At its finest moments climbing allows me to step out of ordinary existence into something extraordinary, stripping me of my sense of self-importance.
Doug Scott, climber.
I used to climb often when younger, and paraglided too (was even a junior instructor.) I loved the mountains. Still do, but in a slightly different kind of way. Always appreciating the non-human lives I encountered, my priorities were not as focused as they are now.
In my eager twenties, I read multiple climbing books on crystal peaks and life-changing events, tragic deaths and sumptuous photographic essays. I was gripped.
Having grown up among soft, green mounds of North Herefordshire, I found the novelty of steep sided cliffs, snow capped peaks in Winter and rushing waterfalls enchanting. Mountains compel many who aspire to test themselves in some way. They push up high into the atmosphere and weather down at a creeping timescale, but sometimes with an instant energy that can surprise. They roll across horizons and nestle between Nations. Summits and ridges pierce volatile skies with newish geology and bafflingly fragile ecologies.
At first, me and my climbing partner (now husband), would head off to small crags and outcrops in the Lower Wye Valley, not too far from home in the Welsh Borders. We’d top-rope short routes, or embrace only two or three pitches at most, abseil down and do it all again.
Then on to North Wales and the fabulous Snowdonia National Park, rucsac stuffed with plastic-backed crag guides and new, colourful, expensive kit each season. We’d tackle bigger routes and a little bit of loose rock, whilst living on credit. It didn’t matter ~ I’d hear the raven’s call above the route and feel pretty gnarly. I’d enjoy the friendly banter with others on descents, and finish the day in a crowded post-climb cafe, with giant mugs of piping hot tea and slabs of cake. This felt like community.
And then, as income improved, we travelled further, to the jagged precipitousness of the Scottish Highlands and luminescent snow. Time to be a little more scared, feeling a little more alive too. Give me those huge skies, golden eagles, and I can breathe. Scrambling across dangerous scree and surviving tumultuous changes in weather, I loved the challenges. It was a long way to travel, but we did it anyway, even if the weather curtailed the climbing. A river walk would do, or a foray around a loch.
The Alps; overshadowed by the dead writers of climbing books who dominated them in the Twentieth Century. I never enjoyed climbing in the Alps and did very little. Death felt closer. I snowboarded, just on safer pistes, and with an exuberance for a while, alpine choughs perched on restaurant railings at altitude. But the novelty wore off. The last time I went to the Chamonix Valley, I was sickened by the smog.
Himalayas, the Majesty! And the corpses. I’ll admit, they called my name for a while, but I never succumbed. I prefer to dream of them. Julie Tullis’ ‘Clouds on Both Sides’ is still one of my favourite reads. She perished on her descent of K2. Maybe one day I’ll go, but it won’t be for the climbing.
Just to be in the mountains requires many to undergo a fair journey from homes and workplaces. Most drive, as we did. The Road Trip. When the compulsion to be free in the wild comes every weekend, that’s a lot of mileage. It takes gallons of fuel and a gloomy gas cloud of emissions.
Travelling back and forth to wilder places, whatever motivation, surely accounts for a fraction of emissions as compared to industry, energy production, air travel and haulage. Modern, intensive, agriculture is far worse for the Earth’s atmosphere. But now, with a visceral understanding about the consequences of climate change, I choose to change my ways, to be more selective about when and where I travel, why and at what cost, including to the planet.
I can’t feel guilty about my contribution to emissions in the past, because I knew no better. But now I have little excuse, so need to be mindful.
If these special places are so important to us, why don’t we move closer to them? A change of home and work would see us commit to local economies and, importantly, to community. Some schools in rural Scotland, for example, are crying out for more pupils, otherwise they are threatened with closure. The wild becomes as accessible as one’s own backyard. Walking/cycling distances become the norm, instead of weekend faraways.
Carparks and roads, themselves soil-sealing, fragment habitat networks here in the UK. Wild animals are no longer able to roam and breed as they once did, with genetic consequences too. Where there are carparks near reserves and National Parks, we have large human footfall, of course. Problems of erosion, wildlife disturbance ensue. And to top it all off, there’s particulate air pollution and even more carbon emissions contributing to climate change.
Maybe all these things are a consequence of an unhealthily large human population, with more leisure time than our ancestors, fuelled, in part, by outdoor lifestyle .com PR and advertising. I wish trains were not so heinously expensive, though railways also slice through sensitive habitats and are saturated with herbicides each year. And short-haul flights are, of course, hideous in terms of emissions.
Aldo Leopold had some extremely pertinent things to say about outdoor recreation in Sand Country Almanac published all the way back in 1949. I’m reading this book for the second time in my life, for Masters studies, an iconic work viewed as founding the modern Environmental Ethics movement. I am reminded just what a diverse, enriching book of knowledge, observation and judgement it is. It was so ahead of its time, and in many aspects of ecology, responsibility and political conscience towards non-human life and the land.
So many of the recent wildlife campaigns emerging from Conservation NGOs are prescient in the book. Examples include using highways verges as wildflower and pollinator reserves, the vitality of farming set-aside, trees as the staple of slope stability and rainwater absorbency, predator re-introduction and the positive effect upon trophic cascades.
But Leopold’s thoughts on recreation compel me too, and aren’t as widely discussed.
Everyone’s perceptions on making long trips to wilder places could be justified on the basis of free will, self growth, even enlightenment. So how do we begin to unravel the ethical problems that arise from simply going where and when we please?
“Like ions shot from the sun, the weekenders radiate from every town, generating heat and friction as they go.” (p165)
Human mechanisation has spread its wings, leaving behind the acrid smell of hot metal and burnt oil in its wake. Wild mountains and lakes become the destinations, National Parks, Coasts and Nature Reserves are posters on travel shop walls or memes on nature NGOs’ Twitter feeds. Flocks of people flow from city to country and back again in some strange ritual or weekly migration.
Leopold asserts all who seek recreation in the great outdoors are actually hunters, though we might be searching for very different things. He writes of overfed duck hunters, pillars of society, shooting at easy targets, like the wealthy shoot grouse and quail here in the UK. Trips to the moors from the City are common place. Are they harvesting “meat from God” or from the fires of heather burn and desiccated ecologies? There are also the inveterate collectors, legal and illegal ~ of dead ‘trophy’ wildlife, insect specimens, fossils and birds’ eggs. There are also Munros, photographs, graded rock climbs and first ascents. Kayakers and canoeists collect river names. Botanists collect plant taxa.
Leopold points to the ethical differences in our pursuits by looking at consequences of each action. If a person visiting the ‘wild’ enhances it, or at least, leaves little mark, then there’s a ‘higher’ calling for it, some spiritual advancement perhaps. Whereas, those that simply seek to strip, abuse or radically alter are culpable. If we are only to “possess, invade, appropriate” for enjoyment, then the value for life and land that we do not connect with becomes worthless. This is still a highly relevant point when it comes to the relentless extrinsic, or human utility, messages in support of conservation and protection, and has since been challenged and debated further within the academic field of Environmental Ethics.
A hatchery release of trout or salmon into the river, for instance, may result in drawing more fly fishermen and poachers alike, and not necessarily in the best interests/welfare/survival rates of the fish. The same can be said for what Leopold describes as “artificialized deer” for shoots and the overgrazing of forests, or the predators, raptors and mammals killed for the sake of intensively reared game birds like pheasant.
There are more indirect trophies, of course, like the photograph ~ my personal ‘sin’.
“The camera is one of the few innocuous parasites on nature.” (p 171)
I can see why Leopold refers, he’s looking to highlight a higher accord or purpose of our communing with nature. To enhance and enrich our perception and connection with non-human life.
“to promote perception is the only truly creative part of recreational engineering.” (p173)
But now we understand that even with a photograph, there are more costs to the environment in terms of materials mined, energy used to manufacture, transport, package, retail and maintain. Add the digital platforms to which we now subscribe and mainframe ‘clouds’ ~ that’s a great deal of energy consumption.
There are other trophies of ‘perception’ ~ a memory or some peace and quiet can be deemed a golden chalice. And we have the ‘dark skies movement’ and star gazing, a connection beyond the Earth and out into a lofty Universe. And there are more subtle, complex ones like solitude, wild experience, meditation and mindfulness. There are also trophies of ‘empiricism’ , such as the scientific specimen, data and methodology learned in the field. The bringing together of hearts and minds. Some wish to leave an indelible mark. A cairn stone is a symbol of our presence, a trophy left in situ, to underscore we’ve achieved something somewhere in the wild.
And all the while, the rarer the wild life and smaller the place, the greater the demand. Erosion and disturbance follows. Outdoor recreation is our human interaction for pleasure and wellbeing, not for the intrinsic value of the outdoors itself. The outdoors exists, whether we are present or not. More to the point, individual non-human lives constitute much of the great outdoors, and herein is where I separate from Leopold’s holistic Land Ethic (the whole greater than the worth of individuals). But ecological understanding certainly adds depth to our perceptions. There’s no intellectual competition here (which can be expensive), to pay for qualifications or professional associations, but lore to be gleaned from observation and immersive reflection upon nature’s interconnectedness.
Leopold goes on to describe the type of recreation which is more akin to consumerism. He is a man of his time, and refers to the outdoor ‘sporting-goods dealer.’
“…gadgets fill the pockets, they dangle from neck and belt.” (180)
Gunshops, fishing tackle and bait now joined by the colourful nylons and plastics of hiking, climbing, paragliding and watersports. No doubt, there has been an explosion in the sales of gadgets, including GPS. But we can’t continue to just buy we want. The planet needs us to look at what we need first, and maybe things purchased second-hand and recycled (except for items needed new for safety reasons, such as climbing ropes). I understand there are jobs to fill, GDP expectations to ramp up the ante. Recent Welsh Government statistics reveal just how economically dependent we seem to have become on outdoor activities. £481m pours into the Welsh economy from the sector, providing over 8000 jobs. But the drive to promote Growth and accumulated wealth is damaging our very life support system. The planet can no longer ‘afford’ to focus on GDP alone.
The importance of our psychological and physical reconnection with nature is multifold, there’s no denying. I’m also a huge fan of the British tradition of rights of way and public open spaces too, having lived in the US where there is generally no tradition outside of National Parks.
But I think it’s worth establishing exactly why we make these longer trips, and what we consume to travel, stay and return. Let’s hope we can choose Leopold’s higher ‘grades of recreation’ as motivation, at least, and inflict less attrition upon living beings of the wild already under pressure. To strip ourselves of a little extra importance, perhaps. For I think there is now a greater need.
Me at Symonds Yat, 1990s. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~