Big Issues 1: The state of British climbing

Posted by Dave Turnbull on 02/08/2004
John Dunne. Photo: Dave Simmonite.

In the Lakes, many of the classic mountain routes rarely see any ascents these days, encrusted with lichen where chalk once showed the way. At Tremadog, voracious ivy patches are swarming upwards and outwards, gradually enveloping whole buttresses over time. Even at the honeypot of Harrison’s Rocks, the number of visitors is down from thirty years ago. What's going on?

Speak to the life-long locals at these areas Bill Birkett, Eric Jones or Terry Tullis, and they’ll tell you that Scafell, Tremadog and Harrison’s were more popular back in the 70's than they are today. Listen to Ken Wilson and the end is nigh, our crags are going back to nature, the silver tide of bolts is eating away at the core of our unique climbing ethic. Speak to keen climbers in Wales, and they will tell you there are no new routes left to do.

But, speak to younger climbers and they don’t know what all the fuss is about. They will talk as enthusiastically about their climbing experiences as any climber ever did 30 years ago, even though these experiences may well be much more diverse than their earlier counterparts’. Experiences just as likely to have been gained from sport climbing, leading indoors or bouldering as they would from what people used to call ‘proper climbing’. Perhaps climbing is healthy and vibrant, and not the sinking ship that some older observers would have us believe.

So, what is the state of British climbing today? Where is it going? What are the burning issues of concern to climbers? What are the main threats and risks to our sport? And, importantly, what is the BMC doing about it? In this, the first of three major articles for Summit, we put these questions to some of our leading activists, past and present, to discover their opinions. From the responses that came back, would it be felt that British climbing is in something of a state, or will the future for this ever growing sport seem as rosy as ever?

One thing is sure, climbing is changing. Let’s call it evolving. Climbing has gone ‘mainstream’ – its now part of the adventure sports revolution of the lifestyle magazine trade. Participation has rocketed over the last few decades, as any indicators will tell you. BMC membership has doubled since 1994; new indoor walls continue to crop up in unlikely backwaters around the country; mountain guides have got too much work; the 'outdoor industry' is now worth millions to the national economy.
 

Today, ‘climbing’ encompasses a wide range of activities. It’s a very broad church and the games climbers now play has expanded into virtual sub-sports, which sometimes appear completely alien to each other. Bouldering, sport climbing, indoor climbing, deep water soloing, dry tooling on chalk, adventure climbing on sea cliffs, competition climbing - the list goes on. Another thing that’s sure is that climbing will continue to evolve.

Perhaps the changes in climbing are just reflecting changes in society. Speak to Alan James of Rockfax and he’ll tell you that we’ll all be using palmtop guidebooks in a year or two. The information revolution (coupled with cheap overseas flights) has certainly had a major impact. Want to find out how to do the crux move on Hubble, the cheapest flight to Sardinia or the nearest climbing wall - just type it into Google. If you don’t like the rain then there are options, very cheap ones courtesy of Easyjet, Ryanair and other budget airlines. And even the more exotic destinations are now well within the reach of a two week trip.

So where has the exploration and adventure gone? Is it still out there or are we simply taking the Easyjet option? Now that most of our crags (in England and Wales at least) have been worked out, and the new routes climbed and documented, where do the new challenges lie? Well, unless you happen to be in a clique of ‘in the know’ locals, or prepared to indulge in the Fowleresque end of the rock quality spectrum, then the answer lies at the very top end. E7 or E8 ground up, 9a sport climbs, on-sighting hard routes on remote sea cliffs or mountain crags - it's still out there if you can cut it at that level. But for us mere mortals it’s a matter of perspective. Has the exploratory element of British climbing gone, or is there actually more scope for accessible adventure than ever before?

 

And what about the state of our crags? Here we come up against some problems. Old and rotting fixed equipment; re-vegetation of fine quality routes; whole crags going back to nature through lack of traffic; polish, wire brushing and excessive use of chalk on boulder problems and historic classics; overuse of honey-pot sites resulting in access issues. The fixed equipment question is a tough issue and the best the BMC can say is that climbers must take a case-by-case view of specific crags on a regional basis. Whilst retro-bolting or re-equipping might be acceptable in parts of Yorkshire, Cheddar Gorge or Chapel Head Scar it certainly wouldn’t be in Pembroke, Lands End or the mountain crags.

Sometimes the solutions are clear: without the recent BMC sponsored bolting and re-equipping at Cheddar for example, large parts of the Gorge would have been destined to remain unclimbable for the foreseeable future. Not only has Martin Crocker’s work cleaned up the routes at Cheddar, but it is also helping pave the way for the re-opening of sections of the Gorge for summertime access. But what do we do about crags that were developed in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s using pegs, threads and in-situ wires? Quality areas such as Huntsman’s Leap, Wintours Leap, and Castell Cidwm all have routes which effectively have become redundant due to deteriorating fixed gear, which none of us can be bothered to replace.

One view is that fixed gear should be left to rot, and that routes should be re-ascended on natural gear at a new grade. Others argue that we’ve got to keep the crags popular or we might lose them (to nature or conservationists) and that they should be re-equipped in some way. Perhaps now is the time for all climbers around the country to get together, take responsibility and decide on the future of our crags.

The re-vegetation of crags is another significant issue, which is linked to that of fixed equipment. In their natural state, many cliffs in the British Isles are botanically important and heavily vegetated. The development of new crags over the years necessitated a degree of cleaning. With traffic, routes stay clean and climbable (the Strand at Gogarth for example is a clean highway amidst a veritable broccoli garden of lichen), but without traffic they begin to revert to their original state until eventually it would be so much effort to clean them up that no one can be bothered and they’re effectively lost.

There are examples of this all over the country. Gardoms Edge, Dukes Quarry, North Devon Crags such as Smoothlands, parts of the Little Orme, and nationally important mountain crags in the Lake District and Snowdonia. As with fixed equipment, if complacency rules then climbers will either take the path of least resistance or a minority will take matters into their own hands. The results will be random and out of our control.

British climbing is unique throughout the world. Speak to Alex Huber, Ed February, Conrad Anker and numerous other international climbing figures who make the pilgrimage to our shores, and they’ll tell you the same thing - British climbing is something special. We might not have the biggest crags, the best weather or the most perfect rock, but we’ve got one of the most vibrant and healthy climbing scenes, a unique ethic and a worldwide reputation.

What will happen to these in the future comes down to whether we are prepared to take control and responsibility for securing the future for our sport or whether we’d prefer to simply shrug our shoulders, go online and book our next holiday.

The choice is ours.

 

OPINIONS

We asked the great and the good of climbing just what they thought - and they certainly surprised us with their range of views.



"The scene’s buoyant now. The bolt fears of the 90’s never came to fruition, and there’s a lot more respect for different styles. The biggest threats seem to be things like chipping and crag erosion. More and more people are heading to the honey pot venues, tempted there by nice pictures and nice problems. Take Caley, I’ve climbed there for 25 years and have seen the changes - it’s getting hammered. To a certain extent the media has a responsibility here, constantly featuring the same areas. And on the limestone many of the popular sport crags are worked out, retro bolting, double bolting, and polish are the concerns. We’ve got to treasure what we’ve got and work out how to make it last as long as possible.

People do seem to be less adventurous, I bet that in ‘83/’84 more people did Lord of the Flies in a week than in a whole year now. But I’m not sure if it’s people actually lacking the will or simply the state of the crags. Personally I’ve backed off several classic E5/6 mountain routes such as Nexus Direct and Poacher in the last three years. They were just so dirty, totally unclimbable. And it’s not uncommon, many cliffs have reached a similar position now perhaps accelerated by the Foot and Mouth bans.
The number of climbers are definitely up though, no question. The UK market is currently worth 40-45,000 pairs of shoes a year. Plus 80% of Scarpa sales are bottom end boots, so that’s where the increase is. That’s saying something, but how many of these purchasers will take up climbing for life?

As far as the future of British standards goes, one of our big issues is the lack of big new routes. Well, apart from Scotland, but if you’re based in Manchester; it’s as easy to head to Chamonix as it is to get up there! Brits will definitely have to travel more in the future to stay in the world pecking order, we’re seeing that already in the World Cup results. Look at how many overseas climbers are climbing 9a. It’s not a lack of talent or even training anymore, it’s simply our lack of quality virgin rock. That’s what gets you fit, tons of new climbing, it keeps you psyched. The foreign guys are going out day after day, onsighting 8a’s, and 8b’s at different crags. Steve McClure is our only world-class sport climber now, and he spends most of his time abroad.

But it’s not doom and gloom. We’ve reached equilibrium. Look at Pembroke. I took the bolts out of The Big Issue there ten years ago. They’re still out, and no one’s put any back in - and we can be proud of that. "
John Dunne, North West


"British climbing seems very healthy and diverse and seems in no danger of losing it’s traditional style to younger generations. The ethics of today seem much more clearly defined and understood by all than they used to be and this in turn has brought through generations of climbers who understand the score. My main concern is the state of existing pegs and threads on sea cliffs, especially on very hard inescapable routes that could be 1, 2 or even 3 E grades harder because the fixed gear is now utterly useless. In the past, selfish climbers have climbed new routes adopting pretty much any style that will assure them a first ascent. Consequently we are now faced with a host of incredibly good routes that rarely get climbed because of the lack of information on the state of the (sometimes 10-20 year old) fixed gear. Now is the time we should be addressing this issue to prevent unnecessary accidents, as people want to approach these routes with a pure onsight ethic in true British adventurous style. And finally - should pegs even be used on sea cliffs?"
Lucy Creamer, Peak


"My main concern is the threat of retro-bolting in Yorkshire. Just because some E4’s and E5’s are not getting climbed regularly does not justify bolting them up to create an amenable F7a! Extreme trad climbers seem to be a dying breed, especially up here in the North, where hard trad routes are getting seriously green and overgrown. I see sports climbing and bouldering as great for getting fit and strong but for me trad climbing is the main event. "
Karin Magog, North East


"Our sport has been continually evolving for well over 100 years. I contend that there is no absolute definition of ‘Traditional British Climbing’. We must move with the times and update our attitudes to fixed equipment, lower-offs etc on all cliffs. With more climbers than ever before we need to maximise the usefulness of the available rock, particularly on many currently unfashionable Pennine limestone crags. Several hundred climbers have enjoyed the sport climbs at Norber Scar, Giggleswick and Trow Gill in the first half of this year alone. They were deserted, overgrown and unappealing until their recent makeovers. Our attitudes need constant re-assessment in the light of demand. Get stuck in a time warp and the sport becomes stagnant. Evolve and the sport has a very bright and vibrant future."
Dave Musgrove, Yorkshire


"Looking back over the 57 or 58 years I’ve been climbing the changes have been considerable. In the late 1940s we were climbing with the same gear as in the ‘20s and ‘30s, e.g. hemp rope and two or three krabs. I started carrying a peg hammer and a few pegs and by the early ‘50s we had nylon ropes. The first real change came with the introduction of PAs in the early ‘50s; a definite improvement in footwear. Then came the use of drilled out nuts on slings and from about the mid ‘60s you began to get purpose made nuts of all shapes and sizes. By the late ‘70s friends were invented. Belay devices had taken away the threat of torn hands from holding falling leaders and indeed many climbers were now prepared to fall off a move many times, something that was never previously contemplated.

All this changed climbing completely. Formerly there were only maybe 10 people in the country climbing at the highest standard but now many people could do the hard routes. Because of the better protection much of the danger had been removed and the risk of death or serious injury after a fall dramatically reduced. With the introduction of chalk you had “aid on every move”. Anyone who disagrees with this statement should stop using chalk and see!

The worst threat of all to British climbing has been that of bolting on a large scale as has happened on the continent. Fortunately so far in Britain this has been limited and I’ve no problem with bolts on unprotectable limestone or slate, provided that they are sportingly positioned, but I do have a problem with retro bolting. Totally bolted routes take away a lot of the skills of climbing such as route finding and looking for protection. They take away the “grip factor” of being way out there and the whole adventure is reduced.

Climbing nowadays has diversified with bouldering becoming a separate sport, climbing walls, sport climbing and adventure climbing, but I do think that the watering down of the adventure aspect is diminishing climbing in a major way."
Joe Brown, Wales


"Despite the increased numbers of people being introduced to climbing, there doesn’t seem to be any more people climbing on the bigger British crags than there were 30 years ago, and perhaps even less. Many of the Hard Rock and Classic Rock ticks are being done but other great lines on the big cliffs aren’t getting much attention. Perhaps many younger climbers don’t realise what great adventures they are missing out on, or maybe they just don’t want them, preferring just the technical move rather than the adventure. For many people bouldering and short hard routes seem to be where “it’s at."
Derek Walker, North West


"Greasy tentacles extending from society at large are trying to rip out climbing’s heart. It’s a shame that climbing cannot escape, since it was supposed to be ‘different’. The lifestyle image marketeers of products and activities are gradually bamboozling people into thinking the kit they have got, the courses and trips they’ve bought or the image they present is more important than their actual actions and achievements. Then there’s the legal and insurance perpetual motion machine that actually feeds itself off our money. We are not insuring for real risks at real costs but for the legally generated risk of being sued or charged ridiculous amounts for administering legalities. Is there any hope for participants and true endeavor once such capitalists have got a grip on the psychology and sociology of climbing? One can only hope that that there'll be a renewal of spirit in future that tells them to stuff it. "
Crag Jones, Wales


"Issues affecting Scotland are very different to the rest of the UK. Whilst you lot scrot around on pathetic little new eliminates, we’re still discovering whole new Gogarths, especially in the West. There’s no shortage of adventure up here for people who want it - without pegs, bolts, or any type of fixed gear. "
Kev Howett, Scotland


"For the future health of our sport we need to do one thing - look after the rock. Preserve the rock and you preserve the adventure. Give the power drill free reign and adventure dies and the soul of the sport dies with it. In much of the Continent, countless cliffs and many mountain faces have become industrialised with thousands of drilled fixtures - bolts every three or four metres in every direction. Climbers seem to be acting in the opposite way to other outdoor users, who try to make little or no impact on the natural environment. I’m totally supportive of the direction taken by the climbing community in the UK, which is to limit bolting to certain venues. This gives British climbing continued respect and a special position in the world. "
Pat Littlejohn, Wales


"I can’t understand why as mountaineers and climbers we always have heated debates about everything under the sun! We should remember that we're here but for a short time and the sport, hills, crags and mountains will be around long after we’ve fleetingly passed through. Perhaps we should all consider what’s best for the sport and the fabric of the landscape as a whole, not just our selfish desires. "
Mal Creasey, Wales


"DWS is by far the most exciting new development in British climbing. It’s such a classic example of Brits finding ways to make further use of our limited resources, even though the vast majority of international climbers think we’re all barking mad for doing it. Older areas like Dorset and Devon are starting to get played out, but Pembroke has barely been discovered and there’s amazing potential for soloing existing trad routes or, better still, developing new areas. Before, if a cliff was less than 50ft high or very tidal and poorly protected then it was left alone, but these are the very characteristics which often lead to exceptional DWS. In fact, the best DWS areas in Pembroke are to be found near Tenby and Lydstep rather in the classic parts of Range East.

The other attraction about DWS is its simplicity and ethical purity. Although some routes will need to be abseil inspected, most are being attempted onsight, ground-up. It’s so satisfying when you top out, knowing that you’ve made the entire ascent without using a rope. All temptation to dog a move is removed - it simply isn’t possible. You just climb as far as you can and when you can’t get any further there’s nowhere to hide! If failure isn’t demoralizing enough, you get a soaking and then have to start all over again! The other great thing is that the standards are going to explode in the next few years. Tim Emmett and I have managed new 8as onsight ground-up, but who knows what’s going to happen when the really strong people get their teeth into things!"
Neil Gresham, Peak


"Climbing is really healthy, I’d rather be positive than look for problems. Worrying about little things like pegs is a side issue. Climbing is a risk sport, accept the state of the route as you find it, and either deal with it or take up something else. I don’t think we should look to make things safer. Allow people to find and follow the adventures they want, from competing indoors to Himalayan climbing, to cranking boulders around the world. The real problems that face us stem from a lack of government interest in areas such as access, better facilities, and support for young and talented climbers."
Ian Parnell, Peak


"British climbing is as good as it’s ever been, and the risk element right now is probably up; climbers of all ages are getting involved with trad routes and deep water soloing. Check out what’s going on now in the South West - stacks of new E8’s in Pembroke, and new DWS crags popping up everywhere. Personally, as long as we continue to see an increase in the number of bikinis at crags, I think the future of British climbing looks very rosy indeed! "
Mike Robertson, South West


"So where’s it all going? Well like fashion it’s all probably going to come around again. At the moment bouldering and trad climbing are popular. Looking forward a few years, I can well envisage the explosion of sport climbing again. This could be caused by any number of unforeseeable reasons. Maybe a film sparking public interest, an exceptional climber from the UK winning the World Championships. It’s impossible to predict the future, but what’s sure is that we must never rule anything out.

Who would have thought ten years ago when sport climbing was at its peak in the UK that we would now have come full circle? I can remember the fever around then. Trad was easy, trad climbers were weak. The real hard routes were sport routes. People were throwing away their wires saying that they could never envisage using them again, everything should be bolted. I was climbing sport routes in the summer to get fit, and when I slopped off to climb trad routes in the autumn they all looked at me like I was crazy. Now it’s the other way round. Who’s to say that in a few more years we may even all be trad climbing on limestone again? Unthinkable!"
Seb Grieve, Peak


"One of the greatest things about climbing is the variety. I love climbing adventurous new trad routes in remote places, bouldering in Font, swinging around on bolt protected limestone tufas and also competing on plastic creations. People shouldn’t assume that one type of climbing is inherently better than another, just get out (or in) and do whatever you feel the urge to do! "
Miles Gibson, Peak


"The big trend continues to be towards more accessible climbing. People want more convenience and value for effort and that’s why we’re seeing more fixed lower-offs going in and more retro-bolting of currently neglected routes. Whilst I sympathise with the argument for bolting otherwise chossy quarries, the recent retro-bolting of Cave Route Right Hand supports the ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument. The bolts are coming out of this one, but its significance should not go unnoticed. Many British climbers are still very much up for an adventure, even if it’s just a bit of a runout at their local crag. And look at the crowds who are totally psyched to be tradding their way up a Vdiff at Tryfan. And finally, if British climbers are going to remain at the forefront of climbing and mountaineering worldwide, they need to train harder. That’s why you’ll see Jon Bracey at Raven Tor or Dave Birkett doing top rope laps at Kilnsey a few days after repeating Breathless. These climbers epitomise the British spirit, but they also recognise the need to move forward to keep up!"
Tom Briggs, Peak


"I hope that climbing doesn’t get sucked in to the rules and regulations phase that the rest of the world seems to be going through. I think the British ethic can survive but it will become harder to maintain, the future generations must be taught well and the climbing media must give clear info on what the ethics are. Routes will get a lot harder in the future, it’s just a matter of time but the British grading system is starting to fail in the upper grades. The boundaries are too wide and people seem to be afraid to offer new grades. It will lose all relevance unless something is done. In-situ gear should be replaced by the climbers. If the BMC became responsible then it would only lead to lawsuits. If you want to lead a route on in-situ gear then it’s up to you to check it. "
James Pearson, Peak


"My concern is to protect British adventure climbing against the pressures arising from an increasingly risk averse society, and an increasing number of UK climbers who have been brought up on indoor walls with fixed protection. We have adventure climbs that are admired and respected throughout the world. It’s our duty to preserve these routes for the enjoyment of future generations and to ensure that those lines that are too hard for us are left to become the challenges for future generations."
Mick Fowler, London



Read the full set of articles:
Big Issues part 1: The state of British climbing
Big Issues part 2: Ethics
Big Issues part 3: The eleventh commandment - the crag environment



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