Off-grid in the hills
Mobile coverage is getting better. 4G is making the mountains more accessible than ever. Reliable communication, increased safety, greater connectivity with those at home. 2019 might be the last year you can be involuntarily off the grid in the hills. But
Trail speaks to explorer Benedict Allen and asks: can you be digitally detached in the outdoors in 2019?
The word used to be ‘hotspots.’ Now it is ‘notspots.’ In just a few years Britain has gone from having a speckling of areas singled out for being saturated with mobile phone signal, to areas singled out for lacking it. And these areas are shrinking. Fast.
Mobile phone network EE’s commitment to providing 95% 4G coverage by 2020 has seen areas previously devoid of phone signal – the Cairngorms, Glen Coe, Skye, and Dumfries and Galloway and other areas comprising 12,000 km² in the last year alone – suddenly light up with enough airborne data streams to watch Netflix. Increasingly, you need never be out of touch. You can call loved ones. Answer questions about the operation of the microwave from the summit of Sgurr Alasdair. Check your emails from a bothy. Share that hilarious boomerang meme with the cat and the hedgehog with your zillion followers and view your response analytics wherever you are (LOL!). You can google anything. FaceTime anyone. And all your followers/fans/strange people you’ve never met can follow every step of your progress from anywhere in the world via any number of apps. You can recharge your phone on the fly, so no need to save battery power. This is it. You can’t guarantee it yet – but total coverage has just taken a step closer.
Now one of two things will be happening in your mind as you read this. Either you’re taking this in with a kind of blank positivity, and you’re thinking of the added productivity something like this might bring to your life. No more social media blackspots! No more email blackouts! Soon you will be contactable anytime, anywhere. Phew!
Or you’re reading it with a kind of building horror, coupled with the claustrophobic feeling that this constant connectivity could, on some deep-sunk anthropological level, be a bad thing. If you’re in this second group, you’ve got a problem. Pretty soon, you’re going to be in the societal minority, the same space occupied by those who choose not to have Facebook accounts or use the word ‘hashtag’ in a spoken sentence. Soon, in order to be off the grid, you’re going to have to put yourself off it voluntarily – begging the immediate and tricky-to-answer question which everyone else in the Constantly Connected World will immediately ask: why on Earth would you do that?
One man who had to answer this question recently is the British explorer Benedict Allen. In 2017 the 58-year-old father of three failed to make a flight from Papua New Guinea to Hong Kong – his return to civilisation from a solo expedition into the rainforest to re-connect with a tribe he knew from three decades earlier. True to form, Allen was travelling the way he had conducted all his expeditions in a career spanning 30 years – no satellite phone, no GPS, and alone.
As the story of the ‘missing’ explorer began to emerge, the reaction from those close to Allen was mixed. Given that in 30 years of expeditions he had crossed deserts, jungles, icy straits and drug baroninfested rainforests alone, often delayed, always
uncontactable and without fail managed to make it out alive (though on a few occasions, barely), the explorer’s friends, family and colleagues expressed concern, but tempered with the belief that he was probably fine.
Then the press got hold of it. With the scent of a real-life adventure story in their nostrils the tabloids went turbo, and the story became one of the most misreported of the year. It climaxed with a dramatic helicopter extraction – bankrolled, embarrassingly, by the Daily Mail – featuring footage of the visibly bewildered explorer, who had been recovering in a jungle missionary post from a bout of malaria, being handed a satellite phone with his wife on the other end of the line.
“It was so difficult to comprehend, as for me, it was almost a perfect expedition. Everything had gone beautifully well,” Allen told Trail, speaking from the jungle city of Iquitos on the Amazon earlier this year. “I mean, it’s true, I was stuck at the end… I was just trying to reach the outside world and in the outside world there was a war going on. But where I was, I was absolutely fine, everyone was wonderful to me.”
The situation perhaps wasn’t helped in hindsight by Allen himself, whose ominous ‘I-may-be-some-time’ pre-expedition bravado (admittedly not unknown amongst those who make their living from adventure – Bear Grylls, anyone?) he then had to backpedal from in the post-rescue dissection. As it turned out, things were fine, he was in control, and he didn’t need to be rescued. The alarm was raised because nobody had heard from him. But they were never going to hear from him, as he never takes a phone.
In touch, out of control?
“I have a motto above my desk that says, ‘Control your destiny, or someone else will.’ And it’s always been very important to me to hang on to that idea.” Allen continues, “As every hillwalker knows, you’ve got to control the operation – you’ve got to keep your head and your equipment and as much as you can about the situation under control at all times. Otherwise it could all go wrong.
“On that expedition suddenly all that control was taken away from me – from being an adventurer, whatever I am, trying to control myself and my surroundings, trying to survive… then this helicopter is coming in and I felt I needed to take this chance, for the sake of my family. But suddenly by doing that, everything fell apart.”
Things quickly got ugly. A rock was flipped over, out from under which scurried a swarm of judgments, most of them critical. Accusations of imperialism, of orchestrating a publicity stunt – and enough referrals to the “savages” he was going to find to show that British cultural prejudice was alive and well in some of the country’s most prestigious newspapers. But chief of all was the idea that someone would have the audacity to go somewhere without remaining technologically-tethered to the outside world. No wonder he got into trouble. No wonder he sparked a panic. Go into the jungle on an adventure? Without a phone? Is he mad? Humans have managed just fine without cellular connectivity for thousands of years. Apparently, it’s taken about five for us to realise it’s impossible to manage without it.
“I think the knee-jerk reaction was, he’s just a white middle class male, he must be foolish, he must be out of step. Every news outlet seemed to have their own angle on this,” says Allen. “I was never lost. I wasn’t trying to find a lost tribe, just reconnect with old friends. I mean I was only five days late, five days in the rainforest is nothing. A river can overflow its banks, you can get stuck… I think people found this very difficult to cope with. It didn’t become about me, but about the outside world – about them thinking how is this possible that someone can disconnect, willingly, and why would he want to?”
The clear learning from this was that Allen’s approach to communications hadn’t changed, but the world’s had – and the expectations of those even close to him had shifted with it.
People weren’t supposed to be off-grid anymore. And given that technology has advanced, why would you want to? Are you wilfully backward? Or are you trying to attempt to preserve something in danger of being lost?
Walk into the hills of the UK and there was a time when you were, to most, going off-grid – for a day, a night, three days, whatever – and people expected you to be back when you were back, and probably to not hear from you in the meantime. Now this margin of error is disappearing, what will it mean for you if your whole purpose of
“BUT THEY WERE NEVER GOING TO HEAR FROM HIM – HE NEVER TAKES A PHONE”
going away is to detach from the outside world?
Benedict Allen takes the view that it is hard to truly escape unless you are committed to the place you are in, and what you are doing there. “There’s an amazing part that technology has to play as a tool,” Allen continues, “but if your aim is to understand a place then there is a real threat to that goal if you’re unable to leave behind where you’ve come from.”
For anyone looking for adventure or escape, this is the clincher. If you want to reconnect with the hills, how is our reliance on technology going to affect the quality of that ‘escape’?
The little device we look at, check emails on, message friends, update Facebook and occasionally make calls with has a lot to answer for. We know from the news that addiction to smartphones is ruining our short-term memory capability, sleep, affecting relationships, stimulating depression and anxiety among susceptible adults and having goodness knows what effect on our kids. The problem is global amongst developed nations. An article in Forbes last year by medical writer Alice G. Walton quoted the statistic that suicide rates amongst teenage girls in the USA had risen by a staggering 65% between 2010-2015, with severe depression amongst the same group rising by 58%. While the study couldn’t state for sure that it was responsible, it did make the link that ‘new media screen time’ had been the biggest lifestyle change during that period. Concerning social media and smartphones, Walton wrote: “For young people who have grown up with both, it’s not a novelty, it’s just a way of life. It may take bigger pushes to help them see just how addictive phones can be, and how damaging to their mental health.” For adults, meanwhile, ‘digital detox’ is becoming a bigger reason to switch off just as total connection is reaching saturation point. And it’s not just the phone – it’s the attitude it breeds amongst those left behind.
“I think there is this kind of intolerance, and lack of understanding that people can cope without technology,” says Allen. “When I started off 30 years ago, I didn’t have any money, so it was a financial necessity, but more and more it became a philosophy. Learning from the local people and not taking a lot of outside resources in. Switching off the outside world, and switching on to this other world.”
While this may seem like an extreme parallel, most of us hillwalkers have experienced this to some degree in recent years. Benedict Allen’s story did raise the interesting question of whether the reliance on technology – the culture of constant contact – is changing the way we interact with each other and the world around us.
Walk into a wild place, and does the reliance on technology’s fragile safety net mean people are losing the skills to cope if things go wrong? And now we’re all expected to be in touch all of the time, what does that mean for those back home when the promised phone call at the end of the day doesn’t arrive? Do they think you’ve got into trouble and call the police? Or do they just presume your technology has failed and that you are probably fine?
Health and safety: Making us mad?
The answer leads on to a bigger subject entirely – the idea that those born into the culture of connectivity are becoming risk-averse, and as a society we are losing the ability to operate outside the safety net of technology. A generation of young people not learning self-reliance in an environment that demands it, despite the spread of technology.
“It’s very striking here in the Amazon. I’m in a café and there are people chopping away at this fruit with these huge knives,” Allen continues, “and they’re maybe seven or eight years old. This is terrifying to me but they’re used to this, it’s acceptable. It’s not that they’re used to taking risks, but they’ve learned from a very young age how to handle themselves.”
Another British adventurer, the businessman David Hempleman-Adams, who became the first person to climb the seven summits and reach both poles, recently raised the growing spectre of health and safety – “wrapping children in cotton wool” – in an interview with The Independent, suggesting Britain is raising a generation of risk-averse youngsters. “People are too afraid of failing these days,” he said. “We used to kick kids outdoors and let them get a grazed knee if they fell out of a tree. We don’t do that anymore.
“I think this is a real problem with the health and safety culture. It goes together with the technology thing – we’re not allowing ourselves to be free and to just make mistakes. It’s very, very important to me in my career to make mistakes but I think it’s the same
“THIS YEAR OVER 75% OF CALL-OUTS OCCURRING IN THE SUMMER, AND OVER HALF OF THE CALLS TO SCOTTISH MOUNTAIN RESCUE IN 2017 INVOLVED NO INJURY”
for all of us – you’ve got to learn early what your capabilities are, what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are. If you don’t get that early, you get more and more high-bound by what you feel is safe. And your potential is lessened.”
A risk-averse future
So what’s all this got to do with relying on mobile phones in the hills? More than you might think. When was the last time you memorised a phone number? Left a note instead of sending a text? Switched your phone off and not looked at it for 12 hours? But as well as being addictive, smartphone texts and apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are taking the place of normal interactions. One study revealed that some phone users check their mobiles up to 200 times a day.
Inspired by idealised material from social media platforms such as Instagram, selfie-hunters are also heading out into terrain they haven’t got the skills to negotiate. If things go wrong, this coupled with the ability to call for help without a thought, could lead to a rise in call-outs to volunteer Mountain Rescue teams. This year over 75% of call-outs occurred in the summer, and over half of the calls to Scottish Mountain Rescue in 2017 involved no injury.
A Trail Facebook poll revealed that only 22% of respondents switch off their phone while in the mountains, and only turn it on if they need it. Meanwhile, 28% said they leave it on and check it from time to time, but 42% said they used their phone more on the hill than at home – for social media, navigation or photographs – leading to a likelihood of a drop, damage, or leaving it somewhere. This has obvious problems if you’re reliant on it. And also the increased likelihood of a false alarm if those at home fail to get an answer. The endgame of addiction is reliance, and when you rely on something you rely less on yourself. And in the outdoors, ultimately this can mean the difference between life and death.
So what does Benedict Allen rely upon to keep him safe? “My own skills. And I’ve always relied on local people for back-up,” he says. “But I do have a bit of wire, just 10cm long. It’s probably the most important thing in my survival kit. The most ready source of protein in the jungle is piranha. I use the wire to connect a fish hook to the fishing line. And the piranha can’t bite through the wire. And that bit of wire means I’m safe – 10cm of wire between living and not living. Amazing.” Sometimes it seems, a simple approach is the best – even in an increasingly complicated world.
Trying to keep up with Liverpool’s results can be touch and go in the hills.
“If your aim is to understand a place then there is a real threat to that goal if you’re unable to leave behind where you’ve come from.” Benedict Allen, with his friend Howard from the Hewa people.
“Hang on lads – I’m just catching up with Stranger Things.” We’ve heard even stranger things in the hills lately – have you?
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