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Why do Climbing & Mountaineering attract Outsiders? Essay

© Ed Douglas

In this essay, Ed Douglas ponders an observation made by many a climber over the years...

Why do climbing and mountaineering seem to attract 'outsiders'?


So much for the games climbers play: what about the games climbers don't play? In my final winter term at school, the teacher in charge of the rugby team found me at break-time and quietly asked if I planned to play that season. I shook my head, without even thinking about it, and he smiled briefly and turned on his heel. I doubt he was disappointed. I was not an integral part of the squad, but as one of the oldest and a fair player I might have had something to offer. None of that mattered because nothing would have induced me to change my mind. I had nothing against him, or the rest of the team. I simply didn't fit.

Ed Douglas on the Mer de Glace in 1983, aged 17, en route to the Couvercle hut. (He's the one in the Dennis the Menace t-shirt)  © Ed Douglas
Ed Douglas on the Mer de Glace in 1983, aged 17, en route to the Couvercle hut. (He's the one in the Dennis the Menace t-shirt)
© Ed Douglas

Sport, or at least the playing of it, seemed to me simultaneously regimented and arbitrary, and weighted with stress. There were rules, but sometimes little justice in how they were applied. There were players who worked hard but didn't get much credit, because they were reserved, or not popular. It was the job of coaches to put pressure on you, to try harder, achieve more, but that tipped so easily into a kind of moral bullying, and sometimes the real thing. The atmosphere around the activity made a mockery of the term 'play'. I didn't mind working hard, but there was little joyful about the process. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers, 'Hard work is only a prison sentence when you lack motivation.' I lacked motivation. Rugby was mostly full of anxiety, that I'd fuck up in some way and earn the opprobrium of my fellow players or coaches. You couldn't talk constructively about your doubts; you weren't supposed to have any. And while all this sounds typically male, having interviewed some elite women over the years, I think at least some of it was simply the competitive nature of organised sport. The more you define yourself by winning, the more losing sucks.

By this time I'd become involved in disorganised sport, having climbed for three years or so, and hill walked for longer, and I couldn't help compare my experiences in the mountains with my experiences on a rugby pitch. The process of climbing seemed antithetical, full of freedom and fun. There was also fear, because climbing can be frightening, but that was a purely internal struggle. Nobody gave me grief about it. It took me to new places, literally and metaphorically. It seemed broader, more expansive. Many of us who've spent our lives in the hills climbing or walking started off with a conventional take on physical activity. Over the years I've interviewed so many climbers who were natural athletes, which I certainly wasn't, who felt the same psychological restrictions I did. When you find a situation unsatisfactory, you can give up or comply – or else find a way of life that is more fulfilling. That's why, in a nutshell, climbing is, or at least was, full of misfits and rebels. Here was an activity that rewarded hard work and imagination but didn't penalise you for a lack of talent. It was up to you to make the most of what you've got. That seems to me a precious commodity in a world plagued with inactivity.

Had I been a better player, my rugby coach would have tried harder to talk me round, but if you weren't a great player, there wasn't an incentive for him to try. But a lifetime's activity is good for us, for our physical and mental health, and for society too, because in the long run we're cheaper. One of the great reversals over the course of my life in the outdoors has been the closure and diminution of local education authority outdoor programmes: closing a door to a world where outliers can find their own paths to success. I still love watching sport, including rugby, but I'm not sure, beyond the physical benefits, that competitive sport is a great way to grow a well rounded human being, even for the most gifted. Exploring the natural world on the other hand is a great way to do it.

Kendal Mountain Festival  © KMF
Kendal Mountain Festival 2017

Kendal Mountain Festival is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 17 years. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts plus media industry specialists, athletes, top brands & equipment manufacturers, artists, photographers, adventurers, explorers and inspirational speakers gather every year to share adventures and celebrate the very best in outdoor and adventure sports culture.

We are delighted to be joined by award-winning writer Ed Douglas at the Festival. Expect to be captivated by his exploration of the world's best known climbers. Ed will be discussing his Boardman Tasker Award shortlisted book, The Magician's Glass at an event on Sunday 19th November, 10:30am - 12:00pm.

- Book tickets on the KENDAL MOUNTAIN FESTIVAL SITE



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12 Oct, 2017
That's an interesting essay, with an interesting question at its heart: is climbing where the misfits fit in? Well, yes and no, of course. I've known climbers who played rugby for teams good enough to be in a reasonable national division, climbers who played football, cricket, other sports; I'm sure we can all name some from our loose band of wanderers, climbers and hill folk. But there's a greater number who don't, won't and wouldn't. That's not to say that the bonding, the shared achievement of team sports is absent. I'm just as sure that afterwards, sat in a cafe, a pub or round a stove, we've looked back with others on what we've done together and somewhere quiet inside thought that it was good to have shared the experience. But that's afterwards and welcome though it is, it wasn't what first drew us to the hills or the crag and kept us coming back. That's something else, possibly deeper still within, and it's yours and yours alone. The joy of isolation, of being alone either in miles of peaks and valleys, or more frequently the enveloping clag, or above a drop, just you and what you've set out to do, with the most valuable equipment you have being that in your muscles, your tendons and your mind. Yes, there may be a rope with someone at the other end, yes, you may be walking with someone else; but you do what you do under your own steam and the greatest rewards are for you and can't be shared. If that were a drug, it'd either be so illegal you couldn't buy it anywhere, or it'd be given away for nothing for the benefit of all. As it is you can get it for free, but you have to earn it. I've walked a long way from thinking about misfits, haven't I? My apologies, I - and not for the first time - set out with neither map nor compass. I'll try and remember next time that what I write might be read by other people rather than just me... T.
12 Oct, 2017
Opprobrium :o/
12 Oct, 2017
I don't think climbing and the outdoors do attract outsiders particularly now. Most of my friends who share the love are quite integrated as am I.
12 Oct, 2017
I'm not sure having a dislike of (taking part in) competitive sport makes one an 'outsider'. I agree that something only being a positive experience if you win has a lot of potential to be demoralising and demotivating though. Unless you're the best in the world, losing is something which will inevitably happen frequently. On the subject of rugby, I can only imagine how the Italian team must feel during 6 nations campaigns. The constant defeats, the stinging criticism and being walked over for 80 mins by so called 'sporting' teams trying to score as many trys as possible long after the game is safely won.
12 Oct, 2017
I like Ed's writing but I can't help thinking he's 15 years too late with this article. Take a look around any wall or crag and the youths doing it are not the outsiders but the jocks, the confident kids, the popular kids, the kids who are good at other sport and the kids who do want to get on the team.
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