Editor’s note: Roland Pauligk, 79, passed away in January 2017 following a battle with cancer.
R.P. The initials are iconic. For climbers they conjure up all kinds of memories: tiny brass wires sitting new on your rack, shiny and angular and coated in a light sheen of oil; contemplating a runout above the small comforts of a green #3 RP, its scratched, dull head buried deep in a crack. The memories comprise a strange mixture of pleasure, fear and relief.
RPs are the quintessential Australian-made gear, as true blue as gum trees. Yet ironically they are made by an immigrant blow-in, an escapee from communist East Germany, who fled his home country just before the Berlin Wall closed the final gap in the Iron Curtain.
The initials “RP” stand for Roland Pauligk (Pow´-lig). And while their angular perfection may fool you into thinking they are mass-produced in a factory, RPs are handmade, built to exacting standards in a tiny garden shed in Pauligk’s backyard in the seaside suburb of Mordialloc in Melbourne. For more than 30 years, hundreds of thousands of RPs have been shipped from that small shed to trad climbers all around the globe.
Wherever they went, RPs extended horizons, opening new possibilities as the best and boldest climbers put them to use protecting cutting-edge ascents. From death routes like Johnny Dawes’ Indian Face (E9 6c/5.13a X) in Wales in 1986; to Punks in the Gym (32/5.14a), in 1985 considered the hardest route in the world, by Wolfgang Gullich at Arapiles; to modern-day classics like James Pearson’s Walk of Life (E9 6c/5.13b/c R) in Devon in the U.K., RPs were there.
In the Shawangunks in the early 1980s, RPs eased some existing horror shows and opened new faces to area protagonists including Hugh Herr, Russ Raffa, Lynn Hill, Mike Freeman and Russ Clune. “Before RPs we had Stoppers and Friends,” says Clune, “but the problem was dealing with the small incipient cracks in the quartz conglomerate. The smallest Stopper, a straight-sided #1 Chouinard, wouldn’t usually fit. Suddenly we were finding we could get #3 and #4 RPs in lots of places.
“We were able to venture into otherwise overly intimidating ground, and did a stack of new routes … RPs had a huge impact on the area, helping to raise the standard of the day.”
RPs are still used widely in American trad climbing, from the Gunks to Moore’s Wall, North Carolina, and Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. They are so popular the initials are widely used as a generic term for small gear. Today it’s hard to comprehend the impact of RPs, given the incredible wealth of climbing gear available, but back in the late 1960s the options for protecting routes were far more limited.
In 1969 Pauligk produced his first RPs, made from cast aluminium melted down from scrap and ranging right up to size 11 or 12. Mike Law of Sydney remembers them fondly: “I borrowed one massive RP, maybe it was a size 9, you could have killed a black dog with it. The wire was as thick as your finger and quite rigid, and the actual nut on the end probably weighed half a kilogram. It was quite a lethal implement.”
Shortly after making aluminium RPs, Pauligk began experimenting with smaller sizes made out of brass. Initially he drilled the wedges and ran the wire through the top, as per most regular nuts today, but the tight radius of the wire over the top of the very small nut head meant it broke too easily. The second generation of RPs similarly had the wire running over the top but were also soldered. However, this setup was still too weak and it wasn’t until the third generation that Pauligk struck gold. This time he stuck the wires into the head and soldered them using silver. Liberated from the weakness created by swaging on the cable, Pauligk was able to manufacture a very small, strong wire, and a new generation of climbers could tackle routes previously deemed unprotectable.
By the mid- to late-1970s, RPs were starting to gain a reputation, particularly after the first aid ascents sans pitons of big granite aid climbs at Mount Buffalo in northwest Victoria, routes like Ozymandias (5.13a/A3) and Lord Gumtree (5.13a/A3), which climbers said they couldn’t have done without RPs. In 1978 Pauligk gave up his job as a welder and boilermaker and went on a big trip overseas, to Yosemite and elsewhere, almost entirely financed by selling RPs along the way.
Glenn Tempest, a leading Australian climber of the era, recalls: “We were putting up routes at Arapiles that we didn’t know were fairly hard routes in those days, [or] not as hard as they probably were on a world scale—and part of that was because of RPs. After about the late 1970s we began to realize what we actually had and everyone was really proud of RPs.”
Law says RPs also gave Australian climbers a big advantage when they traveled. “I went overseas in 1981 and repeatedly the locals would sandbag me onto various climbs. And I would turn up later and they would say, ‘How was it?’ And I would say, ‘I fell off it a few times.’ And there would be an incredulous gasp and they would say, ‘You fell off! How was it?’ And I would say, ‘Good, good, the gear’s really good.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I would show them these little brass nuts and they would fume and stomp around in a hissy fit.”
Chris Peisker, prominent Australian climber in the late 1970s and early 1980s, became Pauligk’s de facto U.S. distributor.
“I took some RPs to the States on my first trip, in 1975,” he recalls. “I found that there were certain climbs in Eldorado Canyon that were supposedly unprotected, but I managed to get in the odd RP here or there, making a huge difference. A few of my mates asked if I would bring back a set for them the following year. Then about three or four months before my departure the following year I had this idea that I should just ask Roland to make up a hundred sets or so and I would take them back and sell them. At the time I was really worried because I didn’t have much money and it was a big investment for me. I thought I might be stuck with them for four or five months. But within a week of my arriving in Boulder they were all gone and I had a list of people wanting another 300 sets.”
For Pauligk, demand exceeded supplies. Being a perfectionist he didn’t trust anyone else to do the silver soldering, and so production was limited.
NOW 72, PAULIGK IS partly retired, but he still churns out small numbers of RPs. When a photographer and I visit his modest brick house in the suburbs, some four hours drive from Arapiles, Pauligk is a little reserved at first, unused to being the center of attention. It has been many years since I’ve seen Roland, but he looks younger than his age, his body still strong and his baritone voice—laced with a heavy German accent—unchanged. He warms up as we talk about RPs and climbing, his big hands gesticulating as he retells stories. In conversation he is extremely self-effacing, talking down his achievements, and responding thoughtfully to questions, chuckling at old memories. He shows us his garden, with a thriving vegetable patch and fruit trees; like a lot of first-generation immigrants Pauligk has always lived simply, producing a lot of his own food. In his shed at the bottom of the garden he demonstrates part of the soldering process, his hands still steady as he holds the bright flame and the solder.
Pauligk had no easy path to Australia. Born in 1938 in the town of Gross-Bademeusel on the Neisse River, only 700 feet from Germany’s border with Poland, he lived in one of the most bitterly contested fronts of World War II. His father was killed fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front in 1944, leaving Roland’s mother to raise her four children alone. For a six-week period in 1945 Gross-Bademeusel was the front line and the family was evacuated. They moved in stages, at times within earshot of artillery fire.
After the Russians came, he says, “It was pretty tough. At first it was chaos, you know. The Russians, they were pretty … They were all right, but they got drunk and then they started shooting around everywhere.
“My mother cooked for them. In the beginning we couldn’t sleep in our house. They broke into the place every night—they were after the women.” The family gained protection when some Russian officers boarded with them. “Once the officers moved in, no one came in any more. They pinched stuff from neighbors, potatoes and stuff, and cooked for us. They were good with children, you know. I still remember they gave us mashed potatoes and sugar water.”
Monarch (5.11+) at Mount Buffalo, Victoria. Photo: Pauligk Collection.” title=”Pauligk with a cockatoo on his shoulder on the fearsome offwidth Monarch (5.11+) at Mount Buffalo, Victoria. Photo: Pauligk Collection.”>I ask him about his escape at age 22 from East Germany. “Well, escape sounds a bit drastic. I had to leave illegally because you couldn’t leave, but it was still open. It was a year before they built the wall,” which went up in latter 1961. Compared to that of others, Pauligk’s escape was relatively prosaic: “I went early in the morning and I pretended to go to work. I hopped in the train and we all put our identification cards up in the air and they couldn’t check everyone because it was chock-a-block. I just stayed on the train.
“West Berlin was like an island in East Germany and they flew us out.”
For two years Pauligk lived and worked in Bavaria, before finding an advertisement calling for immigrants to Australia. “I’d always wanted to work overseas, but in East Germany they only ever sent the top brass.” He emigrated in 1963.
From 1966 up until the mid-1970s and the arrival of the next wave—including climbers like Law and Tempest—Pauligk was one of Australia’s best climbers. Says Tempest, who now runs a successful guidebook business, “He was probably one of the top very small group of hardmen, these really strong, solid guys who don’t actually say that much but just do these amazing things. Things like Monarch at Buffalo.”
Of Monarch (5.11+), Pauligk says only, “I think they had done harder climbs, but it was just this ugly thing, an offwidth, you know. You had to jam with your elbows, more or less, you put your whole arm in and then pulled it back and hopefully it stuck. People were putting on three or four jumpers”—woolen sweaters—“just to fill the crack.”
Pauligk started climbing in 1966 on a Victorian Climbing Club beginners’ trip. One of his first climbs was his first ascent of Narcotic (5.10a) at Bundaleer, today described in Grampians Selected Climbs: “After the leading climbers of the day had finished flailing, Roland Pauligk (on only his fourth day climbing) apologized for intruding, tied into the rope, and immediately thrashed his way to glory.”
Narcotic, even though Pauligk did it with one point of aid, is a long, sandy, trying lead that is still runout even on a modern rack.
Cracks would always be Pauligk’s strength: “If there is a jam or a jug I will always use the jam. I stick my hand in and it stays.”
As a youth Roland did two years of gymnastics, to which he attributes some of his strength. When I ask if he was any good, he says, “No, that is probably why I stopped. My father was very good. In my village they always said, ‘You’re not as good as your father!”
Pauligk probably also had a head start in other ways. “I did tree climbing in Germany; I started because I joined a few people putting rings on birds. When I got here in 1963 I just went [into the] bush by myself for a while, sometimes I slept in a hammock in the trees. I climbed up trees just to have a look.”
Trying to get information from Pauligk about all the routes he has done is difficult. He struggles to remember route names and is modest about what he has achieved. Still, when I ask what his hardest route was, he answers instantly: “Kama Sutra. I did the fifth free ascent.” Even today, despite its relatively modest grade, Kama Sutra (5.11++), a wide crack testpiece put up by the visiting American Henry Barber, regularly spits off modern climbers, and Pauligk had no cams when he climbed it.
Pauligk was distinctive at the crag for reasons apart from his climbing talent. For many years Pauligk had pet cockatoos with him wherever he went. Glenn Tempest recalls with wonder the cockatoos “swinging around his head and then landing on him and picking at his gear. …[At] Araps they would fly around the crag and then just come back in the evening.”
Chris Peisker remembers them less fondly, as “diabolical.”
“The birds would fly around and land on Pauligk’s shoulder while he was climbing,” he says. “They wouldn’t necessarily land on another climber, but they would land on their leading ropes and they were quite skilled at unclipping ropes from carabiners. They could actually hold the gate open with one claw and take the rope out with the other claw. They did that a couple of times.
“Another time I was belaying Roland in the Wolgan Valley in the Blue Mountains and these birds were on this ledge about 20 meters above me and they were picking up rocks in one claw and then they would hop along the ledge until they were above—very deliberate—and then drop them off, trying to hit me.”
These days Pauligk still visits his bush block (a plot of land) in the Grampians with his son Ryan. They tend to their fruit trees and climb together. Like his father, Ryan is a natural climber. Cragging, says Pauligk, is one of the reasons he has stayed in Australia.
“I liked the bush straight away, the landscape. Climbing occupied everything, from planning for the next week to making gear.” At the end of the interview he shows us his rack, his fingers flicking through an antique collection of gear, his eyes brightening with enthusiasm as we talk about old climbs.
My father climbed with Pauligk several times, and as a kid with my family, I used to visit Pauligk in the Grampians, and would sit around a fire while the adults told stories. Many nights I fell asleep on my mum’s lap to the rich bass of Roland’s voice, his German-accented English rounding off the Rs, his tales like carefully polished gems. When I began climbing at 13, Roland gave me my first set of RPs. They held pride of place on my small rack, their brass heads gleaming with promise. I still have most of them today, their heads now scratched and dull, crusted with dirt and blood, but alive with stories, full to the brim with those desperate moments when life is compressed to a single purpose—placing that next piece of gear. Perhaps this is Pauligk’s greatest gift to climbers, these little scraps of steel and brass, each one a promise, a path to transcendence of life’s ordinary way.
Ross Taylor is the editor of Wild, Australia’s oldest hiking publication, and Rock, its only climbing magazine.
This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 192 (March 2011).