It's mostly all down to the footwear... and the environment...
Wales Outdoors have for years been complaining about other companies provision in the gorge and we have not made friends from this. However, we decided that it was better to continue to highlight what we regard as poor provision in order to drive up the standard of activity delivery in South Wales.
In this regard we have not succeeded and in many respects we now see the delivery of gorge walking in South Wales as being little better than when we began campaigning sometime in 1998.
The reasons for this failure to improve the safety of clients and the protection of the natural environment for all are multiple and in our opinion easily rectified but we are up against the authorities who are impotent and the lobby of larger providers whose main reason for existing is to make a profit for the owners/shareholders.
FOOTWEAR - A key complaint and one that we have been banging on about since 2005 has been footwear. I took this as far as the Welsh Government who in turn took it to Central Government. The authorities tasked with public safety say that their hands are tied and that they cannot enforce appropriate footwear for the activity, however, would you go mountain walking in 'daps' or caving in 'crocs'? We think not. So why do we see these most inappropriate of footwear choices being worn by clients of licensed activity providers in the South Wales gorges? And the Adventure Activity Licensing Authority go even further stating that walking boots do not provide ankle protection and the choice of footwear worn by clients of any company ought to be at the companies direction. Most providers say to clients 'wear old trainers' and they turn up with a broad range of inappropriate footwear. The local rescue services state that inappropriate footwear is the main cause of accidents within the gorge environment.
WALES OUTDOORS FOOTWEAR - We provide either wellington boots or walking boots for our gorge walking sessions. Wellies are brilliant as they provide lower leg protection and are made of a soft rubber which has the best grip on wet rock of any footwear choice. Walking boots are great, giving ankle protection, despite what AALA say, but a long lasting hard sole means they are less grippy than the wellington.
HELMETS - Gorge walking is a moving water activity. The only helmet suitable for this activity is a full cut water spots helmet. This is a kayak helmet with sides that cover the ears. This ensures head protection from sideways movement as well as from top of the head and forehead impacts. Most adventure activity providers based in South Wales use either climbing helmets or a mix of half and full cut helmets and climbing helmets.
WALES OUTDOORS HELMETS - Wales Outdoors use full cut and brightly coloured helmets. These are designed for in water protection. It's an obvious choice we think.
STAFF TO CLIENT RATIOS - We see some large groups in the gorge and often it is difficult to tell what any companies staff to client ratio is but in general most work 1:12. We think this not only offers a poor service but also is not offering a good standard of care to the group. Queing becomes a thing, with clients waiting to have a go at a gorge problem, say a climb or a jump, and when moving any instructor, no matter how good, cannot keep an eye on all twelve clients. It's scientifically not possible!
WALES OUTDOORS STAFF TO CLIENT RATIOS - Wales Outdoors works 1:8 ensuring an active and safe gorge walking experience. Our safety record attests to this. Where other companies have had serious accidents and incidents within the gorge environment Wales Outdoors has a fine record with no accidents and just a handful of incidents since we began operating back in 1995.
ENVIRONMENT - There has been movement on the environment with a concordat in place that in part structures how any provider can use the gorge environment. However, steering group members of the South Wales Outdoor Activity Providers Group have worked outside of the concordat and advice from the various chairs has been, what can we say, well, fluid. Things have settled down though and most activity providers work within the concordat for the Sychryd Gorge. This protects the banks of the river, the rare low plant species and encourages a positive relationship with those that live near the main car park for the venue. There is a limit of 25 clients at any one time at this location, which was an industrial river until the mid 1960's. The state of the Mellte however is very different. Wales Outdoors will never use the Mellte, not just because of it's inaccessibility in case of an accident but because it is a fine walking venue with many coming to enjoy the waterfalls in peace and more importantly it was a pristine gorge environment. Wales Outdoors argued against using the Mellte while the larger adventure activity providers argued that they needed it because they had groups wanting to gorge walk and that their Sychryd gorge daily capacity was not enough. SWOAPG along with the Brecon Beacons National Park and Natural Resources Wales agreed on a massive 50 people at any one time limit on the use of this fine river environment. Wales Outdoors remain shocked and appalled by the power of the business lobby over the agencies tasked to protect the environment.
Wales Outdoors remember a leaflet designed by Jon Young, the environmental officer for the BBNP back around 1997, which was to prohibit the use of the Mellte for gorge walking in order to protect the fragile environment and recommended the Sychryd for this activity. This leaflet never made it into production and Jon said it was the lobby at that time, the LEA centres, who stopped it in it's tracks as they didn't want to be told what to do or where to go.
Currently the pressure at peak season on both the Sychryd and the Mellte is high and Wales Outdoors feel that the authorities have a protocol in place that they are not prepared to police.
WALES OUTDOORS AND THE ENVIRONMENT - Wales Outdoors were the catalyst for the Brecon Beacons National Park Outdoor Environmental Charter for adventure activity providers and was also the catalyst for the formation of South Wales Outdoor Activity Providers Group which sprang form the work of Andy's Outdoor Professionals Cooperative and the environmental officer for the BBNP. Without Wales Outdoors there would likely be no South Wales organisation for activity providers and there would be no environmental charter or gorge use concordat. We think that says it all...
Please keep visiting this blog as in November we will be publishing a conversation between AALA and Wales Outdoors regarding footwear which will make interesting additional reading on this subject.