Walk in a group? Walk on your own? Which way's the right way? And who has the right to tell you anyway? An opinion piece by Ben Weeks.
I recently got involved in a bit of a social media spat. In this day and age, what other kind of spat is there? This particular e-altercation took place on Twitter and commenced when I posted some pictures from Trail's reader weekend at the Blencathra Field Centre.
Now, I have to hold my hands up and say that I'm easily riled when it comes to this sort of thing, far too quick to bite when I should sit back and Zen. It's a flaw I'm aware of, but seemingly unable to reign in... Anyway, one of the images posted was the one below, and the resulting 140-character limited argy-bargy culminated in this rather shameful exchange:
I'm not proud of that, and have apologised to Random Twitterer for the overly barbed retort. Many of the points they raised were entirely valid and, at any rate, everyone's entitled to their opinion. But what is it that caused me to snap so? Simple loyalty to Trail? Pride in a wonderfully successful event attended by magnificent people? Whatever the smartphone equivalent of road rage is? Or something else? Well, let's deal with some specifics first.
The group walk (which actually had closer to 40 participants) was part of a weekend of events, and all the walkers knew what they’d signed up for. Indeed, other activity options were offered, but every single person wanted to take part in the walk to the summit of Blencathra. The trek was well managed, with three Mountain Leaders, two navigation instructors and former mountain rescue team members, and one British Mountain Guide by the name of Alan Hinkes helping to lead the walk. The end result was that everybody had a great time, one person bagged their first Wainwright, two people reached the top of their first mountain EVER, and aside from a few minor blister niggles, there were no problems. So let's park the event itself there.
Perhaps the issue here is whether or not large groups like this belong in the mountains at all. Certainly, my regular walking is done either alone or in the company of one or two friends. One of the arguments put forward against group walking is that it's harder, if not impossible, to enjoy the peace, tranquillity and closeness to nature that being alone in the mountain provides. That's undoubtedly true, but assumes that peace, tranquillity and nature are the ONLY reasons for being in the mountains. Exercise, achievement and great views are also perfectly valid reasons for hill walking, none of which are diluted by being part of a group. Indeed, add 'a sense of of camaraderie' into that list and a group of some kind is essential.
But what about the effect of groups on other walkers? This is trickier to answer. Large groups don't just affect how their members enjoy the hills, but also the experience of others on the same hill. However, large groups are not the norm. You're far more likely to encounter congestion on the hills in the form of multiple independent groups and walkers congregating in popular spots like Striding Edge or the summit of Snowdon. And there are always other, quieter mountains to explore: organised walks tend to stick to the key peaks. Of course, if you do happen to encounter a large group when you were hoping for some peace and quiet it can be frustrating. But I'm also frustrated when I'm slowed down on the roads by cyclists, tractors, lorries, caravans and vintage cars. Should I demand that they stay off the roads because they ruin my enjoyment of them? Seems a little selfish.
I think, though, that my major bugbear is this: who has the right to tell anyone how to enjoy the hills? The outdoor world, while 99.99% passionate, welcoming, and inclusive, does have the odd loud voice arguing that certain rules and approaches should be followed and if they're not then you have no right to call yourself an outdoor lover. Of course, certain advice pertaining to safety, equipment, navigation, respecting the environment and such forth ARE important. Nobody is suggesting that people should be able to do whatever they want wherever they want with no care for anybody or anything.
But If you like walking alone, brilliant. Seek out those quiet fells and enjoy the majesty of nature uninterrupted. Like to be out with a couple of mates? Do it, and enjoy reliving the stories of your adventures for years after. But if you fancy taking part in a group walk as a way to meet new people, share the support that walking with others can bring, and maybe experience something you'd be reluctant to try on your own, I see no harm in that either. In every case, as long as it’s done with care, consideration, and safely, if it gets you out and appreciating our phenomenal upland landscapes, I don't mind how you do it - just do it and enjoy it.
Ben Weeks (@GingerheadBen if you want to complain)