Monday, June 22, 2009

The trouble with technology

Most of you will know that a Global Positioning System is device that tracks its position using geo-stationary satellites. For mountaineers, this is particularly useful as it pinpoints your location to within five meters - handy in a white out when a wrong turn can be fatal. The better models also have a particularly neat feature which allows you to navigate over complex terrain by following a direction pointer. Safe as houses - unless the technology decides to have a bad day.

Our trouble started after we'd climbed Red Pike, a 2,600 feet summit south of Buttermere. As we ascended the direction pointer had worked fine - who was I to know that the pre-programmed route had picked up a few stray way-points in Pembrokeshire, inserting them into the High Stile ridge? Every time we ventured from the summit we'd follow the trusty arrow, head in the wrong direction, flail about on the slopes in a thick pea-soup and eventually return somewhere near Red Pike again.

I write about it now with a sense of jest, but although we were never seriously in trouble, it wasn't a pleasant experience to feel quite so lost and exposed. I like technology - I really do - but is there anything, when it fails, that can induce more stress? And stuck up a mountain, in the mist, with a teenage son who's getting cold and fractious, is not the best place to test my patience.

If I'm honest, it distressed me that with so many years of experience I couldn't work out what was going wrong. I felt dependent on this gizmo and it wasn't performing as I expected; it took all my effort to stay calm.

But salvation came in two guises. Firstly a return to old fashioned technology - I got out the map and compass! And secondly a return to traditional values - I asked some walkers we stumbled on for assistance, which of course they gladly gave. Half an hour later we were back on route, I was confident again and the stress was a distant memory.

In a way, this story is particularly apt, as our destination was the remote Black Sail Hut, high in the Ennerdale valley and approachable only by foot or mountain bike. It is about as old fashioned and traditional as it gets - one of the iconic hostels of the YHA and little changed in over sixty years of use. I had long wanted to stay there, booking last January to ensure we could go on midsummer's weekend.

Black Sail was all I had hoped it would be - the simplest of buildings, in a unique location, enjoyed with great company and a sense of adventure. I wasn't just pleased that we'd made it, I was delighted, elated, refreshed by the whole experience - the best night out this year, by far.

And yet as I sat there, enjoying every minute I knew that to others, particularly many of my colleagues at work, it would be something entirely different. To them, Black Sail would be a musty old shepherd's hut to be endured on Outward Bound type weekends. Why is it, I wondered, that I like these places so much? And what is it about them that means I chose to seek them out, often in preference to the best hotels?

There are some obvious answers. I love the landscape; I treasure the time spent with my sons in getting to these places; I thrive on their remoteness and isolation. And I think too, that there is a particular pleasure in sometimes leaving technology behind and returning to simpler ways.

That word 'sometimes' is important here. Because I'm not so 'head in the clouds' as to deny technology's good side. Nor am I so Romantic as to think that Black Sail (or its like) would remain as charming after a few weeks stay. But a short time away from it all helps us appreciate the rest of our busy, stressful, digitally enabled lives. At best, a little time out helps us to sort the crap we need to ditch from the things that really matter.

What did we do at Black Sail that I enjoyed so much? Well, epic over, we met up with Ian and Mike who'd biked in - and who had their own stories to tell. We enjoyed a meal, drank some beer and wine, played monopoly, laughed a lot, chatted to the other walkers and watched the stars flickering over Great Gable.

Simple stuff - old fashioned values - the best of times.


  1. I do a bit of walking myself. did the Dales way last year, the cumbria way this year, and am doing Hadrians Wall next year.

    I bought a walking magazine yesterday and was struck by how much it wasn't aimed at me and how much of a wimp I am.

    I enjoy walking on the flat rather than up big hills. I'll do the hills if I really need to, but don't get any pleasure out of it. I'm certainly not damning anyone who does, but for me the experience of getting so out of breath that my lungs try to escape through my mouth is not very appealing

    It would be different if I were fitter I imagine.

    I don't know what my point is, other than it's funny how what some people classify as torture, others classify as a leisure activity. People have accused me of being "mad" for doing the long distance paths I've done, but I enjoyed every second of them (apart from, as I say, the hills).

  2. Daniel was saying much the same as we slogged up Red Pike, which is very steep by Lakeland standards.

    I could get all philosophic about the nature of happiness, but putting it simply, most of our deepest and most satisfying experiences take some effort. By overcoming the difficulties we gain a satisfaction which is greater than those things which come easily. I think this is true of walking, but also writing, painting, cooking, bringing up kids...

    I saw your blog about the Cumbria way - great stuff. When your children get older you can take them too and you'll love it all the more.

  3. I like visiting remote places that are off the beaten track!! (Although I'm not sure I'd like going up a mountain!!). There is a sense of adventure, of having achieved something and of doing something different. We stayed in a remote family run hotel on the side of a mountain in Thailand near the Burmese border. We got there by going to Kanchanaburi on the train (old fashioned, slow and no air-con) then squeezing into a mini-bus with locals (and chickens) for a rather terrifying 4 hour journey. It was worth it....we got to see the longest hand made bridge in the world which was just incredible and watched the sun set over the lake. You will never get that from staying in a 5 star hotel that looks exactly the same as every other 5 start hotel you've ever been in!!

    Glad you had a lovely time

    C x

  4. Hi Mark
    We in the Ballooning world have loads of tech gadgets, radios and GPS, but we ALWAYS have a compass and maps of the various areas we chase balloons back-up money can buy!...By the way...really jealous, have not been on a good hill walk for ages :-(