With my recent walking exploits now committed to the page and nothing else planned for a few weeks, I thought it was time for some further musings about the politics of hill walking: namely some of the hill walking/ mountaineering clichés that get trotted out from time to time. As we all know some clichés are clichés because they are true, but not all of them!
Caveat: this is my personal view, and not intended to be a criticism of anyone else’s views, whether expressed on hill walking forums, Facebook or anywhere else.
1. ’There is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing’
This one is particularly relevant after my recent soaking in the Lake District!
What is true is that better gear will make walking in poor weather a more pleasant (or at least, less unpleasant) experience. After getting soaked through on my recent Grasmere trip I have invested in some better gear (well more expensive and from a more reputable manufacturer) and am hoping that it works. A better quality waterproof will certainly keep you drier and decent warm gear will keep you warmer.
However there is definitely bad weather that decent clothing won’t help with. Wind is the obvious example; whilst good waterproofs will keep you dry in wet conditions, they won’t stop you being blown over if the wind is really bad. A wind/ rain combo also seems to have the ability to penetrate more or less any clothing if exposed to it long enough. Wind is probably the most dangerous weather condition outside of winter, particularly when any sort of ridge walk is involved where getting caught by a gust could have serious consequences.
Winter also brings with it further difficulties. Good clothing can help you stay warm, even when the temperature is below zero, but again it won’t help in a white-out where the ability to navigate becomes key – and where the consequences of getting lost could be serious. Clothing also needs to be supplemented by an ice axe and crampons and the ability to use them – and planning routes to take account of lack of daylight, possible deep soft snow, and avalanche awareness. I must admit I’m extremely cautious in winter (I’m cautious anyway, but more so then).
So true up to a point, but only up to a point.
2. ’Map and compass will always be better than GPS’
This is another contentious one and another on which I’m a bit 50/50.
I always carry a map and compass on the hill – and a GPS. I try not to use the GPS unless I absolutely have to – this was a deliberate decision to force me to navigate in the traditional way as I realised I was getting too reliant on it. A GPS can be incredibly useful for checking position and, if it has OS mapping, seeing exactly where you are. It’s certainly stopped me from going wrong on several occasions when visibility was not the best.
Both methods have some obvious advantages and disadvantages. A GPS (or a mobile phone with a mapping app on it) can run out of battery and for that reason alone I’d never not take a paper map. Maps can get wet or blown away and although I’ve never lost a map on the hill (yet!) I have had one get seriously wet (due to an allegedly waterproof map case not actually being waterproof). There are also some areas where the compass doesn’t work due to magnetic rock – most obviously the Cuillin Ridge on Skye.
I must admit there are some hills where you can probably get away without a map at all but I always take one anyway as you never know. In Scotland a lot of hills have sketchy paths, if that. In the Lake District the issue can actually be the opposite – too many paths – making it easy to take the wrong one if not careful.
3. ’It’s always good to get out there’
This is a bit of a variant on 1. I think it’s a personal choice. Some people like walking in poor weather and enjoy the challenge of battling the elements. I’m not one of them and although I do walk in poor weather from time to time I have to say I find it far more pleasurable walking in good weather. There is definitely a point at which I’ll just decide to do something else rather than force myself out. Strong wind combined with heavy rain is (in my view) just plain unpleasant (and as noted above – wind can be dangerous). I’m more likely to walk in bad weather if I’m in a group as at least then you can all have a good natter to take your mind off it! (e.g. the recent blethering on Blea Rigg)
Hill walking is meant to be fun and the point when it stops being fun (or when you know you aren’t going to enjoy the conditions) is when it’s time to do something else. Some walkers can be quite judgemental about walking in poor weather (or not) but that’s your decision to take, not anyone else’s.
4. ‘The hill will be there another day. The trick is to make sure you are too’.
I totally agree with this one. Knowing when to turn back is a skill hill walkers need to have and accidents can, and do, happen when people don’t. This is a judgement call – sometimes pressing on is dangerous and sometimes it’s just unpleasant. If you are genuinely not sure whether to press on or not, not to is probably the right call as the doubt is most likely there for a good reason. The hill isn’t going anywhere after all.
‘Getting to the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory’ (from the mountaineer Ed Viesturs) is another variant on this.
I’m sure there are others! Maybe I’ll think of some more after another glass of Malbec…