Beware the Guy With Rucksack (GWR)
We’ve seen a troubling rise in online groups taking people into the mountains without training, experience or any of the necessary skills over the last couple of years.
There is a term in commercial photography, particularly the type involving models – G.W.C., or ‘Guy With Camera’. The best description I can find is from the ‘enlightening’ website urbandictionary.com (beware, possible NSFW wording on there!):
Guy With Camera
Commonly used in the modelling/photographer biz, ‘GWC’ is any poser/creep with a digital camera pretending to be a pro/semi-pro photographer. With the introduction of digital cameras, GWC’s have appeared like an explosion in a toy store.
GWC’s typically steal the work of others and don’t have any references.
It’s something that I had been aware of, mainly through professional photographer friends, but it wasn’t something I expected to see in the ‘outdoors’ world…
Over the past 2 years or so there has been an upswell in the popularity and membership of Facebook ‘community’ groups. Following on the back of Meetup.com and other dedicated ‘group’ sites, the Facebook groups are a good way of bringing people together in a forum-style conversation that has all of the extra functionality of the Facebook behemoth. We have one for our clients and fans, and there are hundreds of thousands of others out there for every activity and hobby.
Of particular relevance to the work we do are the UK-centric outdoor groups. There are dozens of really very useful sites (Ground Conditions in UK Mountain Areas, Wild Camping and Bothying in Snowdonia etc) that we regularly visit to either get information quickly, or to post it and share useful information ourselves.
But then there are the other type…
There has also been a rise in groups set up as ‘communities’, whereas in fact they are actually commercial enterprises operating on morally, ethically and legally dodgy ground. It takes only a few minutes to set up a Facebook group, and clever marketing to gain members. Facebook would charge reduced rates for advertising of those groups because they were not openly trading as businesses. Often these pages are set up by keen amateurs who want a change in lifestyle and fancy the idea of running an outdoor activities business. Many of these groups run trips into the mountains as guided walks or activity weekends, in a similar way to mountaineering clubs, but without the hive-mind of experience that those older and more responsible organisations have.
So what’s the problem?
Well, the problem is that being able to gather a huge following of ‘Likes’ and fans is definitely a skill (although you can buy followers from online services – around £8-£10 for 500-800 Facebook likes seems to be the average), that does not translate into being able to competently or legally run trips into the mountains or give advice to clients. A complete novice looking to take their first steps into the mountains may look to join a group or other organisation to show them the way (literally and figuratively), and one of these free-to-join pages is a good place to start. By deciding to come along on one of the organised trips they would naturally assume that they would be in safe hands… but their actions seem to be anything but.
Some of the things we have witnessed from these groups:
- Group ratios of 1:20, or even 1:50 (1:3-1:10 is the norm for professional leaders)
- Stealing images from professional photographers and other providers to publicise their own sites
- Covertly contacting legitimate providers to gain route advice, weather forecasts and even ground condition reports so they can then use them for their own trips (as happened to us twice last week)
- Asking qualified professionals to work for free on commercial trips as ‘exposure’
- Running trips regardless of the conditions because they have advertised it and booked accommodation
We met one of these groups yesterday on Moel Siabod – the big lump to the south of the A5 in Capel Curig. It was under full winter conditions above the 600m contour – deep snow, windscoured icy patches and cornices over the eastern slopes. Despite the reasonable forecasts the visibility was down to around 5-10m at times and a hasty descent from the summit was necessary mid-afternoon. We had full winter kit (axes, crampons, goggles, the usual safety items) and were happily within our comfort zones – but it was still tough enough to require some careful route choice. We also met around 30-40 other people (busy day!) on the mountain during the 4 hrs we were out. The one group (around a dozen members) that we spoke to led to this slightly ranty blog post – they were being ‘led’ by one of the admins from a Facebook group. They had organised the trip months before and had planned to climb Moel Siabod, so they were going to do it no matter what the conditions. They were very under-equipped for even this normally ‘friendly’ hill (no axes, mostly wearing light waterproofs and carrying tiny rucksacks and summer-season boots) and walking on terrain that an experienced walker would know to avoid (right over the corniced eastern slope).
This isn’t the first time we’ve met groups like this – online groups led by slightly wannabe (but well-intentioned) unqualified leaders, taking groups of novices into dangerous terrain. There is no legal requirement for qualifications for leading adults in the mountains (if there were I would never have discovered my love of the hills in my late teens!) but there is a duty of care that rests on anybody introducing somebody to activities like this. Some of the best ‘guides’ I have met have been un-qualified but very experienced and intuitive mountaineers and walkers who took a careful approach to leading people in the outdoors.
This isn’t a pitch for our guided walks and trips, or to advertise our own group – just a plea to anybody putting their trust in one of these Facebook group trips or leaders. Beware.
In all likelihood you will get somebody who is keen to become a leader (or ‘guide’) in the mountains but without wanting to become suitably trained or qualified to do the job. It may be they want to run a side-business, it might be just that they want to have the prestige of being the head of a group on their way to a summit… If they are unwilling to go through the established process of getting training and consolidating experience, getting insurance and building up a good reputation then you can also wonder how they will react if somebody becomes injured. Or is separated from the group. Or one of the hundreds of other eventualities a qualified and/or experienced leader has taken into account and is planning for.
Do your research. Gain the skills you need. Push yourself, but be aware of where you will end up if you push too far. Enjoy yourself. Don’t have your early experiences ruined by a Guy (or Girl) With Rucksack.