Neil Monteith - The Wonder Years

Interview by Lee Skidmore


Since the age of 15, Neil Monteith has been a force of climbing enthusiasm to be reckoned with, and to date, I've found no climber to match him in his pure obsession with the sport (and coming from me, that's saying something). Neil has established new routes at Kangaroo Point, Mt Ngungun, Mt Beerwah, Mt Tibrogargan and Brooyar and established various areas at these crags like Ngungun's Lower Main Cliffs, Hidden Slabs, Tibro's Shadow Glen, and Gymp Crag at Brooyar.

More recently while working in Melbourne he opened up his Lunar Crag with a stack of new routes and added quality to an existing bunch at Centurion Walls. He returned to Brisbane just before New Year's after a five month climbing trip in the USA where he climbed alpine, bigwall, trad, and sport routes up to grade 27.

This interview took place early in the morning of the 8th of January 2000, in the car, driving up to the Glasshouse Mountains for a day of new routing.

Lee: Okay, when did you start climbing, what year?

Neil: When did I start climbing? I was in High School...grade 10 [age 15], so 1992.

Lee: Okay so what's my next question? Where did you start climbing? What crag?

Above: Neil in Death Valley, USA. 1999.

Neil: Okay, the first cliff I went proper roped climbing on was Frog Buttress, actually got taken there for a school trip. Top roped silly things like Clockwork Orange Corner and Ship Heap and stuff like that. But then after that, I sort of decided to go climbing, you know after that school camp, so those were my electrical cord days, and using tow ropes as rope at various little cliffs near my parents property near Binna Burra. Just climbing little bits and pieces of rock, umm, and some sort of really bad cliffs in Jindalee.

Lee: (laughs)

Neil: Yeah, really bad, next to the Brisbane River, really evil and loose.

Lee: So it was the school stuff that got you into it?

Neil: Yeah, we sort of just went for one day's of climbing, and sort of got interested then, but from then on I just self taught myself. I got the most dodgy... that Royal Robbins Basic Rockcraft book, which was my basis of climbing lore, but the problem was all that book told me was how to place pitons and the difference between kernmantle and hemp ropes.

Lee: (laughs) So, you wouldn't recommend it to the beginner of today?

Neil: No, Nah. You can still get Basic Rockcraft in shops.

Lee: Alright, so what's next? What's next in the chronology? Okay, probably you getting all your mates into it as well.

Neil: Yeah, we had like six or seven friends at school who were all into climbing and we never did any work, we'd just all sit up the back reading climbing mags, and we had like a vast assortment of gear because we had seven people with parents to buy gear for us all.

Lee: And six or seven transport sources?

Neil: Yeah, but that was always the problem - having no transport. We had dodgy, hush hush, gear that we 'borrowed' from school (laughs)...

Lee: And how much of that gear do you now own from people who've stopped climbing?

Neil: Oohh lots of it!

Lee: Lots of it! 

Neil: My whole rack basically.

Lee: Ahh, it's great.

Neil: Various parent-bought gear.

(car stops at lights)

Neil: Is that the fat controller in front of us?

Lee: He's a large fellow. He's a portly fellow, long in the waistband.

Neil: (laughs) I think he went to school with me.

Lee: Really?

Neil: Yeah.

Lee: Did you get him into climbing?

Neil: No.

Lee: He would have been an awesome belayer!

Neil: (laughs) Ballast, to hold me down...

Lee: Okay so what's next? We've established now that you've been climbing probably around Kangaroo Point. When did you start...

Neil: I didn't actually go to Kangaroo Point

Lee: Didn't ya?

Neil: (laughs) I used to climb in the Glasshouse Mountains, and at Frog and stuff before I went to Kangaroo Point, it was like 'Wow, maybe we should go climb Kangaroo Point'. Because I wasn't actually climbing with anyone who was actually a climber, that was my problem

Lee: Ahh right

Neil: Yeah like there was a bunch of us from school, but none of us had ever been trained, or gone with anyone professionally, so we just went 'Here's a cool rock, we'll go climb that'. We just bumbled around, didn't really know of the concept of guidebooks, or... we didn't really know anything. So, yeah... Kangaroo Point actually came probably a year after I started climbing.

Lee: Okay, so if you started in 1992, when did you start putting up routes, apart from the pieces of shit where you were nailing in railway pegs...

Neil: Tent pegs!

Lee: Ahh, tent pegs.

Neil: I think it was in 1993 I started experimenting with bolting technology. And put up all those dodge-house routes.

Lee: Can you remember the first 'real' new route?

Neil: I can remember the first couple of dodgy new routes in Brisbane that Simon Hennig and I did - Suicidal Tendencies and Initial Adjustment, at Kangaroo Point. We just wandered over to the left side and went 'Ah, we should see if we can do our own routes, this bit of rock sort of looks okay'. Bush bash to the top with machetes, chopping away the grass, rapping down these routes kicking off huge blocks, that's how they got their names, because the amount of loose rock was just mind-blowing. Yeah, so we just top roped those and they were our first recorded ascents, I guess. 20 and 17 or something. They were okay. But then we went back later on with a bit of gear or something and bolted them. My first ever bolting on an established cliff. We just led Suicidal Tendencies, which is pretty suicidal, even though it was bolted. And then I went and started doing stuff at Ngungun. I originally went up to Beerwah to look for new cliffs and stuff, and I was just really uninspired by the entire cliff and we ended up...

Lee: You hadn't been introduced to slabs yet?

Neil: Nah, it was... you know those big columns down and left of the organ pipes?

Lee: Yeah, yeah exactly, I was actually going to put up some stuff there.

(car stops at lights near the hospital)

Neil: Look at that guy, he looks like he's just come out of hospital from being beat up.

Lee: Yep

Neil: He looks a bit dazed, like he's going to walk into that pole. It's a worry.

Lee: (laughs) He's a dodgy looking character

Neil: (laughs) He's a very dodgy looking character!

Lee: He's looking around like he's got a gun under his jacket.

(guy looks at us)

Neil: Oh! Oh dear.

Lee: Oh no. (laughs) He's looking at us!

Above: Neil belays the 7th pitch on Petit Grepon, Rocky Mtns, Colorado, USA

Neil: Dooo do doooo, come on green light.

(light goes green)

Lee: Okay where was I? ... That was quite scary!

Neil: It was. So, so we attempted to do this ground-up thing at Beerwah on the columns, going 'Ohh, awesome big corner, we'll be able to do that with trad gear'. But our gear was pretty pathetic in those days, like no RP's or cams, oh, I think I had one cam in my first three years of climbing. So we attempted this ground-up thing and got like half way up this corner. Really death, and loose rock and I think the belay was on a Rock #1, just evil. So we rapped of that and went 'Ahh, we'll check out this Ngungun place'.

Lee: Mmm. Mmm. And 36 new routes later...

Neil: Yeah, 36 new routes later. But it was really cool, 'cause it was just, just when Darrin had done Flat Battery and um...

(pulls up next to a car with loud stereo)

Lee: Hey, that's Adam Sandler! Heeeyyyyyy! She was playing Adam Sandler.

Neil: Oh really?

(lights go green and other car takes off)

Lee: Ha ha ha, that's great, I'm going to get up there. It's when the cow goes up to the drive through and he drives out and they forget his french fries, and he's driving along and then looks in the bag and goes 'MOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!' And he drives back to abuse them.

Neil: I don't know what you're talking about.

Lee: So you were obviously climbing at Ngungun for a couple of years...

Neil: So yeah anyway, once I literally went to Ngungun that first time, I went back twice a week, for the next six months. Every weekend, we'd catch a train up there and commit some friend from school to come along, or a huge group of us. We practically climbed everything that was established first, sort of right to left on the upper cliffs. Then, in the process, because Col Smithies guide was so bad, there was just no recorded descriptions on any of these routes, practically anything above grade 16...

Lee: 'Up to rock step, then up'

Neil: Yeah, yeah it was just pathetic. So we started climbing all these things, and getting descriptions on them and there was a few things up there was one climb there that was still an aid climb, so I freed that on very dubious RP's and things like that, it was that Baby Driver 19.

Lee: Yep

Neil: And then in the process of course we found the lower cliffs. Absentia, I think was my first new route that required bolting at Ngungun, which was something I just stumbled on. There was nothing on that bottom cliff and I just stumbled along and went 'Ah! Here's a really awesome water groove with big pockets up it!' Rapped down and put some dubious carrot bolts in it, that probably fell out in two years' time or something, and were replaced.

Lee: (laughs)

Neil: Nah Absentia was really cool.

Lee: Yep.

Neil: Sort of like first hardish sport climb I guess at Ngungun.

Lee: Yeah. So that's taken us up to what, like '95, 96?

Neil: '95.

Lee: What then?

Neil: I dunno.

Lee: Various cruising arounds?

Neil: Yea, and things like that, I guess I was doing bits on Tibrogargan too.

Lee: Well, okay you developed Shadow Glen in 95-96?

Neil: Yep. Something like that.

Lee: You put up 17 new routes there. (Neil puts foot up on dashboard) Get your shoe off there young man!

Neil: (laughs) But it's so itchy; fucking bugs! (laughs) These aren't bedbugs by the way...

Lee: (laughs) Nah nah that's alright.

Neil: ...Not lice. Gardening. They're gardening bugs.

Lee: Yeah. So you developed Shadow Glen.

Neil: Yep, that was after I did my mapping of Tibrogargan. I just walked around with a book writing down everything that looked vaguely climbable. And that was the last place I went to. I just went 'Ah! This bit of rock actually looks good; and solid, it's amazing, in the whole of Tibrogargan'. So that's when I started doing things. Karl Curnow and I went up there, and again, after that trip, I was up there twice a week. Driving up there. Actually we didn't even have cars then so, I remember bike riding in from the train station at Beerburrum, or walking in.

Lee: Fucking hell!

Neil: In summer. Yeah. Somewhere in there just before that I did that evil Steaming thing too with Simon Hennig [who gave up climbing after]. Our attempt at Clemency, about 300m off.

Lee: Yeah; that's a shame that one.

Neil: (laughs)

Lee: In your early days, you led all the hard routes on Kangaroo Point and stuff like that, you know like you led Olos Slab and all that...

Above: Neil running it out hugely on Flame 'n' Sparks (18) at his area, Shadow Glen, Mt Tibrogargan, Glasshouse Mountains. 1996.

Neil: Olos Slab was one of my favourites because that was when it was graded 26 in the guidebook, I don't know which guidebook, Col Smithies, or some dodgy guide I had. My mission was I had to do a grade 26 by the age of 16, and I achieved it exactly, because it was the day before my birthday. But then of course, the next guidebook came out and it was graded 25, 

Neil: (shouts) But when I did it, it was 26! It was awesome!

Lee: (laughs) It's probably... I dunno, doesn't matter anyway. Yeah so were you doing any training and stuff? Have you ever done any training?

Neil: Well, my parent's house, if you've ever been to it is a complete climbing gym, there's weird shit around the back of the house I glued on and drilled on sandstone holds on the back of the house so you could do big traverses backwards and forwards much to my mother's disappointment...

Lee: Ha ha!

Neil: ...destroying the house. And then the back fence has got wooden holds all over it so you could do a big traverse; had some weird campus rung things I nailed to a big tree and I even had a Beerwah Bolt Route-style aid ladder up one of our palm trees in our house. 10 bolts I hammered in and rap chains halfway up it.

Lee: (laughs)

Neil: So it wasn't some official climbing in the gym or anything, but I certainly had my own little training devices. Also had Indooroopilly Bridge to go down to all the time. But in those days I had far stronger fingers I reckon, because I was climbing in Queensland where everything's sort of fingery and not steep and big; it's sort of crimping and door frame chin up's and that sorta stuff I was so much better at than I am now

Lee: Yep

Neil: People like Marty [Blumen] who were naturally born with one arm chin-up power.

Lee: Okay, so, probably the final bit, because we won't go into your States trip, because it'll just be too long and I've got to type this thing out. If someone was just starting, like they were bumbling around KP and that, what advice would you give them to get them into the sport a bit better?

Neil: (pauses...laughs) Leave Queensland?

Lee: Leave Queensland, good, that's number one.

Neil: Umm (pauses)

Lee: Like stuff you learnt the hard way.

Neil: Go do a death multipitch climb on Tibrogargan. Go do Carborundum Chimney, my first multipitch climb

Lee: As it was mine!

Neil: Yeah do it. Suicidal! The only reason I did that was because my mother had done it in the 1950s or 1960s and she always used to tell us these stories as a kid about this climb called Carborundum Chimney so of course when I went up there for the first time I went 'Ah! Mum's done this climb in the 50s, look I've got new technology and fantastic carabiners and ropes and things, I'll easily be able to do this!' Of course, near death experience...

Lee: Indeed

Neil: ...of grovelling deep inside the crack with bleeding knees and no gear and throwing down chockstones and uhhhh, belayers that refuse to second me and yeah, so that was fun. Good multipitching experience.

Lee: (sarcastically) Ahh good.

Neil: The rest of the world is full of multipitch routes so make a start. Get some altitude.

Lee: Very good.

Do a write-up on someone you know for the next issue!