Saturday, 30 June 2012

Not a good sign...

Pavey Ark from Stickle Tarn - Jack's Rake is the
diagonal line running up the front.
A bit of a different blog this time, prompted by a story in this week's Westmorland Gazette.  Within the space of one week, two people unfortunately lost their lives falling from Jack's Rake in Great Langdale.  These deaths are unbelievably tragic and clearly our sympathies are with their families; heaven knows how you cope when something like this happens.  In the wake of these tragedies there has been a call for warning signs to be placed on the more dangerous routes within the Lake District, and this has stirred up a bit of a hornet's nest in some quarters.

Tragic though these events are I'm afraid I'm wholly against the idea of warning signs being placed on dangerous fells for two main reasons; first of all the Lake District is a National Park and should not be cluttered up with unnecessary signage and secondly, even if there were signs I'm pretty sure people would ignore them anyway, or see it as an even greater "badge of honour" to flout the warnings.  People ignore signs every single day; "Smoking Kills", "Keep off the Grass", "No Parking" and "30MPH" to name but a few.  Signs like these are perceived as being for "other people" and not for whomever is reading them who will, no doubt, justify their reasons for ignoring them in some way or another.

Striding Edge
I've said my piece about signs before in my work blog, I genuinely think that one of the main reasons that so many signs are ignored is because there are so many of them to begin with, my previous rant was prompted by a trip to a toilet which involved 8 different signs telling me what to do.  In a society which is becoming more and more reliant upon signs to tell us what we can and can't do, we're in danger of losing the ability to think for ourselves and in the fells, that can be very dangerous.

I also think it's very important to keep things in perspective.  The second fell I ever climbed was Helvellyn and we went up via Striding Edge, another notorious route where there have been many deaths; we were pretty inexperienced but were aware of the dangers so waited for good weather and took things very steady, along with the several hundred other people on the route the same day.  Recently I was speaking with a neighbour who told me that, during one ascent of Striding Edge, his party sat and ate lunch near the final approach and counted over 1000 people going past in the space of an hour.  So let's do the maths; lets say that was an average figure for the peak ascent times of roughly 11am - 2pm, so that's 3000 people per day, now let's say there were 5 good climbing days that week, that makes 15,000 for the week and roughly 60,000 for the month.  Even if that only happened for 4 months of the year we're already getting on for nearly 1/4 million people.  (No wonder Fix the Fells are so busy!).  Tragic though it is, statistically speaking, with those kinds of numbers there will be casualties.
Sharp Edge; another notorious route.

Many moons ago my job called for me to work with TRL (Transport Research Laboratory) , these guys know all there is to know about road traffic accident and investigation and they told me that the thing they'd found which was most likely to encourage someone to reduce their speed was not a warning sign but a roadside memorial; a sharp reminder of our own mortality.  I know on our ascent of Striding Edge the memorials certainly reminded us to stay focused.  TRL were passionate about the need for appropriate signage and fully understood the problems caused by too many signs, or unclear or confusing instructions.

Warning signs appear to do very little to warn people.  Currently every car park and access point to Morecambe Bay has large warning signs regarding the dangerous sands and fast tides, and yet over one weekend in May 33 people required rescuing.  On the other side of the country, anyone who's ever visited Lindisfarne will know that every single shop, car park and tourist attraction carries warnings about the causeway and every year people ignore them and get caught out.

Following any tragic event everyone involved will look back and think how things could have been done differently, or how the same thing could be prevented from happening in the future, and it's important that we learn lessons where we can.  But the sad fact is that life is tragic. Millions of people visit the fells each year and sadly some of them get injured and a few will die.  If you stick to the safe routes you're likely to remain safe, if you tackle a more dangerous route the risk factor rises.  I'm not suggesting that the people involved in these tragedies did anything reckless or foolish, I just honestly don't think that warning signs are the answer.


  1. Oh I couldn't agree more. Please can we get rid of all this useless signage! It's been overdone so much that we don't take a blind bit of notice. And that includes me. As a frequent solo hiker I come across a huge number of warning signs which I always assume are being far too cautious in their message. This is why people come unstuck. They take the message lightly and carry on regardless. It's like bringing up children (of which I have three). If you have too many rules and regulations they "switch off" and abide my none. If you're selective and only convey messages that are really important - they go with it.

    Any outdoor activity comes with a measure of risk. As you quite rightly say - the more risky the pursuit the more likely it is that a small number of folks will pay with their life. Although we are terribly saddened when this happens, we accept this. Don't we?

  2. Thanks Karen. Life is risky and we all need to learn to make our own judgment calls. Part of the thrill is beating the odds, that's why people are always pushing themselves. Agree completely that too many warnings make you switch off.

  3. Interesting post!
    I too agree that warning signs are not the answer and for similar reasons outlined in your blog.
    I believe in common sense and natural selection over Big Brother. Yes it is tragic when someone is injured or dies whilst hiking as it is whatever the activity. All signs do now is get peoples backs up because usually they are to prevent law suits and not protect life.
    Death is part of life - I have lost loved ones through what some might say are preventable circumstances. However unless we all cocoon ourselves then we subject ourselves to risk everyday.
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for your comment Chris - I think you're absolutely right about the legislative reasons behind signs. I once helped out at a local woodland nature reserve where someone tried to sue because they'd broken their arm when they tripped over a tree root; they complained there were no signs warning them. Luckily common sense won the day and the case failed.

  5. Hi - Read your blog with interest as I'd heard about the deaths by following LAMRT mountain rescue on Twitter. I agree signs are not the answer, but I wonder if there could be something that pulls together most common rescue/death sites. I find the mountain rescue logs fascinating reading, and some use phrases like "climber cragfast at the usual place." Each mountain rescue team currently has its own website, and some are more friendly than others. Could the National Park run a website section on rescue hotspots. Even the discovery that Glenridding valley is the source of so many broken ankles on descent from Helvellyn has made me concentrate a bit more. It's also a fact that there is always risk in being on the hills and people need to know and respect that...

    1. Thanks Diggitydigg - I think you make an excellent point. Perhaps if such a resource existed it could be publicised on some of the more "touristy" sites to encourage people to read it?

    2. and sorry I meant Grisedale of course not Glenridding!

  6. If we're not careful, we'll end with yet another Health & Safety empire for someone to manage and restrict us in. We regularly see ill-equipped people going out on the fells and putting themselves at risk. Where do you put that sign?!! Can't navigate, no map, no compass, no waterproofs, wearing jeans, etc., etc. Experienced people can get caught out too. We are in danger of having the nanny state on the one side and the super outdoor junkies on the other getting a high on their prowess and conquests smirking at the mere mortals. You'll nevere eliminate the risks no matter what signs or web sites you develop. Driving is one of the most dangerous things anybody does, but we don't ban cars or put signs up about it.

    1. Thanks. We're experienced now and we've been caught out, but because we had the right kit with us we managed to get down safely. It's great that everyone can enjoy the fells and we shouldn't need signs to keep people safe.

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