Scotland’s mountains: How can we make them safer?

Climbers scaling the Ben Nevis mountain trail. Picture: Complimentary
Climbers scaling the Ben Nevis mountain trail. Picture: Complimentary
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THERE have been 11 deaths - mainly experienced climbers - in the Scottish mountains since the turn of the year. Alistair Munro asks if there is anything that can be done to reduce the number of casualties.

THE dangers faced by climbers who take to the Scottish mountains during winter months are once again in focus after Ben Nevis claimed the life this week of a 51-year-old man who sustained fatal injuries following a fall. Mark Phillips had apparently been enjoying “superb conditions” in the Highlands before his tragic accident, which brought the death toll in the Scottish mountains this year to 11. The fatalities have occurred at an average rate of almost two per week over the past six weeks, since John Wooding fell to his death in the Cairngorms on 13 January.

The spate of tragedies has sparked fresh concerns about safety on the mountains, and the advisability of tackling peaks at a time when the risks are at their highest. We have heard the for-and-against arguments several times before, but this season there is a worrying theme running through the tragic toll. This year’s victims are not day-trippers who have “conquering Britain’s highest peak” on their to-do list. Nor are they well-intentioned but ill-equipped novices who underestimate the severity of conditions they would never have imagined.

Instead, the casualties of 2013 have mainly been experienced climbers who were properly equipped. Some will point to the fact that seven of the victims have been killed by avalanches, and that while there have been 11 deaths, the number of individual incidents stands at a less dramatic six. But nevertheless, judging the likelihood of avalanche – and how to avoid one – is part of becoming an experienced climber.

So why have the mountains claimed so many lives so far this year, and what should, or could, be done about it? These are questions that have been asked with increasing regularity in the Highlands in recent weeks.

The toll this year, according to mountaineering veterans, has prompted the “usual knee-jerk” responses – including a call for people to be banned from the hills, or for walkers and mountaineers being forced to take out insurance to pay for potential rescues.

Last week’s avalanche in the Cairngorms, which claimed three lives, prompted former MSP Dorothy Grace Elder to call for restrictions to be placed on access to Scottish mountains. This incensed mountaineers, including writer Cameron McNeish, who said: “Apart from the fact that thousands of people gain immense joy and satisfaction from climbing and walking on our mountains, how did she propose we close down the hills? Tie red tape all round the base of the hills? Call the military to stand guard and stop us setting foot on the hills?”

Jonathan Hart, chairman of the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland, says the answer lies with education of the public, and further strides will be made on this front this year, to try to avoid the process being a case of people learning the hard way.

“It is not about shutting the hills,” he says. “The more people are aware of the dangers, the less chance there is of an accident. It has to be a collective approach.

“One of the outcomes of this winter will be a sustained multi-agency review of how we look at educating people further. People head to the Scottish mountains in huge numbers because they are fantastic. The views are to be enjoyed. We should be encouraging more to take advantage of it, not discouraging them. But we have to make sure people are aware of the dangers.”

David Gibson, chief officer of the Mountaineering Council for Scotland, says the fact that this year’s victims have been experienced climbers proves that there are dangers to all who venture out on the peaks: “The number of fatalities this year, whilst regrettable, are not outside the general trend of the last few years. On average we would expect to see around 20 fatalities related to mountaineering. We are still within that threshold, but one difference which has brought attention to the dangers this year is that two of the incidents involved avalanches with multiple casualties. The recent events in the Scottish mountains serve to demonstrate that mountaineering has attendant risks, regardless of the experience of the individual involved.

“There is an old saying that mountaineers should ‘look carefully to every step’. Doing just that, and ensuring that you have sought out and understood weather and avalanche information from expert sources such as the mountain weather information service and sportscotland avalanche information service, are prerequisites for any trip to the hills.”

And while there are current concerns over the number of recent deaths, official figures actually show that deaths on Scottish mountains have declined since the 1990s, where climbing-related deaths exceeded 40 a year on occasion. The Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland’s Annual Statistics Report of 2011 stated that there were 52 fatalities that year, of which 31 were related to non-mountaineering incidents and 21 directly attributable to mountaineering activities. In 2010 there were a total of 45 fatalities, of which 16 were mountaineering and 29 non-mountaineering related. After only 11 weeks of 2013 so far, a comparison is not possible, but it is fair to say that the year has got off to a bad start.

Gibson believes the statistics should be put into context with the number of people now visiting Scotland’s mountains. According to research by Scottish Natural Heritage, during 2011 there were an estimated 7.2 million individual visits to the hills for mountaineering and hillwalking by Scottish residents alone. And VisitScotland said that of the 14.7 million visitors to the country in 2010 – spending £4.1 billion – long walks, hikes and rambles were among the most popular activities for 35 per cent, or 5.1 million visitors.

One argument is that part of the problem could be the popularity of the hills among those who have to travel significant distances just to attempt a climb.

A veteran mountaineer and former rescue team member, who did not wish to be named, says: “There is a situation where a large number of people who are involved in incidents are from outwith Scotland. I’m not saying they are not experienced, but many decide to take to the hills despite the warnings just because they have travelled so far and don’t want their journey to be wasted.

“But there is also the situation where some people may be experienced on hills in England and Wales, but the mountains in Scotland are a different terrain and, therefore, these people should be making all the checks they can, including looking at the avalanche information service before setting out.”

Mark Diggins, co-ordinator of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, points out that this has been a “very challenging winter” for avalanche risk.

“The vastly increased popularity of winter climbing and hill walking, along with the growth of interest in ski touring and off-piste skiing, means that greater numbers are at hazard,” says Diggins. “Sadly, each year adds to the list of injuries or fatalities. Many accidents would have been avoidable, given greater care or knowledge, or if the victims had even paused to consider that avalanche hazard might be present.

“In making practical assessments of avalanche hazard, there is no substitute for the instinctive feeling for snow conditions which can be gained only by years of experience.

“The weather is the most important factor in determining whether avalanches are likely, this is quite a challenging winter because of the complex weather systems we have been having.

“We have had cold temperatures which have developed weaknesses then we have calm spells. One of the dangers is that we have bad weather followed by really beautiful weather. So people want to get out on the hills.”

Another suggested move is to introduce insurance requirements for climbers, given that the cost of a rescue helicopter on a mission is around £12,000 per flying hour and the total annual cost per year to the taxpayer an estimated £25 million. But even the Mountain Rescue chairman has his doubts about this. “Simply, we don’t have a culture for it,” says Hart. “People in trouble will call their friends instead of us, and ultimately rescue teams will have to go out and rescue more people – our job is to go to people who are in distress.”

And there will always be another incident. While everything is done to reduce the risks, it seems that nature’s irresistible pull, and man’s instinct to conquer its challenges, presents a level of danger that will ensure the debate over safety on Scotland’s mountains never closes.