Published 3rd May 2021, 12:47

    GREAT to see so many pictures of happy, smiling faces on mountain summits over the last couple of weeks.

    The sense of relief that the freedom to travel widely across the country has been restored is palpable. It feels we have regained something precious, something that maybe we had even taken a little for granted. 

    Or as Joni Mitchell put it: You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

    It's understandable that as soon as the starting pistol was fired, the hills would be alive, the chase for those Munro and Corbett ticks reactivated, especially when the weather was on its best behaviour.

    I've been lucky enough over the last few months to have a good supply of walks on my doorstep – it's a big doorstep – so I didn't feel the urge to immediately drive a few hundred miles to a possibly overcrowded car park. If I had been cooped up within city boundaries for months on end, though, I'm sure I would have.

    Personally, it all still felt a little weird. I likened my mixed emotions to that of an animal being released from captivity, sniffing the air suspiciously, unsure about taking those first few steps out of the cage. I'm not normally a weekend mountaineer anyway so I embraced my lethargic tendencies and sacrificed the blue skies and sunshine for another day.

    What is obvious is that there has been a massive upsurge in people taking to the hills. That has to be welcomed in so many ways, the long-term health benefits for one. The focus over the past year or so has too often been on the negative, even if rightly so in some cases. But education and a genuine growing love and appreciation for the outdoors can alleviate an awful lot of the current problems such as littering. Dirty campers will still be there, but the hope is that the good will soon overwhelmingly outweigh the bad.

    When I tutored students on creative writing, one of the first things I told them was: “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” Some may find that debatable, but I wanted them to ask the obvious, to understand the basics and build a solid foundation for moving ahead.

    The same principal applies to the outdoors. The growth of social media forums has been a largely positive experience, but occasionally someone asking a genuine question is subjected to ridicule or insults. Of course, the wide range of replies on these forums can be a danger in itself, but there is no harm in guiding beginners towards the correct sources for information and safety.

    There are varying levels of snobbery and elitism in every walk of life and mountaineering is no exception. It comes from the need of some to try to cope with their insecurities by looking down on others. No one emerges from the womb fully kitted out and ready for an expedition to Everest. We all start from roughly the same point, albeit at different times of life, and we all gain the relevant experience along the way.

    When we set off on our mountain journey, we were fortunate to have old hands happy to keep us right. Not only did they answer every question we had, they positively egged us on to greater things as though they were reliving their hill days through a new generation.

    I realised the other day that this is my 30thyear of serious hill-going. This anniversary milestone is usually marked by pearls but the only pearls I can attest to are the ones of wisdom from these long-departed hill legends during those fledgling years.

    There had been hill days before 1991, but they mainly centred around camping and partying with possibly a mountain thrown in. Further back, there were hill outings with the cubs and scouts but this was mainly for the benefit of the adults allegedly in charge. We were mostly blissfully unaware of where we were or what we were doing. 

    Gear was an afterthought, whatever came to hand. On one memorable ascent to the snow-covered summit of Ben Nevis in the 70s, one of our party was wearing a sports jacket.

    When we did finally get down to business, our first tentative steps were on the Arrochar Alps because they were close enough to fit in before we started work. And always when we arrived back, our experienced colleagues would want the full story of the day and then pitch up a few suggestions for our next outing.

    They never laughed at our queries or mocked our mistakes, and their experience drove us on to bigger and better things. I like to believe our best practice started there. It's something to keep in mind the next time you think you're being asked a stupid question.