Stuff on climbing risk

I am not a 1980s climber; I am merely a soft, middle-class, comfortable climber with aspirations to go sport climbing in the Spanish sunshine more often. The climbers of legend were all dropouts of various degrees, who were disillusioned with the system, rendered unemployed by a combination of Conservative policy in the UK, and by dint of their lack of interest in conventional markers of achievement, which is how the rest of us can be made to comply with the petty ridiculousness of office work and politics. In Yosemite, the same personalities made a home for themselves in the Camp 4 made more widely known through the 2014 documentary Valley Uprising. By all accounts, they pretty much hung out smoking a lot of pot and doing an awful lot of pretty hard climbing. I can’t help being amused by the irony of many of those same individuals later becoming very successful business people in the outdoor gear industry.

Whilst I view these guys as kind of cool, they are nothing like me, with my overall respect for boring stuff like rules and regulations. So when I received the voting papers for the BMC’s new articles of association in May, it seemed entirely self-evident that I should vote for the recommended status quo: the BMC should adopt whatever standards and governance changes (I got a bit bored of the details) it needed in order to qualify for Sport England funding, and generally become a more professional organisation. It seemed obvious that more money for the BMC was a good thing for climbing, and so I voted for all the changes in “Option A”, rather than the alternative “Option B”, proposed by a load of hoary old climbers who wanted climbing to remain as it was 40 years ago.

What I have failed to appreciate is that adopting a formal approach to climbing, and trying to make it like any other sport, is completely contrary to its nature as an inherently risky activity. The ability of the individual climber to manage both the perceived and the objective risk of any given route is what makes it so inspiring; it is what thrills me even just doing a bunch of lead routes at the climbing wall, the primal fear of falling, the movement and the skills required, the sense that I can have an adventure of sorts even in my suburban graveyard. The theoretical possibility of things going wrong in a fatal way makes you feel alive, in that getting it right matters a whole lot more than whether you teed off the right driver at the golf course. Perhaps it’s a hobby for perfectionists, but it’s quite hard to see it as a sport.

There is no other mainstream team or individual sport that involves such a degree of uncontrollable risk. Skiing would be an obvious comparison, but ski pistes are groomed and prepared, and even off-piste skiing is quite carefully managed in most resorts to avoid the deaths of the paying punters.  There are rare tragedies like Michael Schumacher or Natasha Richardson, which are often characterised by their “freak accident” nature. Of course there are also many avalanche deaths, but the majority of victims are mountaineers doing quite average routes, plus a few pretty advanced off-piste skiers.

When I read this article in the Times, about some hoary climber criticising the BMC “sell-out”, I still thought “Ah well, sour grapes, get with the programme”. And then I decided to take my children to the climbing wall. At the time, I had a 12 week old baby, a 2 year old and a 4 year old. Obviously climbing walls have to have lots of insurance indemnities and policies to avoid total muppets killing themselves or others. After all, a climbing wall is not a wild mountain full of unpredictable weather or natural events –  all the risks at a climbing wall are manageable, and any accident will involve human error. There is no objective danger, only subjective mistakes like not attaching the rope or walking underneath a falling boulderer. Still, one of the things I liked about the Milton Keynes wall was that whenever we took the kids, we were largely left to our own devices, and trusted to make the right decisions. It was massively annoying that the whole place was overrun with huge groups of kids parties that precluded any real training, but I was happy to take that trade-off if it meant I could have fun with my own kids. We signed them up and signed all the indemnity waivers. In the meantime, we’ve taken Conrad out climbing in France, and in the Peaks:

So he was quite excited  when I suggested a little trip to the wall on his return. It was a new wall, run by the same people as the existing one in Milton Keynes. It was fairly obvious they were aiming it at a more adult crowd, so I had chosen a weekday afternoon, when I could count the other patrons on one hand. After paying my money, I was approached by the staff as I was putting my son’s harness on, and asked how I was planning to belay. It quickly became obvious that I was being asked to leave, as she asked me what my “plans” were for my other children. My plans were that a) they are my responsibility, and b) that’s what Paw Patrol is for. She gave me some schoolteacher lecture about how she has to ensure everyone’s safety. Sure thing, only last time I checked, people don’t go climbing to feel safe. The lack of feeling safe is sort of the whole point of it, and it’s not as if my kids were running around like some crazy lunatics. They were standing right next to me the entire time. I wrote and complained, and this was the response I got:

We appreciate the difficulties of dealing with young children in the climbing centre. It is for this reason our policy regarding the supervision of novices is the same as that recommended by the Association of the British Climbing Walls in that:

  • An adult who has registered as an experienced climber at the centre may supervise a maximum of two novice or under 18 climbers, so long as they are prepared to take full responsibility for the safety of those people for the duration of the visit. The centre reserves the right to restrict this number by age, activity or experience.

  • Groups of three or more novices must only be supervised by an instructor holding the relevant Mountain Leader Training Board qualification and relevant insurance.

  • Supervised climbers must not be left unsupervised at any point.

  • If supervising 2 climbers we recommend that only one of them is on the bouldering wall at a time.

The slight snag with this reply is that they never registered my entirely immobile baby as a “novice climber” on their system. So strictly speaking, I was indeed in charge of two novice climbers, not three. If anything, it’s obviously a heinous oversight to have admitted a 12 week old infant (who was asleep in a car seat) to the facility without registering her as a novice climber.

None of this would matter if indoor climbing remained the increasingly separate activity it is compared to outdoor climbing. I could just leave all the insurance waivers and safety jobsworths and amusing regulations behind, and make my own decisions on what I think are appropriate risks outside. But if the BMC, which wants to broaden its remit to cover the range of activities from hillwalking to ice climbing, is going to become a more “official” body in which decisions are made by appointed officials, what does that mean for outdoor pursuits? Does the BMC start to approve specific venues, which then need a safety inspection? Do they close off routes that have slightly sketchy belays? Do the land owners shut down access on the basis that they don’t want to be sued for a broken ankle?  Will trad climbing become uninsurable? Maybe I’m worrying unnecessarily, but all of a sudden I’m completely seeing the old guys’ point, and seeing the potential pitfalls of what is basically massive mission creep.

2 thoughts on “Stuff on climbing risk

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: