Editor’s note to issue 25 of Vertical Life. Download the issue here.
There are only two dreams I’ve had that have stayed with me. One features naked cannibals, the other is about my mother (of course). I only remember a fragment of this second dream. In it my mother leads an elephant around in circles on the front lawn of our house in the Grampians. The elephant is unsteady on its feet, perhaps sick, and leans heavily on my mum, who staggers around in endless circles, bearing the weight of this enormous beast, round and round like you would a horse with colic.
I didn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to interpret this dream. My mum is the glue that binds my family together. When we were kids – and there were five of us – she was engine that drove our family, a powerful locomotive of industry from morning til night: feeding, washing, reading, wrestling, comforting and often working as a teacher. We were the elephant and her love and energy carried us through the circle of each day.
The climbing community is like a family, and just as in every family there are people we lean on. I can think of a bunch of these people off the top of my head, climbers who sacrifice their time and energy to make sure the rest of us can have a good time. This community duty can take many forms, but primarily I think of the people who work hard to maintain our access to the great outdoors, liaising with land managers and other government organisations, organising track works, placating private property owners, trying to communicate best practices for being outdoors to The Climbing People.
The elephant on the lawn, though, is that we are not a family, climbers are not children and the people who do this work are not our parents. We cannot blindly rely on them always being there, fixing up our messes. It’s a job that can wear people down, particularly if they are not being supported. This was brought home to me recently by an Arapiles trackwork day organised by CliffCare, where only two people turned up (and they were probably the same two people who always turn up). This is despite the fact that most weekends Arapiles is rammed with climbers.
As climbing rapidly grows there is going to be more pressure on the places we love to climb, and the job of dealing with land managers, maintaining access and communicating with a larger and more diverse group of climbers is going to be increasingly challenging. If we are not organised in a cohesive and functional manner, if we do not support the organisations and people who ensure our access, then we may lose access to some areas – and maybe we will deserve to.
There is no unified Australian climbing organisation that functions in the way that the British Mountaineering Council or the Access Fund in the USA operate. Instead, we have a patchwork of state-based organisations (some are even more granular, like the council-run Crag Care in the Blue Mountains) that are in different states of preparedness to deal with future pressures. Victorians are lucky in that the Victorian Climbing Club (VCC) supports an Access Officer, the hardworking Tracey Skinner (who is one good reason to join the VCC).
In Queensland the situation seems similarly well-organised. Dave Reeve from the Australian Climbing Association Queensland (ACAQ) tells us that the banning of climbing at Flinders Peak and subsequent fining of climbers who placed bolts there nine years ago meant that Queensland climbers were jolted into forming the ACAQ lest they risk losing access to other important areas. The ACAQ has since built a cooperative rather than acrimonious relationship with Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service, while climbing at Flinders is now entrenched in legislation as part of the Nature Conservation Act. This is a triumph of organisation and communication.
Elsewhere the picture is not so rosy. Some bouldering areas around Sydney have been shut down by local councils, perhaps with good reason, in the Sutherland Shire we’ve heard that boulderers were playing loud music at night very close to where people lived (which then alerted the council to the fact there was indigenous heritage in some bouldering caves). While we know there has been talk of Sydney boulderers getting organised, so far there is no official body to deal with land managers on behalf of boulderers (and the Sydney Rockclimbing Club doesn’t appear to represent boulderers). It is a situation that could easily get out of hand, particularly with the proliferation of new boulderers venturing out from gyms with little idea of minimal impact bouldering or local sensitivities.
A lot of climbers resist regulation and organisation, but self regulation is preferable to government regulation, which will be an inevitable outcome if access issues proliferate. Furthermore, climbers need to be involved in the process of creating regulation so that our concerns and needs are heard. Dave Reeve puts it well, ‘I’m well aware that most folk recoil from what seems a very top-heavy legalistic approach. However, systems of people are transitory, and if we wish to build for the future, then the system of laws should be our focus.’
I am constantly amazed by what a small number of motivated climbers can achieve. Witness Crag Care’s monumental stoneworks in the Blue Mountains. Crag Care has been enormously successful and saves the local council thousands of dollars a year in track maintenance and building costs. But even Crag Care could do with more help. Big John (Passlow), who has long supported Crag Care with cash and pastries, says ‘Generally we don’t have problems [getting volunteers]. But it would be good to get more local climbers involved so that we could train them up in track building, and who can then teach or supervise others.’
It’s obvious that certain individuals have been critical to the success of representing the interests of climbers, but they nearly always work within the framework of a larger organisation that provides support and legitimacy in dealings with land managers. More of us need to support these people and the organisations they represent – to borrow a gross analogy from Joe Hockey, we need less leaners and more lifters. Even more critically, there needs to be a body representing Sydney boulderers. Nowhere is there a larger confluence of climbers or a more complicated patchwork of land managers and private landowners. Without the necessary organisation to speak on behalf of Sydney’s boulderers, their interests won’t be represented and Sydney boulderers will struggle, to achieve anything, from simple things like communicating with each other to more complicated things like raising money or doing track works or crag care days. Now is the time to get it done.
This piece appeared in Issue 25 of Vertical Life, to download the full issue for free click here.