Why do people exchange cheery hellos on a mountain and yet walk past each other in a city street without even making eye contact? It is an interesting question to which I’m sure some kind of ‘ologist’ will have a ready answer.
I put it down to kindred spirits recognising one another, acknowledging they have in common a love of the outdoors and the choice of that particular place to walk. The camaraderie of the countryside, if you like.
The late Alfred Wainwright, perhaps Britain’s most famous walker, had characteristically strong views on the subject. He was, in essence, an anti-hello-er.
His seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells continue to be big sellers 60 years after their appearance, while his Walks in Limestone Country is considered by many to be the best guide to Yorkshire Dales walking, but in the course of the thousands of hours he spent meticulously devising routes, goodness knows how many fellow walkers he must have blanked.
When I interviewed him for The Yorkshire Post on the publication of his A Dales Sketchbook he revealed a dislike of outdoor encounters. Upon seeing the approach of walkers he would make a hasty detour to avoid any such encounter, and on paths which offered no escape he merely stared straight ahead or kept his head down.
He was especially vehement in his desire to give a wide berth to what he described as “long caterpillars” of walkers and I can see his point, having been confronted with a seemingly interminable line of Three Peakers on the slopes of Ingleborough this summer.
I said “hi” to the first half dozen but several dozen more walkers were behind them so I gave up, although not without feeling as unsociable as old Wainwright.
The unwritten rule that you acknowledge a fellow walker in the countryside seems to be generally adhered to, yet does not appear to apply on one of Yorkshire’s busiest footpaths - that which carries the Pennine Way up the west side of Malham Cove.
I recently climbed its steps ready to greet those who were coming the other way, but of the 20 or so walkers I met all but four of them ignored me.
Sometimes a shared summit provides an opportunity for conversation. On the top of Scafell Pike I had a chatty encounter with a couple from London which was the start of an enduring friendship. And occasionally there is a surprise meeting with old friends, like when I came across one from York on the path up Penyghent.
But not everyone wants to talk to strangers in the countryside. Just before the Gulf War, when the Yorkshire Dales skies buzzed with jets training for missions, at the trig point on Great Whernside above Kettlewell I found a small party of what I recognised from their badges were an RAF Mountain Rescue team.
I ventured a couple of friendly questions about why they were there, but I got a Trappist response until one grunted “an exercise”.
I suppose careless talk costs lives, even on a mountain.