There are occasions when a single scene, or the smell of an atmosphere, are worth a thousand words. A sentiment which has been better expressed no doubt, but it captures the experience of the British Mountaineering Council’s AGM of 2017. Here at last was the centrepiece of the recent attempt by some disgruntled members of Britain’s mountaineering fraternity to force a change of direction, or even unseat some of the key staff – a denouement which was always wildly optimistic, or outrageously presumptuous, depending on your point of view. (In the event the President resigned, but none of the paid executives.)
Prior to that day, the passage of time exacerbated by my tendency to stay out of touch, I hadn’t realised how much the game has changed – and how! My overwhelming impression, reinforced by the predictable debate which swallowed up the hours, was of two groups who were now so distinct as to make difficult even a meaningful conversation. On one side the troublemakers – ageing to a man (and it was men), dressed in the scruffy attire of the traditionalist or else with the elegance of a well-heeled gentleman at a Swiss ski resort (which may well be where Bob Pettigrew, leader of the troublemakers, had lately been).
On the other side the young and on-board - and the BMC staff themselves, some dressed, I suppose perfectly reasonably though can’t help finding it uncomfortable, in matching BMC emblazoned T-shirts. And then the suits, those composing the BMC governing body, sitting in some sort of command on the dais. This being climbing they weren’t actually in suits, but were still somehow anonymous, indicative of a group whose role is to run an organisation rather than to proclaim a creed. As the day unfolded – a glorious summer day in north Wales, so all present must have wished they had been outside rather than crammed cheek-by-jowl into a lecture theatre – I wondered whether the AGM of a multinational might be rather like this, allowing for differences of scale and glamour – Bob Dudley, say, the CEO of BP, defending his multimillion pound salary against the anger of shareholders and a sagging share price, but carrying the day by stonewalling.
I came to reluctantly admit, but never admire, the professionalism of the suits. The CEOs of all sports council sponsored bodies probably meet together at conferences, whether it be climbing, cycling or tiddlywinks: and the experienced teach the new boys how to deflect criticism. Stonewalling is the secret, and it’s the part which depresses me most rather than the difference in attitude itself. As the meeting grinds to its inevitable end the troublemakers have opened their hearts; their views are prejudiced, partial and, this being the old guard, hopelessly out of date; but at least you know where you are. The suits remain mum through it all and stare stolidly out from the platform. If only one of them was to stand up and say: “look, we know exactly what you’re saying, but climbing has moved on and so has the BMC. If you don’t like it, tough. You’re all old and will soon be dead anyway, so this whole discussion is a tedious waste of time. Meanwhile, if you really want to change things come and do some voluntary work for the organisation instead of carping from the sidelines.”
This last criticism has some force. It is hard to find amongst the troublemakers anyone who is intimately involved in the BMC matters of today. And as one of their eminent supporters said to me at the meeting, organisations must take who they can get. If the traditionalists moan that the governing body is composed of nobodies, whose credentials as mountaineers are minor (with the notable exception of the CEO himself) – well, that is because none of the distinguished are prepared to give up their time. Or have already done their bit. And no-one could fail to notice – could they? -just how distinguished most of the troublemakers at that meeting were. Plenty of ex-Presidents and vice Presidents of the BMC itself and of the alpine club. And then in his address Bob Pettigrew unveiled his master stroke - the fact that Joe Brown himself had signed up to the motion of censure.
Joe Brown having in British climbing circles the sort of standing Attenborough, say, has in nature and conservation, I thought his inclusion, together with the general standing of Bob’s supporters, would have a decisive effect , if not on the suits then on the youngsters. How wrong one can be. Barely a ripple of interest disturbed Bob’s peroration. Apparently this is normal – and who’s to say it’s not healthy too. In Germany and Italy the young admire Messner and Bonatti but are not, I’m told, prepared to be lectured to, even by them.They admire what the old have done in their time, but times have moved on - that endless and inescapable conclusion.
Of course, a review of BMC governance and its priorities is underway, under the august chairmanship of a retired judge. No one can seriously doubt that this would never have happened without the stirrings of the troublemakers – Bob Pettigrew, Dennis Gray, Doug Scott, and many others. Surely they deserve credit for this from all sides of the spectrum of opinion. But it is hard to believe such a review will make much difference. The BMC under Dennis is a body for which I feel nostalgia, but things can never be returned to that. Doug talks about the BMC being returned to its members; but that cannot happen in the way he envisages. The members are too busy doing other things, and the organisation too big. It takes considerable money from the Sports Council and must dance to the government’s tune.
I’ve no idea whether it was intended to convey a message of intent, but I’ve always thought the change in title for the BMCs leader significant, from General Secretary as it was in Dennis’s day to Chief Executive Officer as it is now. There was certainly something of the bolshy trade union about the BMC under Dennis; there is something of the insidious government agency about it now. As for the size of the BMC, one is bound to be nostalgic. In the ‘70s if I rung up their offices the person who answered the phone not only knew how I was, they recognised my voice. If I ring up now the person answering the phone certainly doesn’t know who I am. But much worse, I don’t know who they are.
I might do better if I made more effort to keep in touch. I might recognise more names if I read Summit magazine or the online newsletter with greater determination. Unfortunately, I find that hard to do. “Summit” is hardly Ken Wilson’s “Mountain,” admittedly a superlative production. As for the newsletter, I have had reluctance ever since the issue which began, under the CEOs byline, with the immortal phrase “It is now spring, and time to think about getting outside.” The only way to make sense of this is to remember that I am no longer the BMC’s target audience.
At least, I hope not. Some would see such platitudes as just further evidence of the inexorable infantilisation of the British public. But however you view it, I find I can’t read it. And if one doesn’t read the bumpf one is in peril of pontificating from a position of increasing ignorance. And curiously, the more ignorant, the easier it is to pronounce. It is a danger for all well-meaning troublemakers, everywhere. Personally I find myself in the invidious position of the late Leo Cooper, husband of Jilly, Queen of the gold-plated bonkbuster. Asked in an interview if he had ever read any of his wife’s novels, he replied: “I tried to once. But I had to give up. It was making me ill.”
Partway through day I spied one of the old brigade whom I hadn’t seen for many years. As a mountaineering journalist he was quite properly keeping himself above the fray, signing up neither with the troublemakers nor with the suits. I was surprised to see him there, imagining his appetite for such events about as weak as my own, and asked him why he had come. “To witness the death of British mountaineering” was his reply. “I wouldn’t want to miss that.”
This sounded a bit melodramatic even for me. But if he meant, as I think he did, the institutional death, then it’s not so far fetched. That meeting was, if not the last gasp, arguably the last occasion on which the old school would make it’s position felt in such numbers or with such passion. Whether you like it or you don’t, the way British mountaineering is administered, the way it is perceived, it’s public ethoc, have changed. And there is no way back.
But public ethos is one thing, private is another. I take mountaineering to be essentially an amusement. If it is an experience that can on some occasions have profound effects on the individual, it is still a pastime. If it has value to the individual, then it is has no very great social significance. Those who claim, in moments of enthusiasm, that it is “a way of life” grossly overstate their case. In my youth I certainly thought of climbing as “special”, quite different – and superior –to any mere sport, and this can still be the case. But for many, climbing these days is simply one of a suite of outdoor activities – a climb today, ski-ing tomorrow, a little cycling on Wednesday perhaps. Claiming for it a profound spiritual or philosophical significance begins to look rather thin.
And I can’t see how to define the right and the wrong way to practice it. In decrying modern trends the troublemakers are not stating an objective position but a personal preference, based in all likelihood on the way things were in their own formative years. We can say, I think, that the BMC is fundamentally different to the way it used to be, say, 40 years ago, and we can be sure that it will change still more. We may say that we don’t like this; but we cannot say that it is wrong. For myself, I expect I don’t like it because it is not the BMC of the 1970s, and that was my formative time.
And it is only an institution. Not only that, it is an institution one can choose to ignore. We do not live in a time in which you must have certain qualifications before you can jump on a plane and climb in the Himalaya. On driving into Capel Curig we do not encounter a road block and a leather-coated apparachnik who tells us not to proceed unless we have a BMC certificate of competence. I have no difficulty imagining a Britain in which these things are fact, but I cannot see it happening in the foreseeable future – and by that I mean within the lifetime of anyone likely to read this article.
On the contrary, we are free. We are free to leave the BMC, and proceed ever further into ignorance of contemporary trends. Whether the BMC is, or should be, a governing body or a representative body, and a thousand other trying matters can, if you so wish, be forgotten. Anyone in Britain can step off the road and begin a mountain adventure and no one is even going to try and stop them. Involvement in mountaineering mores, its administration, its social life, are voluntary. Anyone who finds contemporary forms too much to take is free to step away.
There are costs of course. Some of the troublemakers from that day in north Wales who are members of affiliated clubs feel strongly enough to resent the affiliation fees paid to the BMC. Some I have spoken to feel the current situation intolerable. Such people may feel in time that they have no choice but to resign their club memberships. And there will be some who feel that however sad, that is manageable.
Phil Bartlett:September 2017.