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Editing TGO Magazine - in the beginning

I was the editor of The Great Outdoors Magazine, or TGO as it was known for most of my time, between 1990 and 2010.

On this, the 40th birthday year of the title, I thought I'd look back at the circumstances that brought my long-running editorship into being.

In this extract from my book, There's Always the Hills, my move to the TGO editor's desk came about as a result of a job swap.

On one glorious autumn afternoon in 1989 I was rock-climbing with Peter Evans on the Etive Slabs, on the eastern slopes of Beinn Trilleachean above Loch Etive. When seen head-on from Ben Starav across the waters of the sea loch, these boiler-plate slabs hang from the mountain like a grey curtain, and they contain some of the most surreal rock climbs in the country. Etive slab climbing is friction climbing, tiptoeing upwards through a steep ocean of granite, relying on the sandpaper roughness of the rock. It’s not climbing for the faint-hearted.

Peter and I climbed a lot together and that afternoon tackled two of the Etive Slabs classics, Hammer (HVS) and Spartan Slab (VS). The climbing was magnificent: the warm sun had dried the crag of early morning drizzle and we delighted in the rough nature of the rock, tiptoeing up ridiculously steep granite relying virtually solely on the friction of our boots.

It’s fair to say that Peter was a better rock climber than I was and on that particular day he ably demonstrated his prowess. As we romped down the hill after our second ascent, which Peter had led, I congratulated him on his performance. In what was to become a somewhat prophetic utterance, he joked that perhaps he was in the wrong job. Maybe he should be editor of Climber and I should be editor of the Great Outdoors?

Walking back to the car along the lochside I mulled this over. While I loved editing Climber magazine, there were several issues evolving in the climbing world at that time that I didn’t go along with, issues that made me uncomfortable. Indoor climbing was one of them. Climbing walls were being built all over the country and many climbers were treating them like gymnasia. Others had virtually given up climbing outside and, along with this explosion of climbing walls, inevitably came competition climbing.

I had already attended a major competition in Leeds and it had bored me rigid. It was like watching paint dry. I knew the British Mountaineering Council was very keen to embrace this new activity and was pushing for climbing to be recognised as a future Olympic sport, which it now is, but I argued against the idea whenever I could.

The only real ally I had on the Public Relations Committee of the BMC was the late Ken Wilson, the book publisher who was generally regarded as the conscience of British climbing.

Ken and I fought vociferously against climbing competitions, arguing that climbing was an outdoor activity. Hearing the birds sing, dealing with the weather, feeling natural rock against your fingertips were all vital attributes of the sport. The only person you should compete against was yourself, but our arguments were to no avail. The BMC could obviously see government aid and subsidy coming their way if the Olympic Games embraced climbing.

I was convinced that Olympic approval would mean professionalism and had seen what happened when track and field athletics went down that route. I certainly wasn’t keen on having to report on indoor climbing competitions in what I had always considered to be an outdoors magazine. Perhaps Peter’s throwaway comment about swapping jobs would be worth considering.

As we drove south I mentioned the subject again and, while admitting he had merely been joking, Peter did say he’d have a think about it. A few days later he told me he’d be up for it. We went to see Mike Ure our publisher who gave the idea his blessing and so I became editor of the Great Outdoors. I had the most curious feeling that I had come home.

Peter and I swapped jobs in 1990. The Great Outdoors magazine had been losing circulation, thanks to a glut of copycat titles that had been unashamedly published by bigger and wealthier publishers. In an attempt to stem the flow, I introduced some new writers and columnists, bringing in my old pal Chris Townsend as gear editor and another dear friend, Jim Perrin, as a regular essayist.

It’s exciting to take over a new title but it also takes a little time for readers to catch on to what you are doing. Although the Great Outdoors was ostensibly a magazine that catered for walkers from Cornwall to Cape Wrath, I wanted it to be a hillwalking and backpacking title, a return to my own outdoor loves. With the exception of the Lake District and North Wales there are few mountains and hills to speak of other than in Scotland, so that’s where I wanted the emphasis of the magazine to be.

Let’s face it, you couldn’t find an editor with a more Scottish name then me, the magazine was published in Scotland and Scotland was where the real hills, mountains and wild land are to be found. To emphasise my point, there were now other magazines available that would cover walks in the Cotswolds, the South Downs and other areas of the south. My editorial emphasis would be towards Scotland, the Lake District and North Wales.

An extract from There's Always the Hills, published by Sandstone Press, £19.99

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