The BBC Top Gear Chimborazo fiasco

Last week I received the following email which, initially at least, caused me to roar with laughter.

Hello Mr Horrell,

My name is Richard Holder, a researcher with BBC Top Gear.

We are currently exploring ideas for the new series of our show and had wondered about the possibility of driving a car to the summit of Mount Chimborazo.

I wondered if you thought this might be possible, given your knowledge of and experience on the mountain?

We are purely at the exploratory stage so I’m reaching out to see whether you think a well equipped 4×4 would be able to overcome the terrain and reach the summit of the mountain. If the planets were to align on this idea we would also be filming this in January 2017. Would this be a good time to attempt it or would the timescale cause any further complications?

Any information you could provide would be very gratefully received and, as this idea is yet to be realised or aired, I would appreciate it if you could treat this e-mail with the strictest confidence. Please feel free to contact me at dick.holder@bbc.co.uk

Many thanks,
Richard Holder. (Not his real name)

Chimborazo is a giant glaciated volcano in Ecuador, 6310m high. It is the highest mountain in Ecuador, and its position close to the Equator means that it’s also the highest mountain in the world when measured from the centre of the Earth. This latter claim is a little esoteric, but the Earth’s rotation means that it bulges around the Equator, and mountains close to the Equator are further from the Earth’s centre than those closer to the poles. Someone even came up with a formula to calculate the heights of mountains when measured from the centre of the Earth, which I wrote about in my Chimborazo trip report.

It might sound like an intriguing idea to drive a vehicle to the top of the highest mountain in the world, but there are one or two problems. The most immediate one is how to get a vehicle up a glacier. Here’s a picture I took of some people climbing Chimborazo during our ascent.

Climbers on their way up Chimborazo
Climbers on their way up Chimborazo

There are, of course, many routes up a mountain, but being a volcano means that Chimborazo is fairly symmetrical. I took the standard (i.e. easiest) route. You don’t need to study many photos of the mountain to realise any way up is going to be just as challenging.

But it wasn’t just the absurdity of the idea that made me laugh, it was the fact that researchers from Top Gear thought that I might be sympathetic to the idea. For one thing, I have no interest in cars. For ten years I drove one of these.

Pack, walking stick and map all ready for departure from Victoria Bridge car park
Pack, walking stick and map all ready for departure from Victoria Bridge car park

That’s a shitty little Nissan Micra. I kept it until I could drive it no more.The body work eventually became so corroded that it had to be scrapped. I drove it so infrequently that I’d often have to take the battery out and charge it up again by hand. At one stage I had to scrape away some moss that had started growing in the cracks around the windows. I have no idea what litre engine it had, or how quickly it went from 0 to 60 if I put my foot down, or what throttle gauge horsepower it had, or any of the other technical terms car enthusiasts use. But it got me from A to B, and to the start of many great mountain hikes, and that’s what mattered.

Of all the people BBC Top Gear could have sent their enquiry to I wasn’t the best choice. I’d posted their email to Facebook even before I noticed the bit at the end swearing me to secrecy.

The problem for them was that not only do I find Top Gear boring, I also find it quite offensive. Here are some reasons why:

These things are compounded by the fact that Top Gear is a hugely influential, opinion-forming programme. It could be a golden opportunity for the BBC to educate people about the environmental impact of cars, but they do quite the opposite. In fact, for years their presenters have been unapologetic in a way that has promoted offensive bigotry.

Vehicles at Carrel Hut (4500m) on Chimborazo
Vehicles at Carrel Hut (4500m) on Chimborazo

Here’s an example. In 2014 they drove a vehicle across Argentina with the licence plate H982FKL, a reference to the 1982 Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina, in which 649 Argentine soldiers lost their lives. The conflict is recent enough to remain fresh in the memory, and the issue of sovereignty of the Falkland Islands (known as Las Malvinas in Argentina) is an emotional issue in Argentina, much more than it is in the UK.

The Top Gear team had to abandon filming due to protests, but rather than apologising for their badly misjudged attempt at humour, the BBC claimed the number plate was an accident. This statement was undermined when Jeremy Clarkson made the following remark at a public talk in London.

If I ever go back there again the number plate will be W3 WON, we won. I’ve got no time for it.

Jeremy Clarkson also once said, “There will be no tree, leaf, cloud, lawn, peat bog or environmental precious place that I won’t drive over.”

Of climate change he said, “I’m not a scientist, but I read enough scientific literature to know the whole global warming theory is bonkers. A complete fairy story.”

And Jeremy Clarkson wasn’t the only offensive member of the team. For years Top Gear specialised in a type of laddish, macho, racist bigotry that started to die out in the 1970s. It’s likely the BBC persevered with Top Gear because it was massively popular (racism is making a comeback), and one of its biggest sellers worldwide. To give you an idea of the sort of thing I mean here’s a clip of one of Top Gear’s other presenters Richard Hammond talking about Mexicans. Warning: don’t watch if easily offended.

Watch on YouTube

Jeremy Clarkson was finally fired from Top Gear last year after punching a producer. It would have been a good time to get rid of Top Gear altogether, but the BBC revived it with some new presenters. Any hopes the show would be less offensive were dashed in March, when they were filmed performing “doughnuts” around the cenotaph War Memorial in London’s Whitehall.

I considered these things and decided that Top Gear’s proposal to drive a vehicle up Chimborazo wasn’t quite so funny after all. They deserved a better response than a frivolous post on Facebook, so I wrote back with the following email.

Dear Richard,

Sorry to be a killjoy, but I climbed a 45 to 50 degree glacier, no terrain for a vehicle.

If you read my blog post then you will also know that I was shocked by the condition of the ice. It was one of the driest glaciers I have ever climbed. Sadly, all of Ecuador’s glaciers are receding at an alarming rate. In truth it will not be many years before they are all gone, but this doesn’t mean we should not protect them while they remain.

The last thing I would want to do is accelerate this decline by helping to send belching exhaust fumes up there for the entertainment of people who have no respect for the natural world.

I also described being enthralled by the ‘penitentes’ fields between the Veintimilla and Whymper summits. These delicate ice sculptures are formed by the action of sun and wind on soft, newly fallen snow. It was difficult terrain to pass through on foot, but it was starkly beautiful. It would break my heart to see it bulldozed by some idiot in a 4×4.

It saddens me that an organisation that has produced so many great nature programmes under the leadership of Sir David Attenborough can consider destroying nature in this way for the purpose of light entertainment.

If you must take your show to Ecuador, then instead of driving a single vehicle up Mount Chimborazo, I recommend you drive all of your vehicles and their crew down the active crater of Mount Cotopaxi. It would provide an explosive finale to a programme that IMHO should have been decommissioned when Jeremy Clarkson left, if not before.

Sorry, but no, I will not help you to destroy fragile mountain ecosystems. I would prefer it if you left Chimborazo alone.

Best regards,
Mark Horrell.

Then I tweeted it too, and discovered I wasn’t the only person who felt strongly. As you can see, there were quite a few retweets. Normally, I’m lucky if I get one.

Perhaps the BBC realised what a monumentally stupid idea it was, or perhaps they were concerned about the negative publicity, or maybe they had a sudden fit of environmental conscience. Whatever it was, a short while later I received the following response.

Hello Mark,

Sorry if I caused offence. That was genuinely not my intention. I made the enquiry to see whether there would be a navigable path up the mountain at certain times of year that would not cause environmental damage but I see that’s clearly not the case.

Believe it or not, the last thing we would want to do is cause an outcry that would reflect negatively on the BBC. We simply, and probably naively, thought the idea of driving to the highest point from the centre of the Earth was an interesting premise and we were just exploring whether it might be possible without causing any permanent damage.

Thank you for taking the time to get back to me and explaining your concerns. You’ll be glad to know that, after your feedback, we will not be pursing this idea any further.

Best wishes,
Richard.

Which is best summed up by the following tweet.

I don’t know whether Richard Holder is an experienced researcher or just one of Top Gear’s interns. If the latter, then it’s not my wish to get an intern into trouble, hence why I have disguised their real name.

The fault for this lies not with the researcher who sent an injudicious email enquiry, but the culture which has driven BBC Top Gear’s production values over many years. That anyone involved with the show, whatever their seniority, thinks that it’s even half OK to look into the plausibility of driving a vehicle up a glacier, means that culture still remains.

Come on BBC, wake up. It’s the 21st century now.

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10 thoughts on “The BBC Top Gear Chimborazo fiasco

  • November 9, 2016 at 4:42 pm
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    Thanks for highlighting the issue of top gear causing damage without a reason.

  • November 9, 2016 at 5:17 pm
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    As usual, great Mark! Robert will be offended, though, he likes Top Gun :-))))

  • November 9, 2016 at 6:02 pm
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    I honestly do hope that their answer wasn’t just some polite reply, and that they do some soul searching and take your well-penned advice to heart. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”, so thank you for helping them set that first step on the way to insight.

  • November 9, 2016 at 6:57 pm
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    What muppets!

    I was on Chimborazo only last year and the steepness of the climb and falling rocks made it particularly dangerous. No way could I imagine a 4×4 could make that ascent.

  • November 9, 2016 at 6:59 pm
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    I am sad to think that the BBC would even consider doing this.

    Your reply Mark to Top Gear was spot on!

    Colin
    Mount Everest Facts

  • November 22, 2016 at 2:31 am
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    Excellent blog. Fully agree.

  • March 16, 2017 at 1:58 pm
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    As a keen hiker but armchair climber I enjoy your blog but do disagree with you on a couple of points, not with the idea of driving up the volcano, stupid idea, but with your condemnation of Top Gear. It is an entertainment program enjoyed by millions. It is a breath of fresh air in this sanitised, politically correct entertainment world, and the Amazon program, The Grand Tour, is an excellent program, three idiots messing around in cars. I disagree with most of what Clarkson and co say, but recognise it for what it is. Your implication that anyone who enjoys it is a racist/bigot/intolerant, etc.. could be seen by many as offensive, not by me I hasten to add, everyone is entitled to their opinion. I totally agree with unnecessarily adding to increased pollution around the world, that is why I do not fly all over the world to climb big hills! I do enjoy your blog, I bought your book, Seven steps from Snowdon to Everest, fantastic read, but please do not imply that anyone who disagrees with your opinion is, by default, a bigot.

  • August 18, 2017 at 6:18 pm
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    Richard Stangroom makes some excellent points above. Mark, I’m sure you readily espouse the value of “tolerance”, this would be a great situation for you to practice it.

  • September 4, 2017 at 10:22 am
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    Mr Stangroom is entitled to his opinion, but he’s reading a bit too much into my words.

    As for tolerance, it depends what you’re asking me to tolerate.

    A request to help somebody drive a vehicle up a fragile glacier? No, thank you.

    Or perhaps you’re asking me to tolerate crude jokes about Mexicans? Maybe I should turn a blind eye, but if you tolerate too much casual racism it becomes dangerous.

    If you find something offensive then you don’t have to tolerate it. Sometimes it’s better to stand up and say so.

  • September 9, 2017 at 1:41 pm
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    Mr Stangroom is right about “Seven Steps”, Mark. He’s also right to dig you for decrying other people’s environmental vandalism while you’re piloting your FOTM executive jet (Gulfstream G550? or Xian Y-20?) into Lukla for the weekend.

    You’re right about his reasons for tolerating Top Gear, of course – we don’t have to admire or tolerate something just because millions of people like it (consider: slavery, Nazism, Brexit, jellied eels etc). Bear-baiting was popular for thousands of years; Macaulay said that the Puritans banned it in England “not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.” Deeper than it looks, that one.

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