Interview: Glenn Tempest
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Date: 16th Feb 2003
My dad climbed in the UK. When I was a kid he used to drag me out to the crags. I didn't really get really keen on climbing until 1974 when some friends and I started out using home made ropes on North Jawbones. We soon met 'real' climbers like Reg Marron and Nic Reeves who got us to join the Victorian Climbing Club. Here we met Jerry Maddox who took us under his wing. Thinking back on those days he really taught us a lot. Jerry was Yoda (he even looked like him) and we were his keen students.
Q: Looking back at the late 70's and early 80's, it seems that this was a golden time for Victorian Climbing, and that you were one of the main players at this time. Did you feel that there was a sense of competition between yourself and the other members of the 'New Wave' (the likes of Michael Law, Kevin Lindorff, Kim Carrigan, Andrew Thompson et al)?
Grades would never have increased without competition. Its a natural human trait. Climbers at the highest levels are all competitive. If they say any different then they are either lying or are oblivious to it. In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was heaps of competition. We really had a feeling that we were pushing the standards of the day and pulling in some of the best new climbs in the country. Arapiles and the Grampians had suddenly entered the world stage and we were actors finally in the spotlight. I always had the highest regard for Kevin Lindorff. Still do. We had a sense of competition but at the time we knew that as a team we performed better than as individuals. We complemented each other perfectly and of course put up some classic routes during the time we climbed together. The rivalry was especially dramatic between guys like Mike Law and Kim Carrigan. Kim set himself up on a pedestal surrounded by his many loyal subjects. Kim was the first climber to seriously market himself to the masses. Claw on the other hand went underground and turned into the lizard king of anarchy. History records that Kim went on to push the grades ever higher but few people that knew them both would deny that Claw was in fact the climbing genius. Kim just worked harder at it. It was Chris Baxter who coined the term 'New Wave'. In reality it was a tsunami. During 1981 many of the key players of the 'New Wave' were living at Araps. It was one of the most memorable times of my life. I wasn't especially conscious of the competition at the time but it was certainly there in retrospect.
Q: Along with Kevin Lindorff, you were the first person to climb the Arapiles classic Kachoong by its now standard roof flakes. It is somewhat ironic that considering your current occupation as a climbing photographer, you are responsible for putting up the first ascent of probably the most photographed climb in Australia. Do you think that your interest in photography was responsible for inspiring you to try the line, or did the photographic excellence of the line you climbed inspire you to take up a career in photography?
Kachoong was a mistake. Java (Greg Child) had just repeated the original Kachoong (now called Kachoong Right Hand Variant). I think he did the third free ascent since Henry Barber eliminated the aid a couple of years earlier. Java raved to me about how good it was. Kevin and I were both suffering bad head colds but decided to go and do it anyway. I led up to the roof and figured that the route must shoot straight out over the flakes. I got in a big hex at the back of the roof and jugged straight across. Hanging on the lip I had a sneezing fit. I pulled over the lip without any gear (and looking at a massive swing back into the wall) and finished the pitch. Kevin and I didn't know it was a new pitch until we got back to camp and discussed it with Java. We never actually graded it and I can't remember ever discussing it with Kevin. Not a bad route though!
Q: You were also involved in the first ascent of the Arapiles classic Oceanoid. The guidebook you co-authored with Simon Mentz hints that during the first pitch the leader was holding an umbrella! What's the story?
I led the first pitch carrying an umbrella as it was raining quite heavily at the time. We had a bit of a thing for a while about climbing in the rain with umbrellas. It never caught on. I guess you had to be there at the time.
Q: There are also stories about some death defying gymnastic exploits that occurred one day when you were soloing the second pitch of Oceanoid. Care to elaborate?
Robin Miller was soloing right behind me. At the top of the second pitch (the crux) he realised that gravity was gaining the upper hand. I was tucked into the little bottomless chimney immediately above the overhang and I reached down to offer him my hand. I was pretty solid which was lucky since he placed all his weight onto me and swung above the void. It was a bit of a concern.
Q: During your time in climbing you were involved in countless first ascents in the Grampians, from the classic Epaminondas at Mt Difficult (FA 1976) to Touchstone Pictures at Bundaleer (FA 1989) to the development of The Gallery (in 1992). Of the climbs you have done in The Grampians, is there one in particular that your especially proud of, and why?
I guess Touchstone Pictures (28) stands out since it is such a perfect and sustained pitch. I was really fit at the time and I knew that I wasn't going to get any stronger. The climb was originally a bolted aid route but details have been lost to history. Mike Law then knocked together a pitch called Dive Dive Dive which traversed in from Blimp (to the left) using a couple of chopped finger pockets. He led the pitch with a rest or two before lowering off about halfway up the line. I'd always had a strong attachment with Bundaleer and I felt strongly that Dive Dive Dive really wasn't a route as such. I spent three days on the climb (a couple of attempts each day). I avoided the chipped holds by climbing directly up the wall at grade 27. After a partial shake out at 'The Brains' (a prominent pocketed formation) the wall above went at grade 27. A good rest then a grade 23 corner leads to anchors where most climbers seem to lower off. The complete ascent involves a fingery grade 24 wall then a really awkward grade 27 overhang. A final grade 22 corner leads to the top. Its a pretty tiring 46m pitch and I graded the whole experience 28. Touchstone still attracts plenty of attention but I still haven't heard of anyone else leading it straight through to the top.
Q: Are you surprised at the popularity of the climbs at The Gallery?
No. I put up the first bunch of routes knowing full well that it was going to become the most popular sport climbing area in Victoria. I remember Andy Pollitt hating the walk up and always muttering that he'd never go back. He always did. The routes are just too good. Weaveworld is probably the best 23 in the Grampians (as long as you climb all the way to the top and don't avoid the final arÍte).
Q: What are your impressions of the climbing scene in Victoria today, compared to 20 years ago? Is the huge surge in popularity of climbing been a good or bad thing in your opinion?
I think that climbers are mostly born and bred in gyms these days and this has had a dramatic effect on the climbing scene. Older climbers such as myself got into climbing mainly because of a sense of adventure. I know of younger climbers that don't want to go to the Grampians simply because they will have to camp in a tent and not be able to get a shower. These days most climbers are not interested in bashing into obscure cliffs in the Grampians or elsewhere when they can tick routes nearer to the car. I'm not saying that the scene is any less interesting, its just different. Its a consumer driven world today where climbers often talk of grades but not the routes themselves. I think that's a bit sad.
Q: You were very active in the development of numerous crags within day trip range of Melbourne, particularly to the east. From the discovery of Bissets Pinnacles and Ben Cairn, to numerous new routes at Neds Peak et al, you climbed hundreds of routes in the Melbourne area. Is there one particular route in the Melbourne area that you would consider your favourite, and why? Is there a route in the Melbourne area that you think is underrated, and deserves more ascents than it gets?
Some of the North Jawbone climbs I think are very underrated. This is perhaps because the current route descriptions are not particularly accurate. The climbing is always enjoyable although a tad old fashioned. Nearby is a route called Free Standing (at Neds Peak). It's graded 20 but is definitely an impressive feature that should be more popular than it is. There are also some good routes on nearby Ten Fathom Ridge (Two Way Stretch (22), Old Men and Overcoats (24) and Naked Ape (20)) If you are headed to Camels Hump, do Boogie Till You Puke (21) which is pretty close to the perfect short sport climb. I also have a soft spot for Cachalot (21) at Mt Oberon at Wilsons Promontory. This really is one of the best flake crack pitches in Victoria but seems to be rarely climbed these days.
Q: Speaking of climbing in the Melbourne area, there are rumours that you're working on a new guidebook for climbs for this area. Is this true, and if so when are we likely to see it on the shelf?
Simon Mentz and I have been working on a selected climbs guide to around Melbourne. It will be a topo guide which means that all the cliffs will be photographed and some climbing areas will need to be drawn. The guide will be in full colour. Its a massive amount of work and we are not moving along with it as fast as we hoped. It will be out later this year.
Q: What's the hardest graded route you ever led? Was it something that plagued you for years? How does this compare with your most enjoyable / memorable climbing experience?
Well, it's not graded difficult as such. I led the chimney pitches on Fuhrer Direct during a very cold winter ascent back in the 1970s. They are normally graded 15 or so but there is no protection and I led the pitches when they were thick in water ice and wearing big boots. It was absolutely desperate to say the least. Probably the most desperate rock moves I ever managed was the boulder problem start to a route I put up called Boys That Grow Plump in the Night which is in the Grampians and graded 27. It took more than a little effort to work the moves!
Q: When you were climbing at your hardest, did you follow a training scheme? If so, can you briefly explain it?
No. I hate training because I'm essentially a lazy person. Maybe that's why I never climbed much above grade 28.
Q: Are you still climbing these days?
Absolutely. I just don't chase the grades anymore. In fact I enjoy my climbing now more than ever.
Q: Do you have any suggestions or advice for us mortals still feeling lucky to tick 21 let alone 31?
Stomach muscles. Never underestimate the stomach muscles.
Q: What would you say is the greatest contribution you have given to Victorian climbing?
I'm proud that Simon Mentz and I have set new standards in guidebook production here in Australia.
Q: You are renowned for only climbing new routes - and not repeating others - for a period of 2 or three years in the 90's. Could you let us know a little more about that?
It just happened that we found one exciting cliff after another in the Grampians during that period. So many good new routes to climb....what could I do? Actually it was a bad thing in some ways as my grading was a bit skewed as I wasn't repeating any established climbs.
Q: You started making a mark upon Australian climbing during a period when a different ethic to today's prevailed. I think I read somewhere you once said chalk was a point of aid? How do you feel about such things as rap inspection, pre-placed gear, sieging routes over months?
At the time chalk was fairly new and controversial. Kevin and I climbed many of our most difficult routes without it. We freed Birdman of Alcatraz (23) at Arapiles without chalk and never thought anything about it. These days its as slippery as a butchers dick and I wouldn't go near it without a big bag of 'white courage'. As for ethics. There is nothing wrong with rap inspections, pre-placed gear or sieging routes over months....as long you don't hide the fact. I've never pre-placed gear on a new route but I'm not exactly an angel either. I don't like fixed nuts as I've had them snap on me before. If you are going to leave a fixed nut you may as well get stronger and place it properly on the lead or simply place a bolt. I also don't like working routes for long periods - only because I get bored. At Arapiles I once met a guy who had just spent three weeks working the moves on Slinkin' Leopard (28). He finally got up it but then confessed to me that he'd not climbed any other routes at Arapiles - ever! Three weeks and he'd only climbed one sport route. I dragged him up Quo Vadis on his last day but he fell off behind me.....!
Q: Can I ask why your first ascents didn't also include Taipan Wall, as this was being developed at the same time as you were doing great things in the Grampians southern ranges?
I was never particularly attracted to Taipan. Most of the routes required a lot of hard bolting work and the holds are often greasy slopers. To be honest most of the routes were also too hard for me! Bundaleer, Rosea, The Gallery, Crystal Palace, Gilhams Crags are all much more suited to my style of climbing. In fact the Victoria Range still is my overall favourite area in the Grampians. Michael Hampton is finishing off the guide to the area and I think it will raise a few eyebrows.
Q: I've read you were once into soloing grades in the low twenties. Can you describe the experience and what attracted you to this form of climbing?
At Arapiles in the early 80s I went through a phase of soloing. We all did to a certain extent. People like Jon Muir and Mark Moorhead were soloing up around grade 24. That was really impressive. I was a wimp and stuck to much easier outings such as Scorpion Corner (21), Wizard of Ice (20), Quo Vadis (19), Tannin (19) and Morfydd (19) etc. I only ever soloed what I knew I could downclimb. Only once did I almost fall off a route. It was in England on a gritstone arÍte at Cow and Calf in Yorkshire. I was quite high up and realised it was too difficult to downclimb. It was touch and go and I still break out in a sweat whenever I think about it. I gave up serious soloing after a hold snapped when I was on a new route in the Grampians. I only fell a few metres but I knocked myself out.
Q: You've done heaps of overseas expeditions to obscure areas in the Himalayas and Pakistan. Can you tell us a little about your adventures?
Not much. I went to Pakistan, India and Nepal maybe a dozen times to ski and climb. One of my best memories was topping out on Indrashan Parbat (6000m) in India with Jamie Searle. There was a rainbow on the summit and we'd spent two days climbing the north face. It was then the highest previously unclimbed summit climbed by Australians. We rented a house in the Kulu Valley for a few years and did a lot of telemark skiing off the big peaks. They were good times with good people.
Q: Is overseas travel a big part of your life at present, with regard to climbing and photography? What places have you been too lately?
A: I'm into long distance walking at the moment. My wife, Karen, loves to carry a rucksack for days on end. It's hard to keep up with her. She is in the process of 'collecting' many of the best Australian and overseas walks. We have walked in such places as Nepal, Chile and Argentina. We regularly visit New Zealand to tramp. It's also how I make my living so I can't complain.
Q: You must have climbed with some pretty interesting characters over the years. Any one person or incident stand out?
All the people I climbed with are characters to some degree or other.
Q: Any personal brushes with death?
Mike Law once tried to take my head off with a block whilst on a new route in the Blue Mountains. I lost my two front teeth and had dozens of stitches in my face. I don't want to talk about all my other epics as I use them to lure people into buying me beers at the pub.
Q: I've been told you're a very good back country telemark skier and to ask you about the time you got stuck in a snow cave with Geoff Butcher for numerous days!
It was during an attempt to climb the north face of Hanuman Tibba in India. It started snowing and we dug in. It snowed for a week and we ran out of food after a few days. We had an earthquake on day five thousands of homes were flattened in the surrounding valleys. I really though we were going to die. At the time I figured that death was preferable to having to spend another day staring at Geoffrey's ugly mug. Even when the weather cleared the snow was too deep (2.5m) to leave the cave. It avalanched for days. Later we couldn't even find our skis and gear which we had left at the foot of the face. We even lost our base camp.
Q: If we can swing the topic around to climbing photography for a moment, can you let us in on the secret - what's the best way to get those amazing shots that you're renowned for?
The secret is the light. Harsh light is the enemy of all photographers. I hate shooting in summer. In fact I hardly shoot any pics if I can help it in summer. Winter has the best light. Many of the best climbing pics are carefully set up. Fill flash is often used and I mainly use only two lenses (20mm and 180mm, both F1.8). Also, know your film. I've always been attracted to the architecture of the rock rather than the climber. Recently I've started using a small digital camera and I find that it is great for spontaneity. I enjoy the format. I think film will be dead in a few more years.
Q: I think I'm not alone in holding your Victorian guide books in very high regard. How do you find the time to put together such comprehensive guides?
It's what I do for a living. I also publish bushwalking and biking guides as well as Rockclimbing Getting Started which has sold over 6000 copies so far (not too bad considering that a prominent climbing magazine editor once stated that there was no market for such a book in Australia). The climbing guides are also selling very well. I've just finished putting together the South Esk climbing guide for Gerry Narkowicz and Bob McMahon in Launceston.
Q: So what does your future hold? What is the future of climbing in Victoria? Does any route done recently excite you? Do you have any 'secret' areas still awaiting development?
I'm putting most of my time into Open Spaces Publishing at the moment. We have a bunch of guidebooks on the way and Simon and I are working on other climbing guides. I'm still excited with climbing in Victoria and keep finding new climbs and areas. The many new boulder problems that are coming out of Black Hill is definitely exciting. The Selected Climbs Around Melbourne guide has been great because we keep unearthing the occasional classic new route in what are usually well-established areas.
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