John Ewbank, one of the great pioneers of Australian rock climbing—though he came from and moved to other countries—died December 2 in New York in the wake of complications from abdominal surgery and other health issues. His age has not been given publicly but he was, or was within weeks of, 65.
Greg Child, another leading Australian climber who moved to America, calls Ewbank “the fellow who really put climbing on its feet in Australia in the '60s. He put up hundreds of FAs.”
Routes included Janicepts
(21 / 5.11) at Mount Piddington, for a time the hardest route in Australia; and the first ascent, in 1968, of the iconic Totem Pole in Tasmania. Ewbank also invented the open-ended Australian grading system (which spread to use in New Zealand and South Africa) and started the first Australian climbing magazine, Thrutch
A 1989 New Zealand guidebook by Colin Monteath stated: “One of the dominant forces of the day, pioneering countless high quality routes on bold hard lines primarily in the Blue Mountains … Ewbank took rockclimbing into another league altogether.”
In 1972 Ewbank moved to New York City, working as a musician and fine woodworker, and enjoying Shawangunks climbing. He was known as energetic and humorous, creative and passionate about climbing and music. He released two CDs, shown on here
, called “Songs From the Bright Side (of a dark cell)” and “Stark Raving Songs.”
“He was a great guy and one of the pioneers of Australian climbing. He and Steve Arsenault were the reason I went to Oz in ‘75,” recalls Henry Barber of New Hampshire, who traveled to Australia and returned with early tales and images of the steep and beautiful rock. He calls Ewbank “a very kind soul with big talent back in the day.”
Arsenault, another leading figure in New Hampshire climbing, had stayed with Ewbank at his apartment in Sydney and climbed with him in his beloved Blue Mountains. They remained in touch, and Arsensault describes himself as “devastated” to learn of his friend’s death.
Two years ago the two climbed together in New Hampshire. Says Arsenault, “He hadn’t climbed in years but he did the Book of Solemnity
[5.10] with no falls. We did a lot of classics, like the Whitney-Gilman
, which he’d never done, and he did everything without falling.”
Ewbank was born in Yorkshire, England, moving to Australia at age 15. His memorial took place in the Bronx, a New York City borough, on December 15.
Many friends and climbers have posted on the Internet sharing reverence, memories and adventures. On the Australian site chockstone.org, John Pickard, a frequent Ewbank companion at DogFace in the Blue Mountains, wrote: “On our attempt at Echo Crack
, the Primus choofer ran out of petrol, so we refilled it by candle light. Not a good idea, and it more or less exploded. We threw the ball of fire off the ledge, and it started a very small bush fire way down below. I retrieved the stove a few weeks later, and used it for many years, even with the dents. [Ewbank was] Truly a great climber who completely changed the scene in Sydney and Australia.”
Among Ewbank’s many talents was writing, and he was published, among other venues, in Ascent
. David Harris, co-editor with Allen Steck and Steve Roper of that issue, posted Ewbank’s 10,000-word "Ironmongers of the Dreamtime" on supertopo.com.
We will give Ewbank the last words:
“Young climbers today have their own lists of new names, and a lot of the indefinable attraction of the whole racket is somehow woven into the connecting thread that unites the eras and places these various names represent. Even now, as a broken-down old fart, I feel a tremendous kinship with some of these young climbers, though they are doing stuff technically far harder than anything we were doing in the Jurassic period. At the same time I feel an unbreakable bond with climbers of my own and previous generations. The central focus of the fetish of most young contemporary climbers may have moved closer and closer to the pure beauty and sheer technical difficulty of a single move, whereas the central focus of my fetish was how far back the last runner was. But it’s all relative, or at least it can be. From Tricounis to modern slippers, if you’re truly interested in taking a walk on the wild side you still can; and it doesn’t really matter what you’re wearing on your feet when you’re shitting in your pants.”