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Mountain Accidents and Mountain Safety

I wrote the following three years ago so if any journalist wants a quote from me about the current spate of accidents in the Scottish hills they can take it from here. I'm a bit fed up saying the same things year in and year out.

IT’S always bad news when we hear of people dying in the Scottish mountains, and just as I thought things couldn’t get much worse after an avalanche claimed four lives in Glen Coe in January I heard the news of mountaineers being avalanched in the Cairngorms.

As I write a total of nine people have died in the hills since Christmas and while every single death is a complete tragedy for families and loved ones the hysterical ranting from some sections of the media is neither helpful nor welcome.

The barrage of ill-informed comment from certain journalists who know next to nothing about our love of mountains, about mountain safety or mountain rescue has incensed outdoor folk throughout the country. One journalist in particular made so many factual errors on a radio phone-in show that the accident statistician from the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland phoned in to correct her. Despite that, the same lady journalist later went on to an evening television programme and spouted the same misinformation.

I don’t want to dwell on the poor reporting or the knee-jerk reactions, but it’s worth examining some of the suggestions these journalists and others come up with.

There are three general issues that raise their head every time there has been a spate of mountain accidents.

One: mountaineers should be made to take out insurance.

Two: the mountains should be closed off during and after bad weather; and

Three: mountain rescue teams should be professional.

Perhaps I can take the last point first. Here in Scotland our civilian search and rescue teams are professional in every sense other than they don’t receive payment. There is a certain amount of funding from the Scottish Government – about £300,000 to Scotland’s 27 rescue teams, and the rescue teams raise the rest of the cash they need themselves, much of it in donations. These teams are made up of experienced mountaineers and they understand why people go to the mountains in winter. They believe the present system of search and rescue in Scotland works well and besides, who would pay for “professional,” paid mountain rescue.

Well, presumably those who had been rescued would pay, as in some Alpine countries. And that would mean taking out insurance. But what if someone wasn’t insured? Would they still be rescued? Would they receive a court injunction demanding a rescue fee. And under the present set-up, where we have volunteer, highly skilled yet unpaid rescue teams, who would claim the insurance money? Where would it go? The RAF helicopter crews perhaps, although the MOD is convinced mountain rescue is an excellent form of cost-effective training for their lads and lassies?

The present system of search and rescue in Scotland seems to suit everyone very well – the mountaineers, the search and rescue teams and the MOD. Why change it to appease the baying of a handful of tabloid journalists.

The other hoary old chestnut is to close the mountains in bad weather. I wonder how you could do that? Tie red tape all round the base of our mountains? Call the military to stand guard and stop us setting foot on the hills? Change Scotland’s much-envied Land Reform Act to make it a trespass to walk in the hills between the months of December and March? And who would be responsible for deciding the weather was bad enough to close down the hill?

And what about the tens of thousands of people who see a walk or a climb in the winter mountains as an antidote to the prescribed, over regulated society we live in, a society largely created by those same journalists who see personal freedom as some form of self destruction?

The mountaineering and mountain safety organisations in Scotland are not unaware of these dreadful accidents. I know that David Gibson, the boss of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, personally feels the pain of every parent or loved one of those who have perished. The MCofS and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service will already be trying to think up fresh ways of getting their messages across to the public.

The Scottish Government has supported mountain safety and has financially backed the likes of SAIS and Geoff Monks’ excellent Mountain Weather Forecasting Service. As Patron of Mountain Aid, a charity that supports mountain rescue in Scotland I’ll certainly be doing what I can to help further the cause of education and mountain training. This is all positive stuff, and that’s what required at a time like this. We need such positivity at this time, not negative calls to ban people, to charge them for being rescued, by making insurance compulsory or by suggesting that those who encourage people into mountaineering are irresponsible.

Nine deaths in the Scottish mountains in two months is awful. It’s nothing less than tragic but bear in mind that in the past year there has been some seven million participation days, when all those people went to the hills, got themselves a little bit fitter, cleared their mind of all the rubbish our over sanitised society has thrown at them, and came home refreshed and rejuvenated by the natural world.

We have to put these very sad and unfortunate accidents into perspective. The vast, vast majority of hillwalkers, climbers and scramblers get untold joy from the hills. But what is that joy? Why do people like me want to climb the Scottish hills in winter?

Regular readers of this column will be well aware of my love affair with the mountains and wild places of Scotland, those areas that have been my lifeblood for more years than I can remember.

I’m proud we can boast of some of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes in the world. From the rolling hills of the Borders to the arctic landscapes of the Cairngorms, from the mist-shrouded islands of the Hebrides to the wild grandeur of the North West highlands, few would argue that this little country of ours is one of the most beautiful in Europe.

One of the great benefits of that natural beauty is that it attracts visitors from all over the world and in particular those visitors who come outside the normal tourist season, during the winter months when snow turns our mountains in a magical playground for hillwalkers and climbers.

Under a cover of snow every gully and corrie is picked out in stark shades of black and white and mountain slopes appear as curved and sensuous lines against the blue of the sky. In such conditions many people want to be amongst these mountains, immersing themselves in their grandeur, soaking in the peace of them, taking from them something of their timelessness and implacable nature. On a personal level being amongst mountains makes me very happy.

In the past few weeks I’ve been asked on numerous occasions just what it is that attracts me and thousands of others to the mountains in winter, drawn from our warm and comfortable homes into the cold, sometimes dangerous world of high, rugged winter landscapes? Why are people like me willing to take the risk of being lost, avalanched, stormbound or involved in an accident. Was it worth the risk? Or as one journalist suggested, “isn’t Scotland in danger of becoming a sort of outdoor Dignitas for healthy, fit people?”

I obviously can’t answer for anyone else, so what I’m about to write is personal, my reasons for climbing hills in winter as well as the other seasons.

In short I guess I could boil it all down to three things; a love and appreciation of natural beauty; a desire for escapism; and the regular need of a natural drug fix!

I’m very aware that the society in which I now live is very different from the society I was brought up in. In those far-flung days there was less fear, less political correctness and less regulation. Today we seem to live in a very sanitised, prescribed society where health and safety considerations give the impression we should all be bubble-wrapped and protected from ourselves. We live in a grossly over-regulated country where knee-jerk reaction and a persuasive media regularly shapes and bends public opinion.

Many people, perhaps most people, live in a permanent regime of nine-to-five repetitiveness with only weekends and an annual holiday to break the monotony. It’s perhaps not surprising that an increasing number of folk are discovering a need to break that regime from to time to time, to escape from the monotonous regularity of it all, to find respite in a landscape that has a more lasting reality, a world of heather and rock, big skies and the opportunity for some kind of adventure.

Mountaineering, particularly in winter, offers all of that in an environment that is not yet wrapped up in rules and regulation.

This sense of escapism is important and that’s why so many folk become hooked on what appears at first hand to be a completely pointless exercise of expending a lot of effort to climb to the top of a mountain, only to turn round again and come back down.

I believe there is a sense of true ‘wildness’ on our high mountains. Signs of man’s presence are minimal and in winter, under a cover of snow, that perception is heightened, when even the footpaths vanish from sight. It’s then that I can experience the fleeting nature of man’s time on this planet against the more lasting reality of nature. Mankind, and his successes and failures, somehow seem insignificant against the age-old, slowly evolving world that gives us every sustenance and life.

That all may seem very grand and worthy, but it’s probably the core reason for my own love of mountains. But there is also the challenge, the adventure, the risk factor and the cerebral exercise in learning the skills that help minimise the risks.

Our winter mountains are not only beautiful but are potentially dangerous places. So are our cities, our road networks, and our own homes! We wouldn’t handle bare electrical wires; we wouldn’t knowingly walk out in front of a bus; we avoid certain city streets late on a Saturday night. We make every attempt at minimizing the risks involved in everyday living, and yet people still die from electric shocks, from road accidents and from alcohol and tobacco related illnesses.

One of the biggest killers of Scots is lack of exercise, resulting in obesity and diabetes. Winter mountaineering is like everything else – you learn to recognise the risks and you try and manage them. You find out what skills you need to cut that risk to a minimum and you learn those skills. In terms of mountaineering we learn how to navigate in bad weather; we learn how to use an ice axe and crampons; we learn about avalanches and how to avoid them and we learn how to listen to that often lost instinct for survival.

In the world we live in today those base instincts rarely surface. Our bubble-wrapped society protects us from too much risk, but expose yourself to the bare elements of nature and they will appear, like the embers of a small fire. We have to breath those embers into a full flame to hear those base instincts, intuition if you like, that protected our ancestors from sabre-toothed tigers and marauding mammoths. Such protective instincts are there, lying dormant in every one of us. We just have to fan them into life, and we can do that by going to the mountains.

I fully appreciate that accidents do, and will continue, to happen. I will continue to try and minimise the risks I face when I go to the hills and even after 40 years of climbing mountains I’m very aware that I’m still learning. What I do know with certainty is that the feelings I experience on top of a winter mountain are like a drug. I am addicted, completely and utterly. Let me explain.

There is considerable physical effort involved in climbing a mountain and this exercise releases endorphins in our body – a kind of feel-good natural drug. The excitement of tackling risk and challenging situations releases another natural drug called adrenaline – this heightens our awareness and sensitivity. Add that to the sheer pleasure of being in a remarkably beautiful environment and a sense of achievement and the resultant mix is highly potent. A natural high like no other that I know of, a sensation that can last for days. Yes, it’s addictive but it’s a healthy addiction and I for one will continue to encourage others to share that addiction with me.

The accidents in the Scottish mountains this winter have been tragic. But consider those deaths against the hundreds of thousands of people who are refreshed and rejuvenated, inspired and re-equipped to go back to their normal everyday world. We certainly need to continue to educate and train people, we need to continue to warn people of the dangers of the hills, but we also need to put the accidents into some kind of realistic perspective. Going to the hills is not a route to your own death, as one journalist suggests. No, it’s the route to life, to life in all of its glorious fullness.

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