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Is This the Oldest Photograph of Roped Climbing in Australia?

The Grampians have been in the climbing news a lot lately after Parks Victoria initiated the world’s largest rock climbing bans (over 50% of the region’s best climbing) and with no consultation with the climbing community. To say these have been tough times for the climbing community is an understatement. Coincidentally I have just finished reading The Living Rock, the Invention of Climbing in Eastern Australia by Michael Meadows (a Queensland based journalism professor). His 378 page book explores a colourful and exciting climbing history that has grown into the rich community we share today. If you haven’t read The Living Rock then I implore you to do so. It’s a great read.

The Living Rock, however, is primarily focused on the climbing pioneers of southeast Queensland and the Blue Mountains of NSW. As a Victorian I couldn’t help but wonder about my own state and its early climbing history. All I knew was that in 1947 the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club (MUMC) became the first (and still longest running) climbing club in Victoria. It was followed in 1952 by the Victorian Climbing Club (VCC). Sugarloaf Peak in the Cathedral Ranges were a popular destination in those early years. The formation of these climbing clubs came late when compared to European clubs. The Alpine Club was formed in London in 1857 (originally a gentleman’s club which mainly focused on mountaineering in the European Alps). Pure rock climbing saw its birth around the mid 1860s in places such as the Elbe Sandstone Mountains in Germany, the Dolomites in Italy and the north of England in the Lake District and the Peak District.

In the 1970s I met an older MUMC climber who told me that there had been ‘a fair bit of climbing activity’ in the Grampians in the early 1930s. That discussion stayed in the back of my mind and I have always felt it probable that important pieces of Victoria’s early climbing history had gone missing. Fast forward 40 years and we have the internet. With an ever increasing number of photographs and newspapers becoming digitised (and available as searchable documents) we may eventually be able to fill in those gaps. It turns out that George Rose, the well-known early Australian photographer, took a series of climbing images in the Grampians back around 1910. One photograph in particular caught my eye. The caption read A NERVE-TRYING FEAT. Scaling the Gorilla Head, an immense overhanging cliff, Mackay’s (sic) Peak, Grampians, Vic, Australia. Copyright 1909.

The year 1909 was initially hard to comprehend. If the stereograph had been taken in 1909 then this would certainly be one of Australia’s most historically significant climbing photos. It would also establish the Grampians as one of the earliest rock climbing destinations in Australia. I contacted Michael Meadows for his opinion and this was his email reply:

I met up with Robert Thomson this morning and he agrees with me that it is a genuine photograph and bears some similarity to some of the Abraham Brothers images of climbing in the Lake District about that time (see images below). It seems highly likely that George Rose — the well-known Australian photographer who took the image — would have been aware of the Abrahams’ work and quite possibly followed that style — i.e. having a number of climbers strung out on a route. There’s a mixture of pulling up on the rope (as they most often did back then) and a half-hearted belay. Regardless, the first climber soloed the route. A bold and daring lead for the time. I’ve seen several other photographs of people pulling up the rope like this (and even a movie of Bert Samon’s crowd doing it on Mt Lindesay in the mid-1930s). But the images are not quite so spectacular (and as old) as this one. The earliest image I have found was an artist’s impression of a drama on Mt Lindesay in 1890 which shows someone hanging onto a rope on the very steep Mt Lindesay cliff. But it’s a drawing. There is a description of the Clark sisters climbing Crookneck in 1912 where they were actually using rope as a belaying device, tied around their waists. That’s the earliest example of belaying as we do it today that I have come across so far. One of the young women actually fell and was held swinging over a 50 metre drop. But no photographs except that doctored one on the summit we spoke about where the photographer, George Rowe, inserted himself in the image in a darkroom. I am confident in saying that it is the oldest known photograph of serious climbing activity in Australia involving the use of a rope.

Michael Meadows
Moss Ghyll. Lake District, England. Abraham Brothers. Fell and Rock Club c1895
O.G Jones on Kern Knotts Crack. Lake District, England. Abraham Bros. Fell and Rock Club c1895

Unfortunately there was a fly in the ointment. Apparently Mackeys Peak was not called Mackay’s (sic) Peak in 1909. According to the Parks Victoria signage in Halls Gap it wasn’t until 1920 that it was given its official name of Mackeys Peak. Halls Gap locals had originally named it Cherub Peak after the death of a baby girl (Agnes Folkes) in 1870. The grave still exists today at the start of the walking trail up to the cliff.

So what is going on with this 1909 caption by George Rose? It appears to be 11 years too early. With a bit of research it soon became obvious that the 1920 ‘official’ naming of Mackeys Peak didn’t quite add up. From what I could gather George Rose had finished producing stereograph photographs by 1920 as the fad of viewing stereographs was pretty much over. Around 1910 or so George Rose had moved away from the production of stereographs to what later became his immensely popular Rose Postcards. The following two newspaper cuttings are much more convincing.

The Advocate 05 February 1910.
The Argus, 21 December 1909.

So there you have it. The cliff is Mackeys Peak (once called Cherub Peak), a large cliff overlooking Halls Gap in the central Grampians. The climb is called Manolete, three pitches at grade 11 and which had its first recorded ascent by Phillip Stranger in 1967. In future I propose that Manolete be returned back to its original name of Gorilla Head (the reason why is obvious) and the first ascent should be recorded as 1909. It’s a shame we don’t have the name of the first ascentionists. There has to be records somewhere of who these people were and maybe one day we will find them. This image and a number of other stereographs (by George Rose and others) are providing proof that the Grampians have played a significant role in Australia’s rich rock climbing history for at least 110 years. In other words, rock climbing should be viewed along with bushwalking as the first recreational pursuits to be enjoyed in the Grampians. Hopefully Parks Victoria takes this into consideration in the coming months and years ahead.

Thanks to Michael Meadows and Robert Thomson. Thanks also to Steve Toal (editor of the new Central Grampians Comprehensive Guide) who scoured his many topo photographs and helped me to eventually identify the climb.

This is a close-up of the 1909 photo (left) next to a 2019 photo (right). Nothing has changed in 110 years! Even the white lichen patch (above the third climber) is very similar in shape and size. How long does lichen live for? I reckon I managed to stand in almost the same place as George Rose did in 1909. The Gorilla head is obvious.
Castle Rocks, Goat Rock, Grampians, Vic, Australia. A Striking example of weather erosion of sandstone strata. 1909. Goat Rock was the settlers original name for Mt Rosea. Notice the climber using a rope in the chasm. There is also a climber perched halfway up the wall.
Climbing out of the Grand Canyon, Grampians. Herbert Percival Bennett , photographer. 1912-13.
Climbing the White Cliffs, Mt Difficult, Grampians, Vic, Australia. A task even for good climbers. George Rose. 1908.

Sources

Pic 1. A nerve-trying feat, scaling Gorilla Head, an immense overhanging cliff, Mackay’s Peak, Grampians, Vic., Australia, Monash Collections Online, http://repository.monash.edu/items/show/14249 George Rose, 1909.
Pic 2. Castle Rocks, Goat Rock, Grampians, Vic, Australia. A Striking example of weather erosion of sandstone strata. State Library of Victoria. http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/457577 George Rose, 1909.
Pic 3. Climbing out of the Grand Canyon, Grampians. State Library of Victoria. http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/359521 Herbert Percival Bennett 1912-13.
Pic 4. Climbing the White Cliffs, Mt Difficult, Grampians, Vic, Australia. A task even for good climbers. Monash Collections Online http://hdl.handle.net/1959.1/1269599 George Rose. 1908.

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Grampians National Park: Safety Ropes, Bushwalking and Special Protection Areas

Many of you are probably aware that Parks Victoria have initiated sweeping rock climbing bans across the Grampians National Park in what are called Special Protection Areas (SPAs). At Open Spaces we have received a number of phone calls and emails asking whether these bans will effect bushwalkers who use safety ropes within SPAs. At least two of our Grampians walks in our Daywalks Around Victoria guidebook are directly affected. These walks are Stapylton Ampitheatre and The Fortress Caves. So we decided to write to Parks Victoria to seek clarification. Here is our letter (dated 27 May 2019):

To whom it may concern,
Open Spaces are currently in the process of writing an online update to the four Grampians bushwalks we describe in our popular Daywalks Around Victoria guidebook. This book has sold over 3000 copies and we have a responsibility to the groups, clubs and numerous independent walkers to attempt to clarify the somewhat confusing situation regarding the current Parks Victoria Special Protection Areas (SPAs). Two of our described walks (the Stapylton Amphitheatre, p44 and The Fortress Caves, p50) appear to be affected by the SPAs.

As you are no doubt aware the Stapylton Amphitheatre walk (the rocky ridge linking Hollow Mountain with Mt Stapylton) has long been regarded as one of the most iconic walks in the Grampians, it has been called the most spectacular walk in Victoria and sees hundreds of walkers a year (both teenagers and adults). The Echoes Block section of the Stapylton Amphitheatre walk (at the point where you leave the main walking trail to Hollow Mountain) appears to be within an SPA. It is our understanding that there is now a ban on the use of safety ropes within SPAs. Unfortunately many groups, clubs and independent walkers commonly use a safety rope to gain the top of the Echoes Block. Although the scrambling is easy, it is the safest way to bring walkers up. Safety ropes have been used on the Stapylton Amphitheatre walk for at least 50 years.

We are writing to you to inform you that we will be advising our readers that if they resort to using a safety rope within an SPA they face possible fines of over $1600. We will also inform our readers that a safety rope is therefore not allowed to be used on the initial Echoes Block section of the walk but is allowed to be used on the final steep northern scramble up to the summit of Mt Stapylton (as this section is not within an SPA).

The final scramble up to the top of the Fortress is also regularly completed by groups, clubs and independent walkers. Some of these people rely on the use of a safety rope to gain what is widely regarded as the best summit in the Grampians.

Question one. Is the Fortress within an SPA? It is difficult to tell as the official maps are lacking in detail. If it is within an SPA we will inform our readers that the use of a safety rope to gain the summit is no longer allowed.

Question two. Has Parks Victoria considered that a no safety rope policy (within SPAs) will influence some walkers to forgo the use of a safety rope (due to the over $1600 fine) and which will almost certainly result in future accidents?

We understand that both of these walks are not officially recognised by Parks Victoria but considering that they are historically important, have a long history with walkers and are popular (particularly the Stapylton Amphitheatre walk) it would be hard for Parks Victoria to pretend that they didn’t exist, and therefore absolve themselves of any future responsibility.

Looking forward to your response, Glenn Tempest, Open Spaces Publishing

Here is Park Victoria’s response (dated 11 July 2019):

Dear Mr Tempest
Safety Ropes in Special Protection Areas

Thank you for your email of the 28th May, 2019 to the Hon Lily D’Ambrosio MP, Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, regarding Special Protection Areas and the use of safety ropes while bushwalking in Grampians National Park. As this issue falls within Parks Victoria’s responsibilities, your correspondence has been forwarded to me for my consideration and response. I apologise for taking so long to get back to you.

While Parks Victoria prohibits rock climbing within Special Protection Areas (SPA’s) there is no prohibition on the use of safety ropes to assist with the activity of bushwalking either inside or outside of SPA’s. Safety ropes are permitted if necessary for safety while bush walking and National Parks regulations are complied with (i.e. no damage to rock or use of bolts, no trampling or damaging of vegetation). Parks Victoria would be interested in working with you to provide clarity to bushwalkers on what defines the use of safety ropes while bushwalking and how it can easily be distinguished from climbing.

To clarify your question regarding Echoes block and the Fortress: Echoes block is within an SPA. The area is of significant natural and cultural value, and is not on an authorized walking track. Although bush walking is permitted in this SPA, the nature of this activity is “off track” therefore, bush walkers are reminded to adhere to minimal impact guidelines (tread lightly, keep group sizes small, don’t damage vegetation) and comply with National Park regulations. Safety ropes if necessary, should only be used as described above and not be the primary means of access.

The Fortress walking track is an authorized walking track that sits within a remote and natural area, where the activity of bushwalking on and off track is permitted. However, the walking track itself has an SPA layer over its entirety for the protection of important natural values. The summit of the Fortress is not within this SPA as the authorized walking track does not continue to this area. Bush walking in this summit area will need to adhere to minimal impact guidelines and comply with National Park regulations. Care should be taken when walking off track to consider remoteness and difficult terrain.

As you may be aware, a new management plan is being developed for the Grampians landscape, an area that covers the Grampians National Park and adjacent parks and reserves. This document will underpin strategic planning for the Grampians landscape over the next 15 years to ensure the precious environmental and cultural values of this iconic landscape are preserved for future generations to enjoy. This includes providing longer-term direction on matters such as access and usage of the park. The process to develop this plan will include opportunities for you to share your thoughts, attend public information sessions, and get feedback from Parks Victoria and key stakeholders on specific questions that you may have.

I will have local staff from the Grampians National Park contact you to meet you on site and discuss these matters further.

Yours sincerely
Sally Lewis, Regional Director Western Region Parks Victoria

So, just to be clear. Safety ropes are permitted if necessary for safety while bush walking and National Parks regulations are complied with (i.e. no damage to rock or use of bolts, no trampling or damaging of vegetation). I’d like to thank Sally Lewis (Regional Director Western Region) and to Simon Talbot (Chief Operating Officer) and Gavan Mathieson (South West District Manager) for contacting me with regards to this important issue.

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Following the Wombat Poo Trail


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