There is a seam of insidious rot running through the very heart of our mountains.
I am not talking about institutional doping regimes but the low level and virile little plague of a certain kind of celebrity wearing a fur-trimmed parka and having their photo taken looking slightly chilly.
I don’t pretend to know where it started. Was it when that big lad off of Flash Gordon nearly climbed Everest* (three times) or perhaps when people wearing red noses started laying siege to Kilimanjaro?
Perhaps the genesis of this phenomenon is not what matters but its end point. How far does it have to go until we reach saturation? Until we see the clubs of Soho empty, but queues snaking their way up the Gouter Route? Portaledges stocked with chilled mineral water and cocaine, hanging from the Nose while some bloke off the One Show jumars his way up, or, better yet, is hauled up by a gigging nobody with an IRATA ticket.
There even seems to be a breed of celebrity with the sole talent of being permanently and professionally bemused while standing next to a cliff or an unimpressed local. A sort of cheerful, public school chumminess and rosy-cheekedness, borne by reassuringly hefty figures in Blue Harbour pull-overs and sensible jackets. They have made a career from a kind of muscular bewilderment. Strong, solid boys and girls, well fed and healthy. With that kind of unthreateningly strong look about them that to the untutored (i.e. your mother’s) eye speaks of capability and dad-bod can-do-ness. They may once have been some kind of minor sports star or else wandered out of the Big Brother house at just the right moment. Looking into the camera with that happy, golden retriever smile, dopey and loveable, they crop up on BBC2 of a Wednesday evening; usually rowing from the Azores to Belgium for no discernible reason other than a gap in the scheduling.
"LOOKING INTO THE CAMERA WITH THAT GOLDEN RETRIEVER SMILE, THEY CROP UP ON BBC2 OF A WEDNESDAY EVENING; USUALLY ROWING FROM THE AZORES TO BELGIUM FOR NO DISCERNIBLE REASON."
Now, it is not to say I resent these sorts. No. In fact, all power to them. If they are earning their considerable crusts from going on what, essentially, amounts to Jagged Globe holidays; fair play. They’ve gamed the system in a way that few of us could ever dream of.
It is more the cynical pursuit of ever more sensational headlines in the Radio Times by producers and channel directors that irks me. The arms race that has taken us from John Craven cheerfully feeding an eagle at Nuneaton Bird Sanctuary circa 1979 to a projected 2020 that sees Russell Howard B.A.S.E soloing the North Face of Ama Dablam in the nude while Germain Greer is being winched up Echo Wall, all captured by innovative drone technology. We are but months away from Clare Balding kite skiing to the North Pole with Kriss Akabusi.
Clumsy and inexpert they may be but a winning smile and good editing has made incompetency something to not just be tolerated but largely encouraged; all the better for viewing figures and dramatic voiceovers. Helicopter rescues and helmet cam footage are now the stuff of a Channel 5 programmer’s wet dream. Get someone in a cagoule to start breathily explaining they have eaten their last jelly baby and are still over an hour from the summit of Ben Nevis and that shit will get circulated for yonks. Propping up flabby scheduling throughout the year between royal babies and yet-to-be-disgraced celebrities’ funerals.
Placing these perfectly nice people into the lap of avalanches, crevasses and unexpected storms is not only a recipe for record ratings but for disaster. There seems to be a presumption amongst program makers that despite their desire to sensationalise these exploits, it is in fact possible to mitigate against and control the dangers that mountains and polar regions present.
"WE ARE LEFT WITH AN INSULAR, SCARED YOUTH. WHO SEE THE OUTDOORS AS AN OFF-LIMITS DANGER ZONE WHERE ONLY THOSE WITH A HYPERBOLIC VOICEOVER MAY VENTURE."
But no amount of safety line and jauntily angled outdoor centre helmets will protect your loveable chunk of Home Counties son-you-never-had against a collapsing serac or Atlantic storm. Rest assured however, when the inevitable does happen, it will not be the programme makers that suffer, no, it will first and foremost be the cheerful dupe who trusted his TV bosses and it is you and I that will bear the brunt of the resulting backlash. It will be the wilderness that is sanctioned, the cliffs and couloirs which will be taped off. The risks deemed too high, the odds too stacked.
If such doyens of televised outdoors living could fall prey to these mountain gods, then what hope do we, mere climbers, skiers and mountaineers have. Amateurs that we are. With no money or safety advisor behind us, only decades of experience, it will be us that see legislation piled against litigation until we have to sign a waver to trot over Striding Edge. They will be protecting us from ourselves of course, that’ll be the line.
But what message is all this to the generations to come, that these sort of exploits are the reserve of the over-protected television star. Where will the notion that they can go out and try some of this stuff for themselves, for free, come from? Instead we are left with an insular, scared youth. Who see the outdoors as an off-limits danger zone where only those with a hyperbolic voiceover may venture. Or worse yet, that the only access to such adventures is through clinical and entirely sterile “experience days” where a bored lad in a fleece straps you into an ill fitting harness and lets you wander about in some trees for an hour.
Perhaps these nice men and women might be better sticking to eating hippo testicles and guzzling horse piss in a pretend jungle and leave getting scared and cold to those who actually enjoy it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to scale the north face of Wetherspoons, sponsored by Aldi.
*This is unfair to a certain Unbeatable Banzuki (look on youtube) since he tried three times without supplementary oxygen and got within spitting distance on all three attempts but had the good sense to turn around.