Monday, July 8, 2013

Climbing's Culture Clubs

Photo: The Alpine Club

I detest all groups and associations, especially regarding climbing, which in my mind is ‘free'.......

Not a huge shock to those reading John Redhead’s recent article on Footless Crow to see the above sentiments expressed. It’s a view which I’m not that unsympathetic with despite being a member of an ‘establishment' climbing club myself. It made me think of the historical role of the club in the social and cultural history of climbing. From the earliest days when clubs like the Climbers Club, Fell & Rock and Alpine Club came into being to service the growing sport which of course at the time was the preserve of the white middle and upper classes-through to the birth in the 30/40/50’s of the working class climbing clubs.Groups composed generally of the horny handed sons of toil who formed clubs like the Rock & Ice, Ptarmigan and the Bradford Lads.

There’s is no doubt that the climbing club has played an important role in the history of climbing and it is an institution which on the whole has been a positive development. Somewhere where climbing partnerships and lifelong friendships have been created. Those clubs who took advantage of the cheap properties available in the upland areas in the pre 1960 era and who established their own club huts, provided an important base which their members could head to on a Friday night for a weekend in the hills and importantly, at a minimal cost.

Despite being involved in outdoor organisations like a MRT team and Outdoor charity group, I held off joining a club until about ten years ago. I was briefly a member of the North Wales mountaineering Club before joining the CC in 2007. At the time you needed four people to sign your prospective membership forms although in an effort to encourage more younger members I understand this requirement has been amended to just two. It’s incredible to realise that it wasn’t that long ago that the CC banned females from membership. A Victorian concept which was put to the sword by non other than Ken Wilson who led the progressive vanguard. Interestingly, despite his huge services to climbing, Ken has never been offered honorary membership despite lesser lights gaining that particular status. Perhaps like those who turn down a honour from the state, he doesn’t fancy it.....who knows?

There was a time in clubs like the CC when prospective members could be ‘black balled’. That is when a committee member objected to a particular individual joining the club and blocked their membership. One such individual who fell foul of this practice was non other than Lakeland legend, Allan Austin. Allan at the time was involved in the family's Yorkshire based cotton/wool trade and was in fact a successful businessman. However, one committee member railed against ‘a rag and bone man’ joining the club and black balled his membership. Austin in the mean time didn’t take this lying down a named a hard climb on Pavey Ark....Ragman’s Trumpet!

Meanwhile, back in the 21st Century some of these ancient traditions cling on. The venerable Wayfarers Club still has a males only membership and just after I joined the CC, one old member was telling me about some celebratory dinner he had attended in the Lakes which was blessed by a Vicar ( C of E I presume?) and which ended with a rousing chorus of 'God Save the Queen’! I thought he was joking and it took a while for it to register that he wasn’t! Given that this particular member is not exactly conservative in his politics, I had to ask..’Did you just go along with this bunk?’..’’s just a bit of a laugh’, was his philosophical reply.

As someone who prides himself on being a natural born subversive I can only be grateful that I have never put myself in a position such as this which  frankly I would find excruciating in the extreme.

So...climbing clubs; a good or bad thing? On the whole a good thing I would say,but after saying that,you have to be ‘a club type’ to really enjoy the benefits of membership. My yearly club subscription-not cheap these days-has just gone out but next year I will almost certainly join JR and return to being a climber who in Perrin’s words is ‘outside of the stockade’. 

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