When thinking about university sports, chances are that mountaineering and climbing won't even cross your mind. But uni climbing clubs have been there the whole time, and they're growing too. Tess Bains investigates why.
At Liverpool University, there's been a mountaineering club in existence since the early 1900s. The Liverpool University Rock Climbing Club was founded by John Menlove Edwards and a few close friends in 1930 and has been affiliated with the university since 1932, making it one of the oldest clubs of the university. Fast forward 84 years and the Liverpool University Mountaineering Club is flourishing, with members taking part in both walking and climbing trips at least once a month, and there are similar clubs in universities throughout the country.
Although university clubs accept anyone who wishes to join, the majority of new members are university freshers. Most join for climbing rather than walking, and many of them, especially those with previous experience, join for social reasons; to meet like-minded people, to find training partners and to have a group of people with whom to plan trips. However, the majority of new members have very little, if any, experience in climbing or walking. This seems to be one of the draws of the university club; beginners can learn in an environment free of pressure and mix with climbers of all abilities, something that doesn’t happen as easily if they just go to a climbing wall on their own. It also provides a chance for beginners to get outside easily and experience climbing on real rock supervised by those with more experience. And you can’t forget the socials – these are clubs for students, after all.
Along with the growth in popularity of climbing clubs comes the growth of university climbing competitions; there’s the Northern University Bouldering Series in the North and the Midlands University Bouldering Series in, you guessed it, the Midlands, as well as there being National competitions in both bouldering and lead climbing. Traditionally, mountaineering clubs were all about the outdoors, so the introduction and growth of these competitions allows members to not only experience the joys of hiking and climbing outdoors, but to climb competitively if they wish to do so. This distinguishes university clubs from many other mountaineering clubs around the country, and appears to be making them intensely popular with the student population; it seems that these clubs are only on the up.
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The balancing act
Running a club with such a diverse group of people isn’t always plain sailing, though. The quality of instruction within the club depends almost entirely on experienced members, and these types of people aren’t always available every year. And while the mixture of experienced climbers and novices is fantastic for the beginners, it’s not always a relationship that benefits both parties. Skilled members often find that they can’t climb as much they’d like, as they have to teach instead. Obviously, this is something that normal mountaineering clubs face all the time, but with the huge influx of inexperienced climbers and walkers that university clubs receive each year compared to the number of their existing members, much more time is required to make sure that new members are safe to climb and walk on their own.
University clubs require lots of organisation and the committee responsible for the running of them spend much of their free time planning trips, organising socials and helping members to train for competitions. I managed to talk to Rosalie Richards, PhD student and president of the Liverpool University Mountaineering Club, to see how she makes the time:
How many people are in the club at the moment?
We currently have 145 members.
What were the numbers five to ten years ago?
I’m not sure about back then, but this time last year we only had 82 members!
What is the average intake in one year?
In 2015, we had 26 returning members – so around 119 of our members this year are new to the club.
What made you decide to join the club?
I joined the club mainly as a way of meeting new people, but also as an opportunity to learn new skills and spend more time outdoors.
How much experience did you have before?
Aside from one visit to an indoor wall, I had no previous experience.
What made you decide to be president of the club?
I had already been on the committee for a year and just wasn’t ready to leave yet!
What is the best thing about being in the club for you and why would you recommend it to others?
For me, the best thing about being in the club is being part of such a great community of people so that, even if the weather is absolutely grim – which happens far too often in our unpredictable climate – you can still head out to the mountains, moors or crags and have a great weekend away!
I would recommend joining a club to others because it is an amazing opportunity to learn skills that can take you all over the world, whatever your previous level of experience. Climbing in particular can be a prohibitively expensive hobby, especially when starting out. However, as part of a club, you can learn the required skills and borrow equipment for next to nothing.
Are there any struggles to running the club?
As a large club with a diverse range of members (we accommodate both hill walkers and climbers aged anywhere between 18 and 30), the main struggle that we have is to try and meet everyone’s needs and expectations. In particular, it’s difficult to get the balance right so we meet the needs of both experienced and novice climbers. With so many new people joining, the demands placed on existing members to teach can be quite high.
What is the influence of the BMC on the club and how do they help?
We were lucky enough to receive a £1,000 equipment grant from the BMC which helped us to purchase new harnesses and helmets to cope with the large influx of new members this year. As a BMC affiliated club, we have also been able to attend BMC subsided courses, such as the excellent Training Novice Club Members and Outdoor First Aid courses at Plas-y-Brenin.
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From club to club
It would seem that these university clubs are invaluable with encouraging new people to participate in mountain sports as a whole. Despite the fact that the levels of equipment and funding varies greatly from club to club across the country, these clubs are bringing in more and more enthusiastic mountaineers year by year. They are also a key place for people to learn about and attend BMC lectures and events, increasing and passing on knowledge and inspiring a whole new generation of leaders in the mountain environment.
When people were asked if they’d join a club after they left university, the overwhelming majority said yes. So, whether it’s the wild student socials, the opportunity to both get outside and compete in serious competitions, or the diverse and mixed ability grouping of climbers, walkers and alpinists, these clubs definitely seem to be doing something right.
The BMC benefits climbing, mountaineering and hill walking clubs across the UK. Club members can benefit from:
Access to BMC Travel Insurance
Register for Mountain Training award schemes
£15m worldwide Combined Liability insurance
Find out more about BMC club membership benefits
The only cost for affiliation to the BMC is the individual payments for each member, there is no additional ‘club fee’. For 2019 the BMC fees for each Club Member are: Adult - £14.25 Student - £10.75 Under 18’s - £9.00
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