With more than 66,000 logged climbing routes across the country, you’d be hard-pressed to deny Australia’s well-established rock climbing culture. But relatively speaking, it’s not been this way for long.
Unlike the advent of alpine adventurism in Europe as early as the 18th century (the first ascent of Mont Blanc was in 1786), Australia was much later to the game. And the story of how it came about is certainly worth telling.
The Australian public’s first impressions of climbing came from the tales of daring European alpinists in the mid-1800’s, documented in newspaper articles and the occasional photograph that found its way to our shores.
Mountaineering, and by extension rock climbing, was viewed as a uniquely European pastime not suited to the flat, brown Australian continent. Instead, we filled our weekends with organised sports, the beach and the occasional emu war. However, this viewpoint doesn’t really hold up if you consider the 3500km belt of spectacular cliff lines and mountains that stands between the populous east coast and the ‘flat, brown’ centre – the Great Dividing Range.
By 1877, someone had finally woken up to the potential trapped in this vast geological formation.
William Guilfoyle was a young botanist and author from Queensland, and took part in what was probably the first non-indigenous ascent of Wollumbin — Mt Warning, a 1156m peak in Wollumbin National Park. And it stoked him out.
In his first-hand account, he detailed their three and a half day climb, including an ‘almost perpendicular’ final 150m scramble to the summit, where they were ’embosomed in mountains of indescribable splendour’.
Side Note: Reconciling the ways that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities value and respect the natural environment is always a tricky one. Mt Warning, known as Wollumbin by the local Bundjalung people, is regarded as sacred and for many years they’ve appealed for greater sensitivity from visitors who choose to climb it. Please always consider Indigenous requests before adventuring (even if William Guilfoyle didn’t).
The Growth of Australian Climbing Culture
Guilfoyle’s ascent was arguably the match that ignited Australia’s climbing culture. Others followed, venturing out in search of ascents, and by the mid-1880s the shift was in full swing – from seeing mountains as obstacles to be crossed to formations with their own inherent recreational value.
Articles on hiking and climbing became common in local newspapers, including Thomas Welsby’s three-part account of his climbing exploits in the Glasshouse Mountains. This is regarded by historians as the first publication reflecting Queensland’s emerging climbing scene (and by We Are Explorers as the OG of microadventure write-ups).
In a gesture with probably less acceptability today, Welsby wrote that upon reaching the top of Mt Tibrogargan, he proudly lit an uncontained fire on its summit as a signal to those watching nearby and descended in a blaze of glory. Different times.
The momentum behind the movement grew further, and records of first ascents around Queensland continued to emerge. In 1910, the infamous trachyte spire of Coonowrin, a difficult and complex route, was finally summited by 23 year-old Henry Mikalsen.
The following year, his sisters Sara, Jenny and Etty also reached the summit – arguably one-upping their brother by then riding their bikes 80km back to Brisbane on the same day of the hugely difficult ascent. Gnarly.
The Two Camps
By the 1920s, things had become more organised in Queensland. A mountaineering club dubbed “The Crowd” had formed in the state’s southeast. Led by the legendary ‘spiritual father’ of climbing, Albert Salmon, the club had an endless appetite for dangerous ascents, and was renowned for its disdain for ropes or any other form of gear.
Around the same time, climbers in New South Wales had begun to take notice of the Blue Mountains. A group of friends, led by the charismatic Dr Eric Dark, led regular trips to the sandstone cliffs of Narrow Neck and waterfalls of Shoalhaven. By 1929 they were scaling the Three Sisters. Dark writes:
‘We began with easy climbs on the Second and Third Sisters and the Orphan Rock. The more we climbed the more we liked it; so one evening, around a fire in our sitting room, we decided to form a club which we called the Blue Mountaineers.’
However, Dark taught a very different style of climbing to his purist counterparts up north. Unlike Salmon, he welcomed the use of safety ropes, and even accepted ice-axe style tools as a necessary method to haul climbers up past difficult sections of ascents.
In a historic encounter, the two camps converged on the Blue Mountains for a combined climbing trip in 1934, and it went just as you’d expect.
Dark welcomed the visitors from Queensland by showing them an advanced 10m wall used to initiate climbers into their club. To Dark’s horror, Salmon immediately scaled the route without a rope. By the afternoon, the Queenslanders, including 21-year-old Muriel Patten, were performing unroped ascents of the Three Sisters.
The active involvement of women on the day impressed local reporters, as documented in The Truth:
‘This exploit astonished the less adventurous Southerners, who have not taken mountaineering so seriously, and did not realise that the Queensland girls have left the rest of Australia far behind in this exacting and exciting sport.’
While World War 2 slowed the development of climbing, cultural and media interest in emerging climbing legends like John Ewbank, Rick White and Kim Carrigan sustained our nation’s fascination in the sport.
Since then, climbing’s become a ton more accessible. Indoor climbing gyms, guide books and websites like The Crag have helped fuel an explosion in the number of people hitting the walls – about 300,000 Aussies climb regularly (though mostly indoors). In 2021, rock climbing will make its debut as an Olympic sport in Tokyo, giving Australia the chance to really prove itself as a climbing country.
Credit for much of the information in this article goes to Michael Meadows, whose blog The Living Rock and published article ‘Reinventing the Heights: The origins of rockclimbing culture in Australia’ take a deep dive into the origins of rock climbing culture in Australia.