Climbing guide company removing bolts and chalk in Grampians’ Millennium Cave to protect rock art: ABC

ABC Wimmera/ By Gillian Aeria

Posted Wed 18 Oct

Read the original article here on the ABC

A climbing guide company is removing chalk and bolts from the Grampians’ Millennium Cave. Supplied: Jake Goodes

Parks Victoria has begun repair works on a Grampians cave famous among rock climbers after getting the green light from traditional owners.

Key points:

  • A climbing guide company has been contracted to remove chalk and bolts from a Grampians cave
  • Some climbers have raised concerns about safety, and the future of other climbing sites
  • The company contracted to do the work says it has a highly qualified rope technician onsite

But what some believe is an opportunity to improve relationships with local Indigenous people has attracted criticism from within in the climbing community.

Cultivation Creek 19, known as the Millennium Cave among climbers, was closed in 2019 by Parks Victoria to protect cultural heritage values, including rock art.

During the 1990s and early 2000s the cave was used by experienced climbers attracted to the steep overhangs, beautiful scenery, and remote location — and even touted as a tourist location.

The cave was documented and developed by climbers who drilled and glued bolts into the rock face for safety.

The internal of Millennium Cave in the shadow highlighting the daylight outside with a silhouette of a man.

Millennium Cave was once frequented by experienced climbers. Supplied: Jake Goodes

After consultation with traditional owners, Parks Victoria made the decision to remove the bolts and climbing chalk from the cave’s ceiling, contracting a climbing tour company to undertake the task.

However, some climbers are concerned about the bolts’ removal and the future of climbing in Gariwerd (the Grampians).

Opportunity to mend relationships

Aaron Lowndes owns The Climbing Company, which won Park Victoria’s tender to remove the bolts.

He said before the ban climbers were aware of a rock art panel in the cave and believed they were being respectful by avoiding it.

He sees the project as a chance to improve relationships between climbers and traditional owners, which became fraught following Park Victoria’s introduction of climbing bans in 2019.

“It’s not just about the bolts and the chalk, it’s about the intrinsic value of the sites,” Mr Lowndes said.

But Australian Climbing Association Victoria (ACAV) president Mike Tomkins said the project felt “antagonistic” towards climbers as it was “saying what we do was inherently wrong”.

He said removing the bolts and climbing chalk was not necessarily a step towards reconciliation.

a man with green helmet, grey tshirt and orange pants hangs from rope gently cleaning white chalk off an ochre cliff.

a man with green helmet, grey tshirt and orange pants hangs from rope gently cleaning white chalk off an ochre cliff.

Climbing guiding companies are not usually tasked with conducting industrial work at height. Supplied: Jake Goodes

Mr Tomkins said climbers had been barred from about 80 per cent of Grampians climbing sites and he was worried it could set a precedent for how the remaining climbing sites were managed by Parks Victoria.

“If you’re not a rock climber or you’re not interested in any of these locations, you might think it’s a wonderful thing to give up,” he said.

“Whereas if you’re impacted by it in what you do as your passion and your recreation and as a central point of your life, you might feel somewhat aggrieved.”

However, Mr Lowndes said “morally, it’s the right thing to do”.

He said there had been a smoking ceremony at the start of every day with on-site traditional owners, who had advised the climbing crew and ticked off the work being conducted.

“Just because we’re climbers doesn’t mean we need to disregard the wishes of another important group who have an intrinsic claim to this … landscape that we recreate on,” he said.

Safety concerns

Mr Tomkins also raised concerns about the fact that climbing guides were undertaking the removal work.

He said such work was the remit of certified high rope access technicians and it was “inappropriate” and “dangerous” for climbing guides to attempt.

three climbers suspended by ropes against orange rock with a pool of water on the ground.

One member of the four-person crew is Level 3 certified with IRATA and manages the worksite. Supplied: Jake Goodes

“This kind of work would be industrial high access work, [done by] the sort of people hanging off the side of tall buildings fixing things, including windows,” he said.

He also questioned whether the work could be done without risking further damage to the cave.

“If you make it safer [to do the work], you do more damage … if you’re leaving a ‘no trace’ approach, you’re taking more safety risks,” he said.

Mr Tomkins said Parks Victoria was unsuccessful in removing the bolts in 2019 and 2020 and left them in a precarious position.

Parks Victoria did not address this with the ABC.

Experts on board

Mr Lowdnes, a former ACAV member, said he was initially unsure if the work could be done safely and met with high access companies who were registered with the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) for advice.

“Several of the biggest names in IRATA in Australia have been involved in planning stages of this project,” he said.

“They have reviewed the paperwork. They’ve sat in a meeting online and gone through the final plan and made tweaks to it.”

a man in black shirt, black pants is harnessed in suspended by a rope with a white bucket off an orange cliff face holding tools

Aaron Lowndes says there has been no need to drill new bolt holes. Supplied: Jake Goodes

“They have reviewed the paperwork. They’ve sat in a meeting online and gone through the final plan and made tweaks to it.”

Mr Lowndes said after extensive discussions, they came up with a safe work method statement that was WorkSafe compliant and insurable, which he lodged with Parks Victoria.

A key requirement was to have a Level 3 IRATA rope technician — the highest certification available — on site.

Mr Lowndes said he hired one, with about 20 years of experience working on mining and energy projects.

He said his team did not need to drill any new bolt holes to suspend themselves while they worked, as there were enough existing holes.

“What appears to be new holes are what the original person who put the bolt in used temporarily to anchor themselves in position to put in the glue-in bolt … so we’re reversing the process,” he said.

Parks Victoria did not respond to ABC’s request for comment around the safety concerns but said in a statement the “Gariwerd traditional owners have approved these conservation works and will continue to be consulted throughout the process”.

The removal process began last week and is due to finish on Friday.