Interview: Dr. Michael Law (aka The Claw)
[ More Interviews ]
16th Feb 2003
I was never a very successful climbing bum, until recently I'd never spent 4 nights at Arapiles as there were too many distractions in town. But in 70's and early 80's, Arapiles was the place to be, as (in retrospect) with all those RP's it was the closest thing to sport-climbing around.
In that period, notions of yoyo-ing, dogging, frigging, abseil inspecting, working routes, redpointing etc hadn't really been understood, classified, or even named. Most of the hard routes weren't really free by the redpoint ethos of today, most routes had aid placed gear, rests, top-roped sections blah, blah, etc, etc; but then again we were crap at working routes and made life really hard for ourselves by lowering to the ground each time. There were some very talented climbers around and everyone climbed a range of routes:- fiddled RP's at Araps, slithered up runout slabs each summer at Buffalo, cracks at Frog when you went north to visit your granny, bouldered, fumbled around trying to do routes in the Blueys without placing too many bolts etc etc.
Grades went up massively in the 70's, When I started climbing the hardest free climbs were probably things like pitch 1 Eternity (18), or Morfydd (19). Everything else had lots of shady aid in them. By the end of the 70's grade 26 was solid and there were lots of claims of harder things. The grades hit 28/29 by the early 80's and has inched up slowly since then.
Q: The guide book "Grampians Selected Climbs" describes you as "an expert in chipping, under-grading, over-grading, bad bolting and bad fashion", though it goes on to mention you put up some of the finest routes in the country. Do you have a comment on this description?
Fans let glamour cloud their judgement don't they? But I do object to "bad fashion", if you wear anything for 20 years the circle will come around again and you'll be fashionable again. Just like bouldering. I'm obviously not an expert in chipping as I keep telling people if I do it, but I'm slowly coming around to the Victorian ethic, you just don't tell people about it.
Right: Mike leading a (very) loose route "somewhere in the desert". Loose blocks like boxes of corn flakes everywhere. Only one came off, thousands of tiny bats swarmed all over me as i tried to take the sling off it that I'd just put on it.
Q: You've developed so many new routes over the years. Do you have an estimate of the number?
A few thousand, but a few thousand less than Baxter.
Q: I understand you're currently working on a bolting/rebolting scheme in the Blue Mountains? How is that going?
Bad bolts are like the weather, everyone talks about them but nobody does anything about it. Until now anyway. People don't realise just how variable a lot of anchors are. The ones that are ok may be quickly degraded by the effects of weather, rope wear, fatigue loads, bracket scrape, etc. Beefy SS gear with replaceable wear links in lower-offs should last a long, long time.
It's important not to change the nature of the route, just replace the anchors. Anyone can lead a route on crap bolts or pitons, when they are new they're probably pretty strong. But it's like putting up a new route on a hemp rope, and every one has to repeat it on the same rope. A few years down the track that rope has a bit of wear and a bit of rot, but if you're lucky and think "helium" when you fall, you should survive. A few years later don't even bother trying. It's the same with ageing bolts.
Q: Your routes "Dive, Dive, Dive" (26) and "We Don't Like Slopes" (24) at Bundaleer, have been mentioned as noteworthy, and perhaps controversial. Can you tell us a little of their history?
I don't know about controversial, I made bad errors on both. On Dive, dive, dive I chipped a start (common in Vic at the time) as the mantle looked horrible and I didn't put in enough bolts which made working it hard. With an extra 2 bolts it suddenly became a much easier proposition. Glen Tempest (Australia's other good fat climber) added a start and perhaps more gear. On "Slopes" I just forgot my boots that day.
Q: Your route "Pain and Frequency" in the You Yangs was originally graded 23, but now goes at 28! That's a huge difference. Were you simply on fire that day? Or was it that grades over 23 were unheard of at the time?
I didn't think I could get anyone to repeat much over 23 in the You-yangs. I might have just been in sandbag mode.
Q: You've climbed extensively with some people, such as Kim Carrigan and others, who had a large impact on the shape of the sport in Victoria. Can you describe some of these characters and the adventures you got up to? Who were some of the craziest people you climbed with?
Even without drugs a lot of those climbers were pretty entertaining. Malcolm Matheson is the only ethical climber I've seen in Victoria, I'm surprised he hasn't been deported.
It's easy to dismiss Kim, as he was a highly motivated trainer, strong, and self publicising. But he was more consistent than anyone else, in Australia perhaps his routes weren't as hard as claimed, but when Kim went on a round the world trip in the late 70's he ticked all the hardest routes quickly in every area he went to. He was the first to take advantage of a few new things, RP's, baby friends (yes, Malcolm Matheson was the first to make them), dogging moves. This gave him a huge edge in the confused trad graveyard of what was contemporary climbing.
Mark Moorehead climbed some desperate shockers, but liked to undergrade them. All a big joke till he was killed on Makalu in '81. His nutty take on reality is sorely missed.
Greg Child was fearless and would try anything, even living in America. He's a joker, a cad, a card, and a hoot. People like Greg and Mark did much to battle the production-line dark side of the force that Kim was trying to drag to climbing then too.
As a living fossil I've also been able to climb with a lot of the early climbers:- John Ewbank, John Worrall, Bryden Alllen, Chris Baxter, the Gledhill twins. Although by modern reckoning they were hopeless technically, they were all horrifyingly bold, and could push the boat out on unprotected climbing forever a grade below what they could toprope. Baxter still is doing scary things on low angled choss in the Grampians.
I came from that generation and spent the first 5 years of my climbing clinging to slabby choss with no gear, trying to stay alive. These days I still feel spooked about climbing on steep ground or falling.
Q: In the early 80's, when Kim Carrigan was pushing the grading envelope at Mt Arapiles, you were doing routes of similar difficulty levels throughout Victoria. You seemed to be routinely in the habit of under-grading your new routes at the time. Was this a commentary on Kim's obsession with ticking big numbers, or was it more related with a desire on your behalf to avoid the limelight?
Mark (Moorehead) and I didn't think anyone was really climbing that hard in Australia. We also used to enrage Kim by grading everything 23 (this turns out to be THE chosen grade for sandbags all around the world).
"So Mark, what's the lowest grade you can give this thing with breaking out laughing?"
"Umm, 22 hahaha, it's no good, I can't do it. It'll have to be 24 "
Q: What did you learn from your attempt at the first ascent of "Boy Racer" at Mount Arapiles? Care to tell us the story? (Doctor Law apparently forgot to tie into his rope correctly and watched the rope fall out of his harness halfway up a new route on Tiger Wall).
I was in the middle of tying in on the ledge at the start of "the business", about 100m up Tiger Wall and Greg Child decided to move the belay as another party was getting onto the ledge, then Andrew Thompson gave me the rack, all in all a perfect way to forget to finish tying in. We'd been falling off trying to get through a roof without touching a loose-looking block, and I did the move using a little flake and hiked around the lip.
I went up a few moves in a layback, rather pumped, and placed a poxy RP. I tried to clip, the rope went whoosh, and I went all quiet, Andrew started yelling "Below, below, below". I got back down to the lip and I reached in and grabbed the block and swung in on that, it came off instantly but I managed to grab the gear on the wall (which I must of hit fairly hard). I got back to camp and fell asleep for 24 hours, but every time I climb these days I check my knots about 25 times. These days I check I've got gear, a knot, chalk, clean boots, and a fully threaded and functioning belayer before I leave the ground.
Q: Over such a lengthy climbing career you must have collected a number of memorable and scary incidents. Do any stand out?
If we are not going to mention drugs, tripping, chipping, chicks, soft ticks, use profanity, or expose myself to ridicule or libel, there's not much to say. The story about Kenny the Psycho in Rock magazine is true by the way.
Q: Your nickname "The Claw" is fairly well known. Is there a story behind this?
If you say my name with a few drinks behind you it will give you a clue, I'm glad my name isn't Mr. Hunt.
Above and Below Right: Mike on new route in the desert with 9 zero RP's for gear, scary onsight.
I was a climbing bum till I was 26, then took up motorbike racing. It was astounding, but stupid, that I could run a Ducati superbike on the dole and I quickly got a job at Mountain Designs, where I managed the store for a few years, until I got out of racing, I kept building engines etc and then worked in the construction industry for a few more years. When I was 34 I looked around and everybody I worked with had buggered their bodies, so I tossed in work and went to uni. I had an interest in materials from building race engines, making climbing gear, working in the construction industry etc and did a Materials Science degree, followed by a PhD (it was easier than getting a job) looking at weld failures.
I work at the research reactor at Lucas Heights, primarily to provide expert knowledge on materials issues when necessary. I've spent the last 2 years working in industry on a method of making gas pipelines cheaper and safer. I hope some of the knowledge I've picked up can go back into climbing. I'm comfortable about working at a nuclear facility (I believe that radio-pharmaceuticals, nuclear medicine, and smoke detectors are good things) but don't advocate nuclear weapons (not even they could get all the moss off Ben Cairn).
Q: How much time do you have now-a-days to devote to climbing?
A: Most weekends, a day off every now or then, the occasional glorious morning bouldering locally before work, some afternoons after work at the seacliffs, public holidays, and normal holidays. Night bolting is always an option too.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on the recent public liability / insurance debacle effecting the climbing industry?
The wilderness parasites making money out of climbing will try to attract anyone, even those with no interest in the sport (people who think that climbing is an extreme sport are extremely boring). Having too many climbers is a problem anyway, particularly if the people think it's all a video game and they'd be happier in a mall. These people (who think that climbing should have no risk) are probably the ones most likely to have an accident (because they don't think climbing is dangerous) and then sue someone (for the same reason). Make climbing scary and they'll piss off. Take the wilderness parasites too.
Commercial groups and school groups tend to really hammer areas, and cause most wear. I think it is a privilege to be involved in a sport where you can die.
Q: Have you ever been involved in a climbing accident? Ever had to rescue someone?
Rescued: I came across a pack of scouts learning to lead at Berowra after heavy rain. After giving them a brief lecture on how weak wet sandstone is, and to take care, I soloed a route, broke a hold and broke an ankle, they carried me back to my motorbike.
Rescuer: When I was first climbing at the Freezer, before we installed "the log of death" across the void between the two sides of the crag, we just had "the rope of death". This was 3 strands of ancient static rope strung across the 10m gap, with 2 bolts on route that it was tied through. I was there one day and a young climber turned up raving about the place and skipped around to the next sector. A few minutes later I heard sobbing noises from around the corner and ran around to investigate.
The guy's (non-climbing) girlfriend had hand-traversed halfway across the sucking void and was looking pretty limp, though her feet were still bicycling well, with a 30 m drop below her. I grabbed a rope from someone's pack (they yelled at me) and put a figure 8 loop in one end with a biner and flipped it through the rope of death when I was near her. I had a leg around the rope of death as I was worried she would drag me off and I didn't have a harness or any gear handy to protect myself with. I put it around her waist, clipped the biner to the rope so it cinched tight around her waist, took it in over the rope of death and tied it off tight. She fell onto it about 10 seconds later, I tied her off and (as it was very tight around her waist) made a loop for her to sit in. After this we grabbed gear and got her across, and put in "log of death" a few days later.
Q: You've had a lot of practice putting in bolts. What are you current thoughts? Do you have a preference for carrots, rings, fixed hangers? Where do you think the sport is headed, in terms of future acceptance of bolting with respect to environmental impact, proliferation of routes, etc?
I've drilled way too many by hand. Drilling by hand or on the lead makes doing a good job (strength or position) even harder than it usually is. Even with modern glues and gear it is still a skilled job. Carrots in the Blueys are pretty good (but the ones that are fallen on a lot start to look bad quickly as the rock is so soft), but in Victorian rock they just don't work (rock's too good). Glue in SS bolts are a good replacement for these. Fixed hangers are expensive, conspicuous, and you can't lower off them easily so you'd normally replace them with rings or U's.
Rings and U's are ok, but you probably need to check them all after placing them (most failures are from the glue not setting). Rings can twist out if placed poorly. U's seem good and will probably be the standard in 10 years. Nobody has done any decent testing on anchors, here or overseas. In the Blueys we don't test on animals, we use live humans. Replaceable wear links on lower offs are essential too.
Some climbers think that bolts are a big thing. The actual impact of a bolt is tiny compared to driving up to the crag and any tracks that are made. In many cases the use of lower-offs will eliminate a lot of clifftop and gully erosion The greatest impact of bolts is that bolts attract people.Most routes in the Blue Mountains are all bolts and the technology is pretty good, but they are still a bit of a rarity in Victoria, for that reason Victoria is a bit of a technology black hole, but that will change.
Q: You've put up a vast number of routes in Victoria. Which ones are you the most proud of? Which the least?
Favourite routes? Poppies, Elephant slide, Zero rose, Slope'n sleazin'. Least favourite? Anything on wigglies. Actually it's fun to climb on natural gear, but more and more I don't bother writing up things done all trad, let someone else have the fun too. There are few I should have put more bolts in, but it's easy not put bolts in if you're inspecting on a rope and have to drill by hand, it's not even being bold. Bold hard routes are good, but it's silly to put up poorly protected 18's. We have a weird respect for boldness that makes for lots of bold 18's and overbolted 24's.
Q: Do you have a favourite crag or climb in Victoria?
Eurobin Falls at Buffalo, and any Ferret route up on the Cathedral. I like Ben Cairn because it is so weird-arse funky, Rent-a-doddle needs a repeat and 4 grades added. The Gramps are fab, but the routes are spread out and you do a lot of driving, most cliffs have one great route. It's nice being able to shuffle up and do routes on sight on trad gear. Arapiles has the best easy routes in the country, but the hard routes are pretty average.
Q: I've been asked to ask you about the graffiti on castle crag at Arapiles. Have you any idea who wrote it and why?
The only graffiti I know is "Baxter is a shit" I think this was chipped by his belayer on the first ascent of Undertaker.
Q: Have your climbing adventures ever taken you overseas? Can you give us a quick run down on the places you've been and major routes accomplished?
Just tourist tickage. It's a shame to waste time on hard routes when you're on the road (unless you go south where the grades are soft). On big trips you want to float effortlessly up juggy 28's, but settle for having fun. Your power is ground away every week as you really need lots of rest, but because you're keen and impoverished you climb every day anyway. Your technique, confidence and stamina get good, but anything hard just is too powerful. It doesn't matter too much on euro-limestone as they are stamina routes.
I was away last year and onsighted some 7B+ routes and lead some 7C/7C+ (very good for me), but the best climbing was at Presles near Grenoble, did an 11 pitch 22 with Vanessa, all sportingly bolted. She lead her first crack on that climb too. I climbed at Fontainebleau for two weeks which was wonderful, I wish there was good bouldering in Australia, I haven't seen anything worth taking a harness off for yet.
Q: Now the inevitable training question, for all us wanna-be harder types. When you were climbing at your peak, did you follow a training system, and if so can you describe it? What would you recommend to climbers looking to push into harder levels?
When I was 15 I could do 5 one arm chin-ups on a first joint edge with either hand or 50 normal ones. I could just get my carcass up a 21. Now I can do 5 chinups total and still have epics on 21's, but claw my way up a few 28's too. Time on rock is much better than time spent training. Power is not a permanent substitute for skill. But a bit of mild training is useful if you are seriously weak, and when you get a bit older to maintain what little you have.
Most good climbers are bloody strong to begin with, sad but true. You're better being bold, technical, and inspired than grinding your tendons away in a spiral of injury and overtraining. I try and climb one or two hard routes every year, but think being solid on 23's is more impressive than falling up a 28 over many days. You get to climb more too.
These days I mostly climb with the beautiful Vanessa, who will be cranking harder than me soon, and Mark Wilson, who only gets out 1 weekend in 6, but is fearless and frantic when he hits the wall. I also like to climb with the young hotshots. They're fun and energetic and most real climbers won't write you off because you're fat and useless, but they might if you won't try the dyno. They inspire you, but you don't bother trying to train with them.
Q: Time for a few generic questions. Hardest grade ever free climbed?
Umm, Cobwebs (29?) Tsunami (29) Steps ahead (28) Rent-a doddle (30) Butterknives (29) Detach Mode (30) Pinking (30). But usually I'd only ever do one hard route a year. This year I did first ascents of two 28's and some 27's, and repeated a few hard things too, this probably makes this the best years climbing I've ever had. Better things next year perhaps?
Q: Do you have a climbing hero/heroine?
Baxter because he loves to climb after all these years. Fantini because he's so keen and active, try keeping up with him. Justin Clark because he works so hard at climbing (and thinks he's weak because he climbs with Zac). People who climb well because they are strong and slim and climb full time are nothing special. You know they'll drop out if they don't get the applause. The people who inspire me are those who don't have the fan club and the magazine exposure to stoke their ego's, have a real life, and still push themselves.
I think we are apes and like to climb things. That which makes us happy makes us good.
Q: And what about the future? Any projects you're working on, trips planned?
I've got projects coming out my bottom, a few long things to finish off in the Grose, a few (6?) hard new routes I've been banging my head against for a while and lots of repeats to do (Diamond Falls is so hard for a slabby fossil). There are a some routes I'll try and rebolt this year too. I might be off to live in the evil empire (Washington DC) next year, so there are lots of things to see in the USA, I'll leave my bolt gun with Baxter.
Right: Mike on an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture near Ceuse, France.
Home | Guide | Gallery | Tech Tips | Articles | Reviews | Dictionary | Forum | Links | About | Search