Queue for the summit: when mountains go viral

Posted by Ed Douglas on 29/08/2013
Room for a little one? Snowdon's busy summit. Photo: Ray Wood

What happens when a mountain becomes a meme? When a human swarm decides spending a bank holiday reaching the summit of a peak is the thing to do? You get predictable headlines about overcrowding and ill-prepared novices – and calls to change the rules. But, as Ed Douglas explains, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

Take a good look at the picture above. See anything unusual? I mean, apart from the fact that the summit of Snowdon, even by its own freakish standards, is unusually busy? Do you see people smiling and having a good time? That many have smartphones? That a woman is wearing sandals? Or did you spot the hairy-arsed bloke in trainers and a wedding dress picking his way around the summit cairn?

I have to say it was the man in the dress that got my attention. If you trip and break an ankle, that’s an awkward conversation to be having with the mountain rescue when they arrive to help you out. On the other hand, the newspapers and the BBC weren’t so interested in this stag do with a view. They focussed on the mob on the roof of Wales. Walkers were, the BBC claimed, wholly erroneously, queuing for two hours to stand on the summit. ‘Rush hour on Mount Snowdon’ ran the headline in the Telegraph.

There’s nothing new in Britain’s best-known hills being crowded on a sunny bank holiday. But the national media is now sensitised to queues on mountains, following the global publication of Ralf Dujmovits’ picture of a line of climbers jumaring up to the South Col of Everest and reports of climbers queuing for the Hillary Step or scrapping with Sherpas. It’s an easy cliché: mountains were once all about freedom and isolation but consumerism has made them as crowded as our seaside resorts.

Snowdon is one of a select group of mountains around the world that have the kind of profile that attracts crowds and headlines. Everest is another, albeit on a much smaller scale. More people climbed Snowdon last Sunday, when this photo was taken, than have ever climbed Everest. But the level of public attention is boggling. Ben Nevis and Scafell Pikes, Kilimanjaro and Mont Blanc – they are the pin-ups that everyone wants to see in the flesh, targets for numberless charity events and the idly curious.

Flick through your local paper and most weeks there will be a story about enthusiastic fund-raisers heading for one of these mountains, most usually one or all of the ‘Three Peaks’ or Kilimanjaro. The flip side of that coin is the other outdoor staple the local press seem to love: rescue stories, especially if they involve the ill-prepared and ignorant. Here’s one picked at random from the Lochaber News: “Blast for walker’s act of ‘sheer stupidity.’”

Sometimes, in a heavenly moment of serendipity, these contrasting types of story converge, as in the case of the Ilford girl who climbed Snowdon in five-inch heels to raise money for a local hospice.

This popularity has consequences: on the environment, on the lives of local people and on how people view and practise mountaineering. Lurid headlines prompt a reaction from police and local politicians. On Snowdon, for example, police have suggested stationing officers at the start of the PyG track to check on the preparedness of walkers. Something similar is already happening on Mont Blanc. And on Everest next season, the authorities in Kathmandu have promised tourism officials will be checking permits and keeping the peace.

Most of us don’t want to see this kind of infringement on the freedom of the hills, but the environmental questions are more complex. As the Snowdonia National Park explains in its newly published recreational strategy, there should be “equitable, widespread and sustainable access which recognises the need to protect tranquillity and discourage damaging activities,” while at the same time boosting “the positive economic and community impacts of recreation.” Which, when translated, sounds perilously close to having your cake and eating it.

Yet there’s another way to view this photograph, not as the symptom of a problem, but as the promise of an opportunity. “We’re very interested in these people,” says John Cousins, executive officer of Mountain Training UK (MTUK). “If all of them want to stand on top of this mountain, then I’ve no doubt that some of them will want to stand on top of another one. It’s an immense opportunity. These people are there to be inspired.”

Cousins is worried that criticising novices who make basic errors in the press is the wrong message. “I don’t like it when people are damned, unless they’re doing everything flagrantly wrong. There was a family that took their seven-year-old on Snowdon in February and they were just hammered. All stories like that do is drive people away. It’s better to redirect them, say what a great thing it is to be out for a walk but that they’ve made a poor choice.”

Some mountain rescue volunteers agree with him. Elfyn Jones is not only an access officer for the BMC, he’s also a member of the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team, which has Snowdon on its beat. He says Llanberis MRT avoids making critical remarks about the people they rescue, even though, because it’s Snowdon, the team sees an abnormally high number of easily avoided call-outs – including the couple of dozen call-outs each year of tourists who take the train up and then try to walk down.

“How many of us as climbers go somewhere like Cloggy in trainers, in shorts, without getting a proper forecast? And I certainly won’t have a map and compass. We recently rescued a young lad and his girlfriend, they’d missed the path, scrambled up, got crag-fast and the lad had fallen and broken his leg.” The couple were criticised by another team that helped with the rescue for wearing jogging pants and trainers. “But that had nothing to do with the accident. They were out, having an adventure, in the same way that I do.”

Jones adds: “Most of the serious accidents, those that involve serious injury or fatality, that I attend are generally people who are experienced, have the right kit and know what they’re doing.”

Both Jones and Cousins feel that simply regarding tourists on Snowdon and similarly busy peaks as either a nuisance or a revenue stream isn’t good enough. A more coherent effort has to be made to offer them advice and guidance. Next year, Cousins says, Britain’s training boards will launch a two-day hillwalking course to complete novices, “people who don’t have the first idea about going up a hill but want to have a go.” It’s a model, Cousins explains, that’s already been tried and tested in Ireland. “We’ve learned a lot from Mountaineering Ireland,” he says, adding that self-reliance will be “a guiding principle.”

Making people aware of how to manage risk makes experiencing the outdoors safer – and more rewarding – but local authorities, under pressure from the police and media, are not always sympathetic. They like to be seen to be doing something definitive. Both Cousins and Jones want to see a grander vision for how recreation is managed in Snowdonia. “There’s one organisation that should be co-ordinating all this,” says Jones, “and that’s the Snowdonia National Park. But their rangers these days have very little background in mountain recreation.”

Governments and health services, anxious about populations becoming fat and unfit, are urging us outside. Outdoor businesses are tempting us with the promise of excitement and nature in the raw. In Snowdonia, the EU is putting money into marketing local outdoor tourism, just as the UK government sucks money from the national parks and outdoor centres that can teach us how to be in these places. It seems we have more outdoor industry these days, and less outdoor education.

“In a busy year,” Jones says, “We are looking at half a million people on Snowdon. Where’s the recognition of the impact that has? There’s a lack of foresight and a lack of infrastructure for tourists. If you had the traffic problems Snowdon has in Caernarfon or Bangor, something would be done immediately.”

The fear is that the avalanche of stories about overcrowding and dangerous behaviour will prompt draconian measures, undermining how we experience the hills. Cousins cites the suggestion by the coroner at Caernarfon that a stone wall be built across the Devil’s Kitchen following a fatality. “We have a lot of freedom on British hills,” he says. “That’s a great thing. The delight of our mountains is that we’re free to move about them.”

This article is part of BMC on Foot, a push to raise awareness of the BMC’s work for hill walkers and its stance on a range of topical issues affecting hill walkers. Please help us by completing our hill walking survey.

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Anonymous User
30/08/2013
This is a well balanced view. Access to the hills should always be encouraged, not restricted to those 'in the know', and chastising these people is a missed opportunity. For those in the know, there is a responsibility to allow people the opportunity to enjoy our wild places safely, but not to the detriment of the landscape, therefore it needs to come through education. It is inevitable,that Snowden isn't going to get any bigger, but the population, and it's affluence and mobility will, so the crowds will only get bigger and it is a natural progression that the thousands that once thronged on Rhyl Pleasure Beach will seek more adventurous activities as society becomes more cosseted and 'safe'. Just as the mountain won't change, it's hazards won't either, and frequently it is the very crowds themselves that add to those dangers. Again, education is the key to ensure as many as possible can share the experience joyfully, safely and with the lasting impression that next week, they'll search out a peak a little further over the horizon.
Jonjo Knott, Army doc and intermittent mountaineer.
Anonymous User
01/09/2013
Some interesting points made and I say that in the spirit of adventure, mountains should remain open to access. If a wall was built across the devils kitchen Im fairly sure there would be ques of people with hammers of which Id be one, taking the damn thing down piece by piece.
Anonymous User
01/09/2013
Hi, you seem to have forgotten that there is a train going to the top of Snowdon and that many of those ill-dressed people may have been on it ? One could scale Snowdon wearing only speedos if you go on the train !!
Anonymous User
02/09/2013
Almost all of us must have made mistakes ourselves in the past, when we were novices; in most cases we were lucky enough to get away with it, and learnt from the experience. It has been said that experience is something you gain ten minutes after you needed it. Traditionally, mountain rescuers have recognised this, and were unwilling to criticise people who had got into difficulties. I welcome Elfyn Jones' attitude. It is just a shame that some of our colleagues in high profile MR teams have chosen to take a different approach.

Jen Mason
Anonymous User
02/09/2013
a brilliant balanced article. I think rather than fighting the issue managing the issue of crowds is the best. Providing support to people to become qualified to teach (ensuring skills and safest environment), set up a business or clubs with financial management assistance and aids with issues such as insurance. I also think a method of on the ground care (e.g. a ranger style service of the peak busy areas) can help protect novices rather than shun them or letting them fall into the easy pitfalls. People can then be taken into the mountains by those in the know. If these people act responsibly then people can be educated in sustainable safe techniques to access these fantastic environments. (this way all get access and crowed balanced as well as allowing those who develop a love the mountains to go on and join the privileged few on those more remote environments we all dearly love and wish to protect). this matches how many of us learnt from our close friends and family (a way that seems unable to sustain the level of interest). Unfortunately I had to leave outdoor education as I didnt feel i could sustain enough work to move away which i would have needed to progress. I love what i do now but wish others and friends who are powering through the hard (poorly paid and costly early years) could give their enthusiasm and passion for the outdoors with less strife. All the best with further addressing the issues.
Anonymous User
02/09/2013
Hairy-arsed bloke? No need. Stick to the story. Call me old fashioned, but I like my BMC articles to be just like the peaks... accessible to all.
Anonymous User
02/09/2013
Good balanced article and yes, mountains and wild places should be available to everyone. We all cut our teeth as novices and many more will follow us. It's great that not everything is as well signposted as Europe, that is what makes it exciting. It's good that some of it is accessible to those less able. What isn't good is the lack of signage on the Pyg Track when you can turn to walk up Crib Goch. I was up there a couple of months ago and came across at least three people who 'just wanted to walk up Snowdon' and were terrified of where they ended up. Sure they didn't have maps or walking boots on, but on a glorious sunny day on a well trod path, why do you need them? Just follow the crowd -but make sure it is the right one.
Anonymous User
02/09/2013
I was up there with a group this weekend and it was heaving! It's not my choice of Mountain this time of year - but having that many people who do want to climb it in the summer has to be great for the Local Economy. And as the article said, it's great to encourage those who do wish to climb more mountains.

And on a completely selfish note - as Snowdon is the 'Everest of Wales' - it does often leave the surrounding hills a bit more free for us others - where the parking is cheaper too!
Anonymous User
02/09/2013
Indeed it is an oppurtunity to encourage people into the outdoors lifestyle. A lifestyle which is far more healthy than that which many a family seem to spend their bank holidays doing. Usually drinking heavily or shopping.
As for those who are not entering the mountains prepared, I don't think anyone is born with mountain knowledge, it is something which is learnt often through experience. Sometimes the lessons are learnt the hard way, but lets not forget, even the most experienced and prepared of mountaineers isn't exempt from what nature has to through at them.
Maybe best we don't damn and judge those with less experience, but encourage and nurture their enthusiasm. As for those of us who want a bit of solitude in the great outdoors, well there a many a less popular mountain to climb or walk and many of them are far more enjoyable.
Anonymous User
02/09/2013
I was one of those people on Snowden that day. I am training for my ML but I was keen to take my 13 year old son and my wife on their first mountain in Wales. My MLTfriend also came along.
In the main we witnessed too many ill prepared walkers. Lots wearing sandals or flip flops and some carrying hand bags instead of a day sack.
It was very busy but no queue for the summit.
I was at timed angry and sad at the lack of preparation by the majority of people. As I explained to my son, plan for the worst but hope for the best.
Anonymous User
02/09/2013
having just walked snowdon last Wednesday , up the Pyg track and down the miners track, I never found the walk overly strenuous at any point, admitidly we adhered to advice and took warm clothing, waterproofs etc, in hindsight for what the weather turned out to be we had too much gear with us, but we followed the better safe than sorry advice. we did take an os map and a GPS , although the day was sunny and clear, once the cloud closed in at the summit though the temperature rapidly dropped until the clouds had passed.
we were shocked to see people walking up in sandles and with no othe spare clothes or rucksacks for the basics.
on the way down a lady with two dogs was pulled off a large step in the path by her dogs, my partner who is a nurse administered first aid to what was actually quite a bad cut to the head, our group and another group then escorted her and her dogs back to the car park. luckily we had a first aid kit on hand although my partner strongly recommended she go to a and e to have would checked , cleaned and stitched as required.
I think access should be free for whoever would like to walk it , but education for those with no idea is a damn fine idea, not only to prevent injury and deaths to the walkers but also to the rescue teams who are expected to rescue them.
Anonymous User
02/09/2013
I was up there on the bank holiday, when the queue was right down to the cafe. The cause? one train hadn't yet left and another had just turned up, result; short term rush before the trains departed. We had gone up the Pyg Track with a novice and were dressed and kitted correctly, but although I have seen a lady in a yellow dress and matching handbag walking up in times gone by, the crowd was a temporary thing and train up train down heated cafe in between, does not require ice axes and crampons in due fairness to joe public.
Anonymous User
02/09/2013
The word "climbed" Snowdon is used frequently but does anyone actually ever "climb" Snowdon... the hard way!
Anonymous User
19/08/2016
My Dad had a tremendous battle with his headmaster when he, a teacher, wanted to take his class up the Sugar Loaf. "What if it rains?" "What will they do there?" He won in the end, and the kids appreciated the lack of the promised/joked supermarket and amusement arcade at the top and realised that wasn't essential for a good day out.
Snowdon caters well to tourists with a train to, and a cafe & gift shop at the top. Sca Fell & Ben Nevis don't offer this, but in any case it's great to just do a bit of preparation, and reap the rewards of the efforts you put in getting there by enjoying these splendid mountains

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