Hill walking cliches – fact or fiction?

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…

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15 thoughts on “Hill walking cliches – fact or fiction?

  1. In full agreement with you on all but the last one. Yes, the mountain will always be there another day but one’s ability to ever do it can completely vanish as I’ve found with my various disabilities coming to the fore. Fortunately, I’ve mostly somehow got better from my various ailments and have, after all, been able to continue hillwalking. But it underlines the fact to me that my hillwalking days are definitely coming to an end, whether I like it or not!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do see what you mean re abilities – but I think there are days where going out is just not worth it whether that’s down to really bad weather or some other factor.

      Re the ailments I do understand – my back hasn’t been good recently and I suspect I probably have another 10 years serious walking in me at best. I’m already slowing down compared to when I was in full on Munro-bagging mode 7 or 8 years ago. 🙁

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  2. Nice light article and pretty much agree with your points. The going out in bad weather for some is driven by obtaining the tick. Once I got bagging out off my system, I’m less likely to go out in poor weather.
    Another saying I like is “real mountaineerers know when to turn to turn back”.

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  3. I think 1 and 3 are generally true, but that’s primarily because if the weather is way off we’ll be out on coasts or in country looking for wildlife. Even on hills I can’t say any day out has been worse than sitting around ironing shirts. 😉

    2 is becoming muddy – luddite neophobes tend to overlook the fact that phone GPS now effectively is mapping. Given my large screen smartphone has all of Scotland OS at 1:50000, and a lot of the interesting bits at 1:25000 I use it as a map (we carry a paper OS and often a printed A4 sheet each too, and have a compass each). I tend to use the smartphone as a map though – I like being able to zoom in and out and find it better than paper as a map.

    As for 4 the hills will be there as long as you are (and much longer). Baggers may feel the pressure of time, but hill connoisseurs, out to savour the environment have all the time given to them. 🙂

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  4. I tend to use the map and GPS side by side, the GPS screen is too small to really get the feel for contours and the distance involved in the walk. I use the GPS for positioning and the map for the route planning. As for clothing, I’m a bit like you, I tend to go out when the weather is good or at least not raining. I take the waterproofs but would rather they stayed in the bag

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  5. “I’m sure there are others!”

    Not sure if these really count:

    The amount of fun you had on any given hill walk tends to be inversely proportional to how long ago the walk happened.

    The more people there are in a walking group, the more likely it is that Tessa’s rule 4 will be ignored.

    My favourite: if you try to go through forestry plantations you are probably going to regret it.

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    • Nice to hear from you 😎

      I think the inverse fun one is definitely true. Certainly with type B fun ie the sort of day that is far more fun recounted in the pub afterwards than it was at the time!

      Group mentality probably also true as people can tend to egg each other on.

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  6. Rule 1. I completely agree about wind. About the only thing which really gets me down on a hill. However, one of my bon mots is that if you are cold or wet during a hill walk you either don’t have the right gear or aren’t using it properly. I tend to feel the cold, but I can’t recall ever being cold or wet whilst walking, and I think that Tessa can vouch that it is not for lack of trying.

    Rule 2. Speaking as a technophobe who has never used anything other than a map and compass I think that really it is an issue of whether you can navigate or not. Few map and compass users can’t; rather more mobile phone users can’t; but generalisations are unhelpful. Non-navigators are more likely to get into trouble, whatever level of technology they use to achieve this.

    Rule 3. I know that having driven 6-8 hours to the start of a walk I have set off it weather that sometimes has been only marginally walkable. Certainly if I had been sitting in a car park in the Peak District I would have driven straight home. How vile a weather you are prepared to walk in has, IMHO, a lot to do with the effort expended to get to the start point It is not always “good to get out there”, but sometimes you can get into the spirit of it and (almost) enjoy overcoming the challenge of the elements.

    Rule 4. Couldn’t agree more. I have turned 200m after leaving the car. I have turned in conditions in which it would have been insane not to. I have turned from a straight forward walk because I was feeling a bit physically ropey. I have turned because pressing on to the summit would have made me late for a SHills meet. I don’t regret a single one of them.

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    • I think my recent Lake District walks were a bit of a demo of 1 and 3. The waterproofs turned out not to be up to the job and replacements have now been purchased. However having booked time off work and travelled to Scotland to retrieve my car first (long story) I was b*ggered if I wasn’t walking. But chose hills that suited the conditions. By Sunday I had no dry kit and since it was still hosing it down and I had a 6 hour drive I decided discretion was the better part of valour.

      Turned on a few – one or two due to self inflicted lurgy ie hangover but in both cases the clag was down. And given at least one up as a bad idea without even getting out the car!

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  7. I struggle to give a competent comment for the points above…but this has never stopped me in the past. 😉

    I don’t go out when it’s windy. I don’t go out when it’s wet. I don’t go out when I have no chance of seeing where I’m going. I couldn’t care less if I have to turn back at any point. I have decent kit which has always kept me warm and dry when required and I can navigate with map and compass (although I’ve only had to once in 10 years). This has not, however, stopped me climbing the wrong hill as Gog the Mild will no doubt take great delight in confirming.

    Having said all that I could have daily access to the hills should I desire and that I suspect may have a lot to do with struggling to comment fully on points 1 to 3 as they are, because of my particular circumstances, (almost) irrelevant. Point 4 is a truism.

    Nice post Tessa 🙂

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  8. Thanks Ken, nice to hear from you.

    Must admit I don’t often go out when it’s wet or windy (and certainly not both). I’ve had flak for that in the past but tbh battling the elements is not my bag. I’m more likely to go out in marginal or dodgy weather in the Lakes than Scotland – and pick a hill for a quick dash rather than get too much ‘character building’

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    • I almost felt bad (not really 🙂 ) leaving an apparently frivolous answer to your very well put points but it did make me think how little I have had to take into account such well known clichés because of my proximity to the hills and the time I have available, When I thought about it again it became clear that the principle behind point 4 had governed most of my hillwalking life – other than the days I had arranged to meet others for a wee walk when every other effin’ cliché you could think of came into play! Then it was the old Scout motto that applied – “Be Prepared”!

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