Editor’s note to issue 28 of Vertical Life. Subscribe to the issue here.
When it comes to climbing in the Grampians/Gariwerd, the Good Old Days are done. For instance, the classic route featured on our cover, Sandinista, is no longer legal to climb.
We’ve entered a new era. Given all the hyperbole about Alex Honnold (including in this issue, see p30), we’ve been thinking of The Past as the time when we were all soloists, metaphorically free of the paraphernalia of accountability: the ropes, harnesses and hexes of permits, processes and rules. The Grampians/Gariwerd was our playground and we were (largely) unfettered by the Park Management Plan. But that era is officially dead; everything has changed. Parks Victoria is now telling us that we must tie-in and partner up to regulation.
And if you’re thinking this problem is isolated to the Grampians/Gariwerd, you’re wrong. Crags all over Australia have access threatened due to cultural or environmental concerns. Climbing is now banned at Wallcliffe in Western Australia; numerous climbing and bouldering areas around Sydney and the Shire are banned; climbing at Coolum and Flinders Peak is in question; while Hillwood (which is on private land) was recently closed because the landholder grew weary of the entitled behaviour of climbers. And if you think the lodestar of trad climbing, Mt Arapiles, will be spared a similar process to the one currently taking place in the Grampians, you’re kidding yourself.
You’re also kidding yourself if you think things will go back to being the way they were or that Parks doesn’t have some genuine concerns. Bolts have been placed adjacent to artwork at two crags (although not in the Grampians), and there are environmental impacts, particularly from bouldering. Equally, the way Parks has communicated and put in place bans has been extremely poor, with no consultation, despite a long history of climbers and Parks working together. Like Big Brother, Parks has also tried to rescind past official statements recognising our activities. And it’s not like climbing is new or climbers have been secretly going about what they’ve been doing; no activity in the park is better documented than climbing. Since the bans were put in place in February, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Parks Victoria has been seeking to deliberately misrepresent the activities of climbers in the media in an attempt to smear us and put us on the back foot in the coming negotiations – with great effect.
Climbing is growing. Gyms are springing up, a climbing film has won an Oscar (an Oscar!), and climbing is an Olympic sport. We know that the number of indoor climbers doesn’t correlate directly to those going outdoors, but all over the country there are noticeably more climbers at the cliffs and boulders. From an environmental perspective, boulderers generally create more environmental impact; they climb in larger groups and use bouldering mats that crush vegetation. In bouldering there are also less formal methods for the transmission of knowledge about outdoor safety and etiquette compared to roped climbing, leaving boulderers susceptible to acting in ways that are not the safest or most low-impact.
For some time, we’ve thought we need to change the way we climb. We need to manage our impacts better. For a large part, this can be done through education about low-impact practices, but we may also need to think more creatively. This could include ideas such as resting areas so they can recover, yearly working bees to scrub off chalk at key sites and creating more of a guardian culture. Part of developing a guardian culture is recognising rock as a finite resource, which changes the way we think about using it. We think the time has come for a more collaborative approach to development. Perhaps we’re no longer in an era where individual climbers make decisions about what should or shouldn’t be developed. One such idea could be the formation of Councils of Elders – though ‘elders’ does not mean ‘oldest’ – that climbers could ask if a new area is worth developing or if there are environmental or cultural sensitivities. And it may even be more granular than that. For instance, do we need another variant-on-variant on Spurt Wall? These sorts of things would require a fundamental shift in the way climbing development occurs, but that might be what is necessary. Lots of climbers want to claim their patch of rock, but we need to think more holistically about crag use and what it will mean for future climbers.
As a user group we’re in a strange place. If you were to stereotype us, you’d probably peg us as chardonnay-sipping, latte-drinking lefties, people who’d reflexively side with the broad notion of Indigenous rights, but now we find our access is threatened by the need to protect cultural sites. A true test of an ethical position is the will to hold it when it is no longer abstract, when holding it costs you: it’s easy to be in favour of the freedom of the Tibetan people; it’s harder to give up access to a crag you have always been able to walk up to. We think most climbers can accept cultural sites need to be protected. Indeed, we think one of the best things that will come out of this whole mess will be conversations with Traditional Owners, to understand their concerns and work out how we can come to accommodations that allow climbing whilst protecting cultural heritage. Where we can’t come to accommodations, it will be easier to accept bans if we will have the reasons directly from the people who understand cultural heritage sites best. But one thing is clear: we cannot expect park managers to come up with the answers.
They have neither the resources, the knowledge, nor, it seems, even the goodwill to collaborate. We must provide the pathway to ensure access, and it will require us to be more organised and engaged than we’ve been in the past.
The era of going solo is finished. It’s a loss, but it’s also an opportunity to create a sustainable future for climbing, one that’s more educated and inclusive of the environment and a unique cultural history that spans more than 60,000 years.
Ross Taylor & Simon Madden
This editorial was published in Issue 28 of Vertical Life, get your hands on all the climbing goodness of VL by subscribing to the mag go here.