UKC

INTERVIEW: Andy Pollitt and Louise Shepherd

Andy Pollitt follows his interview with Stevie Haston by reminiscing with another top 80s climber - Louise Shepherd.


OK, so we may both be in our dotage/s now but my admiration for 'Louise Shepherd the climber' has not diminished a jot having read about her cragging exploits since being a young'un back in North Wales thirty years ago.

Andy and Louise at the hospital: post radiation therapy, pre-surgery., 82 kb
Andy and Louise at the hospital: post radiation therapy, pre-surgery.
© Louise Shepherd

To even imagine back then we'd actually climb together one day, let alone become friends, would've sounded too far-fetched. Isn't life just a wonderful thing? There was a print ad that ran in the UK mags with Lou doing something seemingly ridiculous [Female Friends, 24] on the upside-down side of the planet I recall, but being from a poor family I never even dreamt I'd get to Australia let alone end up living down here.

Pardon the blatant plug but in the book wot I rote [before Andy Boorman corrected my smelling] it was Lou's house I first ever crashed out at on arrival in Australia. Nick White from Devon and I had a doss pre-arranged by Glenn Robbins and we both got savaged by the mozzies – despite having two [supposed] mosquito-killing candles burning all through the thirty degree night.

Going back a step though, Lou and I had done a route called Tapis Valent in the Verdon Gorge together a few years earlier so knew each other - plus she'd visited Britain and kicked a bit of ass by making a very ahead-of-its-time first female ascent of Ron Fawcett's classic Lord of the Flies [E6 6b] on Dinas Cromlech in the Llanberis Pass, plus on-sighted London Wall [E5 6a] at Millstone Edge [on which I stupidly fell off the last move]. Now this was big news back then coz Louise was a 'Sheila' and an Aussie to boot and 'our' best lady climbers were simply miles behind. So were three quarters of the climbing males, to be honest.

photo
Lou on her first ascent of My Brilliant Career, 20, at Bruny Island, Tasmania.
© Ben Maddison

It seems so sexist now but back then climbing really was a male-dominated thing so for a woman [heaven forbid] to fly in, acclimatise to being upright as opposed to upside-down, cruise an E6 Welsh test-piece that had shut down dozens of male aspirants and casually stroll off was really something special.

As if that wasn't impressive enough, Lou made the first on-sight flash of a climb called Trojan [25] in her own back yard of Mt. Arapiles which is probably harder than Lord anyway. Lou tucked away numerous other routes under her belt too - it ought be said - and gained a reputation for onsighting the hard stuff blokes were flailing on.

Late last year, Lou was diagnosed with sarcoma; a cancerous lump on her right arm. She underwent six weeks of radiation therapy over Christmas/New Year, followed by surgery in March. True to form, she was back climbing seven weeks after surgery.

Ooh look, here comes Louise now...

Hi Lou, thanks for coming. Our mate Charlie Creese wonders whether reading Lord of the Flies in year ten at school was harder than doing the route?

Louise: I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton: books about the Famous Five and Secret Seven. Lord of the Flies (the book) shattered those sanitised notions about childhood. On the other hand, the run-out on Lord of the Flies (the route) was pretty nerve-wracking so p'raps they're 'even Stevens.'

I guess – and my memory's a tad hazy here, but you were considered the best female climber in the world at one point. You and perhaps Catherine Destivelle in France and Lynn Hill in America - so was there a competitive aspect simply because you were females or was it non-gender specific?

Lou: For sure I'm as competitive with my peers as any climber. However I've never considered myself to be in quite the same league as Lynn Hill and Catherine Destivelle, but I'm flattered that others do! I've climbed once with Lynn Hill and once with Catherine on their home turf, and they eclipsed me. Both are shining lights to women climbers over the world, and I wholeheartedly admire them for their incredible climbing achievements. They are generous and supportive of other women too. I'm happy that I've been a role model for women climbers too. Likewise, when I was a beginner, other Australian women like Ann Pauligk were my role models. It's crucial to have others to emulate. Climbing can be competitive but it is so often much more cooperative.

You were one of three climbers in your family weren't you? How come Lincoln and Chris dropped off the radar? Couldn't handle the fact you were so much betterer than them maybe?

Lou: When I asked Chris's opinion on that, he said he couldn't possibly answer a question with "betterer" in it. Chris has a PhD in post-colonialism and speaks five other languages fluently, so perhaps rephrase that question in Quechua!

OK then, back to you;

As mentioned above, was one of your many strong points in climbing the ability to onsight routes at the upper limits of your ability? I'm thinking Warmonger [24] and loads of others.

Lou: Yes. It's one of my great pleasures in climbing, to be able to walk up to a route I've never been on before, and onsight it. Nowadays I can barely get out the back door without a tight rope. Was it Mae West who once quipped that ageing is not for the faint-hearted?

Tannin, 19, Arapiles, with bandaged arm visible., 200 kb
Tannin, 19, Arapiles, with bandaged arm visible.
© Clive Curson

You travelled a lot back then too and made rapid and generally on-sight ascents of Crimson Cringe and Separate Reality[24/25] in America and considering you have one of the loveliest smiles known to mankind I bet you wore an ear to ear grin for days after those two.

Lou: Both of those routes are memorable! On Crimson Cringe, I had on-sighted all of it and was only three metres from the top when my climbing partner Craig Peacock yelled up that the rope was cut halfway through! I yelled back down that he needed to tie in above the cut and start climbing, as I was damned if I was going to spoil my onsight. So that's what he did, and we simul-climbed for the last few metres!

In the same year, 1981, I also on-sighted Separate Reality and the following day I led Tales of Power with one fall. A few years later, I heard on the grapevine that a German woman had claimed the first female ascent of Separate Reality! Back in '81, there was no such thing as first female ascents. Suddenly in 1984, first female ascents were popping up everywhere. Maybe they've gone by the wayside these days?

I have to credit my parents for my grin; they fed me on fluoride tablets and Brussels sprouts.

The nineteen eighties eh Lou?

While you were surviving off the dole in Natimuk I was living in a filthy cave with Jerry Moffatt, a mother goat and her two kids and a multitude of other miscreants on the Great Orme in Llandudno, North Wales. We named the place Parisella's after the delightful lady [Gwyneth] and her two gorgeous identical twin daughters who owned the cafe at The Happy Valley down the road. It's now a world-class bouldering venue. If you could go back to those times would you?

Lou: It would be a marvel to have the strength and stamina of youth without the hubris eh? It's a funny thing, but when you are young, it feels as though it will last forever. But in the dark recesses of your mind, you know this is not so, and it's that very ephemerality which gives life its edge.

As an inspirational – not just climber, but woman Lou, what's your take on the influx of the 'fairer sex' becoming so mainstream and normal these days? I visit Charlie Creese at a few of his bouldering gyms and there's loads of females whereas back in my [our?] day one'd be lucky to spot a lass at the crag and only then she'd probably be belaying her boyfriend.

Lou: It's timely. Let's celebrate!

I'd like to wrap up by thanking you once more for the delightful piece you wrote for my book Lou. I was very touched by that and have included it here for the tight wads who've not bought it:

Thanks,

Love,

And. xx


'It's summer in the Wimmera.

The fields of wheat stubble are bleached to straw.

At Arapiles, eucalyptus leaves are slowly swivelling on their stems under the relentless sun.

In the middle of a dust bowl is Andy Pollitt's caravan, his old Holden parked next to it. On the little table inside are the breakfast remnants: an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts and some stubbies. Andy's philosophy is that you can eat or you can drink but you can't do both. Food was the big loser.

It's 1992. This was a time when climbers sent postcards back home; they didn't send routes. There was no such thing as working a route. The term had not been invented.

Andy's battle with Punks however, seemed like work. By late summer he had surpassed the Roman siege at Masada. Punks was becoming as much a grind as a foot soldier building a giant ramp in the Judaean desert.

Andy looked forward to his downtime with the same anticipation of every wage slave. One of his favourite pastimes was an evening of Trivial Pursuit out the back of the Delaneys' milk bar in Natimuk.

Marion and Cec Delaney and their four kids had played the game so many times they knew half the answers. Andy and a few of the local climbers would be roped in to make up the teams. A closely contested game got more adrenalin flowing than rock climbing.

'Which letter is on the Rwandan flag?'

'It's K,' said Marion with an air of certainty, 'Africans are crazy about K.'

Nobody argued with Mrs D.

'Wrong – it's R! We won!' The table erupted, the last dregs of beer were downed, the last lungful of ciggie smoke exhaled. Andy drove back out to The Mount, ready for another day at work.

2015. In Natimuk, the milk bar is still there but the Delaneys have long gone. Cec died of lung cancer more than a decade ago. The kids grew up and left home, and Marion moved away.

The campground at Arapiles hasn't changed a lot in the last thirty years. The vegetation has thinned, a legacy of thirteen years drought from the mid-nineties to 2009. Half the pine trees in the Pines campground have died from old age and soil compaction.

But one area that has thrived is the copse of native pines, hop bush and eucalypts on your right before you get to the Plaque area. Sometimes you see a goanna wandering through there. Fenced off and replanted decades ago, it has regenerated so well it's hard to remember that it used to be the dust bowl where Andy's caravan was once parked.'

Louise Shepherd

May 2015



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