Signs on the hills

A tweet caught my eye yesterday about a proposal by a mountain rescue team in the Lakes to put signs up on Scafell Pike because so many people are getting lost and then calling out the mountain rescue. The reaction from the mountaineering and backpacking community was predictable outrage. Signs despoil the landscape, remove any feeling of remoteness and encourage people who don’t know what they are doing onto the hills.

I am old enough to remember when the West Highland Way first opened and I was outraged about the idea that there should be a signed path through the landscape. I believed that it was completely unnecessary and that it would encourage people who didn’t know what they were doing into the hills. I was a real hillman and I’d never do the WHW.

Fast forward more than 30 years. I had been diagnosed with cancer, had surgery and chemotherapy and I was wondering if I was still up to days out in the hills. I decided to try to get back into backpacking by doing something easy – the West Highland Way.

Somewhat to my surprise, I really enjoyed the experience. I was lucky with the weather and I chose a time of year when it wasn’t stupidly busy. I met lots of nice people on the walk and very few of them had any backpacking or hillwalking experience. What really struck me from conversations was how much of an achievement completing the WHW was for them. They enjoyed the landscape and felt that they had really done something significant. Of course, they would never have done this without a signed and maintained path.

I came away from this walk thinking rather differently. Why should outdoor experiences be limited only to those who have learned hill skills? We can never know what anyone else gets from the outdoors but who are we to say that the ‘purer’ experience of navigation is superior to the experience of following a signed path. Isn’t this attitude of ‘no signage’ simply a manifestation of elitism that tries to define what an outdoor experience must involve?

I’m not advocating that there should be signs on Scafell Pike but I don’t actually think that they would significantly damage the area. The reality is that hills like Scafell Pike and Ben Lomond are tourist hills with big obvious paths that have already removed any sense of wildness. If the MRT think that signs might make their job easier, then maybe they would be a sensible addition.