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Chain and post removed at Mount Warning Summit Walk

The current situation is a disgrace and an insult to Park users and all Australians. The Minister must instigate an independent audit and review of NSW NPWS management of the Park and develop a brighter vision of the Park's future. 

The walk to the summit of Mt Warning in northern NSW is an iconic experience of the natural world. Views from the summit on a clear day provide an unrivaled vista over the Tweed River Valley, lush rainforests, eroded volcanic landscape and beaches on the coast. They fill visitors with a sense of awe and wonder. From a geological perspective, it is arguably the best-preserved erosion caldera in the world. 

The 4.4km (8.8km return) track was completed in 1909 but the hike was firmly established as a popular tourist attraction in 1929 with the declaration of the area around the mountain as a National Park. The opening ceremony was attended at the summit by 200 people, some rode horses up the trail. The standard of the early track construction is extremely high and it is surprising this work has not been registered as state heritage and kept in a better state. The drystone walls and steps among the best we have seen for a walk of this nature. The scramble up the steep 45-50degree slope to the summit plateau and its 360 degree lookouts is another of the highlights. 

Report on opening ceremony. Northern Star 5 August 1929 

In its 2002 online description of the park, New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) described the walk as "fantastic" with a "challenging final rock scramble". The same walk is now described by NPWS as "long, steep, difficult and dangerous" The "challenging final rock scramble" now described as a "very strenuous 100m vertical rock scramble". Vertical! As you will find as you read below there is no end to the exaggerations and outright lies being promulgated about this splendid bushwalk. 

NSW NPWS description from its official webpage in 2002

NPWS have closed the walk "temporarily" due to safety concerns over the chain installed on the last 100m or so of the 4.4km walk. The chain, supported by steel posts, provides assistance for less experienced, less confident walkers to reach the summit - not everyone uses it. The chain is not actually required as the rock ledges on the slope form a natural staircase with numerous handholds and the chain could easily be removed permanently, though not as many would get to experience the views. The final ascent was wonderfully described in 1938 before the chain was installed: 

"From below this last stage looks appallingly steep, but the roots of the mallee and the twisted stems of the grass-trees make the climbing as easy as a spiral staircase, and the two or three hundred yards are passed almost before one realises it."

I have been aware of irrational plans to ban this outstanding walk permanently for some time but my interest was peaked more recently by an article by Jeremy Pierce in the courier mail flagging a potential imminent ban on the walk, possibly as soon as May 2021. There has been virtually no public consultation on this in NSW. This prompted me to make some fresh inquires with New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) who directed me to their information brochure (HERE) about the current situation. 

The brochure has much in common with the misinformation that was used by Parks Australia to ban the Ayers Rock climb. There are vague references to safety, environmental and cultural concerns. An engineering report had been done that suggested there were issues with the chain. A survey had been referenced that suggested that despite a recent history of over 100000 summit visitors a year - according to NPWS no one wants to walk up there anymore. 

Claims about visitor accidents in the brochure are completely without context - how many relate to the function of the chain, how many on the steep section? How do these figures compare with other walks?  The two deaths referred to in the brochure are completely unrelated to the steep section of the walk or the chain. One is due to a lightning strike at the summit that killed a US backpacker and injured his girlfriend in 2016 . The other was an 80 year old woman who died on the lower part of walk about 1.5km up the carpark in 2019. Both of these deaths have nothing to do with the chain section. As an RFS volunteer, I have participated in numerous rescues of people on the Great North Walk around northern Sydney - this has some challenging sections with steel steps and similar rock scrambles but there appear no plans to close this walk, despite the more numerous accidents compared to Mt Warning. 

Clearly, further independent investigations are warranted to sort fact from fiction.

We requested a copy of the engineering report used to justify the "temporary" closure. The report identifies inspection of the post footings as an issue but noted the chain and its connections, which are the critical elements in the system, are in satisfactory working condition. No testing was conducted so the extent and impact of any surficial corrosion on the posts could not be properly determined. There were also issues with some of the basic assumptions in this report about how the chain is used, the loads applied and the degree of corrosion. The risk assessment should be considered as preliminary and further investigations and testing are warranted. I provided some initial expert commentary and recommendations for further action including preparation of a comprehensive quantitative risk assessment that would normally be completed to help guide policy in matters such as this where there is significant public interest.  There was no response from NPWS, and no indication from them that the chain and posts had already been removed! The engineer acknowledged the issues raised and was unaware the chain and posts had been removed.  I am preparing a more detailed report on my observations to be sent directly to the Minister. 

The NPWS brochure refers to a visitor survey:

"There is a high level of community acceptance of the significance of Wollumbin Summit and the message not to climb. Of the 858 domestic participants in a recent visitor research survey (DPIE 2019), 49 per cent stated they would not climb Wollumbin summit upon receiving the request not to climb, most of the remaining participants were unsure or needed more information, and only nine percent still wanted to climb Wollumbin."

We requested a copy of this survey from NPWS but our request was denied and we have since lodged an FOI request. I wonder what they are hiding? In our experience surveys such as this are poorly developed, of limited extent, biased - they interview the like-minded, packed with loaded questions and misinformation and do not provide enough fair background and context for responders to provide a meaningful fully informed response. They are as reliable a gauge of public opinion as a twitter survey. We wait our copy to be released from the FOI guardians. The 100000 or so people who visit the summit each year provide a better indication of the public's opinion on this outstanding natural asset.

(Update: We have since found that the Indigenous claims about climbing are contested. In 2007 Ngaraakwal Elder Marlene Boyd RIP stated: "I do not oppose the public climbing of Mt Warning - how can the public experience the spiritual significance of this land if they do not climb the summit and witness creation!" Read more about her statement HERE. What would the survey outcome be if responders were provided with her views?)

The brochure mentions other concerns about the track:

"a Visitor Safety Risk Assessment of the Wollumbin Summit track undertaken in September 2019 identified other catastrophic or extreme risks including:

• an extreme risk of rock fall, landslide or slope instability causing serious injury or fatality

• delays in emergency response to lost or injured walkers endangering patient survival

• built asset (such as platforms, handrails, pathway) failure causing serious injury or fatality, slips, trips or falls ascending and descending the chain section causing serious injury or fatality."

I have requested a copy of this report. 

In my professional opinion having undertaken the walk (I am an engineering geologist specializing in Landslide Risk Assessment) the claims about geotechnical hazards and risks to walkers associated with slope instability are grossly exaggerated. The risks of walkers being killed or injured due to natural rock falls, landslides or slope instability appear VERY LOW and can be reduced further by restricting access during trigger events such as major storms. Similar hazards exist on other NPWS trails that are currently open.

Delays in emergency response to walkers in trouble in remote areas are very common and are part of the risk of bushwalking and generally well understood by the bushwalking community, especially on longer walks in remote places. I have been involved in rescues of walkers in the Sydney region (RFS volunteer) where the same delays occur within 30km of the CBD. It is difficult to rapidly organise rescue personal to extract injured or trapped walkers even in the Sydney metro area. Is NPWS proposing to close every walk more than 300m from a carpark on the same basis? This is not a good reason to ban access at Mt Warning. 

The platforms at the summit are currently sound but are looking quite tired and in need of minor repairs and maintenance. Their current condition reflects long-term neglect of public assets by NPWS. The last paint job perhaps 20 years ago? This is a disgrace and an abandonment of NPWS' responsibility to provide and maintain public infrastructure. They should hang their heads in shame for having left public assets in this condition. Compare the state of Mt Warning with similar attractions overseas and you quickly realise how poor our management is in comparison and what the potential might be if NPWS had a grander vision of what was possible (lookup Angels Landing for instance).

What proper maintenance looks like! 

Based on the above I have grave concerns about due process being followed in relation to decisions being made about the Mt Warning Summit Walk by NPWS. The NSW ICAC act provides some protection for people blowing the whistle in NSW and with this in mind I decided an independent check on the current state of the track in the public interest was well and truly justified. The notes below provide some detail as to what I discovered.

Visual notes on inspection of Mt Warning Summit Trail 4 January 2021.

Above - NPWS have established a road block about 3km from the Breakfast Creek car park. We arrived about 5:30am. The sign indicated the "chain to the summit may fail" yet the engineering report confirmed the chain was in good working condition. Perhaps they are inferring the posts may fail, and what does this sign mean now that the chain is no longer in place?  

Above - Cane toad (Bufo marinus) on the road in. Perhaps NSW NPWS could focus on this environmental disaster in the park rather than exaggerating the environmental impact of bushwalkers. Aside from a few skinks, I did not see any other reptiles during my walk.

Above - Carpark is a mess and a disgrace, a testament to the level of care applied here. Utterly Shameful!

Above - Start of the walk. The grade is quite gentle and almost the whole trail, aside from the scramble could be classed as an easy walk. Why is this part of the walk up to the base of the summit and the adjacent "kid-friendly" Lyrebird walk closed - there are no issues with this section? Other parks in NSW are open, why not this one? Leaf litter and fallen palm fronds and the wet conditions provide a slippery surface in places and the trail needs some attention but careful walking reduces risks of slips along the main section. 

Above - Examples of wonderful 1909-1929 stone masonry. Why hasn't NSW NPWS moved to list this as a heritage item? The construction is among the best I have seen for a walking track in NSW. Pity the vegetation had been allowed to overgrow the track.  When the park was opened in 1929 some of the dignitaries rode horses along this up to the base of the rock scramble. Compare the condition with similar infrastructure overseas (eg these amazing walls in Utah).

Above - Based on correspondence with NPWS I was expecting to find the chain and posts etc still in place but this was the view at Helicopter point 4 just before the summit rock scramble. NPWS has removed the chain and posts in secret without due process being followed! It is clear they have no intention of reopening this iconic walk!  Close inspection of the components reveals only superficial corrosion that would not have impacted the integrity of the chain and post system.

Above - 8mm steel chain with superficial corrosion- in good working condition. 
Above - Minor, surficial corrosion at base of posts. 

Above - Stainless steel chain connections in serviceable condition.  

Above - Concrete footing. Surficial corrosion only.

Above - Continued on to the base of the steep section. This is the lower lookout area below the steeper section - it is a shambles. The level of care here shown to NSW state assets is a disgrace. The sign states the chain may fail - a physical impossibility now it is no longer present!

Above - View looking up the lower section of the steep bit. Overall the slope is about 40-50 degrees, it is a long way from being "vertical" as described by NPWS.  Nothing like exaggerations to scare the masses. The natural jointing in this trachyandesite provides excellent steps and handholds and descriptions of this as a "spiral staircase" are still most appropriate. This is not a difficult climb for experienced walkers, even in the wet. Compare with Walter's Wiggles in Utah to see what might be possible.

Above - Post footings on the way up. These show signs of surficial corrosion only. Bolts and nuts are in very good condition. The surrounding mortar is intact and shows no signs of deterioration. These footings appear in serviceable condition. If underlying welds were substantially corroded to the point the plate was near failure it would be evident with cracked mortar and a displaced raised base plate. This could be managed by routine testing and inspections or these footings could be replaced for a small cost. The others observed were in similar condition. It seems the concerns about the chain-post system are not supported by the available evidence.

Above - The only piece of rubbish we observed on our walk. It would be somewhat ironic if it were left behind by NPWS when they removed the chain!  We collected this on the way back.

Above - Summit platform - unfortunately, "cloud catcher" lived up to her name. A return trip required. The timber posts and rails could use some care and attention.
Posts and rails on paths and platforms at the summit could use a sand and paint job, but are appear otherwise sound and suitable for use. 

This was a wonderful pleasant bushwalk. The 4kms or so of the gently graded track with its well-constructed drystone structures and steps winding through the rainforest are an absolute delight and pose no major safety concerns other than the potential to slip on the leaf-littered path*. They are in poor condition though and in need of basic maintenance. The steeper rocky section below the summit should be achievable by bushwalkers of average experience. You will need to take time and be careful where you step, more so in the wet. The chain is NOT required but a chain system would provide safer access to the summit for less confident walkers.

Based on the observed condition of the dismantled components, the chain and post system appears to have been in serviceable condition prior to its removal and it is a great shame and perhaps a breach of due process that it was removed without further investigations, testing and further consultation with interested parties. I was disappointed NPWS hid the removal from me in our correspondence. NPWS claims about the chain failing with a high likelihood are not supported by the evidence available. There are issues with the design but these could be addressed for a relatively small cost. Likewise the risks to track users from other hazards listed by NPWS have been grossly exaggerated and misrepresented. The mountain is as safe to climb as it is to walk from Cowan to Mt Kuringai on the Great North Walk. The infrastructure though has been neglected for some time and requires some attention to restore it to a condition that reflects the hard work, care and dedication of those who constructed it. 

It seems that just about everything NSW NPWS says about the Mount Warning Climb should be taken with a grain of salt. We are calling on the Minister to instigate an independent audit and review of NPWS management of the park and develop a brighter vision for the Park's future. The current situation is unacceptable and an insult to Park users and all Australians and our international visitors. 

In earlier times National Park Authorities took some pride in improving accessibility and maintaining the parks they curated - that is why the chain is there in the first place - to improve access. The level of disregard and disrespect shown to this place that is sacred to the local Aboriginal people but also sacred to me and 100,000s of other people who enjoy discovering these remarkable natural wonders, by those trusted to look after it is a disgrace, and those in charge should hang their heads in shame. 

Following a clean up we recommend the park be reopened and the walk be reinstated without the chain with a commitment from NPWS to look after the place properly on our behalf. If funding is an issue a small fee of say $5-10 per summit walker would provide for 2-3 on-site rangers/caretakers to undertake routine maintenance based on current visitor numbers. 

There are questions to be answered as to why maintenance of the lookouts and the trail have been neglected for so long. 
  • Has NPWS deliberately neglected essential and routine maintenance at this wonderful National Park to run them down and provide an excuse to close it to placate activists who seek to ban the summit walk?
  • Has NPWS policy and management of the park been unduly influenced by the political views of its employees? 
A version of this report has been sent to Minister Matt Kean and member for Tweed Hon Geoff Provest MP.  

Summit trail - the future?

(*The longer residence time of rotting leaves on rocks on the path due to an absence of regular walkers since mid 2020 has left a slippery residue from rotting leaves and has likely increased the risk of slips on this section in the short term. Given NPWS do not clean the path prior to re-opening the first walkers to return should watch their step, especially in the wet!) 


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