Climbing is becoming ultra-cool, but are clubs being left behind? Fran McNicol can’t understand why.
Climbing is increasingly popular, cool even, but coupled with this is a new breed of individualist climber who seems to regard “club” as a dirty word. A quick glance at any web forum will quickly reveal threads expressing antipathy towards clubs. And whilst I know that the web might not be representative - most climbers are far too busy training obsessively, working hard and actually climbing to log on - it seems that many are missing the point.
We’re all fierce individualists, and climbing offers an escape from the confines of humdrum suburbia, if only for the day. Clubs are there to help you make that escape, not to tie you down in red tape. OK, sometimes you do have to put a little work in, but for me, the rewards of club membership far outweigh any work required. So to help dispel some of those web myths and hints of grey-bearded conspiracies, I thought I’d liven up the debate and attempt to describe just what I get out of club membership. And if nobody cares because you’re all busy having a belaying nightmare with a random stranger you met on the web yesterday, then so be it.
A good local club has the potential to revolutionise your climbing career. When I went to university, I’d done some single pitch climbing and was keen for more, but my mountain skills were non-existent and I knew nothing about leading The traditional university club approach seemed to be that they would arrange the minibus to the campsite and then you were on your own - I was welcome to tag along, but if I wanted to learn I’d have to find some cute young lad to teach me. As the local crags in question were Glen Shee and Glen Coe and I was experiencing my first Scottish winter, that didn’t seem like the best plan in the world. So with a wistful glance, I stomped off to the sub-aqua club instead.
A few years later I gave it another try. A friend and I started going to the local wall and headed off scrambling, but it was only on a Plas y Brenin course that we finally got clued up about gear placements and rope techniques. Armed with this knowledge we felt confident enough to go out climbing on our own - possibly misguidedly - and started to get our arses kicked. It was exciting; the two of us slowly learning by our mistakes, but it was a chance invitation to the Vagabond Mountaineering Club annual dinner that proved to be the real turning point of my vertical life.
These were the people we’d been shyly smiling at down the wall. I immediately joined, and started climbing regularly outside, leading a fair bit and seconding all sorts - in short getting a good old-fashioned apprenticeship. The basic knowledge imparted on the PyB course meant that I knew enough to keep myself safe, and judge others too - a real concern after watching diving clubs trying to kill their novices. Now, on top of the basics, the club provided the friends and mentors required to make the final leap from indoor wall geek to solid trad rock leader.
Hard rock chicks
Contrary to popular belief, clubs are not just composed of hearty, bearded men in unwashed tracksters. We’ve got as many girls as boys actively climbing, and in fact my best trip to date was an all-girlie ascent of the Chere Couloir followed by a dawn ski descent of the Vallée Blanche. Another female member has just repeated Nick Dixon’s Yuckan II (E7 6c at Nesscliffe), and there are plenty of others leading solid E-numbers and looking pretty good on the ice too. We must be the envy of other clubs really, out of a cohort of 20 active members, a third of them are proper “hard rock chicks”.
But joking aside, climbing clubs are safe havens for single girls aspiring to get out into the hills. I’d feel uncomfortable meeting up with a stranger to go cragging, and admit to my fair share of dodgy experiences alone at campsites, but within the club I’ve got a pool of people that I’d happily meet up with for the day, or the week, anywhere in the world. That’s not to say that romance doesn’t blossom of course - as quickly as we acquire single female members they also seem to acquire the man of their dreams.
Time is money
Climbing well and all partnered up? Think cost. Clubs trips are incredibly cheap; Fontainebleau, four in a car, camping, sorted. Norway, car bulging, top box full of beer, cheap ferry, easy. Split the petrol to Scotland, rent cheap apartments in Le Grave, and share the cost of a luxury villa in Spain. Of course you can do this with groups of like-minded friends but personally, as I hit my 30’s, people just got harder and harder to pin down. And as your time gets increasingly precious, you need new ways of organising.
Need more persuasion? Well, there’s a wealth of beautiful property around Britain owned by clubs for the benefit of people like you. It’s situated in the most idyllic mountain locations, empty most weekends while anti-club climbers paddle balefully around sodden campsites. And as well as your own club’s hut, membership may also open up possibilities in other climbing areas through reciprocal hut rights or informal agreements. We’ve several members who are also in the Climbers’ Club, and so have places to stay in Scotland, Pembroke and Cornwall. Plus the CIC hut, the Fell and Rock, and various SMC huts are all available to hire out for groups, and being a member of an established climbing club with a good reputation can act as a character reference, encouraging organisations to let you into their pride and joy.
Our cottage is a jewel, set in the heart of Snowdonia, five minutes walk away from the Llanberis Pass. We put a fair bit back into the local economy, mainly in beer tokens, but also by supporting local eateries and gear shops. Some of the best and beastliest of British climbing have been past members of the club. Dickinson, Rouse, and Molyneux, partied here, passed out on our sofas, and went climbing the next day. It’s seen it all; wheelie bin races, firework wars, and dawn ascents of Flying Buttress - with obligatory sofa. It’s a home from home, and a great place from which to assault the surrounding hills.
One of the criticisms frequently levelled at clubs is their perceived elitist attitude and a suspicion of the prospective membership schemes. But this really isn’t anything to be afraid of - you automatically vet every new person you meet in your lives, and only some will turn into friends. In our local area there are two very different clubs, both of which operate these schemes. One has about 200 members and encompasses activities including climbing, skiing, and mountain biking, and their requirements involve attendance at a certain number of meets and a fixed number of climbs. A large club needs discipline to function and although it could come across as quite bureaucratic, they do run huge trips to excellent places with great success and have a vibrant membership.
In contrast, we try to stick to climbing, have 60 members (of whom only 20 climb regularly), so don’t need many rules and have no bureaucracy. Membership tends to be for life, resignation unheard of and never accepted. Club meets usually feature the same faces, the hut sitting room is crowded with 14 people in it and our bunkrooms are all very cosily communal. I don’t find it peculiar at all that we choose to get to know people before giving them the key to our hut, thereby allowing them to use it whenever they want to and also committing ourselves to spending a good proportion of the next ten or twenty years in that person’s company. And our criteria are minimal; we have to be able to put the name to the face after six months and be convinced of general enthusiasm. People tend to self-select anyway, and in the five years since I joined, every prospective member has been voted in as a matter of course.
When I started out, my ambitions were limited to E1 and maybe some sunny sports climbing. But since joining this club I’ve climbed both rock and ice in Norway, the Dolomites, and the Alps. None of these objectives would have seemed possible without the hothouse effect of a club full of keen people. Between us we have every guide, every book, every film and about 200 combined years of experience of climbing all over the world. We don’t do formal teaching but we do get out and go climbing, with whoever happens to be around at the time. We train together, climb together, obsess together and the competition and enthusiasm is contagious and healthy.
Club membership might involve politics, but it can be minimal. We have two committee meetings a year, mainly to vote in new members and discuss plans for the hut. Meetings take all night, involve lots of beer, are tedious as well as fun and never change the world - that’s life. And no matter how dissociated you think you are from climbing politics, you’ll often benefit from the work done by club worthies. BMC volunteer representatives are often drawn from clubs, and work hard on your behalf, negotiating access, liaising with climbing walls, and improving local crags. Notable successes in our area include the successful pollarding of the trees at Pex Hill, and the often-comical negotiations with the pensioners peregrine protection mafia around Helsby Hill.
Go for it
Maybe clubs are a piece of history, left over from the days when folk needed lifts to Wales and shared tents and huts for economy, but as club members, that history is ours. The mix of older tales and recent stories acts as a catalyst and most of all, makes you realise that you don’t need to be a full-time professional climber to get out there and do something rock hard, you just need a good team, drive and enthusiasm. Every club isn’t for everyone, but some club somewhere might turn out to suit you. And once you have that all-important team of people to train with, climb with, dream with and scheme with, the world will be your oyster. n
Fran McNicol is the recruitment officer for Vagabond Mountaineering Club, and has the onerous job of chatting to strangers about climbing wherever she goes. See www.vagabondmc.com for full details of the club.