Interview: Dr. Simon Parsons
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14th June 2003
I don't know where the clothes line concept comes from when talking of the older generation climbers. I in fact used a very thin hemp rope to practice those painful rappels from a parent's' garden shed loft. What started my interest in climbing was reading Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonington in the early 70's. As I didn't know anybody in Tasmania who climbed, I joined the local Launceston bushwalking club and did a lot of long walks in Tasmania which I saw as a stepping stone to climbing back then. I remember doing the Western Arthur's traverse at age 16 years. In the club I soon met some climbers, but mainly taught myself to climb in the Cataract Gorge, enticing along friends as belayers.
In those days everything was done from the ground up. Progress was slow and everything was scary, often poorly protected. I mail ordered by gear from the Mainland. There was no such thing as gyms or bouldering. I slowly worked my way up the grades. My big psychological breakthrough came after Kim Carrigan, Greg Child (both had just returned from a year in Yosemite) and Mike Law visited Tasmania in 1977/78 summer and I joined them for a few days. I discovered chalk and the fact that I could do harder climbs. I then visited Arapiles and began to notch up climbs up to grade 24. At the time this was considered hard.
Q: Climbing began for you in Tasmania, where you put up many new routes and did such climbs as the scenic but scary Totem Pole. Given that you've since explored climbing throughout the world, does Tassy still hold an attraction?
I have just returned to Tasmania after many years away. I am looking forward to re-living my youth here. Tasmanian climbing is exceptional and I never appreciated the beauty of the place nor the quality of the climbing or life here until I had climbed and lived everywhere else. The grass is not really greener on the other side. Tassie just lacks really hard routes, although the bouldering scene is at an international level with the likes of Sam Edwards and his colleagues.
Q: You hit Arapiles back in the "Golden Age", climbing with the likes of Kim Carrigan. Can you tell us a little about those days and the people involved?
Climbing at Araps back then was an odd scene. Most climbers were on the dole, dirty and smoked pot. I was a University student who dropped in from Tasmania. I always felt out of place, but did a few first ascents with Kim. Kim was the consummate professional and always a notch above most of us. The scene was full of fascinating individuals. I am sure someone will one day write a book about the people and what happened to them. The main difference from today is that climbing was not considered a worthwhile pursuit by 'society' and those that did it had to be very committed (or could not think of anything better to do).
I was certainly chastised by my university (Uni of Tas in Hobart) peers for not attending footy matches and drinking beer, but skipping classes to put up new routes on the Organ Pipes.
Q: Can you tell us a little about some of your alpine ascents? From Mt Cook in New Zealand, to the likes of Mont Blanc in the French Alps, Cerro Torre in Patagonia and the North Face of the Eiger to mention but a few. How did these incredible feats come about? Were they self funded? Were did you get the motivation and inspiration?
I had always wanted to be an all-round climber, probably because I came to climbing from bushwalking. I have always been self-funded, shunning the idea of publicity to get money. I have never considered myself worthy of sponsorship, simply because there are so many climbers better than me. I first went to the NZ Alps in 1985. John Fantini was there, in his prime. Glen Tempest and some buddies were going to do Mt Cook via Zurbriggens. John showed me how to strap on crampons the day before. I soloed Zurbriggens initially behind Glen and his friends, but got to the top first by myself. Fantastic. On the way up I was cramponing up the gully to the summit rocks and the guy in front suddenly fell off and started rocketing down the gully towards huge ice cliffs. He arrested beautifully and prompted clawed his way onwards to the summit. It was a brief but amazing event. No words were spoken.
I always found the mountains scary, but persevered and did some very good routes, like the Balfour Face of Tasman and Eiger. You just have to be determined and know when to go up and when to go down. John Fantini for all his talents was not a good teacher. I remember we went to NZ one winter and did an excellent new route on the West Face of Dixon. He expected me to solo everything and at one point on about 70 degree ice I yelled out to John,' how about a rope'. He replied,' You f...g whimp, its not even vertical yet.' I for many years felt inadequate as a mountaineer after such an introduction, but later realized my expectations were not unrealistic! John refused to use ropes on glaciers and again I thought it was my problem at the time!
Q: At Cerro Torre in Patagonia during 1994, you and partner John Fantini made in the summit in a 16 hour push after waiting 5 weeks for a break in the weather. Abseiling off in gale force winds, that must have been a memorable experience. What was going through your mind at the time?
Cerro Torre was hard, because we had to climb half the mountain 5 times before being successful. The wind started to roar near the summit, but we were initially sheltered from it. We got to the summit snow slope at 11pm, but did not climb the true summit as the mushroom was in terrible shape. It felt very lonely up there, but there was also a beautiful sense of commitment, focus and a sense of belonging for me. On the way down we had to do multiple single rope 25m rappels to reduce the odds of entangling and losing a rope. At the 'shrund bivi we were forced to stay an extra night as the winds were so strong it was impossible to see anything even with ski goggles on. All in all unforgettable.
Q: The north wall of the Eiger is probably one of the only alpine routes (as opposed to alpine summits) that non climbers are familiar with. Did the notoriety of the route play a part in inspiring you to tackle this intimidating line? Also the route has a reputation for loose rock and appalling conditions, did the route live up to its reputation on your ascent?
In 1995 I went to Europe and went sport and trad climbing. I had a Swiss friend Freddy Grousniklaus, who wanted to do the Eiger. I had always wanted to do it, probably because it was so famous and because I had read the White Spider as a kid. The face was in good condition at the time so we just went and did it. It was August. It was fantastic, like a museum piece, relics everywhere, but very dangerous with lots of rock fall. We both got hit several times by small rocks and the only other party on the face behind us were apparently choppered off after one guy had his femur smashed by a rock. At a bivi the only snow patch as about 10m away across a small gully that regularly functioned as a bowling alley for big rocks. We had to tension across to get snow for water between the rock fall. I am very glad and lucky to have done it, but I would only do it again in winter.
Q: A perusal of Tasmanian climbing guides suggests that you were one of the first (if not THE first) person to introduce the sport climbing style to the Apple Isle. Given the strong anti-bolt ethic that still exists in parts of the state to this day, did you experience much criticism at the time? When you moved to Victoria, what were the most significant differences (if any) that you noticed in attitudes to climbing?
Tassie now has a lot of sport areas which are well accepted. The big mountain cliffs remain trad areas but there are now some bolt routes. My early bolt routes were always accepted as far as I know as they were harder than anything else at the time. But most of my many new routes were natural gear routes done from the ground up. My only objection so far to bolting in Tas is my route Seize the Day 26/27 at Duck Reach. I did it with 3 bolts and natural gear. Now it has 7/8 bolts. I can understand why it was bolted as it is such a fantastic line, but as the gear was pretty good I want it to be restored to its original condition.
When I was active in Victoria bolting was already seen as necessary and accepted for the sport to progress.
I recounted my first experience on ice earlier. However you can never learn to be a good ice/mixed climber in NZ as the weather is too bad and the conditions unpredictable and the approaches too long. When I was working in Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton I started to visit the Canadian Rockies. I later moved to Canmore (near Banff) were I have been living until this year. In this way I became a good ice and mixed climber. What is going on their today is amazing. Big hard dangerous mixed routes and lots of very hard sport mixed routes. The potential in the Rockies for summer and winter climbing is limitless.
Right: An M8+ classic in Canada, of which Simon made the first ascent.
Q: Climbing The Nose of El Cap in the US in a single day, is something of a benchmark in the climbing world, even to those not familiar with Big Walling. What were the steps that lead to this remarkable accomplishment? Did you find moving at speed made the ascent more dangerous? Any tips for picking up the pace? Any thought's on Lynn Hill freeing it in a day?
I had been ice climbing long routes in Canada all winter and bouldering after work indoors. I wanted to do the Nose in a day. So I took a week off work, hooked up with a Seattle climber "Polish Bob", did Half Dome in a day, took a few days off and then did the Nose. It was hot and the second had to jug up with 8 litres of water. We also had full Gortex with us as the afternoon thunderstorms were a regular event. It took us twenty hours. My hands were so swollen afterwards! I guess I have always been in pretty good shape and could do this type of thing without too much preparation. What we did was very traditional (no soloing or simul-climbing) and not dangerous, we just did not stop to sleep. I can see how one could do the type of things Lynn Hill and now Darren Potter are doing given the amount of climbing and hence conditioning they have.
Q: The Burnley Wall (a Melbourne glue up, steep boulder traverse), used to be part of your training regime, when you lived locally. You might be interested to know this resident icon has recently been destroyed by the powers that be, though there are plans for it's resurrection. Most climbers are lucky to complete the (grade 28) traverse. I've heard you could run laps of it?
I always thought doing the whole traverse including the roof out to the pathway was about grade 30. I eventually did it twice (actually I fell off a move from the end). It was great endurance training but not good for power. It is a real shame the holds have been removed as the wall has historical significance as well as being a great place to train. I hope the VCC can sort out the problem with CitiLink.
Before the Burnley Wall existed when I was living in Melbourne I trained mostly at the Richmond Bridge. I was training to be a Paediatrician at the Royal Children's Hospital at the time. This is vertical but very crimpy and I had an amazing linkage going comprising of 6 laps non-stop of each side - all hold warm-up, 5 and under both ways, high route all holds rest, 6 and 1 both ways, then to the other side. Others should try this - ask Martin Lama about this.
Q: Sounds like training for climbing has been a big part of your success. Given that you're also a medical doctor, you must be in a unique position to comment on the effectiveness of different training & diet methods. Can you elaborate on the techniques that have worked for you?
Climb as much as you can, at least twice a week for a couple of hours, mixed bouldering and endurance. Keep up your aerobic fitness as well (used to be running for me). Find a project and work on it at weekends until it is done. Have fun and find like minded friends.
Q: Is it more important to train power or endurance? Are you a fan of cross training with other sports?
Cross training is good, but you will loose the edge at whatever you are seeking most. Adjust your training to suit your current goal. If I was young and starting again I would train power mostly, endurance can always be acquired but power is harder the older you get. For example there are a lot of older marathoners and mountaineers but not so many old grade 32 climbers. I just read of a 55 year old in Europe doing a 8b+(32), so maybe I am wrong about this.
Q: How would you describe your climbing style? I've read you prefer static rather than dynamic movements. Would you describe yourself as a cautious climber?
I was always very cautious (yet I later had a bad fall) and static as a result of my trad upbringing. I hated dynamic climbing until I was forced to boulder in gyms in Canadian winters, Now I think indoor bouldering is great and if gyms had existed in my youth I would have been a stronger and better rock climber.
Q: What does it take to get up something like the super overhanging Monkey Puzzle (28) at the Gallery, Grampians? Do you use a different system of training if you're aiming for something less steep but more technical?
I think by just working a route you adjust to the style of the route. I never had the time or opportunity to train specifically as one can do as a full time climber or with the help of indoor gyms.
Q: I understand you've ambitions to lead the famous test piece, Punks In The Gym (31) at Arapiles. How long do you think you'll need to make the tick? I've heard of people camped at the Pines for months on end, working nothing but that one route.
I'm sure I will be camped there for months if I can recover enough strength after my accident to have a fair chance of doing it.
Q: In all those years of hard climbing you must have had your share of epics. Do you have a favourite "there I was" story? I've read about you being attacked by Black Bears in Canada and almost coming to grief river rafting in Tasmania.
You cannot go to the mountains and not have close calls, but I would not say I have had a true epic. Maybe it is yet to come. I was always too chicken to put myself in a situation that would end up an epic.
Q: You mentioned that you'd smashed yourself up badly in 1997 during a slip whilst soloing an "easy" ice route. The result being 11 surgeries, 2 years on crutches and that you're only now finally getting back into climbing. Firstly can you tell us about the accident? What exactly happened? For someone so motivated to achieve, your recovery must have seemed frustratingly slow? Has this incident effected your "lead head"? Would you still solo ice routes today?
I was trailing a rope up a grade 4 ice route in Canada. I had soloed the route several times before. I was at my peak - about to redpoint a 13d and doing all the hard ice routes. For some reason my right tool detached and I fell 30 feet landing on an ice ledge. I smashed up my right calcaneus and talus, tore my right knee cartilage and left shoulder tendons. I ended up over the years requiring 11 surgeries on my foot, knee and shoulder and most recently my left elbow for severe chronic tendonitis (too much time crutchering and trying to boulder with a broken foot in plaster).
The last few years since 1998 have been agonizing for me. I had to give up my career, give up climbing, and could not walk. My foot fractures did not heal properly and I ended up getting my subtalar joint fused. This was done crocked so I had to go to the USA to have my foot rearranged and this left me with a 'triple arthrodesis' and chronic pain due to a rare condition called 'complex regional pain syndrome.' My foot remains painful and stiff to this day. I cannot run but can walk about 6-10 kms with ski poles, although this is painful. Every step I take remains painful to this day. Chronic pain is a soul destroying experience, that I would not wish on my worst enemy (don't have one I know of though!) but I am coping with it and I have finally returned to work here in Hobart.
Above Right: An M8+ classic in Canada, of which Simon made the first ascent.
Q: You mentioned that you have made several failed attempts to restart climbing since your accident. To me this implies that climbing is something that is very important to you, indeed something that you refuse to give up. Is this a fair comment, and if so, were there times during the rehabilitation process when you felt that a goal to climb again was unrealistic?
I have struggled to return to climbing throughout my rehabilitation, but failed because of my requirement for multiple surgeries and severe elbow tendonitis. Although I managed to redpoint 13c and do M9 with a broken talus. I used to approach the climbs on cruches or using a cane! Crazy in retrospect. The tendonitis was my own fault - trying to do too much, lack of patience. You cannot fight nature as they say. I had elbow surgery in Feb this year and have returned to gym climbing for now, but my elbow is still sore, although a lot better. I am not confident I will ever regain my former self which is a tough situation to be in. Plenty of people are worse off than me though, so I am not complaining.
Q: Alright, lets get to the crux of the interview - balancing that impressive career with the equally impressive climbing life. Just how have you managed to pull it off?
Maybe I can be regarded as an example of why it is evitablely impossible to juggle both career and climbing. I think I fell off as I was burning the candle at both ends and my concentration lapsed just long enough to end in disaster. However, aside from the fall, the key to my ability to do this was intense focus and motivation for both things. Probably stems from a sense of inadequacy as a child and the need to prove myself. I also wanted to have a worthwhile job, as I never saw climbing as a career. If I had known the way climbing was going to progress I may have been a professional climber, although I think this path would have lead me to a sense of not contributing anything of value to society.
Q: Sounds like climbing is more a way of life for you than merely a sport or recreation? You're well accomplished in all styles, on both rock and ice. What do you find are the rewards of pursuing climbing at such a hard level? Have there been sacrifices made along the way?
It is satisfying to have achieved a lot, but I have a saying "you are only as good as your last climb (within the last month in fact)" - so given that I have failed on a V4 (I hope the kids were under-grading the problem) at the gym yesterday, I am pretty average now. The big sacrifice has been not settling down, having kids (trying right now, hope it is not too late) and finding a sense of community. My job now looks promising in this regard. I think I can make a difference here in Tasmania as I have superb training in paediatrics and intensive care now.
Q: You've climbed extensively with Andrew Lindblade, author of the book Expeditions. Ever get the urge to write yourself?
Andrew loves to write. Some people, like my wife Katarina, are born like that. I have not felt that inclination. Now that Bob McMahon and his friends in Tasmania are producing excellent guides that serve as historical accounts of some of my past I can see the value in putting pen to paper. But I do not want to dwell on the past to much right now. Hope lies in the future for me as I try to create a new life after the injury. Also I have never felt I had much of worth to say.
Q: To what other sports/interests, outside of climbing, have you applied that seemingly unstoppable energy? I've heard you're into skydiving and white water rafting among other things.
I have tried a lot of things, especially since the accident. But nothing feels as good as climbing - except my dreams of walking without pain I occasionally have. To be healthy is a blessing - appreciate it while you can. I ride a mountain bike now as I cannot run (I occasionally dream of running too. I am sure Christopher Reeves dreams of walking).
My favourite crag would have to be the Organ Pipes in Hobart (for nostalgic reasons). In Victoria it has to be the Gramps especially Taipan and Sandinista cliff. All time favourite climb - there are so many - how about the ones I want to do - Punks in the Gym and Moonflower Buttress on Mt Hunter in Alaska. These two would complete that side of me I feel.
Right: Simon and his wife Kathy (leading) on a Canadian Rockies 11a (22)
Q: Do you have a climbing hero/heroine?
The silent Europeans who climb 8b and then zip up two or three Alpine routes in a day, all because it is fun.
Q: So what does your future hold in terms of climbing? What's next on the agenda?
I have to believe I will regain enough fitness to do Punks and Moonflower. Meanwhile I want to contribute to Tasmania through my work at the Royal Hobart Hospital. I am 43 now, so pretty young still I think (others may disagree).
I would like to have an ocean racing yacht and win the Sydney to Hobart yacht race - finally I might need a sponsor for this one, send donations to....
I am about to start a PhD in medical ethics, having just done a Masters in ethics. My current interest in philosophy has made me realize most of us think about life from too shallow a perspective (such as my idea of a yacht). I hope climbing writing becomes more serious in this respect in the future. Much of what we yearn for as climbers is silly. Although I still yearn for certain climbs, and I believe this yearning is important and of great value, we as climbers need to look around and try not to hurt others by our actions or inaction. Enough said.
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