This page identifies and discusses some of the concerns that Parks Victoria have towards climbing in the Grampians. It should be stressed upfront that as a responsible user group, climbers are totally supportive of the protection of cultural sites and the natural environment, and climbers have respected bans and closures of sites in the past eg: fire recovery; rock wallaby protection; etc; (see the timeline) and would be happy to do so again at individual sites of concern.
However we are mature enough to have a reasonable debate about the reasons that have been stated for the closures, despite the exaggeration of some of the claims.
The Black Ian’s & Black Range Incident
Let’s start with the big one, the one short sentence parroted in Parks Victoria media releases that has single-handedly spelt the death of rockclimbing in the Grampians. “Climbers bolting art sites“.
This is all the public needs to hear, and we have immediately lost in the court of public opinion, (including many climbers themselves). Unfortunately the facts are not so simple.
For some background, please take time to read the Timeline written by Vertical Life Magazine, which gives the lead-up to events.
January 2017 – “The VCC is informed that bolting at Black Ians has angered local Indigenous groups”. [The offending routes have been removed]. The image shown involves one climb put up in 2016 where a safety bolt was 3.5m up and R from artwork.
The second incident involves the Black Range: As investigated by Vertical Life: “2018 – Climbing development at an unknown site in the Black Range sees a bolt placed “immediately adjacent” [Turns out to be 1.9m away, with no damage to the art] to a handprint, further angering Traditional Owners and inflaming the situation” (see the timeline).
Climbers universally condemn the act of placing any climbs or safety bolts over or near Aboriginal art sites; knowingly or unknowingly.
While these acts should not have occurred, let’s note that there was no damage to the artwork itself and the safety bolts and climbs in question were immediately removed. Reports of this incident quickly deteriorated into ‘climbers placing bolts IN artwork’ which is clearly not the case.
Importantly, these are isolated incidents and is absolutely not representative of climbing development in the rest of the Grampians. The situation now has vastly changed from pre 2018, and climbers need to show (and we can!) that this kind of development is NOT ok.
While climbers don’t pretend these didn’t happen, the very fact that Parks Victoria have not closed the areas where these incidents occurred, but rather, banned completely different areas (eg the Victoria Range over 50km away) is very confusing; especially while continuing to quote these incidents as the main reason for the closures.
Moving on from that specific and unfortunate incident, what about cultural heritage more generally? Gariwerd, as it known to Aboriginal people is extremely important to Indigenous Australians, and contains more than 80% of Victoria’s cultural sites. Climbers wish to respect these values, but shutting off access to vast areas of remote and rarely visited clifflines is a blunt and lazy way to protect sites of cultural heritage. Multiple requests by Cliffcare have been put to Parks Victoria in an effort to secure a “fine-grained” approach to site closures, rather than blanket banning, but so far there has been no evidence of co-operation.
Culturally sensitive sites may be art-sites, or sacred sites, some of which are not public (and the Traditional Owners would like to keep it that way). This in itself is a bit of a conundrum, but proposals for working out a solution are being worked on by Cliffcare and the VCC. Several attempts have / are being made to communicate directly with the Gariwerd’s Traditional Owners, and Aboriginal Victoria.
Despite the massive amount of rock located at Gariwerd (tens of thousands of ‘rock outcrops’); only ‘several hundred’ of these outcrops actually have rock suitable for climbing – that is to say the vast majority of small overhangs and caves are of no interest to climbers. Even most of the 8 sites closed in February 2019 seem to be “close to” known sites, not sites themselves, which is an important distinction.
If there is a problem with a handful of areas, the climbing is community is ready and willing to ‘come to the table’ to discuss (and likely accept) bans and restrictions, although it is not ‘automatic’ that an area of cultural significance would be banned for climbing, as there already are many examples of past co-operation between climbers, Parks and Traditional Owners, where education, track-works, and even signage at some sites work to increase education and respect for Aboriginal Cultural Heritage.
Examples of climbing areas with known aboriginal cultural values:
- Bundaleer (remains open) – Co-operation with Parks and Traditional owners resulted in signage and a boardwalk. Minimal environmental impact at an otherwise quite popular cliff.
- Black Ians Rocks (remains open) – Some recent climbing development did not help climbing relations; but there is signage in place to educate visitors as to the cultural heritage, and problem climbs (both historical, and new) have been removed.
- The Gallery (closed). This is included as the track going up to the cliff (50min walk) used to go past the Billimina shelter (Buandik). When this cliff was first being developed (30 years ago), Parks Victoria were installing new fencing, trails and paving around the shelter / art site, and later happily rerouted the start of the climber’s trail so that it avoided the shelter.
- Summerday Valley (New SPA area) has nearby aboriginal art sites that have been caged and are a major tourist site. Summerday is one of the Grampians most popular beginner cliffs, and registered climbing guides use the area often. Climbers have worked directly with Parks Victoria on hardened trails, seats and extensive stonework to reduce erosion and protect sensitive areas (see the post about Summerday Valley here)
There are some comments online which chide climbers for complaining about access to cliffs while disregarding thousands of years of Aboriginal history. We don’t refute the importance of the Grampians / Gariwerd to Indigenous people, but simply that the Grampians is special for us too, and there should definitely be room for the respect and value of heritage values, while unaffected cliffs remain available.
It is telling that bushwalkers are still invited to go into the area; suggesting it’s not the act of tramping around the bush / caves that is the problem – but the simple act of scaling the rock.
There is no doubt that larger numbers of climbers result in increased pressure on the natural environment, and a greater need to protect sensitive areas with regards to erosion, and flora / fauna preservation.
However, this can be achieved on a case-by case basis for the following reasons:
- Many overhanging climbing sites have rock bases, so erosion is minimal or non-existent.
- Most of the ‘Trad’ climbing areas (especially those in the SPA’s) are simply not popular enough to experience any erosion issues. Some of these cliffs receive only a handful of visits each year, but they are still extremely important to climbers to experience the adventure of remote climbing, and to adhere to ‘leave no trace’ climbing ethics.
- Many cliffs are naturally avoided by climbers for much of the year due to the direction they face and thus the environment gets time off. North facing cliffs that get all day sun are only climbable in winter and south faces get all day shade and are only climbable in summer. Seasonal road closures and wetter conditions in the southern Grampians also slow numbers.
However, we do recognize that there are some sites in the Grampians where erosion around the base of cliffs or boulders may be a problem, in particular at sites in the Northern Grampians – (eg Anderson’s).
The increase in popularity of bouldering means that this issue will need to be addressed by climbers and land managers, and if some areas need closure or restrictions put in place, then that conversation needs to be had.
In the past, popular and easy-to-access areas such as Summerday Valley, have seen positive collaboration between climbers and Parks Victoria, and there has been construction of walkways, retaining walls and out of bounds areas to encourage re-vegetation. While we acknowledge this can’t happen across all sites, it seems a very different issue than the banning of huge areas of the park where this problem simply doesn’t exist.
Further, the closure of 33% of the park will only result in climbing being concentrated into even smaller areas, further impacting the environment at those locations.
It is accepted worldwide that for rockclimbing to be a safe recreational activity, in some instances the use of fixed protection (safety bolts) may be required. A quick glance at the Grampians climbing database on TheCrag.com climbing route database shows that the vast majority (approx 6,300) of climbs in the Grampians are ‘Traditional’ which means few or no safety bolts and instead the use of removable protection that has no impact on the rock. The number of ‘Sport’ climbs (containing safety bolts) numbers approx 840 (just 13% of the total).
Climbers place fixed protection so that it is safe to climb, they also do not place them within reach of the ground (usually 3m+), or near cultural heritage sites (the example as explained above, notwithstanding). Safety bolts can also be placed so there is minimal visual impact – if you were standing under most cliffs, the bolts are sometimes hard or impossible to see, even for climbers.
In the United States, where climbing exists in most National Parks, the land managers have faced similar concerns to those in Australia, however the US Congress has just passed a bill protecting climbers’ access to areas, including the use of fixed protection. At the same time allowing climbers’ access, the bill protect these wilderness areas from development:
“RECREATIONAL CLIMBING—Nothing in this part prohibits recreational rock climbing activities in the wilderness areas, such as the placement, use, and maintenance of fixed anchors, including any fixed anchor established before the date of the enactment of this Act—”
Many other countries (including parts of Australia) permit, and sometimes encourage, the use of fixed protection as part of climbing as an accepted recreational activity.
There is absolutely no capacity for Parks to regulate the installation of fixed protection, but they can join with the VCC to create a reasonable code of ethics, which might restrict safety bolts in some places (eg SPA’s), or have some other requirement of education, registration etc. Climbers have ample ability to respect ethics of particular areas, if they are fair and communicated.
War on Climbers
Here is the elephant in the room. The new CEO Simon Talbot has made no secret of his dislike for the climbing community, and multiple sources confirm that the pressure to close significant parts of the Grampians National Park to climbers is coming from internal sources, not external sources, like Aboriginal or conservation groups.
The ability of climbers to ‘self-manage / self regulate’ may be over, but a heavy handed approach to ban the activity of climbing without cause should not be accepted by the climbing community.
After his radio interview admonishments directed at climbers, Simon Talbot was in the news recently pushing his latest idea for development in national parks in an article in The Australian. (May be behind a paywall).
Quotes from Simon Talbot: “The benefits of a more aggressive, private sector response to parks come in both economics and education. “If people don’t see the beauty of nature then they’re not going to care about it,” he said. “And if they’re not going to care about it, they’re not going to protect (it).’’
So after banning climbers, one of the major user groups who DO see the beauty of the Grampians, and who DO care about it… Simon’s answer is to build a bunch of Eco-Tourism ventures:
“We don’t necessarily need more visitations, we need better quality experiences … It’s not a good experience if you’re looking for a beautiful nature escape and you can’t get accommodation or you have to have a five-hour trip back to Melbourne,’’ Mr Talbot said.
So that even more tourists can appreciate the majestic beauty of the Grampians from boardwalks and fence railings, before retreating back to ‘4 star glamping’ experiences.