New group of Victorian rock climbers hopes to scale up respect levels

© Provided by ABC NEWS Climber Ashlee Hendy joined Crag Stewards Victoria to care for the places she loves. (Supplied: Ashlee Hendy)

For Steven Wilson, the closure of some rock climbing areas within the Grampians National Park to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage highlighted the pressing need for a new type of climbing organisation.

“With the interactions with Parks Victoria and especially traditional owners, I could just see we needed to have a better model for monitoring climbing sites,” Mr Wilson said.

After launching in July, the Crag Stewards Victoria group has 150 registered members currently passing through a training process.

The organisation has a vision to operate across Victoria, but will begin with projects in areas close to Melbourne. 

Mr Wilson says Crag Stewards Victoria wants to create a volunteer network to assess the impact of climbing on the environment and help maintain the areas that climbers access.

It also wants to educate climbers about best climbing practices, engage with land managers and encourage climbers to understand and respect Aboriginal cultural heritage and engage in reconciliation processes.

Three turbulent years

Climbing has been banned at key sections of the Grampians — traditionally known as Gariwerd — since 2019, after concerns were raised around the threat to Aboriginal cultural heritage. 

Some climbers felt they were being blamed for the misdeeds of other users.

While not the first organisation of its kind in Victoria, climber Ashlee Hendy says Crag Stewards Victoria has “a bigger vision”. 

For Ms Hendy, who began climbing 22 years ago, the group offered a formalised way to best care for the places to which she has grown attached. 

“When I first heard about it I thought it was going to be a good opportunity for me to get more active in doing the right thing and looking after the places I love the most,” she said.

‘Right thing to do’

Ms Hendy says the closure of climbing sites in Gariwerd/The Grampians and further west at Djuritte/Mount Arapiles was a watershed moment for many climbers.

“I really felt like it was a good opportunity for me to reflect [on] what kind of impact I might be having … and how can I improve my own practices and help tidy up on instances where other people weren’t [following] best practices.”

She said she felt “a sense of loss” when access was cut to some areas at Djuritte but she supported closures to protect cultural heritage. 

She believes most climbers do the right thing, but says the increasing number of people drawn to the sport and the higher pressures put on outdoor climbing locations mean there is a need to educate people and encourage respect for both the environment and cultural heritage.

Speaking in July at the group’s launch in Natimuk, a small town at the foothills of Djuritte, crag steward Martin Jackson said climbers needed to organise in order to understand their impact and do something to mitigate it.

There are discussions within climbing communities around the use of chalk which can leave unsightly marks on rocks, and alternatives such as coloured chalk or no chalk are being promoted. 

However, one semi-permanent fixture of popular climbing sites is the ubiquitous safety bolt, which keeps climbers safe from falling.

Other environmental impacts in focus are erosion and vegetation disturbance.

Future plans

Leesa Riley, Parks Victoria statewide volunteering manager, said the organisation welcomed opportunities to work with volunteers and had a history of engaging with climbing groups.

“The relationship with Crag Stewards Victoria has only recently commenced and we meet on a regular basis to discuss opportunities and to explore how we [will] work together in the future,” she said.

Parks Victoria and Crag Stewards Victoria intend to run a pilot program in the Mt Buffalo area soon.

Parks Victoria will also release the final version of a new 15-year management plan for Gariwerd before the end of the year.

This will include information on how many rock climbing sites in the national park can stay open, how many need further investigation, and how many must close forever.

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