An Interview with Joel and Tang from Common Ground
Common Ground are a group of outdoor enthusiasts dedicated to bringing people together.
From their wildly popular organised hikes to the enthusiastic conversations on their Discord channel, they thumb their noses at exclusivity and elitism—opting instead for an open-source attitude that welcomes everyone along for the walk.
A few of them recently took a trip to the legendary bouldering mecca of Fontainebleau in France with a big bag of Gramicci gear and a few rolls of film. Now they’re back on home soil, we caught up with a few of the founders—Joel and Tang—to find out a bit more…
Organising hikes... doing events at climbing walls... running a Discord channel, Common Ground covers quite a wide range of activities. How would you describe Common Ground?
Joel: ‘Finding common ground between strangers’. This is a broad statement but it summarises what we do quite well. At our core it's about bringing people together—whether that is out on a hike run by us or going for a climb at your local gym with a group you met through our Discord.
Tang: Common Ground is a welcoming community for like minded people who enjoy outdoor activities and having a good time that breaks the barrier of ‘stranger danger’.
Going back to the beginning, what was the initial spark that set it off? When did it go from just a few of you going out for a walk to something more?
Joel: Initially it was six of us who’d chatted on Instagram and decided to meet up for a wander in the peaks. After we all posted about the day, more people wanted to join so we got them involved. We very quickly outgrew the Instagram group chat, which was full inside 30 mins, so we moved over to Discord to set up a better curated forum for people to meet up and chat.
Each event we put on it seems to grow more and more. We are now at over 2,200 Discord members and it doesn't seem to be slowing down.
I imagine it’s a bit of a buzz to have such a big turnout at your organised hikes. How do you manage them logistically?
Joel: I seem to be always trying to make sure people are enjoying it, making sure everyone is okay and taking photos at the same time. With the five of us who organise the events it's easy to share the load and make sure it's a good day all round.
Tang: Although the walks with a huge turnout look insane in pictures they’re also ridiculously stressful—almost like herding sheep. We’ve actually bought walkie talkies to talk to each other and have a structure of spreading us guys in front, middle and back so everyone is accounted for.
The online world and the outdoors are often seen as polar opposites—but Common Ground shows that they both can be used together. What are your attitudes to the internet? How do you strike the balance between using it as a tool, without getting swallowed up by it?
Joel: I think like a lot of things nowadays it's about using it in moderation and not getting too caught up in the whirlwind, which I admit is a hard thing to do. We couldn't have created this community without it and I wouldn't have met a lot of great people without it, but it's knowing when to switch it off and be in the moment. With the events Common Ground puts on I’d like to think it's something we help people with, as it definitely helped me. You can't be scrolling Instagram or TikTok when you have no signal halfway up a hill, so it forces people to chat and socialise with others around them.
Tang: The juxtaposition of being an online community and the outdoors is what makes it work so well I think, especially over the lockdown period where people felt alone they turned to the internet for some form of companionship. That’s where we came in, giving people a platform to go and bond with anyone nationally. Like Joel said, it’s very easy to get swallowed up by creating content but it’s about knowing when to really enjoy the moment you’re in and switch off the phone.
These photos were taken during a trip to Fontainebleau in France—a legendary bouldering spot with a lot of history. What was it like climbing there? How did it differ from your local stuff in the UK?
Joel: After watching countless videos and reading enough guidebooks to last me a lifetime I was worried it wouldn't live up to the hype but it definitely did and then some. It was amazing to be climbing there and attempting (being the main word) the climbs I'd read and seen online. A lot of them were humbling and a few got climbed but it gave me a new found motivation to get stronger and head back to get the ones that got away.
I felt like I wasn’t climbing correctly because my skin was still intact and I could see my fingerprints.
I'm lucky enough to live an hour away from the peaks so I do have a lot of amazing climbing on my doorstep but the sheer amount of climbing and the amount of different types of boulders is in the forest is ridiculous. If you want slabs there's slabs, if you want caves there's caves and if you want dynos, guess what? There are those too. The community aspect of climbing outdoors is especially prevalent too which is so good to see, on many occasions we were offered extra mats, beta advice and just good vibes. Everyone seems to be there to have a good time and enjoy the outdoors together.
Tang: The rock is completely different to what we are used to in the UK. I usually go to Stanage or Curbar to climb outdoors and the rocks there are gritstone—you’d attempt a climb twice and your skin would be completely destroyed. We climbed for four days straight on sandstone in Fontainebleau and my skin was completely fine—it was almost magical. I felt like I wasn’t climbing correctly because my skin was still intact and I could see my fingerprints.
At a time when more and more people are climbing indoors, how important is it to actually get outside and go on a trip like this?
Joel: I think a trip like this is an amazing experience, whether you’re working one v14 or want to get around and do 60 v1 climbs. I climb indoors mainly which is convenient and good for getting stronger but there is just something about topping out a boulder outside that hits different. It wasn't all about the climbing either, going and experiencing the different cultures and seeing different things is an amazing experience in itself.
Tang: I think every climber has a different goal in mind, some will venture out and others will stay indoors. I mainly climb indoors and seldom go outside on the rocks but the climbing styles for both are completely different, you can be a little bit more daring indoors because you know the mat underneath will absorb most of the impact whereas when you’re climbing outside you have to be more precise, more thoughtful of your movements and be aware of where your mat is incase you do drop the send. With that being said the feeling of topping out a boulder outside is incredibly rewarding, though a humbling experience.
Do you have a favourite local spot back in the UK? Where do you go when you’ve only got an afternoon to play with?
Joel: The best local spot is the Peaks. I can get to the north and eastern areas in 40 minutes so that's definitely my go to. There's heaps of climbing, loads of walks and plenty of places to swim in the summer. My local area is really good too, it doesn't take me long to wander into farmers’ fields and I can easily spend an afternoon wandering about not too far from home.
I also have a crag close to me named Church Crag which has a good mix of easier stuff and some harder projects I’ve been working on. That was really good during Covid when I was working from home—I used to take a longer lunch and get an hour or two in on nice days.
What ingredients make a good day in the hills? Is it about the weather? Company? Location? What’s your perfect day look like?
Joel: I think it all depends how I’m feeling. I’ve had days with horrible weather but with great company and in an amazing location so that more than makes up for the snow and rain. But then I've also had amazing days taking myself off on my own and getting through a few podcasts, soaking in the sun. A perfect day for me would be heading up something big with the Common Ground lads, maybe a scramble thrown in and 100% with a pint and maybe some pub grub at the end.
Tang: The weather definitely affects the mood but I truly believe there’s no such thing as bad weather but bad preparation, so pack the waterproof and that should keep your spirits fairly high. I would say location and company are the priority. I like to see areas of interest on a walk and take in the scenery in your surroundings. I’ve really enjoyed the days where we’ve taken on a mountain, descended and then gone to a climbing gym that’s close by, not many people have that level of energy but I am almost always down for a climb afterwards.
From climbing to cycling it feels like attitudes in outdoor activities have maybe become more open in the last decade—with boundaries being broken down and less exclusivity—but there’s maybe still a way to go yet. Where would you like to see the outdoor scene in the next ten years? What needs to be done?
Joel: I feel like groups like ourselves need to keep pushing to open up the doors to the outdoors. Within our scene the clothing is a big part of the culture and some people may think they need a £400 Gore-Tex Pro jacket to go out on a walk, which isn't the case. I appreciate that Instagram feeds into this as the photos you see of us, we are wearing these expensive coats or out camping with all the gear. Most of the gear I have is either purchased second hand or I have been lucky enough to be gifted it. So I think it's a case of continuously pushing that you don't need to have all the expensive gear to go out.
Getting out of the car and seeing a summit—and then reaching it—is what it's about for me. The feeling never gets old.
Education on being safe and being kind to the environment is a big thing I'd like to see more of. During Covid a lot of younger people took to wild camping with their friends, but did not think about the environment and definitely left a trace. You often see rubbish laid about popular camping spots and burn marks on the ground. It's not hard to take everything home with you and leave with no trace.
What next for Common Ground? What have you lot got in the pipeline?
Joel: More of the same really—trying to get more people outside and trying to make the outdoors more inclusive.
Tang: Upcoming we have a climbing event held in Leicester in collaboration with our friends, Mellow Clo. We’ve done one of these in Manchester and found huge success. The plan for 2024 is definitely more hikes, more climbing, more collaborations and I’ve been playing with the idea of a cycling club?!
Sounds good. Last question—what’s the best bit about an afternoon in the mountains? What is it that keeps you going back?
Joel: For me it's the sense of achievement, getting out of the car and seeing a summit—and then reaching it—is what it's about for me, and the feeling never gets old.
Tang: I hold the time spent hustling up a mountain with friends and the scenery you’re rewarded at the top very highly. It’s a euphoric feeling and to do it with people you enjoy the company of? Absolutely incredible.