Friday 30 August 2019

A New Dawn - Climbing Clubs in Victoria

I'm not talking about a Star Wars novel but - you guessed it - climbing! There has been an awful lot of noise around the access issues at Gariwerd (aka the Grampians), clubs and climbing associations. Right. Get a cup of tea and strap in.

Let's face it: Currently the climbing community is divided over this issue. On the one hand you have the climbing clubs and on the other hand you have the ACAV.

For the normal climber this might be a bit confusing so I'll take a closer look and show you in which organisational direction this might lead the climbing community of Victoria. Without a doubt the current situation will not only change how we approach future access issues but also the organisational structure of climbing clubs in general.

  • Why is this happening?
  • Who are the involved parties?
  • Where is this going?
  • What's happening next?

VCC Self-Rescue Course
Now before we start you need to understand that Mountaineering Melbourne is a private blog about alpine sports in Victoria. It's run by Anna and me. We're both involved, affiliated with and members of various clubs and businesses. The two most prolific ones are the Victorian Climbing Club (Anna is a long-time trip leader, I'm the VP) and the Alpenverein Melbourne (we're both founding members). We also have good relationships with committee members of other clubs like the MUMC, Sport Climbing Victoria, Outdoors Victoria, Mountain Sports Collective, LUMC and Climbing QTs. This post is obviously not impartial and it also doesn't necessarily reflect the positions of the clubs mentioned above. 

Righty-o. Let's dive into it.

Why is this happening?

You can read up on the history of climbing access in Gariwerd from 1999 up until November 2018 in this Vertical Life article. Shortly after that in February 2019 Parks Victoria dropped the bombshell and announced that they're closing climbing at eight "focus sites" and they made various misleading statement about Special Protection Areas (SPAs) in the following weeks. By now we know climbing in SPAs isn't allowed either and they cover a lot of active climbing sites. The only exception is that Licensed Tour Operators (LTOs) are allowed to climb in parts of Summer Day Valley under a licensing scheme. 

Let's rewind a little bit - back to 2003 to be precise: That's when the current Management Plan for Gariwerd came into effect and that was pretty much badly crafted. It holds a couple of inconsistencies regarding climbing: 
  • "further stabilise access to the base of climbs at Summerday Valley" (6.7) and then states in Table 3 that rock climbing isn't allowed in SPAs. Summerday Valley is and has always been a SPA. Something isn't matching up here.
  • Another one is that Table 3 says far less than 1% of the park are SPAs but then Figure 2 - Management Zones shows SPAs already occupied wide areas of the Park. In the meantime a couple of SPAs were added and if you look at the map which Save Grampians Climbing created, you see immediately that this 1% was never true to begin with. 
This means that Parks Victoria had the tools to shut down climbing since 2003 but chose not to do that. On the contrary it encouraged climbing by adding infrastructure and working with the climbing community on access and environmental projects. 

Something obviously changed! 

This is a very crucial piece of information which is missing in the whole conversation. There's a lot of chatter on how these closures were determined and if due process was followed however the actual motivation gives us a much better understanding why this is happening. Which change of legislation could have sparked this? This one comes to mind: The Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 and the Aboriginal Heritage Regulations 2018 which has a legal implication towards Parks Victoria and therefore triggered a review of the park management and that exposed some conflicts: Parks Victoria is liable for Aboriginal Heritage Sites on the land they manage, actions needed to be taken. Climbing sites and Aboriginal Heritage Sites directly on top of each other aren't a great idea and can lead to some serious repercussions for PV by Aboriginal Victoria - we're talking about big fines here.
What followed was something I'd call a Trauerspiel and a sequence of missed opportunities. It solved the immediate threat of damaged Aboriginal Heritage Sites - which is without a doubt absolutely necessary - and fired up climbing community at the same time. Most likely there would have been a better approach but not everyone within PV understands climbing or even likes climbers. 
Anyway. Water under the bridge - let's move on to the next point ... well some never moved on but I'll get to that.

Who are the involved parties?

I mentioned it before that this isn't simply a case of Parks Victoria and climbers. There are A LOT of parties, groups and stakeholders involved. The 2003 Management Plan lists a bunch of key groups who were consulted so let's start with them. I went through the list and tried to find these groups and put down the new names in case they changed names. 
Yep that's 23 groups however not all of them are related to the climbing bans therefore this list needs a tidy up. A couple of groups need to be chopped and some new organisations get added:

I made a little graphic to show you how convoluted the whole club landscape actually is. If we would be in Germany, Switzerland or Austria everything in the box "Current Associations" would be one club - the respective Alpine Club of the country.

... but we aren't in Europe and we got a diverse range of clubs and associations ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Uni Clubs

These clubs have obviously a younger but quite extensive membership base and are governed by the universities they belong to. However young doesn't mean without heritage e.g. the MUMC has been around for over 75 years. All of them are Associate Clubs of Bushwalking Victoria (BWV) which provides the members an avenue to become an active Bush Search and Rescue (BSAR) member.

Climbing Clubs

In a broad sense these are the standard climbing and adventure clubs:
Of course, there are also a bunch of facebook and meetup groups however they generally lack a democratic structure and aren't incorporated hence why I took the liberty to cut them out. 
Alpenverein Members on a recent trip on top of Mont Blanc

Special Interest Clubs

The thing these organisations have in common is that they have their little niche purpose. There might be still an overlap with other clubs' purpose and objectives.
  • Alpine SAR Victoria (alpineSAR)
    They are an experienced group of backcountry skiers, mountaineers and hikers skilled in search and rescue who. They are an associate club with BWV / BSAR and organise regular SAR trainings for their members.
  • Mount Bogong Club (MtBC)
    This is probably the leanest set-up of a club you'll ever find and the dream of every management consultant working in the field of process improvement. They take care of the historic Cleve Cole Hut and the track network around Mt Bogong.
  • Mountain Sports Collective (MSC)
    The MSC is an Australian Backcountry User Group. Their mission is backcountry safety and among other things they issue Avalanche Bulletins.

Access and Environmental Groups

Most of you know that I'm not a big fan of stacking access organisations and overlapping fields of work. In the past you had Crag Care in NSW, the ACAQ in QLD and here in Victoria it was always CliffCare. Anyway - these groups purely focus on climbing access and the advocacy activities related to it. 
  • Australian Climbing Association Victoria (ACAV)
    A brand new club and a spin-off from the Queensland ACAQ. This basically a climbing access fund which means there is a lot of overlap with activities of the Victorian Climbing Club and this has created a lot of friction within the climbing community.
  • CliffCare
    This access and environmental arm of the VCC was set up in 1998. CliffCare takes the lead when it comes to taking care of the environment in which we climb. The main task of Access and Environment Officer employed by CliffCare are:
      1. Education – promoting ‘low impact’ climbing
      2. Advocacy – negotiating with land managers to maintain access and re-open popular cliffs
      3. Protection – organising work parties and raising money to preserve the cliff environment
    In short, it’s about taking responsibility and looking after the places we love and love to climb at.
  • Gariwerd Access Working Group (GAWG)
    This group supports the A&E Officer of CliffCare was initiated by the VCC to focus specifically on the closures in Gariwerd. In order to quickly respond the bans, VCC/CliffCare selected volunteer members of the climbing community with critical skills. The team is made up of media specialists, lawyers, cultural heritage experts, long term climbers, guides, technology specialists, education specialists and administrative support. 
Now although ACAV and CliffCare/GAWG aren't organised under one roof, it doesn't mean this can't work. There are three main aspects how you can tackle climbing access:
  1. Challenging current legislation and lobby for change of rules and law.
  2. Question and challenge decisions made under current legislation - however if you're successful with that, nobody can stop the land-manager to revisit that decision and follow due process the second time around. 
  3. Collaboration, community engagement and advocacy. 
All three approaches have their merits and while one entity can focus one or two aspects of the above approaches, the other can tackle the other pathway(s). You just have to talk to each other and make sure this isn't overlapping.

Blogs and Magazines

This is again not a comprehensive list - in fact it's rather short and arbitrary. I'm just adding them so you are aware how they are related to the other organisations.
  • Vertical Life
    VL is a nice magazine with good articles and great local information. The two makers Ross and Simon are members of some clubs which isn't surprising since they have been around for a while
  • Save the Grampians
    Goshen, Neil and Mike set-up this blog immediately after the bans to purely focus on the ongoing access situation in a tabloid style of writing. Mike is the current ACAV president and Goshen a committee member. Neil isn't an ACAV member[C].
  • Mountain Journal
    This is a great blog about the Australian Alps. Unless you're a backcountry lover you probably never heard about it. The articles very informative and far away from what I'd call tabloid-style. Cam is a founding member of the Mountain Sports Collective.
  • Mountaineering Melbourne
    This is the site you're currently on and also the one with the least reach - by far ... but somehow you're reading this ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Where is this going?

The club landscape has already been fragmented before the recent access crisis and since then it didn't get any better. Phil Goebel - President of Sport Climbing Victoria - wrote an open letter explaining why we have to do the exact opposite: We need to unify the climbing community. I think he's right because it gives climbers, mountaineers, alpinists and backcountry lovers a stronger voice.

It also creates a governance structure with beneficial synergy effects and the opportunity for more funding. The Victorian State Government is very supportive of the idea since studies have shown that climbing and affiliated activities - everything instagram-able - are only increasing. It needs to be noted that nobody has reliable numbers on how much rock climbing is growing in Victoria and that includes Parks Victoria. Having a State Recreation Organisation would help manage that in a positive way for climbers. Other outdoor user groups like paddlers, hikers and four-wheel drivers have done that before and in each instance it was quite successful.

Let me walk you through how this unified Climbing Federation could look like*. If you're familiar with the European Alpine Clubs, you'll realise the model is quite similar.

*We made this chart based on slides which have been shared with the founding council of the Climbing Federation. Again: It doesn't reflect an official standpoint of any involved organisations and simply shows how Anna and I think this might pan out.

State Recreation Organisation

What is that? An SRO is basically a recognised organisation active in the sport and recreation sector however does not govern a sport in the way a State Sporting Association (SSA) does. The SSA for climbing is Sport Climbing Victoria. Both SRO and SSA can apply for state funding which is pretty cool. You'll find more information on the SRV website.


If you're a member of a club who's part of the Climbing Federation, you're a member of the whole thing. However some details still need to be worked out e.g. are you a member of SRO and SSA or are there levels of membership? Also not everyone wants to be part of a club and therefore can be an avenue for individual members be created?

Now over 45000 Victorians are self-identified climbers and most of them aren't members of any club. Also not every club wants to become a member of the Climbing Federation. For some it simply doesn't make sense e.g. NZAC Australia is a country-wide club and affiliating with a state organisation might not be appropriate. Once there is a national body, that idea might be worth revisiting. Or the Mount Bogong Club is interested in a lean set-up and therefore doesn't want to deal with the administrative burden. It's important that the Climbing Federation seeks the feedback and input from those climbers and clubs who aren't members as well.

Governance and Money

Climbing in Summerday Valley
This is a blank canvas. Obviously there will be an AGM and at that occasion the board / committee will be elected. However is every club-member invited to this AGM or do the clubs send delegates? How does the whole thing get financed? Is there a fee per club based on size or per individual? Are there discounts? There are a lot of questions and the job of the founding council is to figure them out.

Competition Climbing

Obviously this would be governed as per usual by the SCV except there could be a natural progression from all clubs into the competition world which would mean a great opportunity for more athletes. 

Name Finding and Branding

You see a lot of names thrown around: Climbing Federation, Mountain Activities Victoria, Victorian Climbing Council and so on. What has been decided is that we need community input to find one but that's not really a worry at the moment. My impression is that those who are working on this idea don't have strong feelings about the branding. For now I'll just stick with Climbing Federation in this post.

Access and Environment

This is where things get interesting.

The ACAV is a new kid on the block and they already got a large membership base. They announced their formation at the Natimuk Goatfest in a manner which can only described as controversial[1]. The GAWG was holding a town-hall meeting there to answer questions and got a bit under attack for volunteering their time and working on this access situation.

It's not exactly a secret that the ACAV was mainly formed because their founding members thought the VCC / CliffCare / GAWG wasn't aggressive enough towards Parks Victoria. As mentioned above under "Who are the involved parties? > Access and Environmental Groups" this doesn't mean it's impossible to make it work. A good cop / bad cop approach is something reasonable however the cops need to work together and this is where we're falling short. There are ongoing conversations but no joined strategy.

The ACAV is reasonably good at their PR game. Bundled with a cheap membership fee it's unsurprising that they have grown fast. Unfortunately they promise a lot and don't have any issues bending the truth a bit. Let me give you a couple of examples:
  • Mike Tomkins (President) claimed the ACAV was at the first pub meeting of the Founding Council on 13.5.2019. They weren't. I know. Mountaineering Melbourne hosted that meeting. 
  • The ACAV claimed "When the Founding Council becomes a real entity in 2020, ACAV will become the access arm of this new body.". Well this hasn't been decided yet given the final structure hasn't been agreed upon as more consultation across Victoria is planned, and the ACAV hasn't even signed the Memorandum of Understanding. Their statement is "As an access organisation, our legal constitution is tightly focused. Hence we cannot sign up to an agreement with a proposed governing body without reviewing the proposed constitution of that organisation." Given they got lawyers in their committee it's a bit surprising that they think they can't sign a MoU which in fact is legally non-binding. Therefore the only logical explanation is that they disagree in parts or with the whole content of the MoU. You'll find the MoU here on the VCC page.
  • There's the claim that nobody in the other climbing clubs voted in favour of the Founding Council. Well - the committee members of the involved clubs somehow got voted into their role, right? Isn't this how representative democracy works? Also if this thing gets off the ground, I'm pretty sure there will be a members' vote at each AGM to finalise any affiliation ... or not. 
  • Mike Tomkins is repeatedly emphasising how transparent the ACAV is however when they decided to complete a heritage submission with Heritage Victoria which aims to register rock climbing as a heritage activity at Djurite (Arapiles), they didn't consult any of the other clubs or their membership base. I leave it to your imagination how Traditional Owners could react to this.
    The ACAV is also preparing a Climbing Management Plan but haven't shared any of the drafts. Transparent is something else. 
These are some examples which have led to an increasingly erosion of trust between the ACAV and other clubs. Now the obvious and underlying question is why is there all this infighting going on?

Currently CliffCare is sitting under the VCC however there's the idea to simply lift it up under the roof of the Climbing Federation. On the surface it would make sense given you don't have to re-invent the wheel since CliffCare is a legal entity and therefore it this would avoid a lot of administrative set-up headaches.


That would also mean the new formed climbing peak body - The Climbing Federation - has an access and environment arm and where would that leave the ACAV? And even if the ACAV acquires CliffCare and becomes the A&E arm of the Climbing Federation, there's still a board and a committee above them. This would not be an independent body.

The bottom line is that if the Climbing Federation gets formed, the operation of ACAV will be forced to change. If you've invested all this time in getting the ACAV up and running, you don't want to see it become dependent or even obsolete within a couple of months because something else popped up. In my opinion that's the reason why Mike Tomkins and other ACAV members try to discredit the concept of the Climbing Federation.

Other Topics

Rescue Helicopter over the Razorback 
This is something which falls under the table in the heated debate of rock climbing access. A climbing Federation would also cover things like safety standard, diversity, search & rescue or backcountry access. Yes I understand that a lot of climbers couldn't care less about these things but when you get woken up at 5 am by an rescue chopper hovering 20m above your tent, you realise how ridiculously stupid the notion is that backcountry safety should be put on the bench over some access issue.
Especially when you piece together what happened and realised you weren't far from a potential fatality. I'm with Phil Goebel on this: If we're doing this, let's do it the right way. We need to look at best practice organisations which are the Alpine Clubs and don't make this an one-trick-access-pony.

Future of the Climbing Federation

As you can see the idea and the drafts of the Climbing Federation have merits and a solid foundation. I am confident that it will happen one way or the other and whether some clubs decide not to be part of it, might influence the structure but not the overall outcome. E.g. Alpine SAR Victoria already said they want to be kept in the loop but probably won't affiliate.
The whole set-up around Access & Environment and the connected fields like Education is obviously messy and needs to be resolved.

What's next regarding the
Gariwerd access situation?

Right. I touched on the whole access issues so many times, I might as well give you an update on this as well. There are a couple of things which are happening at the moment. Let's revisit the three access approaches:
  1. Challenging current legislation and lobby for change of rules and law.
  2. Question and challenge decisions made under current legislation - however if you're successful with that, nobody can stop the land-manager to revisit that decision and follow due process the second time around. 
  3. Collaboration, community engagement and advocacy. 

Lobbying for change of legislation

I haven't seen any true action on lobbying for change of legislation so let's move on.

Legally challenge decisions under current legislation

The VCC has an ongoing legal interaction with Parks Victoria. Currently they are in the process of mediating however there is still the option to seek litigation. The case is around the VCC’s request for reasons in relation to the recent climbing bans in Gariwerd. Yes that's not a typo - it's the VCC and not the ACAV.

Collaboration, community engagement and advocacy

There are a couple of ongoing consultations about the Grampians Landscape Management Plan Review It's not that complicated from a climber's perspective:
  • First is the Stakeholder Reference Group aka SRG. Every "sector" gets invited by ParksVic and sends a representative. For the climbers one of the oldest clubs - The Victorian Climbing Club - got invited and the VCC gets backed by the clubs who are in the process of founding the Climbing Federation[2]. The SRG had one meeting so far.
  • Second is a climbing round table. Every climbing, backcountry and mountaineering club you can think of got invited to this one. There was one meeting so far and the Alpenverein Melbourne posted a brief article on their website. The next meeting will be at the end of September / beginning of October.
  • Third are the community consultations which are open to everyone. They are starting in September and if you're passionate about climbing in Gariwerd, you should attend one of the workshops. You should register for these at

See :) Pretty simple. Ok, these are the main ones. There are also a lot of direct initiatives of clubs, CliffCare and the GAWG but it'd be too much to get into these here.

Traditional Owners

Congratulations: you made it this far! I know it's a long post. Above you could read as much: "Climbers, climbers, climbers, Parks Vic, climbers, climbers, Parks Vic, climbers, Parks Vic"
The reality is that Parks Victoria probably doesn't have too much of a say about climbing access. The Traditional Owners have. This access situation isn't about a rare flower or a nesting falcon. It's about Aboriginal Heritage. It is really important to form this relationship and there is one important thing to understand:

Your white-people's expectations don't work.
This isn't your country and this isn't your culture. 

German winepress built 1704 [3]
We are so used to engaging with other groups, people and organisations in a certain way that we're usually pretty lost when this isn't the right way. You should not try to force the processes you're used to on Traditional Owners. This is doomed to fail. Engaging the right way takes time - time some impatient climbers unfortunately don't seem to have.

I am as German as you can be with a family-tree which would bring right-wing idiots to tears due to envy because it dates back to fifteen-hundred-something. I grew up in the heart of Germany, I learned a lot about my country and my own history, I served and I still feel this strong connection to the land which is encompassed in the German word "Heimat". I believe this feeling is similar to the connection the Traditional Owners have to their country. There are millennia of history. Now if I imagine someone would tell me that German culture isn't that important and has to stand back for something which hasn't been around for even a century, I'd slap them with the collected works of Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Brecht and Grimm. If you'd try to learn about my culture and understand the things which are important to me and my family, that'd be a very different conversation.

I've lived on three continents and what I've taken away from a lot of travelling and being exposed to non-western cultures is that you need to understand your host's culture before you even consider aiming for any achievements. Ideally along this process you'll adjust your goals because you understand; you know this is or isn't right.

This is the journey we as a climbing community have just started. Unfortunately there are some who already struggle with the fact that only other climbers have other value systems and priorities, let alone someone from a completely different background. Should we put the access negotiation in the hands of these struggling climbers or leave it in the hands of well-established organisations like the VCC, CliffCare, Outdoors Victoria, Sport Climbing Victoria and the future Climbing Federation? Whom do you trust more to treat Traditional Owners with respect, not force our white-people's processes upon them and show an honest interest in their history?

Thanks for reading this.

Cheers 🍻

Matt walking into Summerday Valley

[1] ACAV members standing up and demonstratively turning their back towards the stage and the GAWG guys. 

[2] The ACAV is trying to take the seat on the SRG from the VCC in order to presumably achieve recognition by an external organisation. Parks Victoria has already turned this down.  

[3] You'll find it at the Schloss Johannisberg winery which is 900 years old. Riesling and late harvest wine were "invented" at this very winery. This is just one example of a tiny thing in Europe being much older than white Australia. 

[C] CORRECTION 05.09.2019 - In a previous version I've stated that Neil is an ACAV member. He is not. 

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