We speak to Kevin Lindorff, incoming president of the Victorian Climbing Club (VCC) and long time climber, to get his take on the VCC, its role and its future.
Congratulations on recently being elected president of the Victorian Climbing Club, can you tell us a little about your personal bio (in case anyone already doesn’t know who you are!) and also your history with the VCC?
I did my first climb when I was 12. It was the start of a love affair that’s 50 years old and still going strong. Most of my climbing has been in Victoria (where I’ve put up hundreds of new routes and written a few rock-climbing guidebooks). I’ve also been fortunate to have climbed in every state in Australia and in about 20 countries on five continents over the years.
As a secondary school teacher for most of my working life, I’ve had the privilege to introduce hundreds of students to climbing during that time and am now seeing my son gain confidence as he develops his climbing skills.
I’ve been a member of the VCC off and on since I was a teenager. I was so keen about anything to do with climbing that I occasionally even hitchhiked down to Melbourne from Ballarat, where I lived, just to go to a VCC meeting!
You’ve been climbing for a long time, what do you still get out of it?
I still love that when you climb, particularly near your limit, you have to be totally involved in the moment – whatever other worries and anxieties you may have are banished during that time. It’s mentally very cleansing in that respect. I also love that it usually gets you out into interesting natural settings – I’ve learnt more about botany, zoology, ecology, geology and astronomy by being out in the natural world than I could ever have learnt from textbooks. I really get the idea of ‘connection to country’ – it is really visceral. The smells and sounds I am greeted with when I revisit favourite climbing haunts, and the general ‘feel’ of these places are very evocative.
Since your successful bid for club president have you had much feedback from the VCC membership on how they see the future of the organisation?
Some VCC members have made it clear that the VCC still needs to be what it was set up to be – a social club for climbers. I agree that this has to remain a critical focus for the club. It needs to continue to run climbing trips and social events. It needs to continue to run learn-to-lead courses as a way of bringing in ‘new blood’ into outdoor climbing (though, with the advent of various climbing companies offering such services, this is probably not as critical as it has been in the past).
It also has an important role to play in communicating to climbers who aren’t in any clubs associated with a university or other tertiary education organisation. In this regard, Argus has traditionally been one of the few free newsletters that informs climbers about what is going on in the climbing scene. Despite the emergence of online climbing forums, it still has an important role to play.
Some have made the point that crag stewardship is also an important aspect of what the club is about and should continue to be about. I’d agree and would strongly support the role of the VCC in educating and communicating the critical need for such stewardship.
And the other issue driving much debate relates to crag access. There have been access issues in the past but never on the scale that we are currently confronted with. If people think it will stop with the Grampians/Gariwerd bans then they are deluded. We acknowledge the crucial need to protect environmental and cultural heritage (this is, after all, central to why national parks and state parks have been established). This can and should be done in ways that don’t overly restrict recreational users from accessing specific sites where no cultural heritage is located or where climbing has no significant impact on important plant or animal communities or ecosystems. We need to talk with land managers and to traditional owners. In the case of public land, we need to insist land managers consult with us about matters that have significant impact on us. If we feel that land managers’ decisions are not evidence-based or that world’s best practice management options have not been considered, we will say so. We will insist that land managers follow required processes if they are wanting to implement access restrictions and insist they adhere to relevant legal requirements. If a land manager refuses to acknowledge any mistakes they may have made in this regard and remain intransigent we will have no qualms in filing legal proceedings (or supporting the Australian Climbing Association Victoria doing this).
The VCC has taken a leading role with access negotiations with Grampians/Gariwerd bans, do you see that role continuing under your leadership or will there be a change in focus?
Certainly, it will continue to work actively in this space. Negotiations regarding access to the Grampians/Gariwerd and elsewhere are crucial. There are a couple of avenues to pursue in this regard. The VCC is committed to staying involved in consultations/ negotiations but understands that, just in case PV are simply going through the motions so that they can ‘tick the consultation with stakeholders box’ it is also prudent to prepare ourselves for a legal challenge.
What do you see as the VCC’s primary role in the climbing community?
The VCC has two primary roles. First and foremost, it is a club where climbers can meet and interact with other climbers. Secondly, it has traditionally taken on the important role of climbing advocacy in this state. In the current climate, the importance of the VCC continuing on in this role is self-evident.
What is the current strategy with respect to CliffCare, the VCC’s access arm?
The new committee is keen on continuing with a big focus on crag stewardship, albeit using a different model. Rather than relying on a single salaried Cliffcare and Access Officer to be on top of everything, the new committee believes that it has the opportunity to evolve a more potent Cliffcare by utilising a significant number of volunteer local area crag stewards. This is in line with the approach of some very effective stewardship and access groups overseas. It should enable us to develop and maintain more comprehensive relationships with land managers and traditional owners across the state. By having more people taking responsibility for looking after their local crags, we should be in a better position to pre-empt problems, and to respond quickly and appropriately when issues emerge. We already have a number of climbers who have put their hands up to be involved.
Do you have any thoughts on the formation of the Gariwerd Wimmera Reconciliation Network (GWERD) and its potential role in engaging Traditional Owners?
Some traditional owners have been reluctant to talk to the VCC or ACAV (the reasons are interesting and would take a lengthy discussion to tease out so I won’t try to here), despite both organisations being very happy to talk to TOs. In that vacuum, the Reconciliation Group has offered itself as a conduit between TOs and climbers. I admit that I had some initial reservations about a group putting itself forward, without reference to the broader climbing community or any of its major organisations and purporting to represent climbers. There had already been enough of the “another day, another messiah” stuff happening with tiny organisations trying to insinuate themselves into the consultation process and pretending to speak for the broader climbing community. That being said, listening and fostering mutually respectful dialogue is critical to fleshing out how climbers can not only avoid causing harm to cultural heritage, but can act as eyes and ears on the ground to actually assist TOs in ensuring that Cultural Heritage is protected for generations to come. If GWERD can engage with TOs to progress that, I’m sure the climbing community will be applauding.
Why were you keen to resign from the ACAV to head up the VCC?
It wasn’t so much being ‘keen to resign’, rather, it was for two key reasons: firstly, to avoid any perception of conflict of interest and, secondly, to be fair to my family because I suspected the amount of time required to do justice to both roles would be enormous.
There has been significant discord between the leadership of the VCC and the ACAV, are you hoping that the two groups can work more harmoniously in the future – and if so how do you see that happening?
I have always said that the two organisations have much in common. There have been some differences of approach to progressing common aims but such differences shouldn’t preclude the two organisations looking at how they might work together on some issues for the benefit of the climbing community. The development of the Climbing Management Plan (with both organisations already providing constructive input) is one case in point. A few individuals from both orgs have also been working together recently to get people to volunteer as local area crag stewards. This is another area where it is in the interests of all climbers, irrespective of what group they are or aren’t a part of, to have people working on their behalf.
We reported that the recent change of leadership was a part-takeover of the VCC by the ACAV. We didn’t think this was an unfair characterisation as both yourself and Matt Brooks (who nominated for the role of Vice President, though he was unsuccessful he now sits on the board) were/are both board members on the ACAV, but perhaps you have a different perspective on it?
I’d reject that it was a takeover of the VCC by ACAV. It was an attempt by some VCC members (some of whom were also ACAV members) to influence how their club was led. I’ve been a member of VCC on and off for many decades. Many other VCC members, or climbers who had previously been VCC members over the years, also decided to join ACAV when it was formed earlier this year. They did so presumably because they believed in the appropriateness of its prime aim of advocating for climbing access and its stated willingness to ensure that land managers acted in accordance to the relevant Acts of Parliament. No surprises there.
A number of these climbers who had a history of involvement with the VCC were not 100% happy with its efforts (leading up to or immediately following the announcement of the climbing bans in February). So they decided to put their efforts and commitments where their mouths were and stand for positions on the committee. The fact that some were also in ACAV (there are hundreds who are members of both organisations) didn’t mean that it was an ‘ACAV takeover’.
The VCC’s former President, Paula Toal (now Vice President), has a position on the Parks Victoria Stakeholder Reference Group, which is one of the main ways that climbers can contribute to the formulation of the new Grampians Landscape Management Plan. Will she remain as the climbing representative or will that change?
Paula and I were happy to agree that I’d go to the Roundtable meetings and she would continue to go to the SRG meetings (as it transpired, Paula began a new job and felt unable to take a day off to head to the recent SRG meeting on 19th November in Halls Gap at short notice, so I attended that particular meeting in her stead).
The President of the ACAV, Mike Tomkins, recently announced on social media that he’d climbed in Special Protection Area (SPA) – despite most climbers following a self-imposed moratorium on climbing in SPAs – and is encouraging others to do the same. Do you and the VCC have an official position on climbers going back into SPAs?
There is no ‘official position’ on climbing in SPAs. To be honest, there are arguments for and against such a stance and no doubt the views of our membership would reflect the whole range so it would be difficult to have an ‘official position’ that didn’t annoy a significant fraction of our membership.
Mike undoubtedly was mindful of other instances in the past where Parks Victoria have banned climbing, and the bans have never been reviewed and are now seemingly set in stone. In one instance (Tongue Point, Wilson’s Promontory) PV promised climbers that they would review an announced ban and get back to the VCC within 12 months, only for 20+ years to elapse without any further word and the bans remaining unchanged. He was no doubt acutely aware that, eight months since the Gariwerd bans were announced, there have been no indications whatsoever from PV that, within the vast SPAs, they would consider rescinding bans in some specific sites where no cultural heritage could be shown, and where climbing does not represent a threat to local crag environments. There have been no indications from PV that the approach advocated by climbers – based on world’s best practice examples that protect cultural and environmental heritage in ways that don’t lock recreational users out of vast tracts of land – would even be considered, let alone adopted. The push for a far more granular, site-by-site basis for any restrictions has thus far been ignored.
My understanding is that Mike’s action was designed to show that there are huge areas in the SPAs AWAY from cultural heritage where climbing has nonetheless been banned.
Nonetheless, many are upset and exasperated that Mike didn’t make it crystal clear that his announcement to climb in SPAs was NOT about climbing at sites of cultural heritage significance (and, indeed, that these sites would be studiously avoided). They believe that he should have made this front and center in his public announcement to go back into the SPAs. He should have pointed out that the original SPAs were specified in the 2003 Management Plan for reasons of environmental significance, not cultural heritage significance. He should have pointed out that climbers have climbed in these sites, with minimal environmental impact and with PV knowledge and indeed support, for many years. And he should have pointed out that, given his intention to avoid cultural heritage sites, this action was NOT meant to show any disrespect to TOs, despite the inevitable attempts of critics to frame it so.
Through that lens, it was not so much the action of going into an SPA, per se, that was the problem, but the failure to adequately explain his rationale. Mere optics, some might say. But such optics can be critical in the court of public opinion.
The other aspect of this where Mike has copped criticism (including from many VCC members) relates to timing. Some members have argued that he could have at least waited until the Roundtable talks had concluded and, if at that stage the general feeling was that PV was just stalling and had no intention of taking climbers’ suggestions seriously, then climbing (and perhaps even a mass ‘climbing trespass’) in the SPA might be warranted.
Mike would no doubt be aware of the fact that the mediation PV offered to VCC about our concerns with the bans have been postponed by PV on numerous occasions. They were initially scheduled for September, then postponed to October, then to November and now PV want to wait until the Roundtable talks are concluded and, if any issues remain unresolved, to have the mediation happen (sometime in 2020!). Given that the facilitator of the Roundtable talks is not able or willing to articulate what the supposed ‘deliverables’ of such talks might be, and indicated that it is not the place for the Roundtable group to make recommendations for consideration by the SRG in developing the next Grampians Landscape Management Plan, it is hard to imagine how any of the existing VCC concerns about the implementation of the bans would be ameliorated before next year.
Knowing all this, Mike was obviously keen to keep climbers’ dissatisfaction with PV in the public domain. If I ask ten different members how his stance has been productive or counterproductive in furthering climbers’ interests (and I’ve asked far more than ten!), I’d get ten different answers. Your readers inevitably can (and will) judge for themselves.
Do you have any final words for the VCC membership?
The challenge for the VCC will be to keep the very best of what it has always done well (notably as a social club that connects members and keeps them ‘in the loop’ with what is going on in the local and wider climbing scene) but also to continue to evolve to best meet the needs of its members and of the sport in changing circumstances. Change is always challenging. Access is a current case in point. And solutions won’t always be quick to emerge or be what we might expect.