Making the Journey
by Hugh Tooby
It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive - Ancient Chinese Proverb
"VERY DEEP AND MEANINGFUL", YOU'RE THINKING. "WHAT'S THIS GOT TO DO with going to the hills?" Maybe more than you think. The fact that you're reading TAC probably indicates you are a bit fed up with the glossy commercialisation that has invaded our Scottish mountaineering scene. I'd like to dig a little deeper into that dissatisfaction, as I believe it stems from the flawed philosophy of current mainstream mountaineering.
The prevailing general philosophy in the industrial western "civilisation" seems to be that the only worthwhile activity in life is to achieve goals and be better than everyone else at doing it. A recent TV advert along the lines of "Neil Armstrong was first on the moon, no-one remembers who was second" sums it up. I dare say poor Buzz Aldrin (for it was he) felt he had done a pretty good job, he just happened to be second in the queue. We seem to be obsessed with those at the pinnacle of achievement, with all other activity being regarded as insignificant.
And so it is in the mountaineering scene. The obsession is with goal achievement (Munrobagging and Hard Rock ticking taking two obvious examples), and the activities of the elite few. The glossies are full of tales of Joe Cragrat's latest E12, 20-day, 30° epic with little mention of Hamish McBlogg's fine summer outing on Tinto Hill. We are constantly fed the underlying assertion that only a goal- achieving or new-standard-setting activity can provide a worthwhile experience we can be proud of. You know the sort of thing. "A day out on the hills which does not achieve a Munro summit is second rate." "If you enjoy a route that is not in Classic Rock more than one that is, there must be something wrong with you."
The results of all this are not trivial. People sit getting bored in the bar at Sligachan all day because the weather is too bad to be in the Cuillin, when 20 miles to the north the sun is shining on the superb coastal scenery of Trotternish, Waternish and Glendale. Tracks up routes described in the SMC Munro book suffer desecration under the weight of traffic, whilst I bet you've never seen anyone on the west ridge of Schiehallion. Climbers die in avalanches on obviously prone routes because they've driven all night from Albion's Plain to tick that route when a safer one exists in the next corrie but is two grades easier. Prices for mountaineering clothing soar well in excess of inflation because if you don't look like the hero in the advert you're obviously not going to have as good a time as him. Everyone is trying to measure up to someone else's goal or standard.
So what's the alternative? Spurning the irrelevant "Because it's there!", I expect most will agree that the reason any of us indulge in any recreational activity, including mountaineering, is because we feel better for having done it. Whether that be in a physical, moral, spiritual or whatever sense is immaterial. The crucial thing is that we feel uplifted, renewed and better able to face whatever comes next in life than if we had sat at home on our backsides all day. It is this that gives the activity some real, non-trivial value. To get this value from our pastime, I believe it is not necessary to have achieved some external goal or set some new standard. I'm sure all of us can think back to outstanding days on the hills when no summit was reached, no route completed, but when we were left with a great sense of satisfaction and well-being afterwards. There is, however, a tendency to attach less value to these days: "It was good, but...".