I think someone needs to say this. I was tremendously saddened when I saw reports of four people dying at Glencoe. My immediate reaction, and I Tweeted this, was to express my sadness and the fact that it could have been me or other walkers whom I know. I’m not a climber, don’t walk much in ‘technical’ conditions, so I don’t speak as an expert. I am aware however of the extent to which all hill walking is slightly dangerous, winter walking more so, and walking in snow in Scotland has particular hazards: avalanche hazards. This article may as well be sub-titled ‘why I despise the internet’ but I think that will be apparent.
I was in the Alps some years ago and went wandering away from the designated track at the Jungfraujoch, seeking photographs and escape from the tourists. The track was slippery but flat, whereas I was walking in increasingly deep snow fascinated by the sculptural possibilities at the edge. When I say edge, I mean the ridge of the mountain below which there was a drop of around 12,000 feet. I went further. The ridge view, I thought, would make a magnificent photo if I could capture some of its length.
I compare that situation to another I experienced some years ago when at a misguided moment at an intersection, I crossed lanes on a motorway to go back the other way. It was at night, quiet, no traffic, and I’d taken a wrong turning. It’s not that the hairs on your neck really do stand up, but that’s the only way of describing it. In the Alps, too, I felt the same thing. Call it psychic if you wish but you know something is wrong – dangerously wrong – and that’s where you feel it. I realised, although there were no directions or signs to prove it, I’d crossed into a contrary flow. That is, I was driving the wrong way towards whatever car or lorry I’d eventually encounter, head on.
Now what happens when you read that? Silly bugger! Yah! Kill yourself, dork! Your fault! Duuuuh! That nonsense is standard fare on the internet and it kicked off at the Telegraph web site reporting on Glencoe; and no doubt at many other web sites all around the world.
We all take risks. We calculate how dangerous they are and act accordingly. Every time we drive, cross a road, or walk where idiots leave pubs seeing a world they hate through an alcohol haze which you suddenly represent – we take a risk. Your Mum takes a risk. Your Dad. Your wife, husband, son, daughter, boyfriend, girlfriend, best friend, lovely colleague or nice lady in the fish and chip shop working near hot oil. Mountain walking in that respect is no different.
Those of us who walk understand what happened at Glencoe even if we don’t have the knowledge of the people who actually died. Reports say they were experienced mountain climbers. Moderate walkers such as myself don’t venture into ‘technical’ terrain deliberately. I do sometimes carry an ice axe and wear ‘spikes’ as opposed to crampons. But this is different from those who seek out technical challenge for the fun of doing it. And those who do so have technical knowledge. It’s notable that Alan Hinkes, the British climber who’s one of the few people in the world to summit the fourteen highest mountains, Tweeted his condolences. I wonder what he would say, technically speaking, about the tragedy. My impression is it was an unexpected situation which even he would respect, i.e. acknowledge that he might experience. Maybe. And would you – yes you, Mister or Missus Anonymous – mock Alan Hinkes if he slipped and died? You probably wouldn’t, so what is the difference? Why sneer at four climbers at Glencoe but not Hinkes? Is it because he has macho credentials and it’s all about a degree of credibility which, given that we didn’t know the people at Glencoe, makes them an easy target? I think the internet is very often like that. It’s to attack vulnerabilities. No one says that’s what it’s for but that is actually what happens, exactly like a computer game.
Forums, message boards and online discussions are often a toxic mess full of nastiness and stupidity. I don’t think the posters are all dog-brain lunatics, although some of them clearly are; it’s more the case that the medium is so stupid. I suspect if I sat down with some of the idiots at the Telegraph and told them this stuff they would be sheepish, say sorry, shake my hand, say they didn’t mean it, say they were just having a laugh. And I’d probably accept that, because I suspect in many cases what we see is a combination of ignorance and a foul medium – the internet – which facilitates that ignorance. It’s not their fault. Nor is it Tim Berners-Lee’s fault, and other aspects of the internet are wonderful. But it’s precisely such nonsense why partly, paradoxically, I take to the hills: there’s so much about the modern world I dislike.
There’s always an element of hazard, the unknown, the unpredictable, when you visit the mountains. But with judgement that risk is not madcap silliness but comparable, say, to driving a car. My lane crossing was slightly unusual. I was extremely tired. That’s all there is to it. When I get tired my judgement fails and that, in turn, is no reason to provoke nonsense along the lines of Haaa! drink some coffee then! (doesn’t work for me) haaa! loser! etc. It simply isn’t: it makes no sense, moral or logical, to react like that. But such toxic nonsense happens all the time on the internet. See an opening – hit them. Haha! Haha! LOL! LOL! and all the rest of it. Much like a computer shoot ‘em up game, possibly as Mr or Missus Anonymous switch from such a game to the internet with a mere mouse click.
I was “ignorant” in the Alps. I’d never been in such mountains and knew nothing about them. Specifically, how snow can be unstable and dangerous. As I walked higher up the snow bank I realised I had no idea if what lay beneath me was rock or snow. Ha! Obvious! Loser! – actually, no. To all appearances it looked solid. I was thinking, rather than observing as such. Certainly, if I continued higher I would eventually be walking on snow and not solid ground. I didn’t know what was down the other side. I did know how high I was, and how steep the face was, because I’d seen it from below. I was beginning to walk on unstable snow at the top. Exactly how unstable? I have no idea. But snow is not like rock. I imagined the trajectory of forces, the facts of physics, and how I might fall down at an angle dislodging snow above me, and the whole lot would drop down the other side with me amongst it. It could have been entirely safe and photographically rewarding. But as I looked back at the tourists on the path in the distance, I knew I had to go back. I felt it rather than understood it, as such.
This is crude and rudimentary stuff for those who carefully and proficiently undertake winter and alpine climbing. I suspect, had I spoken of it to the four people who recently died, they would have been concerned, tried to improve my understanding, and sought to help me.