It was with great pleasure that BMC President Lynn Robinson awarded Martin Wragg Honorary Membership of the BMC at our AGM weekend in Buxton. Here Lynn sits down with David Brown to interview Martin and find out what this award means to him, and also to discover how it all began.
LR: At the evening meal before the 2019 AGM, I had the absolute pleasure of completely surprising you to say that National Council had awarded you Honorary membership of the BMC, and I remember the look on your face, so I wonder whether you can think back to that moment and what it meant to you?
MW: Well I think I said after your announcement that it was an unlooked for and unexpected honour and that is the case, I mean it is a great honour. I subsequently received your letter and I kept it on the kitchen table for a couple of months and read it every day. I think I knew that people I had been involved with over the years appreciated the contribution that I had been able to make from time to time, but to have it expressed in such a way was rather overwhelming. It still is. I think my involvement with the BMC started in 1975. I had been at University in Nottingham with Peter Boardman and we’d become good friends and climbing partners, and we’d climbed in this country, and in the Alps, done some good routes, went to the Hindu Kush together in 1972 and did some quite special climbs. Peter became National Officer at the BMC as number two to Dennis Gray shortly before the Mountain Training dispute occurred. The BMC needed a lawyer and didn’t have one. I’d only qualified relatively recently, but Peter introduced me and I was asked to assist. It wasn’t altogether down to my efforts, or the QC that we engaged or the team that put representations forward, but by one means or another, mostly wheels in Whitehall, the original decision made by the Sports Council, as it then was, in favour of the educationalists was reversed. The issue had been fundamental to Mountain Training in the sense that the educationalists wanted a risk-free training environment and the BMC view was that it should be education and managed-risk. I think the character of climbing, and attitude of young people, coming into climbing would have changed quite dramatically had the educationalists view prevailed. And I’ve been doing things for the BMC ever since, either in a voluntary or a professional capacity.
LR: So what other volunteer input have you had? I know you’re an Honorary Legal Advisor as well aren’t you?
MW: Yes, I mean, the first job I can remember as a volunteer was chairing a small group set up by Dennis Gray to consider the question of legal liability and legal risk arising from not just participating in climbing, but managing climbing activities, and whether there was a need for insurance. We produced a report, I think in 1978, which concluded there was a need for Officer and Director Liability insurance and with cover for members generally against risks arising from accidents that was distinct from rescue or medical insurance. Every member has the benefit of, cover and it remains of critical importance and is central to the BMC operation.
LR: You are also Chair of the Land Management Group (LMG), so how did you get involved in that?
MW: I’d been involved in acting on a professional basis for the BMC in acquisition of crags. The BMC had been thinking about the obligations that this imposed on the organisation in terms of managing these sites and the need for active management, so a group met in my office in Buxton. Dave Turnbull and Bill (Renshaw), had various discussions and decided there was a need for a group to be set up with authority to manage these sites, in terms of dealing with low level maintenance, compliance with environmental concerns and so on. Not only this but also dealing with incidents and issues such as the recent discovery of loose rock at Bwlch y Moch and the Shadrach pinnacle and the issues at Aldery Cliff arising from the descaling and de-vegetation. So it’s not got a huge workload for the volunteers, but what it does is quite significant and the LMG has professional expertise from a number of different spheres, which come together with very valuable support from the BMC officers Elfyn and Rob.
LR: I’m interested in what motivates you to keep volunteering with the BMC?
MW: Before my first involvement I knew about the BMC in the sense that I knew it existed and not much more, and as I worked with the BMC I became aware of the range of work that it did and the significance of that work to the climbing community which was not widely appreciated. But it was only because of the involvement that I came to appreciate it. The more I learnt the more I valued the institution. It is also very rewarding to work with committed and enthusiastic officers and fellow volunteers. My role as legal adviser has also provided the opportunity to offer support and assistance to officers and management working in the best interests of members at difficult times.
DB: Is there any events where you really thought the very existence of the BMC was threatened, or certainly
MW: Well, certainly that was the case in my first involvement with the Mountain Training dispute, because the Sports Council cut grant assistance and staff went unpaid for a period of time, and it was very dramatic. Subsequently I think there have been constitutional issues on more than one occasion, and back in the 90’s that surfaced in the sense that the organisation had grown as an incorporated association to a level that was uncomfortable for National Council and the Exec, as it then was, because individuals were taking on, entering into contracts or making arrangements with personal liability. And it was unrealistic to expect that to continue. There was a need for incorporation and that meant change which was uncomfortable in the same way that it’s been uncomfortable over the last couple of years.
DB: Was it more dramatic than the changes that we’re now in the process of completing?
MW: I think it was similar. The brief was that the Articles should reflect the pre-existing constitution so far as possible, but there had to be changes and the fact that it was going to be a limited company was a really big step and it took 3 years to deliver. And there was a time when it seemed every meeting at National Council was a debate around changes that had been made to the articles. More changes were made and then next meeting they were changed back again, and then it went backwards and forwards for years until people finally agreed. There was doubt about whether it would go through and concern about the consequences if it didn’t because the officers at the time were uncomfortable with the degree of personal responsibility and liability that they had.
LR: So when you look back to when you started climbing, mountaineering, what’s your stand out memory? What makes you think, gosh yeah, I’m proud of that?
MW: In terms of working with the BMC?
LR: No, in terms of mountaineering.
MW: Oh, well it has to be the Hindu Kush expedition. At the time Peter was the best climber in the group. There were 3 of us that were fairly good climbers, and with a little alpine experience, but not a lot. And we didn’t really appreciate at the time the significance of what we did, and we thought of it in terms of alpine climbs, and then realised that actually what we were doing was bigger, higher and harder than pretty much anything that existed at the time, and it was really when Peter came back from Changabang and he said “Oh, it was harder and more sustained than Koh-i-Khaiik”, and Koh-i-Khaiik was the only thing that he’d done to compare with it. I also rate ascents of the Diamond on Longs Peak and Lotus Flower Tower, together with a new route at Gogarth, North Stack and 3 first ascents on the West Buttress of Cloggy.
DB: You actually drove to Afghanistan?
MW: We did, we drove overland. Sadly we didn’t make it all the way back. We ended up in a ravine in Western Turkey. Some of us picked up injuries that we’ve learned to live with, but nothing too dramatic.
LR: And what was your stand out memory then for the BMC. Of all your volunteering what are you most proud of?
MW: I think probably delivering incorporation first off, and more recently lending assistance with the Motion of No Confidence and the adoption of the 2017 Articles, where there was a lot of controversy. Seeing a way through that was difficult.
DB: So tell us about the Boardman Tasker Award and your involvement with that?
MW: Well, when Peter and Joe disappeared on the North East Ridge of Everest it was a huge shock. I mean Joe was a good friend and Peter was like a brother, and a small number of us got together and shared lot of tears and decided that some form of commemoration was appropriate given not only their status in the climbing world, the mountaineering world, but also what they’d been doing in terms of writing of books and articles, and in Joe’s case also of filming. And I can’t remember who came up with the idea of a literary award, it might have been Dorothy, Peter’s mum. So within 6 months we’d set that up, held a fundraising lecture at the old cinema in Hazel Grove which I organised and took on board what for me at the time was a huge personal liability of renting this place for an evening. But it was successful and it raised a lot of funds. We got off to a rocky start the first year because the judges – and the judges are completely separated from the trustees, I’m a trustee – but the judges decided that there wasn’t any book that had been entered that was worthy of the award. But the second year there was and it’s grown from strength to strength. In the early days we only had between 6 and 10 entries, now we always get more than 30 and sometimes as much as 40 from all over the world. Chris Bonington was the first Chair, then Charlie Clarke, and then Paul Tasker, and then me a few years ago. It’s been a delight to be able to encourage and foster climbing literature and see the award blossom and become one of the leading international book festivals.
DB: So, that’s 30 years, isn’t it?
MW: 1982, was it?
DB: So 35 years.
DB: And are you still Chair of the Boardman Tasker award?
MW: Well I only assumed the chair 3 years ago and my predecessors had each done it for 10 years.
DB: You’ve got 7 years left then?
MW: There isn’t a fixed term. There needs to be a successor at some point.
LR: Talking to you makes me realise all the work that people like yourself have done over decades and decades volunteering it’s just amazing,
MW: Well, all of it’s a matter of chance. Peter introduced me to the BMC and opened other doors. When he was working in Manchester the Altrincham All Stars were getting out on Tuesday night and I was introduced, started climbing with them, or being rescued by them, from various crags, because we didn’t go in for ropes very much, and I got to know all sorts of people and it influenced my career. I was a general lawyer in the early days and gradually came to specialise in commercial work in consequence of acting for individuals and companies like Wild Country that I met through those connections, and of course acting for the BMC. Life would have been different.
DB: …not been involved in the Peak area at all?
MW: No I haven’t.
DB: Although you’ve lived in the Peak area.
MW: I’ve lived in the Peak all the time.
DB: Including Sheffield and Nottingham.
MW: Well yes, but I think it was only after I moved across the Pennines and was living in or near Stockport and when I joined the Mynydd I became a member of a club that was BMC affiliated, but I’ve always thought that as Honorary Solicitor I didn’t want to be in a position where I was being asked questions in an informal environment where I might be compromised, so I haven’t been active in the Peak area and only rarely attended meetings.
LR: Well, you’d be very welcome. Well, thank you for that brief insight into your life…..and once again, many congratulations on being awarded BMC Honorary Membership.
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