For many climbers, the recent rumours of climbing being banned in the Grampians’ Victoria Range came as a huge shock. And the anger and confusion on social media is testament to this shock. The whole incident might have been poorly handled and communicated by Parks Victoria, but for those who have been following access issues in the Grampians the threat of this has been rumbling away for some time.
Given that there is so much hearsay and a chaotic lack of clarity in the public arena, we’ve tried to put together a brief history of access in the Grampians so that climbers can arm themselves with some facts. Note, we are not exactly certain of some of the dates for events, but we’ve tried to indicate this where that is the case.
1999 – The Victorian Climbing Club (VCC) agrees to a Parks Victoria (PV) request for a five-year ban on all activity in parts of the Victoria Range to protect the last known colony of brushtail rock wallabies. Climbers follow this self-imposed ban on climbing in the area around Muline.
2001 – The last know rock wallaby is captured and removed only to later die in captivity. Climbers happily followed the climbing moratorium until it comes to an end in late 2001.
2003 – The current Park Management Plan is released. In it, rock climbing is recognised as a legitimate park activity so long as it is done “in accordance with Parks Victoria’s operational policies”. Furthermore, climbing “will be given priority in the planning and management of the park, in keeping with the encouragement of visitors’ enjoyment and understanding and the minimisation of impacts on the park”. The management plan includes the caveat that PV will “close climbs that conflict with Aboriginal cultural sites, significant flora and fauna or other park values, and signpost accordingly”.
Bouldering, then a relatively recent activity with a small number of adherents, is not mentioned in the management plan. It is unclear as to whether bouldering is simply considered a subset of climbing.
Furthermore, as part of the management plan the park is divided up into different sectors that are covered by various overlays that designate use. The most restrictive of these overlays are Special Protection Zones (SPZs). According to the park management plan, climbing is officially not allowed in SPZs.
The northern head of the Victoria Range – an area rich in Indigenous cultural sites (the Grampians holds more than 80% of Victoria’s cultural sites) – is covered by an SPZ. This SPZ encompasses crags as far north as Eureka Wall, the Lost World, etc, to as far south as Buandik and Millennium Caves, and covers everything in between, including crags like Muline, Mt Fox, Red Rocks and the Gallery – essentially all the best and most popular climbing and bouldering areas in the southern Grampians.
However – and it’s a big however – despite this area being covered by an SPZ, Parks Victoria has never enforced it and climbers have been able to climb in all these areas apart from in the aftermath of big fires or during the voluntary wallaby moratorium.
SPZs are not isolated to the Victoria Range. For example, parts of the Wonderland Range – one of the most heavily visited areas of the Park due to its proximity to Halls Gap – are also covered by an SPZ.
Through the early 2000s – Amid an increase in bouldering participation, but far before the current boom in numbers, Parks tries to fold bouldering into the Management Plan by cataloging bouldering sites. The process is never completed and bouldering is still not included in the management plan.
2011 – Flooding affects a large area of the Park, with the greatest impacts felt in the central Grampians and around Halls Gap with parts of the park closed.
February 2013 – The first really big fire in the Victoria Range in more than 30 years tears through the area. In the aftermath, the area is closed for eight months to allow the area to regenerate. This closure is successfully respected by climbers, with one very public exception by visiting professional climbers – a reminder that it only takes a small number of poorly behaved users to corrode the reputation of the larger user group.
August 2013 – Sections of the Victoria Range are officially reopened, including to climbers.
January 2014 – Massive fires burn through the northern Grampians, again leading to closures of significant climbing areas while they regenerate, including all the climbing around Mt Stapylton. These temporary closures are happily respected by climbers and lead to a lot of new bouldering being developed around Halls Gap, an area that remained open.
2014ish – Around this time some climbers start filling in the gaps at Black Ians by bolting a bunch of new routes, a development that will anger local Indigenous groups.
September 2015 – The majority of the Northern Grampians is officially reopened, including to climbers.
2015 – The beginning of the wave of new-style bouldering gyms being built around Australia. We estimate that at this point there are around 30 climbing and bouldering gyms in Australia. As more and more boulderers visit the Grampians and more areas are developed, Parks Victoria becomes more concerned with the impact of boulderers, particularly the crushing of vegetation around the base of boulders, plus the potential for damage to cultural sites.
May 2016 – A coalition of traditional owners including the Barengi Gadjin Land Council, Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owner Aboriginal Corporation and Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, file in the Federal Court an application for a determination of native title over the Grampians National Park. This is known as the Gariwerd Native Title Claim. Joint Management negotiations between Parks Victoria and Traditional Owners also commences. The effect of a native title determination or of joint management arrangements on access to the Park is unknown at this time.
October 2016 – PV official rock climbing update outlines which crags are open in the Grampians, including crags in the Victoria Range, this document seems to be more than just ‘not enforcing’ SPZs.
January 2017 – The VCC is informed that bolting at Black Ians in the Black Range has angered local Indigenous groups, who were already angry about bolting in and around the old camping cave. Contemporaneously, a second incident of a climber placing a bolt within one metre of a handprint at another area in the Black Range is reported – an act that is not only extremely disrespectful but could also lead to a massive fine for the individuals responsible and severe ramifications for the broader climbing population. An Aboriginal Victoria assessment of these two incidents is pending. Aboriginal Victoria has far-reaching powers and the option to seek damages from Parks Victoria.
2018 – The VCC begins to put together a proposal to work together with Parks Victorian and other stakeholders on a Climbing Management Plan in the hope that proactive management by climbers and boulderers will lead to a better negotiating position with Parks and Traditional Owners. This plan is not finalised.
2018 – Climbing development at an unknown site in the Black Range sees a bolt placed immediately adjacent to a handprint, further angering Traditional Owners and inflaming the situation.
31 October 2018 – In response to the increasing seriousness of access negotiations with Parks Victoria and Traditional Owners, the VCC proposes a voluntary moratorium on all development in the Grampians for one year. We have been unable to get more details on the moratorium, in particular in relation to the mechanism for assessing its efficacy or for the process of consultation which led to it. Officially this moratorium is not sanctioned by Parks. At present, the VCC has not changed their call for the moratorium, although many climbers feel there has not been enough consultation with the wider climbing community nor is the moratorium nuanced enough for it to work.
4 November 2018 – A Parks Victoria ranger issues climbers in the Victoria Range with notices to cease and desist and vacate the area immediately. This ranger hands documents including a map that depicts the Victoria Range SPZ to climbers in person (some international climbers climbing at Muline) and left on cars (underneath Red Rocks). These documents might not have been officially released, but they are draft documents that are being used internally by Parks Victoria. Parks Victoria management did not order this ranger’s actions.
Note: Table 3 of the Park Management Plan states that less than 1% of the Grampians National Park is designated SPZ. Parks Victoria has been contacted for a high-resolution map detailing more accurately the overlays but has as yet not supplied one.
4 November 2018 – Concerned climbers circulate these documents on social media, though without corroboration or investigation. The Climbing Internet quickly blows up with confusion, rage and misinformation.
November 2018 – By our calculation there are 62 climbing and bouldering gyms around Australia – with more planned – which means that in the last three years the number of gyms has doubled. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the number of climbers going outdoors has doubled, or even come close to that, but it is likely that more people are going climbing, particularly bouldering. As the Grampians is Australia’s premiere bouldering site we can assume there has been and will continue to be a commensurate increase in boulderers visiting the Grampians.
The Present – Right now there is understandably a lot of anxiety within the climbing community with respect to access to world-class climbing areas, particularly those in the Victoria Range. It’s likely that our unfettered access to the Grampians is set to change and the mutual understanding that we’ve had with Parks where we manage our own activities is coming to an end. The impacts of climbers are increasing and management of the Park is changing.
We think we’ve reached a point where we as a community have to ask ourselves a number of critical questions:
- What does the future of climbing and bouldering look like in the Grampians? We have to think not just of ourselves when we answer this question, but also of future climbers. What is their access going to be like, what state will climbing areas be in?
- Do we as a community need to be more organised and support our access organisations better? We think this is a no-brainer. Yes. What form this support takes is up for debate.
- Do our access organisations need to take a different approach to maintaining access? We believe climbers need to employ someone who understands legislation and has experience navigating the bureaucracy and who can advocate for climbers at that level.
- How can we work cooperatively with Traditional Owners? At present there has been little interaction between climbers and Traditional Owners, which makes for a situation ripe for understanding between both groups. We think it’s important that this changes and that we make an effort to understand each other.
- Do we as a community need to accept some limits on the development of new areas and routes and boulders given the rock is a finite resource? Do we need to designate bolt-free areas to retain traditional climbing? Do we need to say that some sport crags have reached saturation point? Does the spread of bouldering need to be managed?
These are difficult questions to answer, particularly with so many varying opinions within the climbing community – but we need to engage with them to know how to move forward, to ensure that we can work together with Parks and Traditional Owners and so that we can secure access for not just today’s climbers but also the climbers of the future.
Note: The latest furore occurred whilst the Victorian Government was in Caretaker mode, pending the election on 17 November. We expect that activity relating to access will increase now that the election is over and the government is out of Caretaker mode.
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