Privilege: why is it sometimes capitalised, what should I do about it, and why does the mere mention of it send some people on the internet into paroxysms of rage?
Inigo Atkin explores how and why different types of privilege shape our collective experience of the outdoors, climbing and the environment. Whilst the term 'Privilege' has become au fait in recent years, many still struggle to grasp the key concept: that 'checking your privilege' is not about reminding people what you don't have, but being willing to look at what you've always taken for granted, and acknowledge how it's helped you along your way.
This piece focuses on the way in which economic empowerment (or the lack thereof) has affected the type of people who become climbers, and looks at some of the barriers to climbing that many of us may not even realise exist.
I have frequently heard it said, or seen written down, that many consider climbing a sport (or activity, if you prefer) that is not based on economic means - that dreaded 'class' word. That it owes its roots, history and continuation to a broad cross-section of backgrounds, striving together in a largely harmonious, 'open' way toward ever greater excellence in the vertical world.
In the UK, the case for this equality is epitomised by the legacy of men like Joe Brown or Don Whillans, working-class lads from Manchester who put up some of the classics in Snowdonia and the Peak, and made the step up to high-profile (and high-budget) Himalayan expeditions organised by the likes of Sir Chris Bonington, in the 60s and 70s. 'Full-time' climbers lining the dole queues in the 80s and 90s furthered this image of an equitable and classless existence, as does the modern-day fascination with the 'professional homelessness' or 'dirtbag' lifestyle of climbers like Alex Honnold.
Setting aside for another time the fact that this legacy is almost entirely based on the exploits of white men, regardless of their economic circumstances, I've always found it to be a subtly but irrevocably flawed argument. Flawed because it homogenises the economic circumstances of all climbers into the deeply unsatisfactory "we're all middle class now" mindset that became so popular in the pre-2008 crash years.
Flawed therefore because it misses the fulcrum of the issue - that Brown and Whillans were very much outliers, even within their time. There weren't lots of working class kids making homemade nuts and testing them, when the penalty for error was death or disfigurement - there have never been very many people like that. Despite the romanticised image of the dirtbag climber, the vast majority of rock climbers and mountaineers, then and now, are from well-off, white-collar backgrounds. To focus on the few who are not as examples of our 'openness' is in many ways to do them a disservice - they and others like them succeeded in spite of, not because of, the prevalent structures that shape climbing.
That these working-class heroes are the outliers is 'the big issue' - no pun intended. The overwhelming effect of economic disempowerment is to restrict and detract from opportunity for the majority of people in those circumstances, even if does also create a few toughened individuals. Whilst it is inaccurate to state that there are no great climbers from poor backgrounds, when talking about either this generation or previous ones, it is entirely accurate (and has been shown time and time again) that people in lower socio-economic groupings (eg NRS C2D) are less likely to participate in sport and physical activity, visit the outdoors, or have access to a vehicle, all of which most people would agree are fairly simple components of regularly going climbing.
These are not all-encompassing predictors with 100% accuracy rate - instead they are indicators. Household income, postcode and other environmental factors all indicate the likelihood of an individual being physically active, and in the case of climbing, there is an important series of radial factors that make it more or less easy to access climbing, factors that may mask financial privilege in the guise of a low-income existence - the 'professional homelessness' referred to above.
What factors? Have a look around...
Equipment. Although some forms of climbing (like staying indoors, or going bouldering with one pad) are relatively low cost (in comparison to some sports like skiing or sailing) climbing equipment setup costs can still be enormous. Shoes are never less than £50, a harness is the same, boulder pads don't come in under £75, and ropes only start at £45 on a good day. That doesn't begin to cover the proliferation of equipment climbers must invest in if they are venturing outdoors: some back-of-napkin numbers suggest that most sport and trad climbers have spent anywhere between £300 and £1500 on the gear they use regularly. We may tell ourselves that climbing is a cheap activity once you've got the basics, but evidence suggests that procuring 'the basics' is prohibitively expensive.
The expense of climbing indoors. As climbing walls pop up all over the country, it's easy to assume that it is getting easier and easier to go climbing. But is it? A typical, one-off trip to a climbing centre costs around £10 - a recent poll for Salary Finance UK suggested that the average UK adult has less than this in disposable income to spend per day, once they have paid for all their bills and essentials. If the average person struggles to find enough, it's extremely likely that those on lower incomes are simply priced out of climbing without ever having a chance to try it. Figures from the Association of British Climbing Walls (ABC) suggest that at least 66% (2/3rds!) of regular visitors to climbing walls only climb indoors, rendering it a sport in its own right. Whilst it is difficult to extrapolate predictably from this figure, it seems likely that financial and geographical constraints are at least part of the reason why so few of these new climbers are keen to 'progress' to outdoor climbing.
Travel. Except in a small number of urban locations, it is difficult to access any climbing in the UK without a vehicle. Even with indoor walls the constraints created by the sort of building they have to be in make using public transport difficult. To climb outside, vehicles are almost universally a requirement (though perhaps the numbers of logs at the aptly-named Bus Stop Quarry suggest I am wrong?!). And although for many readers of this article, car ownership may seem altogether normal, sadly this is not the case in many communities in the UK. Whilst it will be obvious to most that the poorest British families rarely own cars (at a rate of about 1 car for every 3 households), what may be surprising is that for the bottom third of earners (33% of the total population), this only improves to about half of households. In practice, that means that there are entire communities in many parts of the UK where having access to a vehicle for leisure activities is either impossible or highly unlikely.
Knowledge base and breadth of experience. Probably the most important barrier on this list, but due to its partially subjective nature, there is scant data to illustrate the problem. Getting people, especially young people, to take up new sports or activities is challenging because without a broad spectrum of experiences from which to contextualise, they struggle to find and engage with opportunities that might help them overcome some of their problems. This is referred to as 'poverty of opportunity' and whilst clearly a problem for those from poorer communities, it is also particularly prevalent amongst groups like asylum seekers or full-time carers, according to climbing charity Urban Uprising, which works with local authorities and other charities to provide free climbing for at-risk young people.
It is the intransigent and thorny nature of that final bullet point that, for me, defines the problematic nature of the debate about class in climbing. One successful climber, who decided to remain anonymous, hazarded this explanation: "I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university and get a driving licence. I have seen poverty of opportunity in action, but there's also a deeper, engrained cultural aspect that can shape how working class people approach things... I'm not sure how to categorise it... I think it's a risk aversion, or fear of new experiences. Recreation involves shopping and going to town. My family and my parents worry a lot about climbing being risky and are generally very unwilling to step out of their comfort zone and worry about commonplace things such as travel and weather on a day to day basis. It probably stems from life being tougher and more limited generally, so why add unnecessary risk and stress? I guess it comes under 'breadth of (life) experience', to some extent. Their worlds are far smaller than mine and not through choice."
Whilst it can be blatantly clear that barriers exist, the work to eradicate them isn't always simple.
But that hasn't stopped organisations like Urban Uprising, which has been steadily working away for years, using climbing as a vehicle to empower young people. Founded in 2013 by pilot and (by his own admission) "enthusiastic amateur" Stuart Green, the Scottish charity has doubled in size every year since then and now runs classes across Scotland, with plans to expand south of the border. The model is simple - give children and young people the chance to explore and experience something they would not have done otherwise, by paying for them to attend climbing sessions at walls like The Climbing Academy. Whilst various charities with a similar remit exist across myriad sports and activities, Urban Uprising were clear from the start that they didn't want to 'take away' children from pre-existing programs for football or anything else. Instead they liaise with social workers and councils, as well as other charities, to find disadvantaged groups that otherwise wouldn't be using that time for physical activity, and fit their broad charitable remit. This isn't hard, Stuart told me: "in areas like West Dunbartonshire, 26% of children across all local authority wards are living in poverty" and all of these children have highly limited access to physical activity at school.
The goal of Urban Uprising is not to 'create' new climbers, Stuart is quite clear. Instead it's about allowing children from deprived or underprivileged backgrounds access to the wealth of experiences that children have if they go to a grammar or independent school. "If kids do want to go on to do more climbing that's fantastic," he says, and other organisations which mentor young climbers in those circumstances do exist, like ClimbUp Bristol. The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) recently ran a fantastic fundraiser for a host of charities operating in this and related areas. Many other organisations, like outdoor centres, also do a fantastic job when it comes to providing affordable chances for young people from all backgrounds to experience the outdoors. The problem of course is still around access to opportunity - an individual or group needs to be able to go to an outdoor centre, or have access to appropriately trained professionals.
For me, the two main takeaways from Urban Uprising's mission are clear - first, as their Project Coordinator Ben explains, it is a patently positive experience for the children involved: "It is inspiring to see that enthusiasm and sparkle in the eye when a young person on our programme challenges themselves and achieves something that either scared them or they thought was impossible. Lack of confidence and fear of failure is a big barrier for many of these young people. Our work is all about helping them smash barriers — whether they are physiological or socio-economic they all tend to be linked to one another."
But there's another 'inverse' (and hopefully equally obvious) reaction to those experiences: that without intervention a significant minority clearly don't have access to life-improving experiences, and a lack of experience means a lack of opportunity, and a lack of opportunity for part of society almost invariably leads to an unequal outcome compared to the majority. The Dickensian idea that poor families and poor neighbourhoods brought their circumstances on themselves, a damaging concept that has been flirted with by British Prime Ministers as recent as Cameron and Blair, is as persistent as it is wrong (the subject being given fantastic treatment by Stephen Crossley in his book In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty, which is well worth a read).
If we believe, as many climbers do, that our choice of activity provides joyful experiences with a meaningful connection to the outdoors and positive benefits to health and well-being, then it follows that climbing has a clear role in improving the lives of its participants. Giving the opportunity to experience that to as many people as possible seems to me to be the definition of the equal, open and ethical activity that climbing can be.
I hope that this article has helped open people's eyes to some of the ways in which climbers tend to have a (comparatively) enormous amount of privilege: they're usually well off, with a broad range of life experiences that have led them directly or indirectly to climbing, and a safety net of like-minded and supportive people in case things don't go according to plan, not to mention numerous other factors that they could (and probably do) benefit from. As the studies and statistics that are hyperlinked throughout this piece should demonstrate to those unaware or unsure, there are enormous numbers of people in the UK for whom this sadly is not true.
There are many organisations and individuals, both within climbing and in society more broadly, who are working to lessen that attainment gap and to increase the equality of opportunity for young, vulnerable and disadvantaged people. The input of people like Ben and Stuart from Urban Uprising shows that there is an enormous amount we can do, just within our relatively small circles. I would strongly recommend that if the work they and others are doing resonates with you, then you donate something to them, as I am doing with a portion of my fee for this piece.
But it's also important to remember that charities and well-meaning individuals are only part of the puzzle. If we assume that climbing is quite an 'equal' sport across factors like gender, age and physiology (a big though not unfounded assumption), but also accept that the sport is still in many places dominated by a prototypical 'middle-class' group, then we have to arrive at the conclusion that climbing, like so many walks of life, is dominated by the abundant structural norms that restrain and depress whole swathes of the population (groups of people who in my experience have huge amounts to give not just to climbing, but to society at large).
Deconstructing those barriers, given their enormity, is a profound socio-political challenge with no easy answers - but it starts with a willingness to challenge and question the status quo, to check our own privilege, to listen to those who need our support, and to speak up in the face of injustice. If we want to make good on our claim that climbing is 'open to all', we can't be scared to take radical action, but that action can only begin when we break down our own preconceptions. Perhaps, for many of us, it can start with something as simple as refusing to allow the denigration of those whose way of enjoying climbing is different to our own. We are all 'real' climbers after all, whether we climb in a refurbished industrial unit or on a soaring sea cliff.
There are innumerable issues that could have gone into this piece that have not, ranging from fiscal austerity to the environment to traditional climbing ethics. If you have any thoughts about it or think I've utterly missed the point, I'd encourage you to leave a comment on the forum post or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) - I'd love to discuss it with you.