This is the second in a two part series where we explore the Northern Grampians and see the effects of the world’s largest climbing bans. You can read the first part about the Hollow Mountain area here. This second part deals with the Stapylton Amphitheater side, where there are currently no Special Protection Area restrictions on rock climbing (apart from Kindergarten & far left end of Northern Walls). We were particularly interested to see how the inevitable increased usage of these areas was effecting the condition of the crags. When half the sport climbing and bouldering in the Grampians was shut by Parks Victoria in February this year, it has meant some of the open areas are probably now seeing double the traffic they saw 12 months ago. This can only end badly without a conscious effort from the climbing community and PV to install erosion busting infrastructure (rock steps, belay platforms, fenced off rehab areas etc). It’s not rocket science.
It should be noted that what you are about to see is the most popular climbing sites in the Grampians. There are hundreds of crags where climbing impacts are almost invisible.
The aim of this hands-on investigation at Stapylton was four-fold, 1) to record a snapshot in time of climbing & walking in the area, 2) try and document the condition of some of our favorite climbing areas through the eyes of a someone in government doing an official assessment, 3) simulate the experience of a first time climbing visitor to the area who is not aware of the bans and lastly 4) to locate some of the Aboriginal cultural heritage in the area that has been mentioned in meetings with PV. Our visit was midweek – just before the Melbourne Cup Long Weekend.
No Sign Of Bans
Before anything we checked out Flat Rock Carpark, the usual starting point for climbing around Stapylton Amphitheater, to see if there was any signage about the climbing bans. There was nothing at all. Just like we saw over at Hollow Mountain, an international or interstate visitor would be clueless about recent developments and certainly have no idea on the borders of the so called Special Protection Areas. The tourist signs still mention Summer Day and Hollow Mtn climbing areas as open. Big fail from PV on getting information to the people. Climbers were the largest user group in the area over our three day visit but you wouldn’t know that by PV’s signage.
We began our first day in a tent at Camp Sandy. This is located in an abandoned gravel quarry at the far right end of the West Flank crag and about one kilometre below Taipan Wall. It has never been a Parks Victoria “official” campground – but it does seem to tick the requirements for a “bush camp” so legally it appears it is ok to camp here. There is spots for about 20 tents spread over quite a large and dusty area. The campground emerged into popularity as the main climbers campsite about 8 years ago when nearby official Stapylton Campground was shut for several years because of bushfire damage and then asbestos concerns (this has now been rectified and it is reopen again). Camp Sandy is now the only place you can be guaranteed to find climbers in the Grampians if you are traveling solo and looking for a climbing partner. The reason for it’s appeal is three fold 1) it is free as no camp fees apply 2) you can walk to all of the Staplyton Amphitheater climbing areas if you don’t have a car 3) it is away from obnoxious bogans and school groups that plague PV’s official campgrounds. The downside is there is no water, shelter from the rain or a toilet – the nearest toilets are at Flat Rock carpark about 800m away. Stapylton Campground is 4.7km away so not particularly convenient for climbers. Many climbers may stay at Camp Sandy for weeks or even months if they are projecting routes in the area.
PV clearly knows about this campsite, with a small “no fires” sign having been nailed to a tree at the entrance. The campsite itself was clean and in good condition. No rubbish or vast amounts of toilet paper blowing around in the bush. In the three nights we stayed there we saw no one light a fire – everyone was dead asleep by 9pm! We also checked out Stapylton Campground – and it was all but abandoned (it was mid week).
We received reports from climbers earlier this year that rangers had told some campers that Camp Sandy was “decommissioned” – and they suggested bush camping at an area 1.7km away between Camp Sandy and Stapylton Campground dubbed “New Camp Sandy” (see map). Considering Camp Sandy was never an official “commissioned” camp site this is an odd thing to say. We have sought clarity on the legal status of Camp Sandy from PV several months ago but have not received a response. There is no signage saying camping is prohibited. There were about 8 other people staying at the campsite whilst we were there, with 4 of them being non-climbers. We also checked out New Camp Sandy but there was no one camped there. It does look like a nice spot with more shady tree cover and spaces for lots of tents. If you do camp there please avoid campfires – it is a pet hate of Parks Victoria and they will fine you for it.
What is an interesting recent development is the use of Camp Sandy as a day trippers car-park. During the day a couple of cars came and went with walkers & climbers heading up to Stapylton. We presume people believe this is a shorter and easier route than via the traditional Flat Rock tourist track. We actually measured the distance of the trails from the Camp Sandy to Trackside Boulders, and the distance from Flat Rock Carpark to Trackside Boulders. The Flat Rock route is actually shorter by 100m! But it does have a little bit more vertical gain. So if you think going via Camp Sandy is saving you time – think again.
Walking from Camp Sandy to Trackside
We began our day with a walk from Camp Sandy up to Trackside where we planned on doing a spot of bouldering. This is about a 1km walk, half of it on an “unofficial” climbers track that leaves the backside of Camp Sandy and joins up with a PV built track that comes from Stapylton Campground.
Boulderers – we need to talk. When we arrived at this popular boulderfield located below Taipan Wall we were quite literally shocked – and embarrassed by the state they were in. This is a highly visible area within metres of the tourist track leading to Stapylton’s summit. Anyone who walks past can see the impacts climbers are having on this area. It was first climbed on in the late 90s, and has featured in several guidebooks over the years. With the closure of the Andersens boulder field at Hollow Mountain – Trackside is now the go to spot for easy and mid grade bouldering.
This area is popular for good reason – the problems are awesome and the access is very easy (15min walk). It is also shaded by Taipan Wall. This popularity has come at a heavy price in recent years with obvious environmental impact in clear sight. Climbers need to remember that this area may be the very first time a tourist may have seen climbers. A negative impression could be the lasting impression. A tourist isn’t just a tourist – in their day job they could be someone from government or a traditional owner.
Climbers need to start thinking about what they are leaving behind – quite literally. The chalk build up on the Trackside boulders is heavy and needs addressing immediately. Instead of going bouldering we actually chose to clean up the most obvious chalked up problems facing the tourist track. It didn’t take much effort with a small plastic brush and some water in a spray bottle to remove the worst of it. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. Chalk doesn’t “seep” into Grampians rock – it’s just sitting on the surface and can be quickly removed.
Back in April CliffCare published an article entitled “Grampians and Chalk Cleanup – A Collaborative Process” which effectively said climbers should wait until PV organizes official chalk clean ups – and not attempt it themselves. In our opinion this is misguided for areas such as Trackside where people are still allowed to legally climb every day of the week. Why would you discourage cleaning up the mess? We don’t suggest you get a motorised pressure washer out and spray down every cliff in the Grampians – but we need to remove chalk on well used holds that are visible to tourists at a minimum. We suggest keen local boulderers contact CliffCare and ask what is happening with chalk clean ups. We think the current situation is embarrassing at best – and a potential access crisis at worst. Cleaning chalk in cave areas and at any crag or boulder in Special Protection Areas should be avoided as these could certainly contain Aboriginal art. Refer to the list of SPA crags here. But a hugely popular open bouldering area, outside an SPA, and already chalked and climbed over for decades needs a clean up – now. Who is in?
If you are climbing at Trackside and not cleaning up the chalk there then you are directly causing the access issues in the Grampians. It is as simple as that. We can do better.
Erosion and vegetation loss around the boulders is something that needs a rethink as well. We also checked out Andersens the day before, and Trackside was in much worse shape. We have been told it is common to see large groups at Trackside – 15 or more climbers. Is this such a wise idea in such a public place and where our impacts are so clearly evident? Areas with rock floors are so much better at handling groups. Is it time that CliffCare or PV install rock flagging below some of these boulders – like what is used in Summer Day Valley to reduce erosion? The whole of Trackside needs urgent attention.
If you have a big group maybe reconsider your destination – spread out to other areas in smaller groups and be really mindful of your impact. Areas with hard rock bases are so much better suited than dirt. It’s a shame that many of these areas are now shut.
After cleaning up at Trackside we followed the climbers track up to the so called world’s best cliff – Taipan Wall. This track had some erosion control measures (steps and a wooden ramp) installed in 2007 by CliffCare and PV. For the most part it is in good condition because of this – but one section requires urgent attention.
We don’t think it would take much to fix the above erosion problem. We know the various climbers groups are overflowing with fundraising money right now. Let’s direct it to projects such as this.
We can’t stress how important it is that this area is managed correctly by climbers for us to continue access. This is probably the most important cliff in Australia – not because lots of people climb there, but because the routes are simply world class classics. It is an icon of Australian climbing and the reason many people travel from the other side of the world to climb in Australia. If we don’t care for this area then we might as well give up altogether.
In general Taipan is in good condition. A chalk clean up on the mega classics like Serpentine, Invisible Fist, World Party and Mr Joshua should be high on the agenda. We found what looked like Aboriginal rock tool broken edges (quarries) at various points along the base of Taipan. These have been mentioned in a Licensed Tour Operator meeting with PV earlier this year. Some appeared to be chalked up as part of boulder problems. This is a major worry considering similar sites have caused closures at The Gallery and Summer Day Valley. We have no official information about the location of quarries – this is amateur archaeology from us at best. There is no doubt that Taipan is an iconic place – it stands out like a beacon from many kilometres away (visible clearly from Arapiles on sunset). It’s significance to people for a millennia shouldn’t be under estimated. Climbers need to put their best foot forward here.
With the closure of almost all of the middle and hard grade sport crags in the Grampians in February this year, it is inevitable that Spurt Wall is getting hammered by increased traffic. Spurt is now the only all major weather protected climbing area in Victoria – any traffic that once went to the Gallery, Millenium, Muline, Cave of Man Hands, Sandinista, & Amnesty is now crammed into Spurt. The result, to be blunt, is a mess that needs urgent attention. If it wasn’t for all the other climbing bans already in place we would even propose a bit of time off for this place to recuperate. But there are some things that could be done to help this place.
The bushfires a decade ago really destroyed the base of this crag – trees that once held together the ground are now all but gone leaving an unstable and soft surface. Stone steps, belay platforms – all solutions need to be considered. Planting some trees and fencing off sections for regeneration is urgently required here.
The problems at Spurt are not deliberate vandalism, just the signs of overuse and lack of preventative measures keeping up with increased numbers. This is what happens when half of the climbing in the Grampians, and the majority of the hard dry stuff, is now prohibited.
For those that haven’t been up there – the tourist walk to the very top of Stapylton is a grand adventure. PV have done a good job in the last decade of stonework to reduce erosion along the trail. This has to be one of the best day walks in Victoria.
Compared to Hollow Mountain, the caves around Stapylton remain largely graffiti free. We know Hollow Mtn receives regular bus loads of tourists (trampling straight through an SPA) – and it seems evident that they must be causing the graffiti. Stapylton is more accessed by lone walkers and climbers and sees much less traffic. We saw little deliberate vandalism across the entire walking trail.
This bouldering area, famous for Ammagamma (V13), was in pretty good condition as the base is solid rock so can handle lots of people and bouldering matts no dramas. Visible chalk is still an issue but at least this one is away from the tourist track.
Ngamadjidj Art Shelter
In the dying light of a long day we popped over for a look at the other caged Aboriginal art site in the Northern Grampians. This one has had a lot of recent love from PV – new signs and a new cage with a more artistic design. This is a short walk from Stapylton Campground and well worth a look. According to maps on PV’s website there is a small SPA surrounding the cave itself so please avoid bouldering around it. There is no signage on site about the borders of the SPA or anything about rock climbing bans. Even at the campground there was nothing signposted. We saw no climbers camped at this area – and only one tourist.
Copper Mine Track
On the way home we took this old 4WD track cutting through the mountain range from Stapylton to Roses Gap. It has been widened and smoothed in recent years – presumably because of the brand new Coppermine Campground at the top. This used to be a quite large open area, resembling Camp Sandy, that was just rough bush camping. For a period about a decade ago it became a popular free climbers camp. It was also popular with 4WDers and families and was a short walk down to Golton Gorge below which had almost permanent water (and some terrible climbing routes). Now it is fenced with individual campsites (only a few), online booking system, camp fees and new toilet block. We believe this may be part of the northern section of the Grampians Peaks Trail currently under construction. It was abandoned when we drove past. Golton Gorge itself seems to be shut as well. The road into it from below has a large closed sign across it. Apparently a small pedestrian bridge was burnt out in the 2014 fires and has yet to be rebuilt. PV is constantly playing catchups on repairing infrastructure from natural disasters. Someone pointed out to us on this trip that the much publicised Grampians Peaks Trail would have been partially closed for 7 out of 10 years if it was built in 2006 because of fire or flood damage to sections of bush it crosses. This whole place is volatile.
With the closure of Summer Day Valley to recreational climbers, there is now limited areas with easy routes and walk up access to set up top ropes. One area that PV recommends as a replacement for SPA areas on their website is the Watchtower – a small and insignificant crag that’s only real charm is the proximity to Halls Gap. A 10 minute walk from downtown Halls Gap CBD, and a 5 min walk up to the crag makes it popular. Unfortunately this popularity also applies to commercial guiding companies. 20 years ago Watchtower was mostly visited by recreational climbers but in recent yaears it has been common to see large groups here. Unlike Summer Day Valley, this area is not really suitable for these large groups and erosion has really got out of hand. The following photos show the extent of the soil loss. This crag did not look like this 5 years ago.
There has been some erosion control work done by some of the Licensed Tour Operators with the help PV, but it’s clearly not up to scratch. The gully up the back side just can’t handle the traffic that these commercial groups are pumping through this area. The track is now so eroded that it does not pass some guiding companies risk assessment process – so they are no longer working there. In our opinion this area needs a rest and reset from large groups. Summer Day Valley style stone work is needed – not a couple of wooden planks and star pickets.
Any climbers wanting to learn more about the Aboriginal heritage and local community of Gariwerd should check out the Brambuk visitor centre in Halls Gap. It was our last stop and well worth the drive. Displays of stone tools that have been found in cave areas climbers also visit was particularly fascinating. There was one item that really stood out though:
It has been 12 years since climbing groups did any maintenance work in the Stapylton area and it shows. What we saw was, quite honestly, really bad. It seems some climbers don’t understand (or care?) about the dire public perception that climbers have right now in the eyes of the general public & land managers. Chalk and erosion on boulder problems right next to the Stapylton Summit tourist track is of particular concern. This article is hopefully a wake up call to the community to start cleaning up your act – literally. The little climbing areas we have left could also face the chop if we don’t do better.
Our impression was that these areas outside of SPAs are getting a lot of climbing traffic and that some areas handle this better than others. Anywhere with soft dirt under foot rather than rocky ground is eroding. We have seen CliffCare work collaboratively with Parks Victoria in the past at Bundaleer, The Gallery, Mt Rosea, Spurt Wall and obviously at Arapiles with excellent results. When tens of millions are being spent on building walking tracks to attract more visitors down south, surely a few dollars could be thrown into future proofing these genuinely world class climbing areas? We can’t put this off any longer.
Regarding chalk cleanups – the Victorian climbing community seems somewhat frozen in fear about doing the wrong thing right now. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Each and every one of us can do a little part in cleaning up the areas we climb in. After a big day climbing – take a look at the rock just before you leave. Is it in better or worse shape then when you arrived? There are more great tips on how we can do better climbing in the outdoors on CliffCares new website. Do yourself a favour and check it out.
We have been told that the ACAV are coordinating a new crag stewardship program. This sounds like a great initiative and has worked well up in NSW and QLD. Each crag will have a small local team who manages a site – rather than one group trying to manage all of Victoria’s climbing. Please consider donating either to Cliffcare or ACAV to support this effort.