Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Demise Of Outdoor Clubs Or How Bumblies Came To Rule The World

The first outdoor sport I took up, inspired by my brother who is now senior lecturer in ecology at Charles Darwin University, was scuba diving. I was probably about 18 and I had saved up some money to take an open water course. When I finished the course I joined the local diving club (still around, the Port Hacking Divers) and my education as a scuba diver really began. It was only in later years as I got better at scuba diving and other outdoor sports, that I realised what a favour the guys (all scuba divers were men in those days) in the club had done me. Like most novice divers, on my first dives, I sucked my scuba tank dry in rapid time. That may not seem a big deal, but, it meant that who ever was unlucky enough to be partnered with me ended up having a very short dive. The guys in the club taught me to slow my breathing down, to navigate under water so that no matter where our dive had taken us we always came back to the anchor, to cave dive, to deep dive, to take photographs, to stay calm in murky fast moving water and to just generally be a reliable partner. 

Years and many dives later, I moved to Tasmania and got into bushwalking. Of course, I joined a walking club, and learnt all about how to navigate and plan trips. Then it was Canada and mountain sports like climbing and skiing, I joined another club and learned more skills. Then Nelson and the life of ski and climbing bum, and I joined yet another club. In those days, clubs were much more popular than they are now and had a broad range of membership from the old to the young, the novice to the experienced. There were clubs with more rigid rules (like the Alpine Club) and more rebellious clubs, like the Calgary Mountain Club, but, they all operated along roughly the same lines with more experienced people linking up with less experienced people. 

The Coast Track, RNP, NSW

In Canada, outdoor clubs have gone into drastic decline even though participation in outdoor sports is increasing. Clubs are still doing what they do best, gathering together like minded people, offering courses, libraries, cabins, social activities and, of course, trips, but, most clubs don't seem as vibrant as they used to be. Of course, I could be remembering things differently, but, back in my ACC days in Calgary, there would be lots of technical trips on the schedule (like the north face of Mount Stanley or the south ridge of Mount Fable – we got rained off), and, there were many guys (again they were men) leading trips who went on to become UIAA certified mountain guides. Now, it seems not so much. Certainly, during my decade with the KMC, the club went from having a pretty good schedule including a week long mountaineering camp, weekly rock climbing nights at the local gym, a mountain biking schedule, a hiking and scrambling schedule with three trips every week to a schedule that, while the traditional and very popular hiking camps remain, has virtually no advanced trips on the schedule. 

Some of the decline is likely due to the galloping popularity of social media and the ease with which people can hook up for trips/activities using internet forums, Facebook and various meet-ups. Social media not only allows people to find others with similar interests at no cost, but it also avoids any requirement to meet minimum standards of performance/expertise for either the trip organiser or the attendees. This latter aspect is, I suspect, one of the other major reasons for the decline in club membership and the proliferation of informal meet-ups via social media. No longer is a potential trip leader subject to scrutiny by a club committee to ensure they have met basic standards. Similarly, trip participants don't have to answer pointed questions designed to assess just how competent they really are and, in some cases, find themselves told that “this trip is not suitable for you.” 

 Totally bomber belay set-up

Organized clubs, on the other hand, invariably have some established method for screening both trip organizers and participants, varying from the stringent (when I was in the Calgary ACC I had to complete a form each year detailing my experience, education, and ability for scrutiny by the ski committee before I was allowed to lead winter trips) to the lax (in the KMC an email to the summer or winter trip chair sufficed). These various methods are frequently unpopular, yet arguably improve safety. I can remember being quite affronted the first time I had to fill out a form to lead an ACC trip, but, after the initial knee jerk reactivity subsided, the whole thing seemed quite sensible. After all, I could have been a complete tosser with no skill or training about to lead a dozen people off on a multi-day wilderness adventure. 

I am not a big fan of hooking up with people I have never met through social media. In my experience half the people on social media are lying about how good they are, and the other 50% are bumbling incompetents with a severe case of the Dunning Kruger effect. That doesn't leave a whole lot of reliable partners out there. I've witnessed a few of friends get into disastrous climbing situations with people they met on social media. True, the same thing could happen on a club trip, but, the simple act of seeking out, paying money and joining a club seems to weed out some of the worrisome wanna-be's that populate social media. In Australia (and some clubs in the US), many clubs actually have a formal assessment procedure that trip leaders and participants must pass in order to attend or lead trips. All Australian sea kayak clubs, for example, require members to pass certain base level skills. This seems an awfully good idea and one I would have liked to have seen when I was leading trips in Canada. 

One of the enduring problems with the social media hook-up paradigm is that bumblies always seem to meet up with other bumblies, and neither party recognizes the ineptitude of the other. The end result is a group of people who are well suited in interests and all too well suited in ability. No-one in the group really knows what to do, although there is inevitably one overly loud, supremely confident individual who manages to convince everyone else that he/she knows best. A series of minor epics, mini-successes, and major failures follows. People begin to think that all the incompetent things they do as a matter of course, whether it is following GPS tracks, taking an hour to set up a top-rope anchor, relying on dubious snow pickets, and a hundred other minor in-competencies are normal. And as we all know, the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.

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