The Angry Corrie 53: Apr-May 2002

Deutsch (and Dutch, and Austrian) marks

Paul Hesp

THE DISCUSSION in TAC47-49 about on-hill markings and the desirable type of mountaineer shares two characteristics with most discussions:

a) in the great scientific tradition, you select examples that support your particular thesis;

b) rhetorical extremes always go down better.

I will try to state my own position and look beyond it while limiting the rhetoric. I don't like marked trails (nor satellite navigation). Work with a map forces you to pay attention to your surroundings. I go hillwalking to immerse myself in a landscape. But I also organise guided tours for the UN Hiking and Mountaineering Club in Vienna. Many of my customers are lonely expatriates and unattached middle-aged Viennese ladies for whom walking is a social activity. On the positive side, this means that the British obsession with bagging is virtually unknown, although there is far more to be bagged here. The negative side is that, instead of enjoying the landscape without worrying about getting lost, walkers often just drift from marking to marking, chattering interminably until the next hut or inn is reached where they can fill their faces. For years, I had to endure disapproving screams of "Markierung!!!" (marking) from Austrian customers whenever I left a marked trail for some cross-country work. But I persevered, and those who didn't get used to my methods now tend to avoid me.

Much as I prefer my approach to walking, I don't own the mountains and most TAC readers would agree that they shouldn't be anyone's particular property. Nor do loners necessarily have a more benign impact on nature. A biologist once told me that it is best to keep people in corridors in wild country. Individuals such as myself who go all over the place cause more disturbance to wildlife. Marked trails serve as corridors. You can of course overdo it, and they do, in the Alps - Dr Warbeck is right in TAC49 (p17): there is paint in the most unlikely of places and there are more totem poles in the Vienna Woods than in all of North America.

I often wish they had adopted the more modest, Norwegian-style approach, which provides marking at regular intervals but which also expects people to be pretty good navigators. But the blobs of paint have a positive side, even if you hate them: in my experience very few people leave marked trails, so it is easy to find a new, unspoiled route. You always can. According to the Norwegian mountaineering magazine Fjell og Vidde, an old-timer who "ran out of peaks" made a fresh start by going round the 1000m contour of mountains, then the 1100m contour, etc. It certainly got him away from such crowds as exist in Norway.

Hamish Brown (TAC49, p16) is of course right that map and compass leave no marks. But you leave marks anyway: a popular route becomes a mark on the landscape. Human presence is the norm. Most wild country is semi-wild at best. Arabia's Empty Quarter wasn't empty to Thesiger's Bedouin. The real issue is: what constitutes use, what destruction? Wasn't Brown's "virgin" Knoydart a result of the Clearances? Are blobs of paint a greater eyesore than ruined farms? I may not like paint, signposts and cable cars, but I agree with Richard Gilbert (TAC48, p16) that the Austrians have done a fairly good job of preserving their mountains - including the farming communities on them.

Walking holidays have taken me to a dozen European countries, and only in the UK are marked routes not the norm. Is this because areas such as the Highlands are so wild that route-marking is not feasible? Not at all: there have been marked trails in the Norwegian Alps since the late 19th century - and, compared to Jotunheimen, the Ben Nevis range is kid's stuff. Is it because people on the continent are soft? They beat you to the South Pole and at football. Or could it be that the German, French, Czech etc walking and mountaineering clubs feel that they should cater to everyone who wants a bit of fresh air? My experience, having organised hillwalks for people from all over the world, is that the proper use of map and compass is something most of them will never learn. Backbearings? A synonym for backpacking. The superb Swiss 1:25000 topographic map, which makes me drool, leaves them stone cold. Should they therefore be kept off the hills?

I can think of several reasons for the resistance against markings in the UK:

- Latent Thatcherism. Everywhere, route-marking is a service provided free of charge by volunteers from the local branch of the mountaineering club. This means that a potential market is being distorted, which is un-British.

- Class. The hills must remain the playground of the select few - tough as Hugh Munro's boots, preferably bearded. Soft ignoramuses must be kept in their places (ie on the couch, by the TV).

- Hair shirts. The absence of marked trails could be part of a complex which includes cowering behind a rock with a thermos at lunchtime and waxing lyrical about bothies with wrecked interiors. Learning by getting lost is probably thought to instil moral fibre.

Of course, the whole populism/puritanism controversy will be history pretty soon. Most of my UN club customers are grey-haired now, like myself. Op Lemen Voeten, a Dutch hillwalkers' magazine which I helped to get going in the 1970s, is written and read mainly by oldies these days. Never mind what you all think about pedestrian correctness: the future is a blob of flesh plugged into a virtual reality machine 24 hours a day from birth, until the shareholders tell a Bill Gates clone that it's killer-virus time. There will be no farming north of 50 latitude, either. The countryside will be empty apart from an occasional ancient biped, crawling along with a scrap of fading map and a battered compass in its withered claw, muttering mantras about Munros amid mountains from which the last trace of paint has long gone.

PS - Murdo is to be seen wearing a German Pickelhaube on p17 of TAC49. The well-known Deutschnationalist Jorg Haider will be thrilled: the Wilde Kaiser is in Austria.

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