Letter from the Minister – Facts and Fictions

Climbers this week have finally begun to receive replies to letters sent to the Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio MP. Once again, climbers are red-hot targets of a statistical smear campaign.

Unfortunately it appears these letters have been forwarded back down the chain to Parks Victoria and the replies have mostly matched similar form letters received by climbers from that government department. At least in these recent examples the replies actually came from a real person (Parks Victoria’s Sally Lewis – Regional Director Western Victoria) not a generic email address. The full letter is at the end of this page.

One thing stood out however – and it again rings alarms bells on what high level bureaucrats are being told by Parks Victoria as the reasons for implementing such a harsh ban against climbers.

“Recently, Parks Victoria has become aware of potential impacts from climbing activity on the park’s environmental and cultural values. The number of climbing sites has risen from approximately 2,000 sites in 2003 to an estimated 8,000 sites in 2018. Visitation has also increased from approximately 8,000 people in 2003 to 80,000 people in 2018.

This has prompted the implementation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) outlined in the Grampians Management Plan (2003). Under the existing plan, rock climbing in SPAs is a prohibited activity. “

It’s hard to even know where to start with such baseless “facts” that bare no resemblance to reality. There has not been 6,000 new “sites” added to the Grampians since 2003. There wouldn’t even be 30 new areas. There are only 8,000 individual routes/problems in the entire Grampians, so they have immediately made the misrepresentation that an individual route is a “site” – which to the uniformed sounds like a substantial area of land. A single 4m high boulder might have 10 problems on it – each is not a “site”! But it gets worse.

It is clear that their growth “research” has involved looking at the online rock-climbing guidebook thecrag.com and misinterpreting that data. This site has existed since 1999, but the information it contains has always relied on informal crowd-sourcing and is thus very incomplete. Before the invention of the internet the only way climbers recorded new crags and new routes was in print publications like magazines (Rock), club newsletters (Argus) or in the occasional printed guidebook. There have been at least 20 such print guidebooks published on Grampians climbing – the first dating back to the late 1960s.

A selection of Grampians climbing guidebooks from the 60s to today

It has taken decades of hard work by many climbers to enter all these old routes from historical magazines, newsletters and guidebooks into thecrag.com database. And it still isn’t complete by any stretch of the imagination. Every year more and more obscure (and mostly trad) routes are unearthed from the archives and brought into the digital age. How is this a problem? Guess what – Parks Victoria has mistaken when a route was entered into the database for when it was first climbed. Approximately 6,000 routes (not crags) have been entered into the database since 2003, but the vast majority of these routes were first climbed decades earlier. They are not new routes or new crags. There is no acceleration of new climbing developments. Talking to people who actually do first ascents, most will say that there has actually been a substantial downturn in the last decade – with most of the best areas having been discovered by the previous generation. Bouldering is obviously something that has seen growth – but it came from a very low starting point to begin with (the first proper guidebook only came out in 2009).

The vast majority of climbers use areas and climbs that are already well established and are not creating new routes or exploring for new areas. Most popular climbing areas are decades old with climbing history dating back to – Summerday Valley (early 70s), Stapylton (late 60s), Hollow Mountains (80s), The Gallery (early 90s), Bundaleer & Rosea (early 60s), Mt Fox (70s), Red Rocks (late 80s). These are stagnant areas that have not seen a huge increase in new routes since 2003. Climbing media promotes heavily the glory of “new routes” but this skews the reality of the average climber who is usually content repeating old routes at established crags.

Interpreting the data correctly from thecrag.com there have been approximately 800 new roped routes and 1,000 boulder problems established since 2003. Those new routes include linkups and variants. That’s less than a third of Parks Victoria’s claim of 6,000. On thecrag.com there are 2,993 routes/problems listed in 2003 and 8403 in 2018. That aligns almost perfectly with Parks Victoria’s “facts” about the growth of new sites. Pity it is total bullshit.Now to the even bigger elephant in the room – the statistics about the growth of climbers in the Grampians. This has been repeated again and again in press releases and emails from Parks Victoria as the main reason to enforce the SPA climbing bans over 30% of the Grampians. They state that there was 8,000 climbers in 2003 and this has multiplied ten fold to 80,000 climbers in 2018. How they got these figures I have no idea but some fairly basic maths will make you question them immediately. Divide 80,000 by 365 days and you get 220 people climbing in the Grampians every single day – rain/hail/ice/heatwave. It’s simply not true and obvious to anyone who climbs there. It’s worth noting that the Grampians receives about one million tourist visits a year and this has certainly increased – and Parks Victoria proudly states this is a good thing.

The Grampians is famous for being practically deserted for rock-climbing – especially compared to crags like the Blue Mountains or Arapiles. Even the “best cliff in the universe” Taipan Wall will only have numbers in the single digits on a really good weekend, and be abandoned over the winter months. You can almost guarantee to have any crag you choose to yourself, especially if you are climbing in the Victoria Range or around Halls Gap, Mt Difficult or Mt William regions. There might be 100+ people climbing in the Grampians on a busy Easter Long Weekend, but for most of the year it is a fraction of that.

Again getting hard facts is almost impossible – the Grampians has no single entrance or carpark and most climbing is done well outside the public view. It would be impossible to count the climbers on a single day. Any stats from thecrag.com would be useless as the numbers of people “ticking” routes on that site is tiny. Anecdotally climber numbers would have increased due to basic population growth (there are 6 million more Aussies now than in 2003), better roads and a regional tourism push. But there is no way there has been a ten fold increase in 15 years. If that was the case Taipan would be seeing 100 climbers on the cliff every day. That is laughable.

One way to get some idea on the reality of current numbers is the yearly sales of the print guidebook Grampians Climbing. This is the bible for climbers in the region, the equivalent of the Lonley Planet travel guides. Almost anyone who climbs in the Grampians has to buy this guidebook to be able to know where the climbs go, equipment required to climb safely and the name and grades of each route. Sales of that guidebook are around 500 a year and this has not changed year by year since it was first published in 2013. That nowhere near equates to 80,000 people as claimed by Parks Victoria and certainly doesn’t show heavy growth in recent years.

Grampians guidebook sales over the last 6 years show no ten fold growth in climbers

The current guidebook to the Grampians bouldering also only seels 600 copies a year. So with both disciplines of climbing selling just over a thousand guides a year seems oddly contradictory to the inflated claims made by parks Vic.

Flipping the table, if there is indeed 80,000 climbers a year, as claimed, would Parks Victoria not then have to actually look after these climbers as a major user group? That’s a huge number of people. I would expect to see future funding of hiking tracks to crags, dedicated climbers campsites, funded rebolting and climbing specific rangers on duty etc. But we don’t see that at all. We get a few token signs telling us to stay away and that’s about it.

So yet again we have fiction paraded as facts out in the public sphere. Smearing climbers in the worst way possible seems to be the modus operandi from whoever writes these letters and press releases. How are we to have a fair hearing in any future negotiations if this is the sort of information given to people making the big decisions?

As climbers we can’t shy away from the environmental effects we cause – it can be plainly seen. But we do need a rational discussion about numbers and growth and it should be framed in the big picture of the rest of the Grampians National Park’s “development”. New roads, lookouts, tracks, signs, toilets, carparks and general increase in tourists all put weight onto the park. Do climbers make a particularly large impact? I’d argue we don’t in the grand scheme of things. I once calculated that the entire rock disturbed by installing safety anchors in the Grampians, across all routes, equaled one square meter. Think about that next time you see them bulldozing a larger carpark for the next round of bused in tourists…

Please share this post wide and far so hopefully the real facts get out there. Make sure you also read Simon Madden’s brilliant column over at Vertical Life that touches on the same themes.

Letter from Parks Victoria’s Sally Lewis – Regional Director Western Victoria below:

6 thoughts on “Letter from the Minister – Facts and Fictions”

  1. maybe there have been 80,000 single route accents in that time? So odd to see how they can get to 80,000 climbers, that’s an immense number of active climbers to have.


  2. Well seeing as we 80000, we are now a much bigger stick to wield. Enough to vote out any incumbent……


    1. Well, probably not… considering even that is still a very small fraction of voters. Besides, numbers of climbers that large would definitely have a far greater impact than we currently see, so I think most of us would prefer the smaller numbers, no?


    1. Thanks – yes, that shows exactly how many people were climbing each day of the year… Weekends: 7-12 people approx. Most weekdays, it’s only 2-3 people ticking at most. Obviously not everyone’s ticking their ascents on the Crag; but that’s 40 people a WEEK or something like that.


  3. It’s always great to see the passion in the community! Love climbing in the gramps.

    I think you provide good evidence for the number of climbers/year being well below 80,000, however it’s also evidently been slowly increasing from whatever level it was in 2003, and Parks Vic is becoming concerned (albeit over reacting somewhat). I’m hopeful our community will get more organised as a result of this challenge, and we’ll start to take a heavier interest in our impact on the environment.

    See you on the rocks!


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