No matter how wild your walk, the summit cairn is always a magnet for hordes of fellow humans. From the denim-clad amateur to the steel-eyed athlete, John Burns, hillwalker, misanthrope, and grumpy old git, identifies the breeds of walker you may prefer to avoid (tongue firmly in cheek... we hope).
In the solitude of the hills we find escape from the crowds of everyday life. We wander glens, ridges and mountain tops, revelling in a few hours spent far from the throng of humanity. Our time in the mountains offers us blessed respite from our days in the office, from crowded supermarkets or the daily commute where you are forced to spend an hour or more in a metal box standing with your nose in the armpit of an accountant from Bermondsey. There is, however, a snag. As you step onto the summit of a lonely hill, there, sitting beside the cairn, are the very people you came here to escape. Riffraff, the lot of them.
He sits on the top, map in one hand and a list of compass bearings and distance calculations in the other. He's friendly, even jovial, as he greets you. But don't be fooled; behind the talkative facade lurks a darker purpose. Soon he wants to know which route you took, how long it took you, which way you want to go down. He can tell you who was there half an hour ago, what path they followed, and how they went the wrong way. Then he unleashes a flood of suggestions, telling you of better routes than the ones you intended to follow. Soon any free will you have is gone as he takes it upon himself to organise everyone on the hill. You thought you'd escaped your micro-managing boss or the car park attendant who shouts, 'You can't park that ere!' but no, here he is, guidebook in hand!
They are the walking dead of the Munros, Wainwright's zombie army. They look normal, even seem happy at times, but this is an illusion. They are mindless slaves, walking the hills simply to tick off the pointless high points. For them it began innocently enough with occasional weekends climbing mountains purely for fun, but then everything changed. It happened in the pub one night when a simple, fatal, thought occurred to them, 'Perhaps I could do them all?'
Foul weather will not stop them; this isn't about enjoying the moment. Now when they rush home from days on the hill, they approach a sacred wall chart with pencil quivering in hand. They score out the summit they have just collected and count how many they have left, eyes full of tears with the knowledge that one day it must all end. Saddest of all are the slaves of the Deleted Tops, a race so ensnared by the tick that they feel compelled to complete lists that no longer exist. Once they wandered free across the hills, went wherever the notion took them; now they must forever bend to the tyranny of the list.
She moves slowly; weighed down by her enormous rucksack, she can barely manage to stand. It's three weeks since she last ate more than a handful of dehydrated sawdust. She's been walking so long she struggles to remember her own name. The pain in her feet is so great, she has reached a Zen-like mind state that completely overrides any idea that she might stop walking and sit down for a few minutes. You will recognise her by the faraway look in her eyes as she searches the distant horizon, knowing she still has a long, long way to go. You will also know her by the smell. Three weeks solid walking without washing her clothes gives her a certain…aroma. To save weight she has whittled her toothbrush down to a matchstick, her matchsticks down to toothpicks, and she has just one pair of underpants that she last washed in February. She can never rest and is driven ever onward, for she follows a trail that never ends.
He is clad in Lycra, which sticks to his svelte body like a coat of paint. He carries no rucksack but has a few meagre possessions crammed into something called a 'bum bag' around his waist. He drips with sweat and, every few moments, turns to look over his shoulder. He is always looking back because he is tortured by one thought. Each night he collapses exhausted from running and is haunted by a terrible nightmare. In the dream, he is running up a hill when he sees a little plump man coming up behind. He quickens his pace but the little man still gains. Soon he is hurling himself up the mountain, gasping for breath, legs screaming in pain as he forces them upward, scattering rocks as he goes. But still the little fat man closes in, whistling casually as he strolls up the hill. The Hill Warrior must be first to the top; if he is passed by the little man his pride will be forever shattered. So he frets and runs as fast as he can. But still the little man is closing in.
Jenny from marketing traps you by the water cooler. You've been dodging her for weeks but now she comes at you, grinning and waving her awful sponsorship form.
'It's to buy Coca Cola machines for goats in the Namibian desert. They must be awfully thirsty, poor things, in all that sun. I'm climbing the biggest mountain in Scotland. I know, can you imagine it, little me! Tim in accounts did it last year for one legged orphans, or they might have had two legs and one arm, I'm not sure, anyway he said it was awfully high. You have to wear these terrible thick socks apparently, and woolly hats, I imagine it'll make a dreadful mess of my hair. It's only £5, go on be a sport...'
You will see Jenny and the rest of her group, or squad, or posse, or whatever the collective noun is for these self-righteous drones, plodding up some unfortunate hill in a long crocodile. Jenny will never return to the hills but above her desk will forever hang, blu-tacked with pride to the wall, a picture of her grinning broadly amongst a gaggle of folk she barely knows on the summit of a hill she cannot remember. Jenny will parachute from aircraft, run marathons, pogo stick across the Sahara and always you will be a little bit poorer.
'Age is just a number', he mutters to himself, as he staggers towards the summit he climbed forty years ago. 'But I don't remember it being this steep last time, or as far, or as high.' Then it had been a different world. There was music you could actually listen to, trousers were flared and shirts flowery, with long-tailed collars. Computers were science fiction, telephones knew their place and were attached to the wall by a wire. He is on a quest, to re-find this golden era of his youth. You will see him, red faced, puffing and panting up every hill in Britain. He is seeking to turn back time, an exercise he thinks is best achieved by wearing vintage Ron Hills and a Buffalo top.
Age may be just a number, but numbers are tricky. He is three stones heavier than he was forty years ago. His waist is four inches wider and, most telling of all, 40 years have passed since he was last here. When, at last, he collapses with an audible sigh beside the summit cairn, to munch a pork pie, he realises that the numbers have won, he is 90 minutes later than he was all those years ago. But, of course, the numbers always beat you in the end.
Unfeasibly young looking, they are bowed beneath huge new rucksacks crammed with everything you'd need to climb Everest, despite the fact it's a summers day on Helvellyn. Travelling in packs, never alone, they always seem confused, constantly consulting their maps upside-down. And most important of all, they are suffering.
Suffer is what they have been sent into the mountains to do. If you left them alone, playing computer games and drinking cider behind the bike sheds, they would be happy. But if young people are happy society will crumble. The best thing to do with callow youth is to take it away from the things it loves and send it out into the wilderness. Ideally it should rain and the kids should become wet and miserable. Young people are like tomato plants, if you keep them outdoors and moist, their characters grow. Then you give them a badge that says, 'I survived three days of hell in Snowdonia.' When they go home they will have changed, they will not moan any more about how bored they are. Everyone will say that the mountains have done them good. This is not so, they are simply keeping quiet in case someone sends them up a bloody hill again.
As you sit on the summit and unpack your cheese and pickle sandwiches he regards you with scorn, for he knows that 'when it all goes up', you will not survive. Shop-bought food is for wusses; clothes that you haven't sewn yourself out of animal hide are for losers. He has trained for years in the skills of outdoor survival so that he can live on in the hills when Armageddon finally comes. He can live off bilberries and little nuts that only he can find. Daubed in mud to stave off the cold, he can build a three-bedroomed bungalow out of six twigs and a discarded Mars bar wrapper. He can construct a radio receiver from the skull of a squirrel and three strands of his own pubic hair. He knows how to trap a moose even though there are no moose.
He never goes out without his tin foil hat in case 'they' try and invade his mind. He only ever watches Bare Grills on TV, and lives on a diet of bluebottles and moss. Each night, as he creeps into the underground bunker he has constructed beneath his garden shed, he secretly longs for siren's wail and the sound of the bomb. He is safe in the knowledge that when civilisation falls and a mushroom cloud obliterates the sun he and his kind will inherit the Lake District.
The voices in his head tell him which way to go. They warn him if he deviates a step from the pre-programmed route; they keep close tabs on his speed and calorie count. He is driven by a demon. He never looks up, he has no need to, his voices guide him. He never stands and gazes at endless vistas of hills, for to stop would anger his electronic master. If you look closely you will see the wires that run from from a little gadget at his waist to the tiny buds in his ears. The wires don't stop there, they pass on through the skull and into his brain. He is not hill walking, for him this is a 'Workout' dictated by a digital monster. He will share it on FaceCrack later, where no one will care. If you try to speak to him he will giggle nervously and reply in an incomprehensible moon language before silently slipping back to his digital world. He is a lost soul, he is possessed; at least until the batteries run flat.
They are lost but they don't yet know it. This is not the hill they intended to climb but it doesn't matter since they can't read a map. Victims of advertising, they saw a poster in an outdoor shop of people looking happy on mountainsides and thought it looked jolly good fun. Now they are here, or rather somewhere else. Dressed in street shoes and shorts, they've no notion that the weather might change or darkness catch them torchless.
They have a mobile phone and, when they find themselves miles from home in the wrong glen, they'll call the rescue team for instructions, or a lift. There'll be no need to panic, no night shivering under the stars. This is Britain, not the Himalayas, and anyway they left a note beside the car. All is well until the weather turns, wafting curtains of snow across the darkening landscape. It's then that they find there's no phone signal and their note, like Bob Dylan's answer, is blowing in the wind. You met six of them on the summit hours ago; they are still up there now, huddled with their feet in a carrier bag, waiting to be told what to do.
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