YOUTH IN THE MOUNTAINS
Having just had the enjoyable experience of attending the first week of July Camp where children were again actively invited to attend (a significant departure from the past) and where I was able to see the 2011 Global Youth Summit Team off on their week-long Drakenberg Escarpment hike, I have been giving the place of young people in our club a great deal of thought.
The traditional view of the Mountain Club has been that young children have no place in the mountains and for good reason. They are generally unable to keep up with adults or manage heavy loads and rough terrain. They are also less able to stand extremes of heat or cold. Traditionally, they were only introduced to the mountains in their high-school years under strict guidance of their parents, but this view is changing and with good reason.
When I was first dragged off into the mountains at a tender age by my father (significantly not an MCSA member), I was issued with an ex-army haversack, my footwear was cast off school shoes with leather soles, I had a hand-knitted Jersey for warmth and my foul weather gear was a retired school-mac. I was dressed in khaki shorts and shirt (the only colour thought suitable for little boys in those days). My father’s “two-man” canvas tent was ex-army (Boer War vintage) and so heavy that it needed two to lift it, while my sleeping bag was made up of blankets pinned together by my loving mother who preferred to stay at home. The tent had no ground sheet, as indeed none had in those days, so we slept on the ground on a heavy tarpaulin. Our staple diet was bread, baked beans and bully beef.
In spite of this poor equipment I have nothing but happy memories of those trips into the wild with my adventurous father and never remembered them as being uncomfortable, but it is not surprising that we were never able to hike far from our family car. I have long admired my father’s determination to make sure I enjoyed myself but I now wonder how he did it. Certainly camping and hiking with my own children and now with my grand children became a lot easier.
Nowadays light weight and interesting packaged food is readily available as are child-sized garments suitable for all weather conditions. Running shoes make a good substitute for boots and weather-proof anoraks are normal. All good camping shops now stock junior size sleeping bags, sleeping mats and small rucksacks. Light weight tents are cheap and easy erect. Papoose carriers for young children are common. My father would have thought all of this was Christmas.
Yet with all of these modern advantages it is disappointing to see how few of our young-parent members seem prepared to take their children hiking or camping with them. Or is it just that they wisely stay out of sight of our official MCSA Meets because the old ideas about children in the mountains die so hard ?
All credit then to three brave Mums, and another couple, who responded to the 2001 July Camp invitation and took the chance of crusty, old-timer disapproval when they trotted their broods of delightful young children, all under the age of ten, into the Base Camp at Injisuthi. This revolutionary move was of course made possible by the equally revolutionary change from a base camp deep in the mountains to an official Nature Conservation camp site. Organising young children even in a relatively comfortable camp site requires quite a bit of planning if they are to stay warm, fed and happy and all of these parents showed consummate skill. Not only were the young campers a pleasure to have around the base camp but they even managed an overnight hike to the nearby Grindstone Cave. One of my great pleasures was watching these camp-kids inventing and playing the sort of out-door games that even modern youngsters can still be so good at when they are dragged away from TV sets and computer games.
At the other end of the youth age gap was the 2011 UIAA Global Youth Summit, also in the Drakenberg, organised by Jenny Paterson as our UIAA Youth Commission representative and hosted by the MCSA. I had the privilege of meeting these 20 odd young hikers who came from all over Southern Africa at the start of their week long traverse along the Drakenberg Escarpment and seeing them off up the Sentinel Chain Ladder at the start of their hike. They were led by Rob and Sonia Thomas as their professional guides and assisted by other adult youth leaders including our South African Everest Summiteer, Sibusiso Vilane who had enrolled his two daughter as part of the hike.
It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm with which these young hikers swung heavy over-night bags over their shoulders and set off up to the escarpment. Reports back after their hike revealed that they had all coped extremely well in spite of bitter cold and a fair amount of residual snow. While I was impressed with racial mix of the party, the easy manner in which they all got together and of the way in which certain Sections of our club in particular had got the word around and arranged for sponsorship in some cases, the hikers were clearly as impressed with the business-like efficiency of our club and its representatives in organising the hike. (See the link under youth for two testimonials to their delight with MCSA's management.)
All round I believe, the 2011 July Camp and the Global Youth Summit have broken new ground which can only be to the long term benefit of the MCSA and I am very grateful to those organisers who have been prepared to experiment with a new approach to mountain hiking. If this trend of encouraging youth participation in our activities continues in our club we will surely reap benefits in the future.