dewhirst and John Glasgow, Mt Cook village, 1973. Image by Colin Monteath

Left to right: Alan and Geoff Gledhill, Ian Ross on ground, Chris Dewhirst and John Glasgow, Mt Cook village, 1973. Image by Colin Monteath

The Fang is Mt Arapiles’ original test piece climb. Graded Hard Very Severe, with the crux ‘involving, in effect, a one arm chin-up on a fist jammed in a crack.’ Ian Ross, more usually known as Foxy or Black Ian, arrived from England, hitched up to Arapiles and soloed The Fang. Unimpressed by the one-move wonder, and perhaps by a lack of climbing partners, he dropped out of climbing.

Some time later, Norm Booth met Ian at a swimming pool in Melbourne. Norm was teaching a swimming class and Ian had a job delivering sweets to pool kiosks. They didn’t know each other from a bar of soap, but soon discovered a shared interest in climbing.

By 1971 Norm and I had reacquainted Ian with the joys of climbing by taking him to our latest secret cliff, the mighty Werribee Gorge, where Ian’s name is on a number of classics such as Centurion, Serendipity and Cocchium – which my original guide says is ‘a bold lead up a very steep and intimidating wall.’ A typical Ian lead. Bear in mind that these climbs were pioneered nearly half a century ago.

From these humble beginnings Ian went on to establish a considerable legacy of climbing in Australia. Black Ian’s Rocks is named after him – he put up some of the original classics: Subpoena, Malicious Intent, Objection Sustained. There were trips to Mt Buffalo, Queensland, New Zealand, Tasmania. One of his outstanding achievements would have to be the first ascent of the intimidating and much-tried East Face of Frenchmans Cap with Dave Neilson and Chris Dewhirst, a route they called Conquistador (20).

I enjoyed trips with Ian – he drove a green MG and it was chock-a-block full of confectionery for delivery to pool kiosks. He later worked for a postcard publisher, travelling the length and breadth of Australia taking photos of beaches, kangaroos and other iconic images for the tourist trade.

One of our trips to Buffalo went a bit pear-shaped. I picked up Ian from a party at midnight on the Friday and headed up the old Hume Highway. Near Benalla I fell asleep. Ian was also asleep. We careered off the road, leapt a ditch, cartwheeled through all the redgums and came to rest upside-down. Ian was groaning a bit and I was bleeding where the roof of the car smashed into my head. To cut a long story short, we spent the morning in Benalla Hospital and didn’t touch rock for a week or two.

Chris ‘Melon’ Baxter, affectionately known as Melon, bestowed both nick-names on Ian. Foxy, because to be a fox, in Melon’s eyes, was to be a cunning, superior sort of climber. And Black Ian, because Melon thought Ian was always capable of a black act or two. Whatever the case, I appreciated and enjoyed Ian’s effervescence, eternal optimism and toothy grin which stretched from ear to ear.

Farewell, Foxy.

Ian Ross on 9th pitch of Conquistador (20), Frenchmans Cap during the first ascent in 1972. Image by David Neilson

Ian Ross on 9th pitch of Conquistador (20), Frenchmans Cap, during the first ascent in 1972. Image by David Neilson

I first got to know Ian on the climb we did with Chris Dewhirst on the East Face of Frenchmans Cap in 1972. One of Ian’s many and varied skills was as a photographer and I owe him a considerable debt for the great job he did taking some of the key photos on this climb. Conquistador is well remembered today partly because of the good photographic record we managed to get. And doing the climb with Ian and Chris made it the grand adventure that it was.

Ian seemed to have a wide range of ways of making a living – as varied as running restaurants and selling secondhand cars. Closer to my own interests he worked as a photographer for the postcard company Nucolorvue sometime during the 1970s. My recollection is that he worked for them for perhaps a year travelling around Victoria and interstate taking photos with the spiffy camera they supplied and that they were very happy with his results. As an aspiring photographer myself, I remember being jealous of his ability to just walk in and get this professional photographic job.

I had no contact with him from about 1986 until 2015 when to my surprise and delight he made contact with me. We met up for a coffee at Jimmy Watsons in Carlton and he had with him, and was keen to show me, his Canon 5D camera with a substantial lens. Photography had clearly become a strong interest for him and when he returned to Queenstown he sent me a selection of very striking images he had taken in the mountains nearby.

He was in Melbourne in 2015 because he had discovered that he could fly to Melbourne, purchase a particular set of expensive skis that he just had to have, and still come out ahead compared to buying them in New Zealand. This was a typical cunning Foxy story. In the early 1980s there was an annual Italian festival in Lygon Street, Carlton. One year Ian set up a BBQ sausage stall (by coincidence just outside Jimmy Watsons) and made a small fortune. Chris reminded me that there were two types of sausage and four different sauces. Choice for the customers but not too much. At the time my partner Karen was working for the Wilderness Society and they had a stall at the festival as well. Karen commented that selling T-shirts, car stickers and booklets had earned the Wilderness Society small change compared to Ian’s sausage gold mine!

In 2015 Ian asked me for some photos of our Frenchmans climb and to my deep regret I procrastinated and never got around to sending them to him.

Ian could laugh at himself and make others laugh. He was a warm-hearted and generous person. Karen and I had hoped to catch up with him when we went to New Zealand last year but that was not to be and I feel sad that I will not be able to share his company again.

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