HOMAGE to Wolfgang

PUNKS IN THE GYM, THE World’s FIRST 5.14
Words by Sonnie Trotter
Photos by Ben Moon

It was Christmas Day back in Ontario, and I was 15 years old – just that age where the holiday starts to lose its cool. I tore back the paper on one particularly heavy, book-shaped present, and there it was: A life in the Vertical, soon to be my personal climbing bible. Forever burned into my impressionable consciousness was my first real climbing hero, Wolfgang Gullich, a moustache touting, blue jean wearing, mullet sporting, teeth gritting, pocket pulling legend.

In April 1985, the young German climber traveled to Mount Arapiles, Australia, at that time the site of some hot sport-climbing action. There, he began to project an unclimbed line bolted by the Swiss climber Martin Scheel. It took Güllich six days to make the first ascent, and the result was the world’s first 32 (equivalent to 5.14a in the Australian Ewbank system). This was a fantastic feat, one that brought international attention to bear on Arapiles and the Australian climbing scene, not to mention a huge mental breakthrough for climbers following in his footsteps. At the time, it was likely the hardest sport route in the world. Punks blasts up the middle of a bright orange tower known as The Pharos. The slightly overhung wall seems improbable from the ground, nearly 90 feet of smooth rounded shield like features. Other routes of equal difficulty were on the verge of being complete in the area, but none of them compared aesthetically to Punks, nor did they share the same ‘path of least resistance’. Punks was the only way to gain the top of the wall and instantly became a world wide classic. After Güllich, Stefan Glowacz made the second ascent in 1986, then six years passed before anyone would repeat the route. Eventually the Brits Jerry Moffat, and Sean Myles would climb punks, confirming the Grade. Scheel, though close, never succeeded.
Wolfgang Güllich was born in Ludwigshafen, Germany, on Oct 24, 1960. He started climbing at the sandstone towers of the Sudpfalz, and quickly proved himself as one of the most skilled climbers in the region, with the first free ascent of Jubilaumsriss VII (roughly 5.10) at the age of 16. In the 1980s, Güllich’s passion for climbing took him all over the world. He established hundreds of new routes and set new standards nearly everywhere he went. Sadly, Güllich’s died in a car crash in 1992, just months after getting married to his wife Anette, and not long after climbing another first-of-its-grade, Action Direct (9a or 5.14d), a testpiece to this day.

I paid Punks a visit in March 2007, 23 years after Güllich’s FA. I stood underneath the historic Pharos formation, a little intimidated and trembling with excitement. After only one attempt, I was hooked; I remember thinking the climbing was harder than I’d expected, but of better quality too. The send would take me four or five days, spread over a couple of weeks. But even before my trip to Oz I recalled a Scott Milton slide show I’d seen in Squamish the previous year. While working Punks, Scott along with our friend Lev Pinter grew cheesy ‘staches’, the same type of dirty bigotes that Wolfgang himself so proudly displayed at the time of his send. What better way to show my respect, I reasoned, than to repeat the climb in full Wolfgang Güllich attire, after all, this was no ordinary rock climb. I dressed up in short shorts, strapped on a sweat band and grew the fuzziest upper lip I could muster. Only later did I hear rumors that such a reinactment is actually a bit of tradition – more than a few ascents have exhibited the same scanty moustache as mine – as a lighthearted tip of the hat to the big man on the other side.

One story about Punks you won’t often hear in the media is that it’s chipped. Whether or not the climb was chipped before Wolfgang’s attempts is hard to say, but it’s certainly been enhanced now, and the evidence remains. The story I was told during my time down under, was that a British climber named Andy Pollit spent several, obsessive months, spread over the course of years, trying to redpoint Punks. During his attempts, the crux hold began to crumble. It broke so badly, in fact, that people began to question the possibility of a repeat. Pollit took it upon himself to fix the hold and now today, a tiny shelf of sika sits at the famous crux, the original sequence has forever been changed and most of the climbers who’ve repeated the line have done so via the modern rendition. As for Mr.Pollit, he eventually scaled this restored classic, but dramatically quit climbing immediately afterwards.

When you factor in the location of the crag, the position of the line, the aesthetics, the moves, the length and the history, it’s clear that ‘Punks’ is one of free climbing’s finest experiences. On my redpoint, I just barely snuck through the crux, a sneaky and oh-so desperate hand-foot match getting me to the safety of a better hold. A deep breath, a quick dip of chalk, and I committed with blasted forearms to a series of technical laybacks and sidepulls. Standing atop the stunning formation, I felt blessed to have linked some of the same movements as my original climbing hero — just then, while clipping the anchors, a grimacing image of Wolfgang sprang to my mind, and I realized the old adage is true: legends never die.

  • Brad Killough

    Wolfgang was one of hero’s of climbing. You are right along with him. Met him once on Fingernails on a Chalkboard in Tennessee Wall. I consider you Sonnie right up there in the same league. Great story.