Roger Cox on ‘One Wild Winter in the Scottish Mountains’

Mark Diggins, co-ordinator of Sportscotland's avalanche information service. Picture: BBC/Contributed
Mark Diggins, co-ordinator of Sportscotland's avalanche information service. Picture: BBC/Contributed
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Restricting access to Scottish mountains isn’t the answer to last winter’s death toll – now a TV documentary shows why

Got any plans for Wednesday night? No? That’s probably just as well, because if you have even a passing interest in what happens in Scotland’s mountains during the winter you’ll want to be sitting comfortably in front of the telly at 9pm, drink in hand, ready to watch a documentary on BBC1 Scotland.

Drawing on a wealth of footage captured by people who work and play in the hills, One Wild Winter in the Scottish Mountains paints a detailed, multi-faceted picture of what happened across the Highlands last winter, when some funky shenanigans in the upper atmosphere caused our weather to turn unusually cold and snowy.

Let’s not get too bogged down in the science of that process here – you can tune in on Wednesday if you want chapter and verse on the meteorological ins and outs of it. In brief, a giant, windy vortex that usually sits in the stratosphere above the North Pole all winter long split in two in early January and never managed to stick itself back together, causing wave after wave of cold air to descend on these islands from a north-easterly direction. Net result: weeks of freezing conditions, and snowfalls of Biblical proportions.

For skiers and mountaineers, of course, this was exciting news, but while all the extra snow turned the Highlands into an even better playground than usual, it also made them more dangerous: more avalanche-prone and harder to travel through and navigate in. In total, the Scottish mountains claimed 14 lives last winter, and the majority of this programme is devoted to analysing the circumstances of these deaths and interviewing friends and loved ones about the aftermath.

Last year, you may remember, as the death toll in the hills rose almost week by week, certain media commentators called for access to the mountains to be restricted during the dark, snowy months of the year. At the time I wrote in this slot that such an idea was a) wrong-headed, as it would deny thousands of people a valuable source of enjoyment and exercise and b) pointless, as it would be impossible to enforce. You could employ a small army of rangers to keep people off the hills and some would still sneak in to taste the forbidden fruit. As it turns out, though, I needn’t have bothered – this programme makes the argument much more convincingly than I ever could.

On 19 January, 24-year-old Christopher Bell was one of a group of six climbers caught in an avalanche on Bidean Nam Bian in Glencoe. They were descending the north face of the mountain at the end of the day when the slope they were on started to slide, swept them 1,000 feet downhill and buried them under six feet of snow.

Alison and Simon Bell, Christopher’s parents, both give incredibly moving interviews. I’ve always wondered what the families of people who die in the mountains must think afterwards, and in particular whether they are angry at their loved ones for not choosing something safer to do in their spare time. Alison and Simon Bell certainly don’t think like that – they loved their son exactly the way he was and they wouldn’t have wanted to change a single thing about him.

“I won’t have anybody saying that he was irresponsible going up those mountains,” says Alison. “Christopher didn’t have an irresponsible bone in his body. [He] had done avalanche training…but if it all boils down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, there’s nothing anybody can do about that.”

Simon, while obviously still distraught about what happened, chooses to focus on the fact that, while his son may not have had a very long life, he certainly had a very full one:

“I often used to go up [to the mountains with him] and wish I could do all the things he could do,” he says. “An amazing life up there, he had.”

As far as I’m concerned, that’s it: thanks to this programme, the argument about restricting access to the mountains is now officially over. Catch it on Wednesday and judge for yourself.

One Wild Winter in the Scottish Mountains is on BBC1 Scotland, 11 December, 9pm.