Background to Mountain Meanders

 
(Published in the 2008 MCSA Journal)

Tony Heher & Mike Scott

tony.heher@gmail.com   scottmj@telkomsa.net


Mountain Meanders is a web-based compendium of maps, written descriptions, photographs, videos and GPS tracks of walks, scrambles and easy climbs in the Western Cape – and elsewhere.  It can be used by both experienced and novice climbers as well as by “arm-chair climbers" taking a virtual tour. It is a living resource that can be added to by anyone as additions and comments are welcome.

 

Ascend the gulley and traverse left at the large grey block” is a common sort of phrase in a route description, which is heavily criticized by all who follow when they find there are numerous gullies and even more grey blocks!  But ask anyone to write a description and they soon realize this is an art that few master. The simple reason is that words, no matter how eloquent (or verbose) have difficulty doing justice to any but the simplest of routes.

A survey of a number of climbers confirmed that relatively few venture onto new routes based solely on a route description.  The most common way to “discover” new routes is to follow someone else who has done it before.  But the memory of many routes, particularly the less common, rests in many cases in legs that are not getting any younger, whereas our pressurized society leaves the younger with much less time to get out and explore than in the past.  Furthermore, those who do try new routes generally say they did it despite the description and mainly because there was a photo showing where the route went.  So why not more photos?  The simple reason is that the production limitations of journals and guide books make it difficult to include more than a few photos, and usually of limited size.

The advent of web based resources has changed all that. With web space virtually free, there is no limit to the number of photos that can be used to depict a route. A photo blog that was used to record and share photos of walks and climbs done by the U3A group Cape Mountains for the Curious and Adventurous formed a useful test bed to try out these concepts. Those who viewed the blogs commented what an enjoyable and natural route description they provided.  (See the History of Mountain Meanders for more on that...)

GPS technology also appeared promising as a way of recording routes but a number of tests recording tracks on scrambling routes by the GPS User Group showed that GPS units are severely limited in their ability to record routes on steep mountain terrain[2].  But they are good for finding the way to the start of the climb (which can sometimes be the hardest part) and also for finding the start of an elusive descent route off a ridge or a complex route in open terrain such as the Hex traverse. A good map (to an appropriate scale) is also an invaluable aid to planning and doing any route and can add to the interest and enjoyment of venturing into new terrain. And of course, despite their limitations, a word description remains an indispensible adjunct that pulls the threads together.

So given the ease of using a variety of resources, what is best? Map?  GPS track? Photos? Written description?  The simple answer is sometimes one and sometimes another and best of all is an appropriate combination of resources drawing on their respective strengths to make a coherent whole.  It is also important to realize that different users prefer and respond better to different media.  Some will use a map as their primary aid, others photos and some (the few) can visualize from a written description.  These concepts were all tested on a number of websites with some having photos, others having GPS tracks and of course there were a variety of guide books and maps available. These scattered resources were difficult to navigate, however, and the need was seen for a coherent collection of resources in a properly indexed and structured form – the mountain-meanders concept was born.

Where does the wiki[3] concept come in? The nature of the web has changed in recent years from a relatively static presentation of information to a user, to a dynamic resource which a user can interact with and add to.  These are generically in the class of Content Management Systems (CMS) which provide a framework in which ordinary users with limited or no web knowledge can operate.  While it is possible in Mountain Meanders to allow any user to edit or add to an existing route description, following discussion with a range of climbers this was felt to be potentially dangerous, so editing of routes is limited to a set of editors who can exercise editorial control and ensure consistency and accuracy. But anyone can become an editor – it is not an exclusive club! The ideal would be to have editors who take on certain areas, such as Table Mountain, Jonkershoek, Cederberg, etc.  Of course if anyone wants to extend the Mountain Meanders concept to other parts of the country, then they would naturally be the editor for that region.

However there is another type of contribution that is supported by Mountain Meanders. This allows a comment to be added to a route description, links to other resources (such as a blog) or any other information that may be relevant.  These comments can add to (or criticise!) the route description or more likely, and more usefully, they can add relevant updates as to the current state of the route with observations on erosion, recent fires, rock slides, flora, etc.  Or the comments can simply be a record of who has last climbed a route as this in itself is a useful piece of information. Meet reports, for example, that meet leaders are frequently requested to provide, could be added as a comment to the route so that they are available and easily accessible.  To make a comment send an email to Mountain Meanders.

Mountain Meanders is primarily an index into a set of resources, some of which are on the main website but many can be elsewhere. The resources provided include:
    • short description of each route, typically with one or two photos to illustrate the overall route with more detail in the photo slide show.  
    • A downloadable route description in pdf format containing the written description, a few key photos and relevant maps.  It is essentially a summary in 3-4 pages of key information which can be printed if required.  
    • One or more sets of photos (or videos) about the route.  These can have anything from 4 or 5 to 20 or 30 photos and typically show more than a ‘bare bones’ route description as they are also used to convey the look, feel and ambience of a route and can be enjoyed by ‘arm-chair’ climbers.  Photos are normally on an external photo sharing package such as Picasa or Flikr. Videos could be on Youtube or similar sharing site. The use of an external photo sharing packages makes the website simpler and easy to add new contributions – anyone can do it! Photographs are not limited to route descriptions. Descriptions of the flora and fauna on the route are also of interest, especially from different times of the year, or before and after fires, etc. Short videos of a route, or key sections of it, are also possible although currently bandwidth limitations in South Africa make viewing these somewhat painful, but this will change in the near future.
    • GPS tracks of paths and points of interest for either uploading to a GPS or for use in a GPS mapping package such as Garmin Mapsource. The tracks can also be used in Google Earth, Google Maps or other mapping package for route planning, or to make custom maps, so they can be used without a GPS.
    • Maps are generally in Adobe pdf file format. They may be single page or multiple pages covering either a specific route or an overview map of an entire area.  These maps are not meant to be a substitute for the printed maps that are available but provide useful additional information as well as providing maps for areas where there are presently no commercial maps available.
    • Links to other websites which have complementary information e.g. the relevant Cape Nature webpage for Cape Nature reserves. The general principle of Mountain Meanders is not to repeat information that is available elsewhere but simply link to it. That is what hyperlinks are for!  But in many cases Mountain Meanders will add information that is not available e.g. a detailed up-to-date map of an area with all paths GPS tracked – and a downloadable set of GPS tracks.
Mountain Meanders is a shared resource generated and maintained by mountain users and all the above contributions can be done directly on-line (instructions are provided on the website) or they can be emailed to an editor at mountain.meanders@gmail.com  All contributions are attributed to the original author.

What areas are covered? The initial focus has been on the Western Cape and on Table Mountain and the Peninsular in particular with a few Cape country routes. The coverage is simply limited by time and contributions received as no one person can cover all routes.  The concept is, however, extendable to other areas and if any other section would like to use the concept to document routes in their area, they are very welcome.  Training is available to anyone who would like more in-depth knowledge of how to set up and maintain pages. In addition, there are a growing number of similar websites springing up around the world and links to these sites are added to Mountain Meanders as and when they are found. If you know of any, please send to mountain.meanders@gmail.com

A key question is who are the likely users of the site? Is it local or visitors?  Will it contribute to inexperienced people trying inappropriate routes? Any guidebook or published route description faces this risk and the only totally safe solution is to publish nothing!  The premise on which the site is based is that people will go out and climb anyway and it is better to provide good, clear, comprehensive information than to let them climb in ignorance. The site also has comprehensive, bold safety notes with links to many organizations and guides for those who seek further information.  A clear pictorial grading system linked to many of the actual routes and cross referenced to international grading systems provides a framework for comparison to assist the responsible climber.  The irresponsible will get into trouble no matter what one does or does not provide!

Another use for Mountain Meanders is to document new or old long-forgotten routes so that they are readily accessible to climbers. The nature of the walks and scrambles which are the focus of Mountain Meanders do not lend themselves to journal publication, besides which the journal suffers from the problem of picture limits that are inherent to all print media. The informal and rapid way in which routes can be documented (‘publication’ takes 20-30 mins once the material is ready) makes it easy to use and of course instantaneously accessible to a wide audience.

An analysis of recent meet lists of several of the clubs operating in the Cape indicates that there is a relatively small set of ‘favourite’ routes that are done again and again. If there are explorations of new routes these tend to remain hidden as there is at present no easy way to make these known.  It is hoped that Mountain Meanders will capture information before it is lost, contribute to a re-awakening of the old adventurous spirit and promote the exploration of new or old forgotten routes which can be shared with the wider climbing community.


[2] See the companion article  GPSs in the mountains – the good, the bad and the ugly” for more information on the tests conducted by the GPS User Group

[3] wiki is a collection of Web pages designed to enable anyone who accesses it to contribute or modify content. Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites and to power community websites. The collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia is one of the best-known wikis…. from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki

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Tony Heher,
May 18, 2010, 12:20 PM
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