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?

The pit­falls

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?

Dig­i­tal de­tox

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


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


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?

Trai●’s Face­book poll re­vealed a sur­pris­ing con­nec­tion to tech...

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