Profile: Mark Moorhead

By Ross Taylor 24 January 2017
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The story of Mark Moorhead, perhaps the most gifted Australian climber of the 1980s, whose life was tragically cut short at the age of 23.

IT IS OCTOBER 1983: the year 76 people die in the Ash Wednesday fires, BMX Bandits launches Nicole Kidman’s fledgling career and Bob Hawke becomes prime minister. But while this story is about an Australian, it starts far from Australia, high up in the oxygen-starved mountains of the Himalaya on the West Ridge of a Makalu (8481m), the world’s fifth highest peak.

It is a beautiful post-monsoon day. Afternoon cloud builds on the horizon. At base camp, Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund of Everest repute, waits for his Australian climbing companions, Mark Moorhead and Fred From, to descend from higher up the ridge.

‘I remember sitting at base camp looking up and seeing that only one person was coming. Having lost Bill [Denz], once again only seeing one person coming,’ says Hillary. ‘I thought, Oh my God, what has happened? Anyway, Fred arrived down with the appalling news that Mark had fallen. He had gone looking for him and seen his body way down below on the south side of the ridge, blood on the steep spur – it was clear what had happened.’

Moorhead, one of Australia’s most talented climbers, had tripped over his crampons descending a section of unroped climbing on the West Ridge and fallen to his death.

The Makalu trip had been blighted by tragedy. Just two weeks earlier the fourth member of the party, New Zealander Bill Denz – one of the best Australasian mountaineers of the era – had been killed in an avalanche. After much soul searching, and partly as a tribute to Denz, Moorhead, Hillary and From made the fateful decision to continue with their attempt.

When the second tragedy struck Moorhead and From had just broken through the route’s major difficulties and were descending from their highpoint at 7600m to rest before the final summit attempt. This final blow was too much for Hillary and From, and the pair retreated.

News of Moorhead’s death quickly travelled back to Australia, where his family and friends were devastated. Moorhead was only 23, but in the five years he’d been climbing he’d rapidly built a reputation as one of the best climbers of his generation.

Moorhead is also a figure of much speculation, the ever-unanswerable question being: how good could he have been? He had already achieved a huge amount, but to many Australian climbers it seemed the best was yet to come. But more than that, Mark was a much loved individual, a campfire bon vivant known for his whimsical sense of humour, great intelligence and gentle manner. Today, the name Mark Moorhead is little known outside of the Australian climbing community. But inside it, he is a legend, revered for his legacy of hard, bold routes and mythologised as one of the leading figures of the early 1980s, the golden era of Australian climbing.

In the beginning

Mark was born on 9 June 1960, a skinny-limbed, blonde-haired little boy, the second of three children. His mother Peggy was a home-maker, while his father Bill was a long-time journalist. Mark, who by all accounts was very bright, studied town planning at Melbourne University. It was as a first year uni student on a trip to the Grampians with the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club that Mark first discovered climbing. Peter Martin (who was a third year uni student at the time) took Mark on that first trip. ‘He took to the rock naturally,’ Martin tells me over the phone, ‘he led the third pitch of a grade-11 on the second day of the trip wearing just sand shoes.’

It didn’t take long for the climbing obsession to take grip. Mark’s best friend and climbing partner, Jon Muir, the legendary Australian mountaineer and adventurer, tells me that one day Mark was heading into an exam in his second year at university when he thought to himself, ‘This isn’t what I want to do, it’s a good day for the beach.’ So he turned around and never went back.

mark moorhead profile

Jon Muir (top right) climbs Fever Pitch (23) belayed by Mark Moorhead (being photographed by Glenn Tempest. The climber on the top left is Geoff Lamb, who would die the following year soloing at Frog Buttress. (Image: Peter Von Gaza)

At 19 Moorhead became one of the first generation of Australian climbers to climb full-time, moving to Mt Arapiles in the Wimmera and living cheaply on the dole at a campground called the Pines. One of the world’s great crags, Arapiles was home to an intense climbing scene. Mark revelled in this environment and within a year or two of starting climbing in 1978, he’d put up the hard and bold grade-24, Terminal Drive. In the summer of 1981 he climbed a new route he dubbed Cobwebs. Mark gave it grade 26, but in the intervening years it has become commonly accepted by climbers that it is 28 or 29, meaning that in 1981 it would easily have been in the top 10 hardest routes in the world.

It wasn’t long after starting climbing that Mark travelled to New Zealand for his first mountaineering season. When Peter Martin first took Mark climbing he remembers him as a tall, skinny yet athletic youth, but after returning from that first season in New Zealand the physical transformation was remarkable. ‘He came back very strong, he was almost unrecognisable,’ he says.

It was in the New Zealand Alps in 1980 that the group of climbers Mark was to become synonymous with was formed – the International Turkey Patrol (ITP). Will Steffen, in his book about Australian mountaineering, Himalayan Dreaming, writes ‘The ITP…came to be associated with a group of four young Australian climbers. Muir and [Roddy] Mackenzie were founding members and two young Victorian climbers, Mark Moorhead and Craig Nottle, joined them in their most memorable exploits.’ The four formed a formidable team, their irreverent sense of humour only partially masking their immense drive and ambition.

Pushing the limits

One of the most memorable Australian mountaineering photos appears in a Mountain Design’s advertisement from the early 1980s. It’s a picture of extremis: shot from above it shows a man’s body jammed behind a slung flake from which a chain of slings leads downwards to a figure hand-over-handing into a murky white abyss below – Mark Moorhead.

The photo is from the ITP’s first attempt at climbing the South-West Ridge of Changabang (6864m) in the Indian Himalaya in 1982, an objective that had been suggested to them by the famous climbing doctor, Jim Duff, who they’d met in a hut in New Zealand. To prepare for Changabang, Mark, Jon Muir and Craig Nottle headed to the European Alps in early 1982. Their ‘training’ turned into a phenomenal season. The three climbed the North Faces of Les Droites and the Charmoz, the Central Pillar of Freney on Mt Blanc, the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses and the Dru Couloir. Most climbers would have been burnt out after such a season, but the ITP continued on to the Changabang.

Japanese and Italian teams had climbed the South-West Ridge before by slightly varying routes, but both teams had employed siege tactics to climb it. The ITP planned to do the route’s first alpine style ascent, climbing fast and light with a minimum of equipment. Will Steffen writes: ‘Their first attempt ended in typically swashbuckling ITP style. After five days of climbing on the Japanese route, a storm forced them off the ridge at about 6500m and down to the Italian Col, below the point where the ridge bifurcated. They abseiled down the steep rock wall below the col, leaving their four 50m climbing ropes in place to use when they would climb back to the col.’

Which brings us to that old Mountain Designs ad. The ITP hadn’t realised there was still one more rock band blocking their safe return to base camp. With no ropes left they were forced to join all their slings and whatever else they had together. Craig Nottle, who took the photo in the ad, wrote in an article for Wild called ‘Wasted Youth’: ‘Having anchored the chain’s upper end, Mark lowered himself down the chain hand over hand. At its end he was still ten metres from the snow slope below. A moment of indecision passed before he yelled out, “Oh well, no use hanging around,” and let go of the chain.’
Luck was on their side that day and a soft snow drift at the base of the wall cushioned his fall, and the ITP lived to climb another day.

Five days later they started back up the Italian route, tearing up 2000m of hard mixed terrain, coping with temperatures down to -20°C at night with no tents, just sleeping bags and bivvy sacks, getting to the summit and back in six days. By comparison, the Japanese team had used 2.5km of fixed rope and taken 33 days to get to the summit.
Mark’s brother Richard remembers Mark returned from the combined European and Himalayan trips physically wasted. Despite this, big plans were in place for coming years. In 1983 Mark planned to climb Makalu with Kiwis Bill Denz and Peter Hillary and Queenslander Fred From, while the following year he was focused on the potential first Aussie ascent of Mt Everest.

mark moorhead profile

Mark belaying Jon Muir in 1980. (Image: Glenn Tempest)

From tragedy a legend is born

As we know, Mark never made it to Mt Everest. The Makalu trip ended in double disaster. But at the time there was nothing to suggest the trip would go so badly. Peter Hillary tells me, they had a very strong team:

‘…Fred was just this all-round powerhouse, very big intellect, very smart man; Bill Denz, obviously the greatest mountaineer in Australasia, with the most incredible drive and determination; Mark was quite an ascetic fellow, again very smart, a wonderful rock climber. So you know we had a wide range of skills: if the rock was really hard we had Mark, if all round robustness was required you couldn’t get better than Bill Denz, and I have to say Fred was of that ilk as well, just pretty bulletproof in all directions.’

Why did they keep going after Bill’s death? Peter says: ‘We went back to base camp and it was a terrible soul searching time, but strangely enough we felt that we had climbed so high on the route that in a way it would almost be a testament to Bill, as much as ourselves, if went back up. Obviously in retrospect you go, well, I wish I hadn’t made that decision.’

Peter tells me that at the time they were soloing most of the easy ground. It saved time as it meant they didn’t have to fix ropes, but it was also safer because moving quickly meant they spent less time at altitude. ‘We were doing a lot of soloing,’ Peter says, ‘He [Mark] was facing out on quite difficult terrain – but we were feeling very at home on it – he locked his feet up with his crampons and that just vaulted him off the ridge and, of course, unless you self-arrest in a split second you are gone. He lost his axe and on steep terrain like that you are doing very high speed and that is the end of it.’

Why did they take such risks? Peter suggests that you have to understand the zeitgeist of the era. ‘What was happening in the ’70s and ’ 80s was that there was a lot of really dynamic, innovative ambitious climbing going on; we were a group of people who were caught up in that.’ And he is right: the early 1980s is one of the few periods when Australians have been at the cutting-edge of alpine climbing. Not only was the ITP out there doing hard, bold ascents of alpine peaks, but there was also the group the ITP (in their usual piss-taking way) had dubbed the A-Team: Tim Macartney-Snape, Greg Mortimer (both of whom would become the first Australians to summit Mt Everest in 1984 without oxygen via a bold new route on the North Face), Lincoln Hall, Andy Henderson and Geoff Bartram.

Mark himself clearly knew what the risks of mountaineering were. In the essay ‘Life & Death: a Climber’s Guide’, he wrote:

‘It takes a lot of luck to remain alive, but also precision and supreme “mountain sense”. One must have the ability to turn back and live to climb another day. It must be the most valuable skill a climber can have. To “live fast and die young” may be fashionable, but it also displays a gross ignorance and callousness for life. Noone can succeed all the time, after all, mountains only let you triumph at their leisure. “Why indulge in a glorious death, especially one’s own?” Climbing is not just about dying, ultimately it is about living, a vehicle for your own personal voyage of discovery.’

In 1984 tragedy would be piled upon tragedy for the ITP when a team comprising Jon Muir, Roddy Mackenzie, Craig Nottle, Fred From, Peter Hillary and fellow Kiwi Kim Logan attempted the West Ridge of Mt Everest (the A-Team were on the other side of the mountain attempting the North Face at the same time). High on the route Craig Nottle fell to his death descending in extreme cold and high wind. Shortly afterwards, Fred From, also fell to his death in almost exactly the same spot. The remaining group immediately retreated from the mountain.

Visiting Mark’s sibling and looking at the many family photos of Mark as a child and young adult, the thing that struck me is that he never ages. The surviving climbers of his generation: Muir and Hillary, Mackenzie and Macartney-Snape and all the rest, have faces marked by the passing of time, the mountains, the sun and wind, love and sorrow, the processes of aging. Mark, on the other hand, will always be young and blonde, lithe on the rock, with unblemished skin, smiling and laughing and full of a promise – forever the gilded youth, forever the climber that will leave us wondering, what if?