All posts by orangeoverhang

Death of an Industry – Parks Victoria’s demolition of Grampians climbing tourism

In this article we explain how Parks Victoria’s ham-fisted approach to management is heavily compromising the viability and integrity of climbing guiding in the Grampians and Arapiles. We hold them to account for the imminent destruction of a 30+ year old industry that was once a shining beacon of light for regional tourism. Already struggling with a decade of natural disasters, surprise climbing bans and steady anti-climber sentiment from PV – the recent Covid19 outbreak is most certainly the final nail in the coffin for many of these small businesses.

Continue reading Death of an Industry – Parks Victoria’s demolition of Grampians climbing tourism

Target Climbers – Why The Negativity PV?

In recent weeks we have seen quite a few call-outs from government and tourist organizations for people to visit regional Victoria and help boost local economies struggling after the Black Summer bush fires. Climbing tourism is obviously an important aspect to some of the regions doing it tough – especially around Grampians and Arapiles. Traditionally climbers stay longer than the average tourist, booking accommodation for weeks at a time and visit in periods usually described as the “off season” – winters and outside of school/public holidays. They may not be the main tourist dollar makers but they help fill in the gaps outside of peak seasons.

Recent call to action for more visitors from tourist organization Visit Grampians

It made us think – what is Parks Victoria doing to help attract these valuable climber tourists to the regions? And how are they marketing climbing in public land when compared to other activities such as bush walking and mountain biking? We all know “brand climbing” has been heavily damaged by the bans and media statements from PV management in the last year. Surely they wouldn’t be actively damaging the reputation of climbing (and the outdoor education industry) would they?

There are two current Parks Victoria web pages that relate to climbing. The generic Victoria wide Things To Do – Rock Climbing page and the specific Rock climbing in the Grampians page. A quick scan shows they spend more time focusing on the potential negative impacts of climbing rather than the benefits.

Let’s look at the generic Victoria rock climbing page first, and compare to other pages on Parks Victoria’s website devoted to similar outdoor activates.

Straight away we can see the recent thinking in Parks Victoria’s management at work with their opening line “The best way to enjoy safe and sustainable rock climbing in a national park is with a guide.” Guiding is a tiny fraction of the usual users of rock climbing areas in Victoria but as we have seen at Summer Day Valley it appears this kind of top level control of users is their end game. Anyway – we digress.

A quick breakdown of stats of that page is required here:

The entire page contains 840 words, but less than 160 are devoted to positive messaging about climbing (less than 20%). The rest is a long list of reasons why climbing impacts the environment and potentially impacts cultural heritage. Does this seem welcoming? Certainly not. Anyone considering visiting the area and wanting to try climbing would be thinking they are doing the wrong thing. Many of the reasons given would apply to any visitor to any National Park area – not just climbers. For example, references to creation of informal tracks and bush campsites apply to everyone – not just climbers.

Do these other outdoor activities get the same level of scrutiny on Parks Victoria’s generic website? Let’s compare what else is listed on the Things to Do page. Let’s start with one that has a pretty bad reputation for high impacts – 4WDing.

The website devotes a mighty 130 words to the activity of 4WDing – and not a single mention of any negatives associated with it. Reading that it would seem it’s a total no-impact activity of the highest order and practiced by the best behaved citizens in the State. (queue laughter). How about the 4 legged equivalent?

The horse riding page gets 149 of happy positive messaging. Horses apparently just hover over the landscape leaving no impact. You can see that clearly in their supplied photo – absolutely no impact there. No mention of guides either. What about those evil 2 wheel devotees? Surely mountain biking would get the full force of wrath from Parks Victoria? Apparently not.

How good is bike riding! 423 words of encouragement coming your way guys! Zero mention of the controversies of track building that have blighted this activity for decades. OK – one more to go. This one has some participants quite literally graffiting over Aboriginal art sites, walking over rock quarries, lighting fires on total fireban days, camping illegally in caves and polluting waterways with human crap… hiking and bush walking.

Oh well. Another glowing review of an untouchable activity that according to Parks Victoria’s website has zero impact. 188 words and not single mention of leave no trace ethics.

It is clear that climbers are being singled out here far and above any other user group. If we were in the climbing industry (guides, retail, gyms) we would be kicking up a fuss to Parks Victoria about this negative portrayal of climbing on their website. But that is not the end of it – the negative press continues when you dare click on the dedicated Parks Victoria Grampians Rock Climbing Page. This is a litany of negativity far surpassing the generic page:

If we were being highly generous 148 words out of 1715 are devoted to neutral or positive statements about climbing. That is a staggering 89% negativity index on information provided to the general public about climbing in the Grampians. Where is information about cool places to climb? Inspirational photos to draw in more visitors? Nada. None. Zip.

The damage that information like this does to the climbing tourism industry is hard to quantify. But in a time when regional areas are struggling to stay afloat it amazes us that this is the angle that Parks Victoria is taking. We wonder what the regional tourism body that runs the Visit Grampians website thinks of PV’s approach?

How does this rock climbing page compare to information pages about other Grampians activities like bush walking and 4WDing? Surprise! Those pages don’t exist. They are so blameless PV doesn’t feel it is necessary to give any advice about how to reduce impacts for other activites. Take a look at at the information page about the Hollow Mountain walk for example…

No mention of off-track trail damage (there is plenty!), no mention of damage to rock from graffiti (there is history of that) and no mention of taking care of Aboriginal sites (the track walks straight over a quarry).

Hollow Mountain official tourist track walks straight over this alleged Aboriginal quarry

So why are climbers being singled out here? We can only presume because they have kicked up a fuss about bans over 33% of the Grampians and more recently at Dec Crag at Arapiles and questioned a lot of the reasons given for the bans.

Roundtable 4 is happening this afternoon – will the shaming of climbers in the public sphere continue?

Please share… and don’t forget to read the 50+ previous articles we have published.

Chalky Busine$$

  • Private contractors propose “expensive” clean up of chalk “graffiti” at taxpayers expense
  • Parks Victoria does intensive environmental assessments of 8 crags, but cocks up the maths saying there was 7.4 hectares of damage when it was actually 0.74 hectares (the ol’ slippery decimal point problem)
  • Lookout Point Wall is the latest crag to be closed to climbing (and to be reopened for commercial guiding only?)
  • Latest FOI reveals PV management misled Government minister
  • Photo evidence of climber’s misdeeds finally revealed (and surprise surprise they mostly don’t involve climbers)

Welcome back dear readers. It has been a little time between drinks but a lot has been going on and the splintering of access groups and further divisions amoung once good friends continues. This whole thing will make a great case study one day but there is still many years to go before an end will be in sight.

We are going to start by analyzing the 3rd Roundtable discussion that occurred in early December between PV, their contractors and climbing groups. We have been waiting for well over a month now for detailed statements from any of the eleven climbing groups who attended – but have not seen any. So this article will have to do. There was so much heavy stuff discussed we find it very surprising that none of the participants thought it was worth writing about despite the meeting going for over 3 hours. Why are they there again?

If you want to read the sanitized version of the meeting download the official notes below.

The two main components of this meeting were presentations from Parks Victoria specialists on environmental assessments and archeology. PV had made a real effort to let these experts address the climbing reps directly and at length. Unfortunately, once again, there was no Traditional Owner representatives at this roundtable meeting. Their perspective continues to be missing. Having an old white guy talk about their heritage is a little odd to be honest.

Environmental Assessments

It came as a bit of surprise to most attendees that 96 climbing sites had already been assessed to date, out of 126 in total. All are to be completed by March 2020 and it was noted that all SPAs have now been reviewed. No one thought to ask for the list of 126 sites – and which ones had or hadn’t been assessed by Parks Victoria so far. There are over 600 climbing crags in the Grampians according to thecrag.com – but we don’t really have an idea on how PV have divided up the climbing areas geographically. Are they doing all climbing areas in the Grampians, including the incredibly obscure and remote trad crags scattered across the range, or is this just crags in guidebooks? There are 62 crags in the current selected crags print guidebook for roped climbing and 29 in the bouldering guide. So that doesn’t even add up. Matthew Jackson, CEO of PV said these 126 sites had been created by looking at “bouldering guidelines, Vertical Life, climbing statistics, thecrag.com, LTOs feedback and knowledge of our staff“. Right then. Anyone from VCC or ACAV? (crickets chirping)

Parks Victoria have also conducted and completed a series of more detailed surveys on 8 climbing sites. These were done to get a more data driven measure of the environmental disturbance at climbing areas. Again, no one in the audience from eleven different climbing organizations asked for the list of 8 areas that had been assessed. In the presentation PV mentioned and showed photos of five areas – Andersens, Bundaleer, Summerday Valley, Venus Baths and Camp Sandy. The last one is interesting as Camp Sandy is not a climbing area but instead an informal campground used by climbers and non-climbers and is situated in an old quarry that looks better now than it did in the 1990s. According to bush camping regulations it is also legal. We don’t know the location of the remaining three sites.

According to PV there were two aims of the assessments: 

  1. To gain an understanding of the total area of vegetation removed from around rockclimbing and bouldering sites.
  2. Document the nature of other disturbances other than vegetation removal at these sites.

They measured unofficial and official trackways. They calculated polygon areas of impacted ground disturbance across different systems and looked for other impacts and disturbances. Main impacts they assessed were: vegetation clearance of loss, formation of side tracks, evidence of constructed fires, toilet waste, general rubbish, evidence of cinnamon fungus (die back), cut tree stumps, weeds, physical climbing equipment, camping equipment, evidence of climbing activity and evidence of bouldering.

According to Mark Norman – Chief Conservation Scientist and Executive Director, Environment and Science, Parks Victoria “They weren’t attributing the damage seen to climbers, they were just documenting what they have seen. It could even be historical Parks Victoria activity.

What is interesting with these assessments is they don’t have reference data for these sites in the past to show the changes over time. All the five areas we know about have been used by non-climbers before climbing was ever a thing. None of these areas required dedicated climbers tracks to be created to access them for example – tracks already existed from bushwalkers, loggers and of course quite possibly traditional owners pre-colonization. And lets not forget the total absence of vegetation after bush fires that regularly sweep these areas. The results, if used to smear climbers, certainly need to be taken with a grain of salt. However their process to get the data seemed comprehensive and scientific if the following photo is anything to go by.

High viz, clipboards, helmets. Seven Parks Victoria staff assessing Bundaleer. Even at minimum wage this has got to be costing them a pretty penny to do. Imagine if they just spent the money actually doing track work?

Their results indicated the “area of environmental disturbance calculated over the eight sites has been measured at 7.425 hectares“. That is a big figure – 74,000 square metres – about half the claimed damage the new Peaks Trail will cause to the Grampians (14.4 ha). We didn’t think that seemed right so we checked their maths. Let’s look at the chart they supplied in their presentation giving totals of each of the areas.

Their own chart says 7425 sq m – that is 0.74 hectares not 7.4 hectares! It’s almost unbelievable their great scientific endeavor to “gain an understanding of the total area of vegetation removed from around rockclimbing and bouldering sites” could be out by a factor of 10. But there it is. Another fudged figure from Parks Victoria used to discredit climbers. Who has been sent this figure? Ministers? CEOs? Friends of the Grampians? We think climbers deserve some sort of apology and retraction.

Let’s hope they don’t take that bullshit figure and start extrapolating it by the 100 or so other crags to get some crazy combined figure. The 5 sites we do know they assessed are some of the most popular and large areas in the Grampians. They would certainly not be any sort of average representative of Grampians climbing.

One of their maps showing that the track running along the base of Bundaleer is apparently not an “official” track despite a PV sign at the entrance and PV installed signage at the Manic Depressive cave. This track is at least a 80 years old as the old “camping cave” was well used by bushwalkers before modern climbers arrived. And don’t forget the Traditional Owners who also certainly used this area and would have had a trail along the cliff base.
They recorded six unauthorized fireplaces at Bundaleer alone. The ones in the cave pre-date climbers by decades (and possibly thousands of years) and are still used by bushwalkers.
They found 8 or 10 of these sticks thrown in the bushes. They also claimed these had been broken off live trees (which is not correct). Tape is litter people!
Toilet waste recorded at the base of boulders at Venus Baths. Now why would a climber crap at the base of the thing they want to climb? Could it not be the tourists flocking past these very boulders sipping a bowel loosening latte on the way to the summit?
Carvings in rock as seen all over Grampians tourist sites – recorded but not directly attributed to climbers.
According to their presentation there are “semi-permanent occupations in some parts of the Grampians”. This is one of their photos from Camp Sandy.

It’s important to understand this level of scrutiny is not being applied to other user groups. PV like to say “we are documenting evidence of direct human impacts from all activities on the sites” but the fact is these assessments are being done at climbing areas not bushwalking trails and lookouts. How many poops would they find along other sections of the tourist track to the Pinnacle Lookout? Look behind any boulder or large tree up that way and you will find the mark of man. Or woman. And a bit of toilet paper.

Anecdotal evidence from climbing guides who work regularly in the Grampians have seen a lot more tourists coming into Summer Day Valley and the old climbing site at Sundail then ever before. The amount of general public walking past because of the Peaks Trail has increased 10 fold according to one guide. The amount of soil loss because of increased tourist traffic  in the last year is obvious. Sand erodes leaving rocks which get thrown off cliffs by tourists causing vegetation damage. PV realigned tracks, such as the one at Hollow Mtn, are attracting a lot more people off the tourist track and coming into SDV and walking straight through the rock tool scatter site. Controlling the general public on their walking trails should also be a concern with the same level of public scrutiny.

According to Matthew Jackson, “Parks Victoria is willing to use this data to improve climbing sites by formalizing some of the unofficial tracks. In terms of environmental impact they will continue to assess more sites, looking at other places where there are impacts, and then they will create some sort of grading scale. From minimal, to needs some form of remediation vs needs major remediation vs this has significance because of some high environmental value. That process may lead to things like areas being fenced off like at Summer Day Valley.” This seems a positive step to keeping access open to crags. But he did stress that they “have yet to sit down with Traditional Owners and ask them “here is the facts, what would you like to do and how would you like us to do that?

In general we believe these were a reasonably fair and scientific assessment of climbing areas with a sensible methodology applied. The data gained will be useful in decades to come as base data. They just need to work on their maths!

To see the full powerpoint presentation from the Environmental assessment team and a few more photos and charts download the file below:

Archeology Assessments

The second part of the roundtable was a presentation by archeologist’s Ben Gunn and Andrew Thorne. According to the official notes they are:

Archaeologists specialising in conservation of cultural materials with a special interest in mural paintings, rock paintings, sculpture and monuments. Environmental monitoring and deterioration assessments. Collection surveying and management. Passive environmental control systems. Paint analysis including archaeological investigations of painted monuments. Archaeological conservation. Technical imaging including 3D modelling.

Qualifications coming out of the wazoo it seems. It is our understanding that they are contractors to PV, not direct employees. Their job is to find and record archeological sites, but also to offer solutions to restore and protect these sites. In the context of climbing they appear to also be tasked with removing evidence of climbing chalk and bolts from cliffs – even at areas where it has not impacted cultural heritage. It was difficult to judge if what they said was their personal opinion or official parks Victoria policy (they had a lot to say).

Before you read any further please make sure you read our background article about these two – An Escalating Conflict – Archeologists Anti Climber Bias?

Check out archaeologist Ben Gunn’s powerpoint presentation to the Round Table 3 about the impact of climbing.

Where do we start? I think it’s easiest to see his first slide.

Straight away we can see that this is not going to be a positive presentation and draws from these two archeologists “Escalating Conflict” presentation we have written above previously. Let’s see slide #2.

Here we see again this misleading information trotted out to scare climbers into submission and used as an excuse to shut down huge areas of the Grampians from the mere act of climbing. For starters all National Park land is automatically an “area of cultural heritage sensitivity“. That just means the land manager can’t do whatever they want to the land without some process and planning. That is a no brainer considering what a National Park is. The clincher used against climbing is the mandatory “high impact activity” line. If you actually read the Aboriginal Heritage Regulations 2018 it appears the act of rock climbing doesn’t even remotely fit into the definition of a “high impact activity” and thus does not require an approved cultural heritage management plan (and subsequent issuing of a costly permit to harm as we have seen at Summerday Valley and potentially other areas). This legislation is written to manage the construction of mines, housing estates, logging, dams, highwayss etc over the top of Aboriginal sites. Take a look at the described “high impact activities“:

We challenge Parks Victoria to show us what part of these described activities the recreational activity of rock climbing fits into. There are also plenty of exemptions for quite extreme “developments” such as building rock walls, fences, gardens, tree lopping and construction of swimming pools. Think about these when you see some of the photo evidence used against climbers. Take a read of the full list of exemptions:

Surely this is a potential legal angle our access groups should be pushing? Are these archeologists feathering their own nests by misleading Parks Victoria and TOs into thinking they need to be making costly Cultural Heritage Management Plans for individual climbing areas? Remember every minute these guys are working is costing the taxpayer considerable dollars. No climber is proposing the construction of a house or a mine in the Grampians. This just doesn’t add up.

The next part of the archeology presentation was based around what Grampians cultural heritage actually looks like. This is valuable information for climbers out in the bush – if they are ever allowed back in there again.

Might be better to phrase it as “all” damage is inadvertent. There has been no evidence presented showing malicious damage by climbers to art sites.

An example of hard to see rock art enhanced with a simple phone camera app called Dstretch. Although it does do an ok job of enhancing some forms of rock art we have personally found if you just look closely at a section of cliff with the naked eye you can see everything this app picks up. Either way – anyone bouldering or working moves at ground level in cave areas needs to pay attention to what is on the rock. At $30 this app can help. But if in any doubt stay off the rock! The following are examples of hard to see art photographed and enhanced by Ben Gunn.

Scratchings have only recently been discovered in the Grampians. Scratched outline and rubbed interior. Revealing the extent of these hidden art sites takes considerable work.

Flaking and rock quarrying . Ben mentioned that there has been very little study about these and they been recorded all over Australia on quartzite.

Lots of pieces on the ground below these sites are discarded bits of rock that didn’t quite work as tools (it’s literally hit and miss to make them). One of the participants at the meeting asked Ben “So the remaining rock is intact and you would have to take a tool to it to do any further damage to it?”. He replied “Yere“. Considering we have bans at The Gallery and Summerday Valley because of potential damage to rock quarrying this is an odd thing to say.

When asked what is the highest location where quarries have been found Ben said about 3m up in a cave in the northern Black Range where quartz pebbles in the ceiling had been bashed out. Ben also mentioned that rock quarries may not just be about extracting stone tools but also “There is a lot of archaeology now looking at soundscapes – maybe the act of bashing the rock itself might have been the act“. Percussion from rocks. Interesting concept and, according to Ben, entirely speculative.

Floor deposits in cave areas are a highly valuable source of information for archeologists. By digging up the layers they can identify fires, bones and tools left behind over time. One amazing fact is that at one site in the Grampians a shallow 45 centimeter dig revealed 25,000 years of human history. Erosion prevention needs to be addressed at cave climbing sites with soil floors. The wooden walkway beneath Manic Depressive was a solution to this problem made about a decade ago. The Declaration Crag restriction at Arapiles is based partly on scatters found along the base of the cliff. Could a walkway across certain sections fix this?

Ben also discussed the two infamous near misses in the Black Range area where bolts were placed near two art sites about 5 years ago. He pointed out (rightly) that a sign at the entrance of Red Rock (Black Ians) clearly spells out the situation “please do not use bolts or other permanent climbing aids as they damage cultural values“. The sole person responsible for these bolts cocked up and has damaged the reputation of all climbers by ignoring the signs and placing these safety bolts. All we can suggest is that the term “cultural values” is a little vague to the ignorant and suggest something intangible that could not be physically damaged. It’s a shitty excuse but maybe an interpretive sign that clearly says there is rock art on these cliffs that is hard to see would be beneficial to secure the future of Cultural Heritage in this area. There is much evidence of tourists scrawling their names along the base of this cliff who are also probably ignorant of what it contains. As a side note – we have measured the distance between the art and the bolt hole and we got 3.5m – not 1m as claimed by Ben in his presentation slide above. A protection bolt for lead climbing would serve no purpose 2m above the ground. It is also worth noting that the route that this bolt was part of traversed in from the right, it did not start where the art is. This art remains untouched and the bolt (and thus the route) has now been removed.

These next are photos from Burrunj North in the Black Range where the same person responsible for the bolts at Black Ians also placed more safety bolts near art in 2017. Again, the art remains undamaged. This entire area has largely been ignored by climbers for many decades with the last recorded ascent on thecrag.com in 2006. It was showing no sign of any resurgence when these bolts were placed then removed shortly after. It’s sobering to imagine the cost in real money to government, time, friendships, fractured community etc caused by this person and these couple of misplaced bolts. It has quite literally split our climbing world apart.

Rock damage attributed to climbers and the empty hole of the 10mm bolt. The holes left by the removed bolts may look tiny and insignificant but the archeologists are worried that water trapped in the rock can leach out of bolts holes and damage the art below. There does not seem to be any evidence of this happening at this site however and no attempt seems to have been made to patch the holes up after 3 years. A ladder and a simple bit of Selleys Knead It epoxy putty would do the job and leave the cave looking relatively untouched. We expect there will be a much more complex solution dreamed up. How many meetings so far?

The same cave where these bolts were placed is also a popular camping spot for local non-climbers. The archeologists said “With excessive use of shelters you have an extremely disturbed floor deposit here. It’s getting close to being possibly worthless [for archeology purposes]”. They admitted goats were just as much a problem as humans in caves such as this. Are they blaming climbers for this camp setup when the reality is climbers just don’t visit this place at all compared to tourists? Without installing cages what is the solution to protect this?

Chalky Business

Now we get to a slide from Ben Gunn that was so contentious that it resulted in a 30 minutes discussion at the Roundtable meeting.

The quote comes from a pretty bizarre source – a book called Graffiti in Antiquity

This is where it gets murky. Is this bold statement Ben Gunn’s personal opinion or the official legal policy of Parks Victoria? Attendees of the roundtable thought that Ben went a bit off script at this point and this slide even took some of the PV staff in attendance off guard. It certainly went down like a lead balloon amoung the climbers in the room. Most would think that graffiti is usually done with a sense of malice, deliberation and even artistic intent. When questioned one of the archeologists said “Parks Victoria here are serving 4 million Victorians and 4 million Victorians haven’t agreed to putting these marks on the rock“.

We have to ask the question – since climbing chalk has been extensively used by almost every climber since the 1970s, and climbing has had formal consent to happen in the Grampians by Parks Victoria – does this not give consent for the use of chalk as a key part of climbing? It’s certainly no secret that climbers use chalk and no one in PV can pretend they didn’t know about the previous 50 years of chalk use in the Grampians. Chalk has been banned for use in Summerday Valley commercial guiding – it is one of the requirements in the new permit system. Is the age of indiscriminate chalking over? Let’s quickly explore why chalk exists in the first place.

Why is chalk use so popular amongst climbers? Because it works. It allows climbers to hold on for longer and to use smaller holds. It also allows climbing in hotter or humid conditions. The author of this article has found chalk gives us a 30% increase in holding duration compared to no chalk in controlled tests at the gym.

We all know ropes, harnesses and climbing protection keep us from hurting ourselves when we climb. But chalk is also of immense safety benefit to climbers. Sudden and unexpected falls are the most serious type of fall where injury is most likely to happen. Someone slipping off a hold may catch the belayer off guard resulting in either a longer fall or a hard catch. On runout routes or highball boulder problems the ability to remove sweat from hands and hang on can be the literal difference between life, significant injury or even death. Think of it as the difference between driving on a wet road or driving on a dry road. We all know the former is way more dangerous.

Chalk use is the universally acceptable solution to sweaty hands around the globe, both indoors and outdoors. The situation is we have people who land in Melbourne airport and go straight to the Grampians and they are going to use chalk. Managing that is going to hard. Other solutions have come and gone over the decades but white chalk still remains king across the climbing scene. What are the other solutions that exist apart from going chalk celibate?

There are coloured chalks available overseas in two different rock shades made by Climbing Addicts. At $18 a pop (+ postage from the USA) it is not cheap. Normal white chalk is half the price and readily available in Australia. Can an Aussie based wholesaler import this for cheaper?

Metolius makes a product called the Eco Ball which is described as a “highly absorbent and eco-friendly alternative to chalk that leaves no trace on the rock.” It is sold in a small sealed bag that you squeeze rather than loose powder. Apparently it is a product called Fumed Silica that is not actually that great for your lungs. It is not known what the long term residue it leaves on the rock does for friction. Apparently this product is currently out of stock Australia wide. A sign of the times?

The best thing we can do is limit the use of chalk in general. Using a refillable chalk ball is one easy way of reducing large chalk spills and over chalking. And there is certainly no harm in trying to go cold turkey – at least on routes that are well under your limit. Leave the chalkbag on the ground and give it a go.

Legacy Chalk Cleanups

What PV and the archeologists are seriously proposing is formal chalk cleanups of areas well used by climbers – and a possible ban on any chalk use moving forward. As PV’s CEO Matthew Jackon said “We are saying they [climbing areas] need to be put back to where they were to the best of our ability and protected for another 20,000 years“. Climbers in the Grampians haven’t done any organized chalk cleanups in the past that we are aware of (and they probably wish they did now). But the simple act of brushing the holds of tickmarks and excess chalk is common place and has been actively promoted by climbing clubs and access groups. For example take a look at CliffCares web page about chalk:

Seems good right? Apparently not. Brushes are also on the naughty list – and have been banned for use by commercial groups in Summerday Valley. Whilst most climbers would consider brushing off chalk to be a good thing, and something PV would encourage, it appears this is not the case. 

When climbers at the roundtable questioned what damage brushing chalk off holds was doing the answer was “It’s doing damage, it’s doing another type of damage. We won’t go into that as it’s a technical detail”. We guess that’s why they get paid the big bucks?

Apparently they had done some tests with “stainless steel toothbrushes” at The Gallery (?!) and it had “absolutely zero impact” on the chalk. Not sure when Colgate started selling stainless steel toothbrushes? These “experts” are ignoring decades of climber’s experience in removing chalk using soft brushes, usually made of boars hair, that create a much larger surface area to remove chalk without the rock damage potential of metal wire brushes (a huge no no in the climbing community). There are whole swathes of brushes being manufactured specifically to remove climbers chalk on holds.

Examples of specific brushes sold for removing climbing chalk

We all know that the simple act of rain washes off chalk entirely on routes that are vertical or slabby. It’s not some magic adhesive that bonds with the rock in any sort of permanent way. Climbers outside of the Grampians have done very successful chalk clean ups of built up chalk on overhung terrain by using simple spray bottles of water and a towel to soak up the chalk laced water that runs off. It doesn’t even need brushing to create crystal clean holds with minimal effort. This is not rocket science.

Simple and effective chalk removal by climbers in the Blue Mountains

But guess what happens when art experts get paid to find a solution to chalk removal? Suddenly it gets a lot more complex. This is what they announced at the Roundtable:

“We have established the methodology and it’s expensive. It’s not something we would normally hand over to volunteers to do unsupervised. With Jake Goodes who is the cultural heritage officer in that region we are working on a strategy to present to Parks Victoria to undo that damage.”

We are not sure if their intention is to remove chalk at just the 8 key sites (Gallery, Millennium etc), or across all Grampians crags where chalk is visible. And once the chalk is removed we presume there is no more chalk use allowed at the site.

It will be absolutely in the contractors financial best interest to make sure their proposal is as complex and expensive as possible. Whilst climbers say they could just brush the chalk off – or use a bit of water in a squirter bottle, it is clear that isn’t what is being proposed to PV by these contractors. There was even mention that the proposed clean up “requires scaffolding or climbing to state the obvious.”. This sounds costly and your tax paying dollars are going to pay for it.

Considering many climbers day job is window cleaning skyscrapers it would seem the climbing community could be well qualified to do this work. Do they get a chance to do a competitive quote? Or how about just a simple working bee every couple years on the worst affected areas? That would cost PV $0.

The fourth rock climbing roundtable has been scheduled for Thursday 5 March 2020. Expect some big news thrown our way again from PV. The previous three roundtables have been very much a one way street where PV tells the climbers what they have already done. There still appears to be little appetite for PV to allow any climbers to have any input before they decide to do something.

Minister’s Briefs revealed in latest FOI

No – we are not talking about underwear. Anyone following this sorry saga for the last year has been frustrated at the lack of any response from the Victorian government minister responsible for Parks Victoria – Lily D’Ambrosio. Despite numerous total falsehoods being trotted out by Parks Victoria in public messaging (which we have attempted to refute here) the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change has refused to issue any public statements apart from a recycled letter via Parks Victoria to people who wrote directly to her. Many of these letters were heartfelt pleas for help and further information. None were individually replied to – all we got was a letter full of the same falsehoods as we had seen from Parks Victoria. We covered her pathetic reply in this article.

Now this got us thinking – what is she basing her decision making and messaging on? Ministers receive “briefs” from their departments which give them the background info on a particular subject. How about we seek these briefs through Freedom Of Information to see why she refuses to interact personally on the issue. Was she being misled by PV management? The resulting documents we received can be downloaded below:

It begins with a brief dated 19/3/2019. This was about a month after the large scale SPA bans had been announced – and we presume the mainstream media attention, letters from climbers and petitions with 25,000 signatures had made her wonder what all the fuss was about.

What is astounding is item #10 & 11 in this first brief.

It appears Traditional Owners were informed about these bans on the very same day climbers were! So, far from them working hand in hand with PV, it seems they were kept in the dark until the whole thing was in place as well. This is an intriguing piece of information. The relationship between PV and TOs is fairly opaque to outsiders (that information is almost always redacted in FOI requests) so knowing that they were not involved in the initial decision to ban climbers from 33% of the Grampians does reveal the power structures at play. Although that does seem to counter what the document say later on…

So it appears PV acted very much unilaterally in restricting climbing in fear of failing to “meet legislative obligations“.

Then we get a list of the reasons for the restrictions – and a couple of bit of photographic “evidence” we have not seen before. Is it questionable? Hell yere!

The bizarre and discredited growth stats are there front and centre. And as usual there is no reference to where these ridiculous growth claims have come from. We certainly know there has not been 6000 new routes established in the Grampians since 2003. Their figure came from misinterpreting stats on thecrag.com. And saying that there is now 10x as many climbers is also laughable. Remember at 80,000 climbers a year that equals 220 climbers in the park every single day. We challenge Parks Victoria to do a climbing census any day of the week to show the real figure. The figure is probably closer to 10% of that if you exclude large commercial groups who go to the same tired and worn out venues.

We know we keep banging on about this – but it is very important. This is the evidence used against climbers to seek such a wide ban. Of course if there really was 10x growth they needed to act but it is simply NOT TRUE. Now for their photo evidence… (remember this was the best they had to present to the minister)

Four photos from the one small bouldering area of Venus Baths – which is located right next to a major tourist track. As we have seen above in the later Environmental assessment process they seem to forget where this area is actually located and the proximity to heavy tourist usage. Yes there is small amounts of vegetation damage and erosion. Did they end up banning this area? No. Funny stuff.

Now these three photos at Millennium Caves are particularly galling for climbers as they feature human impact from non-climbers. For those that know the area there are three caves. The bottom and top caves have climbing, whilst the middle one is a giant pile of decaying sand and of zero interest to climbers. It does however have a large sandy floor and has been used as a camping caves for eons – and more recently by large school groups etc. We have personally witnessed groups as large as 50 people camping there on a weekend – none of them are climbers. The photos above of a fire place and stone formations are all in this middle cave and probably not the creations of climbers – but tourists. The photo of the small sawn tree branch on the access track is another misdirection used to discredit climbers. There is no way of identifying who sawed this tree – and even if it was alive when sawn. Do we even know someone used a chainsaw rather than a handsaw? Why would a climber do that? To us it looks like someone getting firewood. There is plenty of bogans in 4WDs chainsawing trees in the bush that are not climbers. They seem to be drawing a long bow presenting these to the minister as climber’s damage. The “unofficial” track to Millennium predates climbers and was once used by visitors who also visited the once signposted but now abandoned Cave of Fishes art site (which is on the opposite side of the road). Millennium caves is still being visited by campers and tourists to this day. They are still making rock piles and fires. Did banning climbers stop this? No.

Finally a photo that does reveal some pretty embarrassing levels of chalk at The Gallery. That this was the extent of photo evidence presented to the minister (no photos of safety bolts in art for example) is a telling sign of the lack of evidence used for banning climbing across such a large area. Oddly what is missing is any mention of the quarry at The Gallery or other cultural heritage in these photos.

In another brief produced for the minister by Parks Victoria we see some further sections of interest.

Item #23 openly admits that they did not implement the SPA ban built into the 2003 management ban for over 15 years and even “facilitated access to, or provided advice about, climbing in contradiction to the provisions of the management plan.” Later on they say “One example of this inconsistent action was that PV developed infrastructure to support climbing in the Hollow Mountain/Summerday Valley area of the GNP despite this area being within an SPA.” At least they were willing to admit this to the minister. Shame they couldn’t do the same when writing to climbers, the media and their own website.

Item #25 is a bit more worrying and talks about one of the elephants in the room that doesn’t seem to have surfaced in any meetings between PV and climbing access groups – the liability of safety bolts. They mention that PV tests bolts at Melbourne crag the You Yangs, but this would only be the top anchor bolts used (and installed for) commercial guiding – not the hundreds of lead bolts on almost every route there. What is PV’s strategy for dealing with this inconsistency? There are thousands of climbing safety bolts on land they manage. Over the last three decades many original bolts have been replaced with modern stainless steel anchors rated to several tonnes and specified to European climbing anchor standards. This installation work has been done by volunteers from the climbing community and at considerable expense. There would be hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of safety bolts in PV managed land. Thought bubble – when TOs get ownership of land are they then responsible for the safety bolts? The fact this item lurks in a brief to the minister is a bit of a worry to be honest.

Item #31 also mentions “risks to the organization in relation to visitor safety“. Are they referring to the risk of untested bolts again – or is climbing in itself considered a risk to visitor safety? It is not clear.

The brief also contains the type of question and answer suggestions made famous in political satires such as Utopia. Are the stakeholders annoyed at the decisions made from your government? Say this:

In a minister’s brief dated 30/4/2019 the first 10 items are blacked out (most likely something to do with commercial in confidence or traditional owner issues) and the first readable item, #11 is concerning.

State-wide response” should ring alarm bells. So far the rock-climbing roundtable meetings seem to be focusing exclusively on the Grampians – not the rest of Victorian climbing areas. It appears PV have every intention of making it a state-wide issue. The other sentence that comes out of no-where in this paragraph mentions that PV and TOs recently discovered “up to nine incidents of potential harm to five Rock Art sites in the Red Rock Bushland Reserve [Black Ians Rocks] and eight in the Back Range State Park.” Now we all know writing “up to” means you can write anything you want, but this level of harm has never been mentioned before. We know of three bolts that came within a few metres of two separate art sites. They are talking about 17 incidents. We have never seen photos or read mention about this previously. Perhaps it is the graffiti written by non-climbers on cliffs that they are referring to? There is certainly quite a history of Joe Public scrawling their name on rocks along tourist tracks and these two climbing areas show much evidence of these types of “Joe was ‘ere” style graffiti spanning many years. It appears climbers are again copping it for something we didn’t do. This type of graffiti is always evident at shared use areas – but never at climbing only areas. Any guesses what will happen when you remove climbers and let Joe Public loose with no oversight?

Lastly we see the usual multi-page redactions applied when any discussions are had with Traditional Owners. Do these eventually get released after 20 years or something?

No one should be under any illusion that the TOs are unhappy with the full scale SPA bans. It says it right there in the briefs. They have “welcomed the decision.

So there you have it. These briefs from PV to the minister appear to be riddled with significant false information and presented as fact. She can only work with what her department heads present to her and it appears they really let her down. More alarmingly these falsehoods are what has been used to continue the draconian bans against climbers in the Grampians. Which now include…

Lookout Point Wall – climbing banned

It has been revealed that this popular beginner area near Halls Gap is actually in a Special Protection Area (SPA). An email from Parks Victoria to an LTO in January confirmed…

“that Lookout Point Wall is within a SPA. Parks Victoria is currently discussing with Traditional Owners the potential for Licensed Tour Operators to have access to this climbing destination. Until this matter is resolved, climbing is not permitted at Lookout Point Wall.”

That little brown circle next to Sundail Carpark is the Lookout Point Wall SPA. The map is dated 30 August 2019.

Why this tiny area is an SPA is not known. This is history repeating itself and mirrors what happened happened at Summer Day Valley. It was also in an SPA and previously heavily used by commercial guiding companies. Since climbing is apparently not an approved activity in SPAs Parks Victoria and TOs worked out a convoluted solution which simultaneously banned all recreational climbers and added a complex system of bookings, inductions, policing and permits that expire every 6 months leaving no job security for guiding staff. What really got our goat was excluding climbers who are not part of commercial companies. It seems Lookout Point Wall is most likely to go down the same path towards heavy handed bureaucracy. Allegedly a well known guiding company was still using this site in December and was unaware it was an SPA, and presumably PV hadn’t noticed either. What crag will be next? How about over at Arapiles…

Declaration Crag Information Session

Back in December 2019 Parks Victoria and Barengi Gadjin Land Council (BGLC) announced a prohibition on all access to Declaration Crag after the discovery of Aboriginal art and other cultural heritage items. Much like Summer Day and Lookout Point this was a popular area for easy routes and was well used by commercial guiding. This ban is apparently a temporary solution “while a longer-term management response is being explored“. PV & BGLC hosted a community information drop-in session about this on Wednesday in Natimuk. It was attended by about 150 people, although most had to stand outside because PV said that the hall only had capacity for 45. It was not just climbers who attended but plenty of locals who seemed concerned about the process. Michael Stewart took the floor (BGLC CEO and confessed ‘white-fella’). He was the only attendee from BGLC (the organisation) but the glaring issue was that he is an employee of the family groups that comprise BGLC and that he isn’t privy (in his own words) to all the information and decision making processes that go on around land management. No roadmap was offered, and nothing will be happening in the short term. Apparently resources to do with cultural heritage assessments are all being used in the Grampians and in bush fire related assessments elsewhere. There will be no access anytime soon, for anyone. Currently there are no determinations that legally prevent access. You can’t be charged for walking in there… but these determinations are being drafted right now. Many attendees asked where is the mechanism to ‘reopen’ or to stage an opening of parts of Dec Crag? No good answer was offered. Also, artefact scatter has been found around the main walls of Dec Crag, and apparently there are other hard to see motifs (you can only see them with image enhancement). We hope to have a bit more of an article about this information session published soon.

New Route Moratorium Expires?

Back in October 2018 there were inklings of major problems brewing in the Grampians climbing access situation. There had been the rogue ranger incident where a ranger had gone off-script and booted climbers from Muline and showed them a draft map that showed climbing was banned in SPAs. There had also been the two close calls with bolts placed near art in the Black Range. In an attempt to show climbers had some self-control and could self manage the VCC proposed a Climbing Route Development Moratorium in the Grampians. Take a read of the proposal below…

Now this was labeled a temporary moratorium and was “to be reassessed in November 2019“. That date has come and gone now and it appears some climbers are back doing new routes (outside of SPAs). What is remarkable is that there doesn’t appear to have been any official reassessment or statement from the VCC on if this was a good idea or not. It should be clear by now that it is Parks Victoria’s fear of what could happen in the future that has forced them to clamp down so heavily on climbers. They are afraid that damage could happen from growth in the sport, and in particular new areas being developed. Bouldering and bolted climbing in particular are of specific concern, but as we have seen above, they are also looking at unauthorized tracks, the spread of weeds, chalk and fires.

Have climbers resolved any of these concerns with Parks Victoria and TOs? We think it is way too premature to say that. All crags closed as part of the SPA ban remain closed. We have new closures being put in place at Arapiles. Surely climbing groups should at least have a talk about the future of new routes in the Grampians instead of just taking a proposed end date as the end of the moratorium and going back to the old ways. The moratorium was proposed before any of these crazy bans were suddenly sprung on us. Individual climbers say they have it all under control and know what they are doing. But – we have lost so many mega classics. Surely the potential problems one new route at the wrong place could cause it’s worth having a break and rethink? Over at Arapiles this letter appeared on the notice board over the Aus Day long weekend.

It seems the local Arapiles community is worried about new routes as well now that they are feeling the pressures of authority.

Jobs and Growth!

It looks like quasi government organization Outdoors Victoria has decided to hire a part time Climbing Development Officer. Download and read the full job description below.

This role appears to be partly a replacement for Tracey Skinner’s paid role as VCC’s CliffCare “officer” which was dissolved 6 months ago. According to their website, Outdoors Victoria are “the peak body for all Outdoor activities in Victoria” and “receive significant funding from Victorian government agencies“. The job is described as:

The Climbing Development Officer, is responsible for developing and implementing a climbing governance reform project in Victoria as well as supporting existing climbing governance organisations. The project involves support for volunteering /community groups; facilitating community consultations and stakeholder engagement and planning and execution of events. Additional support for Sport Climbing Victoria will involve planning and execution of competition events, administrative support for the board of directors and supporting fundraising activities which will comprise of half of the funded role.

The role seems to have been created to launch the still non-existent Founding Council – a group proposed by various climbing clubs and organizations as a one stop shop for climbing related advocy. With the brutal last 12 months of political infighting amoung these climbing organizations this is an interestingly development. Oddly this job role has not been shared on Victorian climbing Facebook groups. Maybe they already know who wants this role and it is a bit of a formality on who gets it? If you want to apply go online here. You have until the 4th of February.

We have also heard there has been another round of sackings over at Parks Victoria related to the climbing issues. So keep an eye out for fresh blood on it’s way to a boardroom and crag soon. We did pick up on one thing recently in an email signature. Apparently there is now a full time role called:

Let’s see how long that lasts… (anyone seen Simon Talbot recently?)

An Escalating Conflict – Archeologists Anti Climber Bias?

Are archeologists actively campaigning to have climbing banned in the Grampians? This week we present evidence that that this could be the case. And these people are on the payroll of Parks Victoria. This is the first of several reports on this subject we will be publishing in the next few weeks. Let’s get started!

Continue reading An Escalating Conflict – Archeologists Anti Climber Bias?