A Rant: Three Peaks Challengers and the Scafells (UPDATED 21/08/14).

carey davies british mountaineering council
Carey Davies, Hill Walking Officer for the British Mountaineering Council.


We all like a wee rant now and again, no? Get things off our chest? Well, here’s one from me. And it concerns the Three Peaks Challengers that descend on Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in the name of charity. Folks who sign up with event organisers, pay a fee and attempt to climb each of the afore mentioned peaks within 24 hours to raise money for a given charity (ironically, not one that helps to protect and conserve the very areas they visit).

(Please note, this post was updated on 21/08/2014. The National Trust have responded which can be seen at the end of this post)


MY BEEF

First thing’s first. I’m not criticising any one partaking in such events to raise money for great causes. That should go without saying. Neither am I going to suggest that such charity walks be banned from special places like the Scafells. I’m all up for open access and the hills being free to all who choose to visit. Heck, it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to think otherwise given the work I’m fortunate to do promoting the great outdoors.

My beef is with some of the thought, care and consideration such events have on the hills and valleys where this happens. And particularly the Scafells. An area I obviously know very well, and which is under siege as I type. For the Three Peaks Challenge doesn’t just run from June to September now – but often as early as April through to the end of October.

What’s prompted me to rant here though is this piece written by the BMC’s hill walking officer Carey Davies on the organisation’s website HERE. Go have a look, then pop back here….


Despite some well-meaning comments in that piece, I’m afraid to say much of what Carey talks about is true. I’ve come across paint on rocks, plastic bottles strewn everywhere, groups with blaring stereos singing (during the day and night as it happens), the temporary toilets smashed to pieces and of no use, designated litter bins full so disposable waste is dumped elsewhere and much much worst (litter bins are the huge industrial types and emptied once a week sadly. Some locals go and collect and tidy the rubbish themselves!).

Personally I’m not against the Three Peaks Challenge at all, the hills are free for all as I’ve mentioned above. That shouldn’t change. I do believe though, that such organised events need to be licenced and their numbers controlled/monitored. Much like fellrunning races and shows et al. After all it’s worth bearing in mind that any other event involving large numbers of the public usually requires legal permissions, insurance and such like when held in any given place. No such hurdles exist for Three Peaks Challenge organisers. None that I know of any way.


Given some organisers charge participants a fee I think it would be rather appropriate if part of that went back to the local Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) and National Trust teams (after all most of the participants contribute nothing to the local economy as Scafell Pike is the ‘hill in the middle’ on their challenge). The time and costs involved around these walks is considerable. Be it basic facilities to conservation work.

WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW


Very recently, a couple of the laybys into Wasdale have been blocked off to prevent parking (many are passing places for the narrow lane approach to the head of the valley). Whether these are temporary I don’t know for sure. However, the car park by the National Trust campsite at the head of Wast Water has been extended (sadly cutting down some trees) to accommodate more cars and particularly minibuses. Some semi-permanent toilets have been installed and signs erected too. At great cost to the local National Trust (NT) teams. Though I guess some of the return from parking fees may help in the long run. You’ll now find a local volunteer who sits in a shed during the dark hours of the night to monitor the incoming traffic and help guide the groups and individuals who arrive to ascend Scafell Pike. 

I suspect this volunteer will also try to maintain an appropriate level of noise from the crowds that pile into this tiny corner of Wasdale. For those camping on the NT’s campsite I’d imagine (well I know in fact from experience) that large groups piling out of mini-buses will create a bit of noise for nearby campers. Given the general westerly winds in the valley, I dread to think how shouts, yells and cheers will echo and fly across the site during the night. It was bad enough before the extended car park was built.

IS THIS FAIR?

national trust wasdale
Barry, Rob and Ian from the National Trust who work on and around the Scafells.


None of the above is fair when you think about it. The local NT teams are already under-funded thanks to cutbacks. The guys and gals of the NT rely on the public’s generosity, parking fees, volunteers (increasingly so as it happens) and much more besides. They do a tremendous amount of work in all weathers to protext and conserve the area. On a national level, the powers that be at the NT appear to only considerably invest in their teams/land in the Lake District if there’s money to be made. ie, a good return. An investment.

Which could explain why they have chosen not to bid for Blencathra recently (there’s no money in it when compared to a stately home perhaps? Call me a cynic) – but it does go to show that despite their duty of care and maintenance to the Scafells (being it’s owners of course and bestowed to them I have to add), on a national level the NT only see fit to spend considerable sums if there’s going to be some profit involved. That’s my impression at least. And thus it’s left to other charitable bodies to help support the tremendously hard work the local NT rangers do in the area such as the British Mountaineering Council. 

Having become great friends with many in the Wasdale area, I can’t think of one person who looks forward to the Three Peaks Challenge season. I won’t repeat here the names some describe them. And I don’t blame them to a point. I spent most of my days and nights around or on the Scafells last year from April to October and witnessing the impact of such events truly horrified me.

What most folks see on a given weekend doesn’t do the impact justice. Make no doubt about it.

The local Wasdale MRT get apprehensive when the season gets into full swing (check out their Facebook Page HERE and see the callouts involved) – let alone the locals. They’re only human after all and volunteers at that. But some of the callouts they get are really rather unnecessary. Laws of probability will ensure the number of incidents they have to deal with will increase thanks to the sheer numbers of folks in the area alone. 

I recall one early morning last July when I spent the night near Pikes Crag on Scafell Pike’s summit. I didn’t sleep too well thanks to singing and shouting and even a portable stereo blaring out nearby. I’m easy going and took it on the chin of course. If I wanted peace and quiet, why camp there? I could’ve moved on.

But it was the encounters with folks on my descent that began to grate on me and empathise with what the local MRT have to contend with. A gentleman in his 40’s approached me, along with two young children and other family members at Lingmell Col.

“Excuse me, is this Scafell Pike?” he asked gesturing to Lingmell, while holding both a map/compass and handheld expensive GPS with a clear way mark pointing in the direction he needs to go.

“No.” I replied. “What can you tell me about Scafell Pike?”

“It’s the highest mountain in England” he answered.

“OK. So what makes you think that that peak over there is taller than this one over here?” I pointed first to Lingmell and then towards the Pike as it dramatically towered above all the tops around the area. Heck, the early morning weather couldn’t have been more perfect for visibility.

The gentleman took the point and I did of course help guide them on their way despite my initial brusque replies. I even gave them basics on hill navigation and obviously how to understand the GPS he was holding. Incidentally, I could never work out how he didn’t understand it, yet he clearly downloaded a route to follow. Go figure.

It sounds awfully grumpy of me and some might argue condescending too, but this encounter was typical. Let alone the noise up the Pike’s summit. But what shocked me more was once I reached the village green at Wasdale Head, I was astonished to see that in the space of 36 hours or so the temporary toilets by the old school house had been smashed through!

Excrement was every where! Tainted tissue was blowing in the breeze and down the lane. The plasterboard walls that segregated the sexes for doing their business had been smashed in. Why?? I’ve no idea. But I welcome answers on a postcard.

Sadly, this wasn’t the first time I witnessed such sights. I could list more and more. I’d see this day in, day out. And that’s just me. How about the local residents (and that includes the Herdwicks!)? The MRT? The NT rangers? What are the costs of this financially?

RESPONSIBILITIES

Scafell Pike from Hard Knott lake district
The wild side – the Scafells as seen from Hard Knott.


Needless to say, some of the charity walk organisers take their responsibilities seriously. And they’re to be commended for that. They lead by example. Well, they don’t lead at all in truth as they’re in the minority! It’s worth mentioning that many Three Peaks Challengers participate under their own devices. And that some small charities organise the walks themselves – they even scout each hill before the season kicks off.

Of course they all mean well. And it’s heartening to see so many people try to raise money for good causes and enjoy the outdoors. Likely visit places they never knew existed, challenge their mental and physical stamina, boost their confidence and much more. But they can do this anyway by just visiting the outdoors in general – not on some charity walk.

They could come along like regular tourists and admire the mountain. Appreciate it’s character more, contribute to the local economy by spending money in the shops, pubs, guest houses, campsites and so on. Not just turn up in a mad rush and leave contributing nothing positive to the area.

Let’s not forget that even folks like me or you make an impact on the area too. Heck, we’re not whiter than white eh? It’s something I’m always concious of with my work. I get a thrill in sharing many sights and angles of a given area – to emphasise the desire to explore and visit new places. Not the usual honeypots or routes (as good as some are).

But we don’t all descend on a concentrated area all at once and so intensively over a short period. We don’t all ascend the same routes or walk along the same worn paths. We don’t all rush about through the night to conquer a peak, fight to park in such numbers where a space might be free. We don’t necessarily contribute nothing to the area. The Three Peaks Challengers proportionally land firmly in the negative camp when it comes to their impact on the mountain and valley. Which is a shame. It really is. I’m afraid folks who know and love the hills who participate in such charity events and respect the mountain are a minority. And even some of those choose to enjoy the ‘Three Peaks’ over a longer period which consequently leads to a lesser impact in places like Wasdale – something the BMC recommends for obvious reasons.

IS THERE AN ANSWER?

Which brings me back to suggestions of a solution. Why can’t the NT bring in restrictions for such events to be held on their land? License them. Enabling them to control and monitor numbers over the season. Ask for a voluntary or mandatory fee or such like from the event organisers to contribute towards the cost and maintenance of the areas affected including towards MRT.

I had to sign paperwork and contracts to film and camp on the Scafells for my recent film. So why not the charity event organisers?? Where do their responsibilities lie when enacting and promoting such events in sensitive areas and lands that the NT owns?! Do we see similar events held on any of the grounds within stately homes owned by the NT? Sometimes. But do such events require permissions and such like. Indeed they do. So what makes the Scafells any different?

I’ve no idea on the thoughts of the Lake District National Park Authority. I suspect they’re more interested in promoting Lakeland as an ‘adventure capital’ in truth. And from my point of view from spending so much time in the area, the powers that be on their board seem to primarily focus on the south of the park like Windermere anyway.

I will be interested to see what effect the recent measures undertaken by the NT have on the local environments, residents and MRT this year. Hopefully it improves the situation. And fair play to them for finally doing something about it. However, is it too little too late? Are their efforts a false economy? A sticking plaster?

Oh well, don’t let my wee rant put you off though! I don’t bite. I’m just sharing my thoughts on a personal blog and I’m all ears to be persuaded otherwise if you disagree. I’m all up for debate and enjoy listening to others points of view. Or correct me perhaps on some misconceptions or facts.

All said and done, if the thought of heading up Scafell Pike at this time of year puts you off – no problem. There are plenty of areas to visit and admire England’s highest. The flanks of Esk Pike, High Gait Crags, Hard Knott, Great Moss being just a few examples. At least from these places you’ll get to enjoy what I believe is the very best side of the Scafells. It’s wild side. Where it truly looks like a mountain. A mountain I love dearly.

BUY ‘Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike’ on DVD from Amazon HERE

OR in Digital Full HD from Steep Edge HERE.


UPDATE FROM THE NATIONAL TRUST NORTH WEST

Since this blogpost went public, you’ll be pleased to learn that The National Trust for the North West has been in touch. After reading through ‘my rant’ and perusing folk’s comments below and elsewhere (such as Twitter) they appreciate the “…good conversations and valid points about challenges”. And that they’re taking these on board as they plan for the future.

Let’s hope so. Something needs sorting that’s for sure. For too long, too many of the powers that be that could help remedy the issues the Scafells and Wasdale face (never mind elsewhere) have had their heads in the sand – in my opinion. I suspect like many organisations now, too many incomers and pen pushers who know little about a given field or have next to no hands on experience have a major influence on strategies and budgets – be it locally or nationally. I truly hope they are listening and do something meaningful about the effect of the Three Peaks Challengers.

You can read a little more detail what the National Trust had planned for this year in Wasdale HERE

The focus appears to have been resolving parking issues with an optimistic knock-on effect of remedying some of the problems myself, you lovely folks and locals et al have raised. But for me it still doesn’t get at the underlying problem of these challenge walks in a special and sensitive area of the Lake District National Park.

Time will tell I guess. It’s better than nowt and at least publicly with the work they’re doing they acknowledge there’s a problem. Aye, I may come across as cynical but I’m really a rather optimistic person. Heck, I have to be with the shots I chase for my work! But the Scafells mean a great deal to me. It holds a special place in my heart (all of our countryside in fact) and I know the area and the locals well. I care about it’s culture, heritage and future and it breaks my heart to see the problems it faces thanks to overwhelming numbers of challenge walks on the mountain and in the valley. 


Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s