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Louise Shepherd. (Photo By Michael Boniwell, 2004).
Interview: Louise Shepherd
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Date: 11th Sep 2004
Intro: For locals the name Louise Shepherd will probably spring immediately to mind from her guide book "A Rock Climbers Guide To Arapiles/Djurite" which is still very popular. Louise was probably the strongest female climber of the 80's, being the first woman to climb grade 25/26 with leads such as Tales Of Power (26/27) and Separate Reality (26) in the US, Lord Of The Flies (26) in the UK, and at home the first onsight ascent of Trojan (25) at Mt Arapiles. Needless to say this caused a stir among what was then a very male-dominated sport. Placing gear on lead during some of the hardest onsight ascents is a style not often matched by today's top climbers. She also had a major influence on the development of new routes in the Grampians such as the ever poplar Amnesty International (24) and Diazepam (25) at Mt Stapylton. These days she resides in Natimuk, a handy 10 minutes from Arapiles, works as a teacher and ACIA instructor, is the co-founder of the local Climbing Company guiding service, and is very passionate about environmental issues, taking a active role in the Wimmera area through the "Friends Of Arapiles".

Notable First Ascents

** You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess (25)

1986   Moonarie
** Diazepam (25) 1985 Classic on the Wall Of Fools Summerday Valley, Grampians
** Raving Loonies (24) 1986 With Steve Monks The Fortress, Grampians
* Golden Gaytime (23) 1989 Jam crack Slander Gully, Grampians
*** Return To Gariwerd (22) 1991   Eureka Towers, Grampians
** Amnesty International (24) 1988 Pumpy, hard, on small wires Amnesty Wall, Grampians
* Femroc (18) 1979   Mt Arapiles
*** Curtain Call (23) 1981   Mt Arapiles
** Venus Aphrodites (25) 1985   Eagles Head, Grampians
*** Labyrinths (25) 1989   Crag X, Grampians
** Promise Not To Tell (22) 1989   Crag X, Grampians

[ As the rain pours down outside we sit in Louise's house at the back of The Climbing Company's office in Natimuk mere minutes from Mt Arapiles. Cups of tea all round, and some home made bread. The atmosphere is relaxed as the interview begins... ]

Q: You used to live near the beach in South Australia before finding a home in Natimuk, Victoria just 10 minutes from Mt Arapiles. Did you try several recreations (hang gliding?) before settling on the sport of climbing in 1979? Can you recall your first experiences with climbing?

A young Louise Shepherd. Photo By Tony Barker.I started climbing in 78 and I did do a bit of hang-gliding. I'm amazed you managed to find that out. My first experiences in climbing were with my then boyfriend of the time, Kym Smith. He had heard about climbing. This was before there was any such things as outdoor shops or climbing companies. There was one climbing shop in Melbourne, I believe, but there was none in Adelaide where I grew up. He managed to find someone who did do a bit of climbing and was starting to sell ropes and harnesses just in his garage. We went around there and bought a rope and a harness and he said "do you know how to use it?". And we said "no...". So he said "Well maybe I should show you how to use it". [laughs] So he took us climbing in the Adelaide hills.

Before that we just kind of bought this piece of nylon marine rope that you can melt with a match, the stuff goes blobby and smokes - not a climbing rope at all. We took it to the Grampians and we walked up the Elephant's Hide trailing this bright yellow marine rope and got to the top just trailing it. A the top there was this little pinnacle, and we rapped the rope around this little knob and went hand over hand over the side of the pinnacle. [laughs]. I don't know what we thought we were doing, but somehow we had it in our minds that this was climbing.

So, yeah, my first experience climbing was at Morialta Falls in the Adelaide hills - quite a good little local area. I was wearing at the time bovver boots, because that's all I had - my bush walking boots. These enormous leather boots with really chunky soles on them. They were absolutely hopeless.

Above Right: A young Louise Shepherd. Photo By Tony Barker. Below Right: Photo of Louise that appeared in the Grampians Select Guide by Simon Mentz & Glenn Tempest.

Q: Your siblings Chris and Lincoln also got into the sport and, like you, went on to put up numerous new routes both in South Australia and Victoria in the early 80s. Can you describe the dynamics of this group in relation to climbing? Was it a competitive environment?

Louise ShepherdIt wasn't actually that competitive; it was more co-operative. When I started climbing I was twenty and my little brother Chris was only 15. He was getting into a bit of trouble at home and school and stuff. So I took him climbing and he really liked it and did quite well. Then later on he took my other brother Lincoln climbing. It has been a bit competitive over the years, but not as much as with other people outside the family.

I do remember on my first overseas trip, in Yosemite Valley, in 1980, I got a letter from my brother Chris saying he'd just led Squeakeasy (22), and I was jealous because I'd wanted to do it; I was probably leading about grade 20 at the time and here was my little brother leading grade 22. I had this little pang of jealousy.

I'm convinced that my brothers are better climbers than me, and yet the other day I was staggered that Lincoln said, in the course of conversation, "oh no Louise was always the best climber of the family". But my perception was that they were always the better. [laughs]. So yeah, it wasn't competitive, no. It was much more co-operative I think.

I remember one of Glen Robbins' photos of my brother Lincoln on Yesterday (26+), and I never got up Yesterday. I tried it a couple of times and felt, nar, I can't do it. Lincoln got up it second shot or something. This fantastic photo of Lincoln on the crux. Just this amazing body. Because it was so overhanging all you see is shoulders and this little torso disappearing underneath. It's just a beautiful photo. So I was really proud of them, of what they did climbing.

Q: I understand you also climbed a lot with Kim Carrigan who was pushing the forefront of grades in Australia at around the same time you were advancing the women's standards considerably. You also climbed with the likes of Steve Monks, Simon Mentz, and a whole swag of other well known characters. What are your most vivid memories of some of your climbing partners and did they have any influence on your climbing progress?

Kim Carrigan was definitely the biggest influence no doubt because it was early on. He and I got together after I'd been climbing only maybe less than a year. I first met him at Arapiles and then I went up to Mt Buffalo. I remember he was at Buffalo climbing this big corner and bridging. It was maybe grade 20 or something. And he wasn't wearing any undies! [laughs]... This is before we got together. Anyway, he was definitely a very powerful influence in my life. When I first got into climbing he was already starting to free Procol Harum (26) and things like that. He was very bohemian. He had this afro, that was like out here [gestures]. It was really quite stunning. After we got together he chopped it off short. But I remember this big afro and this little circle of admirers. [laughs].

Louise on Wackford Squeers, Arapiles. Photo from David Clarke Collection.But yeah he actually encouraged me to climb with other women. We were about the same age, but he started climbing five years beforehand. When we first went to Yosemite Valley, he'd been there before, and he said "well don't expect me to climb with you, you'll need to find your own climbing partners. I'm climbing much better and I'm going to be doing this, this and this...". And I was a bit crestfallen, but then he did encourage me to find my own climbing partners and climb with other women. I met Evelyn Lees on that trip and we did lots and lots of climbing together. That's when my climbing really took off I think. We just went travelling together, went to a whole bunch of climbing areas in the States. I came back to Australia and she came over for a visit. So we climbed quite a lot together.

The climbing culture then was a lot different. If I did something well there was acknowledgement of that, but then it was "well now you can do something harder, or something better". So there wasn't this celebratory nature to climbing back then that there is as much now. You go climbing with someone now and they do their first grade 18 lead and someone will say "great, well done!". Back then it was much more muted. I didn't get a sense I was doing anything special. It was just like "you're a normal climber like the rest of us".

Above Right: Louise on Wackford Squeers (26), Arapiles. Below Right: Louise on Life in the Fast Lane (24), Arapiles. Photos from the David Clarke Collection.

Q: You are attributed as having climbed near the top of the women's standard during the 1980's, in particular being possibly the first woman to lead grade 26 onsight. Tales Of Power (26/27) and Separate Reality (26) in the US, London Wall (25) and Lord Of The Flies (26) in the UK, and at home the first onsight ascent of Trojan (25) at Arapiles in 1981 and a one fall ascent of Denim (26) also at Arapiles. These are impressive achievements, especially considering that I believe most were done onsight, ground up, placing gear on lead. What motivated your level of success? Did your accomplishments change the way other climbers perceived you?

Absolutely not! No, not at all. I mean I knew I was doing some pretty good stuff and certainly when I did Trojan (25) it was a bit like that because the reaction from the male climbing scene was a little bit huffy. [laughs]. I did it with my brother Chris. We'd done a new route in the morning that he'd bolted and scoped out called Top Cat (24), and then in the afternoon we were going to do Trojan. I led it first and put the gear in without falls, and then my brother Chris lead it without falls as well, and he was sketching a bit on the top. And Kim (I think he'd been climbing with Evelyn), came around and took that photo - I don't know if you've seen it, the photo that was on the front cover of Rock, (Or 4th issue of Wild, or something), of me on the crux of Trojan, because Kim happened to be walking past at the time and had his camera on him. Then Mark Morehead said to me afterwards "I suppose we'd better start taking you seriously as a climber now!". [laughs]. I don't know if he was being serious or not but you couldn't tell with Mark Morehead, he had a very good sense of humour, but he could have been tongue in cheek. But even tongue in cheek has a serious side to it, like the shadow. But I never found out, because then he died the next year.

Louise on Life in the Fast Lane, Arapiles. Photo from David Clarke Collection.With Steve Monks and Simon Mentz I was much more established in climbing then - an established place in the climbing scene. So we were much more climbing as equals, even though they were both climbing better than I was at the time, because by then I'd kind of reached my peak and was levelling off a bit, or going downhill a bit. But even so we were climbing much more as equals with those guys. With Tales of Power and Separate Reality, about 4 years later after I'd done them - I'd flashed Separate Reality, it's not really 26 it's more like 24. Tales Of Power is more like 26/27. I had one fall on Tales of Power, and didn't have any falls on Separate Reality, I did it ground up placing all the pro on lead, but I had heard 4 years later something about a German women called Andrea (I can't remember her second name), claimed the first female ascents of these climbs, and I was like "hang on a sec I did them back in 1980, what's going on?". And the thing was that because there was no big deal about it, nobody said "oh, first female ascent" or whatever. I mean there wasn't even something special about there being a first female ascent. That wasn't something that was even mentioned. There was no such thing. It was just like "oh, you did that climb, you're a climber, other people have done it". You know? The fact that you're a female was not even considered to be particularly noteworthy. So I didn't make a big deal of it, because no one around me made a big deal of it. It was like the whole culture of climbing was much more muted and understated.

Now people are trying to jockey to make a name for themselves, and I don't blame them. That's just the reality of life today, that people are out there trying to make a name for themselves, and there's money in it, there's sponsorship in it, there's all sorts of rewards in it. So they need to emphasise these things, but back then it just wasn't the culture. That's how I see it anyway.

So all of these climbs you've mentioned here were all onsight, climbed from the ground up, placing protection onsight. With Lord of the Flies there was a guy who had climbed this earlier in the day, but I just can't remember watching him do it. When he came down, Paul Williams, who since died, but I was staying at his place and he was kind of hosting me and showing me a bit of the crag, he said "oh, this is what", (I think his name was Graham Livingstone), "this is what he took on the climb", you know "this is the rack you need". And I probably added a few extra things as well. I do remember when I got to the top of that Graham seconded it in his sandshoes! [laughs]. There was probably a little more fuss about that because it was a big known climb, but most of the other climbs I did it was like "oh yeah". I was just climbing well and there was no special attention paid to it at the time.

With Denim I was a bit disappointed because I fell off on the bottom roof, and I came down and had a rest, and then I got past the roof and flashed the crux. So it was like "oh bummer, I shouldn't have fallen off that low roof". But that's the way it goes.

Q. You don't consider yourself to be a bold climber, but your stylish ascents of Lois Lane (23) at Arapiles and Lord of the Flies (E6) in Wales would indicate otherwise. How would you describe your approach in tackling dangerous, or 'reputation' climbs?

No I still don't consider myself a bold climber. How I approached those routes was, I was either convinced by other people or myself that they weren't bold climbs. If I'd known that there was the possibility of ground fall on Lord Of The Flies there's no way I would have even gone on it. Paul Williams said, "look, take double ropes, put a high runner in Right Wall and you'll be fine. There's gear up it". And I said "okay". Indeed I did find gear all the way up it. I didn't find that I was going to deck out on that climb. I felt pretty secure and pretty solid.

Lois Lane... I reckon the reason Lois Lane has got such a big reputation is because a really well known climber (I can't remember his name), took a fall off it and hit the ground, but he didn't take RPs. I do remember feeling pretty secure on it. Perhaps at the time when I did Lois Lane I was leading grade 26 and 23 was like, oh yeah, okay it's a bit bold, but it's well within my abilities.

Q: What are your thoughts on the high end climbing being done now-a-days that often sees "leads" on pre-placed gear after countless days of working the route?

Yeah look, I mean, I don't really care. If people want to do that, that's fine. It doesn't bother me. Personally I think, for myself, the most satisfying way of climbing is ground up, placing all your pro. That's where the excitement comes in. That's where you're really tested. You've got to work out the move under the pressure of falling off. If you already know what the move is, and you know you're not going to fall of it, or you've got a pretty good chance you're not going to fall off it, because you've practised it a million times, well...that's fine if that's the way you want to do it, but that is not what's satisfying to me.

I remember when Wolfgang was doing the first ascent of Punks In The Gym (31) [Arapiles], purely for convenience he was trying the moves on a fixed line and when he came back, when he'd got the moves worked out, he came from the ground up. But Wolfgang was an incredibly accomplished climber. I think he just did it purely because he didn't want to bore a belayer for days and days on end, holding his rope while he worked on this extreme climb. I mean at the time that was the hardest climb in the world. Probably something that is not so recognised now, but it was a phenomenal ascent.

Louise Shepherd leading pitch five of the classic Bard (12, 120 metres), Mount Arapiles.Louise Shepherd leading pitch five of the classic Bard (12, 120 metres), Mount Arapiles.
Above: Louise Shepherd leading pitch five of the classic Bard (12, 120 metres), Mount Arapiles. Photos By Simon Carter.

Q: Do you have any feelings about the more shady practices such as chipping, or forcibly "cleaning" holds to contrive a particular sequence?

Yeah, I do feel much more strongly about that. It's kind of funny because in some ways I can understand where people come from when they do chipping. I presume they are trying to make the climb... Not necessarily bring the climb down to their level. They might be doing that. In which case it's just wrong. It's wrong anyway, but in trying to bring a climb into... to make it a more sustained route or to make it a climb that's of a more even grade, instead of just being say, grade 15 and then one desperate move of grade 20. Like a one move wonder. It's the same in the higher grades, like being 25 all the way, then one desperate move of grade 29. I guess that's the motivation behind chipping.

Personally I'm against it. I'm against all chipping and forcible cleaning. But I do understand why... like on Punks In The Gym there was a hold that apparently was a flake that came off. Whether it was forcibly cleaned or whatever, a flake came off and the edge underneath it was crumbly, so it was araldited up by Andy Pollitt. That's the story. On the 2nd or 3rd ascent or something. If that edge was going to crumble away there'd be no climb there at all. So I suppose sometimes I can understand why people do these things, but generally speaking I'm against it. It's shady. It's interfering too much.

Q: One of the areas in the Grampians in which you've been very active is The Fortress, where you put up Raving Lonnies (24) with with Steve Monks and Nyrie Dodd and all but the last pitch of Ticket To Retirement (26) also with Steve Monks in 1986, and which Carrigan eventually completed. The latter route is described as a "sustained and scary undertaking", while the former gains the remarks "wild and scary" in the Gramps Select Guide. 110m of overhanging hand cracks and exposed flakes? What was it about these, now starred classics, that first attracted you? Would you say that bold, strenuous climbing suited your style?

Well again I'd say definitely not. The climb Raving Loonies I led the first pitch which is actually really well protected. It was the crux pitch but it was a crack and it had really good pro in it. Steve Monks led the second pitch which he graded 23, which was a scary pitch on loose flakes, which I think 23 was a bit suss, it was probably undergraded, it was more like 24. In terms of leading it was probably more difficult than the first pitch because it was much scarier.

Ticket To Retirement, well Steve led the crux pitch of that, both crux pitches of that in fact. He led the 1st pitch which was really quite scary. I led the 2nd pitch which was 19 and really well protected, so I'm afraid my reputation vanishes in a second there! [laughs].

Q: Also that year at The Fortress I believe you belayed Nyrie Dodd on the FFA of the famous Passport To Insanity (27), heralded as one of the best lines in Australia? Can you tell us the tale of her ascent? How did she fare on the downward sloping, beyond overhanging roof? Also what's the go with money still owing on a bet?

The first ascent which was aided was back in the 70's by a local guy called Noddy - Keith Lockwood and Joe Friend. Then a whole bunch of people tried to free the roof, which is the crux pitch. It's about a number 2 friend size for the first couple of metres then it widens slightly to a 2.5 friend size, so it's very tight hands, and Nyrie could hand jam perfectly in a number 2 friend crack, so she decided that this was the climb for her. [laughs] Fair enough!

Anyway, we went back to the climb three consecutive years and she tried it for a couple of days on each year that she went. In between times she practised on an overhanging jam crack on her veranda or something. She sort of got it sussed out a bit better each time she tried it and the third year we went back she did it.

I think it was a climb that was ideally suited to her body size and shape in the sense that she's a very light build and she could get good hand jams in it. But I think it was utterly ridiculous that Chris Baxter graded it 24 to 28 depending on your hand size. He wouldn't dream of questioning a tall male climber who'd done a climb saying that it was 24 to 28 depending on your reach, or something like that, you know? Chris Baxter is a product of his times and it was reflected in his indignation that a female did the first ascent of this really notable, classic climb.

Q: What about the bet? What was that about?

Oh yeah, so when she did the roof, and when she got onto the ledge above the roof, she found this little bottle and inside it was a note and the note said (I've got a photo of it, it's great)... "you must have just freed the route Passport to Insanity, otherwise why are you here? $200 reward for the first person who's freed the roof. Signed Joe Friend & Noddy". And Noddy lives in Nati, so as soon as we got back down she trotted around to Noddy's place and said "look at this note, where's my 200 bucks?". Or was it 500? I can't remember. And he said "I have never seen that note! I didn't write that!". [laughs]

Joe Friend had disappeared, God knows where he'd gone. So she made it known around that he owed her 500 bucks, and apparently he published in some magazine that he wasn't going to pay her because (this is outrageous [laughs])... because number 1, she'd used chalk! [laughs] and number two she probably hadn't freed it anyway. Which is complete nonsense because she had two witnesses. Steve Monks and I were there when she did it. So it was all bullshit. But anyway, at Escalade I was telling the story. I was giving a slide show, oh back in the 90s. And I had some pictures of Nyrie on Passport and a picture of the note, and I told them the story, and later on it turns out that Joe Friend was actually in the audience [laughs], and Jon Muir was sitting right next to him. Jon and I are good friends, and Jon noticed it because the person next to him was getting very fidgety and when finally it came to this story, he walked out! [laughs]. It was quite priceless really. So he deserves all the flak he gets, really. But she's not going to get her money or anything.

But it's interesting that climb, because when Malcolm Matheson did the second ascent he mainly used the features on the other side of the roof to climb (he probably did some jamming), because he couldn't fit his hands in the crack. The third ascent was done by Jill McLeod, who's also very tiny and probably got some good hand jams, and the fourth ascent was done by Lynn Hill. So three out of the four first ascents have been done by women. Small women at that. It certainly is a climb that does favour small boned women with small hands. When Malcolm did it he graded it 26, but Malcolm he under-grades everything. I mean really. It's not bloody 26! Anyone going up there who's climbing 26 wouldn't do it and say "oh yeah, it's 26". Especially if you're his size, it's seriously difficult. He's a bloody good climber, but he worked on it for a couple of days anyway, and he was probably climbing grade 30 at the time. Yeah, it's not grade 26, I think 27/28 would be a fair grade for it.

Q: You've climbed a lot overseas including New Zealand, Europe, Himalayas and the USA. What are some of your most memorable trips or moments from these adventures?

Oh, there are so many. I went to New Zealand mountaineering. I mean mountaineering really lends itself to epic adventures and nightmares really. I went to New Zealand with Jon Muir to do some mountaineering. I was totally a beginner, and I went with another girlfriend who was also a complete beginner. Anyway we ended up rescuing a guy off Mt Cook. He sort of joined our party in a way. He bivied with us and then he took off the next morning and we were much slower, because we were all roped up and he was soloing.

We got to the low summit of Mt Cook and he got to the high summit. Anyway, as he was descending he fell off and he hit rocks and really mashed himself up. We were coming down more slowly and we saw this figure wandering around on the Empress Shelf, it was him, he'd fallen off and he'd mashed himself up so badly that his eyes were closed because they were swollen, and he'd broken his nose and oh, he was a mess! It was about 10 o'clock so it was almost completely dark when we came across him and it was like seeing this devil out of hell. I remember him turning around when he heard us coming and his face was just all blood. Jon was next to me and we looked at each other and went "oh, gosh".

So anyway, Andrea and I looked after this guy for the night while Jon went to get the helicopter. On the way to get the helicopter, to Empress Hut, Jon fell into 13 crevasses! Climbed out of all of them. Anyway, the helicopter came the next morning. Jon stayed in the hut. Andrea and I put him [the wounded guy] into two sleeping bags and got into one ourselves. It was a pretty uncomfortable night. I remember worrying about Jon, thinking "oh, I hope he made it". But anyway, the helicopter came the next day and took us all off. So we didn't have to walk back down.

Q: That guy's probably alive because of you?

Yeah, he could well have died up there. We were the only ones up there at the time. They were cleaning him up before they sent him to hospital for some reason, and I just knew I was going to faint, because I've got a weak stomach. So I lay down, because I thought, I was going to faint if I stay standing up. But anyway, I should have been warned not to go to the mountains, but the next year I went with Jon again, and a bunch of friends from Natimuk. We were climbing Kedernarth Dome, which is a very, very easy mountain. I don't know how high it is, but not very much over 6000 metres. And because I was suffering from altitude sickness I got split up from the rest of the group, with a couple of other novice mountaineers, and anyway, we ended up... I was avalanched off the mountain [laughs].

It was like late in the afternoon. I came out of the snow cave to unbury some stuff that had been buried by snow drift, like our packs and stuff which couldn't fit in the snow cave and an avalanche came down - sent me down the mountain. I bounced over some ice cliffs and ended up like just a few metres away from this bottomless crevasse! And they came out to look for me. They saw I'd disappeared so they started digging for me. They thought I'd been buried by the avalanche. So I yelled out to them "I'm here!". Everyone's totally freaked out, because we are all beginners. We have no idea. [laughs]. What we should have done was go back up the mountain into the snow cave. That would have been the safest thing, but we just freaked out. We were novices, so we grabbed our gear and started heading down the mountain, and of course, it was avalanching all around us. We thought we were going to die if we stayed in this, so we are walking down and this big avalanche comes down right in front of us. We see this tiny little spec of rock up the hillside and we just dive under this rock. The avalanche comes over the rock, just as we dived underneath it! [laughs]. Oh, it was just an epic!

And Jon was up there high on the mountain with Lydia Brady and they had an even worse epic. I mean, much worse! They were coming down the front face, which was even worse than our face and they decided to shelter for the night. They made this cave in this wall of ice, and Lydia had just crawled inside it when the whole thing collapsed on top of her. Jon started digging for her and saw this hand come out, grabbed her hand and just yanked her out. I mean it was just extraordinary. It was just amazing that none of us died up there. It was quite extreme, but anyway, we all managed to survive. Anyway, that was the end of my mountaineering! [laughs]. After that it was like, "nar I don't think I'm going to go mountaineering anymore".

Actually, ever since that trip, what I do in the winters now is I go up to Kakadu and the Kimberly. It's nice and it's warm, and it never rains. If you go bush walking, hiking and scrambling around these really remote areas you can guarantee not to see another person the whole time you're out there. I've just come back from the Kimberly. I was there for two months. You don't see anybody. You can walk out for two weeks with two items of clothing. It's just perfect. No tent, just a mosquito net, that's about all you need. It's lush. It's very different from mountaineering.

Louise Shepherd on Amnesty International (24), Grampians. Photo By: Steve MonksQ: What style of climbing do you pursue the most, be it sport, trad, ice, aid, etc?

Yeah I have done some sport climbing, but mainly trad. Sport climbing is fine, I like it actually in some ways. You can sort of take your brain out and just clip bolts. It hasn't got the same challenge as trad climbing. What I like about trad climbing is that it's a different experience for every single climber, as in when you choose to stop and protect yourself. It's just a lot more judgement involved in trad climbing which I really like.

Right: Louise Shepherd on Amnesty International (24), Grampians. Photo By Steve Monks.  

Q: Are you involved with other outdoor recreations / sports?

Yeah I do a lot of bush walking up north. I'm thinking about trying out sea kayaking.

Q: I think I read a book about Jon dragging a kayak to the North Pole or something?

Yeah, that's right. He did that. Yeah, he's done a lot of stuff. Actually there was a documentary the other week [on the ABC] of him walking across Australia.

Q: Yeah I saw that. That was excellent. A great show.

Yeah, we did a desert walk first in 95. It was the first desert walk that he'd done and he invited me along for the ride and we walked across the Simpson Desert. I mean it was nothing like what he did. We had food drops and water drops every single night, that we'd pre-buried. We'd driven through the area with some friends and pre-buried all this stuff. So it was really cruisey, but a nice way to experience the Simpson Desert. It was great.

Q: You are mentioned in the intro to the Verdon Gorge (France) guide as one of a fairly small number of "significant players" in the development of the climbing there - I'd be interested to know more about what you did there - and why it appealed given that you must have spent a fair bit of time there?

I must say I'm just completely mystified. I can't imagine how I was a "significant player" in the Verdon Gorge. I really don't think I did much at all. I was there for maybe a couple of weeks. I certainly didn't do any new routes. I didn't do any repeats that I thought were all that significant.

Q: Well, that question was sent in by someone else so maybe they got their facts wrong.

Well maybe it's in the guide book. In 83, I went to one of the first international climbing meets to be held in France and we went to Verdon Gorge, and a couple of other places. I remember I climbed with Stefan Glowacz [spelling?], well before he became a famous climber. We were doing a climb that wasn't that difficult, it was maybe graded 22. I thought it was actually way harder than that. I can't even remember the name of it. I got super pumped and got up to the crux and I just took this enormous whipper off it and there was someone filming at the time, so maybe it was a reference to that I don't know.

Q: In 1994 you published your "climbers guide to Arapiles/Djurite" with a 2nd edition in 98. An impressive and useful guide, my copy is well thumbed. That must have been a hell of a lot of work! Where did you find the time and motivation?

Well it took me a long time, probably 8 years or something. The only thing I do regret about that guide is that there should be more photographs. Simon Mentz's guide is obviously a lot more user friendly, because it's got a lot more photographs of the cliffs and little lines marked, and stuff like that. So I do regret that I didn't put more effort into that side of it. I was maybe thinking of the descriptions and things like that.

Q: But yours is more comprehensive?

Yeah, his is a selected guide, but he has got most of the best routes in it really. Mine is a comprehensive guide, but it is much more difficult to use and I acknowledge that. And that's really the only regret.

Q: After the publication you received some criticism from the climbing establishment, particularly for the decisions to upgrade a number of routes, and to a lesser extent for including too many pictures of female climbers. At the time did you resent this criticism, given the huge amount of effort you must have expended producing this work?

All this hoo-ha about criticism from the climbing establishment, I mean that's just bullshit. I had too many pictures of women climbers? They have no idea. That is such a stupid criticism. To celebrate women climbers... I mean it happens in the climbing mags now anyway.

Q: So people did actually criticise you for that?

Oh Baxter did. But Baxter knows what sells. What does he have on the front cover of all Wild magazines? Invariably it's a female. Invariably she's got a wet T-shirt on - she's been canyoning. I mean for Baxter to do that is just ludicrous.

I remember I had a New Zealand client who at the time I was guiding and he thought the criticism was just nonsensical. To have perhaps 50% of the photos depicting women climbers, when women don't represent 50% of the climbing population, he says it's simply not an argument. What about affirmative action? What about any of the other actions that are done by governments and companies these days to try and redress the balances because we live in a patriarchal sexist society? I mean, it's complete nonsense. It's not a valid criticism.

Q: Well hopefully it encouraged more women into the sport?

Exactly. I mean that was the whole idea. To be celebratory of women climbers. I think it was actually about 50/50, the photos of male and female climbers.

Q: Did you realise that your climbing achievements would serve to motivate others (men and women included) and if so, do you hold a certain pride in your contribution to Australian rock climbing?

Yeah I do. I didn't actually realise how motivating it would be to other women, but a friend of mine in New Zealand wrote a little piece about a visit that I did to New Zealand and how it motivated her and her climbing. So I do acknowledge that my climbing achievements have motivated others and I'm proud of that. But like I said it's the culture of climbing back in the early 80's was much more muted and understated than it is now. There's a sort of sense of retrospective pride.

Right: Photo of Louise that appeared in the Arapiles Select Guide by Simon Mentz & Glenn Tempest.

Q: What are your thoughts on women's issues in climbing today, if any? Are there any differences from what you faced when you were climbing at your peak level?

It's just equality and recognition that women are climbing extremely well these days, as well as if not better than a lot of men. There are so many top women climbers in the world today that have done incredibly significant things. Climbing is a sport that equalises men and women, because women have got some strengths that men don't and visa versa. It's something that women can excel at on a level playing field as men really. I think it's quite extraordinary. Like Lynn Hill's achievements on freeing The Nose [of El Captain, Yosemite in the US]. I mean people might say it's something that specifically suits her body, and people have made the same comment about Nyrie on Passport To Insanity.... I mean the rock doesn't care. It's something that I think is quite remarkable. There's not many sports where there are those possibilities of equality on the rock. A different climb suits one body type and another climb suits another body type. I think it's terrific.

Q: Climbing would seem to share similarities with gymnastics, a sport where the best performers are often females in their early teens. Could we see a time when the best climber in the world is a 14 year old girl?

Yeah possibly. I think that does actually focus on the technical aspects of climbing. Climbing is a multi-faceted sport. It's hard to actually pin point who is the best climber in the world. At any one time there's probably 100 "best climbers in the world" who have all got a particular strength in one area or another, like a particular type of rock, or bouldering, or whatever.

Q: You have been teaching climbing for more than 18 years and I understand you are one of the instructors on the
ACIA (Australian Climbing Instructors Association) courses? Can you tell us a little about what the CIA offers and your role in it? Have you enjoyed your involvement?

Yeah I have enjoyed my involvement with it. It's been difficult at times. We started up the CIA (it's now the ACIA), back in 91 or something, 92 perhaps. It was after there was a spate of climbing accidents in Victoria. There was three deaths at Mt Arapiles in 1990 and there was two deaths and 14 injuries in one accident at Lal Lal Falls, just near Ballarat. There was a coroners inquest into it. The guidebook says the cliff is shitty and loose. It says, "wear a helmet when you go there", and "go in a small group", et cetera. It's basically just some big blocks set into this eroded hillside, and one of the kids pulled off a huge block which killed two kids and injured 14 others from the shrapnel that came off. Serious accident.

But the three climbing accidents at Arapiles were not people that were under instruction at the time. They were recreational climbers. One of them was instructing and he slipped from the top of the cliff, but all the others were recreational climbers. Which is a crucial difference I think, because there's not been any deaths or accidents, as far as I know, of anyone at Arapiles while they have been guided or instructed. So anyway, there was a coroners inquest into these climbing deaths and the coroner said, "Look, the climbing community has got to come up with something to deal with this issue of climbing safety". And so we started up the CIA as a training course in response to that inquest.

It's difficult with this public liability insurance. It's been difficult for us as a commercial company (The Climbing Company). There's been some really difficult times in it, but it's been very positive I think. It's had a good impact on the climbing community and the climbing scene and instruction and guiding in general, and just general safety. There's more awareness now. Not directly as a result of the CIA, maybe, but it's part of the whole culture of growing awareness of rock climbing safety. There's been deaths at Arapiles and in Victoria since then. Probably it's had more impact in the guiding and instructional sense.

The Climbing CompanyQ: You founded a guiding company called "The Climbing Company" with Chris Peisker that operates out of Natimuk near Mt Arapiles. You run climbing courses I believe? Are you directly involved with these? What kinds of clients does the business generally attract?

Chris Peisker and I started The Climbing Company. We had two other business partners at the time, but we started The Climbing Company and the Arapiles Mountain Shop at the same time more or less, back in 88. So that's sixteen years ago. We soon after split it into two companies. Chris and I stayed with The Climbing Company and Phil and Heather run the climbing shop. We take anyone climbing who wants to pay. So, school students to tertiary students. We've had private clients from the gyms in Melbourne, overseas visitors, backpackers, people passing through - anything and anybody who wants to try climbing.

The beauty of Mt Arapiles is that it's really the most perfect place to take people climbing because there's such a range of easy to difficult climbs. You've got grade ones that are 8m high. You've got grade 3s that are 200m high. It's perfect for kids without climbing shoes. If they want to do a multi-pitch you can take them up Tip Toe Ridge in sandshoes - it's perfect for that. I feel so lucky to have started up a guiding company here. I didn't really appreciate it when I was climbing hard in the 80's, but as a guide it's just absolutely phenomenal. It's one of the best places in the world for instructing people.

So yeah, it's a good job. I'm outdoors a lot. You know, it's not so great when it's pouring down with rain [laughs], but its fantastic to be outdoors. It's a real people job, so you're interacting with people. You put aside your own climbing ambitions. Just forget it. It's not to do with your own personal climbing at all. It's to do with trying to find the best climb for these people that you've got, and it's very satisfying when you chose exactly the right climb that's going to challenge them but it's not going to be too difficult for them. There's two and half thousand climbs at Arapiles, so there's so much to choose from. Yeah, it's a great job and The Climbing Company is doing well.
Louise ShepherdLouise Shepherd
Above: Louise in more recent times, guiding at Arapiles. Photos from Louise's own collection.

Q: Well they can't ask for a better person than the one who wrote the guidebook?

Yeah, maybe it's that. [laughs]. It certainly helps to know Arapiles like the back of your hand, but people who are committed to trying to do the best for their client [make the best guides]. Our best guides, the people who get asked all the time, are the ones who are outgoing and friendly and interested in those people. And they don't have to be climbing the hardest. Glen's one our best guides, and he climbs about grade 21, but he's enthusiastic, he's friendly, he's outgoing. People always ask for him.

Q: What type of guiding do you prefer the most (eg. easy multi-pitch vs backpacker groups vs slightly more difficult stuff)?

To be truthful, I'm a bit of a control freak. I like to guide on climbs I'm familiar with. I don't like guiding onsight. The nature of Arapiles is that, even though there is two and a half thousand climbs, you do tend to guide the same climbs over and over again. I do like to do climbs, you know, the easy multi-pitch - that's fun! That's really satisfying to take people up Introductory Route (4, 160m) or Spiral Staircase (9, 100m) or something like that, a really classic route. They are struggling a bit, but they just get up there and they feel so great when they get to the top of it.

Q: Do they get freaked on the 50m free hanging abseil off the back of it [Spiral Staircase]?

Yeah, sometimes they do! But no, I've never had anyone totally freak out on me. I prefer to be in control when guiding. I don't want to be pushed. I was guiding two South Africans a few weeks ago. They'd never been on real rock before but they were so fit! I was totally stuffed by the end of the weekend! [laughs]. We did 15 pitches in two days. It was great! [laughs].

Q: Well you could always put a top rope on something?

Yeah, we did in the end. That's the obvious solution.

Q: You must see a lot of new climbers, is there a particular "type" or trait that you can recognise early on as an indicator of later success as a climber?

Well it depends on how you define success. Like I said, I define success as when you get somebody up a climb who thought that they couldn't do it and they get to the top and feel a great sense of achievement. That's a success for me. I don't think there's a particular type or trait. I mean, obviously people who are a lighter build have got some advantages in the power to weight ratio, but even then you get some people who climb very well and they are of a chunkier build. Climbing is in the head as much as in the body.

Q: Given that we are currently in the Olympic era, what are your thoughts on the proposed inclusion of Rock Climbing in the summer Olympics? Do you feel this is appropriate? Do you think it will change the direction of the sport, and if so, would it be for the better?

Indoor climbing is fabulous for people in cities. All over body fitness. Climbing on a vertical face, indoors, works lots of muscle groups. I think it's great. Indoor climbing has a really good place. But personally I'm not into it and if they have it in the Olympics, well it would be interesting to watch it, but I'm not going to be holding my breath.

Q: When you were at your peak, did you have a training regime? Is there anything in that regard that you would do differently if you had your time over again?

Nar, I just went climbing.

Q: What about volume of climbing that you did?

Oh, yeah I did lots and lots of climbing, but I didn't have any particular regime. I didn't even have rest days. I mean I did have rest days, but it wasn't like this scientific thing.... Did a little bit of training with Kim Carrigan back in the early days, but... nar nothing. I wasn't even into bouldering. I just climbed.

Q: I suppose you were living here [At Natimuk], so you were quite close to the climbing?

Yeah. I was living here, or travelling and climbing all the time. So yeah, pretty much for 8 years I just climbed. I didn't do much else. I did a little bit of work here and there to support my habit! [laughs],

Q: Do you have a different perspective on risk in climbing now than you did, say at age 21?

Oh yeah, there's a big difference now! [laughs]. Definitely. I'm much less willing to take risks than I was at 21. In fact I've got this theory that I could really only take risks during one phase, when I was 21, when I was just getting into climbing.

For me I think that I could really only go though that once. From the perspective I have now, when I look back, I don't think that I could go through that in another sport, like, say, white water kayaking, or something like that. I just don't think I could do it again. Because I know how many risks I took that I was completely unaware of when I was 21 or 22 in climbing. But I wasn't aware of them at the time, which is a horrendous thing. I was lucky I didn't die! Then by the time I got the experience I was quite safe and I'm actually a fairly conservative climber. I don't think I'm that bold. But the danger bit was in that really early period, and I don't think I could do that again with something else. I've got so much knowledge now of the risks I took. I think that's definitely something that's associated with youth for me!

Q: What does climbing provide you with most now-a-days? (Fitness, friends, challenge, adventure..?).

It's all of those things really. I like going climbing with friends. It's great to have a social day out. Like the other day I went out with two mates and we did a climb that I've guided heaps of times, but they'd never done it and they were checking it out for guiding. So we just did that. It was fun.

So it's a good way of connecting with friends. For guiding it's great to be involved in your own personal climbing because you can relate more to what your clients are going through. If you've been struggling last week on, say a grade 20, and then you're guiding somebody on a grade 10 you can relate much more to their struggle if you've been though it yourself. And it's good for your own overall fitness, and your head. So it's good for work, it's good for fitness. And then now-and-then, when I do get a bit more enthused about climbing and I put more effort into it and I start to go and do climbs that I haven't done before in the Grampians, say, which I was doing last year - yeah all the same stuff is there that ever was there. The challenge, the adventure, working things out on lead, all that stuff, it's still there.

Q: I also understand that you are passionate about environmental issues and take an active role in the Wimmera area. Do you have particular projects that you are involved with in this regard? What do you see as the most significant environmental issue in climbing today?

Yeah, I'm really interested in that. I've co-ordinated a few tree plantings and tree waterings around the Wimmera, Nati Lake, out at the Mount, Natimuk railway line, etc.

I support rappel points on the cliff, so that trashing of descent gullies is minimised. It's great to get to the top of the cliff, but whether you walk down or abseil down it's still part of the whole adventure of getting there, getting up, getting back down again. It's different from sport climbing. It's not like you're taking someone off climbing and just lowering them off. You're actually doing the whole thing.

So I think, probably erosion control is really a major issue. Bolting and chalk and stuff - they are issues, but they are not as significant as the erosion.

Q: The erosion caused by traffic?

Yeah, by traffic at the bottom of the cliff, top and gullies. And the camping areas, they get really trashed because there's lots of people just wandering around and over them all the time. So to me, that's much more significant than chalk and bolting. Chalk is pretty ugly and sometimes bolting can be really ugly too, but I think it's more that macro stuff than micro stuff personally.

Q: You're an active member of the "Friends of Mt Arapiles/Tooan State Park" I believe? Can you tell us a little about what this organisation does, and perhaps how others might become involved?
Students help with replanting.

Like I said we've done tree planting. We get the kids involved too. We have lots of school groups coming up and we get them out there watering the trees we planted. It's fantastic! They get to spend an hour at the end of a hot day throwing a bit of water around and we get our trees watered. And the teachers love it. The teachers love having the kids doing something at the end of the day that is community minded. They put it in their school newsletter. The school gets some kudos in the local newspaper or whatever. It's good.

Right: School children watering plants. Photo from Louise's collection.

Q: I read somewhere about an episode with Friends Of Arapiles, in May this year where you had to abseil down a cliff fully clad in a bee suit and with a backpack full of petrol containers. What was the story there?

We've got a problem with feral bees at Arapiles. Feral bees are European Honey Bees that have escaped the hive. They have hives all around the back of the mountain, some apiarists are allowed to have them there, and some of them escape. I've noticed over the years that they have spread to a lot of rock hollows where birds nest, and possums. There are pardalotes and even rosellas I've seen nesting in the rock hollows and there are possums. So we decided that we should get rid of them and the ranger suggested petrol, so we abseiled down the cliff one day. It was about 30 degrees (probably a bit warm for doing this kind of thing!), and poured petrol down this crack, and plugged it up with petrol soaked rags. The bees just vanished. Eventually it would be good to clean out the old honey comb and so make it available space for birds, and also native bees. The feral bees they used up a lot of nectar that the honeyeaters would use and they also displace the native bees, the little native stingless bees. So yeah, that was fun.

Q: Can you give readers an appreciation of the contrast between living in the small town of Natimuk, a few minutes from either Arapiles or the Grampians, and the lifestyle that this offers in comparison to say fighting your way home every night in the dark, through endless traffic in the concrete jungle of a big city and dreaming about climbing instead?

It's a lifestyle thing really. There's some things I have a yearning for in the city. You can't see the same number of interesting alternative films in Horsham that you get in the city. Culturally there's not nearly the same choice as you get in the city. So I miss that. Whenever I go to Melbourne I just see two or three films in a day. Just cram it all in. But it's more than compensated for by the fact that it's a less hectic lifestyle out here. You spend more time around at friends houses, drinking cups of tea and talking and going for walks. You're not in the wilderness exactly but a reasonably natural environment. It's cleaner. There's less preoccupation with consumption living in the country. I spend more in the city in a weekend than I spend in Natimuk in two months. There's just so many things to spend your money on. There's just less of this obsession with having the latest thing in country I think. So it's simpler lifestyle.

I've got a great relationship with the farm down the road. In fact there's a couple of farmers. There's one in SA that grows organic wheat. I buy 25kgs of organic wheat. I grind it myself in my brother's grinder, make flour, my own sourdough bread. Then I go out to the local farm, the organic farm just down the road here, and do a bit of work for them, get my food, whatever they've got in season. So I'm not only eating in season, but the freshest possible, best grown stuff. It's a barter system. It's fantastic. You might not have the opportunity to do that in the city that you do in the country. People may be more preoccupied with work in the city.

We've got the beautiful mountain out there. We've got the Grampians just down the road. The Little Desert. The Wimmera river. Lots of nice places in the outdoors to explore.

Q: Having lived and worked close to Mt Arapiles for years now, and having no doubt climbed all the 'classics' numerous times, there would be no-one more authoritative in answering the critical question: What is the best route at Mt Arapiles?

Well I would have to say my favourite climb, for me, is one of the climbs I've got the most memories about: Arachnus (9, 123m). Probably because I had a major epic on it when I was first leading grade 9. I went up there and got benighted. I had this little drama on it and it's just stuck in my brain ever since. Noddy has got a great description of Arachnus in his guide, it says something about this classic that reminds him of the times he climbed with a hemp rope, and two hemp slings and stuff like that. That's just what it evokes for me, is my very early climbing and leading days. I just got totally freaked out on the crux and thought there's no holds. But you, know, there's holds everywhere. I mean, it is kind of blankish, you do have to move around. But yeah, that's my favourite climb.
Louise Shepherd at Mt Arapiles. Photo By Simon Carter.

Q: Do you have a climbing hero/heroine?

Being a feminist I'd have to say it would be a heroine. I think Ann Pauligk is one of the unsung heroines of Australian climbing. She did some really impressive stuff back in the 70s and she's never really had much acknowledgement for that. She led The Wraith, 21, a significant lead for back in the mid 70s. She did Christian Crack (20) back when most people climbing weren't getting up those climbs or were hanging and resting one them. She led them stylishly. Bottom up, no inspection, no falls. Even earlier than her were women like Dot Butler. I went to her slide show at Escalade a few years ago - barefoot soloing on these new routes! I mean quite extraordinary women, I think. So that would have to be my two heroines.

Q: What does your future hold in terms of climbing?

Don't know, just as long as I enjoy it! There's much more of an emphasis on people staying fit as they age, and I think climbing is a great sport for that. Walking to the crag you get some aerobic fitness, climbing gives you muscular strength. So yeah, I can see myself climbing for a long time. One of my best friends died rock climbing at the age of 67 - Dennis Kemp. He was leading grade 20 and seconding grade 23 stylishly, at the age of 67. He's an inspiration.

Further Reading:   Push For The Summit

The Climbing Company - Guided climbing at Arapiles. Founded by Louise Shepherd and Chris Peisker.
Rock Climbing In Australia - An interview of sorts with several climbers including Louise on the ABC's website.
Women Climbing: 200 Years of Achievement - A chapter in this book profiles Louise.
Outdoor Australia Magazine (Feb/Mar 2004) - Contains a one page write up of Louise.



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