ESSAY: Why do Climbing & Mountaineering attract Outsiders?

by Ed Douglas 12/Oct/2017
This article has been read 9,584 times

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), 146 kb
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, 139 kb
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.


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