Interview – Australian Climbing Festival

The Australian Climbing Festival is being relaunched on the 17 to 19 October at the KCC conference centre in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. Vertical Life caught up with the two organisers, Gemma Woldendorp and Natasha Sebire, to find out more about the pair and what is happening.

For VL readers that don’t know you guys, there are two of you organising the festival, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?

Natasha: I have been climbing for more than 20 years, and I like all forms of climbing whether it be bouldering, sport, trad, alpine, big wall, ice, mixed and mountaineering. I am a bit of a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none!’ However, by diversifying my climbing it has enabled me to climb all over the world and experience things like dry tooling in Canada, bouldering in France, and climbing remote unclimbed peaks in the Himalaya and Greenland. Both Gemma and I are both climbing instructors in the Blue Mountains, so we are immersed in climbing and love introducing people to the amazing world of climbing.

Gemma: Ditto! I was immediately hooked on rock climbing on my first outdoor climb through a uni outdoor club in WA in 1993. Then I did the obligatory NZ mountaineering course a couple of years later. The appeal of the multifaceted nature of climbing keeps it interesting for me, and I love learning more about climbing. That common interest is why Tash and I share the same climbing goals – one year we are planning a five-week expedition to unclimbed rock spires in the Arctic where we pack everything from ice-tools to aid-climbing gear, another year it’s a road trip of European crags, then some Canadian ice-climbing, or sport climbing at home, maybe pop across the Tasman for a NZ mountaineering trip, and a winter foray up to Frog Buttress for some crack climbing. I feel lucky to have been to some amazing places and seen some incredible sights, and that’s because climbing has taken me there.

We have been climbing together for a decade and make a great team. Once we decide to do something we commit to it and get it done, and we don’t do things by halves. The planning involved in an expedition is serving to be great learning for the climbing festival, although a six week expedition is far easier to organise!

Gemma and Natasha in the Bugaboos, Canada.

Gemma and Natasha in the Bugaboos, Canada.

It’s been seven years since the last climbing festival – and in that time a few people have looked at restarting it but never advanced farther than thinking about it – what has inspired you to actually do it?

The lure of some possible funding being available was the initial impetus, but when that never eventuated we felt we’d already committed to it. It’s easy to understand why no-one has leaped at the chance to run one – it takes a huge amount of your time and mental energy, and you don’t get paid – so it’s got to be a labour of love. Getting financial sponsorship has always been difficult, maybe even more so these days, as the time and energy spent on trying to get funds is highly disproportionate to the returns. But that’s just the nature of it and you’ve got to be prepared to accept a lot of rejections. This means we’ve had to put our own money into it to get it going.

The main reason for us to run the festival is that we were two of the many climbers who lamented ‘when are they going to have another climbing festival?’ When we realised there is no ‘they’, we thought ‘well maybe we should just run one’. The climbing festivals create an inspiring atmosphere and the 2007 festival was a great catalyst for us in that shortly after the festival we booked tickets to Yosemite with a couple of friends. We ended up meeting the crazy UK climber Andy Kirkpatrick and climbed El Capitan with him and his paraplegic girlfriend, Karen Darke. Seeing Timmy O’Neill’s presentation and antics at the 2007 festival certainly influenced that. We hope that the 2014 festival will inspire and enthuse people, just like we were.

What are the successes of previous festivals that you think you can build on?

Natasha: The key to success for the ‘Escalade’ climbing festivals that Lucas Trihey ran in the ‘90s was that he ran it regularly, which built them up in reputation and popularity. I went to the last one in 1999 and was amazed by the size of the turn-out. I remember big queues of people, particularly those lining up to see Greg Child’s hilarious presentation. The festival was beginning to outgrow its venue at the Mt Victoria school. We have a much bigger venue in Katoomba, which is the KCC conference centre, just across the road from Scenic World. And there is climbing literally across the road!

Gemma: What impressed me by the 2007 festival (which is the only one I went to) was that there was so much going on, there was never a dull moment. You went from a film, to a speaker, to catch a bit of the climbing comp, bump into friends, meet climbers you’d always admired, nab some giveaways, then another speaker or a debate, etc, etc. The atmosphere was buzzing and we’d like the 2014 festival to have that great vibe. I do remember occasionally having to choose between one awesome speaker and another when scheduling overlapped. But this is how festivals are usually organised – to try and avoid everyone cramming into the one presentation and people missing out because they can’t accommodate everyone. There will generally be several things going on at once at the 2014 festival, but it will most likely be choosing between quite varied things. We are also running the festival over three days so that people don’t feel so rushed and we can schedule no overlap with key presentations.

Gemma and Natasha summit James Point, Indian Himalaya.

Gemma and Natasha summit James Point, Indian Himalaya.

Can you tell us about what events will be at the festival and who might be speaking?

The festival will have heaps of climbing and adventure films, Australian and international speakers, debates and forums, clinics on various skills such as technique and training, a big trade show, bouldering competition, food stalls and a cafe, kids’ activities, demonstrations such as slacklining, fun competitions that anyone can enter and win stuff, and evening entertainment including a festival party.

For the international speakers, at the moment we can say we have confirmed the big-wall and alpine climber Andy Kirkpatrick who’s also a comedian so he should be pretty entertaining, Hazel Findlay, who’s known for her bold, hard trad climbing and features in the film Spice Girl, both from the UK; and from the US, Cedar Wright who is not only a passionate climber, new-router and musician, but also a really nice, down-to-earth guy (we know, we’ve met him).

From Australia, there will be presentations or involvement by Mike Law, Simon Mentz, Louise Shepherd, Simon Carter, Monique Forestier, Damien Gildea, Tim Macartney-Snape, Michael Meadows and Chris Warner to name a few. There will be heaps more, but we need to keep a few surprises until later!

Climbing as an activity multifarious and growing in its breadth of expression, how are you going to accommodate the different schools?

Our aim for the festival is to have something for everyone, from pebble crushers to armchair mountaineers, and everything in-between. There’s still that common unity among climbers, and even if you don’t actively participate in a certain climbing discipline, you still might find it of interest, particularly if there’s a good story-teller or unique way of presenting it.

It’s interesting that in Europe and the US there are so many popular climbing festivals and events, but in Australia, apart from climbing competitions in gyms, we have nothing at the moment. Admittedly, we have a smaller climbing community, but these days there’s a lot more people who are interested in some form of climbing as part of several activities and sports they participate in, whether it’s a weekly session at the climbing gym, or a guided climb of Mt Kilimanjaro. So the popularity of climbing in growing in all areas. The festival will be a fantastic avenue for relative newcomers to the sport, to see so many different aspects of climbing, to find out about where they can learn more, or hear about amazing places to climb, or how they can help the crags, or what’s the latest in equipment, and all about the colourful characters in the climbing scene.

ACF_VL_Ad_Final_High Res-2The more seasoned climbers will undoubtedly enjoy the many tales of climbing epics and achievements from international and Australian climbing legends, and a great range of short and feature length films. The teams of debaters should bring out some lively entertainment, but it will all be in good humour; not to mention the discussion panels, workshops, clinics, and demonstrations. Of course the fun competitions will appeal to all – everyone loves to have a go and win stuff – and gear to drool over in the trade show. Climbing families will also appreciate the fun factor and children’s activities.

There’ll always be the dirt-bag climber who say the festival tickets are too expensive, or ‘I’d rather be climbing’. Well our advice is: save some cash by getting the early bird tickets; trash yourself climbing before the festival so that you need some quality recovery time; enter all the fun competitions and be there for the giveaways where you might score yourself some booty valued at more than the cost of the festival ticket; and just remember: there’s been over 2500 potential climbing days since the last festival – three days isn’t too many to miss out on.

What do you hope the festival comes to mean to the climbing community?

We would love to see the festival as a regular event, like Escalade was. It’s really up to us to make a festival that appeals to a broad range of climbers, because if we don’t draw the crowds we can’t cover costs, and if we can’t cover costs, there won’t be another festival.

Apart from the obvious fun and entertainment that a festival entails, we would like it to also provide an avenue for discussing and increasing awareness on issues relating to climbing, be it access and crag-care, guiding qualifications, ethics, safety, etc, and also to be a place where people can get a whole range of information about climbing.

But ultimately our hope is that the festival will be something that people enjoy and look forward to, that they’ll plan a bit of a trip around it with mates or family – come to see the festival, climbs in the Blueys, and enjoy other aspects of the beautiful Blue Mountains.

You can keep up to date with what is happening with the festival on the ACF’s Facebook page.

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