An avalanche of social media and ‘how to survive’

‘You are only as good as you are at the moment people are listening’, wrote pianist Max Levinson in 2009. By which measure, I might well have peaked last week.

Because, last week, people were definitely listening.

I know this thanks to the verging-on-obsessive, mesmerised eye the Gremlin and I kept on the rapidly mounting reader count, displayed just beneath the byline, on my UKClimbing article about mountain rescue. Not so obsessive that we can account for all 23,600 reads (at the last check) – that would be ridiculous – but obsessive all the same.

Ironic though, that this particular blog post should be the one to rocket my musings skywards, sixteen months on from styling myself as Hackette on the How.

Sixteen months, enjoying the unbridled freedom of writing about anything BUT mountain rescue (a topic I remain steeped in, the rest of the time) – blog posts as random and scattergun as they tumble onto the keypad as they are inside my head.

Sixteen months of overflowing becks and rage against the machinations of local government, of otters, bears, moths and bunnies, Canadian adventures and Greek idylls, five-a-day directives, killer hamsters and the truth about shapeshifting training shoes.

Sixteen months of gently nodding feedback and knowing smiles, even the occasional laugh out loud, as I tap the odd nerve; of conversations struck with near-total strangers who somehow, somewhere, happened upon my blog.

Never straying too far from the comfort of my own relatively modest circle of friends and followers.

And then what happens?

I write about mountain rescue, with my own very personal response to the words of a certain highly-respected mountaineer – and it goes viral. Not cats doing somersaults on horseback or ‘Trump doesn’t want you to share this so you know what to do’ viral, not even you-won’t-believe-what-Susan-Boyle-looks-like-now viral. But viral all the same. For me.

It’s been a fascinating exercise in PR and the power of social media – albeit entirely unintended on my part – about getting a ‘mountain rescue’ message across to a wider audience without it sounding like a stiff, on-message press release. Which it might have done had I written an ‘official’ response to Sir Chris, wearing my very jaunty Mountain Rescue magazine editor’s hat.

I guess it struck a chord because it came from the heart – perhaps the very antithesis of a PR message, where we have to tick all the boxes, remember all the keywords, always be relentlessly ‘up’. And definitely never use expressions such as ‘ sheep shit’ and ‘poo’ and ‘Good grief!’!

All we can ever hope for when we write anything is that we make people think about what it’s like to be ‘us’, and maybe change a few perceptions on the way. Just for that moment, while they’re listening, we invite them to identify with us.

Seems my mountain rescue colleagues DID indeed identify with my words and perhaps I’ve changed a few perceptions too, outside of mountain rescue – helped in no small way by those who took the time to share and read.

‘This is one of the best articles I’ve seen on the reality of mountain rescue,’ wrote one commenter. One mountain rescue friend even took time out from his sunshine break in the Canaries to thank me.

So, job done and thank you to all those who passed it on down the line.

All I have to do now is follow it!

Bear with me on this next one

And so to another celebrated adventurer, whose website invites us to ‘Be brave. Inquisitive. Prepared for the journey. Ready for anything. Unafraid to fail. Uncover your adventure spirit and we’ll be with you all the way’.

So far so good – although I query whether Bear Grylls and his pals will actually be there if anything goes wrong, while you’re out there in the mountains, daring to be more Bear.

The television presenter has a new book out, launched in The Times on the very weekend the nights began growing longer and blacker, the weather turned colder and wetter, and the mountains became an altogether more challenging endeavour.

I think you know where I’m heading on this one.

Thanks to Bear, amongst other things we surely all encounter in our everyday lives (I know I do), we should all now be able to fly a commercial aircraft in an emergency (take the left hand seat in the cockpit and try not to use jargon with air traffic control), ‘carry a knife, save a life’ (he recommends a five-inch blade), cope with a bear attack, know the difference between ‘edibles and deadibles’, and handle ourselves in a fight (ask your assailant if his mother’s name is Wendy).

Bear’s recommended ‘survival kit’ includes ‘a little first aid kit’, a ‘button compass’ and an Epipen (‘know your weaknesses and you stay strong’). But no spare hat and gloves. No map. No torch (just waterproof matches and a tea light). Oh and a condom and a tampon for water carrying and tinder respectively. Yep.

This jolly romp through the wilderness will no doubt fill many a Christmas stocking, prime ‘coffee table’ material – one of those books we leave around to impress our pals (and our more quotidian selves). See how adventurous I am! Look! I know how to fight bears! Wrestle crocodiles! Bite the head off a tiger! (Although, to be fair, Bear doesn’t claim this last one).

It’s an energetic, thrill of a read. Sheer armchair escapism. But it’s the stuff nearer home which worries me – like wandering up a mountain equipped with little more than a button compass, a condom and a tea light (I’m really trying not to make the obvious comment here).

I do wonder whether the ongoing media love affair with wilderness survival, pitching yourself against the extreme, this relentless ‘can do’ attitude, isn’t partly responsible for the rise in ‘avoidable’ calls for mountain rescue in the UK, wrapping people in a false sense of security and capability which actually puts them at risk.

In Saturday’s extract, Bear talks about avalanches – akin to ‘being spun inside a washing machine’ and violently dumped at the bottom of the slope – and about having to think and work quickly. But the ‘how to survive an avalanche’ headline’s already sold it that you can – survive that is.

The problem, for me, is where the advice falls in terms of context and readership.

To someone already familiar with mountain conditions, it’s just one small piece in a very complex, ever-expanding jigsaw of knowledge, skills and first-hand experience.

To the armchair reader, as yet inexperienced in the vagaries of mountain life, visualising a big soft, fluffy snow cloud tumbling down the mountainside, it’s perfectly feasible.

‘There’s sort of an unsettling element of randomness about who lives and who dies in an avalanche,’ says Karl Birkeland, director of the United States Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center, interviewed for Popular Science in May 2016.

So, remember to swim for your life and spit (so you know which way is up), if you can, but you’d better also pray like hell that someone sees you go and an army of probes and shovels and search dogs and very concerned humans very quickly comes to your aid.

I’m far from being an avalanche expert, but I’ve attended enough Henry’s Avalanche Talks, skied gingerly past enough avalanche debris, sub-edited enough avalanche articles, and spoken to enough mountain rescue colleagues who’ve been there at the sharp end – digging against the clock – to know it’s a little more complex than a few weekend column inches allow.

The best way to survive an avalanche, of course, is to not get into one in the first place, but even the most technically savvy mountaineers can and do. The mountain, after all, doesn’t know you’re an expert.

What if you’ve taken a knock to the head as the galloping snowpack sweeps you through a boulder field, or broken a limb or two – or more – as you tumble? What if your airway gets choked too soon with suffocating, vapourised snow crystals?

Assuming none of these, and you come to rest intact at the bottom of the slide, chances are you’ll be under several feet of rapidly-setting ‘concrete’, with a very small window of opportunity to survive. Minutes in, you could be asphyxiating on your own carbon dioxide. (All of which, Bear mentions – but whether would-be adventurers take heed is debatable. They are, after all, invincible).

Me and the Gremlin, kitted up to high heaven, off piste in the French Alps and still learning © Martin Hemsley.

To most, the prospect of getting caught in an avalanche is as far-fetched as wrestling a crocodile, but even without snow – even on a sunny summer’s day – the mountain environment can be a challenge.

There’s no shortage of ‘how to’ wisdom in the outdoor media, but readers of Trail or Summit (to name a couple) already know they need to know more. They’re already getting out there. It’s the ones who don’t know, who aren’t already getting out there, that we need to educate and inform.

How good would it be (rather than always appealing to the gung-ho adventurer in us all), for the mainstream media to more frequently focus on the things the aspirant outdoor enthusiast really will need or encounter – like map reading skills, essential kit and clothing, or coping with extreme weather conditions, or the dark?

Or is that just too damned dull?

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