As a Brisbane-based writer, climber and outdoor enthusiast, I try to keep abreast of developments that occur both locally and nationally. As such, I was privy to what I perceived as a somewhat disquieting post which made its appearance on the Australian Climbing Association of QLD (ACAQ)’s Facebook page.

The post in question related to a particularly dodgy anchor construction at the popular urban crag, Kangaroo Point (or KP, as it is known to locals with equal parts affection and disdain). At some point in the conversation thread, the premise of “policing” the crag and its users was floated, with the example of Surf Lifesaving offered as a suitable template.

While the thought of paraplegia gives me a great deal of pause, the idea of increasing the regulatory framework imposed on the sport of climbing chills me to my core. In a nation which has increasingly become something of a nanny state, climbing stands as one of few bastions of freedom and self-regulation. There are many complex facets to this issue, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll try to pare down to the (ahem) “nuts and bolts” of the matter.

Much has been said about the bureaucratic erosion of our freedoms in the pursuit of public safety. Largely, it’s an urban issue, this example and others like it highlight the relentless march of a black tide of over-regulation in the governance of our wilderness areas.

An archetypal example of this policy overlap is given by Terry Reis in his article, ‘How wearing a hard hat can threaten wildlife’ as published by ABC. In no uncertain terms, he describes how the burden of OH&S regulations have had a dramatically negative effect on his fauna survey field work. In addition to the cumbersome amounts of equipment he is required to carry, there often exists a puzzling, and frankly ridiculous, set of restrictions under which Reis must operate. These differ from project to project.

“On two other projects it was unacceptable to urinate in the field, requiring me to travel up to 40 minutes to a designated toilet,” Reis explains. “These were both on working cattle stations where, presumably, the cattle were toilet-trained.”

This, along with some of his other anecdotes, would be laughable if not for the grim reality they allude to.

“the [red] tape grows ever more restrictive, and I can envisage a future when it prevents fauna surveys altogether.”

Now hang on a minute, I hear you say. We’re not talking about true wilderness here. And we’re not talking about wilderness at all when we talk about KP, essentially a man-made cliff within view of the Brisbane CBD. And you would be correct.

However, this salient point only serves to strengthen my argument. The concept of “policing” Kangaroo Point only came into existence by virtue of the unique location of the crag. It is an absolute anomaly within the sport of rock climbing and the idea of “policing” rock climbing is equally anomalous.

The problems that would arise from the implementation of this idea are legion. How would it be funded? Under whose authority would it fall? Where is the legislation on acceptable versus unacceptable practices? Do we limit policing just to this crag, or does it then begin to spread to other popular venues in South East Queensland such as the Glasshouse Mountains, Frog Buttress and Brooyar? And if that becomes the case, under whose authority does policing now fall, being as each of those areas falls under a different land management body.

I could go on, but my point here is that increasing regulation of the sport is a very slippery slope. I, for one, would not like to see our community begin venturing down that slope, if only for fear that we will find that we cannot turn back.

Kangaroo Point, QLD

The view from Kangaroo Point.

Climbers have worked long and hard to resolve access and regulatory issues that developed with the rise of climbing in Australia and the shifting focus of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. This has been achieved in large part via by the advocacy of groups such as the ACAQ, and helped greatly by the inclusion of the National Parks into the department which also includes recreation, sport and racing (NPRSR).

According to a blog article posted by David Reeve of the ACAQ, In 1975 the National Parks and Wildlife Service was formed leading to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service a few years later. Although, no clear legislative framework was in place as to how QPWS should manage the parks under its supervision, a shift occurred within the public service whereby conservation values gained primacy in the formulation of management policy. There followed a phase of management best likened to locking the public library for fear of people damaging the contents through the willful (sic) act of reading.”

These days, the QWPS works with climbers to ensure that a harmonious mix of conservation and recreational use can continue. There is provision for the restriction of use to areas under certain conditions, not however for the policing of climbing. There is a simple reason for this; responsibility implies liability.

If we were to hand the onus of safety over to the authorities, climbing as we know it would come to a screaming halt. There simply isn’t enough funding to support the kind of expansive manpower it would take to adequately patrol, maintain and geologically survey our cliffs. Were this to become a reality, we’d begin to see a state of affairs as exists currently in the United States creep into our National and State Parks, one in which over-regulation and restrictive permits are the norm.

As climbers, it behooves us to do what we’ve classically done rather well: self-regulate. Education, not policing, is the answer. If you’re worried about the hardware that currently exists, consider donating either time or money to an organisation like Safer Cliffs Queensland. If you’re concerned as to the state of safety standards within the community, function as a mentor in either a casual sense or by volunteering your time to one of many climbing groups, such as the groups that operate within most universities.

But please, for the love of God and all that is holy, don’t seek to remove one of the most precious elements of our sport: Freedom. For many, this is one of our few escapes in life from the rules and regulations that bind our everyday existence.

At the end of the day, rock climbing is a risky activity. If you’re not comfortable with that risk, you should remove yourself from the equation. However, you should stop short of removing the autonomy of others to delineate their own sphere of risk. And most importantly, you should educate yourself and others on safe practice. Reputable information and technical courses are readily available and supremely beneficial.

Let us not forget that the rise of the nanny state is in part a response to curb the negative aspects of risk-taking behaviour. Especially as youths, taking risks is essential to our development and exerts an irrefutable grasp on our psyche. If we sanitise the more wholesome methods of achieving this, many will inevitably find alternate and ultimately less savoury means. Wilderness activities and outdoor recreational sports provide an avenue for what Dick Smith referred to as “responsible risk-taking”, and we remove that risk at our own peril.