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.”
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