Is it safe?

During my recent lily-livered grumblings about the weather, I made reference to the Original Mountain Marathon, which took place in Borrowdale over the weekend.

As many of you know, the event was hit by torrential rainfall… rivers burst their banks, normally burbling becks became raging flumes and paths and roads were reduced to waterways.

Admittedly glad that I cancelled my plans to head to Cumbria at the weekend, I was angered by some of the media coverage it prompted … the insinuation that the organizers of this established event had been irresponsible and were solely to blame.

Thankfully, the balance was restored a little today by a piece in the Independent penned by Richard Askwith, author of “Feet in the clouds: A tale of fell running and obsession’.

Now, I am not a fell runner and I have nothing but admiration for those who are fit and determined enough to run over the fells. But I do understand the rationale of immersing yourself in the rawness of the mountain environment in a bid to shake off the shackles of the day-to-day. It’s essential catharsis for me, and this point is effectively made in Askwith’s article.

I’d imagine that many of you watching the scenes of flooded cars and waterproofed runners leaning into wind and rain will have remembered your own days in wild weather. These are the days that remain crystallized in memory, rather than melding into a collective mulch of more comfortable mountain experience.

I recalled a late November weekend in Langdale a couple of years back. I had just bought my Akto and desperately wanted to give a try. The plan was to take the high route towards Wasdale and spend a night in the shadow of the Scafells.

I had a pleasant enough evening in Langdale learning how to pitch the Hilleberg and had a comfortable couple of hours sleep, only to be woken by a thunderous storm. Still raging in the morning, I packed my soggy kit away still determined to make something of the weekend.

The signs were not good, though. The track up Mickleden was a river and I shifted my route to Stake Pass where the route was really waterlogged.

I pressed on and headed to the Langdales and more familiar ground. Shrouded in thick cloud and eyes stinging from rain, I was forced off the mountain having been blown off my feet numerous times.

The floor of Langdale came into view and huge pools of water had gathered in hollows. Sheep took refuge behind stonewalls and huddled on islands or marginally higher ground in the fields.

A vivid experience, yes, but it forced me to take responsibility for my actions.

This, I believe, is the key point that was lost in the media coverage of the OMM over the weekend.Askwith, too, picks up on it. Although conceding that it would be glib to ignore the concerns of the emergency services who criticized the organizers of the event, equally it would be wrong for participants to feel that their safety was in the hands of the organizers.

Given the media furore, then, are we to conclude that our emerging health and safety conscious, risk-averse society has no room for fell running and mountain walking?

In his conclusion, Askwith suggests that the only place for safe exercise is to join the blank-faced throng in gyms up and down the country. (Well, you can always programme the cross trainer on a mountain setting, can’t you?)

You’d better drive to the gym rather than cycle, though… it’s far too dangerous on the roads afterall.


11 thoughts on “Is it safe?

  1. One question: if the runners were all self responsible, self reliant etc, why did they need to be told the race was cancelled? Presumably they would have carried on had they not been told; there is no evidence to the contrary and it would have been folly to do so.

  2. A good question… I maintain that it should have been the runners’ call once the race had started.I would also argue that fell runners are generally more responsible mountain users. Notwithstanding navigation and mountain craft, they run in tandem.

  3. Yes I agree. But the fact remains, those runners were being told what to do ie depending on the advice of the organisers, and THAT is what’s being questioned here. The runners were not, actually, self reliant etc etc FOR THIS EVENT, they were given advice on what to do and its arguable they should never have been ‘advised’ ie allowed to set off.

  4. I must admit I have been vocal in my view that the OMM made a bad call. The anonymous person raised the point in advice given and personal responsibility. The article in the paper said of well and suitably equipped persons. There are limits to what kit can do for you and the like. Many need spare clothing and shelter. The big mistake in my view was the structure of the event allowed for the skill of the runners to cope but failed to think about the infrastructure of the event to cope – like the fact the campsite, car park, control centre got flooded. Add in those who sought shelter tells a tale of the elements won. An example the Wasdale Mountain Rescue team had to help on runner who was washed down stream. In flood you don’t cross streams. Why this happened I don’t fully know. What I do is if you’re on a race you seek the shortest route from point to point. So maybe they and others took risks you would not take on a backpack. Did the OMM think about this when going ahead? I have heard that 13 is normal to end up in hospital on theses events. Every weekend thousands go on the fells in the lakes. Looking at the reports from Mountain Rescue I don’t see 13 needing hospital every weekend. Some walkers have said they got to the Lakes that weekend and made a choice not to walk. One went to the mine and said many runners where poorly kited out in his view and in need of help as they where soaking and exhausted. Point is there may be many fit and elite runners on the OMM. But many are not and the OMM had a duty to them to give advice and guidance. Some may not have fancied going up but when they heard start and seeing others going. Maybe just maybe they went with the crowd. Just a few thoughts on the matter.

  5. Interestingly, given the above, I had a conversation with a friend who was in the area over the weekend. He supports the view expressed here that some of the participants were not as well equipped as they should have been, so I would consequently have to moderate my previous comment.Although he shares my underlying view of personal responsibility in the mountains, he did argue that the organisers should have taken more responsbility (if not solely to blame as some press reports suggests… and which provoked my disquiet).I was also told that there was the option of a lower level route… it is not clear whether this was offered/whether it would have made much difference in these conditions.

  6. This seems a much more rational debate than dismissing events as media hype. The OMM and its supporters may feel there is a witch hunt against them, but that won’t help them to make a few decisions for the future to hopefully stop another incident like that. I actually find the comments banding about on the number who needed hospital sad. To accept hyperthermia as acceptable etc seems irresponsible in my view. Sleeping on bubble wrap won’t kill you but having no warm clothing to get in to at a forced bivy when you are soaking can be a whole different story. I have yet to see answers from the OMM to why so many need shelter and warm clothing if they where all suitably equipped etc. I am intrigued to the deleted comment by the way and what, if any relevance it had? I can understand the defensive stance of the OMM and those on it. But if they don’t look at the sequence of events and the affect the their decisions had on the runners and the affect the extreme weather had, they wont learn anything. Blaming the media (which was sensational in some comments) won’t help. On the low level route. It was reported that they advised this but on the video they where going up Great Gable. Why? If you can’t stand up due to the wind etc it is time to go down. Saying that with 80mph winds forecast and the rain. Why did they even consider this? taking in to account most tents carried would be unsuitable in that wind.

  7. … and with regard to the media coverage, my disappointment stems for the lack of balance.Yes, it is easy to attack the press, but having worked in the industry for a good many years I can imagine the response of the news desks in some media organisations. The ‘mountains into a morgue’ quote was editorial gold dust.Now working in the specialist press, I am also aware of the liberties taken detail on stories which overlap with my current ‘patch’… this is not esoteric material either, but points that would provide balance.That’s why I was heartened to see the Askwith article.As for the OMM’s relationship with the media, I can’t comment. From what you say, though, they are not doing themselves any favours.

  8. Just to conclude a few thought. The OMM on there web site have dated updates on the flooding that had happened during the week and the warning for Saturday. They concluded it would be ok as there car park etc was not on a flood plane. Why is that of interest? Well it is an admission the event is a group thing not an individual on the hills making his own choices. In essence it was an admission that the weather would or could have a group impact. They have some good points in making sense about the confusion. Sadly the theme that comes out in this is the sense weather reports are no good. Some say if they bothered with them they would never go walking. I like you have many tales of walks over several days in rain and flooded paths etc. What alarms me is the danger in dismissing weather reports. Take the Cairngorms…..ignoring a forecast of extreme weather there and going high and remote can put you in a dangerous position. I think it is a worrying thing that forum comments and blogs dismiss forests so casually. I doubt mountain leadership courses teach that. It also is a poor argument to defend the OMM decision based on the forecast and concerns raised to them in the days prior to the event. Either way thanks for the banter and I will add you to my blog roll if OK with you. Great blog you have. Take care.

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