A Brief History of OUMC

The Oxford University Mountaineering Club (OUMC) was founded in 1909 at a meeting of nine Oxford undergraduates. Proposed by Balliol undergraduate Arnold Lunn (now famous for his development of modern skiing, but also a prominent mountaineer), OUMC was formed to legitimise the activities of an 'unofficial' club that practiced their sport at night, on the rooftops of Oxford. In the early years, members rarely climbed together, but met socially during term to discuss their adventures and techniques. Members were frequently killed, mountaineering being almost suicidally dangerous at the time, and many were lost in the First World War.

Re-formed after the War, the new OUMC was somewhat more cohesive, with small groups attending meets in the holidays, and later during term-time. Membership of the club gradually expanded, and notable climbs in Wales, Scotland and the Alps were surmounted with varying levels of success. To quote Elliot Viney, writing in 1959, the OUMC standard of climbing at the time was "casual, slightly cynical, rarely spectacular and often less than competent". Several significant ascents were made overseas, especially in the Caucasus and Himalaya, but the golden days of OUMC remained over the horizon.

The notable exception to this was George Mallory and Andrew Irvine's famous attempt on the summit of Everest in 1924. Irvine, an undergraduate at Merton from 1921, was an accomplished athlete and a well-liked member of the club. The tragic details of the expedition have been discussed extensively elsewhere, but needless to say it remains a highly significant event in the development of mountaineering. The AC Irvine Travel Fund was established in memory of this young climber, and continues to make adventurous mountaineering a possibility for Oxford students today.

During the Second World War, the club's activities declined significantly but OUMC itself remained in existence, with one or two small meets each year attended by the remnants of the depleted membership. The end of the war and return of ex-servicemen swelled the ranks of the club; however, experienced mountaineers were in short supply, and petrol rationing limited the frequency of trips to the mountains.

After several years of generally moderate climbing, the arrival of a new generation of inspired young mountaineers, including such distinguished names as Tom Bourdillon, Hamish Nicol, Michael Westmacott and Charles Evans. During the early 1950s, OUMC members were at the forefront of British achievements in the Alps and elsewhere, pushing through the TD and ED barriers; grades never before surmounted by British climbers. Several OUMC members were selected for John Hunt's successful expedition to Everest; Bourdillon and Evans reached the South Summit (8750m, then the highest summit reached) on 26th May 1953. The trail-breaking and oxygen supplies provided by the pair were of great assistance in the historic ascent of the peak by the expedition's second climbing pair, Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, on 29th May. Meanwhile, Westmacott was responsible for finding and maintaining the path through the dangerous Khumbu Icefall. Evans was later the Leader of the first successful expedition to Kangchenjunga in 1955.

The 1950s also marked the return of the Oxford University Women's Mountaineering Club (OUWMC). Initially founded in 1924 with the support of OUMC, the women's club was active for over a decade, with meets in the UK and abroad every year until 1937, when it was liquidated. OUWMC was briefly resurrected in 1943 and 1950, but it wasn't until 1953 that interest was revived in earnest. Throughout the 1950s, OUWMC held meets and lectures, before effectively merging with OUMC around 1959, when the latter club elected to accept female members.

The standards of climbing in the club increased throughout the 1960s and 70s, with regular meets throughout the UK as new cars and minibuses brought distant climbing destinations within reach of weekend trips. OUMC members trained extensively in the Avon Gorge and big routes in the Alps. Competitiveness and modern equipment brought on a golden age in climbing generally, as trad gear progressed from improvised machine nuts to dedicated, high-quality protection, and rubber rock boots became the norm. Hard rock climbing became a discipline to rival traditional mountaineering, and in the 70s Britain's first E6, Quiver on Cloggy, was put up by OUMC members Phil Bartlett and Andy Brazier. In 1979, the bouldering wall at the Iffley Sports Centre was constructed, giving club members a dedicated training facility in Oxford.

Hard ascents on club meets continued into the 1980s, with many members climbing routes in the low to mid-E grades in Wales and the Peak. In 1988, Stephen Venables, a member of the club from 1972 to 1975, became the first British climber to reach the summit of Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen. His ascent to the South Col had been by a new route on the Kangshung Face. From the South Summit he proceeded solo, after his teammates turned back due to exhaustion.

As standards progressed and rock climbing entered the mainstream, the typical membership of OUMC fell further behind the forefront of achievement, as young undergraduates could no longer be expected to compete with dedicated athletes around the world. The priorities of successive committees shifted gradually from fostering the highest-achieving mountaineers to introducing newcomers and relative beginners to the sport.

However, this change in focus has not prevented the names of OUMC and its members from appearing on route names and the mountaineering news on a regular basis.

OUMC has a long history of exploratory mountaineering in the greater ranges, with expeditions having visited and made first ascents of peaks in Greenland, Spitsbergen,Peru, Wakhan, Kishtwar, the Karakorum and the Himalayas, among others.