The interview: Dave Turnbull

Posted by Niall Grimes on 02/06/2008
Dave Turnbull. Photo: Messenger/BMC.

A new series of interviews from Summit magazine. Kicking off with Dave Turnbull, BMC boss.

He’s the captain of the ship.  Captain Turnbull, standing at the bridge of the Good Ship BMC, and like all great captains before him – Ahab, Bird’s Eye, Mainwaring or Scarlett – he has to sail the craft through the waves, all the time taking care of the ship, the crew and the cargo.

In the last few years, the BMC has emerged from a time of troubled waters. With a membership now of over 60,000, and its involvement in high-profile, positive campaigns – Coastal Access, Better bolts and the purchase of Craig y Longridge but three – things are looking shipshape.

Dave Turnbull has been at the helm now for six years, having moved up from the post of Access Officer to Chief Executive Officer. An affable chap with a rugby player’s build and an enthusiastic sense of humour, who grew up on a farm in the rolling countryside of Northumberland. As an inner-city lad myself, such distant childhoods are hard to grasp, but one story he once told me seemed perfectly to capture the experience of a youth lived in that magical county hidden away in the north-east of England.

“It was a wild night, the most stunning forked lightning I had ever seen. The thunder was right on top of it, so you could tell that it was just overhead. With each crack the house shook. We were all in the front room together watching TV, huddled on the sofa. Suddenly there was a massive flash. The house lit up with this blue light, lightning arcing across unplugged devices, thunder shaking the very foundations of the house. It eventually died down and we realised every electrical item in the house had fused and melted – even the phone.”

Little did Dave know that he would come close to melting many more phones in this life. Since, as the BMC lurches from one near miss to another, there is always someone wanting to bend the captain’s ear. Block votes, club fees, Vixen Tor, competition funding. You name it, there’s someone out there dialling his direct number as we speak, foaming at the mouth, ready for a long, heated telephonic debate.

Me? I’d rather be struck by lightening than spend a week fielding that sort of nonsense. So, in a fit of pity, I unstuck him from the phone and asked him a few easy questions for once. No demands to open my favourite crag, no shrieks of indignation about a change to the minutes. Just a few simple questions to see if there was still a man inside the man behind the BMC.

So, Dave. When did you start climbing?
God, too long ago. I think I first tried it at school – we were dragged onto an outdoor wall one rainy afternoon. A few years later I flew to India on a gap year and found myself in Nepal doing the Everest Base Camp trek and started to understand the whole mountain thing. When I went to Uni I joined the mountaineering club and did my first lead in 1986 - Piton Route at Avon Gorge.

What’s your thing then, trad, sport, bouldering, mountaineering?
A bit of everything though a couple of early ‘bad experiences’ in the Alps did put me off mountaineering a bit. I climb where and when I can; sea cliffs and remote mountain crags float my boat most. I’ve never liked the term ‘trad’ climbing – it suggests something old fashioned or inferior. Clipping bolts is good when I’m on holiday but trying to get inspired in the UK is tough.

I’ve heard you developed a taste for horrible, loose seacliff climbs?
Watching the ‘Breakaway’ film on the HXS DVD brought back a few memories. I was into repeating Fowler routes at one stage at places like Henna, Bukator and Beachy Head. The great thing about these is that you don’t have to be very good – you’ve just got to able to hold your head and keep focused when everything around you seems to be falling apart. A bit like working for the BMC.

What’s it like to climb an XS?
Uhhm… like doing my job at the BMC I suppose, except it only lasts a few hours.

What’s been your best climbing experience?
It’s hard to say. Maybe climbing a 1000ft arête on one of the spectacular unclimbed cliffs on Foula, Shetland or freeing the Longhope Route on Orkney with John Arran. Ed Drummond and Oliver Hill aided it over seven days in 1970; we did it free in four days in 1997. Climbing the Pan American Route on El Trono Blanco, Mexico with American climber Cameron Tague, or maybe the ‘lost world’ bivi on top of Apokan Tepui, Venezuela after a 17 pitch new route. Or perhaps it was an amazing exchange visit to South Africa with Ed February. Now there’s a country with some good climbing.

And your worst?
Belaying a friend who decked out from the top of Bowden Doors after a gear-ripping fall. I’d just started climbing. He landed on his back, there was no one else there and I thought he was going to die. An epic on the North Face of Mt Grueta in 1990 was also pretty grim. And, oh yes, the most miserable of all - getting benighted in a 14hr rainstorm whilst aiding the last (off-vertical) pitch of the Scoop in the Hebrides.

I hear you’re a bit of walker too – where are your favourite walks?
Kinder Downfall is an hour and a quarter from my front door – I get up there once or twice a month with the dog. But the best place I’ve recently walked has to be the west coast of Foula. It’s one of the most spectacular coastal walks in Britain – wild and remote with 1100ft+ cliffs and massive puffin colonies.

How did you end up working for the BMC?
I was living in London working for a big environmental consultancy firm, ERM, when the dreaded Sunday night syndrome finally got the better of me. I’d had enough of the depression that would set in driving back to The Smoke after a weekend away climbing, and the BMC Access Officer job came up. Initially it was a three year contract, 11 years later I’m still here. I blame Ken Wilson. In 2001, on the day Roger Payne resigned as BMC General Secretary, Ken rang and said I had to apply for his job. To be honest it wasn’t something I’d ever aspired to, but after a month’s dithering I finally submitted an application.

How does your job compare to a ‘proper’ job?
Trying to switch off from work is the biggest issue. You go away for a weekend and people just want to talk BMC. I didn’t know people could talk so much until I came to the BMC - climbing effects the mind in a strange way. I also never knew that meetings could go on for so long. When three hours feels short you know something’s up.

What was the longest meeting you’ve endured?
13 hours. It was Management Committee meeting at Plas y Brenin five years ago. It was a real ordeal at the time. Nowadays we’re pretty slick, three to four hours just about does it.

Got any tips for speeding up meetings?
Set a finish time, put timings next to each agenda item then force the chair to stick to it.

What’s the point in the BMC anyway?
To stand up for climbers and walkers when things go wrong; when Foot and Mouth disease closes the countryside, or the government tries to introduce restrictive new legislation, or a major landowner decides to shut down access or sell off their land. To make sure we remain free to walk and climb in the mountains with minimal restriction or regulation.

The BMC relies heavily on the use of committed volunteers to exist. Now, we all know, you’d need to be mad to volunteer for anything. What’s the story?
60+ years of volunteers have made the BMC what it is today - strong, influential and intellectually rich. We simply couldn’t afford to pay the market rate for the skills volunteers bring. There are many high-powered professionals involved: engineers, accountants, lawyers, HR specialists, surveyors, mountain guides, civil servants, medics and academics. The BMC’s directors are all volunteers so ultimately it’s our members who control the organisation. Volunteers really are critical to the operation and well-being of the BMC.

So Dave, what do you think the cargo wants from the BMC?
Er, what?

You know, the members, the cargo of the good ship…
Ah. I see. Well, we’re an organisation of outdoor people and I suspect the majority simply want our travel insurance and to head for the hills knowing that the BMC is there to look after the sport if things go wrong. We’re a very broad church now. Some join to take part in our events and activities (such as competitions, safety seminars and international meets), others want to make use of the retail discounts we offer, whilst others get involved in ‘on-the-ground’ activities through our nine local area groups across England and Wales.

Are there any more awkward bits of cargo. Large awkwardly-shaped heavy bits of luggage that require many hands on deck to stop them slipping over the side and making the ship list dangerously?
It’s difficult (impossible maybe) to keep everyone happy. For a start we’ve constantly got to try to strike the right balance between climbing, hill walking and mountaineering activities in everything we do. The hill walkers aren’t interested in our indoor climbing work whilst the new generation of boulderers and indoor climbers have little interest in what we do for hill walkers or mountaineers. I had my annual staff appraisal last week and one of my priorities for 2008 is to improve our support for clubs. Some clubs see their BMC subscription as a burden so it’s up to us to make sure they get value for money. We’re running a club seminar in early March to get feedback on what people want from us.

How come you’re such a big hit with the girls?
Well, I wouldn’t exactly say they’re flocking, but our last membership survey did show that over 20% of BMC members are female so maybe my chances are improving.

Where do you see British climbing going in the next 20 years?
Indoors and overseas I bet. The winters aren’t getting any better so I suspect more people will look to the continent and beyond for their snowy fix. Will the mountain crags make a comeback? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath. If Dave Birkett and Alastair Lee can’t re-inspire people with DVDs like Set in Stone, then maybe our high crags have had their day? I hope not. Time will tell but one thing’s for sure - climbing will continue to capture hearts, light fires and provide a lifelong passion for generations to come.

And where will the BMC be?
Organisations either move on and develop or stand still and stagnate. The BMC must change with the times and keep focused on what our members want us to do. Maybe we’ll move out of Manchester - who knows.

And where will you be?
If I’m still here in 20 years, shoot me.

Niall Grimes is the BMC’s writer-in-residence. He currently still has a job.



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