Almanac Obituary: Erik Pootjes

 


Erik at Boux, France

 

I had one of those dreams the other night. I was at a barbecue with Erik and he was reassuring me – ‘no, I’m not dead, I just needed to go away for a while and make a few changes’. I kept grabbing his arm and checking it was solid. I thought yes, it’s real, Erik is still alive. But perhaps this was a dream? Three times I tried to drag myself to wakefulness. Erik kept reassuring me – ‘Mark, it’s OK, I’m here, it’s real’. Jill, a former girlfriend of his, arrived. She was also dumbstruck that he was with us. I finally stumbled awake and reaffirmed the melancholy reality that my great friend has been gone for nearly 9 years now.

 

I owe Erik Oscar Carlo Pootjes (pronounced Poh-jez) an apology. I should have written this years ago. However, caught up with a hectic job, office politics, two young children and ageing parents, I did not. One small streak of silver lining from Melbourne’s fifth Covid lockdown is time to complete this task; I hope it does Erik some justice.

 

Born in 1958 in Holland, Erik was of a solid build and big, 6 foot odd and over 80 kilos. Not ideal for a climber or his climbing partners. He had tousled, thick, black hair, a large backside and prominent calves. He was easy-going, positive and exuberant. He had a huge smile and a booming laugh. He was instantly likeable and left a trail of goodwill behind him. Nik Woolford, another climber, wrote: ‘Erik had a remarkable ability to energise and encourage those who he came into contact with.’ All that and, moreover, Erik had a zany, Monty Python-like knack for fun.

 

Erik came to Australia sometime in the 80s, in part to escape what he perceived as the claustrophobia of Europe.  I met him in 1993 on a day trip at Werribee Gorge, a climbing crag above the Werribee River outside Bacchus Marsh. I wondered who the big bloke with the accent was, talking and laughing with everyone along the cliff.

 

Climbing partners develop close relationships rapidly. On a cliff or mountain your lives do depend on each other. A mistake at the wrong time can kill either, or both, of you. By 1993, because of overseas relocations and increased family commitments of other mates, I was seeking new climbing partners. I quickly found myself climbing with Erik a lot as part of a larger loose group, often including Slovakian, ex-pat hard man Tibor.

 

Mountaineers tackle high altitude mountaineering involving snow, ice, avalanches, crevasses, seracs, exhaustion, altitude sickness, etc. The enjoyment of mountaineering has been described as being like hitting your head against a brick wall – it’s great when you stop. Rock climbing is generally on smaller cliffs at lower altitude, it’s gymnastics on rock. Most mountaineers are rock climbers but not vice versa. Erik preferred traditional rock climbing. His enthusiasm for mountaineering diminished somewhat after he suffered cerebral oedema and was carried for two days semi-conscious down New Guinea’s highest mountain, 16,000 metre Carstensz Pyramid.

 

For day trips we ventured to the You Yangs, Werribee Gorge or Camels Hump (Hanging Rock). One day at Camels Hump, Eric happily recited extracts from a soiled copy of Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas; meanwhile I flailed away on some climb that was too difficult for me.

 

Over summer we spent time at Mt Buffalo, but the primary Australian destinations for weekends and holidays were the world-renowned rock-climbing areas in the Grampians and Mt Arapiles near Horsham. We knew every takeaway food joint on the Western Highway intimately. Erik threatened to pen an article for a national foodie magazine (‘Culinary Delights of the Western Highway’ – a Dutch accent makes ‘culinary’ sound like ‘coolinairy’). A favourite venue was the Red Roo Roadhouse (pre-modernisation) outside Beaufort. We considered ourselves regulars because the waitress gave us the truckies discount for coffee.

 

Erik and I were competent enough weekend climbers who shared a love for long traditional (trad) multi-pitch routes. Mt Rosea in the Grampians and the longer routes at Mt Arapiles were Erik’s preferred outings. I digress briefly to explain some process. A pitch is the length of a climb that can be conveniently protected by one rope length and can be up to almost 55 metres in length but as short as 15 or 20 metres, depending on the vertical topography. One climber, ‘the leader’, goes first, and that is the more strenuous and dangerous role. The leader advances up the rope and places protection as they go. Protection is either small portable ‘nuts’ or camming devices carried by the leader or, alternatively, fixed gear, normally bolts. Protection is attached to the rope via a carabiner and a short sling. Trad routes have little fixed protection, sports routes have all fixed protection. Once the leader finishes a pitch, they attach themselves to the cliff by numerous points, called a belay. They then take in the rope as the other climber, ‘the second’, climbs the rope and removes portable gear. On multi-pitch routes, for speed and efficiency, experienced pairs swap leads at the end of each pitch.

 

 


Trad gear:top – small wired nuts (mainly brass UPs);
middle – medium/larger nuts;
bottom – camping device No. 3 Camelot

 

We always camped. Erik cooked pasta loaded with as much chilli as possible, loved a beer or a red wine and a communal campfire. Mornings he could be a little slower. On still days around dawn the magpies, native minors, kookaburras, cockatoos and other birdlife could be raucous. From Erik’s tent, muffled groaning was followed by ‘F***** nature. I hate nature.’

 

 


Erik and one of this favourite things

 

Erik was skilled with tools and deft with a computer keyboard. When we first met, he worked at Bogong in Little Bourke Street, Victoria’s best climbing gear and outdoors equipment retailer. He then moved to The Mill in Collingwood (sadly now converted to apartments) where Erik was an original founder and primarily responsible for construction of the climbing walls and setting routes. In later years Erik was a co-director of Bambuco, an arts company which created temporary large-scale installations made from bamboo, primarily for international arts festivals. The company comprised mainly rock climbers and mixed theatre, performance and architecture with construction of the installations.

 

We did two fantastic extended climbing trips to Europe in 1995 and 1999.  Erik’s fluency in Dutch, French and German proved invaluable.  We shared the 1995 trip to climbing areas in France and Italy with Matt and Edwin. Erik labelled them ‘the Baguette brothers’ because they spent considerable time sampling the French boulangeries. Our vehicle of choice, a second-hand Dutch army van. In 1997 just Erik and I went to Italy. Both trips involved tons of climbing and plenty of refreshments in beautiful French cafes and charming Italian refugios. I kept diaries; Erik didn’t see the point. His view was why write so much? He said, ‘Just write….Got on airplane, got off airplane, sat in car, went climbing….to be continued.’

 

Erik loved an invented game. Often after trekking to the start of a climb with a pack that seemed somewhat heavy, I would unload climbing shoes, gear, ropes, food, water, rain jacket….and the large rock that Erik had slipped in. On one European trip we bought a 6 pack of Zawn beer. For weeks after we secretly exchanged the last bottle, hiding it in each other’s pack. Erik won; I still have the Zawn as I was unaware of a hidden side pocket in my pack. Camped one night at Bonnieux in France, Erik was particularly pleased with himself after purchasing five litres of drinkable red wine for 15 francs. After a few shared drinks, I went to my tent and attempted to sleep. Lights like searchlights played back and forth across the tent fabric. I thought they were car headlights but could hear Erik chuckling. I asked, ‘What’s going on?’ Erik’s reply ‘Colditz.’

 


Erik with the Zawn in his possession (temporarily)

 

Erik amused us with complex stories featuring both actual historical mountaineering figures (Austrian legend Herman Buhl who did the first ascent of Himalayan giants Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak and was killed in 1957 descending from Chogolisa with Kurt Diemberger, was a standout) and people we met on our trips (climbing guide, Wolfgang; his client Ulrich, the Swiss banker; Steve, an unfit British climber with lots of very shiny underutilised climbing gear).

 

The world heritage listed Dolomites in northern Italy are sensational. Soaring multi-hued limestone rock towers, some capped in snow, verdant valleys and beautiful villages like Canazei and Cortina d’Ampezzo. Rock climbing in the Dolomites is serious. There are long days on big routes of 15, 20, 25 pitches or more, lots of loose and falling rock (and the accompanying scary whooshing sound as they pass by) and unpredictable weather. People die here. Seeing the rescue helicopter hover near us one day with a corpse hanging down on a rope was gross, morbid and focussing. But the climbing is fantastic and we revelled in it. So many great memories here. Long routes on beautiful limestone with perfect holds. Standing high on a cliff after a storm and seeing a double rainbow below us. Another time spying a pair of chamois climbing nearby. Erik tying me off mid stunning pitch and insisting I stop, and it was his turn, because the rock was too good, and I was enjoying myself way too much. Erik climbing through three small waterfalls in a storm.

 

The Dolomites have these things called via ferrata, which translates as ‘iron way’. You wear a harness and clip via carabiners into a steel cable for the walk. Sometimes there are long ladders and often huge drops (‘exposure’, as climbers term it) below you. Fear of heights dissipates after time for experienced climbers. The rationale being, a bad fall from 15 metres is the same as from 500 metres, the results are the same. So the easy holds and great protection offered on a via ferrata make them a relaxed change of pace for climbers.

 

Erik and I decided to do a classic via ferrata on the Tofana Di Rozes. We checked out the map and it looked straightforward except for an uphill section of about 250 metres which had a symbol next to it that we couldn’t decipher.  We arrived at that section and found it was a tunnel and the cryptic symbol was a torch, which we didn’t have. We were forced to feel our way along in the pitch black. At one stage Erik took a photo to get light from the flash and I was standing ½ a metre away blindly looking straight at him. Later on, he whispered confidentially in a surprised tone ‘Mark, there’s a backpack here.’ ‘Yeah, its me.’

 


Eric in the Dolomites

 

Erik and I spent around seven years climbing together, covering thousands of pitches. During the 2000s we both moved thru our 40s and saw each other much less frequently. We drifted from climbing. Erik moved to Natimuk near Mt Arapiles for a while and was often overseas with Bambuco. I had gone back to cricket and golf. Children came along for us both. I was shattered to learn Erik had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour in 2012. He died about six weeks after he fell ill in Adelaide while working for Bambuco. Erik is buried at Yaugher Cemetery near Forrest. Fittingly his gravestone is a large block of Grampians sandstone.

 

I think of Erik often. When I pass Caufield Hospital, I scan the small pavilion in the grounds where we sat on my last visit to see him. I recall walking across the carpark thinking, ‘That’s the last time I will see Erik. My old friend is going to die.’

 

But, as is completely appropriate for Erik, my recollections are normally happy. I laugh at him justifying, for we weight conscious climbers, our second huge post-pasta gelati one night at Arco as ‘quality control’. I remember a 19 pitch route in the Dolomites where, alternating leads as usual, I seemingly got all the solid, safe pitches with good rock and Erik scored the horror shows with loose rock, unstable footholds, nowhere to place good protection and one unforgettable pitch that really stunk. It was subsequently translated from our Italian guidebook as the descriptively brilliant, ‘donkey’s ass pitch’. The other day one of his favourite songs, Mr. Jones by the Counting Crows played on my Spotify. I see Erik driving the old Dutch army van flat out down the Austrian autobahn, happily belting the song out as loud as he could possibly sing it.

 

‘Herman Buhl. Silver banners, ever-growing up into that dark vault.’ From Summits and Secrets by Kurt Diemberger.

 

Vale Erik

 


Erik in the Dolomites again

 

 

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Comments

  1. Andrew Fithall says

    Thanks for this Mark. I hadn’t realised how seriously you had been into rock climbing; a pastime which has never tempted me. You have paid a fine tribute to your departed mate.

    What’s your view of the inclusion of the speed climbing in the olympics. Genuine sport or a passing fad looked down on by serious climbers?

    Andrew

  2. Mark Poustie says

    Nugget thank you for your comments. So the Olympic progam has combined speed, bouldering and lead climbing disciplines into one event. From a general perspective they are all artificial compared to “real” outdoors climbing. But on reflection lots of sports have evolved over the years – hockey and socccer are played on artificial turf: bicycles now divide into track, road race,triathlon and time trial ( and BMX go Logan from Logan ! )
    But combining speed with the the other 2 climbing disciplines is strange – akin to asking a 1200 metre racehorse to compete in the Melbourne Cup.
    Personally Im not a big fan of speed, to me its a fast food version of climbing. Brutish and inelegant.

  3. Andrew Fithall says

    I sent a link to your article to an old friend of mine Meg Carrigan who is married to a former rock climber Kim Carrigan. I then looked up Kim’s Wikipedia entry. I hadn’t realised the impact he made, particularly around Mt Arapiles.

    Re olympics, lacrosse is aiming to be included at LA in 2028. It will be a very modified game to make it more TV and non-aficionado friendly.

    Re Olympic sports, lacrosse is trying to get into the LA olympics in 2028. It will be a very modified game to make it more TV and non-aficionado friendly.

  4. Ian Grummitt says

    What great memories shared.

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