Risk & Reality

March 12, 2018

The greatest dilemma when guiding a group or individual on the mountain is to balance the excitement of a walk with the safety of the party or individual.

The one overriding motivation for employing a guide, either to go up in to the higher fells or as a low level walk, is that the day is a personal challenge which creates a little bit of an adrenalin rush and of course leaves great memories afterwards,. The unstated part of the day is that they will not be put in any sort of danger and that they are as safe as possible whilst on the fells. This creates no problems when, as the guide,  you know the group,their experience and of course how fit they are but when you have never walked with people before then it is inevitable that the guide will tend to err a little on the side of safety.

The best option is of course to take the group somewhere that there are ‘options’ as after 10 minutes or so the guide is already fairly familiar with how walkers will cope with different alternatives and adapts the walk to suit. That is straightforward and part of the job but the issue is complicated if there is a fixed route such as the 3 Peaks of Yorkshire or Scafell Pike when the objective is often more important than the actual pleasures of the walk. In a group like this there will also be mixed abilities and the tendency is always to be led by the lowest common denominator; a trait that can mean a failure of the trip for all. It is always best to have a couple of guides on any trip so that the group can be split and a common practice is to have a fast and a slower party but this can still lead to problems.

Last summer on the 3 Peaks I had to send someone down from Pen y Ghent after 1/2 an hour because they were simply unable to cope – it is not easy doing this but there was no way the party was going to complete otherwise. I have seen tears, anger and outright refusal when people are turned back but such is the decisions a guide is paid for.

It is very dangerous to carry on in to territory that someone is simply not equipped for and can add to the risks for the other members of the party. It happened to me as a paying customer on Jebel Toubkal in Morocco when we were in a party being led by 2 guides, fortunately one of the guides was able to take the straggler back down and the rest of us went on to complete the climb but e I could sense the lead guide having misgivings all the way up as he was acutely aware he was on his own, with a mixed party and on a tough climb.

However accidents do occur and this year have obtained a high profile on a few occasions in Scotland during the long hard winter. There are 2 important words in my previous sentence ‘winter’ and ‘few’ . I do not guide on snow but I do love the challenge of walking in winter conditions. However I am aware there is a greater risk to this and hopefully I am as prepared as I can be (which should always include crampons, ice axes and the ability to use them).

However on a ‘few’ occasions this winter people have been caught out either by the weather or more likely an avalanche. Yes they could have avoided it by not going at all but the accidents that occurred are so rare, and set against the many 1,000s who have enjoyed the winter hills and returned invigorated they are simply the risk we all take.

Any accident in the hills, that involves death, becomes a media circus where the walkers and climbers are castigated. Of course it is tragic but most people are out walking in winter simply because it is the most fantastic and exciting experience, they are aware of the risks but they take it for the intense experience that they enjoy and I for one would not grudge them this at all. The trouble with the media circus is that one accident makes such headlines that it seems winter walking is some type of Russian Roulette game which it is not. Accidents are exceptionally rare, tragic ones even more so.

In the summer any accidents are rare, and tragic ones almost non existent, and there is really no need for anyone to get in to serious bother. Wainwright, the famous guide book writer, described the mountains and fells of the Lake District as friendly giants which welcome its visitors with open arms as long as they treat these same fells with respect.

Take appropriate gear (waterproofs and decent boots), learn to read a map and, if you are going high, to use a compass (many use GPS nowadays but I can only recommend these as an addition to a map and compass and not a substitute) and tell someone where you are going if you are on your own. I walk a lot on my own and it is great, enhancing the experience of you and mountain and certainly nor something to be frowned at. Our lives are too cluttered with people anyhow without them cluttering up the pathways in front and behind you.

The better weather is on the way and I hope many many more people venture in to our wonderful wild lands of the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. The choice of walks are endless and the variety of landscapes so enticing that it is great just planning the trip but if you want help doing this or would like to hire a guide to show you the best places just let us know.

Enjoy your walks


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