There has been a lot of controversy recently about ill-equipped people on the hills but perhaps sometimes we should not be as quick to judge.
I am well aware of the dangers of walking and climbing in the British mountains. I have spent many hundreds of hours out in the hills myself and seen a wide variety of less than ideal equipment. My husband was in the Mountain Rescue for over ten years so I know full well the pressure they are under and the number of easily preventable call outs they are forced to make. I agree that people out in the hills should equip themselves as well as possible and should take responsibility for their own actions and a good part of my working life is spent helping people be safer in the hills, advising them on sensible route choices and the best kit to buy. However I do think we need to be slower to judge people we know nothing about.
Did you have an expensive Gore-Tex jacket the first time you went out into the hills? I know I didn’t. I started hill walking as a teenager in a baggy cotton tracksuit, ill-fitting second hand walking boots and the cheapest waterproofs money could buy. And I loved it. Of course I wouldn’t go out dressed like that now – I know how much more comfortable it is in more expensive kit – but who is going to go out and buy all of that kit before they know whether hill walking is really for them? I know a very accomplished climber who started off his rock climbing career in a quarry with his Mum’s washing line tied around his waist. I’d be terrified if I saw someone doing that now but there is no doubt that experience shaped the course of his life. What would have happened without it?
Part of the Twitter furore around this topic involved criticsm of a “girl on crutches” on Helvellyn and that was really what made me passionately want to write this blog. The implication was that she too should be included in the trainers in the snow brigade and banned from the hills. I don’t know who this particular person was but I do know an amazing woman who regularly gets out into the mountains with the help of crutches. She doesn’t let her long term disability get in the way of her passion for being out in the hills. She is always extremely well equipped, wearing good quality boots and clothing. She always carries a tent with her in case the pain gets too much and she cannot make it back to her car. She has come on courses with us to improve her navigational skills – she now knows exactly how many times she places her crutches down in a hundred metres. But she doesn’t usually go out at the weekends because whenever she is out in the hills she gets strangers telling her she shouldn’t be there. I admire her immensely for having the grit and determination to keep going and to make the most of every day and it makes me very sad to know that she does not feel welcome in the hills.
Can it really be true in this day and age that we think people with disabilities or people who cannot afford the latest jacket should not be allowed in the hills? Should Jamie Andrew have stopped climbing after he lost both hands and both feet in a climbing accident in the Alps? Should Karen Darke have given up after her sea cliff climbing accident and not gone on to climb El Capitan in Yosemite, or sit-ski across the Greenland icecap? Of course they shouldn’t. They are an inspiration to all of us.
The North West Evening Mail asked in a Tweet if “poorly equipped walkers should be made to make a financial contribution if they have to be rescued” and the responses were all in full support. But who would make this call? Who would define “poorly equipped”? My husband and I are both very experienced but we have been tutted at by strangers on more than one occassion. A few years ago we were just starting our walk and heading uphill at 4pm and a passing group questioned our decision and “joked” that we had better have Mountain Rescue on speed dial for when we got lost. It was the middle of summer, the walk we had planned was around three hours (we had at least six hours before it got dark), we had headtorches with us, we knew how to navigate in the dark and one of us was a Mountain Rescue team member. They of course didn’t know any of that but they judged that we were making a poor decision.
The Mountain Rescue teams are under a huge amount of pressure and there are people out there who are making ill-thought out decisions and hoping that someone else will sort it out for them. However I feel very strongly that this should not become an excuse for making the hills the preserve of able bodied, middle class, white people. We all had to start somewhere and we have all made mistakes. Between us Nick and I have walked down completely the wrong valley, forgotten boots so gone out anyway in trainers, forgotten a waterproof jacket and got wet, had to walk down in the dark, forgotten lunch so gone hungry, tripped over a walking pole and gone flying down a steep slope and made many other mistakes in our combined fifty odd years in the hills. We should be kinder to the people we meet who are out trying to experience the hills that we love. If they stayed at home on their sofas no doubt we would be complaining that they were clogging up the NHS. If we were kinder and helped each other out more perhaps we could save Mountain Rescue a few trips.