IT WAS THE EVE of the Highland Cross and I was listening to my former work colleague Charlie Bannerman on Radio Highland interviewing Callum Munro, the organiser of the event. Munro commented on how wet it had been and how he expected that much damage would be done to upper Glen Affric, but then said: "My real concern is that it is likely to be very humid for the race and several of the competitors could be in difficulties." I was struck, but not surprised, at the apparently cavalier attitude to the fragile terrain. I had been in Glen Affric a previous wet year on the day after the race and had seen how much the ground had been churned up; six weeks later I had returned and there was little improvement.
The Highland Cross is a mass event for charity in which competitors run or walk from Kintail to Glen Affric then cycle to Beauly. It is so popular that numbers have to be restricted to 645 per year. It raises large sums of money for charity. But is it appropriate to have such mass events in vulnerable mountain terrain? Does it become acceptable because many good causes benefit? Would it make any difference to the participants if it took place somewhere less sensitive? In my view the answer to all three questions is no.
If almost 1300 feet stampeding over the pass into Glen Affric concerns me, my real bête-noire among such events is the Great Wilderness Challenge, which takes place each August. The very title makes me cringe. It is a run from Dundonell to Poolewe, across what many would agree is the finest piece of wild country (not wilderness) in Scotland. It is an area which all guidebooks tell you should be taken seriously, only to be approached by people who are well-equipped and know how to look after themselves. Yet for one day each year all this advice is cast aside and people with just running vests and shoes, and no map and compass, are encouraged to go there. The safety backup is provided by the local mountain rescue team who also benefit from the money raised. Now I am keen to see rescue teams supported, but I do think that in this case the wrong message is being put out.
I first heard about this event when a colleague asked me to sponsor him and I reluctantly agreed. When it came to pay-up time I asked if he had enjoyed the magnificent scenery. "Good heavens, no," he replied. "I was far too busy looking where I was putting my feet." I was appalled, so began to ask others who take part in these events if they appreciated the country they were passing through. Almost without exception, I received similar answers and from then on, when approached to sponsor, I have always replied: "Yes, provided you do not take part" and then explained my position.
To raise questions about such events is to be immediately branded as anti-charity. Not so, but I freely admit I regard my donating to charity as a private matter, to be done at my time of choosing and not because everyone else is doing it. I distrust "mass hysteria", and when disaster appeals are made I shun them. I tend to respond some time later when the need has not ended but the screaming headlines have. I loathe being told to give generously by over-rich celebs. However, I recognise that charities need the money raised by these events and that getting lots of people involved is a good way of raising it. So there is a dilemma.
Supporters of these events say that, apart from the good causes which are benefiting, they are good because they get people taking exercise and getting fit. Surely that is to be encouraged at a time when we supposedly have so many couch potatoes in our population. Well, yes, but such a course of action is open to anybody at any time. It should not require a mass event to spur them into action. For those who will only act if they are following the herd there are plenty of places to go without disturbing mountain terrain.
Mass charity events in the mountains are on the increase. They put pressure on participants to complete the course regardless of the conditions. On 1 May 1988 hillgoers were asked to visit every Munro on the same day. A vicious spring storm blew up and one man died on Beinn Tulaichean. I suspect that but for his commitment he would have stayed off the hills that day. (According to the 1989 SMCJ accident list the man - Colin Davies - slipped on snow but didn't have axe or crampons, and was wearing Doc Martens, possibly the most lethal type of hill-footwear - Ed.) It is not the only death to have occurred on such events. In July 2005, a participant in a mass charity walk died in the Angus glens.
For me, one of the attractions of going to the hills is to find peace and solitude. People like me are branded as elitist, especially by some journalists and, of course, by developers and politicians. There is clearly a lobby for bringing the town and its crowds and noise into the countryside. I am not asking for the countryside to myself but I do think that mass events are inappropriate in sensitive mountain terrain and that there is a danger of condoning activities simply because they raise money for charity. So I would call on the organisers of these events to consider alternative, less controversial locations, especially as it seems that for the participants the main buzz comes from competing, both against the clock and other people, rather than appreciating their surroundings.
Ed. - Another controversial mass-participation hill event is the Three Peaks Challenge, the game of climbing Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis within 24 hours and driving, or being driven, between hills. There is a substantial charitable industry centred on this, with extraordinary numbers doing it, many of them sheep-like hill novices (eg see the account of 3000 encountered on Ben Nevis - TAC28 p12). It's debatable quite how helpful to charity this actually is - it's been pointed out several times over the years that Three Peaks events drain money from mountain rescue team coffers. Then there is the annual midsummer nightmare for the good people of Borrowdale, who suffer coaches and cars driving up and down the valley road in the small hours of the night as Three Peakers dispose of the middle chunk of their challenge. And what of the sometimes dubious tactics involved in the event itself? - when I was on Snowdon on 19 June this year the place was swarming with Three Peakers, various of whom opted to take the train down from the summit. Surely that's cheating?
TAC 66 Index