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John Ewbank, a tribute

By 12 January 2014 General News 13 Comments
Sandbag in progress? John Ewbank getting Adam Darragh psyched as they reconnoiter a new route that they attempted the next day in the Grose Valley, Blue Mountains. 1997?

Text contributed by Bruce Cameron and Glenn Short.

The rock-climbing community was stunned recently by the news that Australian climbing legend John Ewbank died in New York on 2 December 2013. Ewbank was undoubtedly one of the most influential, if not the most influential, Australian climber of the 1960s and 70s.

Born in England in 1948, Ewbank first learned to climb in Yorkshire before emigrating to Australia as a teenager with his parents. He initially settled in Wollongong but was soon lured to the sandstone escarpments of the Blue Mountains by members of the Sydney Rockclimbing Club. The crags of the Blue Mountains were to become his spiritual home, as well as the source of his legacy to Australian climbing.

Sandbag in progress? John Ewbank getting Adam Darragh psyched as they reconnoiter a new route that they attempted the next day in the Grose Valley, Blue Mountains. 1997?

Sandbag in progress? John Ewbank getting Adam Darragh psyched as they reconnoiter a new route that they attempted the next day in the Grose Valley, Blue Mountains, 1997.

Leading climber of the day, Bryden Allen, must have seen potential in the young Ewbank and soon put him to work bolting mighty aid lines using Allen’s newly developed Australian “carrot” bolting system (drill a hole, bash a machine bolt into it, then slip a removable keyhole hanger over the bolt head). Bryden must have done a great job of teaching and motivating Ewbank, because the young English lad went on to establish many of the classic lines of Blue Mountains rockclimbing.

John Ewbank on Eternity (17), Mt Piddington, Blue Mountains. Circa 1967. Photo Ewbank Collection.

John Ewbank on pitch 1 of  Eternity (17), Mt Piddington, Blue Mountains. Circa 1967. Photo Ewbank Collection.

Aid climbing was giving way to free climbing and John Ewbank quickly became one of Australia’s greatest proponents of the new fad. Later, as “natural” protection was developed, he also championed the notion of “clean climbing” – the ethic of eliminating bolts or pins where natural protection could be found. He even railed against the abuse of bolting in his 1967 guide.

Ewbank’s impact on the scene was dramatic. He not only pushed the grades far higher than they had ever been but he re-wrote the grading system itself, scrapping the convoluted British system used in Australia at the time. The open-ended Ewbank Grading System was immediately adopted Australia-wide and is now also used in NZ and South Africa.

Brilliant in its simplicity, the Ewbank grading system used in Australia is our and we love it.

Brilliant in its simplicity, the Ewbank grading system used in Australia is ours and we love it.

Ewbank made his mark throughout the country but especially on the Katoomba cliffs, Dogface, Narrowneck and at the recently discovered Mt Piddington. It was perhaps at Piddington that Ewbank had the most effect. Others climbed at the crag, but Ewbank made Mt Piddington his own.

Photo topo of Dogface from the 2010 Blue Mountains guidebook.
3) Scylla, FA – Ewbank, Davis (15 M5) 1968
4) Jormungand, FA – Ewbank, Campbell (20) 1967
5) Fingal, FA – Ewbank, Campbell (18 M4) 1967
6) Landslide Chimney, FA – Allen, Batty (18) 1964
7) Titan, FA – Ewbank, Pickard (18 M6) 1967
8) Colossus, FA – Ewbank, Giles (M6) 1969
11) Gigantor, FA – Ewbank, Campbell (M5) 1967
13) Ogre, FA – Ewbank, Tyrell, Pickard (17 M5) 1967
14) Giant, FA – Ewbank, Tyrell (16 M4) 1967
15) Gorgo, FA – Ewbank, Campbell (17 M5) 1967
19) Goliath, FA – Ewbank, Pickard (16 M6) 1967
20) Gorgon, FA – Ewbank, Davis (17 M4) 1968
And not on topo but impressive – Left Wall of the Citadel, Ewbank, Campbell (20 M7) 1967.

By the time his ground breaking guidebook, Rock Climbs in the Blue Mountains, was published in 1967 John Ewbank had established numerous routes, with many in the 17-21 grade range, levels unthinkable only a few years earlier. His hardest route in the Blue Mountains, The Janicepts, a formidable crack at Mt Piddington, was graded 21 with rests in 1966. So far ahead of the game was Ewbank, that the rests weren’t eliminated for another eight years! It remains a solid 21 test piece crack today.

Ewbank on Genesis (16), Mount Piddington, Blue Mountains, in 1970. Photo: Steve Arsenault.

Ewbank on Genesis (16), Mount Piddington, Blue Mountains, in 1970. Photo: Steve Arsenault.

Many of Ewbank’s easier climbs remain far more intimidating and some rarely see repeats. Many of his routes were monumental efforts, especially given the equipment of the day. One fine example of this was Ewbank’s lead of the mighty line of Solomon (20), which he bolted standing on wooden wedges driven into the crack.

Still, bolting sat uneasily with Ewbank but gear was primitive and almost impossible to get in Australia. Ewbank saw the benefits of clean climbing and developed a type of early chock, known as “Crackers”, which he manufactured and sold to other climbers throughout the country. He soon became obsessed with eliminating pins and bolts on routes where he could.

Outside of the Blue Mountains, Ewbank also pioneered classic long, hard routes in the Warrumbungles in Western NSW, on the iconic Totem Pole in Tasmania and even managed a quick trip to Mt. Arapiles, along with numerous other areas throughout Australia.

Steve Monks aid climbing The Totem Pole with Simon Mentz belaying, in 1995. This was then was the only route up the Totem Pole – until the pair returned a few days later and established the Free Route. Cape Hauy, Tasmania, Australia.

Steve Monks leading pitch 2 of The Ewbank Route, aid route, on  The Totem Pole in 1995. The route was established by John Ewbank and John Keller in 1968.

His short but illustrious career changed rock climbing in Australia forever. It is a sign of the respect in which Ewbank’s contributions are still held that Mt Piddington, vast sections of the Katoomba cliffs and Dogface are still considered to be his domain and, as such, have resisted the onslaught of the ringbolt.

John Ewbank gradually retired from climbing during the 1970s and moved to the United States, to pursue a career as a singer and songwriter in New York. John was such an interesting character. His personal website at johnewbankmusic.com is home to some of his music, writing and early photographs and well worth a visit.

John Ewbank on Clockwork Orange in the Blue Mountains in 1993. Photo: Greg Child.

Ewbank on Clockwork Orange (20), Blue Mountains, in 1993. Photo: Greg Child.

Ewbank became active again with his climbing in the 1990’s and in recent years; and he wanted to return to the Blue Mountains again soon. He was working on a book about his expansive climbing career before his untimely death and hopefully it will make it to publication, in order to give us a greater insight into this complex and incredibly eclectic personality. John Ewbank was a true giant of Australian climbing and earned his position towering over our climbing history.

His wish of being returned to the Blue Mountains for final resting will take place soon.

John Ewbank helped shape modern Australian climbing and will be sadly missed.

13 Comments

  • mikl says:

    Ewbank was an original and inspiring climber. One correction though:- The Australian Grading system is used in a few places, but his notion that you just keep adding more grades when you do harder climbs is now used worldwide. Before Ewbank, the hardest grades were fixed, Extreme in the UK, VI in Europe, 5.10 iin the USA. When a harder route went up, everything else was downgraded. He said just add another grade, and his idea is used everywhere now. Vale John, I’ve been humming his song ‘Apres la Revoluion’ for a few weeks now.

    • Hi Mike. Thanks for that. We did say John’s system was open ended but I hadn’t really realised the significance of that before you pointed it out. Sounds like his approach to grading climbs may have had impact far beyond Australia and the other countries that adopted his system.

  • Adam lay says:

    Well written, thank you Simon,a truly great man.

    Thank you John.

  • Steve Arsenault says:

    Simon,

    Thanks so much for that fine tribute to John. I’m sure he would have been pleased.
    I was the last person to climb with John, just 2 years ago, on Cathedral Ledge, in N.H.,(USA).
    John hadn’t climbed in years, and he managed to tick off a few 5.10’s, in nice style. He was a natural climber,
    and a great friend.

  • Tim Macartney-Snape says:

    That is a very sad milestone, one that has come way too soon, he was a man full of originality and vision, he always went his own way. Thanks Simon.

      • Bruce Cameron says:

        Hi all
        Well said. A very sad day in Australian climbing history and for Jane his daughter and Fran his partner and so many people that knew John. I hope the book is published too Simon. Good to see Mikl had lots of references in his new book concerning JE. [A great read!!]

        Noddy Lockwood has written and excellent piece titled ‘A Little Rainbow’ in Argus. Check it out. A really nice yarn on John.

  • Andrew Speirs says:

    Thanks for the article. Yes John will be missed but of course there are so many climbs that will continue to remind us of him.
    I still remember first seeing the images of the Tasmanian Totem climb when still at school and newer images are still mind blowing.

    Has anyone heard of Sid Tanner of late? He & I put up Leviathan on Mt Beerwah round about 19670?

    a.speirs2010@gmail.com

    Andrew Speirs

  • I was walking with my wife this afternoon (8 June 2014) around the top of Mt Gibraltar Bowral NSW Australia – where we live – when we bumped into two young climbers coming up the track behind us. Hearing the clink of climbing gear (crabs, pegs and chocks to my old ears) I turned and said “Gee that sound takes me back many years” (I’m now 66). We talked for a bit. I said I used to be a member of the Sydney Rock Climbing Club in the ‘60’s mentioned my uncle Russ Kippax and a few people I knew like John Ewbank. So it was that this afternoon I sadly learned of death.

    John and I were both members of the SRC and bumped into each other on most weekends around Narrowneck (Katoomba) or Mt Piddington (Mt Victoria). I never climbed with him but we became good friends and ended up sharing a terrace-house (with our girlfriends) in Cleveland Street, Surrey Hills. I was studying Fine Art at the National Art School in Paddington. John was working for Paddy Pallin (a bushwalking and climbing gear store that was then on the corner of Bathurst and George Streets, in Sydney).

    I have great memories of evenings of cheese, red wine and “Bob Dylan at full tilt” while we sawed up lengths of hexagonal aluminium rods (the vice was bolted into the sideboard in the dining room), drilling and filing them into “crackers” (chocks) that were then sold to Paddy Pallin’s shop. I still have one somewhere with “JE” stamped into it.

    I taught John his first guitar chords! We were very much into Dylan. I have another great memory of one late Sunday afternoon after a weekend’s climbing. John and Alex Campbell were putting up a route on the Dogface in Katoomba and were nearing the top. A few of us drove around to the top to see them safely up before heading to Gearin’s Hotel for a beer then back to Sydney. Knowing I had a guitar in car, John (on a vertical wall right there just across from where I was sitting) asked me to and grab it. I played the guitar and John sang Dylan as he completed the last pitch. They were great times. I’m saddened to hear his not “out there” somewhere.

    Thanks for this article.

    • Thank you Phil. And thank YOU for those very touching stories!
      All the best, Simon

      • john was a standout, in many ways a restless rebel, musical cigane and widely acknowledged supreme rock climber….those of us climbing down under in the 60s revered him… and in New York I found him still intellectually angular and prehensile… the rock climbing wall in his apartment on the Bowery dedicated to his daughter, his guitar never far from his fingers….bless you Jane… to me, your father was a very special, most unique man, who had a remarkable footprint on this planet…too brief, too modest for his spectacular talents…it was a privilege to have known him….
        J

  • Dale Caldwell says:

    I’m deeply saddened to learn of John’s death. Today he popped into my head and for some reason I googled his name. We were old friends via music in the late 70s and I hadn’t seen him
    from then for a long time till the 90s in Sydney. I believed after meeting up with him again that he had moved to New York or traveled over there and we lost touch again. What a loss and so talented in so many ways. Thank you for all this wonderful information. Surely he is missed….

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