24 Jul 2016

Reflections on climbing Uluru

In 1984 when I first visited Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it was then generally known,climbing the rock was the main tourist attraction and so we climbed it. The hotel had shuttle buses taking visitors to the start point of the climb. The culture of the Anangu,the traditional owners,was not considered or even recognised publicly. When I next visited in 1996 not much had changed. Climbing the rock was still the main attraction. As this visit was at the height of summer I went out at first light and did the climb with some friends and was back in the hotel for a late breakfast.
Twenty years later much has changed. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is now jointly managed with the Anangu traditional owners and there is a Anangu cultural centre at the base of the rock .
Aboriginal peoples regard Ulura as a sacred site and it seems as if at last climbing the rock is being seen as intrusive by many visitors.
The change has come gradually over the past ten years. Firstly visitors were politely discouraged from climbing the rock and then the discouragement became more active and now at the entrance to the climb route there are warning signs asking you not to make the climb and it is closed in adverse conditions. Last year an activist cut the vital safety chain used by climbers as a handhold on the climb. These actions will not stop all climbers but they really have cut the numbers.

Not climbing the rock is primarily a question of respecting the sacred site but it is also a question of safety. Many people have died on the climb over the years. It is a challenging and dangerous climb. It is very steep and the safety chain on the first section was absolutely vital and even when you are off the very steep climb up the side the ridge on the top there are sheer drops on either side. On the climb "up" climbers went up one side of the chain and "down" climbers came down the other side. Problems arose when "up" climbers froze on the ascent- a very frequent occurence- and decided that they had to get down. To pass climbers have to let go of the safety chain and on the section where the saddle is narrow one false step or a touch of vertigo and you are making a very rapid and probably fatal descent down a very steep smooth rockface.

The other problem is that there is absolutely no shade on the rock or any sources of water. It is totally exposed so on even a warm day yet alone a sweltering summer's day heat exhaustion is an issue for climbers. More climbers have died on Uluru due to heart attacks and heat exhaustion than have fallen to their deaths.
i stood at the bottom of the rock last week and looked up the climb route and I just cannot believe that I went up there so easily. The photos below show the chain route up just the first stage of the climb.

Of course it is easy for me to say now that Uluru should not be climbed because I have climbed it twice but I can say with all sincerity that if I had known then what I now know about the Anangu culture and the significance of Uluru to that culture,the environmental damage done by the climbers in terms of the litter left on the rock and the number of deaths and near deaths on the rock and the difficulties and dangers faced by rescue personnel when recovering injured climbers I would not have climbed it.

I do have some photos taken from the summit but they have to be located in the archives. Because Uluru stands on a vast flat plain and there are clear sight lines you can see,or think you can see,the curvature of the earth from the summit.
I guess I should count myself fortunate that I have been there despite my misgivings now about the propriety of my climbs.

The climb starts from the car park at the bottom of Uluru-where the vehicles are clustered in this photo.The climb goes up the saddle which stretches down to the car park.You can just see the line of the route extending up the saddle -it then goes across the top to the hump - the highest point.

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