Charlie Creese remembers close friend and '80s climbing legend, Andy Pollitt, who died aged 56 last November.
Like most of us, I've periodically tried to give up climbing in favour of something more "serious." Certainly this was the case in the late 80's when I was at university, a societally approved path if ever there was. But the real world is a strange thing to confront when you've climbed for most of your teens, and in the uni itself Post Modernism was all the rage, something forever impressed on my mind by the English lecturer who once opined that "music represents a paradigmatic excess of the signifier." Crap like that sure puts climbing jargon in perspective! Compounding my restlessness was the fact that - for first time in my life - I had a car. It sat out in the street like a neglected pet, and just seeing it was to feel a reproach - because down in my soul I knew that nothing – bar nothing – beats counting those white lines out on the hiway.
That middle class guilt is strong though. Having resolved to head out one last time - just in case I was missing out on something - I merged with the traffic one Friday night only to be immediately assailed by doubt. I can still recall a roundabout on the outskirts. I actually started going round in circles, life choices in the form of exit signs, the east bound leading back to the city and all that that entailed, the west leading to Arapiles.
Well I guess we all know you have to pay your dues to society some time. But I was still young and that time hadn't arrived. Besides, someone told me a party was going to happen in The Pines or Natimuk or something, and I had to square that knowledge with the fact I had virtually no social life in Melbourne. So I guided the car west.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about that party was it lasted about five years, maybe more, and I made friendships that lasted a lot longer still. Right place and right time I guess. And it didn't hurt that one of the attendees was Andy Pollitt. I don't want to mythologise the guy - he was a mate, after all - but that doesn't mean I can't recall the extraordinary presence he had. People likened him to a rock star – and those stellar looks combined with the Pollitt swagger, mirror shades, and a daunting resume of dangerous routes certainly made for "coolness" in the sense of "unapproachable" or "aloof" I guess. I'd already met him actually – very briefly - at the behest of Glenn Robbins, who was keen to show him off. But that didn't mean I was expecting him to walk straight up to me as though I were an old friend – which is exactly what he did, beer in hand as always. So he wasn't really like a rock star at all, he was like a climber – and there's no higher praise.
Andy befriended pretty much everyone actually. Before you knew it, he was on first-name terms with the whole crew in the Natimuk pub - no mean feat for a "goat," as the locals mockingly called rock climbers – and had even been adopted by the Delanys, the family who ran The Willows Milkbar. The latter feat really impressed me. I'd been going in there for years – when it was 40 degrees outside, there was no better way of inducing a "brain freeze" than a Chocolate Malt Milkshake - but I'd always been too shy to make conversation: they were hard working country folk, and I was an effete city dweller who...well...studied (kind of). Our new Welsh friend, however, had no such misgivings – he'd probably marched in there with the same alacrity that he'd marched up to Pete Livesey when he was a 15 year old in search of beta. Indeed, if you ever needed to find him, he was out the back of the shop – drinking coffee with Marion, playing board games with the kids, or having a ciggie with Cec, a no-nonsense former trucker. The Delany's had a cork board in the kitchen where they pinned remembrances from the world's climbing elite - and come the following winter, there were postcards from Sheffield, England up there as well.
He didn't waste any time getting settled either. In fact - to my astonishment - he managed to acquire a caravan, which was duly towed out to Centenary Park and anchored down in a part of the camp that afforded a stunning view of The Mount. No tent – not even the largest compartmentalised family horror - could match this thing for luxury, so it was inevitable that he and his home became the focal point for social occasions. Of which there were many: the -90s saw an influx of a gentler breed of climber, less ego driven, less interested in climbing even – life-stylers, if you will – who kept gentleman's hours and who generally had to approach their climbing with some kind of lifestyle-induced handicap. "The Waste Masters" we called them, after the big green bins the council used to take out the trash. The caravan could house quite a number of these worthies, and the juxtaposition of lifestyles reminded me of something someone once said about the avant garde and the super rich - and how they liked to intermingle because they found one another amusing. Well Andy was certainly amusing! If you'd never climbed in the UK – or had any knowledge of the strict trad ethic that pervaded much of the climbing there – then the off-hand manner in which he described the absence of bolts, the long run outs, and the poor gear could be a real eye-opener. He'd obviously worked this vein before, of course - because having opined to his new friends that outright death (a fall from The Bells The Bells) was definitely preferable to lifelong disability (a fall from Knocking on Heaven's Door), he'd then take a big swill of beer and casually remark "You know, I hear those routes go free now."
Ha! Whenever I was back in Melbourne I'd be perpetually nagged by FOMO – so I'd head back out as often as I could. But – way down inside - I was still a committed city dweller. And – I'd have to say - most of the Arapiles "in crowd" probably had a hankering for the bright lights too. I mean, let's face it – as wonderful as Centenary Park is – there's not a lot to do at night. Fortuitously, it so happened that I lived in a rather dilapidated terrace house right next to the university. It was owned by a pair of retired teachers, Nan and Hector Gallagher who – being of a socialist persuasion - had put the thing on the market for a pittance; in part, I guess, to head off complaints about how run down it was - but also out of a genuine desire to help, say, "struggling" students. Well it's nice to have ideals, but the world has a way of upending them - and in some Monty Pythonesque inversion (remember Dennis Moore – he "stole from the poor/ to give to the rich"), they somehow ended up with us – and even on our meagre budget we could still afford to keep two rooms free – and there was no way we going to fill them with the poor, the hungry, and the huddled masses – unless, of course, they'd just escaped from Centenary Park, and felt like having a party!
So the road went on forever: when the heat, dust and flies became too much, we'd jump in the cars and head east. And back in Melbourne we'd do our own version of the youth culture ideal i.e. Cars Stars Bars Guitars – only The Cars were little Japanese things – great on The Western Highway but pathetic for cruising The Strip, The Guitars were budget Japanese as well (and - as Steve Earl once said - "you'll never get far/ with 27 dollars and a Jap guitar"), and The Stars – well, Andy managed to lure all sorts back – Jerry Moffatt, Sean Myles, Jo Whitford, and Peter Croft among them – but The Bars wouldn't always let us in! Those poor Melbourne people – they never did realise who they were snubbing until decades later when the movies came out and suddenly they all wanted to climb too – although there's an element who just don't get it – hence the fact that Victoria has seen the largest climbing bans ever imposed anywhere. And people will still try and tell you that in Australia, sport is the culture...
For years afterwards, Hec Gallagher – who, of course, became a life-long friend - would still apologise for the outdoor toilet, the leaking roof, and the fact that the plaster was peeling away from the lath. And for years I would always make the same reply: "But Hec, we didn't care! Our lives were one long holiday!!!" Although, for Andy it seems, it was more like a Holiday in Hell, because later he confided that even on the first night, he knew: it was either him or me – one of us had to go!!
But if the only way we could express affection was via good-natured abuse, we were all cheering for him to kick goals on the crag. Perhaps this stemmed from the perennial need for "heroes" - although I don't really think so: it was just that he was so much nicer than the Aussie rock jocks we'd met! So - no matter what had transpired the night before - the athletes - i.e. Andy and Glenn - would get up with the sun, tip toe through the empties, and hit the crag in search of eye candy to sell to the sponsors. I was looking through some old Rock magazines the other day, it was pretty clear that The British Invasion made great inroads early on: there's a great Robbins' shot of Andy on Masada – formerly the hardest route in Australia – and another great pic of Nati Dread, the wonderful new route he almost immediately established on Castle Crag.
The more test pieces he sent, however, the fewer test pieces remained – and so – inevitably – he trudged on over to Uncle Charlie's Pinnacle and had a crack at Wolfgang Gullich's 8b+ classic, Punks in the Gym. Rather a lot has been made of Andy's obsession with Punks – as though, at the height of his powers, he suddenly found himself bewitched by the beauty of a prize he could never quite possess. Well I suppose there's an element of truth in this – the photos alone attest to that. This was no ordinary wall. But the accepted take on Andy's "obsession" sounds a little like a Hollywood bio pic to me, what with it's emphasis on broken heroes and unfulfilled dreams. People have overactive imaginations. Nowadays, 44 days on a proj doesn't even seem like that big a deal – if climbing was Andy's day job, then Punks was just 3 bad years in the office. Compare and contrast with the amount of time Adam Ondra spent on Dura Dura – although admittedly, Ondra didn't throw his gear in the trash the same afternoon as the send!
Probably it would have been better to sidestep the thing and do something else – and "something else" - to someone of his ability – meant some of the best unclimbed lines in the country. He knew this, of course, and was quick to check out the alternatives. Indeed, the Andy Pollitt I recall was the guy who said "once you've climbed on Taipan Wall, you'll never want to climb anywhere else." Years later, he would still talk of that first moment when he topped out on the approach track on Flat Rock and looked over into the amphitheatre at what most people would still call the best crag in Australia.
He did quick repeats of things like Sirocco and Serpentine, both of which would have apprised him of just how much untouched rock there was up there. And this, I believe, was the real source of his bewitchment, the reason he was so often absent from the caravan. Because – despite his otherwise gregarious nature – he was also an independent-minded pioneer who liked to spend long solitary hours on the hunt, chucking a rope over a wall here, a groove there, checking out every conceivable line. It was a pursuit that bore fruit: first there was World Party, which Athol Whimp (who'd already climbed on Taipan and never wanted to climb anywhere else), described as being the source of a restless night's sleep as he contemplated the top pitch. And then Rage – which, being the best line on the crag, would therefore have to qualify as one of the best climbs on the continent (along with The Bolt Ladder at North Head in Sydney, of course!).
Back at Arapiles, he even finally managed to redpoint Punks – which he then had the temerity to describe as "piss" - hardly surprising given that every one of its moves probably took up every last gigabyte of his muscle memory!
And then he got a job and kind of disappeared for a while. But you can't make an itch go away by scratching something else, and eventually the throb of the past must have become intolerable. So - by slow, inexorable degrees - he finally consented (to borrow the rock star analogies again) to reform as "Andy the Climber" - and even embark on a Reunion Tour to promote some long awaited New Material, including the singular autobiography only he could have written: Punk in the Gym– where he finally comes clean with the fans about his "Web of Addictions" and the long suspected fact that he was "Bi". Like many a latter day classic, the book was published by Vertebrate in Sheffield - although Andy never tired of saying that this was only after he'd been initially knocked back by Mills and Boon, the publisher of romance novels!
And then he died – which, as hard as it was for us guys down here, was probably harder for his friends back in Blighty, who hadn't seen him for quite some time – although Facebook Messenger performed a nice low budget role in lessening the distance between the two hemispheres. He wasn't alone when it happened: his friends in the pub were quick to call for help - and when he was in ICU and life support was turned off, he was accompanied on the first part of the journey by his brother David, Sean Vassalo his boss, family friend Ian Boorman, and myself.
Full well knowing I was now going to have to exit the building with a big chunk my life gone, I decided I couldn't face home and instead accepted an offer of dinner with my friends Daniella and Tzvia, the former being one the people who'd actually gone over to Andy's for an impromptu slide show, the latter being known to Andy by reputation only - although he had helped her on the way to climbing immortality by changing her name from Tzvia to Hard Very Tzvia!
Under the circumstances, it seemed like the most respectful thing to do was watch Nick Brown's Statement of Youth. But my phone had never run so hot, and we kept having to hit pause while I explained to a succession of worried friends that their worst fears were realised. Incredibly, I even received a call from Marion Delany – who, of course, had long since become a lifelong friend. She'd left Natimuk years before but had tracked me down nonetheless. It had been a long time since we'd talked – but the more we went over what had happened - it wasn't like a long time anymore: the years folded back on themselves, and it was like I'd just come into the milk bar after the long drive up from Melbourne – and if the heavens were in agreement, then the moon would be rising at one end of Main Street and the sun would be setting at the other. Magical times. Ha! I still wake up screaming at the thought of how close I'd come to doing something far less fulfilling with my life!
I mentioned this to Marion – that not only had he been a great friend, he'd been a catalyst too.
"That's right," she agreed. "The day Andy walked through the door," she said, "my life was never the same again."