Fresh snow on many of the hills in the last few days saw more than a few who had thought the season finished, reaching for skis or crampons, though the coming rise in temperatures is likely to put an end to snow sports this year for most in the UK.
Sadly, for many in the outdoor community, it has been a particularly distressing winter though it is rare for any winter season to pass without a fatality on the hills. Yet the widely reported and tragic story of two experienced climbers Rachel Slater and Tim Newton, who lost their lives in an avalanche on Ben Nevis in February, cannot have failed to touch the hearts of every climber and many others around the world beyond those involved in winter sports.
It is perhaps not surprising then, that others who have got into difficulties since, particularly on Ben Nevis, have attracted severe criticism for their lack of forethought, suitable equipment and poor judgement. The regular pleas from mountain rescue teams for people to carry the right kit and learn how to use it have been overshadowed more recently by public ridiculing of individuals on popular forums, some comments it must be said, in particularly poor taste.
And while the subject of selfie-sticks versus ice axes seems to have outweighed discussion about navigational aids so far, one can be certain that the debate which surrounds the use of digital tools versus the traditional map and compass will rear its head again soon enough. All too often, following an incident or rescue on the fells which typically begins with someone getting lost, one reads that the casualty had been reliant upon any one of a number of digital mapping and navigation tools and that they were poorly equipped generally.
The problem with these debates is that by and large, they miss the point. A map and compass are of no more use than any other tool, whether it is an app or an axe ice, if the person carrying it does not understand how to use it or appreciate its limitations. I have watched paper maps being torn from a walker’s grasp in foul conditions on the hill, and laughed as a friend watched his smartphone disappear 300 feet down an icy gully – his just desert for not belaying with due care and attention.
The point is, simply having the right tools, is not enough.
Commenting on a rescue operation late last year, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) highlighted that rescue teams were able to find the individuals easily thanks to a grid reference, obtained from the couple’s GPS unit. As MCofS pointed out, had the individuals been able to use that grid reference in conjunction with a map – or use the digital equipment they had properly – they might well have been able to navigate safely off the hill on their own.
And this is the real crux of the matter. Digital devices, whether it is an app like ViewRanger, or a stand-a-lone GPS unit, all have a valid role to play (indeed features such as ViewRanger’s Buddy Beacon or the ability to zoom in and inspect the detail of an Explorer or LandRanger map arguably make for safer enjoyment of the hills) just as traditional paper maps and a compass do. The real problem is not so much a reliance on technology, but the lack of skills including the use of technical equipment – from digital devices to compasses and ice axes – that so many of those venturing into mountainous areas now possess.
This in itself is remarkable when one considers that information in the form of ‘how-to’ feature articles in the popular media and mountain skills courses offered by a growing number of activity centres have never been more accessible. More so when one also acknowledges that there are more formally qualified mountain leaders than ever before and that the general public’s interest in pursuing an active, healthy, outdoor lifestyle has never been so high.
So where are we going wrong?
Perhaps collectively, we are simply making it appear too easy. Maybe our marketing is too effective and the industry’s drive to sell more activities, kit and accessories, too competitive. Maybe in showcasing the great outdoors we are failing to communicate the commitment and in many cases hard graft, which those who truly epitomise this aspirational lifestyle have put in to become the competent outdoor people they are. Consequently, those who would buy an adventure, who have served no mountain apprenticeship, who have had no chance to develop the skills to use their new equipment and perhaps understand little of mountain weather, quite suddenly find themselves in an alien and potentially dangerous environment, kitted out in equipment they cannot use properly, with no experience to draw upon to see them safely home.
That our mountain rescue teams continue to respond so effectively, with little or no reward beyond bringing another person safely off the hill, is to their immense credit. But if things are to change for the better then we in the industry must do all we can to drive home the fundamental principles of adventurous outdoor recreation, namely self-reliance, and help newcomers develop the skills required, including the use of appropriate digital devices and more traditional equipment.
We share a collective responsibility to encourage this attitude, to educate and to inform, as well as to inspire others to participate.
There will always be risk and no amount of experience or knowledge can keep everyone safe all of the time. But if we ignore the issue and simply continue to promote, package and sell our outdoor spaces like any other commodity, then sooner or later, we will all get lost and to be blunt, found lacking. And from the biggest brands to the smallest independent retailers, there is a role for everyone to play in protecting an ethos which will not only save lives but livelihoods too.
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