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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.

3 thoughts on “Is This the Oldest Photograph of Roped Climbing in Australia?

  1. Great history and pics. Thanks Brigitte. I remember seeing stereogrph 3D pics at my Uncle”s farm at Quambatook in the 1960s. There were Mt Buffalo scenes but I don’t recall any rockclimbing.

  2. Some species of lichen have been identified as over 7000 years old and are thought to be the only living organisms to be immortal

  3. Surely National Parks Victoria can find better scapegoats to persecute than the rockclimbing fraternity who only wish to preserve and protect these wonderful spaces for others to enjoy in the future! P***Ks is too kind a word for the imbeciles supporting this totally ill concieved and moronic decision! As a former climber for nearly half a century I can say that the climbers are in the vast majority more eco Aware and proactive in protecting the environment than the average polie who are still to explore their own environment ( sorry to Bob Brown) and probably are hard put to extract their heads from their own backsides!

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