The Boom (and hopefully not the bust) of Climbing

Australian Editor’s note to issue fifteen of Vertical LifeDownload the Vertical Life App from iTunes or the Kindle Fire App Store here.

Climbing is experiencing a powerful surge of growth in Australia. It’s not the first time. Something similar happened in the mid-1990s when a lot of new climbing gyms were built. Back then I worked in one of the biggest and busiest, the now defunct Mill in Collingwood. Climbing got so mainstream the Mill even appeared on that nadir of Oz TV, Hey Hey it’s Saturday; as part of the show I took a massive fall from the very top of the lead roof, pulling up a metre-and-half from the concrete floor on live TV.

Today the boom is less about climbing gyms – although there are still some being built – instead, it’s all about bouldering gyms. Which makes sense: they require significantly less capital investment, staff and, presumably, insurance. And bouldering is also booming. Two new bouldering gyms have been announced for Brisbane, while Melbourne and Sydney have brand-spanking new bouldering hubs. And these gyms are not the grotty places of old, they are schmic, vibrant, enjoyable spaces, spaces that are catering to a wider demographic that may have been turned off by older-style gyms. They are part of climbing-as-mainstream-lifestyle, much in the same way that Adidas is now a climbing brand.

Of course, there is a flow on effect as the more dedicated and adventurous of these new gym rats sate the urge to try outdoor climbing. This influx of new outdoor climbers is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s important for people to be exposed to the outdoors. Personally, I find enormous peace and happiness climbing outdoors, and I think it is something that should be shared. Just as importantly, I believe that if we are going to spur enough people to action to deal with the environmental crises the planet is facing, then people must have a connection to the outdoors in order to care. You don’t create this connection in a gym.

VL editor, Ross Taylor, making an early ascent of Into the Bleau (V5) at Andersens, the Grampians. This was back when the tree was still there and the author had hair on his head. Taylor collection

VL editor, Ross Taylor, making an early ascent of Into the Bleau (V5) at Andersens, the Grampians. This was back when the tree was still there and the author had hair on his head. Taylor collection

On the flipside, the more people that venture outdoors the greater the potential impact on the environment. It is likely that bouldering gyms will produce a preponderance of boulderers, who, with their large mats and more wandering ways, have a greater impact than rope climbers. This impact has been clearly evident at Andersens at Stapylton, probably the most popular bouldering area in the Grampians. I’ve been bouldering at Andersens from almost the first days of its development and the place has changed dramatically in that time, with many paths running through it and large swathes of bush removed.

While there’s little doubt that bouldering is more destructive than roped climbing, having bouldered for many years I also believe bouldering doesn’t have to be as impactful as the way many people practice it. There are a lot of practical measures we can take to minimise our impact on the bush, from sticking to paths to practicing good bouldering etiquette, but we need to share this knowledge, particularly with those who are new to the sport.

Where should this education come from? Well, it probably needs to come from a range of sources – from the climbing media and guidebook authors; from gyms, who are the first point of contact for many climbers; from clubs and CliffCare-like organisations; and from more experienced climbers. We need to foster a culture of care and respect for the environment, and create permanent structures for communicating these ideas.

Recently I ventured back into Andersens for the first time since it reopened post fires. It was wonderful to climb on that superb grey sandstone again, but it was also eye-opening to see the amazing regrowth. Parts of Andersons were like a jungle, thick with fruiting kangaroo apples and tall, sticky triffid-like incense plants. While it was tricky wending my way through it with a massive boulder mat and a four-year-old, it was also reassuring to see that given a break from people vegetation can recover quickly. Nature is both amazingly fragile and adaptable all at once. For the last year it has been remarkable how many climbers have respected the closure that allowed this recovery. Such powerful will on the part of the climbing community proves that we already have a strong culture of respect for the environment, and that we can face up to the challenges of our growing sport.
Ross Taylor

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