Behind the Story: Peter Jackson
“We formed the perfect team. Jackson provided all the motivation, McHugh provided all the climbing skill and I provided all the stupidity.”
Bob McMahon’s silhouette was all limbs against the overcast sky above The Hazards, in Freycinet National Park. The sound of his clanking pitons could probably be heard from the gentle curve of Coles Bay, several kilometres across sapphire water. Climber Peter Jackson remembers this scene as McMahon fell 30 metres on a rope knotted around his waist. Just moments before, McMahon had copped a skyhook in the eye and taken a previous 12-metre winger on a knife blade. All this, while aiding for five hours in rain.
This was one of several epics I heard about while researching Peter Jackson – one of McMahon’s original climbing partners – who I was asked to profile for Vertical Life.
I first met Jackson in August 2012, when I flew to Hobart, Tasmania, and spent a day with ’60s rockclimber Bob Bull for a magazine profile. Exactly who Peter is wasn’t a mystery to me. I knew he was the first to climb Fang, Arapiles’ first HVS. He had also masterminded Witch, Victoria’s first 17. The Ogive (M4, 13), which he and Bull sieged in several days, although mostly mechanical, was a major achievement in Australia in 1964. Indeed, Jackson’s imagination earned him the king lines across many Victorian and Tasmanian cliffs.
But Peter also climbed many insignificant routes. Angel Dust was one of these. Rising out of Tasmania’s southern coastline, near the popular Clifton Beach, Peter described it as a “useless sort of route,” said matter-of-factly. In the same breath he called the experience “Amazing.”
Angel Dust begins on a big dolerite platform. To start the climb requires jumping two metres across a sea-sloshed gap to gain the wall proper.
“The higher you climb, the softer the rock becomes, and the possibility of protection disappears and disappears,” he tells me.
On Peter’s ascent, climbing with his eldest son, Marcel, who is now 41, dust wafted where they touched the rock. As the sun sank, it looked, to Peter, like angel dust.
“You could see all these little sparkling things everywhere,” he illustrates.
I enjoyed how Jackson held the experience above all.
“After all, the people you climb with matter, too,” he says.
Seven years of magazine writing, and interviewing, has taught me when not to cut ramblers off. When Peter recited story after story – ascending Auntie K in a hailstorm, encountering a series of events on Armadillo, where “All sorts of weird things happened” – I looked for a common thread.
After several days I parked at my desk, with numerous magazines open at important pages covering the floor, and digitised black-and-white photographs tiling the background on my computer screen. It was my customary CSI-esque set up. And, as usual, I racked my brains for a story angle.
In two weeks I emailed him my near final draft. Peter has a roundabout way of speaking, and I wanted to be sure I hadn’t gotten my wires crossed.
There was only one section I’d messed up. I had written: “It is often said of them, that Jackson provided the motivation, McHugh the skill, and McMahon the stupidity to carry out Jackson’s plans.”
Peter took me to think McMahon was stupid. He wrote to me, saying, “[McMahon] was a steady climber and forceful person. His recent death made me feel bad with a dubious adjective attached to him.”
On 17 April 2013, Bob McMahon died in his sleep at 62 years of age. The world lost a climbing legend, and Peter, and many others, lost a dear friend.
I remembered what Peter had said to me: “After all, the people you climb with matter, too.”
Peter, at that stage, didn’t know that the source of my seemingly brash statement was a quote I remembered from my days as an intern at Rock, Wild and Outer Edge magazines. In the 2010 August—September “Legends” issue of Outer Edge magazine, Australian writer and editor Ross Taylor profiled McMahon after walking a stretch of Tarkine coastline in Tasmania in with him. There McMahon told him, “We formed the perfect team. Jackson provided all the motivation, McHugh provided all the climbing skill and I provided all the stupidity.”
I was clear of wrongdoing, but I bore a heavy feeling in my heart.
Peter wrote of himself, McMahon and McHugh; “[We were] a threesome who were nothing out of the ordinary, except very close friends.”
Read Chelsea Brunckhorst’s profile of Peter Jackson in Vertical Life issue #7.