When I learned the phrase ‘œShifting Baseline Syndrome’ it profoundly altered the way I look at the natural world. The phrase describes the way each generation perceives their own experience of the environment to be normal and is willing to tolerate a small decline in those standards. Continued over generations this results in environmental catastrophe. Over-fished oceans, eroded mountain paths, concreted landscapes.
The principle of Shifting Baseline Syndrome also applies to the way we engage with the outdoors and participate in adventurous activities. I use it as a reminder to myself that as I become older and busier I should not shift my baseline feelings of how often I want to get up into the mountains and what I do when I am there.
When I were a lad, here’s some of the stuff I got up to in the wonderful playgrounds of Britain’s wild places:
Aged nine I completed the Yorkshire three peaks challenge in under 12 hours. 24 miles of walking and 1500 metres of ascent is therefore my baseline syndrome of what primary school kids can manage on a tough day out. Aged 12 we did the bigger three peaks challenge of Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in under 24 hours after one of our school friends got cancer. My senior school sent us off on pleasingly madcap escapades: compulsory early morning river swims on camping trips (I won a chocolate bar for being first in one frosty winter morning). The memory of 150 teenagers leaping into chilly Llyn Cau still makes me chuckle. (As does my admiration for the one boy brave enough to refuse, impervious to our jeers.) We headed of on night navigation exercises, a 20p piece in our rucksacks for a payphone in case we got so lost as to require picking up. We navigated in small groups through atrocious weather in the Brecon Beacons without adults. Aged 15 I cycled off road across England with two friends. We veered somewhat off course (summit of Great Gable with a mountain bike, anyone?) but made it weary but happy across to the east coast. Teenagers are quite capable of doing all this stuff.
I am not writing a misguided diatribe against health and safety, nor a nostalgic endorsement for reckless behaviour in the hills. My hope here is that looking at adventure through the prism of Shifting Baseline Syndrome may help us to check and challenge our own assumptions and behaviours about what young people are capable of in the outdoors. We all know that children today are spending too much time indoors and on screens. I love things like the John Muir Award and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Some of the best and most formative experiences of my life came from being pushed hard as a youngster and challenged to do things that I thought were beyond me in our hills and mountains. Let us remember not to deprive our young people of that.
But nor should we deprive ourselves of these experiences as adults. When is the last time you set yourself a really tough challenge, staggering back down a mountain feeling exhausted but proud that you have taken on something really difficult? Perhaps in 2018, amongst the gentle hill walks and happy strolls, you might decide to test yourself. Why don’t you take on Trail’s #EverestAnywhere challenge, making the effort to climb 8848 metres over the course of the year? Don’t make excuses, don’t let your baseline slip. Get out there and do the best you can. I hope I see you in the hills somewhere in 2018.
And finally, keep your eyes peeled for the first frogspawn from the year’s hardiest frogs. Frogspawn and tadpoles are one of my favourite things of the nature calendar!
This piece originally appeared in Trail Magazine.