Posted on Leave a comment

Mike Graham; a Day at Arapiles (1980)

California-based climber Mike Graham first visited Arapiles in 1980. He and his partner, Wendy, flew into Melbourne and stayed at my parents house in Lilydale. I think it was a relief for my parents to see that I actually had some ‘normal’ friends rather than the weird riff-raff that usually crashed on our lounge room floor.

Mike was a member of the legendary Stonemasters, a group of talented southern Californian climbers that included the likes of John Yablonski, Tobin Sorenson, John Long, Rick Accomazzo and John Bachar. At Arapiles Mike and Wendy immediately fitted in really well with the locals, who, in the fashion of the Stonemasters, were busy rewriting the history of Australian climbing.

I shot these photographs of Mike leading an early ascent (in 1980) of No Exit (25, 5.12a). I remember that day really well because both Kevin Lindorff and I also led the pitch. Mike, Kevin and I took turns in belaying each other. Peter von Gaza, another visiting US climber was also with us. Kevin and I had both previously led No Exit and Kevin had also seconded Kim Carrigan when he added the superb second pitch.

No Exit was put up by Chris Peisker in May 1979 and it quickly became a classic test-piece. The first clip is a really crappy dowel thingy, a style of bolt that was quite popular in the US at the time. Some thin bouldery moves lead into a flaring bottomless crack, which quickly relents. At the top of the crack, and just when you figured No Exit was in the bag, a desperate mantel does its best to ruin your day. This final awkward move has seen more than a few climbers come unstuck. Interestingly, it’s the grade 23 second pitch which I reckon is the real standout. Unfortunately it doesn’t get done all that often, which is a shame.

Notice the cool harness that Mike is wearing. It was made by Chouinard Equipment and is constructed out of a single length of white webbing. I can’t remember its official name but it was actually a great bit of kit. I went through at least three of these units. It was one of the first real harnesses developed for rockclimbers (as opposed to the Troll Whillans Harness which was used by rockclimbers but was in fact designed for high altitude mountaineering.

We spent the afternoon bouldering in Central Gully. I took a few pics of Mike doing Guillotine (V3) on the block right of Pebble Wall. I think Mike really enjoyed the technical nature of Arapiles and it seemed to suit his strong ethical nature, which formed the basis for much of his climbing.

Mike later teamed up with Mark Moorhead and in May 1980 he led the first ascent of Ride Like the Wind (25, 5.12b), one of Araples’ now classic bold wall-climbs. Mike returned the following year to lead the first ascent of Breezin’ (24, 5.11d) another bold on-sight effort.

In 1982 Mike created Gramicci Products, a climbing, surfing and lifestyle apparel brand set in Southern California. He is also credited with designing the first collapsible portaledge, which he sold under the Gramicci label in the early 1980’s.

Posted on 2 Comments

Mt Donna Buang, 1914; Sawmills and War

I found this really interesting article in The Argus from Friday, March 27th 1914. Reading it made me realise that logging in the Upper Yarra Valley was already of an environmental concern even 98 years ago. Exactly three months after this article appeared in the press, World War 1 broke out and Australia changed forever. Who knows, perhaps this early show of distaste against the actions of the logging industry may have taken root had it not been for two consecutive world wars. The photograph below is sourced from the State Library of Victoria. It is titled View of track through forest on Mount Donna Buang, Victoria’ and was taken in 1911. The photograph ‘Gully at Five-Mile Bend on road to Cement Creek’ accompanied the original article.


The Argus, Friday, March 27th, 1914.

Under the shadow of Donna Buang, within five miles of the little town of Warburton, are some of the most beautiful gullies in all the Victorian hills. The longest summer does not dry their sparkling streams, nor warm the cool air in the shaded glens. Ancient peace reigned there until the ring of the axe lately drove the lyre bird from its haunt among the fern. The mountain is being stripped of its beauty for the cash value of its stately trees.

Two or three years ago the Department of Public Works entered upon the construction of a coach road from the township of Warburton to the top of Mount Donna Buang, where snow lies in the winter some times 4ft deep. From the top of this peak the traveler looks down on the valley of the Yarra and the villages clustering along its banks. Far up into the farther hills both the river and the Woods Point road wander like two ribbons through the forest’s dark green. Realising the aesthetic value of the beautiful gullies and the lofty mountain peak, the department spent the sum of £3000 on the construction of the road. There was no cooperation, however, between the Forest department and the Department of Public Works. The object of the latter was to see that the money was not wasted by the destruction of the gullies and mountain streams that were expected to attract thousands of tourists to the place. The interest of the Forestry department seems to have been to obtain the greatest possible revenue from the saw-millers in the form of royalty on the trees cut down. After a delay of nearly two years, a reservation, only three chains wide, on either side of the road has been made by the Forestry department, after some of the most beautiful gullies have been either spoiled or quite destroyed. Even if the three chain belt is left untouched, the narrow strip will not conceal the bare mountain side beyond. The beauty of the gullies will be gone.

The road winds northward round the range until it reaches the head waters of the Cement Creek. This stream flows down a deep gully thick with ferns and moss- covered beech trees through which the tall mountain ash tower like the pillars of a vast cathedral. The bottom of the gully and the valley beyond cannot be seen. Only the echoes of the stream as it splashes far below, reach the ear with a soft, inland murmur. The road makes a sharp bend here, and a space has been made, wide enough for a coach and team to turn. The water bubbles from the mountain side the whole year through. Even now, in spite of the long, dry summer, the ground is still wet, and the air so cool that it strikes the traveler with a chill. How long this will last one cannot say, for a little further down the gully, so near that the steam whistle breaks discordantly through the stillness, a sawmill is busily at work, cutting its way through the bush for the sake of a few payable trees to be obtained. Before long all but the narrow strip reserved from destruction will be cleared. The beauty of the gully will disappear, and the creek, in all probability become a winter torrent, leaving in summer a paltry stream of water trickling down the seared mountain side.

These gullies have other values than the market price of the trees now growing in them. If properly preserved, they would bring to the district and to the state far more revenue and abiding wealth than the royalty, which for a little while, the saw-miller will pay. Around the road, particularly where it crosses the Cement Creek, a sufficient area should be reserved to maintain at least the illusion that the traveler is in the heart of a mountain forest.


Posted on 7 Comments

The Mattress Backs of Taipan

We were walking down the trail from Taipan Wall when Michael abruptly stopped, dropped to his knee and pointed excitedly into the trees. I crouched down next to him and after a few moments I could make out something moving in the boulders. Two small faces, beanies pulled down over their tiny ears, large brown eyes scanning the rocks above them. My heart skipped a beat as I realised we were seeing a pair of elusive marsupial mattress backs (Matterbackious dynocranker).

Like most people I’d only ever seen mattress backs in the gym, playing with themselves in dark corners, swinging by their arms and waiting for feed time. Of course I’d heard their distinctive vocal calls and even stumbled upon their empty caves, but seeing them in the wild was a first for me. Here in the Australian bush mattress backs were once an endangered species, but are now thought to be increasing in numbers. Easily identifiable by the large mattress which they carry on their backs and the woolen beanies they wear on even the hottest of days, mattress backs are among our most elusive and secretive creatures.

What makes this species so unusual, however, is the elaborate rock dance that they periodically perform. Experts believe the rock dance is some form of complex mating ritual. The male, usually the shorter and stockier of the species, steps carefully onto the rock, twists his body into a variety of contorted positions and then, after just a few brief seconds, falls heavily onto the mattress below. These rock dances must require a great deal of effort as the male then rolls over and falls asleep.

Interestingly, if a female of the species is within sight, the male will immediately get up, shake his hands and step back on the rock. This process is repeated many times in a row. The female pretends not to notice the dancing male as she checks her Facebook account, applies her lip balm or changes the wallpaper on her iPhone for the umpteenth time that day. Her tactic appears to be designed to enrage the male mattress back who launches himself into ever more contorted positions accompanied by loud grunting. If there is still no reaction by the female (who may be playing Angry Birds by this stage) the almost exhausted male mattress back will resort to stripping to the waist in a final desperate bid for attention. Observers who have been lucky enough to have witnessed this part of the ritual have reported that after adjusting her Prana pants the female pulls on to the rock and imitates the same dance moves. This results in a sudden wave of interest among the nearby males who all stride forward with outstretched arms, the palms of their trembling hands just millimetres away from the female’s buttocks. As she dances her moves the males all yell in delight, crowding around her in a sort of group-sex rugby scrum. Eventually she collapses onto the mattress and the males all start wailing and pointing at the rock in apparent despair. This highly sex-charged atmosphere now triggers the males to pull on their beanies and launch themselves in a mad frenzy at the rock.

Occasionally a female will begin her rock dance and actually reach the top of the boulder, at which point all the males immediately lose interest in her, fall silent, put on their shirts and walk off in various directions to brood by themselves. The female then retires back to her mattress where she posts her ascent on Facebook.

Unlike other marsupials, mattress backs, both male and female, carry their pouches on their backs. These pouches are filled with a white substance, which they use to daub across the rock to mark their territory. Males also use urine to mark their territory, a habit that females rarely seem to do.

A sub species, the bearded mattress back (Matted dynocranker) can also be occasionally seen. This sub-species tends to be less energetic than their clean-shaven tribal brethren and are usually physically larger and more bombastic. Their rock dance ritual is also much less complex and only lasts for a second or two, after which they spend the rest of the day sitting on their mattresses, softly grunting to themselves.

Lone mattress backs are another enigma. Almost only ever spotted accompanied by a tripod and Go-Pro camera, it appears that lone mattress backs can only perform their complex rock dance routines when videoing themselves. Zoologists originally considered that lone mattress backs were a separate sub-species (lone mattress backs tend to be balding and wear glasses) but now believe that they are the result of a serious psychological impairment, having an inability to perform when observed by other members of their tribe.

And so it was that after a minute or so the two mattress backs noticed our presence and quickly vanished into the boulders. Michael and I walked over to where they had been sitting. All the tell-tale signs were there. A couple of old worn toothbrushes, bits of finger tape and some daubs of chalk on the rock. The acrid smell of urine indicated that we had just witnessed two young males at play with each other. We felt very lucky indeed to have seen these mattress backs in their natural habitat. I even stepped in a mattress back stool. Now how cool was that?


Posted on 2 Comments

Mt Tongariro Awakens after 100 Years

Last night New Zealand’s Mt Tongariro erupted for the first time in 115 years. The eruptions appear to have occurred at Te Mari Crater, which is not far from the Ketetahi Hot Springs on the northern side of the mountain. It will be interesting to see exactly what impact these eruptions will have the 19.4km-long Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of New Zealand’s most beautiful and spectacular daywalks. For those unfamiliar with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing here are a few images to set the scene.


Mt Tongariro, along with Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu, form a chain of active volcanic peaks within the Mt Tongariro National Park. This world Heritage site is New Zealand’s oldest national park and one of its most visited.

A few years back Karen and I walked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as part of the longer Tongariro Northern Circuit. We spent six days on the trail and wrote a feature story for Outdoor Australia magazine.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing was certainly the most exciting part of the walk as it allowed us to walk around smoking craters, see into their gaseous depths and even step over jets of hot steam.

The landscape is almost totally barren and very rocky. If it wasn’t for the large snow patches on nearby Mt Ngauruhoe you could easily imagine yourself walking on the surface of Mars.