My client and I looked at each other, this was a classic situation that many regular hill goers will recognise. A couple, one partner undaunted, striding towards an undertaking of uncertain outcome, probably having convinced the other of their proficiency, positiveness and the feasibility of the plan. The other partner doubtful, trepidatious and unselfconscious enough to ask a passer by "does it get difficult?"
In this case I answered almost objectively, but stressed the consequential nature of the scrambling and the fact that for most of the way we had used a rope. In this scenario what happens next is up to them. Some people I know will be more direct and questioning whilst I preferred to accept that people will have their adventures and misadventures.
Two events in recent time have caused my outlook to change slightly. One happened last summer as my team of clients and I packed up from an abseil and prepared to descend from the mountain. A couple arrived just as an afternoon squall of hail and sleet arrived, as forecast. She looked obviously unenthused and intimidated by the environment and conditions, he set her up to belay and gave some instructions. My thoughts were wrong time, wrong place and wrong route. It is out of balance, has sloping lichenous holds and fiddly protection but is not very hard. The whole scene just looked wrong. I prevaricated and surveyed, I snuck along the crest to observe the lad halfway up the wall paused and scanning for holds. She had far too much slack from her belay plate, a ground falls' worth, but he looked very steady and in control. I decided to leave them to it. I had delayed enough, my clients were getting cold and time was getting on.
We had just set off when we were halted by screams from the girl, which led to a long and hard but ultimately successful rescue. They turned out to be a nice couple who had just made a mistake, like anyone can. The lad is now fine.
The other was the result of a soloists fatal fall at a popular and busy winter climbing venue which very nearly had dire consequences for third parties in the area, not to mention the psychological cost to the witnesses, including myself – again.
This place is typically host to large numbers of people with a varying understanding of hazard and consequence and the effect it might have on other people. The coire was inundated with people, the soloists in full view, passing others, did anyone comment on their intentions, mention that they could become a human boulder and knock others off?
One Mountain Guide I know specifically avoids this area during busy times to avoid being exposed to risky behaviour and the likelihood of involvement in an incident.
My previous restraint in piping up to challenge behaviour and offer advice was based on a) do they really need it? b) how will they take my intervention? c) things get tough sometimes, people will have epics and most of the time they'll get themselves sorted out. However I am now rather angry. I have lost patience and seen enough to be fettered by a preference for tact and an unwillingness to bruise somebody ego.
Disseminated in the data cloud that now surrounds us is information but also misinformation. Recently an article appeared on National Geographic's website which featured the Aonach Eagach in Glencoe. It describes it as a 'hike', not hard and no rope required but that you shouldn't make a mistake. Admittedly it does also use the adjectives frightening, heart stopping and dodgy which may give some pause for thought, but every year it catches numerous people out who have heard it described as a 'ridge walk'. Good information has never been more available but with the advent of a genuine tourism boom in Scotland it concerns me that websites and blogs tout mountaineering objectives as 'attractions' and 'must dos'.
The ill prepared and unknowingly incompetent are spreading out from the national summits to the wilder places which then creates a moral imperative for those many of us who are prepared and are not incompetent to warn, advise and challenge, because personally speaking I have no wish to see more human carnage in the mountains.