Take to the hills in safety

15th December 2000 at 00:00
Licences and qualifications are all fine but leadership in the outdoors requires more than technical skills. Reverence, respect and humility are also needed, says Peter Barnes

THE UK has a long and enviable history of taking young people into the outdoors. Movements such as the Scouts and Outward Bound have set the pattern for outdoor education around the world. Despite this the media are always quick to look for someone to castigate when things go wrong, as sadly and inevitably they will on rare occasions. Even more damning, there is all too often a "knee-jerk" reaction that aims, for the best of reasons, to ensure that such a thing could never happen again. Sadly for all of us involved in the outdoors, a pleasant day out on the hills does not make a newsworthy story but a pleasant day out which goes wrong with tragic consequences does. The truth is that few people involved with outdoor activities will ever see an accident, let alone be involved in one. However, now that some time has passed since the tragic drowning of two schoolgirls near Stainforth in Yorkshire, it is appropriate to evaluate the consequences of what happened.

The commercial outdoor activity industry, since the Lyme Bay disaster in 1993, has been legally regulated with a requirement for all commercial provision for under-18s to be inspected and licensed. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this system, and it is hotly debated, there is no doubt that it has encouraged a more responsible attitude to outdoor activities among those affected. More importantly, perhaps, it has changed the public image of outdoor activity providers. The business has moved into a "professional" era where qualifications and certification have become important milestones in a person's career. Although there are many who would say that this detracts from the spirit of adventure which has always been one of the principal appeals of outdoor education, in the eyes of the public it has provided a quantifiable measure of an organisation's competence.

The tragedy of licensing, however, is that it has not saved a single life. All the accidents since Lyme Bay where there has been an avoidable loss of life have involved people or organisations outside the scope of the licensing legislation. Notable among these have been the Scouting Association and schools. It would be wrong to leap on an emotional bandwagon and call for an immediate extension of the licensing regulations but it would not be wrong to look at the training of all outdoor leaders. Although traditionally outdoor leaders have been either volunteers or low-paid enthusiasts, outdoor leadership is a responsible and highly demanding pursuit. The scope for physcal damage is obvious and the scope for psychological damage, while not so obviously apparent, equally real. Outdoor leadership requires more than technical competence in an outdoor skill. It requires judgment, empathy, understanding and the humility to know that the outdoors is about more than the leader.

The present qualificationcertification system addresses some of these skills but predominantly the quantifiable technical skills. Other skills come about through contact with other outdoor leaders, long experience and continuous learning. No one who has not served a full apprenticeship in the outdoors should be leading groups. The vogue for certification is laudable but learning is an on-going process that is never finished. Anyone who feels that they know all that is needed to lead in the outdoors is a danger to themselves and others - we can all learn more. All teachers, Scout leaders and other volunteers need to be prepared to subject themselves to the same training and learning as that undertaken by any outdoor professional. It is not enough to say that the regulations do not apply or that a leader does not need the training by virtue of it not being their full-time job. A teacher is no less likely to have an accident or give a student a bad experience because they are not paid as outdoor leaders - far from it.

The outdoors is a magical place and provides potentially life-changing experiences but it needs to be approached with respect and reverence. Commercial providers have been forced by the weight of public opinion and legislation to put their house, for the most part, in order. It is now time for all outdoor leaders to take a long, hard look at themselves and ask first, "am I safe?" and second, "what else do I need to know?" Only those people who can say "yes" to the first question and recognise their limitations in response to the second should be leading groups in the outdoors.

All outdoor leaders should consider the virtues of attending educational and training courses as well as constantly updating and maintaining their skills. The days of the bumbling amateur enthusiast may be gone but long live the days of the "professional amateur enthusiast". It would be a sad day when we could not take young people into the outdoors because of the weight of legislation but it would be a sadder day when the outdoors is no longer respected, in all its aspects, good and bad.

Dr Peter Barnes is responsible for the outdoor education programme at the Cumbria Campus of the University of Central Lancashire. As well as having many years of experience of outdoor work around the world he has published a number of books on outdoor leadership

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