Mythic Figure: Mark Moorhead

Mythic Figure: Mark Moorhead

Image: Glenn Tempest

In 1980, Glenn Tempest took a black and white photograph of Mark Moorhead in Yesterday Gully at Arapiles. Moorhead was belaying Jon Muir on the second pitch of a route called Grand Central. The photo was taken five years before I was born and Moorhead died three years later in 1983 on Makalu in the Himalaya, so I never knew him personally. But like many climbers of my generation, I’ve been charmed by his legend ever since first thumbing the grimy history pages of my battered Arapiles guidebook.

Moorhead’s magnum opus on rock was a route called Cobwebs, which he casually undergraded 26. Today it’s given a 28, although visiting Euros often suggest 29. When he established the climb in 1981, it would have ranked among the top hardest in the world. Of course, in the dusty shade of the Pines campground, where many climbers of the day resided at some point or another, apparently there wasn’t much fanfare about it. Still, when he died, it was a shock to the tight-knit climbing community to lose such a well-liked and talented friend. Indeed, his peers still lament “what-could-have-been”.

For me – a 21st-century climber looking back at a gilded era – the nostalgia also lies in what he seemed to embody: a sense of freedom and individuality. In that black and white photo of Tempest’s, Moorhead’s long blond hair, though tied back, is tousled by hot summer wind. He’s shirtless, evoking memories of the enduring Wimmera sun and hiding in shady gullies. He’s looking up, watching Muir. Like Tempest has previously described of this photograph, there’s something about it – perhaps the odd confluence of dirtbag grit, the fine aquiline nose and wispy golden hair; or the rawness of the image versus the whimsical glint in his eye – that captures both a playfulness and serious ambition. Having died young, at 23 years old, many photographs of him capture him eternally in this height of youth, talent and seeming bohemianism.

I always get the impression that for many Australian rockstars of the ’70s and ’80s who scraped an existence under the pines below Arapiles, climbing was about climbing – not sponsors, glitz or titles. As a writer, I see so many “stories” these days of undertakings glamorised by big apparel companies, crisp photography, topnotch marketing and catchy hashtags. I feel conflicted about these stories – on the one hand, they are always, without doubt, considerable projects that demand a degree of talent, commitment and training. And it’s nice to see the sport presented in a way it deserves – on the big screen, with amazing photographs, and so on. On the other hand, there are so many exceptional individuals who have attempted or accomplished some truly outstanding feats, who have almost totally flown under the radar. Their stories hardly see the light of day, perhaps because they’re not as easy for the general public to identify with. Ask yourself, what’s easier to sell: ‘Young Girl First Female to Climb Difficult Route’ or ‘A Group of Kiwis and Aussies Attempt Makalu’s West Ridge Alpine-style in 1983’?

Moorhead was at the cutting edge, both on rock and in the mountains. I feel like for Australians that’s rare (though he’s probably not the only one). To me, his premature death immortalised him as a mythic, almost god-like figure. The fact that he died in the mountains, too, on Makalu’s immaculate West Ridge – a graceful line on an aesthetically beautiful, pyramidal peak – makes it easy for me to romanticise his life and death, because there is nowhere more dramatic than in the mountains where stories of strength, fragility and morality play out.

I wanted to know more about Moorhead. Who was he? What was he like? Was the legend real? In fact, I pitched the idea of profiling him posthumously to Vertical Life, but it turned out that editor Ross Taylor had already been slowly interviewing people for such a project. Ross did a lot of research, speaking to Moorhead’s climbing partners and family. His finished story is published in Vertical Life (#14, spring 2015). Read it here.

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