Thursday, 29 September 2011

Do you Remember the First Time?

Climbers are at the same time the most friendly and intolerant people. I say this in the light of the inevitable circular arguments currently underway on climbing forums up and down the land. The issue exercising the community is a classic annual scrap, as predictable and reliable as the sun in the morning sky. University clubs and freshers meets.

I have a very fixed position on this argument colored by my experiences and the debt I feel I owe to an organisation that has shaped the person I have become. I joined the University of Leicester Mountaineering Club (ULMC) in September 2001. I regard that decision as one of the best decisions I have ever made. My days in ULMC kindled a spark that had resided smoldering in my soul and let it burst into a passion for mountain sports that pretty much  defines me as a person. Friends, memories of extraordinary places, a torrent of ideas for the future all germinate from this decision.

ULMC Fresher meet 2007

I guess from the above you know which side of the fence I'm going to sit on with this one, but I will start with the case for the prosecution. A coachload of students turn up at crag X top-rope all the three-star routes preventing other climbers doing them properly and generally ruin everybody else's day. Put the words students, top-rope, and three star classic in any post title on UKC is almost guaranteed to get you a thread of at least one hundred responses. Various suggestions will be made: groups should split up, have their first meets in an indoor wall, climb as leader and second, not go to popular crags etc, etc.

Now I will admit that a freshers meet is going to be disruptive, a group of forty or fifty people turning up at a crag will have a knock on effect on the other users, however is this any different to the big meets that all of our national climbing clubs hold? 

What is often overlooked in the argument is that the freshers meet is the most important meet of the year, it's where you replenish the lifeblood of your club. With most members only staying at uni for three years a poor years recruitment can really cripple a club. As an organising committee member a lot rests on those few hours to kindle that interest that made them sign up, you have to get it right. Cock it up and that initial enthusiasm of someone to try something new may be extinguished forever.

A great way to turn everybody off would be to introduce new members to climbing at an indoor wall, an idea that I personally think pretty ridiculous.  For the vast majority of climbers climbing is about being outside; the rock, all colours and texture; the environment, greens browns yellows and purples of the Peak in Autumn, and the weather are all crucial to the experience. 

Then there is the top-roping argument. I have never really understood the suggestion that beginners should not top-rope things. To me the idea that freshers meets should get beginners seconding straight away has a number of flaws. Climbing can be daunting, some of us take to it naturally (these could get involved in seconding) others not so. If someone is struggling with  movement and learning how to use hand and foot holds or is really nervous at the exposure why complicate the issue by introducing the complication of removing gear. Beasting them up a climb is likely to put them off.

Leading by its nature also takes much more time that top-roping, so beginners sit around and get bored, climb fewer routes and in my opinion have a poorer first experience of climbing. It is hard enough to get everyone involved anyway at meets without introducing unnecessary delays. Discussions of style and ethics can come later, you do not introduce someone to football by explaining the finer points of the off side rule.

ULMC Fresher meet 2007

The idea that you should split your group up amongst a number of crags misses the point of what a freshers meet is about, it's a social event. They're not learning to climb today but getting a taste for climbing at a social event. To take a group that have bonded on the coach and then scatter them about the Peak is a great way to ruin the atmosphere. Keeping the group together allows those not climbing to mix and get to know each other. Most clubs have great social aspects and this is where it starts.

Most uni groups will be considerate and not sling top ropes on three star classics, a beginner scratching about in trainers will not really be able to appreciate a brilliant climb. That said they will not enjoy being dragged up some dirty, grotty, forgotten horror tucked away in a poor corner of the crag. For beginners route selection is still important, climbs need to be enjoyable with a good level of challenge and set  across a range of difficulties to appeal to the range of natural abilities any group on new climbers show. 

So yes I'm sorry that for a few weekends a year your climbing may be disrupted by the soap shy, tax dodging, drunken hords but if that trip awakens the fire in those students that we all feel for the outdoors then its a price worth paying.

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