Ironmongers of the Dreamtime

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Ghost

climber
A long way from where I started
Topic Author's Original Post - Dec 13, 2013 - 12:07am PT
John Ewbank, one of our brothers, left this world recently. Although he'd lived in the US for the last twenty years or so, not many of you knew him. His climbing heyday was in Australia, and after he moved to New York he was more focused on music and writing than on climbing. There's an RIP thread for him here, but as I raise a glass to him tonight I want to share something special with you.

I co-edited the last issue of Ascent with Al Steck and Steve Roper, and John submitted a couple of pieces to us. We drew straws to decide which of us would work with which writer, and I was lucky to be given the opportunity to work with John. We had a lively correspondence, and planned to meet sometime soon. But "sometime soon" stretched out over the years and it's not going to happen now. So, in his memory I'd like to post both the stories he submitted. The one we published was "Ironmongers of the Dreamtime", and all 10,00 words of it follow. The one we didn't publish, "Bouldering with Socrates" is funny as hell, and definitely worth the time it'll take you to read it. It's in a separate thread, here.

And now, Ironmongers of the Dreamtime...

When Lucas Trihey phoned me in New York to ask me to present my own twisted visions of some of the stuff that went down, or should I say some of the stuff that went up, back in the dark ages, he was 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, with a few old fossils like myself circling our wheelchairs around the pie cart. To find it all so civilized and well attended is gratifying, especially, with so many accomplished climbers presenting such a wide range of topics: Greg Mortimer, talking about his ascent of the north ridge of K2. John Muir, who climbed Everest without oxygen and had a cigarette on top! I like it! Greg Child, with his slide show of his recent route up the Nameless Tower in the Karakorum. Kim Carrigan, Mark Baker, and Malcolm Matheson — three truly exceptional rockclimbers. To witness how far Australian climbing has developed since I hung up my boots is quite amazing, and to be remembered for my contribu-tion is most touching.

To paint a picture of the times gives me the excuse I need to speak of the people who were around then. Many of them may be names 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 finding myself adrift in a strange land, some of these people became the first family I ever had. It may be true that I put my neck out quite a long way on several occasions. It may also be equally true that climbing saved my life.

I still find everything about the entire subject of climbing as exciting as ever. 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 into 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 in my title was in some ways the key, and the dreamtime was the emotional landscape it helped open.

I am incapable of a blow-by-blow account. 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 direc¬tions. We will find the connecting bits, and they will all relate, even though the line may wander at times.



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 that 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 try to alchemise the experience into words we are 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.

To continue the detour even further, here’s 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. And besides, all that stuff is in the guidebooks, and it’s all there on the cliffs themselves for that matter — a few peg scars, a few rusty bolts. To cap¬ture the spirit and the ethos of the times with their attendant freedoms and restrictions, and the characters who 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. Rather than risk the embarrassment, we go for the clichés and avoid the center that we can only hint at. Myself, I prefer the hints, however cryptic and however futile. Conquistadors of the Useless will probably remain the best title that’s been given, or ever will be given, to any book about climbing.

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. Since we live in a fragmented and secu¬lar 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 cannot be bought and sold, packaged and promoted through the mass media, then trivialized and sold back to us as this month’s fashion accessory.

The “collective social dreamtime” that I speak 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: on the climb itself. And to paraphrase a famous remark once made by a particularly self-serving and arrogant prime minister, going walkabout wasn’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 spiri¬tual sustenance from pivotal moments experienced on various climbs; and if this sounds like a lot of mystical non¬sense, 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 between the climber and the landscape. This bond to and with the earth is central to the dreamtime.

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. No, I am using it because it is the best example I can find to illustrate the aspect of climbing in which I am most interested.

I am now referring to a spiritual experience. I am using an Australian aboriginal model as opposed to a European model because in the case of the latter we are faced with a legacy of man-made structures, be they circles of stone in their most simple manifestations, or cathedrals in their most elaborate — in other words, monu¬ments of belief placed upon a landscape. I use the dreamtime because within it the focus was on the landscape itself, and has remained so to this day. All that is needed to create a sacred site on a landscape is ritual, belief, and tradition. Nothing has to be built or changed in any permanent way. In fact, to do so would very likely be to destroy the sacred site. All of this is by way of making the point that climbers have their own rituals for turning steep bits of the earth’s surface into sacred sites.

Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, while fanciful in places, is a wonderful book that explores some aspects of storytelling and songs within traditional Aboriginal culture. 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 read that section, “Yes, that’s what the climbs were: steep dreams and vertical songs.”

One of the interesting aspects of turning something into a sacred site by the act of climbing is that we then superim¬pose special values on it, even if these values are comprehensible only to other climbers. Another is the proprietary interest that 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 important for climbers to see cliffs within the context of a broader landscape, and to accept that they may already be sacred to others. The rising popularity of so-called “wilderness experience” holidays points toward the desire to fill a need that is far more fundamental than merely wanting to see new places. Ergo, the increasing conflicts of interest worldwide, especially in the national parks. A large number of white Australians, since the first settlement, have generally suffered from a chronic and well-documented sense of dislocation and alienation from the landscape in which they found themselves. A similar sense of dislocation is now suffered on 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.

In my opinion, for Australian climbers to follow the modern French and Spanish model of wholesale bolt mania, especially retro-bolting, will be a disaster. When the cliffs have been transformed into something that resembles a repository for bolts, climbers will be immeasurably poorer for it. I visited some such cliffs in France last summer and my reaction was simply one of sorrow. 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,” came the reply. The same applies to cliffs. They ain’t making any more. Once the cliffs have been bolted to death, 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.

As an expatriate Brit, I reserve the right to make fun of my country of birth. But visiting some of their cliffs, one has to face the fact that they sometimes do get it right in certain respects. For those cliffs to have stayed looking good after so much use says a great deal about the approach the English have applied to developing their cliffs from one generation to the next. Would you put a bolt in Clockwork Orange? Would you 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 government agency, nor will we be able to point accusing fingers at some convenient scapegoat in the form of a big, bad multinational. The blame will lay fair and square with ourselves.

A sculptor was once asked how he carved the perfect elephant out of a chunk of white marble. “It’s easy,” he replied. “I 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 increase, it is getting harder and harder for young climbers to find that chunk of rock out of which to make their own elephant.

It is a lost cause for the old guard to try to lay down the laws of the land. In terms of climbing it is only the young who have the tendons and the tenacity (not to mention the power drills) to carry on the evolution of traditions, and the best that can be done is to gracefully suggest options. If each succeeding generation feels the need to outstrip the achieve¬ments of the past — which they must, for muscles are there to be used, not merely flexed — then I hope it may be done with a sense of reverence for the cliffs themselves.

The “Last Great Problem” that climbers have been forever trying to solve may in the end turn out to be the ability to leave the unclimbable alone. I respectfully suggest that only the greatest climbers of the future will be able to devel¬op the nerve and the confidence to exercise this ability. This is neither Zen nor New Age Wimpspeak. It is the hiero¬glyphics 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 I did more than twenty years ago. At that time I became so embroiled in issues such as bolting that I felt I had to stop climbing altogether. Having placed hundreds of bolts and having also removed hundreds, my 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 that surround that activity. I now realize this dichotomy exists everywhere, in everything — the gulf between music and the music business, for example. The most important thing I can say to young climbers today is that I per¬sonally lost the guideline between having an adventure and simply beating one more cliff into submission. And when that happens, everything becomes pointless.

To those who want climbing to be just another sport and nothing more — vertical billiards or overhanging golf — I find myself turning back into that abrasive teenager and saying “Whoopy doo!” And to 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 to any objec¬tive viewpoints. I was too close to it then, and I’m still too close to it now. The intervening years have done little to change the way in which I view the whole shenanigan of buggering 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 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, compa¬rable to so-called high art and the traditional spiritual disciplines: instability, foolishness, sheer hard yakka, and the occa-sional willingness to risk everything for moments of lucid, visionary awareness.



I’d like now 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” in those days. That was the amount it cost to immigrate; 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 carabiners. (Three must have been some sort of magic number for me.) For me, the decision to move 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, a hit list of Lakeland classics to get through!

All I knew about Australia was from the immigration pamphlets — it was always hot and sunny with lots of beautiful beaches. The people who wrote the pamphlets knew enough about the appetites of the prospective immigrants to emphasize the abundance of that which they would be willing to cross the world for — jobs and sunshine. The pam¬phlets certainly didn’t show any cliffs. All I heard about was a flat land full of deserts and snakes and sheep and kan¬garoos and duck-billed platypuses.

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 was Mt. Kiera itself, with cliffs on two sides, and that was the “high” school that I was interested in. So every morning I’d set off for school and walk around the corner to an overgrown block. I’d disappear into the bushes, 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. 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 arrived — but that’s another story altogether.

One day I came across a group of scouts abseiling. They had manila ropes and slings and steel carabiners from Austria, which they told me they’d bought from a shop in Sydney called Paddy Pallin. I got very hot and excited and hitchhiked to Sydney a few days later. 201 Castlereagh Street, second floor. Forget King Tut’s Tomb! At Paddy’s there were piton hammers, hemp waistlines, carabiners and pitons from Austria — it seemed as if every¬thing was Made in Austria in those days. His catalog was a beauty; a four-page black-and-white foldout sheet, with real¬ly good little diagrams. 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.

But the most important thing of all about that day in Sydney 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! The club secretary wrote back and put me in touch with one of the members, an eccentric young man named Peter Draffin, who in turn wrote and told me about an upcoming trip.

I made myself a pack called a Yukon Frame, from a design in a scout manual. It was made from wood and stretched canvas. Onto it 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 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. It was actual¬ly marked on the Caltex, so I thought I’d find everybody camped in a field at the end of the little dead-end road marked on the map. I had no reason whatever for thinking any of this except sheer optimism. I arrived at sunset to find everything upside down. The dirt road led to the top rather than to the bottom, there was no climber’s pub, no campground, 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. 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 and wondering where all the climbers were. I found out several weeks later that they had been camped down in the Blue Gum Forest, 2,000 feet below. All six of them.

The next trip was held at a place called Narrow Neck. The SRC would hold these special instructional weekends every now and then, mainly to teach the basics to bushwalkers who wanted to go canyoning or to start climbing. I arrived to find maybe eighty 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: an entrance hole, then a snug, deep, dry cave with a flat floor covered in leaves. I didn’t realize that in Australia the expression “cave” can mean just an overhang of rock, so the fact that it was winter and I 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 Fairy Down 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.

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 my lack of anything that resembled climbing equipment. To now admit that I didn’t have a sleeping bag was impossible. I thought, “Bugger me dead. They’ll never let me come climbing again!” So I decided to finish the half-empty flagons and keep the fire going all night, a dement¬ed case of death before dishonor. Luckily, a climber named Bob Ryan put two and two together and did a diplomat¬ic whip around the site, collecting a huge pile of spare clothes. “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 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 was Dogface, the Three Sisters, 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 may 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); but why hadn’t the people who wrote the pamphlets mentioned this lot?



Something you need to understand is that there existed a strong link between climbing in Australia and climbing in England, not only through the climbing literature, but also through folklore and oral tradition as brought over by a small but steady stream of imigrants — two vastly different sources of information. The Rhum Dhu Climbing Club in Australia in the late fifties was in every respect typical of many of the clubs that existed in England, especially in the North, during the forties and fifties. It was started as a reaction to what its members perceived to be the stodginess of the SRC, and there was an emphasis on drinking, smoking a lot, not taking any of it too seriously, having a good time, falling off, and being will¬ing to take a few risks now and again. This was all in the spirit of working-class Northerners who dominated the scene in England at that time, but the model was taken from the folklore, from the oral tradition which the immigrant climbers (Eric Saxby, Dave Tanner, Bryden Allen, Alan Gordon, even myself to a tiny degree) brought with them, not from the literature.

You must keep in mind that this was well before the publication of Joe Brown’s The Hard Years or Dennis Gray’s Rope Boy, books that 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, climbing as a lifestyle within a worka¬day 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. A lot of it was comfortable, cosy, rather proper, public-school-stiff-upper-lip adventure stories. It was too noble and smug, but it was 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, such as the wonderful writings of Colin Kirkus and Menlove Edwards, just didn’t seem to make it across the equator.

This is not to say that the men who wrote the books that were deemed worthy of export were not themselves great climbers. They often were. The trouble is that the style in which they wrote was often reflective of the English colo¬nialist mentality as epitomized by Kipling. The tradition of nineteenth-century English peak bagging in the European Alps usually carried with it the symbolic gesture of unfurling an invisible Union Jack — however unstated — and long holidays on the continent were in any case the preserve of a small and privileged class. Early- and mid-twentieth-cen¬tury Himalayan peak bagging had similar undertones of empire building.

Not that the English were the only ones at it; far from it! Nor is this in any way meant to detract from the individ¬ual motives of the climbers themselves. Hell, in the old days, if they wanted to climb something big, they had to be on what amounted to a national team. The team itself, at least in England as late as the early fifties, tended in turn to be selected on a class basis, as much as on actual climbing ability. These asides simply point out the social and political climate in which these climbs were made.

Edward Whymper and a handful of others were exceptions to the rule. When Whymper climbed the Matterhorn it became front-page news, probably having a similar propaganda value for England as landing on the moon had for Americans. 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 Everest expedition has always fascinated me. Its success was touted by the British press as a victory for England and the Queen! The empire-building mentality was taken to the limit and 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. Would Hunt or Hillary have been knighted if their success had not occurred in the year of the new monarch’s coronation?

But I really do digress. What I wanted to speak about was about the pipe smoking! Of course! How could I forget? The pipe was the token taken from the capital-L literature. Virtually everybody in those books seemed to be smoking a pipe. And sometimes they even had photos of some brave nut¬ter leading a desperate-looking slab 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 think if I ever saw a tweed jacket disappearing up a one-hundred-foot slab. The woolly hats made it though. I wore mine through an entire summer — I thought it was illegal to climb without it. One hundred degrees? 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.

Of course, the same thing happened in the seventies after the visit of the brilliant American climber Henry Barber. Henry climbed wearing baggy white painter’s pants and a white flat cap, and for months after he departed the cliffs were covered in young men wearing white pants and hats! And I’m sure there’s a contemporary ver¬sion occurring right now that I’m unaware of. 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?

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 nearby town¬ships were mostly in a state of disrepair, far removed from the trendy havens they are today.

The scene, nationwide, to the extent that it existed at all, was very regionalized. 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 rumors about Brisbane and the Glasshouse Mountains. But each area was really quite igno¬rant of the other’s existence. So it was like a tiny secret society of no-hopers sur¬rounded by surfboards and footballs and tennis racquets and water skis.

Of course Australia itself was a very different place back then. It’s quite amazing really, it’s only been 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 a rundown terrace house in the center 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. 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. To still be referring to the countries to the north as being in the Far East is the continuing measure of our mental disgruntlement! Greenwich is a funny state of mind...



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 ten climbers, other weekends only three or four. If you wanted to climb regularly you didn’t have much to choose from in the way of partners: you took whomever you could get. This would often lead to hilariously mismatched rope-mates.

Right from the beginning I kept hearing about Bryden Allen. It was “Bryden Allen this” and “Bryden Allen that” and “Bryden Allen every bloody thing.” 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 again. Add to this the fact that he wanted to climb all the time and you see why he was running out of partners. (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 some 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.) Bryden grew up in the hills outside Canberra and went to England as a kid. He returned to Australia, having become an expert rockclimber, to find himself transported from the extensively developed cliffs of England to a veri¬table treasure trove of untouched rock. He was like a shark in a feeding frenzy.

When I heard that he had published The Rock Climbs of New South Wales, probably the first real guidebook ever produced in Australia, I hurtled down to Paddy’s climbing shop and got a copy and read it two or three hundred times. That was it. I had to meet this guy.

But the bugger was never around! I gave up all hope of a casual meeting on some windy clifftop and decided to simply phone him and offer my services. I dialed, but when 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 phone, and felt down for days afterward. It was an early lesson in what results when bravery and cowardice occur at the same instant.

A few weeks later I finally met him at Lindfield practice rocks. It was a scorching summer’s day, and he was bouldering in just a pair of shorts. 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 used to look like a whippet that needed a good night’s sleep and a dozen T-¬bone steaks. I watched him do a few hard problems and I thought, “Jesus Christ! This guy must have muscles in his shit!” His consuming project at the time was to climb Echo Point, near Katoomba. He’d already used up five partners 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 cool and said, “Sure!”

We became something like the odd couple. He was twenty-five and I was fifteen — an abrasive, competitive, combative whippersnapper. Bryden was tolerant of my comic posturings but at the same time wasn’t willing to just take all my crap without getting up to a few tricks of his own. When we got to Katoomba he said I wasn’t allowed to look at our proposed route until we got down the track as far as the bridge at Honeymoon Point. When we arrived there he had this really smug expression on his face and said okay, I could turn around and have a look. I nearly started crying. I thought: this guy’s even more of a nutter than they said he was. Then I realized he was joking. A few minutes later I realized he wasn’t joking. Well! To admit that I’d lost all interest would be to miss my great opportunity to show him how fearless I was, yet to go ahead with it would almost certainly turn me into a gibbering wreck.

I decided to take the gibbering wreck option and managed to control myself enough to say something like, “Mmmm. Looks good!”

In the end we spent five days on it, over three attempts, with two nights on a shale ledge and one night hanging in bosun’s chairs. The method we used to get up is so hilarious in retrospect that it 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 lad¬der — the stuff cavers used. To conserve carabiners he would only clip, say, every fourth bolt. My bit consisted of grabbing onto the ladder, unclipping, and flying off into space — a sequence I would repeat over and over until until we were together again. We’d then get everything hope¬lessly tangled and confused, and finally repeat the whole process. My knuckles were white for weeks.

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-six and I’d turned about forty-two.

He and I climbed together regularly, even spending weeknights at Lindfield rocks, bouldering with pencil torch¬es in our mouths. We also made a lot of our own gear. He had a little workbench in his room near Sydney University, and we’d make hangers and file the bolts down to size. We made our own skyhooks as well, and 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 was the thing Bryden called the crackajack, which didn’t work at all but was a great idea. It was made from two lengths of rod, each about three inches long. One piece was solid, about three-quarters of an inch in 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. 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. None of this mattered to us. We loved it any¬way and carried it everywhere in its own special bag made from green japara cotton. I favored wooden wedges. 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.

Various people had experimented with expansion bolts and ring bolts of different types, but it was Bryden who came up with the bolt and removable hanger as it is still more or less used today in Australia. Aesthetically speaking, this is still the most advanced system in the world, and the fixed-hanger American/European version is a real eyesore in comparison. Bryden was a great champion of bolts (given the pitiful nature of what else was available this was hardly surprising), but he always made a point of using as few as possible.

One thing I couldn’t figure out at the time was why nobody was using nut protection. I realize now that one of the reasons is because it didn’t feature in the literature that crossed the equator. The pipes did, so everybody dutifully smoked them, but the awareness of nuts had only traveled across on the grapevine, so nobody used them. I’d seen them used a few times on gritstone and in the Lake District, and I’d even practiced putting them in down at the local quarry.

I have an image of hordes of 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. It’s not as dramatic as it sounds, of course. The quarries were often only ten meters high, and looked like rubbish dumps, but they were important training grounds in their day. (I’m not talking Orders of the British Empire or knighthoods 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. I’m talking rusty bedframes, old car tires, broken-down prams and twisted sheets of corrugated iron.I was taken to see an indoor climbing gym last month, right in the center of Manhattan, and I thought it was very impressive. But not quite up to the old Calverly Quarry.)

The other reason they weren’t being used was that by the dictates of popular wisdom they would be useless in sandstone. It sounds crazy now, of course, but if enough people say some¬thing often 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.

Around this time I, along with quite a few other climbers, became interested in trying to keep the cliffs looking as natural as possible, without breaking our necks in the process. Another group tended to lean more toward bolts. And so began the sad soliloquy: To bolt or not to bolt. It was more than just a question — it was the opening salvo 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 maneuverings became positively tortuous in their complexity. I invented a new method for calculating the amount of available daylight and the position of the sun. It 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, and explain that we were almost out of daylight and there wasn’t enough time to place one. If, on the other hand, it was me who was terrified, I’d move the sun way up into the heavens and create all the time 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 it was paraphrased as “what goes in must come out.”

It was during this period of rapid change that Bryden and I did our second route on Bluff Mountain. Unlike our climb of a year earlier, on which we’d placed quite a few bolts, I was hoping that our collection of crude nuts would allow us to climb this one without placing any. What actually happened is a good cautionary tale that says a lot about the tempo of the times. About halfway up I reached a sloping shelf and made a belay with two medium nuts. When Bryden arrived he looked at it and we started having one of those funny domestic quarrels that climbers come to love. I went into my Galileo routine and threw in the Joe Brown look for good measure, but Bryden wasn’t buying. Hard words were exchanged. I finally won him over with those three famous words: “Mate! It’s bombproof!”

He disappeared around a bulge but after a while the rope stopped moving. We couldn’t hear each other over the wind, so I started leaning out on the slings to see what was happening. Just as Bryden clipped into his first runner, a sling over a spike, the bombproof nuts blew out. Bryden started screaming “What’s going on?” I kept shouting “Nothing! Nothing!” as I tried to clamber back onto the shelf. It was the one time he got really angry. He even threatened divorce the moment we got to the top. He would have had sole custody of the crackajack and could have denied me visitation rights, so it’s just as well that we somehow remained friends. And good friends at that. That little spike is one of my personal sacred sites.

By the time I got back from Europe in 1966 the Americans were discovering nuts and we were discovering hard steel American pitons. Glossy climbing magazines from England and America started to appear and — this is the most impor¬tant thing — the time delay between the climbing literature and what was actually happening overseas shrank from about twenty years to about two weeks!



In all my rantings and writings I’ve never said much about grading, so perhaps another detour is in order? When I wrote my guidebooks to climbing in the Blue Mountains, I was so appalled by the uselessness of the English system and the confusions of the European systems that it seemed best to just dump the lot in Sydney Harbor and start again. For example, the top English grade at the time — “extremely severe” — could include anything from riding an escalator to finding yourself on an overhanging greasy nightmare with no visible holds and nothing for protection except a tied-off twig.

Other examples? For a start, the grading systems being used in other countries all had an inbuilt and totally unrealistic glass ceiling, which tradition made it impossible to change. Furthermore, they were all using subdivisions, which created false psychological barriers. And, finally, they were not working well in their country of origin, so why the hell should they work half a world away? An important aspect as well was Australia’s great isolation from what was then a Eurocentric focus in world climbing, and especially a British focus. Because a trip to England was out of the question for most Australian climbers, there was a constant state of confusion about grading climbs at all. So we had the strange situation of climbers in Australia putting up climbs and not being able to grade them because the frame of reference for doing so was 12,000 miles away! Of course, climbs were graded, using the same sys¬tem 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. So I started a new grading system, beginning at 1 and proceeding one number at a time, with no subdivisions and no pre-ordained limit.

My reasons for starting the grades so low came from a desire to demystify and redefine the point at which 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 basic activity of walking uphill as being grade 1, 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.

I never liked the old adjectival way of grading climbs because it implies that there exists a universal criteri¬on of ability. In other words, the guidebook writer, or whoever, is 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 the Manchester Education Department. Most of the kids were in their mid- to late teens, but sometimes we’d get groups of little ones. Instead of taking them to the cliffs, we’d just take them out hill-walking the moors. But I often thought that if we had been allowed to take them climbing it would have been a pity to tell them that what they’d struggled up was graded “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 ever there was one — talk about optimistic), I was never too thrilled to be telling 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 vocal about at the time was to emphasize that the system should be thought of as open-ended from the word go, and not be thought of as in any way having a ceiling. I wanted to ensure that what was being done should not be interpreted as any indication of what was possible.

One criticism of the Australian system is that there are too many numbers. But take away 1-7, which are there for small children and total beginners, and what remains is comparable, more or less, to the total number of subdivisions currently used in England and the U.S. 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, and seriousness into account. My response to this was and still is: “That’s what words are for.” It is interesting that the British climbers, historically a literate subculture in a traditionally literate country, should be lead¬ing 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 on the fourth pitch there is no protection for sixty feet, what is the problem with saying, “On the fourth pitch there is no protection for sixty feet”? 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 climb ten miles from the closest road is going to be a different outing than a one-pitch climb on a roadside crag? Have these Poms been using too much vinegar on their fish and chips? Not enough? Too much salt? What is the problem here?

And a final comment on this subject: What’s wrong with leaving the guidebook in the bag? Give yourself a thrill! Bring back “the four Fs,” as I and my old mate Alec Campbell used to recite to each other: “Fail on it, Fall on it, or Fly up the F*#ker.”

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. 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.”

This is no call for isolationism. It is a call for national individualism and for resistance to European and American cultural imperialism — be it in the form of mass culture or something as microscopic as climbing.



So the sixties moved along. Virtually all attention worldwide shifted temporarily to the granite cliffs of a valley in California, the name of which we didn’t know how to pronounce. On the tongues of Australian and English climbers it was initially read to rhyme with “nose bite” (the most famous climber in Yosemite had a funny name, too — Royal Robbins). 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.

By the early seventies I became so disheartened by the bolting wars and the associated ethical arguments that I decid¬ed to abandon ship. 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 another. Mike actually managed to get me away on a few new routes. One day I went to watch him and Kim Carrigan bouldering and there was no question that I was seeing some hot stuff. They both started out very much as traditional climbers. It’s funny to refer to what I used to do as traditional climbing, but it does have some truth to it. In my fantasies I was 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 keen awareness of the past.

Around 1975 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. So a whole new generation was out there and they took full advantage of that new grading system and just started adding num¬bers. 27. 28. 29! There was no need to form any subcommittees and blow a year’s climbing on paperwork and arguing in the pub.

Later still, 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 that has now become common practice — but that was no longer my battle and I was glad.

And now 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, hangdogging, pinkpointing, redpointing, 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 passé — 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 have their own market value within the psyche of each generation. Personally I believe that the most valued climbs of the future will be the ones where all that exists will be the illusion of the absence of previous human passage — as opposed to those climbs that bear the rusting evidence of it.

As the cliffs pass from the care and stewardship of one generation into the hands of the next, the attendant ceremony of the changing of the guard often becomes an antagonistic exercise rather than a liberating ritual. This is to be expect¬ed given the fact that none of us can say just exactly what it is that we are trying to guard. Now, seeing as the worst possible scenario in any quest for the Holy Grail would be to actually find the bloody thing, this inability to define exactly what we are guarding might be its saving grace.

I remain especially spiritually connected to two areas: the gritstone outcrops of Yorkshire, just as big and wild 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 this neck of the woods. 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 favourite, or trying to explain to my non-climbing companions the content within the silence of the stone. Comical little jaunts, the Currawongs always sound the same; God knows what I expecto find, but the good part is that I always find it. And the tricky part is that having found it, I still don't know what it is.

Many years ago I spent two solid months working on a book in which I tried to formulate some of these same ideas that I am speaking of today. Oh, it was ambitious, with chapters such as “Climbing As an Art Form,” “Climbing As a Sport,” “Climbing As This & That,” and at the end of it all I threw the lot into the flames. Holes everywhere; everything contradicted and fell over itself. Nothing panned out. It still doesn’t. It still remains a mystery, and I find myself a middle-aged man 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.



If I can do it without sounding 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 the south side of Bungonia, in the Warrumbungles, and on Dogface. 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 had me in stitches. A few weeks after being discharged he took a gun and blew his brains out.

I’ve mentioned the names of many climbers tonight. However, two of the biggest influences on my approach to high-angle silliness were not directly connected with climbing at all. One was a slim volume, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, the phenomenal pre-World War I Russian dancer. The other was the letters of Vincent van Gogh. I’d like to try to start winding down with one of my favorite quotations from Mr. van Golf Ball. I should explain that the “bulb trade” he mentions is a reference to the tulip-growing industry, which became a national obsession — an early form of a futures exchange, so speculative and widespread that it actually started to undermine the country’s monetary system and was eventually banned by the government. So the very sim¬ple and beautiful act of growing a flower was transformed into something similar to groveling about on the floor of a stock exchange.

So, 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 consid¬ering 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 it 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 climbing 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, as it implies a certain naiveté. I should 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 appear 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 that 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, 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 may have 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 relative, or at least it can be. From Tricounis to modern slippers, if you’re truly interested in taking a walk on the wild side you still can; and it doesn’t really matter what you’re wearing on your feet when you’re shitting in your pants.



steveA

Trad climber
Wolfeboro, NH
Dec 13, 2013 - 06:54am PT
Ghost,

Thanks so much for posting that!

John had a natural gift for prose.
Macciza

Big Wall climber
New South Wales
Dec 13, 2013 - 09:24am PT
Thank you very much for that post . .

John passing is indeed tragic - an enormous loss to Australian climbing history, and future . . .

He is a great hero of mine whom i was fortunate to meet, climb with and mutually call each other friend. The cliffs are diminished by his passing, but his memory lives on every time we climb a Ewbank graded climb . .

RIP John
L

climber
California dreamin' on the farside of the world..
Dec 13, 2013 - 10:04am PT
It takes a bit of time to read...and it's worth every second.

John illuminated what the allure of climbing has been for me (and obvioulsy many others) in a way that instantly reverberated deep within.

I've never read words like that before, not about climbing rocks.

Thank you for posting this, Dave. It's a true gift.
mike m

Trad climber
black hills
Dec 13, 2013 - 11:51am PT
The Taco in a nutshell. One huge nutshell, but a very good read. Thanks for posting that.
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Dec 13, 2013 - 12:09pm PT
High praise, indeed any praise, from Ghost means this merits being put off
for a quieter time. But I did read the first few paragraphs to confirm
my suspicions that this will be a very exceptional read. Thanks in advance!
pmonks

climber
Dec 13, 2013 - 02:10pm PT
Thanks Ghost for publishing this. While the enormous influence John had on Australian climbing is self-evident, it's less well known how thoughtful and reflective he was about the game (even, and perhaps especially, after his "retirement"). It's articles like this that help illustrate this depth of character.

I was fortunate enough to have had one brief (though memorable!) interaction with John, so I'll be raising a glass (or maybe a pipe!) to him next time I'm at the crag - he'll be sorely missed.
JEleazarian

Trad climber
Fresno CA
Dec 13, 2013 - 02:44pm PT
Thank you very much, Ghost!

John
Big Mike

Trad climber
BC
Dec 13, 2013 - 03:31pm PT
Wow Dave! That was awesome! Thanks!!
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Dec 17, 2013 - 03:52pm PT
Bump for some meaning of life.
survival

Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
Dec 17, 2013 - 04:48pm PT
Wow, Ghost, another home run out of the park. With John as your DH.


Well done fellows, DAMN!!
Ghost

climber
A long way from where I started
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 17, 2013 - 10:09pm PT
It's a great piece, isn't it?

When I put it up a few days ago I just did a quick cut & paste job from an old file, and I think it was probably hard to read. I've cleaned it up and pasted the new version in.

Following our correspondence over this piece we continued to go back and forth, and he eventually sent me quite a bit of his writing. It wasn't Pullitzer-level, but I certainly enjoyed it as a fellow climber and writer.

Wish I'd had the chance to tie on with him.

Todd Eastman

climber
Bellingham, WA
Dec 17, 2013 - 11:04pm PT
Dang Ghost, that was the BEST writing about climbing and growing up and older I've ever read. It is really about the journey.

Thanks!
MH2

climber
Dec 17, 2013 - 11:28pm PT
Affecting.

A blend of

I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot
Joni Mitchell


and

daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
John Prine



and

Walkabout
Nicolas Roeg

RyanD

climber
Squamish
Dec 18, 2013 - 12:24am PT
What a doozy, so real.


Great stuff. So great. Never heard of him before this, thanks for posting.

neebee

Social climber
calif/texas
Jun 17, 2016 - 10:32pm PT
hey there say, ghost... wow, thanks for the link, here...

happy good eve, to you...
survival

Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
Jun 18, 2016 - 12:25am PT
Awesomeness has returned.

Thanks again Ghost.
overwatch

climber
Arizona
Jun 18, 2016 - 01:13am PT
About halfway through and I can already tell that this is the best thing I've ever read on supertopo so many great lines I don't know where to start.

This is one of them

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

and this

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!

So many parallels to why I climb and my Taoist practices. Thank you mr. Ghost

edit
finished. ..wow so good.
Gnome Ofthe Diabase

climber
Out Of Bed
Jun 18, 2016 - 02:37am PT
For me also, before I'd finished or seen 'Overwatch's post, I felt compelled to post on the video of S. Trotter, on the Totem pole. That was responsible for dredging this fine treatment to the for-front, thanks so much for a great informative thought provoking read.

The “collective social dreamtime” that I speak 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: on the climb itself. And to paraphrase a famous remark once made by a particularly self-serving and arrogant prime minister, going walkabout wasn’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 spiri¬tual sustenance from pivotal moments experienced on various climbs; and if this sounds like a lot of mystical non¬sense, 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 between the climber and the landscape. This bond to and with the earth is central to the dreamtime.

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. No, I am using it because it is the best example I can find to illustrate the aspect of climbing in which I am most interested.
Marlow

Sport climber
OSLO
Jun 18, 2016 - 11:41am PT

Great writing all the way...

Now when Peter had written that we would be sleeping in a cave, I imagined something from a German fairy tale: an entrance hole, then a snug, deep, dry cave with a flat floor covered in leaves. I didn’t realize that in Australia the expression “cave” can mean just an overhang of rock, so the fact that it was winter and I 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 Fairy Down 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.

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 my lack of anything that resembled climbing equipment. To now admit that I didn’t have a sleeping bag was impossible. I thought, “Bugger me dead. They’ll never let me come climbing again!” So 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 diplomat¬ic whip around the site, collecting a huge pile of spare clothes. “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 “Last Great Problem” that climbers have been forever trying to solve may in the end turn out to be 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 I did more than twenty years ago. At that time I became so embroiled in issues such as bolting that I felt I had to stop climbing altogether. Having placed hundreds of bolts and having also removed hundreds, my 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 that surround that activity. I now realize this dichotomy exists everywhere, in everything — 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.
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