A few weeks ago, I returned from a six week climbing trip to Spain. I booked the ferry in July, making use of an offer Brittany Ferries were running for people whose sailings had been cancelled because of the Covid-19 outbreak earlier in the year. Not one to miss a saving, I booked the ferry knowing it may not happen, (I had to book before the end of July) but against the odds, I sailed on the 9th of October heading to Santandare. At the time, Covid-19 restrictions in Spain and the UK had been relaxed, things were looking, ‘not too bad’, although Madrid was being hit pretty hard as was the Northeast of the UK, but as I was travelling from North Wales, an area with low infections, and going to areas in Spain that also had low infections, I took the decision to go.
I met up with my usual partner for this type of thing, Rich Kirby, and after 3 days in Catalunya, we travelled south to the Valencia Community. It wasn’t long after, the Spanish Government introduced regional travel restrictions throughout the whole of Spain, but once you were in an area, it was OK to continue climbing. These regional enforcements remained for the whole of our trip and still remain.
Since returning back to the UK I’ve had a bit of time on my hands and a good internet connection (dangerous) and I’ve been perusing some stuff I normally wouldn’t, more fool me. While doing this, I picked up on something that interested me, especially as I had recently returned from a climbing trip abroad.
I’m not a fan of Social Media. This statement will not surprise anyone who regularly reads my waffle, but I do have a Twitter account and a Facebook account. I mainly use Facebook for messenger and as a platform to advertise my writing, I gave up on the newsfeed a long time ago because I discovered it wasn’t good for me. I don’t do any other Social Media. Instagram appears to be the latest big thing with climbers, and with time on my hands, I decided to take a look. After flicking around, I soon found out not signing up had been the correct decision. There were some really great landscape pictures and cool climbing shots and interesting life stuff, fun stuff and inspirational stuff, but many of the posts from climbers felt similar to the Facebook newsfeed, vain and narcissistic. Consumerism oozed from posts with more hashtags and @’s than nouns and adjectives. I wondered who some of the posts were aimed, as they were so obviously thinly veiled adverts or appeared to be something to hit a number count, possibly a filler-in to fulfil a sponsor’s requirement with nothing particularly interesting, new or inspiring, just a picture with, occasionally, some pseudo deep and meaningful prose at the side. Do people enjoy this kind of thing? I don’t think I’m an anti-Social Media zealot, there are good sides to it, contact with family and friends, a platform to enhance good causes etc, and I can see, when first invented, it was intended to give people without a voice, a voice, but it was soon appropriated by consumerism and greed, and people went along with this get rich quick, and have helped make it what it largely now appears to be, a big advertising platform. Maybe I’m just a cynical old man? Maybe I’m behind the times? Maybe the days of expecting something from the heart is gone and we have become conditioned to a sparkly set-up picture accompanied by a bit of rushed trite? Or, maybe I’m the fool, because everyone actually knows things like this are staged, and the words that run alongside twaddle, and this is just how it is and we shouldnt expect more?
Anyway, my personal failings to move with the times is not the main aspect of this piece (oh no!). While looking at Instagram, I read some quite interesting replies to a picture that got me questioning myself. The replies were in response to a picture posted by Hazel Findley. I’m sure I don’t need to explain who Hazel is, but I’ll give the quick low-down for anyone that’s been in a submarine for the last ten years. Hazel is a brilliant climber, one of the best in the world. What most people won’t know is, she lives just around the corner from me and we bump into each other on occasion, and when we do, I enjoy a bit of a chat because she’s smart and interesting. So, enough fluffing, (sorry Hazel) now to the bit I found interesting, and in no way a personal attack, because her posts and replies come across more honest than most, and a lot of what she has done in climbing is truly inspirational.
In one of her latest Instagram posts she is wearing a facemask while taking a ferry to Greece. Angus Killie and Hazel had left Wales in their van before the Welsh lockdown, to climb in France. When France locked down for a second time, they headed to Italy to catch a ferry to Greece. The usual comments to this type of Social Media thing began, “good job, well done escaping…” etc, but someone then questioned the moral aspect of travelling through several countries while there is a world pandemic,
‘…the lack of transparency that a global pandemic impacts the climbing world where people should be staying close to home and limiting interaction with unknown groups of people. This seems to be across this platform for many climbers and does not seem to capture the gravity of the responsibility for such travel. Privilege of traveling is not the issue. Having the privilege to travel and willingly doing it in a 100 yr pandemic is. Now I am not saying you are not taking precaution but the projection of this freedom gives others the validation to do the same which might not have the same sense of responsibility.’
The person was not rude, offensive or attacking, it was a well thought out and, I thought, an intelligent question, which Hazel answered in a similar, intelligent way,
‘…fair points. I did reflect for a long time before coming away. However, climbing is my work and I know my actions have very little impact on others. I come into less contact with others travelling in my van than I do at home. The economies of this area depend on visitors buying things from local shops etc so it’s not like our presence is only negative. It’s my job to talk about what I’m doing and I let other people make their own choices.’
And in reply to Hazel’s reply,
‘I am in agreement that economics of travel bring critical money flow. However, almost every community is financially impacted and struggling. And the financial discussion of ecotourism is a vastly large and a whole other discussion. With such a large platform comes much responsibility. I do not disagree your platform is part of your job which has layers only known privately. But projection of free travel can be taken and run with by so many, resulting in unknowing spread and ultimately more lockdowns. Your platform has far reach, and although you may not have chosen it, your voice does have great influence on what people do.’
Hazel didn’t reply again which was fair enough, she had said her piece, but others did, going to some of the usual cliched, bullying and belittling responses that are seen all too often within the world of Social Media, the “You are jealous, how dare you question…”, etc. I have no doubt this type of response is designed to intimidate, it is an attempt to humiliate and silence the person they disagree, but these were, as Hazel agreed, valid points.
Another person said,
‘…some people just let others be happy and do their thing…she has not broke any laws or guidance, so not sure why you feel the need to hold up her to some imaginary standard, comes across as jealously for sure…as they say, if you can’t say something nice…’
This, I find a particularly naïve or ignorant; As long as replies are respectful, not rude or aggressive, why shouldn’t someone question the decisions of others? Are concerns within the world of Social Media not allowed, are coments that fluff egos the only comments that should be posted? The post and all responses can be read here
I had wrestled with some of these same things when I set off to travel to Spain, but if I’m honest, not much, and certainly not enough to stop me travelling. Bloody hell I wanted to escape the dark and wet of Wales (along with a large percentage of others I’m sure who for various reasons didnt or couldnt!) and as long as I was breaking no laws, I was almost certainly going. While I was in Spain, and given everything going on in the world, I decided to avoid posting any shots of climbing and climbers or crags, except one. Even posting this one shot, (a long-distance crag shot) took days of deliberation, and to be honest, I still don’t really understand the reason I felt the need to post it. Did I want to brag about my life and my fortunate position, while rubbing salt into the wounds of people having a tough time in the dark and wet back home? The complexities for the individual with Social Media are so layered and complex, and the effects on the thousands of people addicted to this medium unrecorded?
Not posting on Social Media while I was away wasn’t difficult, I don’t publish many climbing pictures anyway, but more than ever, it felt wrong to be publishing pictures showing where I was, and the climbing I was doing, especially while others were either stuck at home or taking the morally higher, or dare I say, correct stance, given a world-wide pandemic? In life there are quite a few things that are not against the law, but given certain circumstances, it doesn’t make them morally correct, although, I suppose, as individuals, we all have a different take on what is moral, and my morals are different from yours, which are different from theirs. None of us know what is truly going on inside another person’s mind and the reasons behind an action.
Having travelled to Spain on the long ferry where I had a cabin, and afterwards living in my van, and climbing at quiet crags with Rich, I completely agree with Hazel, it felt safer than staying at home where I mixed with more people in riskier environments, but I do think the question, is travelling abroad at the moment the correct decision, was valid and worth exploring? Rich is in contact with quite a few people, he has an Instagram account and fills in a UKC Logbook, and people could see he was in Spain, and because of this, he received messages from climbers asking him about what was going on, and whether it was possible to travel and climb? Hazel has 184000 followers on Instagram, saying it’s your job is valid, but is it reason enough to advertise travelling around Europe at the moment? Given how well Hazel climbs and her large platform on Social Media, surely no sponsor is going to have a problem with an email from her explaining she is going abroad, but has decided to be low key given the pandemic. When everything is over, there will be loads of new stories and pictures that can be shared – a story, is a story, there is no particular time limit to when it should be published unless it’s a news item? Given this explanation to a sponsor, or should we just call them employer, they would surely understand, and if they didn’t, well maybe it’s time to look for a new employer?
Climbing has changed massively over the last few decades, some for the good, some, not so good. I was fortunate to start climbing in the early 90’s at the age of 28, most of my chasing has now gone, but I still love climbing and the way of life. I was very fortunate to have discovered climbing when I did, because in doing so, I think I was entering at the end of the period where climbing, and being outdoors, was a genuine, ‘life way’, a way of growing, shared by a minority community. Appropriated by capitalism, climbing now tends to be sold as a ‘life style’, rather than expressed as a ‘way of life’. Some climbers now have more followers on Social Media sites than professional footballers and cyclists and other top sports people. The days of climbers being dirtbags doing their own thing has not gone entirely, but if you make a living from climbing, and you have more followers on Instagram than let’s say, Tao Geoghegan Hart, a professional cyclist for one of the biggest teams in the world, Ineos Grenadiers and winner of last year’s Giro d’Italia, (he has 96000 followers on Instagram) this makes you a serious influence and your actions are going to influence and affect thousands of people.
The business of ‘climbing’ is now so big it has changed the activity, and it is changing, and has changed, the motivations of the people involved. I now find myself wanting to turn my back on much of what climbing has become. I understand things change, and that’s OK; at least for the time people can remain peripheral, go and do their thing and get what they want from it, but there will come a point this is no longer the case. We already see a backlash against people wanting to live in vans to climb. At one time, people were low key, under the radar, but now #vanlife and publishing the coordinates of the best places to park, Instagramming your amazing climbing life while living in your van, has turned the tide against people who at one time – quietly, considerately and cleanly, went about their thing for a way of life, not to enhance a business, a profit or a profile.
We now get indoctrinated on a daily basis about freedom of expression through climbing from car companies in adverts designed to sell us cars. We hear about climbing in the mainstream media regularly, even though a lot of the time the reports are factually incorrect or stupidly hyped. Maybe the time has come to openly question aspects of climbing and for climbers to be more honest, for climbers to really look at themselves and their motivations and ask what effect advertising of their endeavours on Social Media has on the bigger picture? Is it still inspirational to fly to the Greater Ranges on an expedition given all we know about the effects of flying on the atmosphere? Is it OK to be a part of a report in the mainstream press or TV when you know your words will be changed or taken out of context or reported incorrectly? Is it OK to travel across Europe on a rock climbing trip when there is a global pandemic?
I can only speak for myself, but when I travelled to Spain, I desperately wanted to climb on rock and in the sun, I wanted to spend time in my van that was parked up in some quiet spot alongside nature and without people, and I did. I listened to owls in the evening. I watched a fox poke its head from a clump of grass a few feet from where I sat. I stared at the stars, and I did this without advertising any of it.
I’ll admit, I’ve almost reached a point that I no longer care what the rest of the so-called ‘climbing community’ does. I’ve almost reached the point of sticking my head in the sand, as long as what I do is ethically correct and doesn’t adversely affect others, because it feels we, the human race, are close to the point that none of us will be doing anything at all for much longer, not unless we become more responsible, less greedy, less selfish and begin to work together to find a way to turn the thermostat down.