Illegal Ascent of the Land’s Department + Clock-Tower

This photo shows the Lands Dept Clock-tower and its building.

There are four magnificent clock-towers in Sydney – the Central-Railway clock-tower, the Town Hall clock-tower, the G.P.O clock-tower and the Lands Dept clock-tower. The first three of these clock-towers are very prominent and everyone knows them. But the Lands Dept clock-tower is hidden away in the streets behind Circular Key. So nobody knows it. But, for a climber, it has more variety and provides a better challenge than any of the others.
            I climbed the Central-Railway clock-tower first and this was done with John Davis. Then we also climbed the Town Hall clock-tower together. At that stage, the G.P.O. clock-tower was still in storage after the second world war. When it was put up again, John Ewbank tried to climb it. But he was caught. This was almost impossible to avoid because it is very well lit up and under constant scrutiny. But, for me, my final clock-tower was to be the Lands Department clock-tower. This was all done in 1964.

Our route up the Art Gallery

Our initial attempt was extremely amusing – for me at least. John Davis and myself were to make this first attempt. But we had a couple of beginners with us as well, who wanted to see what it was all about. Naturally we could not start until things were pretty quiet (i.e. after midnight). So, to fill in the time, we thought we would take the beginners up an easy climb. The Art Gallery was the obvious choice for this as it is well removed from the common throng (John and I had done this climb previously). There was no point in us both taking them up, so we tossed and John was duly allocated with the task. This he did and I mildly dosed in the car near by. After about an hour I casually looked out of the window, and there was a strange sight. A huge circle of police had completely surrounded the art gallery and was slowly converging upon it. Our party had been taken for art thieves !
          The usual thing that happens in these circumstances is that you get carted off to the local police station for the night and get very heavily grilled. Nothing much happens but the result is that anyone that receives such a grilling normally never wants to climb on buildings again. Also an injunction is taken out against the party – so the consequences would be much more serious if you did it again. So I had to get a new climbing partner. The obvious choice was the young John Ewbank (everyone was called John in those days). To add to the poignancy of the situation, there was never any love lost between John Davis and John Ewbank. John Ewbank was only sixteen years old at this stage – but he was into everything.

This photo shows our route up the building. The red spot shows where I put in a piton.

When John Ewbank and myself finally got onto the climb, the first pitch onto the top of the building was very fine pitch indeed. I had to use a piton to protect the final move over the overhang. {All these old Victorian building have these eaves-like projecting overhangs (completely surrounding the buildings). They are daunting for us climbers because it means one has to stretch out to grab the outside edge, swing and then mantle-shelf onto the sloping ledge above.} I always think the next bit of the climb, where one quietly pads through the various objects on the top of the buildings (skylights and air-conditioning facilities), to be the really fun bit of the night. But then the first pitch up the clock-tower itself looked horrible. It consisted of about 40 ft of sandstone blocks with small 1/2-inch ledges between them. This was climbable, but only just because the holds were very small. And there was no protection at all. And, at the top, there was the usual nasty eaves-overhang. But fortunately we found a door to the clock tower that was open. So we could go inside the tower and so do the pitch with a top rope. But after this we were running out of time. So we had to abseil off and we would return later.
            Most of these climbs involved several attempts. I enjoy a multi-attempt affair. It is nice to find out what the difficulties are and to ponder over them for a while. Then there is a heightened pleasure when the difficulties can be overcome.

This picture shows our route up the tower. The red line on the dome shows the long sling we put there.

When we returned for our next attempt, John Ewbank was keen to actually lead the unprotected pitch up the start of the clock-tower. John, in his youth, could be very bold indeed. This pitch was followed by a really nice pitch. It followed the various columns and ornamentation to lead finally past the clock. It was satisfyingly hard, but the protection was good. This was as opposed to the Town- Hall clock-tower, where we needed to place a sling on the moving hub of the clock mechanism.
But we now faced the last pitch, which was our real problem. It consisted of a copper dome which first went outwards and then tapered to finish with a lightning conductor spike at the top. We tried placing pitons in the cracks of the metal – but they all just pulled out. Our final laborious solution was to hold up the rope as high as possible with a precarious piton. We could then move all the way round the dome flicking the rope up as high as possible. A complete loop could then be formed and tied. This could then be used for direct aid. This process was repeated a couple more times. Then finally we could climb easily to the top.
But time was running out. So I simply rammed John’s pullover down over the lightning conductor spike. {It remained there for the next 15 years until it finally disintegrated. Most other things we left at the tops were removed very quickly. The only other items that remained for a long time were the abseil slings we left on the centre-point wires.} Then a quick abseil off and we were off just as dawn was breaking.

Finally, as president of the Sydney Rock-climbing Club, I was rung up that very day. I was told to inform the members of the club that – people climbing the Lands Department might be shot at by their security staff. This is a further peril for any climber who wants to investigate the challenges associated with climbing on our local buildings. But I can’t say this threat ever worried me.

You might now also like to look back at:
either my “Home Page” (which introduces this whole website and lists all my webpages),
or “My Climbing” (which introduces this major set of webpages),
or Illegal Ascents of Sydney’s most Iconic Buildings, (which introduces this minor set of webpages).

My next normal webpage is Illegal Ascent of Centre Point.

Updated on 14/11/2016.

Below are the pictures I used originally.

Our route up the building

Our route up the clock-tower.
(But my top photo shows the details better.)