If two is company and three is a crowd, then what on earth is 18.4 million? This startling figure was the number of visitors to the Lake District National Park in 2016, 450 times the number of residents within the national park’s boundaries. Some 582,000 people visited Snowdon alone last year, and across the pond, the equivalent of the combined population of New York and Chicago descended on the Great Smoky Mountains. In addition to the views, the challenge and “because it is there”, we climb mountains and fart around outdoors because of the sense of space, freedom and isolation we don’t often get in our day-to-day lives. But the secret’s out and so, it seems, is half the world.
Where the media constantly tell us we are getting fatter, more idle and are surgically attached to personal technology, it seems counter-intuitive to say that the outdoors is becoming more crowded. But it is. Seeing a few more people out on the hill on a sunny day is hardly catastrophic, so how busy is too busy?
We no longer have to give our cobbler three months’ notice for some hobnail boots to see us up a route; we don’t climb with hemp ropes that would sooner break our backs than break a fall – in short, the hills are far more accessible than they even have been. However an increase in accessibility can sometimes be confused for a decrease in danger.
A few winters ago on Cairn Gorm, a mountain famous for its weather and funicular railway, I came across some ill-prepared people caught out and stumbling around in a white out. They were on their way down after catching the train up, and, in their trainers and jeans, they may as well have been wearing flip-flops and sombreros.
Similarly, the café and railway on Snowdon create the illusion of safety. In addition to the queues that form on the Pyg track in the summer, many poorly prepared (and occasionally naked) people attempt the knife-edge Crib Goch, contributing to the 200 call-outs for Llanberis mountain rescue in 2016. Such is the volume of people on Snowdon, warning signs have been placed at the start of particularly notorious routes.
The signage was poorly received by the outdoor community, but hell hath no fury like the signage in the US National Parks, which can suffer overcrowding like no other. Firstly, the national parks in the USA differ to those in the UK. Here, national parks are ceremonial designations given to pieces of land that, for all intents and purposes, are like any other part of the country – in that people live and work within the boundaries.
In the USA, such places are explicitly cordoned, protected from development and, this being the land of the fee, are not necessarily free to enter. They also have a great federal presence that has a duty to look after the land and the visitor, and in doing so some parks seem to have become overtly manicured and the visitors mollycoddled. Despite the miles upon miles of untamed wilderness and beauty that the parks possess, most visitors are corralled onto a few highly maintained, overcrowded paths.
Here, you pass innumerable signs warning you of the dangers of not carrying water with you (aptly displaying a cartoon man with a sun-burnt back vomiting heavily), or threatening messages informing you of the cruel and ironic punishments awaiting those who stray half an inch off the footpath.
You have plenty of time to read the signs too, as you are stuck in a gridlock of the hyper-obese, the spring-breakers with ghetto-blasters and a sorority girl who, after walking two gentle miles to one of the most striking rock formations in the USA, if not the world, says, “I dunno, it just feels like a lot of effort for basically nothing.”
To find seclusion in the US national parks, one needs to go into the backcountry, but even here you have to jump through hoops made of red tape in obtaining a permit to do so. Whilst this seems against the ethos of exploration and freedom in the outdoors, it is unfortunately necessary.
Though, getting a permit isn’t a guarantee. To raft down the Colorado river in the Grand Canyon (a not-so-accessible excursion) requires entering a lottery for a permit. This was introduced after the previous system of waiting lists ended up with some unfortunate souls facing a 27 year wait. Nowadays, the chances of securing a permit to navigate the river are one in eight.
In bemoaning the crowds of inexperienced folk, and lambasting the “wrong sort of person” that can be found in the outdoors, I am perhaps guilty of snobbery with lashings of hypocrisy. But what about the objective view, and the impact crowds are having on the environment?
Alongside the scorched earth found when people have had irresponsible fires, litter from excessive picnics and human waste that is frighteningly prevalent in places, there are increasing signs of wear and tear even through proper use. Last year, the Hillary Step on Everest, famous for its traffic jams, literally fell off, bringing to mind images of wedding parties overloading a pontoon on You’ve Been Framed (though this is widely attributed to an earthquake in 2015, but nonetheless it bolsters my point so I’m running with it).
Yet ultimately, who can blame people for discovering and embracing the fact that the mountains are truly wonderful places, and that climbing them does so much for one’s physical and mental wellbeing? Whilst it’s nice to have some solitude in the hills, I’ve used people as navigational markers in poor visibility, been helped by other climbers when involuntarily throwing myself from ice-falls, and I’ve guided from danger those hopeless fools dressed for nothing more strenuous than assembling flat-pack furniture; busy can be useful.
That I have to share my summit view with a few other like-minded people is not the end of the world. Two things to note however: I don’t share summit Jelly Babies and, if you bring your ghetto blaster, you and it will be flung into the aforementioned view.