Does Sport England understand climbing and mountaineering?

Stanage - a world heritage site for climbing?


The Peak Adventure Sports Alliance campaigns on behalf of outdoor pursuits enthusiasts and is determined to impress upon Central Government and the National Park Authority just how crucial adventure sports are both to the economic viability of the Peak District and the health of the nation.



Many column inches have been devoted to the news that Sport England (SE) has reduced its grant to a number of sports notably football as far as the mainstream press were concerned. Which might have left you unmoved but for the fact that one organisation to see its funding cut was the British Mountaineering Council (BMC), penalised £97,000 for a statistically insignificant drop in the number of people climbing and hill walking.

Ignoring the fact that gathering statistics on a sport as individualistic as climbing and hill walking is problematic and the whole basis for the reduction may be flawed, this cut still poses some interesting questions. Are the parameters by which SE assess the ‘success’ of the BMC appropriate? When the benefits of hill walking, mountaineering and climbing are so various and misunderstood, is pulling dubious figures from the Active People Survey a suitable method of gauging the popularity of the sport?

The Peak Adventure Sports Alliance (PASA) believes SE have got it wrong. The process of popularising climbing is more subtle and multi-layered than other sports. The very same climbers who would blanch at the idea of the BMC placing ads in the national press proclaiming “Take up climbing!” are evangelical about the sport in private, badgering friends to give it a try, literally teaching them the ropes. Climbing walls introduce thousands of people to the basics of the sport every year, particularly the new generation of bouldering walls. In concert with Mountain Training England, Plas y Brenin and The Association of British Climbing Walls Training Trust, the BMC provides a route from indoor walls to the great outdoors.

And it doesn’t end there. There is a fundamental disconnect between the reductionist SE view that every sport has a duty to popularise itself and the more subtle nuances of the climbing and hill walking world. Climbers, mountaineers and hill walkers expect the BMC to do the essential jobs for which they haven’t got time, campaigning for better access, producing guidebooks and providing reliable insurance. The BMC is doing great work on inclusion, running women’s climbing symposia, introducing climbing instructors to the technicalities of working with para-climbers, supporting the British Para-climbing Team and working to overcome some of the socio-religious barriers that prevent some sections of society taking up climbing. In a sense, simply by existing, the BMC promotes climbing. It’s there on Twitter, Facebook and regularly on the mainstream news when a climbing related story crops up.

Some of this chimes with SE’s aims but there is so much more the BMC does to support the climbing and walking masses. It has spent many years establishing itself as a constructive and well-informed major player in the outdoor world. It interracts with numerous environmental bodies and land managers on a daily basis helping to ensure that problems are nipped in the bud and that climbers help out whenever they can. The BMC produces guidebooks that ensure climbers behave responsibly and understand the particular environmental niceties of a particular climbing venue.

Much of this is carried out by volunteers for the simple love of the sport. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of climbers and hill walkers are able to enjoy their chosen pastime safe in the knowledge that the groundwork has been done. Most of this is effectively under the radar so that Central Government and SE grossly underestimate just how much is being done to benefit the health and well-being of the nation. Walking is one of the simplest way to stay fit, mountaineering and rock climbing, at which we’re not too shabby, raise Britain’s profile internationally and help to draw in new exponents and enthuse the young.

Crucially from the point of view of PASA, the BMC is aware of a number of growing threats to climbing, mountaineering and hill walking – access restrictions, under-funded National Parks, landowners who hanker to charge outdoor enthusiasts and the current government’s ambivalence to the right to roam.

PASA feels strongly that SE is obsessed with mass participation and elite performance and underestimates the vital work carried out by the BMC. It is no accident that the Peak District and the Lake District are full of people enjoying the hills, it is a great British tradition from the time of the Romantic Poets through Wainwright, Brown and Whillans and a thousand other inspiring pioneers. But to underestimate just how vital the BMC is to this pulse at the heart of the country is to make a grave mistake.