Climbing Uluru

From the air Uluru reveals many of its peaks, ridges, valleys and ravines. This is not layered rock; it's one massive monolithic rock that has been weathered and eroded for hundreds of thousands of years. Nine-tenths of Uluru lies underground.

From the air Uluru reveals many of its peaks, ridges, valleys and ravines. This is not layered rock; it's one massive monolithic rock that has been weathered and eroded for hundreds of thousands of years. Nine-tenths of Uluru lies underground.

The heart of Australia is a stone. It's a rock that dominates the middle of the Red Centre of Australia, almost in the geographical center of this great continent. Its name is Uluru.

Like any heart, Uluru is often crimson red. But its colors change constantly as the sun goes across it. At sunrise, it will metamorphose from deep purple to yellow, pink and orange and gradually assume its daytime blood-red color. In the sunset, its colors change again to crimson and deep blue to purple and black.

The startling fact about Uluru is that while its summit is a hefty 1,183 feet above the desert floor, its massive monolithic bulk extends more than 8,202 feet underground. In other words, what is visible is just the tip of the... well, rock. This makes Uluru the largest rock in the world. Seeing it for the first time as you drive through the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a breathless moment, like glimpsing the Eiffel Tower on the bus ride from Charles de Gaulle, or catching sight of the Golden Gate Bridge as your plane throttles down to land at San Francisco International. These national icons may not be physically towering in their surroundings, but they do capture your attention.

I hadn't come to Uluru to climb it. In fact, we were on a cross-continental train ride on the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth, which took two days and one night, when we decided to make a side trip to Australia's Red Centre.

But when I stood at the base of the mountain, I felt a sudden impulse to join other tourists, local and foreign, who were just starting their upward trek to the summit. So I pulled myself up by the link chain that park authorities had bolted onto the sandstone rock.

It was easy at first. The slope is gradual and there's plenty of flat gravelly spaces to plant your feet. But as the ascent becomes higher, the gradient increases, and I found I really had to pull myself up by the chain in order to make progress.

A mile-long line of climbers makes its way to the thousand-foot summit. The Anangu generic word for tourists is “minga,” which means ants. The steel chain which helps trekkers is bolted to the sedimentary surface of the rock, but dozens of climbers have been killed falling off or died by heart attacks.  (Photo by Reuters)

A mile-long line of climbers makes its way to the thousand-foot summit. The Anangu generic word for tourists is “minga,” which means ants. The steel chain which helps trekkers is bolted to the sedimentary surface of the rock, but dozens of climbers have been killed falling off or died by heart attacks.  (Photo by Reuters)

Climbing mountains is often described as a test of strength, a contest of man against mountain. Halfway up, there was no question of who was winning. I had to sit and rest a while; my creaky knees were ready to buckle. Finding a small ledge that was reasonably level, I sat heavily down with my feet braced against the slope. My pit stop gave me a chance to view the desert outback. The landscape was mostly barren with minimal vegetation, a few trees and clumps of mulga and spinifex shrub. It's difficult to understand how the Anangu Aboriginals could survive here for any length of time, but archeological evidence proved that these tribes have existed here for at least 30,000 years. About 20 miles in the distance, I could see the Olgas, a sandstone formation of around 30 domes, eroded and rounded by eons of wind and sand. These rocks give the name 'Kata Tjuta,' which means many heads, to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

Sitting with both legs braced against a steep downslope doesn't give much of a rest, so I picked myself up and pushed on for another half-hour. Reaching Uluru's summit can be a rarified experience. Standing atop the world's largest rock is a great photo opportunity and time for selfies. Or it can be a disappointment. Many find the view from the top disappointing because for miles around there's nothing of much interest. After all, you're standing on the only point of interest for miles around.

But Uluru has a mean streak. It has so far claimed 36 lives -- climbers who had fallen off the mountain, and quite a few who suffered fatal heart attacks during or right after the climb. The number of people who had gone away and later died of heart seizures is unknown. As for injuries, the number is also unknown. As recently as June 2015, a tourist from Taiwan fell into one of Uluru's ravines, broke his leg and suffered facial injuries. Fortunately, his companions found him, but it was too late in the day to organize a helicopter. He had to spend the night on the mountain, wrapped in blankets thrown down to him. In the morning he was winched to safety and flown to a hospital.

Be forewarned. Climbing Uluru is not just treacherous, it's also controversial. Signs posted around the site request visitors not to climb because the mountain is considered sacred to the Anangu Aboriginal people. However, when the Australian Government reverted ownership of the park to the Anangu years ago, their elders agreed to allow climbing anyway.

Thunderstorms over Uluru create dozens of sparkling waterfalls. If there's just a small chance of a storm approaching Kata Tjuta Park, the mountain is closed. Being the most prominent feature of the desert landscape, Uluru receives many lightning strikes during storms.

Thunderstorms over Uluru create dozens of sparkling waterfalls. If there's just a small chance of a storm approaching Kata Tjuta Park, the mountain is closed. Being the most prominent feature of the desert landscape, Uluru receives many lightning strikes during storms.

There's no law against climbing the prehistoric mountain. The issue of whether to climb or not is left to the visitor. Of the 270,000 tourists who come annually to Uluru-Kata Tjuta, nearly one in five will make the ascent. The rest are just happy to be immersed in the cultural experience of guided walks around the base, visiting local Anangu museums, viewing Aboriginal dot paintings, and of course the thrill of watching the panorama of Uluru's ever changing colors. (There's a free app "Visit Uluru" that can be downloaded to iPhones and Androids, which gives visitors guided tours. When a mobile signal is not readily available, having this kind of information in your pocket is essential when you go on your walkabout.)



Why do mountains hold such an often fatal attraction? The psychological reason for why people climb mountains is a riddle in an enigma. For many it's not the summit but the journey. If you ask why, they'll reply, "If you need to ask, you'll never understand." But the classic answer by this cachet of mountaineers is simply, "Because it's there. "

The man who famously said that was George Mallory. Unfortunately, he was killed the following year on his third attempt to reach Mount Everest's summit. Mallory is gone, but Everest is still there.

Sir Edmund Hillary, another famous climber, gives us more insight. "It's not the mountains we conquer," he said, "but ourselves." None of these quotes prompted me to join the dozens of men risking their lives and limbs to clamber up Uluru's face that day. I had never climbed a mountain before and never will again afterwards. As Sir Hillary explains, "Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it."


Larry Ng

Larry Ng

Larry Ng was Radio TV Director for Grant Advertising International when he was invited to join ABS CBN Sales, after which he migrated to Australia just prior to the imposition of martial law. Following the downfall of Marcos, Geny Lopez Jr. asked him to return to ABS-CBN as Director for TV News and Current Affairs, a position he held for five years before retiring.


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