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Chris Baxter: Climber, Publisher, Pioneer

Chris Baxter on a climbing trip to the back of Mount of Olives, Australia. Baxter was a prominent figure in Australian climbing, trekking and publishing. [Photo] Mike Law

Chris Baxter, adventurer and founder of Australia’s Rock and Wild magazines, died February 28 after a protracted fight against leukemia. He was 64 years old.

Baxter was a prolific explorer of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. A longstanding figure in the Australian climbing community, Baxter established roughly 1,200 first ascents. He was equally dedicated to trekking.

His fervor for the outdoors began as a child. Growing up in suburban Melbourne, Baxter and his three younger brothers spent their holidays at his mother’s childhood home in East Gippsland, a rural region of Victoria, Australia. He would roam the property, climbing its peaks. Baxter later called the area “absolute paradise.”

During his adolescent years at Geelong Grammar school, Baxter joined the Victorian Climbing Club. Under the tutelage of experienced adventures and climbers such as John Bechervaise and Reg Williams, he made the first ascent of Grampians’ Tower Hill and was taken up The Cathedral on Mt. Buffalo in Victoria. His third climb ever was the first ascent of the northeast corner of Federation Peak in Tasmania. Baxter led the final overhanging pitch, which served as a personal rite-of-passage into the climbing world. Soon after, Baxter found himself at the epicenter of Australia’s burgeoning climbing scene, in which a new generation was moving away from conventional mountaineering and pushing the limits of shorter, more difficult rock.

Eventually, Baxter did test himself in the alpine. After climbing for six years in Australia, he headed to Europe in 1971 to try his skill at mixed rock and ice routes in the Alps, including the North Face of the Dru. For the next two years, he traveled to climb, first in England, then in Yosemite Valley and farther north, in Squamish, British Columbia.

When Baxter returned to Melbourne in 1972 he found that many of his climbing partners and original members of the avant-garde rock-climbing scene had moved on. Disillusioned about working as a teacher, he began to work for his father. What was supposed to be a temporary job lasted seven years; but it was this experience that gave him the skills to run a small business.

Even at a young age, Baxter had interest in magazines and journalism, another passion cultivated by his parents. So, while employed in Melbourne, he also worked to become editor of the Victorian Climbing Club’s annual journal.

At the same time, climbing was witnessing a drastic change, with much more emphasis on free climbing. Baxter, never shy with words, found himself again in the middle, this time debating the ethical aspects of “clean climbing.” His fiery diatribes were seen by some as mere self-promotion, but for Baxter they were outlets to engage with two of his loves, writing and climbing.

In 1978, Baxter became the founding editor of Rock, which would become Australia’s most popular climbing magazine. In 1981, again as founding editor, Baxter published the first edition of Wild. Both publications, regarded as some of Australia’s finest, continue to this day. In fact, when Wild was acquired by Prime Creative Media in November 2009, the new owners decided to publish the magazine more frequently–six annual issues instead of four–due to reader demand.

Baxter attempting a new route in Marble Canyon, British Columbia, Canada in the early 1970s. [Photo] Rob Taylor

Because of Baxter’s lifelong passion to share the outdoors, he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2002 for “service to environmental journalism, through the promotion of wilderness activities and protection of the environment.”

In the early 1980s, around the same time he began publishing Wild, Baxter met his wife, Sue, at a dinner reception. Sue shared Baxter’s interests in the outdoors, and they traveled and trekked together extensively throughout Australia and New Zealand. In the 90s, they enjoyed several trips abroad to Turkey, Morocco and Ethiopia. Baxter wrote about all of these experiences in Wild.

In 1990, they also took on a foster child, Marie, who was waiting for home-placement. Marie spent three years with the couple and her eventual departure hit Baxter very hard. In time, they took on a second foster child, Alyse. On Baxter’s 60th birthday, both Alyse and Marie met for the first time. Baxter considered the girls “a wonderful, god-given opportunity… It showed me just how important relationships are, you only get one shot at them.”

In 2000, Baxter was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required invasive surgery. He recovered slowly only to fall ill again in 2004. This time he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; he then developed pneumocystis pneumonia. Consequently, he retired. Throughout these periods of illness, his passion to be outside never waned, and often he found it therapeutic.

“There was no doubting his passion for climbing, and he is almost certainly the most prolific first ascentionist in Australia,” said Ross Taylor, current editor of Rock and Wild. “In some areas there is barely a single crag without at least one Baxter route on it.”

Baxter was a man who lived within his limits, but did not mind pushing them. It was this ethos that allowed Baxter to live a long and enriched life, to effect great change within a sport and a culture that he cherished and to share his passion for the outdoors.

“For Chris, what counted is not the daring but the doing, the freedom to explore and the rewards of being there for the long haul,” Taylor said.

Baxter is survived by his wife, Sue, and his three brothers, Michael, Paul and Claude.

Sources: Ross Taylor, Quentin Chester, Peter Jackson, Wild and Rock Publications