Stapylton First Hand

This is the second in a two part series where we explore the Northern Grampians and see the effects of the world’s largest climbing bans. You can read the first part about the Hollow Mountain area here. This second part deals with the Stapylton Amphitheater side, where there are currently no Special Protection Area restrictions on rock climbing (apart from Kindergarten & far left end of Northern Walls). We were particularly interested to see how the inevitable increased usage of these areas was effecting the condition of the crags. When half the sport climbing and bouldering in the Grampians was shut by Parks Victoria in February this year, it has meant some of the open areas are probably now seeing double the traffic they saw 12 months ago. This can only end badly without a conscious effort from the climbing community and PV to install erosion busting infrastructure (rock steps, belay platforms, fenced off rehab areas etc). It’s not rocket science.

Continue reading Stapylton First Hand

Hollow Mtn First Hand

We spent three days in the Northern Grampians last week to document some of the more popular climbing areas in and outside the banned Special Protection Areas and also re-visit some of the mainstream tourism walks and Aboriginal art sites. The aim was four-fold, 1) to record a snapshot in time of climbing & walking in the area, 2) try and document the condition of some of our favourite climbing areas through the eyes of a someone in government doing an “assessment”, 3) simulate the experience of a first time climbing visitor to the area who is not aware of the bans and lastly 4) to locate some of the Aboriginal cultural heritage in the area that has been mentioned in meetings with PV.

This will be a two part article, the first focuses on Hollow Mtn and the second will be on Stapylton. What he saw was good and bad, climbers impacts are certainly evident but not unique in their impacts. There is a long history of people visiting this area evident everywhere you look. What was clear is that, despite the bans, climbers are certainly the main users of the area during the week (when we visited). Tourists were few and far between compared to commercially led climbers in Summer Day Valley. This photo essay comes from 30th October to 1 November 2019.

There is still a picture of a climber on the entrance sign. A small win.

As most international or interstate climbers would do, we drove from Arapiles to the Grampians. It was hot, really hot. 36’C when we pulled into Hollow Mountain Carpark at 2pm on a Tuesday. It could easily fit 50 cars and several tour buses, but instead it was completely empty apart from one lone mini bus baking in the sun. A read of the glossy Parks Victoria interpretative signs didn’t reveal any messaging about the SPA climbing bans that cover the majority of climbing accessible from this carpark. If there were bans they certainly weren’t making an effort to advertise this. The only sign of trouble was an attempt to black-out the word Hollow Mountain with a Sharpie.

Black texta – Big budget solutions to informing climbers about the world’s biggest climbing bans

We did as their sign suggested and logged on to Parks Victoria’s website to see if there was any updates about climbing (a struggle with poor mobile reception). Again there was no information readily available. The only “need to know” they listed for the entire Grampians was the closure of Buandik Campground – entirely irrelevant. The dedicated Northern Grampians page doesn’t even mention rock-climbing despite it being home to Taipan Wall and numerous other world-famous climbing areas. It’s like they want to pretend climbing does not exist. Later in this article we will talk about our impression that the majority of people visiting this area mid-week were climbers, on the three day trip we were there it was easily a ratio of 10:1 climbers to non-climbers. So this lack of info was concerning.

Nothing listed on PV’s website about climbing bans

The planned first stop was a walk up to Gulgurn Manja rock art shelter, one of the six “caged” art shelters in the Grampians region. On the way up to this cave the tourist track passes an abandoned and unsignposted rock quarry that until 1998 was the main campground for climbers and bushwalkers in the Northern Grampians. This quarry was one of the major sources of stone used for important buildings in Melbourne last century. Presumably thousands of tonnes of stone were removed from this site to create the bowl that was the old campground. Of interest is the proximity to both the art site and Summer Day Valley – it would be less than 50m from each. It would be nice to have an official sign about the history of this quarry – it’s currently overgrown and hidden.

Abandoned quarry and old campground hidden next to Summer Day Valley
#notclimbers

As we continued on the tourist track to the art-site it was clear any interpretative signage had been nuked in the 2014 fires but had not been replaced. This is a shameful state of affairs. We desperately wanted to learn more about the art-site and Aboriginal heritage but the signs were completely faded and unreadable. In the era of millions being spent on a Grampians Peaks Trail couldn’t they spare a few thousand to re-print these signs? Luckily we had purchased an excellent book “The People of Gariwerd” in advance which gave us some good background info and is highly recommended for anyone interested in Grampians history.

The main interpretive signs at Gulgurn Manja art-site are completely faded
The cages are installed to protect the art site from vandals
The book says there are 26 hand-prints in Gulgurn Manja, all being right-hands and most being small enough to be young people. There are also paintings of numerous emu and kangaroo tracks in the cave.
A good example of an Aboriginal stone tool rock quarry.
We went for a bit of a walk away from the caged area and found plenty of other stone tool edges, but also tourist graffiti like this heart.
A faded hand-print on the wall outside of the cage. This is why climbers need to be super careful in cave areas.
Typical Aboriginal stone tool quarry site near the caged art site. It’s important to note that the dirt floors of caves like this contain invaluable archeological material as well – stone tools, charcoal from fires and bones. This is why climbers need to be careful about erosion under caves.
Somehow a tourist had managed to scratch their name INSIDE the cage. You can’t stop stupid.

A visit to sites such as this is a valuable educational experience for climbers. It’s a shame this particular site doesn’t seem to be getting much love in recent years from Parks Victoria. The cage is an unappealing structure from the 70s that could well do with a refresh like the one at Stapylton Campground. New signage is certainly required.

Summer Day Valley

Next day was a visit to Summer Day Valley, an area at the heart of the climbing ban issues. For more than 40 years it was the Grampians most popular climbing area due to the very short approach, good trad protection, top-rope accessible and multiple wall directions allowing all day shade or sun as required. Since February 2019 it has been shut to recreational climbers because it is inside a Special Protection Area where climbing is prohibited according to PV. Summer Day has also been a popular commercial guiding venue over the last couple of decades, and these operators have been allowed to continue working in SDV despite the ban. To keep access they have to follow new strict requirements including pre-booking sections of the crag with PV, on site signage and cultural inductions. We were keen to check out these inductions in person but unfortunately, at the last minute, these inductions were cancelled so we can not report on them (which was the main reason we were visiting).

Summer Day Valley is approached by short 100m walk from the Hollow Mountain Carpark along a track built by Parks Victoria. The track was re-routed after the 2014 fires to keep it away from the creek-bed. The first thing you see is this sign chained to a tree explaining that “rock climbing and abseiling is only permitted with a licensed tour operator.”

Rumour has it that this sign is like this as they couldn’t get a permit to dig it into the ground.

We were not part of a licensed tour – but it also says that “bushwalking and picnicking are permitted” so we made sure to pack our rug and breakfast.

PV installed metalwork into SDV. #notclimbers
Remarkably PV have not removed this old sign near the entrance. Presumably because it was installed in 1997 as a memorial gift from climber Phillip McMillian’s parents. The map shows access to several crags now considered off-limits.
The bench seat with the memorial plaque for Leo Schrab who died in a fall at SDV 12 years ago is also still in place. A tragic time for the climbing community. A nice spot to think and reflect on mates lost.

It was still early, so we unfolded the legislated* picnic blanket on a nice rock platform and ate breakfast with the local wallabies. (*joke)

With time to kill we explored the complex area of SDV in detail as legislated* bushwalkers (*joke). We started with a walk around what is called Main Wall, which is confusing as it’s actually now on the backside of how you approach it – it was originally accessed by the quarry campground mentioned earlier. Climbing was actually shut on this wall way back in 2011 after large floods damaged the creek and allegedly exposed some cultural heritage items. This has never been confirmed by PV. For several years a flimsy laminated sign asked climbers to stay off the Main Wall routes but this sign disappeared a couple of years ago and has never been replaced. Many climbers presumed it had reopened when this sign went missing – and this led to much confusion. This was all prior to this years SPA ban announcements.

Older climbers would be amazed to see the regrowth along this once popular climbing area.
This is 102 year old “graffiti” along the base of the cliff that predates modern rock-climbers by about 60 years.
More graffiti from the olden days. The flaking rock in this photo is damage from the 2014 fires.

We then went for a walk to Wall of Fools to try and locate the Aboriginal stone tool quarry site that had been rumoured to exist there and has alledgely been one of the causes of the recent bans. None of the details are public knowledge and have ever been released officially. We only know about this from comments made by PV staff in meetings held in Halls Gap with tour guides. In general the rock on that wall is soft sandstone (thus the extreme weathering with the big jugs on the left and right sides) – but in the middle we did find some sections that appeared( to an untrained eye) to be the broken rock edges in question. There did not appear to have been directly impacted by climbers as they were at ground level and tucked under a small overhang.

Middle of Wall of Fools
Possibly the Aboriginal stone tool site that was part of the cause for the climbing restrictions on right side of Wall of Fools.

School Groups Arrive

By 8am the first school groups started emerging into the valley, with guides starting to pop their heads over the cliff edge and throwing ropes down. There was a brief moment of yelling when one group was confused about who had booked which wall. The picnic book we were reading at the time summed it up rather well.

Jokes aside, there were three Licensed Tour Operator groups working inside the valley on Back Wall and left side of Wall of Fools, and apparently another group operating on the BARC cliff which we didn’t see. Each of these school groups consisted of 15 or so students and a couple of climbing guides. Doing a rough head count at lunch we think there was approximately 60 students and about 10 adults in total. At peak period there was about 15 top-ropes set-up on almost every available easy route.

Some of the best easy routes in Victoria are located along this section of Back Wall.
A lot of ropes but not a lot of kids climbing on Wall of Fools. The middle point of this photo denotes the line between “approved” and “prohibited” sections of this cliff.

All the kids were well behaved and the stonework built by PV and CliffCare a decade ago really works to contain any erosion issues. As a beginner friendly place that can handle a lot of people Summer Day is hard to beat. We can see why the LTOs were desperate to keep access open at this area. When we asked one guide where was an equivalent place a “recreational” climber could go that had easy access for toproping they suggested Mountain Lion. We googled the distance – it is 85km away and more than an hours drive. Not exactly a solution. Another guide suggested The Watchtower near Halls Gap – but when we visited there it was a disaster of erosion and in our opinion should be shut to commercial groups until it recovers. Bushrangers Bluff at Arapiles is actually probably the best bet, but when went there the week before it was also busy with guiding companies. It is clear that there is now major pressure on limited climbing resources from the LTO industry.

Rock stabilization does a great job of constraining erosion and general wear and tear at this busy crag

Even if recreational climbers were allowed back into SDV the commercial LTO’s had a total monopoly of the easy routes for most of the day. Each LTO books a certain wall so they put top-ropes on every route in their section. If any of these restrictions do get relaxed then it would be well worth establishing how it would work if someone just wanted to go climbing as a pair rather than a large group.

As part of their license requirements, every LTO has to erect a sign like this at the cliff. This is so PV rangers and TOs can inspect the status of each group without having to ask for the paperwork.

We have been told this whole LTO only system is a temporary solution to a) protect cultural heritage b) keep the LTO businesses functioning. So far there has been no information given from PV about future changes to this system.

In general Summer Day Valley is in remarkably good condition thanks to the early pre-emptive work done on trails and belay platforms with stonework. The fencing off of the centre of the valley has also allowed superb regrowth of plants and it’s now hard to imagine the burnt out wasteland of only a few years ago. Hopefully this area can be reopened to recreational climbers in the future.

As a side note we were coincidentally in Summer Day when it hit the national press after local guide Tori Dunn was apparently prohibited from working in the Valley by PV and TOs. Have a read of these two articles in the Australian. Article 1 and Article 2. And this more local article in the Wimmera Times. This is a complex story with legal ramifications which we hope to write about in the future.

Hollow Mountain Track

To finish the day we took a walk up the tourist track to Sandinista Wall, across to Amnesty and through to the Andersen’s bouldering area. All these climbing sectors are in an SPA where climbing is prohibited according to PV. It has been 9 months since the bans were announced so it would be interesting to see what these areas would look like with a bit of “time off”.

The tourist track was actually in poor condition once it starts heading steeply uphill. It was heavily eroded in places and braided into at least three independent tracks up near Sandanista Wall. This whole section was heavily damaged by the 2014 fires but PV has not made much of an effort to create or mark a proper path. The landscape was heavily damaged by the fires and lost tourists are certainly not adding to the rehabilitation of the area.

Erosion on the Hollow Mtn tourist track requires urgent stone work to fix

At the intersection of the tourist track and the climbers track to Andersens bouldering is the remains of the old official PV sign about bouldering. This was a positive and informative sign – now replaced with four empty bolt holes. If bouldering is indeed banned at Andersens – why have they not installed a replacement sign saying this? The climbers track is of equal size to the tourist track – it’s actually highly confusing about which way to walk for anyone just walking past.

The remains of the sign that once gave information about the bouldering at Andersens.
Word on the street is that this part of the tourist trail goes straight over an Aboriginal rock tool quarry site.

Sandinista Wall

PV signage for tourists at base of Sandinista Wall

Sandinista Wall has always been the most public climbing area in the Grampians. The routes literally rise directly above the tourist track and half of them are safety bolt protected. Luckily for aesthetics the first bolts are quite high up and the wall is heavily featured so bolts are pretty invisible to the casual observer. Chalk is evident but it blends in with considerable bird poo streaks and leaching streaks of minerals on the wall. It is not an obvious eyesore. Along the base of the cliff, where the tourists congregate to catch their breath and look at the view, is potentially more Aboriginal quarry rock edges. Sandinista is home to several very famous routes – the first grade 30 in Australia outside of Arapiles for example. It will be an interesting test case if it could ever be reopened to climbing.

Fire damage on the rock around Sandinista Wall is quite something. Those speckled white dots in the photo are not chalk, but instead large flakes that have fallen off what was once lovely orange rock – about 30m above the ground!
Chalk still fresh on boulder problems on way to Amnesty Wall. Brush your chalk off people!

Amnesty Wall

Despite quite heavy use in the past Amnesty Wall is in pretty good condition – lots of greenery and still a lovely spot. The biggest visual issue here is chalk on the overhung routes.
Scotch thistle weeds aplenty in the fire regrowth areas around Amnesty Wall. Wouldn’t take much to keep these under control.

Andersens

At this point the camera phone ran out of batteries, but we continued on to the Andersens boulder field in the dying light. It appeared to be in pretty good condition in general. Minimal erosion, just a few spots of bare dirt around the base of the major boulders. There was still quite a bit of chalk on the overhung problems that would be relatively easy to remove. Lots of greenery – the track was hard to follow in spots because it was so thick. In general we saw that Andersens seems to be able to handle quite heavy climbing traffic better than the nearby (open) Trackside. We will cover that area in part B. No sign of rubbish or toilet waste was evident.

Wrap Up

We have so many good memories spent on these cliffs with family and friends over the last few decades. Now the climbers are gone it has an almost eery museum like quality to the place. There are the remains of climbing still present, bolts and chalk stained rock, but not the people out enjoying themselves. It was hard to resist stepping off the ground and onto the rock. Where bushwalking ends and bouldering begins is an odd line to define in a place covered in rock like the Grampians.

In the two days we spent on the Hollow Mtn side of Stapylton we saw almost no tourists at all. It was a hot couple of days but we expected to see at least equal numbers of tourists to climbers. But this was not the case. By a huge majority the greatest number of visitors were climbing students in SDV. The rest of the place was seemingly abandoned with all but a handful of tourists slogging up to Hollow Mountain. We saw a couple of climbers returning from Van Diemen’s Land late one arvo but no sign of climbers in any of the SPA regions. It was midweek – the following Melb Cup long weekend was reportedly the inverse – no climbers present, and lots of tourists.

It was apparent that maintenance of the Hollow Mtn tourist track and informing climbers of the climbing “bans” is not the priority of PV at the moment – head office is 30km down south and they have a lot more tourists to deal with closer to Halls Gap perhaps? It would be good at least for them to update some of the signage if indeed there really is a ban. At the moment a visiting climber could go climbing anywhere in the Hollow Mtn SPA (outside of Summer Day) and be totally unaware of any problems.

We highly recommend all the keyboard warriors get out and about and have a look at these SPA areas in person. You don’t have to climb – just pack a picnic blanket and sense of adventure.

Part B of this series will cover the Stapylton Amphitheater and Campground area and will hopefully be published in the next week.

#notclimbers – PV’s Double Standards for Environmental Destruction

Parks Victoria’s claim that climbing should be banned because of environmental impact flies in the face of their own actions. The biggest group damaging the Grampians is Parks Victoria. It’s all part of a push from the government and commercial tourism groups to attract more visitors and thus more dollars. As Kevin Costner so famously said “if you build it they will come”. A bigger carpark attracts more cars. Make it easier to walk to somewhere by installing a paved track and ladders and more people will walk there. The following photo essay is snapshot of the kind of damage PV is routinely allowing in the name of “progress” and “growth”. Much of the recent damage they so proudly promote is from the Grampians Peaks Trail® – a 144km walking track being constructed over the next few years – with attached luxury lodges. This isn’t just connecting old walking trails together – over 83km of new track is being cut, bulldozed and jack hammered through virgin bush to attract more tourists and their $$$. You can watch some of the private contractors working on the Peaks Trail in this promotional video:

This is the ugly truth behind how supposed low impact bushwalking tracks are created. So when someone complains about some climbers chalk, safety bolts or a foot pad – show them this. #notclimbers

Clawing it’s way through the bush in a so called “ecologically sensitive” way – Peaks Trail construction

“the team is clearing at a rate of 120 meters per day in dense sections and up to 600 meters per day in lighter sections. Clearing typically involves carving a path through foliage, removing bushes and, where necessary, trees to create a navigable path for the track construction.”

Grampians Peak Trail Community Update April 2019
Track needs to be wide enough to drive on. Need to supply those future luxury lodges!
The roadkill expressway taking tourists to the heart of the Grampians – a little bigger than a climbers track.

“We also expect an additional 35,000 visitors to the region annually…”

Simon Talbot – Parks Victoria
The sweet sound of growth. Tracks are made from local stone… what about the animals that live under them?

“Construction will involve stone masonry techniques to install hundreds of rock steps ensuring the path is ecologically sensitive and sympathetic to the landscape”

Parks Victoria – April 2019
How good are drones! At least it offsets the sound of construction generators in the bush.
Being “sympathetic to the landscape” is all about digging a trench and ripping up rocks
Crowbarring rocks down hills. PV approved track making.

“Thousands of hand-built steps are being shaped from sandstone which has been mainly sourced on-site.”

Grampians Peak Trail Community Update March 2018
Need a better view? PV have a quick fix for that.
Who needs a map anymore when you can just follow PV’s silver highway slashed straight through the bush.

“This year, Dirt Art will construct 35 kilometres in the north, from Roses Gap to Halls Gap, and 22 kilometres in the south, from Cassidy Gap to Dunkeld. The remaining 45 kilometres in the central section will be completed by the end of 2020.”

Stanwell Times – April 2019
PV’s head ranger – not afraid to self promote the destruction of 80+ kilometers of bush to build a tourist trap on Channel 9

Watch this Ch9 video where PV talks up their environmental destruction.


Smoke on the water

“Contractors have completed work on over 1.5km of steel walkway on the remote Major Mitchell Plateau”

Friends of the Grampians April 2019
Got to keep those ankles dry and those tourists happy

“the concerns remain about where the money for the upkeep of the trail will come from, and whether that money will come at the expense of other pressing needs of our Park.”

Friend of Grampians July 2015
Chainsaws being used in the Grampians,? We all know who does that. Peaks Trail.
The peace and quiet of nature
The new Peaks Trail. Visible from space?

“These works involve the pruning and removal of trees and vegetation and are carried out to ensure the corridor is cleared for construction of the walking track. Track clearing requires contractors the most efficient access points and the most effective means of removing all vegetation from the alignment”

Grampians Peak Trail Community Update November 2018
It’s fine to chop the trees down and smash the rocks up if the tourists are paying big bucks in return.
Parks Victoria is happy to get their photo in front of their latest environmental destruction project!

“there is significant harm… because you’ll end up with these private enclaves within what is essentially publicly-owned land. Ninety-nine years is essentially private ownership in a sense. We also know that if something starts small, even if it starts environmental friendly, it inevitably grows.”

Matt Ruchel, Victorian National Parks Association
The cutting & blasting of this one block probably adds up to the entire rock removed for every single climbing safety bolt installed in the Grampians. But don’t lets facts get in the way of a good story.
Who installs more bolts in the Grampians? No prizes for guessing.

“Parks Victoria is looking at how the fully facilitated walks can include accommodation, food, beverage and landscape interpretation.”

Grampians Peak Trail Community Update July 2018
Walkers need huge ugly metal handrails for protection from a 2m cliff – but climbers can’t use tiny safety bolts to protect themselves from 50m cliffs?
Rebolting PV style. Every lookout looks like this.
Instagram worthy destruction. At least that tree is safe – for now.

“Mt Stapylton and Mt Abrupt walking tracks continue to be upgraded with the addition of over 500 new hand-built rock steps, flagstone paving, new drainage, a retaining wall, removal of trip hazards and track resurfacing.”

Grampians Peak Trail Community Update July 2018
Just a casual digger in a creek doing good.
Just a bunch of chainsawed trees and a metal box. Low impact.

“The Grampians Peaks Trail is a walking experience and does not offer rock climbing tours.”

Parks Victoria
Damage to the environment around art sites? We have a winner!
Let’s count how many bolts are in this art site shall we…

“The areas, some of the
most spectacular locations in the park, have
provided evidence of people camping on
or near the peaks for thousands of years.
Previously unknown occupation sites, scar
trees, surface scatters, greenstone originally
from the Lancefield area nearly 250km away
and rock art have all been rediscovered.”

Grampians Peak Trail Community Update September 2017
Subtle. That drop must be at least 4m.
Should climbers be railing against damage to cliffs like this? You bet we should!
Good bye trees. Hello PV’s new official Peaks Trail campground.
Parks Victoria protecting SPA areas at Hollow Mountain by building a huge carpark and sending in the tourists
Ladders certainly make climbing easier for all involved. Maybe PV should build one on Taipan Wall?
More steel than all the climbing safety bolts in all of the Grampians.
“Getting on with it” is the government’s big growth mantra clearly at play here
Rust scars are a nice touch
The sign could have been bigger PV. We can’t read it.
As nature intended – metal and paving stones.

“Any new trail to be constructed as part of the Grampians Peaks Trail should be offset by closures of trails, tracks and/ or roads elsewhere in the park if possible. “

Grampians Peak Trail Master Plan 2014
Of course the highest mountain in the Grampians needs a bitumen road and a radio tower on top.
Tourist graffiti at Hollow Mountain. We presume they will ban tourists then?
Typical tourist scribbles at Beehive Falls – right near the Peaks Trail and no where near climbing. #notclimbers
Fires cause 99.9% of the vegetation damage in the Grampians – #notclimbers
Floods cause significant tree and rock damage – #notclimbers

A Short Poop in the Woods*

The following is a public submission to Save Grampians Climbing from a local Grampians climber who has spent the last 40+ years establishing many of the climbing areas we all love. They have seen immense change in the landscape during this time, some positive and some negative. It’s an interesting perspective on where Park Victorias’ priorities lie in the 21st century and how millions are being spent upgrading parts of the park to attract bulk tourism at the expense of the environment. For those attending the new management plan meetings in the next few weeks this is what the future is looking like for the rest of the Grampians if the current plans are continued. Big dollars spent on building showpiece infrastructure but no money being spent maintaining the people that come with this infrastructure. We have long argued on this blog that government money should be spent managing the current users (like climbers) rather than attracting new users with schemes like the Grampians Peaks Trail. Do you like our header image? That’s PV’s own Simon Talbot lording over his infrastructure empire…

Continue reading A Short Poop in the Woods*

Assist efforts in restoring access to world renowned climbing areas in the Grampians National Park