The great outdoors and wide open spaces provide nourishment for the soul. To a lot of people – I’m one of them – a day spent somewhere like the Langdale Pikes of the Lake District is the ultimate de-stressing soother of woes and eraser of fears. So it’s rather troubling to find that some would have us go walking on the fells accompanied by a load of red tape and mass of small print.
Here’s what happens at the moment. We arrive by bus or car at a valley location. It might be Elterwater in the Lakes, Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales, Osmotherley in the North York Moors or Edale in the Peak District. Then with growing excitement we get booted up and set off with trekking poles, rucksacks full of lunch and emergency items, and follow our planned routes.
The majority of walks go completed without hitch. Occasionally, though, someone has a fall, twists a knee or ankle, or starts to feel unwell and is unable to get down to a road without assistance. That’s when a call goes out for help from the local mountain rescue team, all run by volunteers and financed by donations. Sometimes they require an air ambulance or one of the now privatised search and rescue helicopters run by Bristow Helicopters, which replaced the RAF Sea Kings a few years back.
Some rescues, though, involve walkers who it turns out had disregarded advice about vital equipment to wear and carry. Other walkers, using their mobiles, report that they are lost then manage to find their way off the fells unaided, but don’t phone to say help is no longer required, leaving the mountain rescue team still searching.
Whilst the majority of call-outs are absolutely necessary, needless ones do seem to be more frequent, if a couple of Facebook pages I follow are any guide. Videos of inadequately dressed walkers are also posted online. There was one last week of a couple wearing just thin jumpers, jeans and trainers on the snow-and-ice covered Striding Edge ridge of Helvellyn, a notorious blackspot for fatalities in winter. Within 24 hours a local evening newspaper had run a readership poll suggesting fines for walkers who require rescuing and turn out to be badly equipped. Of 371 who responded, 94 per cent were in favour of fines.
I’ve also seen this suggested on the Facebook page of Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team, which last year dealt with a record 140 incidents, as well as a growing number arguing that walkers should buy insurance to cover the cost of any rescue they might require before they set foot on the fells. Perhaps, I’ve heard it said, we should even pay annual fees to mountain rescue teams in the way we do the RAC and AA. The teams, it should be said, are firmly against such ideas.
Fines… insurance policies… excesses… no claims discounts… sorry mate, you didn’t renew your membership. I can imagine right-wing politicians slavering at the thought of all this, making criminals of walkers who thought it was OK to wear trainers and hadn’t seen the forecast for snow, and big insurance companies queuing up to encourage mandatory policies.
Those havens of tranquility would be gone. A walk in the fells would be like entering legal minefields.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe