Piaggio P166 –VH ASA: Originally delivered to Ansett Airlines by John Dewhirst in 1963: Geoff Goodall Photograph.

In August 1964, I landed the Italian designed, 9-seater Piaggio-166 at Essendon airport, with my father riding shotgun. It was night-time and pissing with rain when ATC came on the blower, informing us that runway two-six had developed a death-defying crosswind. Throughout the approach, dad puffed away on a Rothmans, his favourite fag, while reading the aircraft maintenance manual. 

‘Use differential engine power, my beamish boy. The rudder won’t do it. Land on the starboard wheel. And keep the other wheel off the runway until you’ve kicked the nose down the centre line, or we’ll need to return to Rome and collect another aircraft….’

‘….I can’t see the frigging runway,’ I said, while backing off power on the port engine.

‘Stay centred on the localiser, keep descending at 600 feet per minute, and the approach lights will soon be visible. We should have floats in this kind of weather,’ he added, with the wisdom of ten thousand landings. 

The cloud was almost to the ground when runway two-six finally appeared. By then, dad had returned to reading and didn’t look up again until we taxied into the north hangar (now Air Ambulance Victoria), where the nose wheel collapsed, making the sound of breaking glass.

I had landed at 85 knots, one wheel after the other, as instructed. The front wheel touched down last, but impacted water ten centimetres deep. The piston assembly, which locked the wheel into position, buckled under the sudden load, and hydraulic fluid slowly leaked away. It failed soon after we parked, which minimised the damage. ‘Fucking wheels,’ was all he said. 

We had flown the Piaggio from Italy as a demonstrator but sold it en route to Ansett Airlines, where my mother worked long hours typing documents for the big man himself. On the way, we refuelled in Baghdad, Delhi, Singapore, Port Moresby, Darwin, Alice Springs, Sydney and a couple of other places that are fading memories. Dad had swapped out from flying submarine-hunting Sunderland’s, during World War 2, into commercial aviation when we migrated to Melbourne in 1954. My mother ironed his shirts and  wrote all his job applications, as well as her own. At the time, Australia had more pilots than work available. Still, her finely tuned Irish blarney landed him a ball-tearing job with the Bristol Aeroplane Company that eventually morphed into the Chief Pilot position at Forester Stephen Aviation.

However, that landing scared the bejesus out of me, and I eventually swapped over to hot air balloons because sooner or later, you forget to drop the wheels, which was a gentle reminder, on that stormy night, all those years ago to keep my brain engaged. Of course, wheels are never a problem on a balloon, and neither are crosswind landings, nor engine failures for that matter. 

Enter scientist and aircraft designer John Tann, usually found planting trees or quaffing coffee at the Rock & Roll Cafe in Mullumbimby. However, in 1979 he and fellow scientist (Professor) Andrew Collins were young university students living in Melbourne. They put their heads together with parachute manufacturer, Joe Chitty, and sewed into existence a hot air balloon envelope from 40 rolls of nylon fabric. Cyberiad–the black and red, 84,000 cubic ft beast, embossed with golden dragons–carried four people. He took me for a flight, and within an hour or so, I was born again. 

John Tann photograph.

‘Burn propane to go up and stop burning to come down,’ he said. ‘Pull the red line hard to open the parachute flap at the crown, which will deflate the balloon once we’ve landed. And bend the knees when the basket hits the ground.’

‘How do you steer these things?’ I asked.

‘We always travel with the wind, but at different altitudes there are different wind directions. At 3,000 feet, we’re heading northwest at about 20 knots. However, the cold air from overnight flows into the valleys, finding the lowest ground,’ he said, pointing at Mt Stapleton, an outpost of the Grampians. ‘I’ll descend into the katabatic and we’ll slow up and turn east.’ 

Apart from the pilot, a hot air balloon has only one moving part–the blast valve–that never fails. So swapping over to flying balloons for a living was a no-brainer, except that in 1979 no one was doing it. There were only a handful of balloons in Australia–an emerging sport–but I could see the commercial angle from the outset and was keen to crank out a business model. I unloaded my heavily mortgaged house in Melbourne, bought a balloon from Cameron’s, in the UK, and started selling tickets. 

Although Cameron makes superb special-shaped balloons–think Puccini’s sky-whale or Christ the Redeemer–Kavanagh make the best vents for natural-shaped balloons, which are the ones seen flying around Byron Bay, the Hunter Valley, over Melbourne, and for that matter, everywhere else in the world. These huge balloons, carrying 24 passengers or more, require both reliable rapid deflation technology–and turbulence protection.  The two balloons that we used on our first attempt at Everest in 1985–an expedition sponsored by National Geographic, North Face, J&B and Zanussi–were both Kavanagh balloons. 

Heather Martin photograph.

The Star Micronics balloon, that I used for my second shot at Everest, was inherited from balloonist, Per Linstrand, after his failed attempt, in 1990. Unfortunately, the UK balloon had been fitted with a simple parachute vent, which contributed to our horrific drag landing in Tibet, when much of the equipment was destroyed. However, National Geographic came back on board for our 1991 flight, commissioning the film from Sydney based producers, Richard Dennison and Mike Balson.

The pre-sale agreement with National Geographic helped Star Micronics decide to fund another attempt–and for that I am eternally grateful. 

The Australian division of Star Micronics also invested $50,000, which allowed us to construct a second balloon, piloted by Andy Elson, who followed me across Everest. UK mountaineer, Eric Jones–who had recently soloed the North Face of the Eiger–went along for the ride. If Elson crashed, and needed help descending Everest, then Jones had the skills to sort it out. As it turned out, Elson made the perfect landing, whereas mine was traumatic. Leo Dickinson, my cameraman was injured, which only added to the drama. I can still hear the groans.

The National Geographic documentary wasn’t the whole story, far from it. The film avoided much of the ugly stuff that happens on high-altitude expeditions, when hypoxia sometimes brings out the worst in people. Despite the conflicts and misunderstandings, on 21 October 1991, we crossed directly over the summit in a spectacular flight, marred only by a bone-crunching finale, leaving the two of us with a permanent reminder of how not to land a balloon. However, it’s likely Dickinson suffered brain damage during the flight, not from the landing, but when his breathing apparatus temporarily failed at 34,000 feet. Afterwards, he wrote a strange book that included several fabricated photographs, which unfortunately damaged his reputation. (There’s a link to the NG film, Ballooning Over Everest, on this website, in the Everest Gallery page.)

Aviation has occupied most of my working life, but I’ve enjoyed climbing just as much. From the age of 14, and for another 12 years, almost nothing else mattered to me, but a foothold a rope and a climbing partner. In the 1960s and early 1970s, every cliff I discovered became one more opportunity to double down on a dangerous addiction. It was during adolescence that my neurones became hard-wired to the vertical, rebooting a damaged childhood that let me start over. Fifty years on I still can’t look at a cliff, or a mountain, without plotting a route on how to avoid the next avalanche.

I first met Pete Gough and John Glasgow in 1970, just after they climbed the Caroline Face on Mt Cook, which is six thousand feet of tottering ice walls stacked one on top of the other, and prone to collapse. With their long hair and tie-dyed headbands, the New Zealand Press called them hippy heroes. I’d been rock climbing in Australia for six years, when Professor Gough taught me how to swing an ice axe, front point my way out of a crevasse and survive in the mountains. In exchange, I taught him how to hand jam a 5.10 crack at Mt Arapilies, delivering a skill set for which he has never been truly grateful. 

Colin Monteath Photograph.

Although Gough and Glasgow introduced me to mountaineering, it was The White Spider, Heinrich Harrer’s account of climbing the north face of the Eiger, along with Starlight and Storm, by Gaston Rebuffat–borrowed from the Melbourne State Library in 1962–that started me rock climbing. 

Harrer is best known for Seven Years in Tibet: his story of escaping a POW camp in India, crossing the Himalayas on foot, and helping educate the Dalai Lama as a young child.

By remarkable chance he picked me up the day after Christmas, in 1973, outside Frankfurt airport, hitchhiking my way across Europe. The rope slung across the top of my pack was the perfect introduction–although the Bon religious symbol, swinging from the rear vision mirror, made me think twice about accepting the lift. I’d seen the reverse-swastika once before, above the door to an ancient monastery in Manang–a remote Himalayan village in the shadow of the Annapurna range. After eating contaminated peanuts that day, it became part of an uplifting psychedelic experience, without guidance. 

Harrer explained that Bon predated Buddhism by hundreds of years. And that he had hung the symbol, attached to a Buddhist rosary, primarily as a talking point, but also as push-back on those accusing him of supporting the SS, during World War 2. The symbol was corrupted by Hitler in 1920, and has never recovered its original religious significance. For years I had a photograph of Harrer stuck to my bedroom wall, but when he gave me a lift all the way to Brussels, I was almost too embarrassed to tell him.

A week later, I was in England struggling up an icy Cenotaph Corner on Dinas Cromlech, perhaps the UK’s most famous rock climb. Joe Brown, considered by many the father of extreme rock climbing, made the first ascent in 1952. A plumber by trade, he stole a rope from a roadside works and made an impact on the newly emerging sport way beyond his small stature and modest ego. He was overlooked by the English establishment for the 1953 Everest expedition, otherwise it could well have been ‘Sir Joe Brown’, with the knighthood going to Manchester rather than New Zealand. As if to prove a point, Brown, with three companions, climbed Kanchenjunga–the world’s third highest mountain–in Alpine style, without Sherpa assistance, without oxygen and without fanfare. 

Lionel Terray estate.

These were my heroes. I had their photographs on the wall, alongside those of Lionel Terray (Conquistadors of the Useless), Hermann Buhl (Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage) and Maurice Herzog (Annapurna). Their stories were my stories, both timeless and Homeric. They set the bar and I repeated many of their climbs. As a 14-year-old adolescent, searching for meaning, without their accounts, I would never have picked up a rope and found the Organ Pipes, near where I lived in Melbourne, and redirected my life. 

All through adolescence and my early 20s, climbing was an end in itself. I made hundreds of first ascents, and many in wilderness areas that no longer exist.  From climbing the north face of the Acropolis in SW Tasmania with my school buddy, John Moore, in 1966, when we were both 17, to climbing the north face of the Buffalo Gorge three years later, with Chris Baxter, publisher of Australia Wild magazine, I lived for the vertical.

In 1972, Australia’s last significant unclimbed wall–the east face of Frenchman’s Cap–demanded attention. With Dave Neilson (Chasing the Mountain Light) and Ian ‘Foxy’ Ross, I made a two-day ascent of an extraordinary quartzite cliff–the jewel at the centre of a wilderness to protect for all time. From the summit, in every direction, are natural wonders. Tasmanian tigers romp beneath the Frenchman’s ramparts–why we climb in such places–believing it true. 

Snowgum Press.

We called the climb Conquistador, which was a nod to Lionel Terray who wrote Conquistadors of the Useless, a compelling memoir, and the story of a mountaineer’s life, beyond measure. Tragically, in 1965, Terray fell to his death from the Vercors Massif, in France, causing enormous grief in the mountaineering world, where deaths are commonplace. 

In a moment of serendipity, 17 years later, in 1983, a young lad with a French accent, walked into my Sydney Adventure Travel office, selling printed T-shirts. After a few minutes of chatting, I realised he was Lionel Terray’s son. There’s a picture of him at the age of 2, in the very book that started me climbing, standing upright in the palm of his father’s hand.

We went for coffee, and in no time, were weeping at the terrible loss that he’d suffered, when his father died. 

Soon after Frenchman’s Cap, I left for California, where El Capitan’s 3,000-foot glaciated granite wall attracted the vertically addicted. We came from across the planet, the like-minded, joining the new wave of highly precocious US climbers: Jim Bridwell, John Long, George Meyers, Henry Barber, Bev Johnson and Steve Bachar, to name just a few of the technically gifted. These ripped young men and women created a Yosemite counter-culture – a climbers’ Woodstock – rejecting the Vietnam War, deriding President Nixon’s (white) American values and challenging the status quo. They embraced the drop-out lifestyle espoused by Timothy Leary and Jack Kerouac, while displacing the old climbing guard of Warren Harding and Royal Robbins, who had made the first ascents of El Capitan and Half Dome in the early 1960s. El Capitan was a rite of passage, and still is–having never lost the magic.

What follows is Col Morgan’s story, The Original 9/11, woven through mine, plus 11 short stories, all inter-connected by a lifetime of extreme adventure, and risk-taking beyond what most people would consider normal behaviour, but I’ve always seized the moment, carpe diem, quoting Caesar quoting Horace, and to hell with the consequences. 

Mariposa County Photograph.

It begins in the autumn of 1973, on El Capitan, when an aeroplane packed full of Mexican marijuana and Colombian cocaine crashed into a high-altitude Yosemite lake, killing the pilots and spilling the contents.

Four climbing buddies, myself included, took the moment to enrich ourselves from someone else’s misfortune. However, what seemed like a good idea at the time became dangerously complicated when two men drowned. And instead of backing out of a developing debacle, when we had the chance, we doubled down on a bad decision. 

As it happened, the contraband, spread across a Yosemite landscape, was payment for weapons backloaded to Chile, supporting General Pinochet’s military coup when–on the 11th of September 1973–President Salvador Allende and thousands of his fellow citizens were murdered during the military takeover of Santiago, Chile’s capital city.

Photograph: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile.

It was an act of evil, supported by President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, with the job tasked to CIA Director, Richard Helms.

The coup began with an aerial attack on the seat of Government and could be accurately described as the original 9/11. In the months and years that followed, Pinochet and his gangsters tortured and ‘disappeared’ thousands more citizens, annihilating all opposition in what later become known as the Caravans of Death.

Those numerous Senate and Congress investigations into the CIA’s involvement in Pinochet’s coup neglected to examine Richard Helms’ incinerator, where thousands of documents left a huge carbon footprint. At the time, Watergate diverted everyone’s attention, but I have no doubt at all that virtually every government record implicating the CIA in secretly supplying weapons to the junta, has long since been destroyed. However, they missed the contract that I signed with Val Chilling on the 4th of October, 1973. I’ve also retained the original drug distribution list that we recovered from the wreck. And I still have Brutus’ logbook, gathering dust, among other records kept inside an old shipping container near Byron Bay, Australia.