Archeologist's Report Revealed

  • Academic paper published about climbing impacts in the Grampians
  • Estimated rock climber visitor numbers downgraded from 80,000 to 20,000
  • Archeologists claim climbers are responsible for deliberate graffiti over rock art – zero evidence given
  • $20,000 spent on removing graffiti at Black Ians Rocks
  • Aboriginal Victoria opens investigation into Victoria Range climbing areas

It has been exactly 12 months since PV announced the sweeping climbing bans across 33% of the Grampians. We have published more than 50 articles on these bans revealing a litany of dysfunction in land management, apathetic ministers, fake photos and so much more. So where are we today?

We have previously mentioned the existence of an inflammatory academic paper penned by several archeologists and PV employees in our past articles – such as An Escalating Conflict – Archeologists Anti Climber Bias and Chalky Business. Read these articles first before reading any further as there is a lot of background information there. Parts of this paper had been quoted in an article in The Australian newspaper a few weeks back – Climbers Fight for Right to Higher Ground.

Today we finally have our hands on the finished version of this report as it was published in volume 37 of the international journal Rock Art Research, the official organ of the Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA) and the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO). Download and read the full paper at this link:

This paper has no major revelations – it is the same couple of incidents we have known about since 2018 rehashed and reassembled. It is always good to read an outsiders perspective of climbing and this has plenty of facts and quite a few opinions. Some stuff is of questionable scientific merit. The references page is particularly comprehensive – and sometimes quite esoteric in their sources related to climbing. There are also several incorrect captions and repeated sentences that somehow got through a basic proof read. This paper starts with a bang:

“Recreational rock climbing has the potential to significantly damage rock art and other cultural sites worldwide”

The existence of this paper has been a well kept secret over at Parks Victoria. They have never mentioned it in any of the three Rockclimbing Roundtable meetings, nor in any other public forum. Was a draft version of this article the basis for the bans being put in place a year ago? We certainly know the authors R. G. Gunn, J. R. Goodes, A. Thorn, C. Carlyle and L. C. Douglas have been working on these issues for the last few years. Robert (Ben) Gunn and Andrew Thorn are currently contracted by PV as archeologists to assess cultural heritage at climbing areas and come up with “management solutions”. Jake Goodes is a PV employee with the job title of Rock Art Cultural Heritage Protection Specialist. Gunn & Goodes have collaborated as recently as 2018 in a separate paper titled Wartook Lookout 1 (WO-1) and the Gariwerd rock art sequence. You can read more about the authors backgrounds in our previous article. So what is the new paper about?

“this paper will illustrate the forms of damage inadvertently inflicted on Aboriginal rockshelter sites and present an argument favouring the exclusion of potentially damaging rock climbing in areas of cultural sensitivity (including recorded and potential cultural heritage sites and those places as yet unassessed but likely to have cultural heritage potential).”

What is noticeable when reading this paper is that the authors stray into social and political commentary about land rights and legal grey areas. They also make assumptions that damage to rock art is directly caused by climbers with little evidence given. The scientific methods of objective research based around facts seem left behind for a pre-determined outcome – ban climbers. They also seem surprised that climbers were upset about the sweeping bans and were actively campaigning to recover access to long used climbing areas. If the government shut 33% of the beaches in Victoria would they have just expected the surfers to shrug and walk away?

This restriction received widespread comment and discussion in the press (e.g. Anon. 2019a; Day and Gillett 2019) and an extremely negative response on rock climbing internet forums: ‘these bans are unprecedented, and as a user group we are going to need to respond in an organised and forceful fashion’ (AdventureTypes 2019a) and ‘Grampians climbers currently hang in limbo, while restlessly working to regain their right to climb(Slavsky 2019; our emphasis).

Right there we see the first of the authors apparent bias slipped in with their deliberate act of highlighting the line “right to climb“. They just entered the political realm with this paper…

What they fail to make clear (and we have seen the same thing reprinted in the press constantly) is that climbers were upset and up in arms about the widespread SPA bans covering 551km of the Grampians – not just the 8 key sites. Many climbers saw these bans as the death knell of climbing in Victoria and a huge overreach compared to anything experienced before. We have never known if the 8 key site “play” in Parks Victoria’s early press releases was deliberate subterfuge to soften the blow to climbers – or just poor communication. Whatever it was it has worked. To the casual observer these climbing bans appear to only cover 8 small areas. Why the fuss? The reality is what we see below – the world’s largest climbing bans.

Call it shock – but a lot of climbers were upset. Climbers went from having free and unrestricted access to these areas for more than half a century to having no access in the blink of an eye. There was a total lack of transparency from Parks Victoria to long standing partner CliffCare leading up to the bans and there was no attempt to reach some sort of common ground before announcing the bans ( e.g. an agreement to stop bolting or restrictions on new route developing instead of wholesale bans).

The authors of the paper list their perceived concerns from the climbing community – and it was fairly accurate.

The Grampians generally, and the Victoria Range, in particular, has been an important locality for recreational rock climbing for which it has a national and international reputation. Large-scale rock climbing began in the Grampians in the 1960s and since then the level of activity, both in terms of participant numbers, recorded routes, and guide books (now also web-based route descriptions), has increased more or less continuously. There are now more than 9000 climbs described in the Grampians and large numbers of climbers visit the area regularly (estimated at 20 000/annum). Land managers have not previously enforced climbing restrictions.

That 20,000 figure is an interesting one. Parks Victoria was pronouncing the figure was 80,000 climbers a year in public statements and briefs sent to the Environment minister early last year. Why the slashing of figures to 1/4 of the original claim? This is the sort of bullshit that made climbers upset and lack trust in the process behind these bans.

Brief from Parks Victoria to the Minister for Environment claiming 80,000 climbers a year. Fishy? Download the original document here.

Apparently this paper was written with help from rock climbers. At least that is what Ben Gunn, the lead author, claimed in an email sent to a well known climber late last year.

Here again we see bias from the author. He is unwilling to work with so called “sports” climbers when researching this paper. The very people he needs to be talking to are apparently so evil they must not be approached. The funny thing is that in Victoria there are few pure sport climbers and only a few dozen people who have ever installed safety bolts in the last half a century. Due to a lack of sports crags with easy grades and a plethora of world class easy trad routes (at places like Arapiles) most climbers have a traditional climbing background and move into a more sport climbing focus as they progress. Victoria is one of those rare areas where many climbers are quite well rounded in their skillset compared to places like NSW where sport climbing is a lot more prevalent. We see this focus on the merits of “traditional climbers” in the paper early on:

“Traditional climbers, those who take care to minimise their impact on the environment as opposed to Sports climbers (see below), take the view that as well as damaging and altering the rock, the excessive insertion of permanent steel bolt anchors (e.g. Fig. 2) to assist with their climb is ‘depriving future generations of climbers of challenges’ (Berry 2002).”

Straight up they lump all sport climbers (and presumably boulderers?) into a category of people who do not take care to minimize their impact on the environment. In the authors minds it is mutually exclusive to sport climb and care about the area you climb in. Of course that is patently absurd. There is of course is no middle ground – mixed climbing cannot co-exist in their world. Never mind that the Grampians contains some of the best mixed climbing in the world – think Pythagoras’ Theorem, 20th Century Fox, Red Line and Mr Joshua to name a few. In this paper they spend at least one full page trying to define sport climbing.

We also see mention of the Czech Republic climbing areas where safety bolts, chalk and even metal trad gear is prohibited. There are two points to be made here. The Czech model of strict ethics is very much the outlier in the world climbing stage. There are no climbing areas in Australia with such strict ethics. There are a few crags with a self policed no-bolt policy (e.g. Ben Lomond in Tassie) but chalk and metal trad gear is used at every climbing area in Australia. For every Czech crag there are tens of thousands of areas with similar levels of chalk and safety bolt use to the Grampians. The second point is that the Grampians climbing community have broadly accepted the use of safety bolts and chalk since the earliest times when this technology was introduced to the rest of the world. At places like Bundaleer there are rusty bolts from the very early 60s still in place (predating the declaration of the Grampians National Park by 25 years). Check out this route description from the 1968 Rock Climbing Guide to the Grampians Volume 1.

These safety bolts dating from 1964 are actually still there and still being used. Grades topped out at 17 in this old guide.

Parks Victoria has known about and accepted the use of these safety aids for decades. Just last week PV’s own website had this great photo of someone clipping bolts and using chalk at Mt Buffalo as their cover image on their generic rock climbing information page:

Our caption. This hilarious photo appears to have disappeared after doing the rounds of social media last week.

Even many so called trad routes, especially at Arapiles, require bolted rap anchors to get back down again. There would only be a handful of climbers who could claim they never use safety bolts or chalk in Victoria. And this demographic would be highly skewed to the older generation who are not pushing the athletic style routes of modern climbers. And the case in point is…

One of the authors of this paper is a fellow by the name of Dr Clive Carlyle who appears to be one of the “traditional climbers” mentioned in Ben Gunns email above. His own bio in the Rock Art Symposium said this:

He is also a keen traditional rock climber and has walked, scrambled and rock climbed throughout the ranges of Gariwerd since 1984. Early rock-climbing forays included Hollow Mountain/Mt Stapleton, the Chimney Pots, Number 1 Creek, Mt Abrupt, and the Fortress. At that time the hardest thing was often finding and getting to the base of the climb. More often than not we were the only climbers at the crag, and it was generally unusual to meet more than 2 or 3 other parties.

That is a nice list of SPAs he used to climb at. But I guess it was all in the aid of research?

No safety bolts and chalk is a noble ideal but it is also very hard to rewind back on technology when it has been broadly accepted as part of modern climbing. Bolts and chalk are both safety aids. You remove these and the risk goes up. Imagine telling drivers that ripping up bitumen roads and removing airbags is the solution to environmental damage. Or even closer to home for Parks Victoria – imagine they had to remove all warning signage and handrails from lookouts.

We presume this would be classed as a “sport” lookout.

Yes you can still go to these lookouts with none of the infrastructure but the handrails were installed for a very good reason. Removal of climbing safety aids will certainly reduce the appeal of the activity of climbing and there will be a subsequent decline in climbers. Perhaps that is exactly their aim. OK back to the paper…

“It is an offence under the Act to harm or undertake activity that is likely to harm any Aboriginal cultural heritage whether or not its significance is known to the perpetrator (exceptional circumstances may apply).”

Has anyone been charged? Would that not be the first thing you would do as a land manager?

“Under their 2003 Grampians National Park Management Plan, Parks Victoria permits rock climbing within the Grampians National Park, but ‘excluding Reference Areas or other specified areas, in accordance with Parks Victoria’s operational policies’ (Parks Victoria 2003: 43). The requirements of the Management Plan, however, were contradicted by Parks Victoria themselves in a ‘Rock climbing and bouldering update’ by advertising open access to climbing sites within their Special Protection Areas:

That was far from the only example of contradictory information about SPAs from PV. Summerday Valley and The Gallery both had considerable track work done to them by Parks Victoria to facilitate climbers. At least five print guidebooks were published by the climbing community to these SPA areas and the authors were never contacted by PV about climbing being prohibited in SPAs. Parks Victoria allowed TV commercial shoots, TV shows and licensed tour operators to work in multiple SPA areas right up to last year. These climbing areas were tourist attractions until a year ago – have a read of what Victoria’s official government tourist website said about Grampians climbing in 2018:

Visit Victoria May 2018

The Gallery, Millennium Caves and Muline are all in SPAs.

The regulations from the Grampians National Parks 2003 management plan have been in operation for over 15 years, including the exclusion of rock climbing from the Special Protected Areas (SPA) of the northern Victoria Range (Fig. 1). This SPA was extended further in February 2019 to embrace a further cluster of rock art sites. However, as the significance of SPA’s was poorly communicated by Parks Victoria and policing never enforced, rock climbers and the broader public had little awareness of these restrictions or the reasons for why they were in place (although, all groups had had the opportunity to comment on the original draft of the management plan).

Climbing groups (i.e. the Victorian Climbing Club and CliffCare) didn’t comment on this draft management plan in 2003 as the chart listing the size of SPA zones was incorrect – saying SPA’s covered less than 1% of the park rather than the actual figure of 33%.

Grampians National Park Management Plan 2003 – clearly showing SPAs are less than 1% of the park

No climbing access group would disagree with 1% of the park being closed to climbers. But 33% is a huge restriction – especially when it includes much of the world class climbing that had been established decades before. And then there is this winning paragraph from the 2003 Management Plan about rock climbing:

Grampians National Park Management Plan 2003

So it is abundantly clear – Summerday Valley is slap bang in the middle of an SPA. An own goal once again from PV’s 2003 management plan that we are told is legally binding by the authors of this paper.

“The Victoria Range, with 77 rock art shelters to date, has the highest concentration of rock art sites in Gariwerd (and also the State; VAHR files) and also has over 2500 registered climbing routes (The Crag 2019a) despite being a Remote Natural Area where all such climbing activities are prohibited.”

Again, the authors fail to understand why climbers are upset about this line of attack from PV and the archeologists that it was “always there in the management plan”. Imagine these archeologists were told today, with no warning, that they could no longer do archeology in the Victoria Range. And this decision was made by a group of climbers. And there is no method of appeal. And the basis of this restriction was incorrectly written into the management plan.

Standing in caves, using brushes, digging up the ground, trampling vegetation – is archeology next? (we jest)

Geology Lesson

The paper gives a good scientific explanation on the formation of caves in the Grampians and the transport of minerals through water in the rock. The following is just a snippet of a longer explanation:

“most exposed sandstone rockshelters have an outer skin that reduces the effects of aggressive erosion. This skin is a coating of silica developed by water passing through the rock and mobilising silica in solution, derived from the quartz grains of the sandstone. When the solution reaches the outer face of protected (overhanging) surfaces the water evaporates and deposits a glass-like covering of silica.

In deeper shelters, the surface has been stabilised with gypsum through the combination of calcium in the rock combining with sulphur from the atmosphere. This forms a very tenuous stabilising crust that can easily be disrupted by further salt erosion, giving rise to the typical scalloped nature of many deep shelters.”

Why is this important knowledge? Keep reading…

Black Ian’s Bolts

This paper focuses heavily on the regrettable bolting incidents at Burrunj (the Black Range State Park) and at Black Ians Rocks (actual name is Lil Lil / Red Rocks Reserve). At this point it is worth having a quick history lesson on Black Ians climbing to get perspective. The first modern rock climbing was recorded in 1972 and the first safety bolt was placed there in 1979. The most recent print guidebook to the area (Sublime Climbs) was published in 2011 and still mentioned routes that climbed on the edges of the old camping cave (which is apparently an unmarked art site). It is clear that the messaging to climbers about the importance of this site needs refinement. Let’s start with the archeologists report on the Black Ian’s Rocks incident:

“In 2015 two bolts were noticed on a climbing route up the cliff face of a rock art site (site LL-05; VAHR 7323/195; Figs 4–5). Although the lowest bolt is 3.5 m above the rock art, the climb to get to that bolt is just one metre to the right of the panel of faint handprints, and the use of suitable handholds may have required some climbers to pass over the art. This art panel is particularly significant, being the first rock art site in the State on a barely overhanging cliff face rather than within a rockshelter. The bolts at LL-05 were removed illegally by an anonymous person.

If they had actually talked to a climber familiar with the area this unfounded assumption about “handholds may have required some climbers to pass over the art” because the climb was “just one metre” from art could have been discounted. The route actually started up a long established trad climb called OK I Confess several metres to the right. It climbed that route for 3.5m then traversed left to the safety bolt (now removed) and up the wall above. The section of rock 1m right of the art is totally blank and unclimbable and was in no danger of being harmed by climbers. One metre sounds impressive but is not the reality of the situation. Below is Ben Gunn’s slide he presented at the Rockclimbing Roundtable 3 that continued this line of reasoning.

It is interesting to read that removing the bolts is claimed to be an illegal activity. We can only presume that the person who did this was just trying to clean up the mistake and had good intentions. But let that be a warning to climbers to not mess around with art sites. The archeologists appear to want the gig themselves:

“The careful removal of bolts and the plugging of the holes to prevent rock erosion are complex and time-consuming practices”

Sounds expensive. Who ya gonna call? The paper actually fails to explain why this is a problem – despite building a case earlier by describing the geology of cave creation. The authors believe an empty bolt hole can release hidden water onto the surface (and the trace minerals in this water) and weaken the surrounding area. Climbers who have installed safety bolts in Victoria sandstone say this is a very rare event only recorded in a couple of places. There appears to be no evidence of this occurring in the bolt holes at this art site.

What the art panel looks like today – and showing the real start of the route way to the right.

Now we get into murkier ground:

“Much of the graffiti in the Greater Gariwerd have not been produced by rock climbers; in other instances, particularly at Lil-Lil, it is all too apparent that rock climbers are at fault. At Lil-Lil some graffiti have been deliberately placed over rock art, and the damage is permanent. Others elsewhere have been racially offensive or, through the production of pseudo-rock art, deprecating to Aboriginal people and the majority of non-Aboriginal Australians.

Woah! They are claiming that not only have climbers definitely drawn over rock art but that is was a deliberate and malicious act. And their basis for the claim that “it is all too apparent that rock climbers are at fault” is… [pause] [still pausing] not given. That is a huge unfounded claim and begs the question – is this the standard of a scientist or an opinion writer? There can be no evidence for these claims and this alone discredits the authors as unfit to report to Parks Victoria and the relevant Ministers on matters relating to rock climbing.

The “camping” cave in question

It is all conjecture which should have no place in a report of this nature. They also appear to be claiming that climbers are responsible for racist graffiti and also some sort of dig at cultural misappropriation from pseudo-rock art? All this done by climbers according to the authors with zero evidence provided. Remember, this is a publicly accessible cave in a State reserve visited by all sorts of people – not just climbers. At climbing areas never visited by tourists there is never any graffiti – check out places like Muline or The Tower for example. Now we can begin to understand this bizarre quote from back in April from a train-wreck of an Age article about the climbing bans.

“There are things like graffiti and racist drawings on sacred colours. That just makes a mockery of our culture and heritage.”

Dylan Clarke, chairman of the Barengi Gadjin Land Council – April 2019

No one wonder these Aboriginal groups hate climbers if they are told that climbers were 100% responsible for reprehensible racist graffiti. Why did the authors of this paper decide to write that climbers are at fault for this? We are surprised they didn’t refine their blame onto those evil sport climbers. You know the ones – without a moral compass and an appetite for destruction. So what happened with this “climbers” graffiti?

“In 2016 a conservator was engaged by Parks Victoria to undertake a graffiti removal project at LL-01 with the assistance of traditional owner groups. At the cost of around $A20 000 and a week’s work for a team of eleven, conservation works are a costly expense for any public authority. Fortunately, despite the recent influx of bolting and general climbing around the Lil- Lil shelters, no graffiti have been added to the LL-01 shelter since the cleaning project.”

What is baffling to us is that the first of these incidents happened five years ago and there are still no barriers, signs, area closures or any such management methods at Lil-Lil to stop this happening again. They spent $20,000 cleaning one small cave four years ago but failed to erect any form of deterrent. It would take just one random person to turn up and do it all again in total ignorance of what had occurred before. This isn’t a remote area.

Could you spot the art?

Over at Arapiles near the Plaque area there is a perfectly good example of what could be done at Black Ians. It features a simple demarcation barrier made of ankle height rocks and a sign with a clear message “do not enter the area behind the rock barrier” and “do not climb or boulder in this area“. Surely the old camping cave and the hand prints to the left of the route OK I Confess could get this treatment? No ugly cage required.

Black Range

The second area featured in this expose was in The Black Range.

In October 2017, rock climbers were observed by RG [Ben Gunn] and a party from the Wimmera Bushwalkers making a new bolted route immediately south of the BR-04 rock art site (VAHR No. 7323/024) in Burrunj (the Black Range State Park; Fig. 1). Besides, at least nine bolt holes were noticed on the rear wall of the shelter itself. The holes extended up the rear wall of the shelter and out across the ceiling some 10 m above the floor (Figs 6–8). The beginning of this route was less than one metre to the right of a prominent hand stencil. Parks Victoria and the local Tradition Owner, Barengi Gadjin Land Council were informed immediately and Parks Victoria then notified Aboriginal Affairs Victoria (the state body responsible for the protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage; now Aboriginal Victoria). On a subsequent visit to the site in November 2017 with site managers and local rock climbing representatives, the bolts on the outside climb were found to have been removed leaving the drill-hole scars (Fig. 9). While the rock climbing representatives were perturbed by the damage, they felt it was most likely the work of ‘sport climbers’.

Those pesky sport climbers strike again! This is actually a significant event as Ben Gunn actually witnessed the person responsible “at work” installing a new climb. The fact this happened more than two years after the Lil Lil bolting incident would have been even more concerning to the archeologists. Leaving 9 bolt holes in a cave above art is pretty unforgivable and this is by far the worst example of damage to a cultural heritage site from climbing. Their concerns about water seeping from these holes is quite valid. But has anything been done about patching them? Apparently not.

The very fact that Parks Victoria have not closed these two areas where these incidents occurred, but rather, banned completely different areas (e.g. the Victoria Range over 50km away) is very confusing; especially while continuing to quote these incidents as the main reason for the closures.

Gallery & the new Millennium

The third area featured in the paper is The Gallery, one of the 8 “focus areas” in the Victoria Range that are now banned to climbers and have signage installed. A quick climbing history lesson for the Gallery is needed before continuing. The first (worthless) trad routes were recorded in 1983 and the first safety bolts were placed in 1991. The last route bolted in the cave was completed in 1998. Now – remember those dates! This is important. On with the show…

The Gallery is a rockshelter with a high overhanging rock wall as its ceiling, with 15 registered climb routes (The Crag 2019c). The wall was described as ‘Short steep and pocket wall that’s been conveniently machine-gunned with bolts’ (Mentz and Tempest 2001: 202; our emphasis). The rockshelter is also within the Special Protection Zone of the National Park (Parks Victoria 2003) and was registered as an Aboriginal site in August 2000 (VAHR 7323/234), with evidence of Aboriginal quarrying on a number of its protruding quartzitic sandstone cornices

Hang on. Registered in 2000? Two years after all the routes were bolted? And 20 years ago? Where was the fuss about the safety bolts and chalk back then?

This chalked up edge is the starting hold on Monkey Puzzle, probably the most famous grade 28 in Australia. It is also an Aboriginal quarry site registered 8 years after the route was first climbed.

Chalk

Chalk use by “sport climbers” is covered in this paper as well with the Gallery being the case study. This cave would certainly be the worst example of visual chalk in Australia – with the dark red rock contrasting with the white magnesium carbonate. It especially helps when the authors up the contrast heavily on the following photo:

The authors delve into the ethics of chalk use:

As with bolting, the use of chalk is considered unacceptable by many members of the climbing community because (a) it is seen as an artificial aid, (b) can degrade the climb by progressively filling in surface features and thereby reducing friction, and (c) it removes the need to route find/work out the climb as all the key holds are highlighted in chalk. Chalk is banned in some jurisdictions, while rock-coloured or organic chalk is required in others (e.g. Garden of the Gods 2015).

As we stated earlier on – there wouldn’t be “many” climbers who consider chalk unacceptable. Go to any busy climbing crag and look around. The only people who routinely don’t use chalk are guided groups under instruction – as chalk use is apparently not permitted according to their PV permit guidelines. And organic chalk? Really? We had to fact check that one and we could find no reference in the Garden of the Gods 2015 Climbing Regulations. Have the authors gotten confused with the brand Organic Climbing? Who knows. Certainly most anti-chalk proponents in the climbing community consider the visual impact of chalk the reason not to use it (which the authors of this report fail to mention).

“While the use of chalk in climbing and bouldering on one or two occasions is rarely offensive, when multiple people use the same route over time, the build-up of chalk develops into a more or less permanent trail of white patches delineating the route at regular intervals of 1–2 m. The chalk then becomes ingrained into the rock and is very difficult and costly to remove. Most codes of ethic request climbers to remove excess chalk from the rock face after their climb. When it occurs within an Aboriginal cultural site chalking is classed as damage comparable to graffiti.”

It would have been nice if they weren’t being so disingenuous and mentioned that only steep areas that get no rainfall to wash away the chalk does this build up occur. The majority of Grampians climbing areas are chalk free due to the natural action of sky water and gravity. Other cave areas in the Grampians such as Millennium and Muline suffer the same problem as the Gallery of semi-permanent chalk that builds up over time. We covered their claim that removing this chalk build up would be “costly” in our previous article Chalky Business. In this paper they did mention some part of their proposed costly technique:

Removal of chalking requires dry brushing to get rid of the mass without forcing it further into the rock. Any remaining visible impression requires, in some cases, the application of acids to dissolve the magnesium carbonate. Such acids can also dissolve the carbonate matrix within the sandstone, requiring follow-up consolidation treatments. These processes all take considerable time and careful impact assessment.

No mention of water? Dry brushing and acid – that presumably just gets left on the rock. The claim that these acids will “dissolve the carbonate matrix within the sandstone” is pretty wild. Just how powerful an acid are they talking about? We understand that if they are trying to remove climbing chalk that has been applied directly to rock art they need to be ultra careful and precise. But as far as we have been shown in this paper this is not something that has ever happened. There has been no chalk put on rock art. There is chalk on one quarried edge – the first hold of Monkey Puzzle – but surely this could be cleaned simply with water? The photo supplied of this hold doesn’t appear to show “caked on” chalk – it is just surface chalk that would wash off in rain (if it ever rained in The Gallery).

Is chalk itself really a problem? It looks bad when caked onto dark rock but what is the actual impact on the environment? Apparently it can inhibit the growth of lichens on the rock on individual holds – but the action of standing and pulling on the same hold would also keep micro-organisms like lichen from thriving. Bushwalkers (and archeologists) do the the same damage by walking on rock. On steep ground (like the Gallery) there is no surface micro-organisms (as they require moisture from rain) so chalk is not responsible for measurable damage. In general chalk is a type of “beauty in the eyes of the beholder” type of problem. Unfortunately for climbers it has now been noticed and PV and these archeologists seem to want it gone. Is coloured chalk a solution? There are certainly brands that make it and some Aussie retailers are considering importing it. Will coloured chalk be acceptable to authorities? It would have the same measurable environmental impact on micro-organisms – it would just look less visible. Does the dye or pigments used in coloured chalk stain the rock? According to commercial coloured chalk manufacturer Climbing AddictsOur products are water soluble and do not appear to stain the rock“.

Bouldering has also caused damage to the rock surface through the breaking of protuberances and brushing of the rock surface, removing micro-ecosystems (and possibly rock art)

Has bouldering actually caused damage to rock art? No evidence is supplied. But this line nicely adds to their narrative about the evils of climbing.

The Vibe…

This paper continues with a section that sways into the metaphysical and the same tired cliches about climbing on cathedrals.

“While Aboriginal sites are generally recorded as isolated dots across the countryside, this presents a distorted, museum-like view of Aboriginal culture. All Aboriginal sites are part of a broad cultured landscape, developed over thousands of years through maintenance, alteration and cultural associations. To understand a single site, its physical, metaphysical, and cultural setting has to be assessed. Hence, while grilles [metal cages] and legislation may protect individual sites, the inappropriate use of the surrounding landscape, such as the cliff face between two sites, can be just as degrading to the sites themselves. For example, while avoiding the stained-glass windows, climbing on the cathedral walls that house the windows is unlikely to be tolerated as appropriate behaviour. One or two climbers might be prosecuted as larrikins, a steady stream of such thrill-seekers would likely cause national outrage. It is impossible to consider the rock art of Greater Gariwerd without appreciating the physical and spiritual context of the place: the cliff-line in which it occurs. Whereas unobtrusive climbing may well be acceptable on faces of adjoining outcrops, even these must be seen and respected as part of the greater Aboriginal landscape of Greater Gariwerd.”

This seems to spell the end of climbing at the majority of crags in the Grampians and Arapiles which are all within cooee of some sort of cultural site. It is telling in this paragraph what the authors think of climbing. It is described as an “inappropriate use of the surrounding landscape” and “degrading“. Climbers should be “prosecuted as larrikins” and are “thrill-seekers [who] would likely cause national outrage“. It doesn’t seem possible in the authors opinion that climbers may appreciate these cliffs as physical and spiritual places as well. Nor that these climbers could also value the cultural heritage that it contains. There mere act of climbing has been categorized as inappropriate.

The paper then finishes with a swing away from anything to do with rock art (remembering the title of the paper is Rock Art and Rock Climbing: An Escalating Conflict) and into other environmental issues related to climbing. Topics briefly touched on include the use of brushes by boulderers, erosion, rock cairns and peregrine falcons. We can only presume the authors felt they needed to finish their job of demolishing the reputation of climbers by including this section. When you have an audience you might as well use it!

We will publish the full conclusion of their report below:

While graffiti and floor-deposit damage in rock-shelters is a common problem for management, embracing the full range of visitors to (and feral animals within) Greater Gariwerd, bolting and bouldering are problems unique to the rock climbing community. With the explosion of sport climbing and rock climber numbers in recent years, it is they who currently pose the greatest human threat to cultural heritage sites within the Grampians National Park and surrounding sandstone ranges, and potentially to other National and State Parks elsewhere in Australia. This development is likely to be echoed in rock climbing areas throughout the world.

While the use of bolts to enhance safety and speed on climbing routes remains a controversial issue within the rock climbing fraternity, regardless of these internal issues, any damage to an Aboriginal place is a criminal act in all states of Australia and, like all others, climbers caught acting illegally can be prosecuted under the relevant legislation.

From this study, it is clear that land management authorities need to educate the public and police their own recommendations under the requirements of their Act regarding climbing and the preservation of cultural heritage sites and to regularly monitor their cultural heritage sites for any increase in threatening developments.

It is also crucial that the rock climbing community instill in their members an awareness of the damage that rock climbing and bouldering do to cultural sites, as well as informing them of any restrictions or particular cultural or environmental values of places they wish to climb. All climbers should be educated about the relevant State/Federal Acts and their ramifications concerning rock climbing in proximity to cultural heritage sites.

Sobering words from those with the hands on the levers of power to control climbing. This is the first of many future papers from academics. As climbing becomes more mainstream (Olympics, Free Solo etc) we can expect other scientists to turn their attention to our recreational activity. This particular paper is a call to arms for land managers to regulate or ban climbing by highlighting the worst examples the authors could find – a handful of routes out of over 10,000 climbs at the Grampians, The Black Range and Arapiles. Both of the unfortunate safety bolts near art site examples given were installed by the same person. It is clear that the authors want state authorities to start prosecutions using the current legislation (more about that later). We have been told Ben Gunn has been pronouncing this report would entirely validate the huge climbing bans in the Grampians and draft versions of this report have very much triggered the sweeping assessments occurring across the Grampians – 126 climbing areas are to be assessed for cultural heritage harm by March this year.

Here a few of our suggestions of a proportional response to the threat of damage to cultural heritage from climbing:

  1. Signage at individual sites like what we see at Arapiles (no cages required). If an area is a registered site make it clear at the site itself (not a vague sign at the carpark). The Gallery was a registered site for 20 years and no one knew. That is an absurd position to put climbers in.
  2. Clearer wording on the signage (call it art/quarry not the vague “cultural heritage values” & make it clear the art is hard to see)
  3. Work with climbing access groups to agree on areas where no new route development should occur in the future. This is the big one and seems to not have been raised at any meeting. New routes is what brings potenial future damage.
  4. Refine closed areas to more reasonable sized parcels of land – not 551km. You will get much more acceptance from climbers.
  5. Deal with individuals who do wrong rather than punishing the whole community/sport for the actions of a few individuals.

EASTERN MAAR ABORIGINAL CORPORATION ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING REPORT

Eastern Maar is one of the three traditional owner corporations that is co-managing the Grampians National Park with Parks Victoria. Not much is known about this groups involvement with the climbing issues – at the recent Rockclimbing Roundtable (which they didn’t attend) a representative from the government told the assembled climbing groups that rockclimbing “was high on their priority list but not their top priority.” There have been limited other public statements about their intentions so it was interesting to read their 2019 AGM report which contained some mention of rock-climbing.

Hollow Mountain climbing area features on the front cover.

Make no doubts about it. This group believes that at least some parts of the Grampians is “Eastern Marr Country” and they are moving to limit access to their area like what has happened at Uluru. Their document talks about Eastern Maar citizens and “future proofing our corporation for our next generations“. The new CEO, Marcus Clarke, talks about his intention to “look closer at the opportunities that the native title legislation offers our community, especially economic opportunities.

This AGM report has a section about cultural heritage that dealt specifically with the climbing issue. It revealed some interesting stuff:

Let’s break it down paragraph by paragraph:

“Eight registered Aboriginal Places have been identified by Parks Victoria staff as having harm done by activities undertaking by rock climbers. Parks Victoria closed these sites to climbing activities and implemented no climbing activities in Special Protection Areas (SPAs) as already prescribed in the Park Management Plan. These SPAs were extended to include all known rock art places and other cultural heritage that included areas where rock climbing was present.”

This does read a little like a press release from Parks Victoria. There is the usual mention of 8 focus sites and a lack of explanation that the additional bans via the SPA component cover 33% of the total National Park. What is new here is the claim that the eight “focus sites” have been identified as having “harm done by actives undertaking by rock climbers“. We were under the impression that at least some of these areas were closed to prevent harm in the future. A quick look at the list of 8 areas and it is apparent that two are not even climbing areas but caged art sites, whilst two others are rarely visited and contain low impact trad routes. Let’s look at the 8 areas…

Gondwanaland
We have always suspected, but never had confirmed, that Parks Victoria has confused the climbing area of Gondwanaland with the cliffline at Yanganaginj Njawi (Camp of the Emus Foot Shelter). Maybe the proximity of the two cliffs (they are about 300m apart – a long uphill 300m slog) means Gondwanaland is automatically offlimits? But Yanganaginj Njawi is not listed as a prohibited area – and it actually does contain caged art – and a few long forgotten trad routes from the 70s!

Yanganaginj Njawi (also listed as Jananginj Njani) is an art site once popular with tourists that appears to have been decommissioned by Parks Victoria about 20 years ago. In the ’90s & ’00s the access road was open and labeled “Camp of the Emus Foot”. At the end of this road, where you parked for Weirs Creek or Gondwaland climbing areas, was actually the old tourist carpark for the art site. Original access for Gondwanaland was to walk up to the caged art site and then traverse across under the cliffline for 300m then hike up the steep gully to arrive at the Gondwanaland cliffline. Later climbers walked directly up from the road rather than traversing thanks to bushfires clearing the scrubby vegetation in the gully. This climbing area contains no obvious caves suitable for art. The base of the cliff is vertical to slabby and vegetated. The routes are mixed climbs and the bolts are way off the deck. There doesn’t seem to be any harm done to cultural heritage at Gondwanaland. But because no information has ever been shared about assessments or cultural heritage in this area with the general public we just don’t know.

The Gallery
This has now been confirmed as a registered cultural heritage site quarry (2000) and there is chalk on at least one quarried edge and safety bolts and chalk in the rest of the cave. Harm done – sure.

Millennium Caves
There is one piece of rock art, an emu’s foot, in the middle of the lower cave. No climbing routes cross this piece of art. It remains untouched by climbers (and is not signposted). There are safety bolts and chalk in the rest of the cave. Harm done by climbing via proximity? OK.

Billimina Area
This is the caged art site of Billimina and has never been a climbing area. There is no harm by climbers to anything at this site. It was caged well before climbers started exploring this area in the 1970s. This area is infamous for Parks Victoria publishing a photo saying it was a climbers bolt placed in Aboriginal art – when it was actually an old bolt placed for a previous protective cage. Who can forget this memorable meme we made at the time…

Billywing Buttress
Now this is an interesting one. There is a climbing area called Billywing Buttress but the poor quality maps provided by Parks Victoria show it to the east of Billimina area – over near Cultivation Creek. The real Billywing is north-west of the Billimina and 1.2km away from where it is marked on the map.

So has Parks Victoria even got the right name on the right climbing area? Let’s just pretend they got the map correct and the real Billywing is one of the 8 key sites. What damage have climbers done? There is only one recorded ascent at this area on thecrag.com. One. Not exactly a popular area! It is so obscure 99.9% of Grampians climbers would have never heard of it. There is one route there with a single bolt placed in the early ’90s – located high up near the top of the cliff (it is a mixed route – all natural up until the very top where the bolt is). It may never have been repeated after 27 years. Harm done to cultural heritage? Seems highly doubtful considering the total lack of interest by climbers to this area.

Cave of Man Hands
The is a heavily chalked bouldering cave located about 700m from the Manja caged art site. No evidence has been supplied by Parks Victoria nor the archeologists of any cultural heritage harm by climbers in this cave or the surrounding walls. We presume it’s proximity to the Manja area and the visible chalk is a reason it is one of the 8 focus areas.

Little Hands Cave
This is a sport climbing cave 500m from the Manja Shelter. There are safety bolts and small amounts of chalk. It was no where near as popular and well used as the Gallery before both were closed last year. No evidence has been supplied by Parks Victoria nor the archeologists of any cultural heritage harm by climbers in this cave or the surrounding walls. We presume it’s proximity to the Manja area and the safety bolts are the reason it is one of the 8 focus areas.

Manja Area
Just like nearby Billimina this is a long established caged art site and has never been a climbing area. There is no harm by climbers to anything at this site. It was caged well before climbers started exploring this area in the 1970s. Zero harm from climbers.

The cage is the real harm here. #notclimbers

We hope that gives a fresh perspective on the 8 focus areas that we hear about so often. It’s disappointing to read in Eastern Marr’s AGM report that they were all sites that featured harm by climbers. It is just not true.

Now what was the next paragraph about climbing in the AGM?

“The response from the rock climbing community was to establish an advocacy group with the singular objective of access back into those places.”

Again, it seems surprising to us that they are surprised that climbers actually cared about these climbing areas and weren’t willing to just walk away. The passion about these areas is because climbers love these places and had a long history of using them. If the closures were just the 8 focus areas featured above there would have been far less outcry. But instead Parks Victoria included hundreds of areas tied up in the SPA’s including world famous climbing sites and places like Summerday Valley that historically were used by families as beginner training areas. This was a massive loss to the climbing community – it is the biggest climbing ban in the world and a place that attracted significant international visitors to the region.

“Currently, these places remain closed save for Summerday Valley which has access open to Licensed Tour Operators only. Eastern Maar is continuing to work through these complex issues to ensure a measured and considered approach is taken in the best interests of Eastern Maar citizens.”

This is a clear relationship shift between land manager and end user in the way our climbing areas will be managed. Whilst a Parks Victoria ranger is employed presumably for the benefit of all Victorians, an Aboriginal corporation is focused more on the benefits to their citizens. Climbers need to understand and work around this new relationship. It is unlikely that the needs of climbers is very high up the list of Eastern Maar’s priorities unless there is an economic opportunity. It is the interests of their citizens that take priority when decisions are made about these climbing areas.

“The eight Aboriginal Places that have been harmed are now the subject of an Aboriginal Victoria (AV) investigation. EMAC will be meeting with the AV Compliance Manager in December. It is noteworthy that the identification of harm was submitted to AV over 12 months ago. AV is still to visit the identified places.”

This is the first time we have heard about an investigation into these areas. And again we see the reference to all of them having been harmed despite a lack of evidence to that effect. It seems that there is certainly some friction between Eastern Maar and the government department Aboriginal Victoria. There is some juicy stuff here but we don’t know what it is.

This week Eastern Maar announced a major win for them with the receiving of Registered Aboriginal Party (RAP) status over a large section of south western Victoria (7.53% to be exact). The map shows the Grampians is not included.

Moving Forward

Climbers have shown a real willingness to try and overcome most of these concerns since these revelations were first made public. There has been a moratorium on placing new safety bolts that has been in place since late 2018. The focus sites have been kept out of by climbers. There are active discussions between clubs and access groups about chalk replacements and chalk cleanups. Due to demand retailers are now stocking these replacements. Many climbers are now quite informed on cultural heritage matters through social media and education via clubs and access organizations. CliffCare produced and distributed a great series of posters and books last year to all Melbourne gyms.

Is the future of climbing prosecutions, restrictions and a reputation in the gutter? It is for us to show this isn’t the path.

Please share…

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