Climbers resist imposition of fees: Stephen Goodwin on the threat to freedom of mountaineers

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The Independent Online
THE CUSTOMARY freedom of climbers to practise their sport on the crags and cliffs of Britain without charge is increasingly threatened, an international festival hosted by the British Mountaineering Council in Buxton, Derbyshire, will be told today.

With the 40th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest just two months away, the festival, held every two years, will conclude with a presentation on the world's highest mountain by summiteers Chris Bonington and Stephen Venables.

Climbers from Europe, North America, India and Kazakhstan will give accounts of some of the most difficult rock and ice around the globe.

But what should really chill the blood of the several hundred in the audience is that not many miles from Buxton a farmer has put a price of pounds 5 a head on the use of a limestone crag on his land.

Nepal has a dollars 10,000 a head ( pounds 6,800) royalty on Everest, but paying for the raw material of their sport at home is an innovation much resented by British climbers.

For Bill Wright, the BMC's access and conservation officer, charging for crags is a growing problem. In the past 18 months he has been alerted to 10 places where climbers have come under pressure to pay, from the Peak District to North and South Wales and southern England.

Mr Wright is reluctant to give the precise location of threatened crags while there is a chance of avoiding a fee. But even he has given up over Rainster Rock at Brassington, Derbyshire. 'It's sad. The rock is pocketed limestone with routes up to about 100 feet and one of the few limestone crags suitable for beginners. The farmer tries to charge pounds 5 a head but it's obvious climbers are staying away. The foot of crag has become overgrown with nettles,' Mr Wright said.

He and the county council have failed in attempts to get an agreement with the farmer.

More worrying to the BMC has been the consideration given to charging by the National Trust, which owns some of the finest crags in the country. Last year it acquired a stretch of Dorset coast near Swanage which includes Dancing Ledge, an outstanding piece of limestone sea cliff very popular with climbers. It is a designated conservation area and includes a colony of nesting puffins. The trust has reached agreement with five local climbing centres to control numbers. The centres, which operate commercially, were paying 'a small amount' towards the cost of visitor facilities, the trust said. To the BMC's relief, more direct charging ideas were discarded.

'We are resolute that we do not pay to climb, not a penny,' Mr Wright said. But this principled stand is undermined by organisations which negotiate private deals, often for outdoor pursuit courses. 'Then you go with a friend and are asked to pay. It is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.' He cited a demand of pounds 15.

The council is not opposed to charges for facilities such as car parks and lavatories. One of the busiest climbing spots is Harrison's Rocks near Groombridge, East Sussex. A haven for rock-starved climbers in the South-east, it is run by a Sports Council-BMC management committee.

Climbers are exhorted in car park notices to make a donation of 20p a head towards maintaining the visitor facilities and sandstone outcrop. More money is given voluntarily than was taken by an earlier attempt to charge for parking at Harrison's.

The theme for the Buxton Festival is 'freedom'. Mr Wright will warn that freedom of access must be balanced by individual responsibility.

'If individual rights are to be maintained or improved then climbers and walkers must assume greater responsibilities by adhering to self-imposed codes of practice and making voluntary contributions to preserving the environment. The behaviour of the climber and walker should be such that he or she leaves no trace of passing.'

(Photograph omitted)