Are soaring fuel prices and the threat of global warming enough to tempt climbers out of their cars? Zara Maung and Julie Black decide it’s time to try some low-carbon climbing
During our two-week climbing trip to Devon and Cornwall we managed to stump most climbers with one simple question: “How do you get to the climbing here on public transport?”
“Um, I can look up buses on the internet,” was about as good as the replies got. Most people just fobbed us off with tales of dreaded rural bus routes, operating once a week for pensioners on a giro mission.
Climbing trips are synonymous with car use; we climbers are not renowned for our love of walking. With heavy kit to lug around and temperamental weather, we want the freedom to jump in and out of our nice comfy vehicles, drive to a drier spot, or maybe stop early at the pub. Car culture makes perfect sense to climbers. It’s second nature to slide behind the wheel to get to our weekend climbing destinations – especially if we already rely on cars for travelling to work.
But there’s no denying that car culture is changing. The average person now living in London has no good reason for owning a car: public transport, expensive parking and congestion charges abound. I switched to a bicycle six months ago, persuading myself that it’d be cheaper and more practical. It was. It was also disastrous for my climbing.
Used to watching the weather and arranging last-minute trips away, going climbing suddenly became hard work. I kept missing the monthly climbing club trips for one reason or another and briefly scanning the train prices, everything looked too expensive. Even trying to scrounge lifts off mates gets tiring after a while. So, approaching the summer, I reluctantly decided that I was going to have to re-join the ranks of car users to get some decent climbing time in.
Yet after considering the cost of a car, I started wondering if this was really the way forward. I was buying a car so I could get out of the smog and drive around polluting the countryside, not to mention contribute handsomely to climate change. It didn’t seem quite right. So my climbing buddy Julie and I decided to bite the bullet and see if it really was feasible to be car-less climber in the UK.
We did two five-day climbing trips, one using a car (a tiny Daihatsu mini-campervan, which Julie called “the lunchbox on wheels”) and one using public transport. We wanted to know if taking trains and buses to climb would be as difficult as we had expected, and by calculating the carbon emissions of our journeys, we intended to find out how much good we would really do the planet by leaving the car at home.
The car trip
We set off in the campervan with the promise of dismal weather for the week ahead, but being on wheels we had everything but the kitchen sink with us – including two surfboards and a bouldering mat! The plan was to drive down to Cornwall doing some climbing along the way in Dartmoor. This proved harder than we imagined as we spent most of our time dodging the rain and trying to find quick drying crags, often driving long distances. Sheepstor at Dartmoor gave us a day’s climbing, so did Roche rock in Bodmin. Wet, grassy death-slopes to access the North Cornwall sea cliffs didn’t really work for us and we wasted a few miles driving to sea cliffs and back again. We set up camp in a friendly youth hostel in Bude to escape the foul weather, clocking up more wasted miles driving to and from crags and surfing beaches. There was no evidence of local climbers using public transport to get around, and plenty of Dartmoor climbers’ tales about infamous once-a-week granny buses.
Our route: London-Dartmoor-Bude-Pentire-Bodmin-St Ives-London.
Could drive anywhere, always found climbing (when dry).
Tiring drive to Cornwall, temptation to drive long distances to get to the best crags. Roadkill.
The bus trip
We realised that this week would require military planning when we saw that the buses along our chosen route only ran every few hours between 10am and 6pm – not that great for climbing into the summer evenings! However the week was surprisingly, as we found that one bus route – the magnificent 300 – served all the classic climbing destinations along the coast, moving southwards from St Ives to Chair Ladder. A far cry from the disparate climbing destinations we visited in North Cornwall. The open-topped tourist bus travelled at about a 10-20 mph on average, perfect for scenic views. Despite the useful route taken and the popularity of the climbs, we didn’t spot a single other climber on the bus – they’d all taken their cars to Bosigran.
Luckily the weather held up for the whole week. Unluckily, not being the most efficient of climbers, timekeeping became a bit of a problem. On the second day, after the eight pitch of Commando Ridge at Bosigran, we’d missed the last bus by two hours and ended up hitching back to our hostel in nearby Zennor. The walk-ins were longer, but felt quite satisfying and a good pre-climbing warm up.
The most surprising part about using the bus was that it seemed to fit the ethos of trad climbing much better than tearing around in a van. We both agreed that being stranded in the middle of nowhere along a rural bus route with only our climbing kit felt extraordinarily liberating and far more adventurous; the trips to and from climbing sometimes rivalled the intrigue of the climbs.
Our route: London-St Ives-Zennor-Wicca Pillar-Bosigran-Sennen-Chair Ladder-St Ives-London.
Being stranded – the transport equivalent to switching off your mobile. Against:
No such thing as an early start, or a quick bus journey. Great for sleeping in, not great for visiting tidal cliffs. Might not be as enjoyable in the wet!
Tight shoes, big footprint
To our surprise, climbing by public transport is not only feasible, it was rather enjoyable. Regardless, it’s undeniable that it’s something that more of us should be doing. The Carbon Trust published ‘The Footprint of the UK’ in December 2006, it revealed that our leisure activities release more carbon than any other area of our lives, including emissions from domestic heating. Nearly a fifth of the average British citizen's 10.92 tons of annual CO2 emissions – 1.95 tons – is emitted through recreation. Perhaps even more for regular outdoor climbers traveling long distances.
We’re already seeing the effects of global warming in the UK. Our sea temperatures have risen and Scottish snow-beds are disappearing. Via our carbon emissions, we’re contributing to the destruction of our own sport in the UK. Rising sea levels could threaten sea cliff routes, and according to the SportScotland Avalanche Information Service, a gradual change in the direction of recorded snow-bearing winds in Scottish winters means snow now tends to blow onto the south face of Scotland’s mountains, rather than into the north facing corries used by winter climbers. This may be linked to the North Atlantic drift slowing down.
Low carbon climbing
If you want to lower your climbing carbon footprint then you’ve got a number of options – it’s not simply about ditching your car. We calculated our carbon emissions using the online YETI transport carbon calculator, which is very easy to use. It uses official UK government transport carbon figures, and we made some interesting discoveries using it. It turns out that four people sharing a car is actually less carbon intensive per person than four people on the train, and three people sharing a car beat the emissions per person of bus travel.
In reality you need to bear in mind that those buses and trains would be travelling anyway, and the fuller they become, the lower the emissions per person are, but the message is clear – if you must take a car, fill it. We recommend flagging up climbing trips on the ‘lifts and partners’ forum atwww.ukclimbing.com. If everyone going on a climbing trip with a half-empty car offered or sought a lift on the climbing website we’d start up an instant UK-wide climbing transport system!
The ultimate car share is to jump into the minibus of your local climbing club. In fact, David Gibson of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland thinks there may well be a climbing club renaissance spurred by rising fuel prices: “Some of these clubs are a hundred years old” he reminded us, “and they were started partly as a means of sharing transport back when cars were scarce.”
Climbing by public transport is certainly possible, and recommended. Bus links around the UK aren’t actually that bad, but a bit of planning will go a long way – get the timetables beforehand so there are no unexpected surprises. You’re likely to find better bus links in popular destinations like North Wales, the Peak District. David Gibson also sings the praises of the Scottish train routes, including the West Highland line, which he stop at a number of quality mountaineering destinations. CityLink buses also drive through Glen Coe and Fort William on their way to Skye.
Perhaps the BMC should add detailed public transport information to its Regional Access Database too? The BMC’s environmental focus should be on lowering climbers’ transport emissions just as much as nature conservation. After all, there’ll be no more native plants and birds to conserve once global warming has had its way!
Zara Maung is a climate reporter and has begun editing ecoclimber.com, a new website for climbers and outdoor sports people concerned about climate change. Julie Black is a conservation scientist who has just completed her doctoral thesis. Her research interests can be viewed at www.iccs.org.uk. Thanks go to DMM, who supported the trip by contributing climbing hardware.
Carbon Trust Report
YETI Carbon Calculator
Stanage Bus Timetable
Bus 300 timetable