Many climbers have asked just how legal these climbing “bans” in the Grampians are. It’s an interesting question and worth exploring in detail. Much of the vagueness in Parks Victoria’s press releases and public statements reveal just how grey it really is – and we are sure they know it.
First let’s look at key parts of the current 2003 Grampians National Park Plan of Management and how it applies to rock climbing. For starters – they acknowledge the existence and acceptance of rock climbing in the Grampians National Park – which is a good thing. You may be surprised just how many major climbing areas in Australia where this isn’t the case – Nowra is one example where climbing is not mentioned at all in Shoalhaven Council’s plan of management for the area. But that’s another story for another day.
PV are giving priority to planning and managing rock climbing. Amazingly they put climbing above bush walking and picnicking on on the list. So they clearly understood 16 years ago that climbing was a major activity and required management. Now let’s look at where PV says climbing is allowed in the Grampians. This involves studying the zones and overlays – and various charts in the Plan of Management.
Zoning & Overlays
The design of this document is a bit hard to read – but this shows the definitions of the three separate overlays, Special Protection Area, Special Management Area and the third Remote and Natural Area. This is where things seems to go ass up. SPA areas are defined as “Discrete significant areas requiring special attention” with a management plan to “protect specific natural or cultural values in a specific areas and sites where a special management focus is required“. It’s clear in that wording that this SPA overlay is designed to protect small sites (say a specific cave or creek) where PV would have to manage it intensively. It is not designed to encompass large areas such as the entire of the Northern Victoria Range or Mt Difficult where PV wasn’t even walking into most of the areas (so didn’t notice rock climbing – allegedly). The chart below states that SPA areas are “less than 1% of the park”. It also says that the recreational activity of rock climbing is “not appropriate” – no mention of illegal or prohibited. But either way, if it was only 1% of the park and defined to “discrete specific areas” then it makes sense for climbers to avoid them. An example would be an Aboriginal art site – avoiding climbing there makes complete sense to anyone.
The other overlay, Remote and Natural Area, is important and seemingly unmentioned in recent information by PV. This covers 19% of the park according to the chart below includes the Victoria Range (Gallery etc), Serra Range (Dreamtime) and Major Mitchell Plateau. The management aim for these areas is to “Protect the area’s remote and natural attributes; prevent new and incremental developments, including the construction and upgrading of vehicular tracks and construction of new structures. “. These are areas put aside where things like tourist infrastructure (huts, picnic tables, carparks, new roads etc) are not appropriate and where the area is reasonably intact from past human development. Many people forget that the Grampians was heavily logged, dammed, quarried and had livestock roaming free until the mid 1980s when it became a National Park. What is important for climbers is that the recreational activity of “rockclimbing” in Remote and Natural Areas is “Permitted except where specifically constrained by overlay as indicated in the table“
Now this is where it gets messy. These overlays on top of other overlays could include Special Protection Areas – where climbing is considered “not appropriate”.
Show me the maps!
So the important bit of information we now need to know is where exactly these two overlays are in the Grampians – the Remote and Natural Areas, and the Special Protection Areas. The chart says that SPA overlays are only 1% of the Grampians National Park – but hang on! Haven’t Parks Victoria been saying SPA’s cover 33% of the Grampians (and thus half of the climbing)? What’s going on here? Lets take a look at the Appendix in the Plan of Management that defines these overlay areas…
Not terribly useful information there. Seems like a list of smaller areas – but no hints on their size or specific location. Bundaleer and Asses Ears are on that list. That’s a surprise considering they are listed as open areas according to PV’s latest information. Our next clue on the location of these SPA overlays is this map.
It’s about as clear as mud – but if you squint, wear 3D Googles and blow it up to A1 size you can make out substantial areas marked in the cross hatched design showing “Special Protection Areas”. Clearly they are much larger than 1% – but they are smaller than the Remote and Natural Areas overlay (which is 19% of the park according to the chart above). What’s going on here? This map is all we have to go on from this 2003 Plan of Management – and it’s this that has been wielded like a weapon against climbers this year.
SPA a horrible mistake?
Is this all just a horrible mistake? Surely the large Special Protection Areas shown on that vague map are wrong. They are hardly “discrete significant areas requiring special attention“. They are 500 square kilometres of bushland that are rarely visited by anyone in Parks Victoria. Who drew this map? Are there better maps from 2003 showing these areas? Is there better information about the 28 areas listed in the appendix above (that includes Bundaleer)? And what about the Remote and Natural Areas overlays? No one in PV is talking about those anymore – probably because the say rockclimbing is ok in the Plan of Management.
It’s entirely unhelpful to have a system of protection zoning that lumps the same level of protection on a single important Aboriginal art site – with an area the size of the Northern Victoria Range. It makes a mockery of the purposes of an SPA. Somewhere like the Northern Victoria Range SPA area is un-fenced along its western border – and had sheep wandering around Red Rock Pinnacles from the private property adjoining it. Hardly being specially protected is it?
It appears these areas are so badly defined and unofficial that Parks Victoria has yet to release GPS coordinates of the areas and detailed maps – despite this exact information being promised by Simon Talbot in media interviews back in February this year. It’s gotten so silly that PV have been trying to get thecrag.com to help with mapping, but asking for a secret Non Disclosure Agreement to be signed between them before they start work. We know from FOI request that VCC and PV have also been working on defining these SPA areas. We have to ask – why are climbers actively helping PV define something that was probably never well defined in the first place? If a mistake was made way back in 2003 – surely that is PV’s burden to wear – not ours. PV can publish it’s own new maps – but we would be very interested to know where this information is coming from. They have also mentioned this year that they have added new SPAs since the last management plan – which again seems dubious to enforce.
To finish this section off lets look at some comedy gold – the total conflicted statements in the Plan of Management regarding Summer Day Valley. Remember this is slap bang in an SPA and so called “banned”.
“There are only a few sites in the park suitable for instructional use, so these sites are heavily used, particularly Summerday Valley in the Hollow Mountain area.”
“A walking track has been provided to the main climbs in Summerday Valley, and soil stabilisation has been carried out, with the assistance of volunteers “
“Management strategies – In conjunction with the rock climbing community, consider, and as appropriate further stabilise access to the base of climbs at Summerday Valley”
It almost like they wanted people to climb at Summer Day Valley isn’t it?
Now lets move on to another key part of this legal conundrum. The actual definition of rock climbing. What activity exactly are PV trying to stop in the National Park? And how does it differ from what the standard tourist is doing? Bushwalkers better watch out – the same laws being applied to ban climbing can be used to ban bushwalking.
Despite modern climbing existing in the Grampians for over a 100 years, PV still shows little understanding of how climbing actually operates. From the simple wording in documents, to a lack of distinction between establishing new routes and casual repeat climbers, it is clear PV have chosen to willfully ignore actually asking climbers about any of this and forged ahead with pursuing the world’s biggest climbing bans. Even basic things such as referring to bouldering pads as “drop mats” shows a complete ignorance of climbing terminology. If they had run the wording by any climbers, even a total beginner, these would have been corrected and not been the subject of ridicule. It’s a simple thing, but something that highlights the isolationist approach in announcing these bans. Imagine they banned surfing and referred to surf boards as “standy up flotation devices” – funny stuff.
When you think long and hard about it – how do you actually define rock climbing as separate from allowed activities such as bushwalking?
Using ropes? Well obviously that would leave all bouldering and free soloing as ok. Probably don’t want to encourage free soloing! OK let’s ban bouldering matts as well! Aren’t they just mattresses? So now you want people to break their ankles and get a bad nights sleep. Any sort of equipment ban is fraught with problems.
Historically land managers have shied away from allowing rock climbing due to the perceived danger of the activity. This stems from the era when climbing equipment was poor quality and the style of climbing (bold trad) was common. Anyone who climbs now understands it’s a very different sport. Equipment (including safety bolts) are massively over engineered, training is high thanks to a professional climbing education industry and kids and families climbing together are common. There has been one death due to climbing in the Grampians (in Summer Day Valley) and serious injuries are not common. The casual bush walker is in as much danger as most rock climbers are. Especially those that sit on the Balconies above Halls Gap! So you can’t define rock climbing as being a dangerous activity separate from bush walking.
Bush walkers also use ropes to assist in dangerous scramble sections – such as the summit walk from Hollow Mountain to Stapylton and the scramble up to the Fortress. Bush walking guidebook author Glenn Tempest was so worried about bush walkers being caught up in these climbing “bans” that he emailed Parks Victoria to get some clarity. Their answer is kind of laughable.
“While Parks Victoria prohibits rock climbing within Special Protection Areas (SPA’s) there is no prohibition on the use of safety ropes to assist with the activity of bushwalking either inside or outside of SPA’s. Safety ropes are permitted if necessary for safety while bush walking and National Parks regulations are complied with (i.e. no damage to rock or use of bolts, no trampling or damaging of vegetation).”
Read PV’s full email response on Glenn’s blog here. It’s certainly no clearer. We have another definition of rock climbing from PV courtesy of James Macintosh. He emailed them back in April asking “Please also advise where the distinction lies between legal bushwalking on a rocky slope and illegal rock climbing.” Their reply is another priceless moment:
“Rock climbing is the sport or activity of climbing rock faces, especially with the aid of ropes and special equipment. Rock climbing activity also includes abseiling and bouldering, the latter which is climbing across or up rock faces without use of ropes and often with drop mats to minimise the impact of landing should the person fall. The average person would be able to use common sense to differentiate rock climbing activity with bushwalking up rocky slopes.”
This reminds us of the classic quote “common sense is not common”. When people choose to use ropes or pads is actually based more on their own personal skill level (and boldness) rather than what activity they are embarking on. There have been solos of grade 25 routes in the Grampians – is this just bushwalking?
It’s actually impossible to define climbing separately from bush walking – and Parks Victoria knows this. It is much easier to stick to the old system – where actual environmental and cultural heritage damage is the big no no and you can be fined for that. And guess what? Parks Victoria agrees – just read their own Rock Climbing FAQ page.
So if you walk into an already established climbing area, along an established track (leaving the chainsaw at home) and climb established routes (clipping bolts already in place) you are doing nothing wrong. That’s assuming you avoid cultural heritage sites that may be at established climbing areas. An example of this is the quarried edge with chalk on it at The Gallery. These sites of course can also be on bush walking trails – for example there is a quarry site that the Hollow Mountain tourist track blasts straight through just below Sandinista Wall. Built by PV. Yep.
Rangers certainly can’t tell you to vacate an area if you are climbing, hanging around or just walking to and from a crag in an SPA. This actually happened at Muline back in October 2018 when a ranger demanded climbers leave Muline as it was in an SPA (the rogue ranger incident). The ranger walking up to the crag had done the same damage as the climbers had, and the same that any bush walker would do. We have heard of rangers telling climbers to leave Ruined Castle as well – which isn’t even in an SPA!
There is obviously a big distinction between a casual climber repeating routes and new crag development. This is where PV has lost the plot because they didn’t bother to talk to climbers. New crag development is actually what they meant to ban we think. Safety bolts, new trails and new chalk are all obvious problems. But again, they don’t need to invent new bans to restrict this, they just have to prosecute using the environmental and cultural heritage protection laws that already exist.
They will now try and say they have changed tune and are asking for feedback. More than 700 people have signed up to the Engage Victoria website that seeks to let citizens have a say in the new plan of management in the Grampians. Despite months ticking by since sign-up – has anyone actually received any “engagement” from this service? We certainly haven’t. Not even an email giving timelines for when any engagement might happen in the future. According to their schedule engagement was to start in July 2019. They have had a couple of sly LTO only meetings in Halls Gap about the future of Summer Day Valley – so secret they refused to allow anyone to record the meetings. So if you run an LTO in the Grampians and cannot turn up to a meeting – tough luck. You don’t get to hear what they have to say. Official meeting notes don’t include any of the actual discussions or questions from the floor. And when the future of non-LTO climbers was brought up in these meetings it was roundly ignored.
It’s the humble opinion of this author that there isn’t actually any climbing bans/prohibitions in the SPA areas of the Grampians. If you just walk to the crag, climb a rock (even clipping bolts already in place) and go home again then you are not breaking any laws. Climbers are avoiding these areas at the moment to give PV the benefit of the doubt, and allowing them to get their own house into order.
Imagine how better this whole thing would have played out in the hearts and minds of climbers if PV didn’t announce a surpise sweeping climbing ban – and instead did a crack down on environmental damage. The whole sport wouldn’t be tarred as it now has been.
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110 Years of Grampians climbing
During the week Open Spaces published a fantastic research article about photos from more than 100 years ago showing the first roped rock-climbing in the Grampians. This pushes the the first recorded rockclimbing in Australia by at least a decade. Read the article here.