/ ESSAY: Why do Climbing & Mountaineering attract Outsiders?

This topic has been archived, and won't accept reply postings.
UKC Articles - on 12 Oct 2017
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), 3 kbIn 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.



Read more
Pursued by a bear - on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

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.
pasbury on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

I share Ed's views on Rugby. I went to a minor public school and was pretty much compelled to freeze my balls off while trying to avoid the ball every Wednesday afternoon. I dreaded being chosen for the team and thankfully was so crap that I never was.
Climbing hooked my immediately the first time I tied on at a University freshers meet, I even knew it would beforehand as I'd enjoyed scrambling before then and it was the only club I joined.
I didn't feel like a misfit, though the culture of climbing at the time (late '80s) was full of non-conformists and doleys; to take it seriously more or less implied that you wouldn't be looking for a proper job etc.
But what appealed was moving my body up rock; doing the routes & boulder problems. Now climbing has mass appeal and the average climbing wall or popular crag is not full of oddballs and misfits.
So I think it's mainly a cultural throwback for us older lot. But there is that element of the game when you add in the element of risk, wildness and loneliness that only appeals to a few.
Blake - on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

Opprobrium :o/
olddirtydoggy - on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

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.
1
Michael Gordon - on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

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.
Tyler - on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:
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.
Post edited at 17:54
1
airborne - on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

Totally agree. I hated sport at school and finding climbing - something I was actually good at - at 18 was a revelation. That was through the Scouts. As Ed says, if there are fewer opportunities/organisations introducing youngsters to the outdoors, that’s a concern.
nb - on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

British rock climbers liked to think of themselves as a bunch of misfits, but actually for the most part we were just crap at sport and so naturally gravitated towards an activity where being a bit mental compensated for this.

But as Tyler says, those days are over. Climbing's a mainstream, safe sport now. The youth will have to be talented to get anywhere, a bit like the French.

But all is not lost, the crap but mental brigade have still got trail running, caving, base jumping, climbing mountains, skiing steeps slowly... plenty of opportunity out there!
gman2012 on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

Lots of people perceive themselves as 'outsiders', not just climbers - I'm sure there are footballers, cricketers, rugby players etc. The author of this piece actually seems fairly conventional. I remember the early 80s as a time of dole queues and strikes so the 'outsider/misfit' status was imposed by economics, as well as being a temporary lifestyle choice for the fortunate. Also not sure about the claim that active people save society money in the long run, the longer life span means additional pension, healthcare and care home costs.
2
Postmanpat on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to nb:

> British rock climbers liked to think of themselves as a bunch of misfits, but actually for the most part we were just crap at sport and so naturally gravitated towards an activity where being a bit mental compensated for this.

>
I disagree. Some were crap at sport but many were just not good at or not interested in ball games or team sports. Unfortunately it was these sports that most schools focused on and by which schools defined someone as being "sporty". I see it in my daughters who were convinced they didn't like sport until they left school and then got into and became proficient at climbing, karate, cycling and various other things which didn't require balls or teams.

Many climbers are clearly very good at sport except when it is very narrowly defined.
NeilBoyd - on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

Why do Climbing & Mountaineering attract Outsiders?
Because the mountains were the only place left to go. Unless you had a boat and could go to sea. Like the clans who would banish the outsiders to Rannoch Moor, nobody else really wanted the desolate mountains. They were worthless. The outsiders could have them. Their uselessness made them attractive to those feeling useless. They were left to the outsiders, who, like sailors, often wrote about it, and left a wealth of fine literature.
It is still true today, but there is less physical and mental space left in the world. Maybe there are less outsiders too.
Webster - on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

Totally agree with the sentiment of the topic, and disagree with the one or two people who claim that things have changed now. mountaineering clubs at university are still very much populated by odd balls and socially awkward folk! 'wall rats' may well be the jocks of their particular niche (climbing) but they are still unlikely to be the 'cool kids' at school...I know this is an incredibly judgemental statement but then that is the nature of this topic. as others have pointed out, there are plenty of footballers, rugby players, hockey players etc who climb (I am one), but it is still significantly more than half of the climbing community who gravitate towards mountaineering clubs because they lack ether the desire and/or the talent for more mainstream sports. additionally its OK to be scruffy and smelly and not have the latest technology and fashions (that is also me!) and not be judged as you would in most other social environments. so climbers are a very different, random and odd bunch who are united in our oddness!
TobyA on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to Tyler:

> I like Ed's writing but I can't help thinking he's 15 years too late with this article.

Maybe, and also what are the outsiders outside of exactly? I do know what Ed means in the article, I was always completely hopeless at all school sports even though I quite enjoyed doing some of them, but as soon as I found climbing I found I wasn't "outside" at all: the majority of the people I climbed with were middle class white boys, just like me. Some were middle class white boys with Scottish accents, or middle class white boys with SW accents, or Yorkshire accents, or London accents, but beyond regional accent, not that different.

Oddly having been out of the country for 15 years, since moving back to England and climbing regularly (predominantly in the Peak) listening to the accents of younger climbers out on the crags, I think the average accent might be getting a bit posher. I suspect most of these climbers are probably uni students so I have pondered whether it has anything to do with changes in uni intake due to fees, from when I was a student in the 90s.
pasbury on 12 Oct 2017
In reply to Webster:
Thank you for making me feel less out of touch with the current zeitgeist.
Post edited at 23:15
AP Melbourne on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to pasbury:

> I didn't feel like a misfit, though the culture of climbing at the time (late '80s) was full of non-conformists and doleys; to take it seriously more or less implied that you wouldn't be looking for a proper job etc.

Spot on pasbury and I should know! I weep for the eighties, I really do.

summo on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to Webster:

> but it is still significantly more than half of the climbing community who gravitate towards mountaineering clubs because they lack ether the desire and/or the talent for more mainstream sports.

Mainstream sport isn't the same in every country, but climbing still draws like minded people?

I think it's more psychological, in terms of the attributes needed, especially in climbing as opposed to just walking. In control physically and mentally, control of but also enjoy some level of fear... It's clearly addictive too. Those people who do ok at climbing, tend to be capable of other sports like caving, kayaking, skiing, mtb that require different muscle groups, balance, coordination.... etc.. But the core mental attributes remain. I think adreninline is the common thread.

Michael Gordon - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to summo:

> Those people who do ok at climbing, tend to be capable of other sports like caving, kayaking, skiing, mtb

To me what links these is a passion for the outdoors and adventure, the latter being completely lacking in conventional sports. Who wouldn't be attracted to the general idea (at least in principle) of kayaking down rivers, skiing down mountains, exploring caves and clambering over rocks?

summo on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to Michael Gordon:

Quite possibly. Define adventure, or what triggers the enjoyment of it?
dmhigg - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

If you didn't like rugby but preferred climbing, just say it! I played a good level of rugby but preferred the whole outdoors scene. That is the only way I would describe myself, literally, as an outsider. Having been a climber and hill runner for 30+ years I am probably a bit more of a social outcast because there are not many people in my immediate circle who like running in the hills for hours. Climbing and running have made me an outcast, not my dislike of ball games (which I still coach!).
dmhigg - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to summo:
"Those people who do ok at climbing, tend to be capable of other sports like caving, kayaking, skiing, mtb that require different muscle groups, balance, coordination.... etc."

Successful rugby players also do very well at these other sports: we've had national downhill mtbers and skiers playing for our rugby teams (and going on to professional contracts). They would be poor climbers above a certain level because of their size, rather than their agility, balance or coordination. I'm not sure there is as much of a gulf between sporting participants as we would like to believe.
summo on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to dmhigg:

Perhaps participants in any sport, beyond say football and rugby, would like to think theirs is a little niche. With a climbing wall in every city and enough participants to polish many routes, climbing isn't that niche, there are an awful lot of outsiders, to the point where you can't really be an outsider.
trouserburp - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to Pursued by a bear:

I think the change is tied up with the increase in sport and indoors climbing. Safe sports that reward strength and stamina over psychology. Submitting yourself to external controls dictating what is success and what is failure and who is the best.

Trad is fundamentally a personal endeavour with each individual climber testing just themselves, their own framework of success and failure. The grades especially tech grade are a poor indicator without the context of how hard/bold/technical you found it. Maybe there's a little camaraderie and joshing in small groups but it's cursory. The real dangers mean you have to be a bit broken to get off the ground in the first place and rarely do people push each other into higher descriptive grades because danger is hard to justify except for yourself.

It offers an escape for misfits (maybe most people are misfits) - is a magical experience in beautiful surroundings with interesting companions, far more meaningful in terms of personal achievement than comparing muscles in a rectangle, and is something which makes us fortunate to be misfits in the first place!
nb - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to trouserburp:

> Submitting yourself to external controls dictating what is success and what is failure and who is the best.

Climbing is no different. These forums live off discussions on grades, ethics and style!


trouserburp - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to nb:

Do you really feel like that? I feel it is utterly different from organised sport, pretty much the opposite, due to the inward focus
Michael Gordon - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to summo:

> Quite possibly. Define adventure, or what triggers the enjoyment of it?

When I think about it in this context (why one is attracted to a particular outdoor 'sport'), I'd say not knowing quite what will happen is a key ingredient of any type of adventure. It helps if the geography is unfamiliar (possibly a pre-requisite?), and in theory would favour being a beginner (the experience being entirely new). In practice of course no-one wants to die, so a beginner would usually attempt something relatively safe/simple, while old hands have to try and find adventure through increasing difficulty/danger/commitment.

A game of football by contrast - a certain number of people will kick about a ball on a pitch for however long, and at the end of the match your team will have either won, lost or drawn. Possibly of much interest and enjoyment, but adventure? Nope.
Michael Gordon - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to nb:

> Climbing is no different. These forums live off discussions on grades, ethics and style!

Yes but on the crag everyone also has their own personal ethics regarding how they want to attempt a route and what outcome they are happy with if not everything goes to plan. There are no 'rules', unlike in competitive sport.
nb - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to Michael Gordon:

> There are no 'rules', unlike in competitive sport.

There may not be a referee, but there are plenty of rules!

https://www.thebmc.co.uk/beta-be-prepared-a-guide-to-climbing-terms
dmhigg - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to Michael Gordon:

Surely you are just airing your own (and mine, by the way!) prejudices? Why would you play safe, enclosed, predictable football when you could be out climbing in the great unknown?

Dave Mcleod actually wrote a really good article about this a few years back describing uncertainty and risk (of failure) in red pointing as a defence in the "safe" sport climbing vs "exciting" trad debate. Just because we don't "get" football, we should not understate the inherent excitement and uncertainty of a football match: the uncertainty might be found in a different context but need not necessarily be any less exciting than heading away from your last runner. To be honest, the last few times I've been climbing or running, my day happened pretty much exactly as I expected it; the average football match might be much more exciting, but my view was better.
Michael Gordon - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to dmhigg:

Well argued, but I'll take a lot of convincing that competitive sport provides 'adventure'. Not saying that climbing necessarily does, in fact frequently it doesn't (e.g. when climbing well within one's limits) but pick the right objective, or perhaps if something goes wrong, then it certainly has the potential to.
Michael Gordon - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to nb:

Huh? None of those are rules; they are simply climbing terms. None have to be followed.
cwarby - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to dmhigg:

I think you've summed it up; its participation. Those "interested" in football, rugby, cricket etc, probably don't. Those interested in climbing, fell-running, caving, probably do.
nb - on 13 Oct 2017
In reply to Michael Gordon:

> Huh? None of those are rules; they are simply climbing terms. None have to be followed.

This is the true irony. A bunch of self-proclaimed misfits and outsiders creates a system of grades and rules that are not enforceable, but that everyone feels more comfortable with! (I include myself btw.)

The national governing body then writes them up :D



This topic has been archived, and won't accept reply postings.