When mountains are tourist attractions.
Let's start with the now legendary Trip Advisor review. It goes like this:
"Very Steep and Too High".
After going up Mount Snowdon by train in Wales I'd forgotten just how high some mountains can get. And they don't come much higher than this one - that's for sure. LOL! This was almost a FULL day's climbing and my girlfriend was crying at one point. When we did get to the top there was nothing there (Mount Snowdon has a pub, restaurant and toilets at its top). Luckily we had brought some sandwiches and drinks, so anyone else climbing this one - BE WARNED- there are NO facilities at the top. The climb basically went on for far too long and the last part was particularly steep and difficult. It was also cloudy at the top so the view was non-existant. The long walk back down was boring and again took too long. It was a great relief to get back to our B&B in Fort William for a hot soapy bath and the joys of a flushing toilet with soft toilet rolls. This attraction is free but I honestly couldn't imagine anyone - and I mean anyone - paying to climb this.
There are other 'reviews' of a similar sort, not quite as hilarious, but they give an insight into the minds of people for whom wilderness is like a commodity or a service, to be had, enjoyed, rated and discarded. Many people are not exposed to any information on the ethics of leave no trace, they are not aware of mountain culture, the BMC, MCofS, they don't read walking magazines or websites. So when they see discarded banana skins they throw theirs away on the mountain because 'they are biodegradable', when in fact they can take 18 months to 2 years to decompose and combined with other reuse change upland ecosystems. And look bad.
National summits are mountains, but they are also tourist attractions, more so those that are on the Seven Summits tick list – the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. The litter problem on Everest is huge, there are an estimated 12 tonnes of human faeces, 50 tonnes of rubbish along with a number of human bodies.
On Ben Nevis, our diminutive national summit, around 110,000 people walk to the top each year, which at least has a significant physical impact on the landscape and ecosystem. And when some of those people leave fruit peel, bottles, tissue, crisp packets and fag butts it becomes a problem. Not to mention the earnest charity fund raisers who leave cairns, ashes, and assorted paraphernalia; well intentioned junk is still junk, right?
So what's the solution?
The mayor of Saint-Gervais once suggested a paid licensing scheme for Mont Blanc, much to the outrage of many mountaineers in France. The Nepalese have done just this and a deposit is paid which is returnable when the team bring down from the mountain 8kg of rubbish.
Do you think this would work on Ben Nevis?
I can hear a large number of people scoffing. But actually Highland Council have a booking system for events (organised groups of more than 10) on the mountain, groups of 25-50 pay £100 and more than 100 people pay £250. In return they get liaison, event space in the car park at Glen Nevis and various other support.
Some have suggested that it's cheaper to employ a team of refuse collectors than try and influence the legions of people who's behaviour create the problem. As is often the case with these things it's volunteers who take the initiative. The Real Three Peaks Challenge is a group of Mountain Leaders who organise an annual, co-ordinated litter peak on Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon and in doing so collect sackfuls and sackfuls of rubbish. Check them out here:
The other major issue of course is one of safety. Many walkers, particularly in the UK where access is quite open, are not prepared for what they might find. Most of the time they get away with it, but sometimes they don't. Innumerable approaches have been tried over the years or are being tried, but at then end of the day you can't control what people do in the British hills, only influence them.
Humans are extremely good at missing or ignoring signs put out for them to read (I once thumped my nut on a Mind Your Head Sign). Humans are also subject to all manner of heuristic traps, for example commitment bias:
"This is my only available weekend for ascending Ben Nevis, even though the weather is not very good and it's snowing - I'll just go up".
One of the best ways to interrupt a behaviour pattern is with personal interaction; social contact, face to face, a meeting and a conversation. Pretty controversial eh? There is, I believe, a person being sought for a paid position working on the Ben Nevis Path, reporting ground conditions and presumably interacting with walkers. I could say 'Mountain Police' but that would be inflammatory!
There are those of course who get seriously uppity when they hear about anything like this: 'mountains are wild, adventurous and people should be able to decide wether to engage with the risk or not and it's for no one else to dictate to them what they should or should not do!' But here's the thing: Ben Nevis is not the same as Stob Ban, the Big Bad Ben is a tourist attraction and as such perhaps deserves special treatment....