The Freedom of the Hills

Last weekend, English mountaineer Doug Scott collected his Lifetime Achievement Piolet d'Or in Courmayeur. This award recognises his major stature as an alpinist.

He's done heaps of climbing over his lifetime, including a couple of new routes in the Darrans, in New Zealand. But he probably remains best known for his participation in the 1975 Everest expedition led by Chris Bonnington, which pioneered a new route on the South West face of the world's highest mountain. On 24 September 1975, Doug Scott and Dougal Haston became the first Brits to stand on the very top, more than twenty two years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
(credit: www.dougscottmountaineering.co.uk)

I think this photograph of Doug on the summit manages to capture something of what it must have felt like to be there. The location is stunning, and the elation at having reached the summit is palpable. But the sun is setting, so the situation is deadly serious. As it is, the two men survived a very cold night out on the South Summit, where they were forced to bivouac on the way down because their head torches stopped working.

In his acceptance speech at Courmayeur, Doug comments on how fortunate we are that we have unrestricted access to the mountains – in this case the European Alps.

There's an obvious humour in the way he say this, but he's also very serious. Because there really is a danger that the "crazy politicians" could prevent, or at least restrict, access to the wild places of the world. Even here in New Zealand.

Last year, Coroner Richard McElrea called for Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson to "take steps" to create bylaws to restrict or close public access to the terminal face of the Fox Glacier. Anyone who breached the bylaws could be instantly fined, his report said. Practical difficulties mean that this hasn't been implemented and is not likely to ever be. D.O.C. staff I've talked to are clearly opposed to this. I was incredibly surprised by the coroner's report, and deeply disappointed that he could arrive at such a conclusion. Thankfully, I'm not the only person who feels this way, as the ODT reported. Educating members of the public on the dangers of the terminal face seems a much saner approach.

Doug Scott articulates something that I feel very strongly: people should be free to take risks. Anyone who has spent time in the untamed places of the world knows how much there is to be gained from simply being there. Away from the literal safety barriers and figurative safety nets you discover aspects of who you are that you wouldn't otherwise.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

I agree that it is quite astonishing that an intelligent man could make such a simplistic, irrational recommendation. To live is to take risks! Risk-taking is inherent in the human psyche, and as you suggest, moving beyond what is safe (sure/known)enables us to discover things about ourselves that otherwise remain hidden.
In an age when people are increasingly disengaged from wilderness (... from the natural environment in general)it is sad to think that there are those who want to remove the possibility of healthy risk-taking.
Sadly, this is not just limited to the human relationship with the natural world.