News discussion: enforcement of safe hiking

I’ve talked several times before about the tendency of people to go up mountains appallingly ill-equipped. On Snowdon we passed dozens of people in inappropriate shoes, tight denim trousers, cotton t-shirts, little-to-no insulation, and quite clearly not carrying the sort of daysacks necessary to contain water, food, wet-kit, a torch and other essentials.

It wasn’t just idle moaning either, or me and my usual tendency to be over-prepared and unduly concerned about safety. A few days later someone sent me an article which mentioned the number of rescues made by the local mountain rescue team on Snowdon the very day I was there. The mountain rescue team leader made a pointed remark that had some people carried the minimum of basic equipment, he and his team might not have had to leave their families on New Year’s Eve and venture up the mountain.

People were equally ill-equipped on my Scafell Pike trip. Indeed when we got back to the bottom we saw the sole National Trust employee present trying to very politely discourage a couple with a fairly young child from setting off on the walk in shorts and t-shirt and with no other equipment. I’m not sure if he succeeded.

Anyway, I was reminded of all this when reading an interesting article last week about how the Mayor of Mont Blanc wants to start fining people who set off up the mountain without carrying a list of basic kit that he has published.

I fully sympathise with his position. Mont Blanc claims more lives than either Snowdon or Scafell Pike, and rescues are more frequent, more demanding and more dangerous, so I can only imagine that he is utterly frustrated with having to pluck people out of danger who have got themselves into it entirely through their own lack of preparatation.

Of course, the problem is, as the article mentions, that once you publish a list of minimum kit, people will tend to take that as a being sufficient kit, not minimum necessary kit. His list is open to particular criticism because of lacking things like gloves, but any list would be to a certain extent, because the very act of publishing a list takes responsibility away from individuals and places it on the backs of people who publish the list. This is one of the reasons why the various organisations responsible for mountains in the U.K. take a fairly light touch approach to giving advice or restricting access, despite the fact that you could save a lot of time and effort in rescues by simply placing a knowledgable individual at the bottom of Snowdon saying “no, no, nope, not in those shoes mate” etc.

It’s hard to know where to draw the line. Despite everything that goes on in the world, I think most westerners tend to think of their home country as relatively safe. Or at least, they assume that there are barriers in place that are in fact not always there. Whether subconsciously or consciously, people think “surely The Man won’t let me do this if it’s dangerous” and of course a lot of the time, in our nanny-state, restrictive, big-Government society (in the U.K. at least) that assumption proves true. There are signs and gates and guards and guides and mandatory training courses and licensing and all sorts of other silliness to protect the ill-informed and incompetent from the consequences of their ignorance.

The trouble is that treating people this way actually breeds ignorance and dependence, so when they do decide to bimble up a mountain that is, after all, only a short drive from their campsite and has a tea-room at the bottom, it simply never enters their mind that just because they can start walking up it in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops doesn’t mean that they should.

What do you think? What can and should be done to keep people safe on mountains? Is publishing a kit list a good idea? What about fining people for not being properly equipped?

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