Pat Littlejohn was recently awarded an OBE for his services to mountaineering. He is the author of countless new routes worldwide and one of the most respected figures in British climbing.
I suspect it doesn't come naturally for climbers to step back and look objectively at the part climbing plays in their lives. I certainly never gave it much thought, but recently something came up at the BMC which made me and others try to evaluate the 'worth' of climbing, both to ourselves and to wider society.
It's no secret that over the past few years government funding (via UK Sport) for climbing/mountaineering has been drastically cut. Grant-aid for expeditions was halved then stopped altogether; funding for competition climbing has gone and money to send representatives to international forums like the UIAA is much reduced and more difficult to obtain. Perhaps it's all because of the Olympics and once they're over funding for non-Olympic sports will start flowing again – but I wouldn't count on it, and anyway we're looking at several years time.
Recently the Sports Council for England invited governing bodies of various sports to submit ideas to help form SCE's future funding policy. In effect this was inviting each sport to justify its worth to society and the aims of this government – something that climbers are not at all used to doing. Having climbed enthusiastically for more than 40 years I started by thinking about what benefits climbing has brought to my own life. These are a few of the things I came up with:
1. It's a sport that gives you lifelong fitness. You can enjoy it at some level till you drop off your perch and (despite the odd accident) it keeps you fit, supple and a healthy weight. Hence low NHS bills and no problems with obesity.
2. It trains you to be rational and level-headed. Faulty reasoning when climbing has serious consequences. Some climbers may bullshit in the pub (easily spotted by one's peer group) but any bullshit when climbing is swiftly punished by the cliff or mountain.
3. Climbing makes you an expert at weighing up risk and this can be usefully applied to any aspect of life. Climbers tend not to be paralysed by silly phobias nor are they easy victims for crackpot faiths, cults or fanatical ideologies.
4. Climbing takes you to some of the most beautiful and spectacular places on the planet. It teaches you to respect and conserve those places and to educate yourself about them. Climb for long enough and you can't avoid becoming an amateur geologist, ornithologist and botanist, with bits of geography, glaciology and navigation skills thrown in for good measure.
These are some of the broader benefits from my own experience – there will be many more as well as personal benefits which vary according to people's time of life and circumstances. So, what has climbing done for you? Is it a sport that society should encourage and support, or are we a fringe group to be tolerated at best or even ignored?
Read Pat's UKC article detailing a sea cliff adventure 'Your First XS'