Why I don’t give a toss about the BMC renaming itself Climb Britain

Last month Britain’s biggest mountaineering membership organisation, the British Mountaineering Council (BMC), puzzled its 80,000 or so members by announcing completely out of the blue that it would be changing its name to Climb Britain.

The logos are nice though
The logos are nice though

Reaction to this news wasn’t entirely positive. Within a matter of hours a thread had been started on the UK Climbing forums, where baffled BMC members expressed their incredulity. A petition appeared on Change.org demanding the name be changed back again, and some disgruntled members even decided to renounce their membership publicly on Twitter.

A sizeable 86% of respondents to a poll on the popular outdoors website MyOutdoors said the BMC should not be renamed Climb Britain.

The negative reaction seemed to be sparked by three main factors:

  1. BMC’s lack of consultation with its members about the name change
  2. The name Climb Britain alienates members who are not climbers, but hill walkers
  3. The name Climb Britain is essentially just a naff name, that sounds more like a marketing slogan than a respectable membership organisation

The day after the announcement was made the BMC’s chief executive Dave Turnbull responded to the backlash with a somewhat perplexing blog post addressing the first two points.

He explained that nobody at the BMC was really thinking of rebranding the organisation until the middle of last year, when they “secured some addition money (around £25k) for a branding agency to take a detailed look at how people perceive the BMC”. He went on to explain that a name change wasn’t on the cards initially, but someone suggested Climb Britain in March, various directors and presidents (including Sir Chris Bonington) liked it, one thing led to another, and before long all 20 of the BMC’s elected National Council members (who are supposed to represent the grassroots membership) had agreed to it.

“For me personally, Climb Britain wasn’t love at first sight, it’s been a ‘grower’ though,” he said.

On the issue of consultation, he explained what was involved:

Discussion with a sample of BMC volunteers, Area reps, climbing wall managers, young and older climbers, hill walkers and others. Meetings with members of the BMC Women’s Development Group, our Hill Walking Development Group and staff, and visits to climbing walls.

On whether this was enough, he went on to say:

The BMC has an effective democratic structure and we used this in reaching the decision. Complex or commercially sensitive issues can be extremely difficult or impossible to agree via widespread membership consultation and there are times when we rely on our (your) elected Area reps to make judgement calls on big issues.

It’s not hard to guess what other big public vote that took place recently he was thinking of when he said this. In this respect I agree with him that some issues like Brexit are too big and too nuanced to be decided by a public vote. This isn’t an episode of The X Factor, and decisions like this are best decided by people with a thorough understanding of the issues.

But there’s also another way of looking at it. Nobody was asking for a referendum on the name change, merely a consultation, and it would have been easy for the branding agency to spend some of that £25,000 on a short survey of 80,000 members, asking them what the BMC meant to them. Why they didn’t raises a few questions about how important the BMC members really are.

On the BMC’s website I couldn’t find any reliable breakdown of how the BMC is funded. It receives grants from government bodies such as Sport England, sells products like guidebooks and insurance, and also receives money from sponsorship.

As far as membership goes, it has grown at an impressive rate, from 25,000 members in 1990 to over 80,000 now. Of these, 55,000 are individual members, who pay £31.45 annually, and 25,000 are ‘affiliate’ members (i.e. they are members of the BMC by virtue of being members of another club who pay £13.25 annually for their membership). It’s a bit more complicated than this, with other types of membership available as well, but it means at a rough estimate membership contributes £2 million a year to the BMC’s annual budget.

This sounds like quite a lot to me, and it also gives the lie to any argument that they needed to change their name because of dwindling membership. One of the accusations levelled at the BMC was that it changed the name to appeal to sponsors and government funding bodies on the eve of the announcement that sport climbing is to become an Olympic sport, a decision that was confirmed last week. This means money is sure to become available to organisations ready to help train the next generation of athletes, and the BMC, understandably, is positioning itself to receive some of this windfall. At the moment they are as qualified as anyone to contribute to Britain’s success at sport climbing (though this would still be true if they called themselves the British Sheep Worrying Society).

Although Dave Turnbull claimed in his blog post that “it’s a complete coincidence that the two things have come about at the same time”, they wouldn’t be the only ones to be influenced in this way. There have been reports that the Japanese Mountaineering Association are thinking of rebranding themselves rather more candidly as the Japanese Mountaineering and Sport Climbing Association.

Geoffrey Winthrop Young helped to establish the BMC in 1944. This portrait was taken a bit before that. (Photo: Alan Hankinson / Wikimedia Commons).
Geoffrey Winthrop Young helped to establish the BMC in 1944. This portrait was taken a bit before that. (Photo: Alan Hankinson / Wikimedia Commons).

Which brings us neatly onto the second bone of contention. In a 2010 survey 62% of BMC members stated that hill walking was their top mountaineering activity. For many of these (including myself) sport climbing (which takes place on indoor climbing walls) has as much appeal as sky diving, jet skiing and naked mud wrestling. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with it; I’m just not that interested.

The BMC was established in 1944 by Geoffrey Winthrop Young, president of The Alpine Club, who succeeded in bringing together 25 climbing clubs to create an organisation open to all, “regardless of race, religion or political party”. At the time “climbing” meant outdoor rock climbing and alpine mountaineering. The BMC’s remit included the protection of climbing areas, the provision of huts and hostels in climbing areas, collecting information about climbing areas at home and abroad, providing instructors for clubs, and assisting with mountain rescue.

Indoor climbing only started to become a significant part of its work in the 1980s, when indoor climbing walls became more common. It’s likely hill walking was a part of its work from the outset, but only because of its focus on the outdoors. Most mountaineers and rock climbers are hill walkers by default, because they have to be in order to access the areas they like to climb. For many of them hill walking is an enjoyable pursuit they would do anyway, while for others it’s just something that has to be endured in ordered to get there.

It’s only recently that the BMC has started to focus on hill walking as an activity in its own right. It appointed its first hill walking officer in 2013, a full 69 years after its conception. At around about the same time the Twitter account @BMC_Walk was created to promote walking. But if the BMC is to receive more funding from bodies who expect it to be used to promote sport climbing, then it seems inevitable that its priorities will change.

Pre-empting a negative reaction from hill walkers, the BMC published a post What does Climb Britain mean for walkers? on the same day the name-change announcement was made. Dave Turnbull said that:

The word ‘Climbing’ is different to ‘Climb’ and would never be acceptable to our hill walking members.

You can’t argue with this statement, though how it justifies the name change isn’t clear. In the other article BMC hill walking officer Carey Davies encouraged walkers to:

Climb Snowdon. Climb Scafell Pike. Climb Ben Nevis. Climb the countless possibilities of the Peak District, the Lake District, the Brecon Beacons, the Yorkshire Dales or the vast Scottish Highlands.

Climb the Munros. Climb the Wainwrights. Cut your teeth on mountains at home, then go on to climb Kilimanjaro or Mont Blanc, or explore the Alps and Himalayas.

I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve done all of these things and more, and still I’m not a climber. I don’t climb Britain; I walk it. There would be many BMC members – climbers – who would be equally clear on this point.

All of which studies into the vagaries of the English language brings us to the third bone of contention: that Climb Britain is basically a crap name.

This is a matter of opinion. A few years ago the BMC was part of a campaign called This Girl Can, aimed at encouraging more women to take up physical recreation, including climbing. The campaign was organised by Sport England, a government body responsible for allocating funds from the National Lottery into sport. Sport England, incidentally, not unlike Climb Britain, used to be called the English Sports Council. In their press release, Climb Britain announced that the word Council ‘doesn’t quite cut it these days’ (they didn’t say what it doesn’t cut).

Doubtless Sport England and Climb Britain would agree that This Girl Can was a great name for a marketing campaign. But at the same time, it was a name that made some people cringe so much that if the wind changed direction they would have won first prize in a gurning contest. (On a separate note, it would be great if they made gurning an Olympic sport too.)

In an apparent climbdown (if you’ll forgive the pun), the BMC has since announced that there will now be a round of consultation among the wider membership before the name is changed. Whether this is a genuine consultation, or just window dressing to explain the reasons for the decision, remains to be seen.

If you’ve managed to read this far then you’re probably thinking I don’t like the name Climb Britain, and you’d be right.

So how does this tally with my claim in the headline that I don’t give a shit? (I actually said ‘don’t give a toss’, but I draw the line at using rude words in titles.)

Are these people really climbing Snowdon, or just walking it? Come to think of it, are they even mountaineers?
Are these people really climbing Snowdon, or just walking it? Come to think of it, are they even mountaineers?

There are many levels of membership. There are those who live and breathe the organisation, who attend every meeting, volunteer for events, and spend much of their leisure time actively involved, so that the organisation becomes an important part of their life. At the other end of the spectrum there is a second group of members who do bugger all, and are members purely for the benefits it brings. A third group of members don’t even take up the benefits, but pay for their membership because they support the aims of the organisation. For them the organisation is more like a charity they are happy to make a donation to.

I’m somewhere among the second and third groups. I originally joined the BMC about ten years ago because I wanted to buy insurance for high-altitude trekking. At the time the BMC was one of the few organisations offering reliable insurance for trips above 6000m. In order to buy it you had to become a member. I would never have thought of joining the BMC otherwise; I did not consider myself a mountaineer, and it came as a surprise to me to learn that Sport England included hill walking in its definition of mountaineering.

For a long time that was the only reason I was a member of the BMC. I didn’t take up any of the other benefits on offer to me. I went to no meetings, I never read their quarterly magazine (which seemed to be mostly about climbing) or their members’ handbook, and I never did any of their mountain leader training. Now I don’t even use their insurance, for reasons I outlined in a previous post.

There is one benefit that I continue to use. My BMC membership card gives me a 10% discount in most UK outdoor shops, so I only need to spend £314.50 a year on equipment for my membership to pay for itself. A tent, a sleeping bag, or even a pair of mountaineering boots, and I’m there. In this respect, BMC could change its name to UKIP and I would still remain a member (well, maybe not if they changed it to UKIP).

My strongest reason for remaining a BMC member is the third one. I’m happy to donate £31.45 a year to a worthwhile cause. The BMC promotes conservation and access to countryside. They also run campaigns such as Mend Our Mountains, which raised over £100,000 for repairs to footpaths on Britain’s iconic peaks.

Hopefully the BMC rebrand will involve a redesign of its deafeningly shouty website. The hill walking home page alone requires you to download 30 gazillion gigabytes of data to power its 26 item carousel, the world's longest.
Hopefully the BMC rebrand will involve a redesign of its deafeningly shouty website. The hill walking home page alone requires you to download 30 gazillion gigabytes of data to power its 26 item carousel, the world’s longest.

But there are other organisations, such as the John Muir Trust and the National Trust (both of which I belong to) who also support these causes. If the BMC were to spend more of their resources on indoor climbing and less on hill walking, I would be less inclined to support them. I might even join an organisation like the Ramblers instead (though I’d like to think I walk a bit more quickly than they do).

In any case, it wouldn’t be the name change that bothered me, but the change of direction. In the course of writing this blog post I’ve discovered that my biggest problem with the BMC … sorry, Climb Britain, is not their name, but their horrendous website, a usability nightmare which looks like someone has taken the accumulated content of 70 years and thrown it off the top of a sea cliff, hoping it lands somewhere people can find it. It’s all over the place. Every page has about 30 items screaming for attention in a mess of images and adverts.

The hill walking home page even has a slider/carousel with an astonishing 26 items to scroll through. Selecting an item to read from this is a bit like sticking a pin in the index at the back of a book and randomly reading the page it lands on.

But in my day job I’m a digital communications consultant, whose primary purpose in life is to help website users find good content as efficiently as possible. I’ve vowed to keep my work out of this blog, so I will climb back up this slippery slope before I descend too far down it.

I don’t mind the name change. The BMC is primarily an organisation for climbers. It was set up by climbers for climbers. Climb Britain clearly indicates an organisation whose primary focus is climbing, not walking, however much you may argue otherwise. I understand this, I’m aware of its history and its roots, and I don’t mind.

UPDATE, 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

Much ado about nothing:

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2 thoughts on “Why I don’t give a toss about the BMC renaming itself Climb Britain

  • August 11, 2016 at 5:56 am
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    Mark, I am extremely impressed that you used 2,649 words to discuss something you don’t give a “toss” about 🙂 🙂 🙂

  • August 11, 2016 at 6:13 am
    Permalink

    Heehee. As you know, Alan, this is a high-quality blog. We like to carry out in-depth analysis before arriving at simple conclusions. Besides, I know how much you love irony. 😉

    And thank you for counting!

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