EIGHT years ago, fresh air was still the property of moneyed men, a luxury open to the few. With a hundred faces and places fresh in my mind, I find this fact difficult to believe, yet it is true. Eight years ago there were only a few Choochters, and Hamishes on the roads ; and the Highlands, where to-day the youth hostel chains link the most remote glens, were a desert of deer-stalking. Hiking was the hobby of an enthusiastic handful, and climbing was a rich man's sport. Only the cyclists had learned to escape from the cities.
Then came the hostels and lightweight tents, both of them cheap ; and now the roads are thick with week-end traffic, and in glens once deserted are hostels where the summer visitor must book in advance if he is to find a bed. In Glen Nevis, for example, there is a hostel which is one hundred miles from the nearest city and consequently stands empty most of the winter :yet each year the total number of times its beds are slept in is over six thousand. A bed in Glen Nevis in July is a thing to be prized, and the ground round the hostel is white with tents. Fresh air has become cheap.
It is unfair to make the previous chapters of this book illustrate the point, for most of the incidents described in them occurred in districts far removed from my home yet, even so, none of them was expensive. The hunger-march holiday in Skye lasted for a fortnight and cost me £4 from Glasgow back to Glasgow. A pound note would cover the cost of any other incident mentioned, and ten shillings was enough for most of them. I once spent a week-end in Dan Mackay's barn, eighty miles from home, with a hitchhiker who had raided the larder before starting and had two days of first-class climbing for sixpence, which he spent on cigarettes !
But cheapness and popularity have their dangers, particularly for those who climb. The sport is growing too quickly. There was a time when no novice climbed except by invitation : it was an obscure game, contagious rather than infectious, and people took to rock and snow because they had friends who were addicts. The itch was transmitted by personal contact, and first ascents were supervised by competent leaders. But now it is an infectious disease, a something in the air, contracted by people who have no leader to help them over the dangerous learning period. They go to a hostel. They see people, strangely booted and swathed in ropes, setting off for the hills. Then one day they find themselves walking up a hill by an easy route, and, coming on a cliff and remembering what they saw at the hostel, decide that this might be a sport worth investigating. They investigate it. They have unnailed boots, no rope, no experience ; but they investigate it. And next morning the newspapers have the same old story to tell.
The number of fatal mountaineering accidents in Scotland has more than trebled during the past three years ; and, almost without exception, those killed have been novices. This is wicked waste of life. There is no excuse for it, for clubs exist which are willing to train new members ; and, even if clubs were not available, theoretical knowledge gained from books is safeguard against the more flagrant errors, and might easily have reduced the recent death-roll by half. Few people imagine that they can buy their first set of golf clubs and break seventy on a first-class course within a week ; but a surprising number buy their first boots and set off to climb the north face of Buachaille in winter.**These remarks apply even more forcefully in these post-war days. The accident rate has been rising steadily year by year. Most of the victims are still non-climbers.
I do not preach without experience. I was just as stupid myself. It is customary for writers of books in which mountaineering is mentioned to explain at this stage why they commit the safety of their necks and limbs to inhospitable crags; why, by deliberate choice, they freeze in gullies, alarm their relatives, suffer wind, rain, hail, sleet, and snow, parch themselves on waterless ridges, dress like scarecrows, squander their substance on ropes and railway fares, eat seldom, and fill the kitchen Monday after Monday with a collection of soaked and odorous rags.
It is vain, against such accumulated evidence, to say that one meets such nice people, or that there was a pretty view on top, or even that one just happens to like climbing. So inadequate did any arguement appear to the pioneers of the Alps, where mountaineering was born, that they disguised themselves as scientists and battled their way up Mont Blanc weighed down by barometers for measuring the altitude, tinted cards to tell posterity precisely how blue the sky was on top, and pistols to explode the theory that sound behaved in an unorthodox manner at 15,000 feet.
Each and all of these experiments was completely fatuous; but no doubt they were the most convincing ones the pioneers could think of on the spur of the moment. Not until the seventies of last century, when Leslie Stephen wrote The Playground of Europe, did mountaineers dare to admit that they climbed for the sheer love of climbing. They have been bogged ever since in a morass of psychology, metaphysics, and physiology, floundering in search of concrete arguments wherewith to convert the heathen to the sanity and sweet reasonableness of climbing.
They have been unsuccessful, and always will be.Tibetans, seeing the yak-train of an Everest expedition approach, nudge each other and remark that these foreigners must either be seeking gold, or suffering from delusions. The Briton, with his superior knowledge of metallurgy, inclines to the second of these conclusions.
Climbing is incomprehensible, and therefore silly. And moreover, it is dangerous. If it is pointed out to a golfer that nothing of ethical or practical value accrues from propelling a ball round a curiously farmed field into eighteen cavities decorated with flags, he snorts and says :
" But that's different. I don't run the risk of breaking my neck."And with the, air of having squashed the arguement once and for all, he goes out and plays another round. That is the Man in the Street's argument, and he will not budge from it however ingenious the arguements advanced by mountaineers.
It is reasonable, and, indeed, praiseworthy, to play bridge, darts, pontoon, ludo, billiards, tennis, shove ha'-penny, dominoes ; to solve crossword puzzles and acrostics ; collect stamps and ancient coins ; pay a shilling to boo at football or sleep at cricket ; perform any of the hundred and one exercises by which mankind seeks to divert itself. But you must not break your neck. You must play safe, take care of yourself, keep your feet dry and your throat well wrapped up against the night air.
I shall break my neck if I choose ; but I have no intention of doing so. Mountaineering, whatever the Man in the Street may think, is not a dangerous sport unless it is embarked upon without knowledge, though it would be idle to contend that accidents, serious accidents, cannot happen. They do happen. Experienced climbers have been killed. In Scotland an experienced man is killed roughly once every two years. But, even considering the relatively small number of people engaged in it, climbing is still a safer sport than motoring, and the risk of unavoidable disaster is so slight as to be negligible. There is, in other words, just enough risk in the game to make it attractive without being foolhardy. It may appear to some that an undue number of risks are related in this book ; but it must be remembered that risky days make more interesting reading than those when everything goes according to plan. Out of scores of climbs I can think of only one not related in this book during which I ran any appreciable risk of injury.
I climb—the Man in the Street will still shake his head- but I follow my masters and try to explain—for many reasons, some obvious, some not, all blending and playing their part in this urge which takes people to the hills. The urge defies analysis ; but many of its components are within the range of ordinary human experience, as, for example, the attraction of beauty and unexpected strangeness which may lie round any corner on a mountain.
One may climb through dense mist and emerge above a sea of clouds stretching endlessly and unbroken to the horizon ; or find a green translucent pool, warm as milk and made for bathing, among the rocks ; or see a boulder-strewn hillside converted by the magic of mist into a petrified forest more terrible than the fears of childhood, yet friendly because it is understood. And again, climbing is a sport demanding skill, and as such is satisfying. And again, it gives one friends of a peculiarly intimate kind : one does not put one's life in the hands of an acquaintance.
But to my mind it finds its chief justification as an antidote for modem city life, where we live on wheels and use our bodies merely as receptacles for our brains. Many people rate against city life ; but I must confess that it suits me very well. It exercises my brain. It also fills my brain, as it fills the brains of everyone, with a multitude of petty worries, agile little fellows who even during my leisure prick my memory and conscience.
One cannot sweat and worry simultaneously. The mountain resolves itself into a series of simple problems, unconfused by other issues. Abstractions are foreign to it : its problems are solid rock, to be wrestled with physically ; and in the sheer exuberance of thinking through his fingers and toes as his primaeval fathers did before him the climber's worries vanish, sweated from his system, leaving his brain free to appreciate beauty, which is never petty and never troubled anyone who understood it.
And so it is, to a greater or lesser degree, with the hikers and the cyclists, for how else can be explained the miles which spin behind wheels and crawl from dusty shoes ? Something of value is on the roads and hills, and thousands set out each Saturday to find it. Each one sees it differently. I have only described what I have found.
Alastair Borthwick 1939: From 'Always a little Further' Available from Baton Wicks publishing