Tuesday, May 13, 2008
By Rod Smith
In 1973 Henry Barber amazed the climbing world when he free-soloed the 1000ft Steck-Salathe route on the towering granite of El Capitan.
Late last year, 34 years later, Henry Barber placed three pieces of gear while leading the 15m-high sandstone route Crack of Dawn at Sydney’s modest suburban Barrenjoey crag.
For a star-struck bumbly like myself, it was a jarring contrast between the “Hot” Henry whose legendary first visit to Australian in 1975 revolutionised free climbing and the now 54-year-old legend who was gleefully leading such an unimportant route.
As he carefully made his way up the modest crack and slab I wondered if Barber remained relevant in a climbing world now splintered into distinct disciplines and obsessed by number grades he could never aspire to.
Here in Australia to deliver a “greatest hits” slideshow of his climbing life, as much as to visit the life-long friends he’d made in 1975 and his last visit in 2000, Henry showed – during that all-too short day together – that he is the spirit of climbing and when we he speaks we should all listen.
Q: Why did you come to Australia in 1975?
A; “I came here really to hook up with Rick White and Keith Bell. I did the Nose (of El Capitan) with Keith Bell in 1973 but I climbed more with Rick White.
“When I came here I knew four things:
I knew about the Blue Mountains;
I knew about Frog (Buttress);
I knew about Frenchman’s Cap;
I knew about Ball’s Pyramid.”
Q: Just how frenetic was that visit?
A: “In 1975 I climbed 41 of the 42 days that I was here. I climbed in six of the eight (sic) States, in 27 areas on 100 routes. Of those routes 67 to 72 were first ascents or first free ascents.”
Q: So when did the local climbers start to take notice?
A: “After climbing Integral Crack (20) at Booroomba we went off and we did (the FFA) of Soolaimon 22. When I did Soolaimon I wasn’t sure that anyone would be able to follow me. I only put in two or three pieces of gear in all the way to the roof.
“That was kind of the start of the big blow-up attention to my style.
“I was climbing on a very small 9mm rope and I had a very light rack. My rack today is the same as it was 30 years ago.
“That’s kind of what started the chatter.”
Q: Of all the climbs that you did in Australia in 1975, which was the most memorable?
A: “Manic Depressive (24) (Grampians), even though I failed to climb it, that was my proudest moment.
“I had to put the little wires on the bolt studs. After a time I fell. I pulled the rope. I was climbing with Matt Taylor and he was jumaring with me and I thought this is not right.
“There’s a thing called the brotherhood of the rope. I thought, is this about having a day out with your mates or is this about me knocking off two harder grades?
“I thought I’d already done a 24 (Insomnia) at Frog Buttress although that’s since been downgraded.”
Q: What is it about climbing that has kept you motivated and doing it for 40 years?
A: “I’ve always been enthused. The short answer is that I’m a sick puppy.
“When I sink my teeth into something nothing can stop me. I have a few other passions but nothing has ever held me like climbing.
“I’ve never really drifted away from climbing. To me drifting away means climbing only 70 or 80 days a year. Now I’m climbing about 120 days a year.
“Climbing is really about struggle. If you don’t really embrace the struggle what the hell are you doing it for? It’s soul destroying. It’s soulless.
“Why I love climbing so much: you’re not entitled, it’s not a sure thing.
“That’s why I came to Australia, that’s why I climbed on grit in Britain, that’s why I climbed without shoes in Dresden (Germany).
“If you don’t focus on why you climb you’ll be seen more, if you do focus on (what you want to get out of climbing) you’ll be seen less.
“I was looking more and more to applying the mental side to climbing.”
Q: What was your work-rate like at the height of your climbing powers?
A: “Well I was working a sales rep for Chouinard but my climbing lifestyle was like that of a professional climber: I was climbing 320-350 days a year, the other 15 days were breaks or Christmas holidays.”
Q: What is your climbing philosophy?
A: “Do what you want, want what you do.
“By that I mean there are certain kinds of people who want to be on a really scary climb in a really scary storm and a scary situation. Then there are certain people who don’t: they get there and they don’t want to be there.
“I think a lot of people do stuff (like climb) because it’s a trend or it’s in vogue or they want to get to the top of the climb or if it’s business they want to be the CEO
“They’re all the wrong reasons.
“Between 1953 and 2006 there were 500 people who climbed Everest. (In 2007) 500 people climbed it in one year alone. It is special anymore just because it’s the highest mountain?”
Q: You have always been known for you clean-climbing, ground-up, trad ethics. What was it like for you during the 1980s sport-climbing boom?
A: “I was really depressed. The climbs looked spectacular and everything … so and so flashed 5.12 or 24 yet I was doing 5.12b barefoot years earlier.
“I didn’t think (US sport climbers) were making any headway - compared with gritstone or the climbing in Dresden- until the grades got to around 27.
“I thought it was bullshit and climbers were being expedient with their routes and not leaving things for future generations.
“So from 1980-87 I worked my ass off (with my business) and got my shoulders fixed. They were both dislocating badly.
“Since the mid-90s I’ve been able to climb pretty much as I want.”
“When I turned 50 I climbed in 11 countries.’’
As we headed back to Sydney, I asked Barber if he’d ever met one of Australia’s legendary hard men, Bryden Allen.
Despite having climbed Allen’s Lieben (17) in the Warrumbungles – “That’s a big-feel climb. I wouldn’t say that was one of the easiest routes I did in Australia” – he’d never met the man.
I told Barber that an accident in recent years had left Bryden wheelchair-bound but that he was still a member of the Sydney Rockclimbing Club and regularly belayed climbers at the climbing gym.
“That’s the coolest thing that I’ve heard in years,’’ Barber said.
“That’s what I want to know. That gives me energy to go for another 40 years of climbing.”