Hiking: the hazardous hobby

By Arthur Velker

Last month, the High Court overruled a decision for the National Parks and Wildlife Service to pay out €40,000 of damages to hillwalker Teresa Wall after she injured herself on a wooden boardwalk on the Wicklow Way.

Albeit unsuccessful, Ms Wall is one of many whom pursued negligence claims against the State last year – claims that, according to figures from the State Claims Agency, accumulated to €221.7 million of the government’s funds in 2015, an over 50 per cent increase from the prior year.

Because it is now commonplace for people to pursue lucrative personal injury claims in the event of a mishap, we’re often oblivious to the real message it promotes. Taking the state’s recreational institutions to court doesn’t only impede the development of outdoor facilities, but it encourages landowners to revoke access to the sacred soil we all walk on.

Though a highly exhilarating sport, hiking carries a certain risk factor that lies in its immanent unpredictability. With the appropriate equipment and attire, you’re somewhat 80 percent to ensuring an invulnerable, carefree journey.

The other unaccountable 20 is the volatile weather conditions and change in terrain, which, in most instances, make the experience highly gratifying, but requires the participant to exercise their inherent sense of awareness, as well as, God forbid, common sense.

“You do have to accept that when you go out on the hill there are certain hazards you need to be aware of,” says James Byrne, hiker and Managing Director of Hillwalk Tours. “It’s up to the walker to prepare well – not go off alone into the mountains by themselves and to be properly equipped when they’re out on the hills.”

Last year, a Czech couple lost their way on a hiking trail  in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand, and one of the hikers, Ondrej Petr, died after slipping and falling from a steep slope. His partner Pavlina Pižova broke into a nearby cabin and was isolated for over a month as the harsh winter conditions made it impossible to walk back to the trailhead.

Like the elevated walkway where Ms Wall sustained her injuries, the hut that sheltered Pižova is a state-developed facility designed to accommodate hikers and tourists on their walks. In Pižova’s case, it turned out to be a lifesaving commodity without which her survival would have been highly unlikely.

Put simply, whether it’s a boardwalk that allows easy access over treacherous boglands or a mountain hut packed with winter emergency supplies, the need for outdoor facilities cannot be overstated. The ill intents of few should not trump the benefit of many; and responsibility should prevail over negligence.

In a case closely observed by Irish farmers, landowners and a litany of hiking associations, the judge’s decision to override the Circuit Court award to damages to Ms Wall was greeted with much optimism.

For now, the High Court ruling will likely deter those looking to undermine the state’s legal infrastructure and rain on the pastimes of ardent adventurers. But only for now.