My colleagues at work have stopped asking me what I did on the weekend. Now they just ask where I climbed this time.
I’ve become predictable.
Each weekend the entire floorspace of my teeny tiny apartment is submerged under a sea of rope, chalkbags, climbing shoes, quickdraws, sleeping bags and other adventure tools. That stuff gets packed into bags. The bags get packed into the car. The car hits the road, bound for another weekend of climbing, somewhere, anywhere. I love it. I’m obssessed. I’m addicted.
Many of those car trips are spend listening to episodes of the Enormocast.
The dirtbaglawyer in me enjoyed hearing about debates over obscure regulations that banned ‘fixed anchors’ in America’s national parks.
The dirtbaglawyer in me understood that land owners might be worried about liability issues that might arise if a climber was injured on their land.
I was pretty intrigued by the whole concept of climbing advocacy.
What is this Access Fund thing anyway?
Halfway through the 1980s, the sports climbing movement started to really kick off in the States. More people were out climbing rocks. Land managers and climbers started to clash more often. Crags were closed. Tensions were mounting.
The American Alpine Club responded by forming an Access Committee to do something about the closures. Sometimes that meant speaking with land managers, sometimes it mean lobbying federal politicians and sometimes it meant purchasing land outright.
By 1991 the Access Committee turned into a stand alone organisation called the Access Fund. The Access Fund aims to:
- keep climbing areas open and accessible;
- reduce climbers’ environmental impact;
- buy threatened climbing areas;
- help land owners manage their risk and liability concerns;
- educate new climbers on responsible climbing practices;
- share resources and support local climbing groups across the country;
- fund local projects like crag clean up days, rebuilding trails, working bees for land owners or education programs;
- sharing up to date information about closures and restrictions; and
- give climbers a credible voice in debates with land owners and government.
When I listened to those enormocast episodes, I wondered if could get involved in a similar organisation here in the land of Oz.
I know there are climbers in my local area who do some Access Fund-y activities.
I did some googling and found groups like CragCare who are doing awesome things in the Blue Mountains, the Sydney Rockclimbers Mountain Goat Bushcare Group and a handful of other merry bands of climbers who are working really hard to look after the wild parts of the world that they hold dear.
Maybe the reason we don’t have a well-established national body is because the climbing scene here is smaller and younger than it is in the States.
Maybe we Aussies just don’t like bureaucracy.
Whatever the reason, it would be great to have some kind of central place where climbers around the country could share ideas, skills and resources about common access issues.
The main access issues that I’ve come across in my own climbing adventures are:
- Government policies and regulation
- Fear of liability
- Indigenous cultural heritage
- The bolt wars
Rules and regulations
A few months ago, there was an angry article in my local newspaper about regulations that essentially banned people from engaging in activities that could be perceived as risky when they were in a State Forest.
The author’s key concern was that:
NSW Parliament has made rock climbing an illegal activity, without us even knowing about it….
In 2004, Ian Michael McDonald, the then Labor government minister for primary industries, introduced a new forestry regulation, including section 15, which made it an offence to engage in any activity or recreational pursuit that involved a risk to the safety of a person. The regulation went further, specifically outlawing abseiling, rock climbing, caving and hang gliding.
I find the politics that fuel these kinds of rules and regulations really interesting.
I regularly hear rhetoric in Australian media about the fact that taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill for rescuing irresponsible people, who do dangerous things in public places.
Rock climbing and other outdoor activities are often portrayed as inherently dangerous activities, engaged in by selfish adrenaline junkies. Better to ban it all. Or so the story goes.
I don’t climb for the adrenaline hit.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but climbing is something that helps me to relax, focus and calm down. I take great pleasure in learning how to be safe in high places. I enjoy being self-sufficient and taking responsibility for my own actions. Climbing has taught me a lot about assessing and mitigating risk. There is always an element of risk in climbing. There is also an element of risk in crossing the road to grab a coffee at the start of my work day.
It would be great for the climbing community to have a respected, united voice to join the public debate on risk and personal responsibility.
But what if someone sues us
Once upon a time there was a guy who owned a farm. As he got older, he sold off parts of the farm. The remaining land was covered in granite boulders. Not great for grazing.
As it turned out, the guys son in law was a climber. He saw those boulders very differently. He invited a few other climbers to check them out over Easter one year. They camped and climbed and sat around a camp fire at night. They all invited a few more friends to hang out next Easter. They all invited a few more friends to join them for the Easter after that.
Eventually, I found myself at that farm. I had driven for about six hours to take part in the sixth annual Beulah Rock Festivus.
I had an amazing time. I spent the long weekend on a stranger’s private property doing yoga, climbing, slacklining, listening to live music and scrubbing boulders clean. I ate delicious pizza and hot cross buns that the owner’s family made in their portable wood fire ovens.
I went back the following Easter and did it all again. At the end of that seventh festival, the owners announced that there would be no eighth festival.
Word on the street was that the festival had gotten too big and too hard to manage. Concerns about liability had grown to unsustainable levels. Increased numbers meant there were increased chances that someone might slip off a boulder, break an ankle and start looking around for someone to help them pay their medical bills.
I’m enormously grateful to that family for letting us all run wild on their patch of the world for as long as they did.
Lots of private land owners are worried about liabilty. Even in cases where the risks are objectively small, you can see why people might decide to err on the side of caution. If you’re worried about getting sued, a blanket ban on climbers, hikers, mountain bikers and other strangers is much simpler than some sort of negotiated set of rules that you have to police forever. Better safe than sorry.
The Access Fund engages with land owners in the States and tries to helps to address their concerns by:
- providing information packs with technical legal information about risk and liabilty. These types of resources help land owners understand exactly what kinds of risks they might be exposing themselves too. Clearing up the uncertainty allows for clearer conversations about shared land use;
- speaking to land owners concerns specific to their land and working to address them;
- mobilising local climbers to do something that benefits the land owner. This might mean cleaning up, fixing fences, establishing a better access trail or anything else they need; and
- fundraising to help local climbing groups to buy land surrounding crags outright if and when that lands comes up for sale. Those groups then manage the land themselves. It might not work exactly the same way in Australia, but it is an interesting thought.
The Australian legal landscape is different to the one that exists in the states. The legal position of land owners here is different. Their potential exposure to liability is different. But the central concerns are the same. An Aussie Access Fund could help allay some of those concerns.
The Alum Mountain example
The guidebook for my local area covers hundreds of sport climbing routes on the grey-white rock of Alum Mountain in Bulahdelah. The climbing there is excellent. There is a wide range of styles and a wide range of grades. You can climb in the summer heat and the winter rains. Could climb there…
In 2012 the mountain was declared an Aboriginal Place. The website associated with that trusty local guidebook currently reports that:
- the mountain has been declared an Aboriginal Place;
- climbing and other rock related activities are currently banned; and
- a new gate has been installed on the access road and a sign has been put up to notify people of the ban.
What is an Aboriginal Place?
The term ‘Aboriginal Place’ comes from section 84 National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NSW) (the Act). It is defined as a site that is or was of special significance with respect to Aboriginal culture.
- Individuals and aboriginal communities in NSW can apply to the Office of Environment & Heritage (OEH) for a declaration that a particular site is an Aboriginal Place.
- If an application is successful, the OEH works with Aboriginal communities, land owners, land managers and occupiers to develop a ‘management plan’ that aims to ensure long term cultural access and prevent damage to the site.
- Section 86(4) of the Act makes it an offence to harm or desecrate a site that has been declared to be an Aboriginal Place.
- Decisions about future developments need to take into account the potential impacts that the development might have on Aboriginal Sites.
When I first started writing this post, I had intended to research exactly what it was that gave the country at Bulahdelah ‘special significance with respect to Aboriginal culture’. As I looked into it, I couldn’t help but feel that my question was not one that was going to be answered by sitting behind a laptop and typing search terms into google.
The Australian legal system constantly asks Aboriginal people to prove their connections to land and tick off a list of requirements that fit neatly into that particular system of law. I don’t want to sit here and try to verify the connections that other Australians have to Alum Mountain. The cultural significance of that place is not my story to tell. But it is a story I’d like to listen to and learn about.
It’s a good reminder that the spectacular landscape that I’ve enjoyed on the days that I’ve climbed at Bulahdelah, is home to some stories that stretch back tens of thousands of years. My own stories about that place are much younger, spoken in different language from a different viewpoint.
I would love to climb at Bulahdelah again, but if I’m honest, I don’t really know much about the ban, or the reasons, people and interests behind it. People who are better informed than I am, could probably tell you that climbing is still permitted in some parts of the mountain and not others, but at this point, I’d rather not risk stoking the fire.
The point I’m trying to make is that there’s a tangled web of competing interests that lie over the rocks up there. Maybe things will be untangled one day. Maybe there will be some space for climbers again in the future. Maybe not. In the meantime I hope our awesome local climbing community stays open, curious and engaged in discussions about access and land use.
The bolt wars
I’ve always found it tricky to try to explain ethical debates about bolting to my non-climbing friends. You can get a sense of the debate in this article from Vertical Life or this short doco on the bolt wars in the Garden of the Gods.
One of the first decisions that the Access Fund made was ‘not to take sides in ethical debates, but to defend climbing in all its forms.’ I think that’s a practical starting point for any climbing advocacy group.
Climbers can debate style and ethics forever. But people outside the climbing community, rightly wonder why climbers think they have the right to sink chunks of metal into any patch of rock they like. Without any kind of formal quality control. Without any intention to remove them in future.
I have spent quite a bit of time clipping bolts in the Blue Mountains recently.
I’m grateful for the relative safety that those bolts afford me. I’m grateful for the time that other climbers have spent hanging from ropes, painstakingly drilling and gluing those bolts in. I’m grateful to the climbers who established so many stellar routes for me to enjoy.
But I also recognise that there are sane and reasonable people out there who don’t see the beautiful lines that I see. They see a permanent blemish on the rock. A human intrusion on an otherwise wild place. The selfish act of a few risk takers who think that rules don’t apply to them.
When you think about things from that direction, you can start to see why governments and land managers sometimes choose to ban fixed anchors. We’re all looking at the same bit of rock and seeing very different things.
It would be great to have a platform for showing those views to one another. If we don’t have that, we’re just going to argue past one another and never meet in the middle. Some groups are already starting to have those kinds of conversations. Safer Cliffs Australia have got some interesting things to say about camouflaging fixed anchors and keeping climbers safe.
Poop… or our environmental impact
I will tell anyone who will listen that I love being outdoors, I care for the environment, I always carry my rubbish out of the bush. Leave no trace. All that jazz.
But if I’m honest… it’s not uncommon for me to wander a discrete distance away from the crag and poop in the bush.
I wonder if that guy on that slab climb over there also pooped in the bush. And the guy belaying him. And those girls on the climb next to them. And their dog. Maybe they were all here last weekend, and the weekend before.
It all adds up.
In fact this issue has gotten so bad at some of the more popular climbing areas in States, that climbing access groups have actually funded the installation and maintenance of glamorous portaloos at the crag.
Here in the land of Oz, the National Parks and Wildlife service do install old long drops near the car parks for some more popular sites. I spent last weekend climbing at Shipley and Wave Wall in the Blue Mountains. There’s no loo at the carpark there.
As more and more climbers crowd into wild places, we need to be more and more conscious of the impact that we have on the environment.
There is a crag near Canberra called Red Rocks, where climbing is banned from August to the end of December, because that is the nesting season for peregrine falcons make their home on those cliffs. Climbers enjoy the riverside routes for half the year, then step out of the picture when these feathered cliff dwellers do their thing. Or at least I hope so. I personally learned about the ban on thecrag.com and heard about it from local climbers. I can’t help but think it would be great if I could find that kind of information out on a page like this one on the Access Fund site.
Leading by example
I recently read an article in which the author grumbled that:
interest groups are putting themselves ahead of the environment with a “me first” attitude that is gaining political clout and putting our parks at risk.
I’d like to think that climbers (and trail runners, canyoners, cavers, mountain bikers, abseilers and other outdoorsy folk) aren’t wandering round with a ‘me first’ attitude.
I’d like to think that we’re conscious of the impact we have.
I’d like to think that we help make our favourite places a little cleaner and healthier than they were before we arrived.
In the end, it’s much easier to combat accusations that we’re a bunch of irresponsible risk takers, if we can show that we value our the environments we climb in and we’re actively working to look after those areas.
One awesome way to do that is to get involved with groups like CragCare – check out the details below if you can help out in the Blue Mountains later this year:
If you’re currently running something like the Access Fund here in Australia, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know what you’re up to here: