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Memory of a Journey. Rock Climbing on Ben Lomond
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||Memory of a Journey. Rock Climbing on Ben Lomond
||Robert McMahon and Gerry Narcowicz
||Climb Tasmania Inc. and Oriel
|| (4.50 of 5)
|Memory of a Journey. Rock Climbing on Ben Lomond. by Robert McMahon and
Indigo blue waters and coral atolls. The front cover makes me think of the tropics
and the sea. Until, that is, I look at the rear cover and see a discordant photograph
of someone in the most preposterous position imaginable. While most tourists in
Tasmania would be scoffing scones and tea in a naff bakery and while most
Tasmanians would be downing a pie in-between constructing miles of perfectly
stacked firewood, this person is climbing a rock. Not just a rock, but a vertical crack
in a rock. A line. Cutting through thin air, clouds, fog, silhouettes and shadows.
Ben Lomond. Is there a more atmospheric, exciting series of cliffs in Australia?
There are taller cliffs and harder cliffs and cliffs with more roofs and more sunshine
but are there cliffs that actually make you feel like an explorer from another century.
Sure there are. Most of them are in Tasmania and most of them require epic
approaches. On Ben Lomond though, the adventuring is accessible. Accessibility
has a price and the price in this part of northern Tasmania is easy access to
commercially valuable forests. This is a part of state where clear-felled forest
coupes impinge directly upon the natural values of a National Park.
Out of those groaning forests stands Ben Lomond. Not isolated, but rooted in the
forest. The Ben. For years the province of one person''''s dreams, ambitions and
fears. Robert McMahon has been climbing here for longer than most climbers have
been alive. He knows it like the back of his hand and it shows. This book is both a
labour of love and an exorcism. Love Child and Voodoo Chile were the best of
friends. There are two standout parts to this book. I say book rather than guide
because while the first half is a climbing guide, the second half is a series of
reminiscences, musings and biographical details. The title gives the hint. Itís not
just about the rock climbs of Ben Lomond, itís about Rock Climbing on Ben Lomond.
It is this duality that makes people either love or hate the book. Thatís what dualities
tend to do. Itís almost certainly part of what McMahon had in mind. He is a big
picture man in a small island. He realized, early in his climbing life that climbing
consists of more than doing a series of gymnastic moves. It is a journey with many
detours, stops, incidents and memories. One of those stops was Gerry Narkowicz.
Presumably Gerry contributed to the production of the book. His name is on the front
cover so he must have. He certainly contributed to the climbing but somehow his
voice is lost in the powerful blast that is McMahonís memory. While the book is full
of Robert, I couldnít find any Gerry. Then again, maybe the climbs are all that really
So here is a guide to climbing on the Ben Lomond plateau in northeastern Tasmania.
The authors have a history of producing high quality guides to very small cliffs. This
is different. The cliffs are, in some cases, very tall indeed and even the shortest
seem more serious than identical clifflets at sea-level. The mountain is complex and
varied. The book copes with complexity with clear directions and outstanding
photographs. The section dealing with the rock-climbs is, in my opinion, the best
Australian guide, full stop. The authors have done an excellent job. The typeface,
the layout; all of those orderly things have been well thought out; except for the
pagination which is slightly annoying. Why do pages with black and white
photographs have numbers while pages with coloured photographs do not? Still, the
book feels and looks good. Of course itís easy to reference and describe most of
climbs because most of the cliffs are split by innumerable vertical cracks.
McMahon is a legendary climber of new routes and prodigious note-taker and in so
doing he has referenced his life to this piece of dolerite. His journals record his
lifelong journey on rock, or at least those parts of his life that he wants to record!
From those written memories he has developed detailed descriptions for each climb.
For the most part you can rely on the written word. For the most part.
Some details need attention and here I can only comment on the climbs and
experiences I have had on the mountain. For example, the beautiful Conchubar was
first climbed by Robert McMahon, Peter Mills, Ben Maddison and I on the 23/1/79.
What is not clear is how the first ascent attribution is devised. My recollection is that
first ascent citations have the leader of the crux pitch as the first named climber. It
was Peter Mills who first led the crux of Conchubar, not R. McMahon. Some guides
may insert the climber of the first pitch as first named, but that system seems quite
unfair. Years ago, in Queensland, we used to roll around laughing, imagining Chris
Baxter leading innumerable five metre high grade 10 first pitches before allowing
more skilful climbers to lead through and complete the grade 20 cruxes. (Piss in
Pocket. (20) Ist ascent. C. Baxter and unknown). It was all so unfair to Chris, but
the question still remains. How reliable are guides in terms of attributions. This one
is probably quite accurate because McMahon has led a great proportion of all the
pitches ever climbed on the mount. And that is a great achievement. However, when
I look at Conchubar, Rajah, The Company You Keep and Cuchulain, climbs on
which I played some part, the attributions donít make sense. People other than
those first mentioned led the crux pitches. How many other misleading memories
exist on the pages? Who knows? Itís not a big thing but egos and history demand
I would guess that heights, protection, escape routes, descent gullies and all of the
other information needed by visitors is quite reliable. One possible problem is that
the book doesnít fit in a pocket. Tough luck. I have already explained that this is a
book, which contains a guide not a guidebook.
The photographs of the cliffs are impressive. Actually, impressive doesnít do justice
to what is actually a photographic guide within a guide within a book. That
photograph of Gerry Narkowicz on Howitzer! Gerry again, but this time on
Ruwenzori. The lovely double page spread of Gerry, Robert, Simon and John. The
photograph of wacky Robin Thompson, wonderful Susie McMahon and a slightly
confused Damian Jones. The 1974 photograph of Frew and Joyce (Note: Is this a
mistake? This must surely have been taken in 1948, somewhere in the Lake
District)! The unbelievably atmospheric shots of Pavement Bluff and Africa. God
they are wonderful. If I had a say in the curation of this body of work I would try to
arrange a gallery exhibition. The angles, the towers, the shadows; they are all so
The second half of the book is a series of essays. If the first half is a list of
accomplishments then this is the journey. Itís full of characters, tragedies, laughs
and insights. Everything is remembered or filtered through Robert McMahon.
However, I would love to know what Frew really thought? What went on in the dark
places of Ben Maddisonís mind? Why is Mick Ling such a nice person? Or is he? Is
John Fantani a member of the same species? Few alternatives exist, and it might
not really matter because by the time you read this review you will already have
been brutalized into believing that nothing happens on this piece of real estate with
the permission of R. McMahon. Other memories donít exist in this landscape unless
they have been filtered through McMahonís perceptions. This isnít a criticism. He
has climbed most of the climbs and he has faithfully recorded all that has happened
over decades, so he has to be congratulated not demonized. Nevertheless, I wish
there were a couple of short essays by other climbers. Just a little something with a
broader perspective than one manís obsession. I also wish that the book dealt with
winter. I know that the primary focus is rock-climbing, but snow and ice are as much
a part of the Ben Lomond experience as is rock and it wasnít until I had read an
article about ice climbing at Stacks Bluff that the full extent of climbing on the Ben
became apparent. Memory of a Journey. Climbing on Ben Lomond. The erasure of a
single word would have made the book even more exciting and useful. Of course to
a geologist or a botanist there is much of interest not discussed, but McMahon is a
climber, an artist and an activist, not a scientist, so what you read is his alone. I
donít suppose anyone soon is going to add much in the way of guidebooks or
writings concerning climbing on Ben Lomond. That is a measure of how
comprehensive, how enthralling and how well written is Memory of a Journey.
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