Original sins and a media maelstrom

Hard to know what to make of the Original Mountain Marathon brouhaha in October, really. The basic story will be easily recalled, as it’s not often (barring multiple fatalities as with the Buachaille avalanche in January) that hillgoing, in any of its forms, leads the national news bulletins.
A widely expressed opinion from the OMM community was that the TV coverage, particularly by the BBC, was sensationalised. There were no fatalities, and several minor-injury incidents were resolved in a self-help way with other competitors forming an on-the-spot rescue service, yet it was all over our screens for a day and a half. The media, so the argument goes, should have kept their noses out.
The Ed, with feet in both the hill community and the press corps, doesn’t entirely buy that. While the BBC did seem over-zealous (the “2000 people missing” angle was particularly silly), Sky was better (as is often the case, much though the lefty-liberals like to claim otherwise), and someone later commented that ITV seemed balanced and fair.
In media terms there clearly was a story, and it broke down into at least four basic areas:
1 — Weather, and whether to cancel the thing
Conditions were decidedly damp, although almost certainly not the “worst in 40 years” as was touted in some quarters. Perhaps this meant the worst-ever KIMM/OMM weather, which it probably was, but it was made to sound like the worst Cumbrian weather in 40 years, which it surely wasn’t.
No one from TAC Central took part, but there was a team-building exercise in the Ponds that weekend (aka the Ed and the proofreader driving down to Coniston to see the latter’s mum), and although the wetness of the Saturday caught all the publicity, the Thursday saw a similar deluge. All routes through Ambleside and Windermere were closed due to flooding that evening, and the TACmobile ended up diverting round the western edge by Cockermouth, Whitehaven and Broughton, a 55-mile, 90-minute add-on.
Friday brought clear skies, with the more obvious flood-waters retreating apace. But the forecast for Saturday — the first day of the OMM — was at least as bad as for Thursday, and questions were later asked about the organisers’ wisdom in allowing the thing to start, given that the ground was saturated and they would surely have seen the potential for flooding during Thursday’s dress rehearsal. Their giving it green lights does rather suggest that no form of deluge short of Noye’s Fludde would have been deemed bad enough to cause a postponement.
While runners wouldn’t have been given route maps had there been a complete cancellation (as was the case when Day 2 was shelved), there was nothing to stop water-loving individuals or pairings from making “normal” hill outings on either day had they been so inclined — much as happened with the ad hoc event organised by Eddie Campbell when the 1980 Ben Nevis race was cancelled due to bad weather.
A major reason for Day 1 of the OMM not being cancelled was surely that the organisers found themselves in supertanker-turning-round territory, given the complexity and sheer size of the event. Which leads neatly into…
2 — What’s with the cast of thousands?
The entry list was 2500 strong. Think about it: an intinerant, village-size population descended on an area (bloody tinks), in circumstances where the council infrastructure was already struggling to cope with weather-related problems. But even had conditions been idyllic, sun splitting the sky, bluebirds singing and all that, 2500 still seems way too big.
One of the main post-hooha arguments made in defence of the OMM was that the vast majority of competitors were highly experienced hillgoers, more than capable of looking after themselves in adverse conditions; indeed, many would have relished the event precisely on these survivalist grounds. Fair enough. But small-is-good is almost axiomatic in hill activities, for the sake of safety and peace-and-quiet. Massive gatherings (eg Three Peaks Challenge attempts) tend to involve hill novices and naivety.
How would these experienced OMMers react, away from the event, were they in a campsite and a squad of 250 turned up? Or in a bothy when a group of 25 arrived, however well-behaved? Not best pleased, perhaps? But we’re not talking 25 or 250 here. We’re talking 2500.
3 — Location Location Location
It’s largely because of the annual Three Peaks palaver that Seathwaite seemed a dim-witted choice of venue for the OMM. Just as over in Wasdale, the Borrowdale locals — many of them experienced and generally sympathetic hillgoers — are reportedly sick to every last back tooth of being crowded out by mass-event mobs. Every June sees busload after influxing busload of Three Peaks fundraisers clogging the valley, filling the small hours with engine-noise (Scafell Pike is inevitably the night leg), and periodically having to be steered or hauled off the slopes. “We’re doing it for charity,” cry the organisers, gleefully. “And you’re sucking money out of the charity known as mountain rescue,” mutter the long-suffering locals.
Of course the OMM crowd were largely at the opposite end of the ability-and-experience spectrum, but it would have been nice to see the organisers give this side of things a bit more thought than appears to have happened. Even without the Three Peaks angle, a lot of people live there or thereabouts — Borrowdale is hardly some back-of-beyond wilderness — and there was always likely to be substantial community concern and media interest when things started to go awry. By all means organise the OMM — it’s a good thing, on the whole. But don’t imagine for a minute that it operates in isolation from the local community, and don’t organise it in Tourist Central only to then bleat like a bunch of Herdwicks when it ends up all over the news. Want to stay out of the limelight? Hold it up a glen, quietly.
(Combining the earlier Karrimor-sponsored days with the current OMM incarnation, this was its 41st year. Location-breakdown: southern mainland Scotland 11; Lakes nine; Highlands, Pennines/Howgills, Cheviot/NE England, North Wales four each; Mid Wales two; Arran, Peak, Devon one each. So holding it in the Ponds was not new, but some of these would have been before it became so leviathan-like.)
4 — Weir’s way with words
The central character in much of what happened that weekend was Mark Weir, proprietor of the Honister Slate Mine. Weir features twofold, in that (a) his name keeps cropping up in discussions of who called in the mountain rescue teams (they were presumably alerted by the police, who in turn would have found other and arguably better things to do had they not been alerted by someone). And (b), he provided two humdinging quotes to the media, repeated endlessly on the Saturday night and Sunday morning: “We have come within inches of turning the Lake District mountains into a morgue”, and “The organisers should be shot”. Grade-A soundbites, those, especially coming from an actively involved local businessman, and it’s unfair to blame the news outlets for latching on to them. Indeed, opting to ignore such juicy material probably comes close to being a sackable offence — for negligence — in journalistic terms.
Weir’s role is likely to remain unclear and divisive for years to come. To some he was the Hero of the Hour, opening up his visitor centre to provide sustenance and shelter for the wave of OMM refugees. In the week after the event his website, www.honister-slate-mine.co.uk, included this upbeat assessment: “It’s back to business for everyone. Everyone is safe. The rain has gone, the waters have receded and with care you can get through. Once again the area looks spectacular. It is totally different to what people may have seen repeated on television and on websites and in newspapers which were all filmed at the eye of the storm.”
Others, however, saw him as the Villain of the Piece: various climbing and hill-running websites included reports of Weir and/or the police shooing bedraggled runners back down the Buttermere side of the pass, when their cars, dry clothes, etc were on the Borrowdale side. Similarly, there have been reports of the slate mine centre not being as welcoming as suggested, eg there was even one report of a competitor being charged £10 for a cup of tea.
Who to believe? Goodness knows. Chances are it was a bit of both, with Weir meaning well but getting flappy and over-reacting. Once the abandonment had been announced and the MRTs, police and media throng had been deployed, it was never likely to be straightforward. Weir appears not to have won many friends that weekend, but from his point of view a problematic and potentially perilous situation was resolved. HotH or VotP? Neither, really.
Three final thoughts —
(i) Entry to the OMM cost £85 per team of two. Multiplying by 1250 gives £106,250. The organisers donated £17,000 to local MRTs after the 2008 event, and that’s laudable. But without for a moment wishing to suggest there’s been any wrongdoing, where does the bulk of the money end up? Seems quite a lot to disappear into organisational costs.
(ii) If the OMM crowd are hard-core hill minimalists to a man and woman, what was to be made of the sight, on one of the TV news reports, of a competitor trudging back to base carrying what appeared to be either a shop-window manikin or an inflatable sex-doll? Were they testing some new kind of emergency bivvy shelter?
(iii) How grateful should the OMM community be to Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand? The Borrowdale balls-up fed the rolling news monster for 36 hours or so, and threatened to rumble on for several days with the usual guff about banning this and controlling that. But that same weekend the Mail on Sunday, bless ’em, broke the Ross/Brand phone-prank story and by the start of the new week the charming Radio 2 chums had become the dominant obsession. The OMM was already yesterday’s news.
Further reading —
www.theomm.com/
www.sleepmonsters.co.uk/racereport.php?race_id=6846
www.thewestmorlandgazette.co.uk/search/?search=omm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cumbria/7691338.stm
www.grough.co.uk/view/2008/10/26/all-back-safe-as-media-storm-follows-omm-weekend/
www.ukclimbing.com/forums/t.php?t=326132 (you have to register to see this 954-post thread, but it’s lively and interesting)
On the subject of BBC DJs and charity, Chris Moyles climbed Snowdon on 31 January along with his inevitable entourage by way of training for a Kilimanjaro attempt for Comic Relief in February. Well done and all that, even if producer Aled Haydn Jones’ post-hill comment to the North Wales Daily Post — “I think it was the walk down to Llanberis that killed us” was ill-judged, given the spate of accidents and rescues on Snowdon through December and January (and two brothers were to die there the next day).
There are photographs at Moyles’ BBC website, including an interesting one at www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/chrismoyles/galleries/4131/9/#gallery4131 labelled “We were battling winds of 70–80 mph”. Look at this and see if you think Moyles and his pals resemble people standing on the roof of a car doing 75mph. Not that they would exaggerate the severity of conditions, of course.
Lost and found dept. Roderick Manson picked up “a hat and two light waterproof gloves in excellent condition” on the Fionn Bheinn / Meall nan Cabar col, Sunday 7 December. In case anyone thinks such things are never reclaimed, the binoculars reported in TAC72 as having been found in an obscure bit of Morvern were duly reunited with their owner.
One last bit of BBCology. BBC Scotland’s Matt Barrett is working on a documentary about Munros, likely to hit the BBC Four digital airwaves this summer. He’s keen to hear from anyone intending to complete before the end of May; contact him at matt.barrett@bbc.co.uk or 0141 422 6110.
From TAC74 p4: “When TAC73 came out in the spring, a litre of unleaded petrol cost just over £1. It subsequently rose by 15p or more, and although there has recently been a slight retreat, the overall trend surely remains upward.” Hmm. Since then the price has dipped as low as 82p per litre and has spent much of the time in the mid-80s. Just goes to show how well the Ed understands global oil markets.