Elephant in the Room – The uncomfortable truth about the Grampians ban

Grampians/Gariwerd at dusk (Source: Gav Owen via Wikipedia Creative Commons)

All puns aside, you’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the turbulent events which recently affected Grampians/Gariwerd climbing access. The social media feeds for most Australian climbers are currently bogged down by press releases, radio snippets and opinion pieces relating to this largely unprecedented climbing ban.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Grampians. I’ve only visited the region twice and have spent a mere two days climbing there. As I don’t consider myself particularly well-informed regarding the nature of climbing in the area, I encourage you to listen to those who are – Simon Carter of Onsight Photography has written an excellent, comprehensive piece which you can find here, and Vertical Life has run some great articles as well.

But there are other pieces out there, and those published by mainstream media outlets have generally portrayed climbers in a less than favourable light. Notably, these were the article that appeared in The Age, as well as coverage by the ABC’s 7:30 Report. Both contained some erroneous assumptions and misinformation, and neither represented climbers as particularly virtuous, objectively speaking. But this is the image being presented to Joe Common, and the question we need to seriously ask ourselves is this – is there some truth behind it?

The Grampians ban has been seen by many climbers for what it is – a broadside attack and a shameless smear campaign. The motives are still cloudy, but there have certainly been allusions that Parks Victoria is blockading climbers in order to aid exploitation of the park for commercial gain. Naturally, as a legitimate and arguably important user group, climbers are fighting this development tooth and nail. Such a response is justified, but the fact remains that much of the current focus is external, which means that we’re failing to turn the mirror on ourselves.

The accusations levelled by Parks Victoria against climbers are mostly bunk, but they do contain some uncomfortable truths. I truly believe that the majority of climbers are responsible outdoorspeople who care greatly for the wilderness and move through it in an ethical manner. But can we put our hands on our hearts and say that we truly leave no trace? My opinion is that we can’t.

When it comes to carrying our rubbish home, burying our turds, and creating or maintaining sustainable trails, climbers are all over it like a cheap suit. But there are some other aspects of the sport which we take for granted and can have a deleterious effect on the environment and the experience of other users. It’s time for a bit of soul-searching, and if we are going to state our case as legitimate stakeholders in this battle, I feel there are practices within the sport that must change.

We love our cliffs and mountains. We are among the best stewards of these areas, but we can be better. The changes I propose are not specific to the Grampians, but rather should be accepted and implemented across the nation. In no particular order, they are:

Redefining bolting practices

These days, it’s hard to imagine an Australian climbing scene without bolts, but there was a time when the practice was controversial. Back in the day, many regarded the advent of sport climbing as sheer environmental vandalism, and in some cases, it looks like they weren’t too far off. Practices which would have been viewed as unethical and heavy-handed are now somewhat common, including gridbolting, rapbolting and retrobolting.

Whilst the “bolting near cave art” accusation has largely been debunked, it’s not much of a stretch to say that climbers have bent and broken the rules at times, and this is true of both self-imposed ethical boundaries and official land management codes. This laissez-faire approach to bolting practices has mostly flown under the radar, but is under intense scrutiny now. In all likelihood, operating a Makita with impunity is now a thing of the past.

False reporting of climbing bolt near rock art, Grampians
Yes, this infamous example provided by Parks Victoria is sheer bollocks, but the fact remains that bolting practices are not above reproach (Source: Save Grampians Climbing)

Sport climbing is here to stay, and a moratorium on bolting is neither desirable nor achievable – a draconian approach will only turn developers into rogues. Rather, a consensus must be reached on what defines acceptable practice. As part of a cooperative effort to share our wild places, bolting practices must begin to show compromise by:

  • Camouflaging bolts in a permanent manner (e.g. one which doesn’t require periodic maintenance)
  • Avoiding placements of bolts at or near eye level
  • Avoiding placement of bolts in high use areas, both for reduced visual impact and for the safety of other users from potential rockfall
  • Embracing the duty to investigate the possibility of environmental or cultural significance before initiating route development
  • Avoiding development that requires removal of vegetation or disturbance of important animal habitats (e.g. rock wallabies, peregrine falcons)
  • Retaining the emphasis on the long-standing Australian ethic that states that bolts should only be used in the absence of traditional protection

Abandoning the placement of permadraws and project draws

Worn permadraw, Mt Coolum
An example of permadraw wear found recently in Coolum Cave, QLD (Photo by Neil Jenman)

Climbers don’t own cliffs (or any minor segment thereof) and shouldn’t act as though they do. In my mind, leaving permanent or semi-permanent protection is perhaps the most self-centred practice within the sport. I regard it as such for many reasons, but two in particular are pertinent to this debate.

The first is that such protection can become unsafe when exposed to the elements. I don’t have any solid data to back this up, so you can consider any examples to be anecdotal and therefore unreliable. But for what its worth, I can personally recall instances in which deeply-worn grooves have shredded ropes and unserviceable gates have created strength deficiencies in local permadraws. Should these defects result in an accident, the social and environmental impact of a full-scale rescue is astronomical and cannot be excused.

The second, and arguably more important reason given the context of the current ban, is that it degrades the experience of other user groups. National Parks are bastions of wilderness in an otherwise drastically altered landscape. Many visitors seek the refuge of these wild places, and wish to experience them in a form that is as whole and true as possible. Believe it or not, festoons of nylon and aluminium don’t particularly add to the ambience.

Abandoning the use of chalk

Tara Kerzhner on Venom, Taipan Wall (Photo by @kregerzhner)

Our addiction to the white powder is totally out of control. Whilst climbers don’t generally engage in traditional forms of graffiti, the overuse of chalk can certainly be considered to share a likeness. We might think that a proud line with an intricate sequence of white holds looks rad, but others consider it an eyesore.

But doesn’t chalk just wash away? It depends on the rock type. Sometimes, a good bit of rain can wash clean impermeable rocks like granite. Other times, it can embed the chalk deeply and irrevocably into porous rocks such as sandstone. Anyone want to take a stab at which rock the Grampians are formed of?

It’s unlikely that climbers are going to give up chalk cold turkey, but there are things we can do to reduce its presence:

  • Consider whether you really need chalk for an ascent. Is it hot and humid, or are you simply using it out of habit?
  • Remove all tick marks after every session. Not in a couple of weeks, months or years when you finally send your project… AFTER EVERY SESSION.
  • Brush holds thoroughly, particularly in high use areas. The frequency required will vary widely.
  • Introduce coloured chalks to complement the natural hues of local rock. This solution has been adopted with varying levels of success at certain crags in the United States, such as Garden of the Gods in Colorado.
  • Clean up spills from chalkbags as diligently as possible.
  • Try liquid chalk or Metolius Eco Ball instead of powdered chalk, both of which are non-marking variations.
  • Ethically, we should consider neglecting to remove chalk as equivalent to intentionally discarding trash or human waste at the crag. It’s just not good enough.

Increasing engagement and respect of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage

Many of the opinion pieces that are floating about make a statement that reads something like this: “I’m sure we can collaborate with Aboriginal communities and co-exist in harmony.” And I hope that’s true, but has anyone made a real effort to find out if it is?

Like many climbers, I consider myself poorly informed about Aboriginal culture. If we tread on sacred ground, I believe it is due to ignorance rather than malice. Even so, ignorance is not an excuse. If we have any hope of moving forward, then both groups must build a clearer understanding and mutual respect of one another, and this can only come from a collaborative effort. It is possible that we may need to make compromises, and finding methods to continue our sport whilst preserving Aboriginal Cultural Heritage should be a cornerstone of our practices.

I have only discussed this issue tangentially, but it deserves a thorough examination and discussion of its own. I intend to conduct more research and write about the issue at greater length when I am able.

Putting your money where your mouth is

Let he who is without sin climb the first stone. To varying extents, I believe all climbers are culpable in paying lip service to some important LNT principles. We’ve simply brushed them under the rug because the truth was inconvenient. I’m in that boat too, so I’ve decided to make a couple of commitments as well as continuing to uphold some which I’ve previously made. They are:

  • Continuing development and delivery of Leave No Trace information in conjunction with local businesses and organisations
  • Embracing opportunities to meet and converse with local Aboriginal groups to help foster better relationships
  • Attending at least one crag/trail care event each year
  • Giving up powdered chalk for a trial period of 6 months

I urge every climber to consider the impacts of the sport and endeavour to make or uphold some commitments of their own. At the very least, please consider becoming a member of ACAQ and/or ACAV. Your membership fees and donations help them fight the good fight. It’s a crucial time for Australian climbing access, and we’re stronger together.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
May 2019

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?

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