First Ascent of Ball’s Pyramid

This picture shows our route up the pinnacle. Crosses and dots show scrambling and just dots show properclimbing. You need to study this picture carefully. Large dots show some of the belays.

In the 1960s Ball’s Pyramid was the most obvious challenge for all the young aspiring climbers of the day in Australia. After all, the peak was 1,843ft high and had never been climbed yet. So many people wanted to claim the first ascent of this most iconic pinnacle.

In the middle of 1963, I finished the two major projects I had under taken – to develop a good safe bolting system (see “Carrot Bolt Belay System”) and to write a guide book (see “Original Climbing Guide to NSW”). So I also started thinking of making an ascent of this significant peak myself.
The interested party at that stage consisted Jack Pettigrew, John Davis and Dave Lambert and myself. This would be a reasonable party. But there was a problem about getting a boat to land us on the Pyramid from Lord Howe Island. (The main boat owner thought that, if he landed us on the rock, then he would become responsible for our safety. So he wouldn’t agree to land us.) As the time approached, we found we probably wouldn’t be allowed to land. Jack and John sensibly decided not to go. Dave and I decided we would still go and at least we could study the problems of the ascent in more detail. So we still went – but we couldn’t land.

This picture shows our route up Lidgbird.

We had a pleasant holiday (which was over the summer break). We put up a new route on Mt Lidgbird, which was quite pleasant. And I had my first very close friendship with a girl who was working on the Island. We had nearly a week together, during which we climbed the mountains, we went snorkling a lot and, of course, we did a lot of kissing together. So this was a very good new experience for me.

Dave was more successful than I with the girls, in general, because he played the guitar. So when I returned to Sydney, I bought myself a ukulele. After a bit of practise, I became red-hot at playing the “Hell Bound Train”. I liked the song – but I’m afraid the girls didn’t exactly cluster around me because of this new achievement of mine.
All the members of this first attempt agreed that we would try again next year, when Clive Wilson’s boat might be free to take us to and from the pyramid.

This is our route up the west face of Crater Bluff, which we “pinched” from Russ and Dave.

But in October 1964, disaster struck. A rival party was going to beat us to the first ascent. We should have prepared for this possibility, because climbers often do “pinch” other people’s intended climbs. This is an accepted part of the climbing game. And specifically Ted Batty and I had “pinched” the first ascent of the “West Face of Crater Bluff” from Russ Kippax and Dave Roots two years ago – and they were most incensed (For details click on “My Exploits in the Warrumbungles”). So we should have remained silent about our possible ascent. But we had forgotten that there could be rivals to make this first ascent.
The rival party was a large powerful party – it included Dick Smith himself. They had obtained a large boat, which meant they could take the whole party all the way from Sydney. So, unlike us, this party did not need to hire a boat from Lord Howe Island. Their principle climber was a guy called Rick Higgins, who had just put-up a new very imposing route in Glenbrook George. So he was pretty good. Dave Roots joined them (possibly in revenge for me pinching his route on Crater Bluff). And Dave Lambert from our party joined them as well. We all expected that this rival party would make the first ascent.

This picture shows Winklestien Steeple as seen
from below. The cross marks the top of the
pinnacle. Winklestien Steeple looks higher
because the photo is taken too close.

But, joy of all possible joys, this party failed. They came back with glorious stories about how they had to stay awake all night, with piton hammers raised, in order destroy the huge centipedes, which were always advancing upon them during the night. According to them, Balls Pyramid provided a wicked environment and the climbing was very hard as well. (But, as far as I can make out, they simply used a sledge-hammer approach to the climb. The whole party were trying to get to the top. In any large party, some good climbers must lead ahead, while the rest of the party must support them with supplies. This party seemed to ignore this most basic principle.)

But of course this big failure was wonderful for us. We would get far more publicity when we made our ascent a few months later.

Our own party now consisted of Jack Pettigrew, John Davis, Dave Witham and myself as the principle climbers. Then Don Wilcox and Jack Hill were our support climbers. Ben Sandilands was our reporter from the SMH. But he also was a genuine climber.

The party from left to right are – Don, Jack H, John, me, Dave, Ben and Jack P.

Ben in his articles refers to me as the leader of the expedition. I was the principle and most experienced climber of the group and I had been involved in this ascent idea from its very inception. But I wasn’t the actual leader. The expedition had no leader. I have always been a democrat and in any group of people I will always follow what the majority of people want to do. So I cannot be a genuine leader of any group of people. It is not part of my nature. I will always seek a consensus opinion.

Our party practising at Linfield rocks.

As regards the details of the ascent, the many photographs or the newspaper articles describe the progress of the ascent reasonably well. I will limit myself to my own personal involvement with the ascent over the 4 principle days.

Day 1

This photo shows our party packing
our gear in Clive’s boat before leaving for the Pyramid. I, as often, am being idle – contemplating the future.

So on this day, Clive Wilsonfirst took us all out to the pinnacle.

The first item one sees is the north end. This is very intimidating. Keith Bell lead a team up here a few year after our ascent.

Then we swam to land on the most convenient of the various rock ledges. It was very dangerous for the boat to get too close to the pinnacle. So we had to swim a fair way and there were a lot of sharks about.

This photo shows the two Jacks, with lines attached, ready to swim ashore.

We also had a huge amount of gear to land as you can see in the pictures. So the landing all took awhile.

This photo shows us landing our gear. I finally am using my muscles.

The camping situation is quite good. This photo shows one of our tents. If the weather gets bad, then a party could move and camp on the grass higher up.

Then we had to set up our camp among the rocks. From here we found we could scramble around to right for a few hundred meters and then scramble up to some fairly flat areas about 100m above sea level. We could camp here if a bad storm arose. There was a cave here, which we used to set up our receiver and transmitter.
          The whole camping situation was actually very pleasant. There were protected rock pools where we could swim in safety and admire the sea-life. And we could even fish, if we wanted to.

I am afraid that this is the only climbing
photo I have. This was my fault. I didn’t want
to waste any time taking photos until the
ascent was complete. And then we mostly forgot.
This photo shows Don climbing using the
fixed hemp rope for protection.
It wasn’t very safe because the wind can
cause the fixed ropes wear very dangerously.

Day 2

I was very fortunate to climb with Dave Witham. He was a bit like me – small, innocuous and he just enjoyed climbing. We climbed very well together. So on the first day we climbed to the top of Winklestein Steeple, which was as far as previous party had got. This took awhile because we had taken enough cheap hemp rope to put fixed ropes on all the climbing pitches. Then Dave and I had the huge extra task of carting and dragging all this extra rope up the pinnacle.

Day 3

Next day it was Jack and John’s turn to take over at the front. I thought that they might go all the way to the top on that day. But they didn’t go any further than Dave and I had gone on the previous day. As opposed to Dave and me, Jack and John are both natural leaders. And they both have had very successful careers. Jack became FRS and ran his own research institute. John started up his own large film company. (Whereas Dave and I have gone nowhere as regards normal worldly success.) But, alas, two natural leaders don’t necessarily form good climbing partners.
          I spent the day down at base camp doing the normal camping chores. Late in the afternoon, Dave and I climbed up our fixed ropes to the little bivouac cave below Winklestein Steeple – ready to have a long day on the following day.

Me doing chores.

Me, John and Dave celebrating at the top. Jack is taking the photo.

Day 4

Dave and I then climbed on up to the top. The harder pitches on the climb were mostly of grade 15 (or grade “severe” as we called it then). Most modern climbers could cope with these grades fairly easily. We were slow again because we still had to drag all the extra ropes with us. So both Jack and John could join us at the summit by just prussicing up the various hemp ropes we left in place. So they arrived at the top of the pinnacle just a few minutes after us.

Jack and me.

Some people feel great elation when they achieve a great goal. Sometimes I do as well – for example, when I made my first clean ascent of Toyland I was very elated indeed – after so many attempts. But not so at the top of Balls Pyramid – mostly I just felt relief. Also I was worried about the state of hemp ropes because the winds were causing them to wear out. I was very keen to get down again to complete safety. I had allowed myself to become a bit over stressed about the whole ascent.

The bird life is fantastic. This photo shows Jack H playing with a gannet.

The way we did this first ascent was just plain wrong. We shouldn’t have taken all that extra hemp rope. Instead we should we should have put in much better anchor belays for abseiling at the most suitable locations. If we had done this, then the climbing would have become much more pleasant. I had just allowed myself to become a little over neurotic about being certain of getting to the top of the pinnacle.

Jack playing around on the raft which I am proud to say I built. I was going to use it to avoid the sharks on the way out. But it was commandeered on the way out to carry our various wireless gear.

If the climb was done in this natural modern way, then this whole expedition would become a really pleasant holiday for all normal climbers to enjoy. This whole climb provides some superb situations in a very different kind of surrounding i.e. the Gannet gulls squawking all around you. And mostly the climbing itself is of a very pleasant grade. Besides this, the camping at the bottom and in the various higher caves is most enjoyable. Several parties have since made several ascents in this manner. And all these parties have enjoyed this total experience enormously – Balls Pyramid is simply a wonderful feature to climb on.
          If the current ban on climbing was lifted, then this pinnacle would once again give a huge amount of enjoyment for many Australian and international climbers. And the impact of the climbers on the local wild life of the pinnacle would be absolutely negligible.
          So it would be wonderful if this climbing ban could be lifted on this unique superb pinnacle.

So this is my account of this ascent. But there are other accounts. Jack gives a different version in “Jack’s version of Ball’s Pyramid“. Then the following newspaper cuttings (written by Ben Sandilands) give a reasonably accurate and complete description of the ascent. These other accounts give a different perspective on this fine adventure.

You might now also like to look back at:
either my “Home Page” (which introduces this whole website lists all my webpages),
or “My 3 Famous Big First Ascents”(which introduces these webpages).

Otherwise you can go onto “Illegal Ascents of Sydney’s most Iconic Buildings”.

Updated on 11/11/2016.