Creaking at the seams

Pick and Play Summer Tour 2019

The mountains have, for 35 years of my life, been a  haven for me.  I have sought out wild places and felt energised by their positive energy.  The mountains have provided me with adventure and challenge, but I gain easily as much by simply being amongst them on a regular basis.

Modern life is different to the past for many of us.  In my early years I remember a carefree and almost feral existence where I’d head out from home in the morning and only return when I got hungry, it was bedtime or I had special orders to be back by my Mum and Dad (usually because a great Aunt was visiting!).  

In between, my friends and I explored and experimented in a way that many children don’t seem to get the opportunity to do nowadays. In the summer we’d lie in the long grass and in winter we’d huddle around small fires in the wooded area near my home.  These early experiences helped forge my love of the outdoors as well as creating a connection to the natural world.  So my theory goes, if we feel connected to something then we are more likely to look after it.

If I never go to the mountains again my heart may weep, but I will live, because everything I need to survive can be found in a city or town.  But, like hundreds of thousands of people, the hills and mountains offer so much that enriches my life.  They have become a powerful drug that it would be very hard to live without.

Peak Mountaineering isn’t a company that offers large scale events.  It wasn’t the reason I got into outdoor education and isn’t where I see the business heading in the future.  We are a development company offering training for small groups or individuals.  

Some mountain areas of the UK are creaking at the seams as thousands head for honeypot mountains and both the local infrastructure and natural environment are close to breaking point.  This generally doesn’t affect my clients or I as we know, just as many head for a few key venues, that we can simply choose to go elsewhere.  Even at the busiest times there is solitude to be found in the mountains if you know where to look.

The people visiting any mountain area have as much right to be there as anyone else and I’m certainly not trying to say that the increase in popularity is a problem.  If certain places are busier than they once were that simply means lots of people are enjoying the same kind of adventures and life affirming experienced that have enriched my own life. That is fantastic.

Unfortunately, however, there is one thing that seems to be getting worse as the numbers increase and it is something I struggle to either understand, empathise or sympathise with.  It is the way some people choose to come to pristine wilderness areas and then leave them desecrated with rubbish, faeces and graffiti.  The way some choose to come to a place of beauty and yet vandalise and destroy.

I’m not sure if it is just my memory deceiving me, but I really can’t remember being aware of this problem in my early days of mountain exploration.  As a young scout the ‘take only photographs and leave only footprints’ message was hammered home regularly.  We were taught to pack things out and to defecate in a way that would biodegrade as quickly as possible and wouldn’t compromise water supplies or wildlife habitats.  We would never ever have considered defacing the landscape.  We were taught to follow ‘Leave no Trace’ principals long before I’d even heard of the term. 

Of course, it wasn’t all down to the attitude and teaching of our scout leaders.  Many of the ways we sought to protect the mountains came from other influences.  My parents have never been hill goers but would never have accepted me leaving litter anywhere and so that became ingrained practice that simply got translated into the natural environment.

I suppose I made my own mind up about marking things or damaging rocks and structures, but it still stemmed largely from those early influences and I have really never understood the mentality or pleasure that comes from wanting to mark or write on things anywhere – let alone in the mountains.  There have been occasional controversies with artists drawing pieces of ‘art’ on rocks or event companies spray painting way markers on rocks, but for the most part we’ve managed to avoid the practice of hillgoers leaving graffiti in the UK mountains until recently.

In some countries this is not the case and the practice of marking rocks has been around as long as I remember.  On my first visit to the Alps over 30 years ago the use of paint dawbed on boulders as way markers was common just as it was considered normal to write the route name at the bottom of climbs.  Similarly, on my recent visit to Morocco I noticed that areas of the Atlas mountains certainly have more than their fair share of graffiti and damage. There are even some examples in the UK such as the chiselled names on the boulders at Birchen Edge or the scratched arrows marking the descent route from Idwal Slabs, but they are certainly few and far between. 

The same goes for litter.  For years there has been isolated mountains or honeypot sites that have fallen victim to litter bugs, but in recent years it really has been getting worse and worse.  The popular routes on the national 3 peaks are now nothing but a disgrace. From faeces and toilet paper to energy drink bottles and ‘wild camps’ strewn with cans and barbecues, our wild places are groaning under the weight of the mindless and selfish behaviour of a minority.

The summit trig point on Ben Nevis has become a target for graffiti and bothies have been vandalised just as memorial plaques have appeared on wilderness landmarks.  It really does seem that we aren’t even just stuck with simple litter nowadays!

The growing problem has led to many attempts to find some solutions.  Better education is key and there are many ways to achieve that.  We’ve run our Peak Mountaineering Pick & Play event for years (that’s a photo from this year’s event above) and, as well as the benefits of clearing some litter from the national park, it is fantastic that we get so many families coming along too.  The children help clear up the park, identify the problems careless littering causes, and so hopefully grow to respect and cherish the natural environment.  

Similar events to ours have been run in various other places and for the last few years a major initiative has drawn volunteers to clear up the national 3 peaks too.  It all helps and, although the problem doesn’t go away, hopefully everything helps to get the message across.  

But I am still troubled that we are only a small drop in a huge ocean, and, as hard as we keep hammering the message, I still wonder where, as a society, we are going wrong.  I really don’t see that the people littering in the wild places aren’t littering near their homes and in the cities.  So why are we failing to pass on the importance of not dropping rubbish anywhere we go?  This is all obviously a cycle and the message needs to come from parents and relatives and teachers and friends.  It also needs to be seen as socially unacceptable to leave rubbish.  

I mentioned earlier about my feral childhood.  My friends and I explored and adventured, we climbed trees (and fell out of them), swam in rivers and picked berries. We lit campfires and built shelters. Nowadays, children have the temptations of technology to keep them inside and the teachings of a risk averse society which means we struggle to let them off the lead.  My friends and I, through all our adventures, connected with the natural environment and created a lifetime affinity.  Can our future generations do that if we keep sheltering them from the big wide world?

It is a complicated equation and I’m no mathematician, but between us a solution needs to be found.  More people than ever are seeking out these wilderness experiences and yet we seem less able to take care for it.  I’m rubbish at maths, but I can see that we are currently getting the equation very very wrong.

So, I can end this blog post on a wave of negativity, or, as is more my nature, I can focus on a call to arms.  That is all in part 2 which is coming soon…..

Posted by Paul