Sunday, 20 January 2013

Nearly 20 years ago .... some of this seems prescient on the morning after 4 mountaineers killed in an avalanche in Glencoe

Scottish Mountain Safety Group
Safety Seminar May 5 1994
The Mountaineering Perspective

by Bob Reid

President of the Mountaineering  Council of Scotland

"Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Right at the start of this lecture, can I pre-empt some of the questions that I may get from the press, and one obvious question in particular? Have you ever been rescued?

No, I haven't, but I have had a number of very close shaves. I once lost my bearings on the summit of Fairfield in the Lake District. I was about seventeen, and competing in a Lakelander event. My team were expected in Ambleside, and we were convinced that the lake we headed for in the gathering gloom, with lights bobbing on it, was Windermere. It was in fact Ullswater, and we ended up some 12 miles from where we were meant to be. Fortunately we phoned in, as the rescue teams had been alerted.

A few years later on my first Alpine trip, to Chamonix, I avoided mishap and accident by the narrowest of margins, and did things which in retrospect I would never dream of doing today. I even ended up on the wrong mountain.

But gradually you learn. You also learn that there is no real short cut to experience. Experience is no more than the sum of your near misses. Who amongst us hasn’t had a few of them?

I'd also like to show some slides of Scotland just to remind ourselves how good most of our mountain experiences are [ten show stopping slides were shown of the Scottish Mountains].  I'm always reminded of John Cleare's description of the Himalaya's. He described them as the "second most beautiful mountains in the world", but there is no doubt about where his real preferences lie.

Those of you who know me will know how hard I have fought during my time as President of the MCofS for the freedom to roam. Many of you will probably hold the freedom to roam as a right.

Well, this winter has been the first time in my memory that the right to climb itself has been so frequently drawn into question. I found myself repeatedly having to defend the rights of climbers to go climbing in challenging conditions, to be out on the hills when a blizzard was blowing, or when, heaven forfend, they were covered in ice.

But it doesn't take long before all the usual, hackneyed reasoning begins to sound glib in the extreme, especially when it was a climbing acquaintance who has died leaving two young children fatherless.

I don't need to go into the details about the media circus that followed the series of deaths in the Scottish Hills this winter. You'll all have your views on it, though I'm struck by the ironic contrast with the headlines in this months climbing press about the "best winter in years".

Nor will I give you any detailed analysis of statistics about the accidents this year ..... that will come later in the day. Though Saturday's Guardian did for once present some revealing comparisons between risk sports. Since the last death in the boxing ring in this country there have been 82 deaths in airsports, 28 in athletics, 46 in ball games such as rugby and football, 31 in horse racing, 87 in motor sports, 65 in climbing, 20 in cycling, and a staggering 412 in water sports (figures refer to England and Wales; source OPCS).

What I'd like to do, is to put the mountaineering perspective on the events of this winter; and the perspective of the National, representative body of the sport in Scotland, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland.

Death in sport or recreation is always difficult to justify. In a week where there have been fatalities in motor racing, boxing, and a near fatality in horse racing, I'm strongly inclined to the view that death in any sport or recreation can NEVER be justified. All we can do is accept it, and try to prevent it within the constraints that a civilised society puts down. In other words we can educate, train, improve technology, minimise the risk ...... but we can't ban, we can't outlaw, nor should we condemn what, in many cases, we simply don't understand. A society that indulges in reactions such as these is not one I would wish to live in.

On a personal note, I find the mortality amongst climbers and mountaineers ever more difficult to accept. This is born largely of Monday morning phone calls asking me for a quote on the latest fatal accident. Since I started working for the MCofS, over a hundred people have been killed in the Scottish Hills. I knew some of them as friends. 

Most climbers I know tend to adopt a fatalism toward such incidents .... regret at the loss of life, tempered with a feeling that those who have died did so doing something that they enjoyed. But that's awfully glib.

Less glib is the recognition that people climb hills because it is a very important and rewarding part of their lives. A death will always be a waste, but it is also true that the experienced climber's life was much enriched and more fulfilled by what he or she did, and that it helped them stay sane, cope with life, stress, and deal with other people, and problems.

Most realistic is the "There, but for the grace of God, go I" approach, which at least displays an acceptance by the climber, that they too could die.

Much has been written and said about why climbers climb.  Why they adventure.... why they take risks.

But I have struggled to find anything written anywhere that gives any rationale for such loss of life. Indeed, the longer I climb the more I realise that there is no rationale. Just the fact that so many forget ... Mountaineering is dangerous.

Perhaps this helps explain the fatalism that I mentioned earlier. Is it in fact a blanking-out exercise? A blanking out from realities that many would rather ignore, and that all too few accept.

To the outside observer any sport that can ignore such a grim record must be one which is becoming complacent. It is one thing for bodies such as the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, or the BMC or even the Sports Council to make worried pronouncements upon such matters, to issue warnings and guidance, and so on.

But the proof, as they say is in the pudding.  Accidents may well be proportionately fewer when viewed against the huge growth in the sport. But that too smacks of complacency.

I suspect that real improvements in safety will only begin to come when that simple message gets across [and I make no apology for repeating myself] .... Mountaineering is dangerous.  Those of you who are familiar with risk assessment procedures, and who isn't these days with European Regulations sweeping through the workplace, will know that it is a three stage process:


Furthermore, unless you accept that there are risks, how can you ever expect to understand them, let alone minimise them. Perhaps one of the questions we should be asking ourselves during this symposium is,

"What is it in mountaineering today that obscures the risks, waters down the dangers, and leads the unwitting into tragedy?"

I can only begin to speculate at this point, though I do sometimes wonder just how unquestioning we are about the promotion of risk sport, whether it be the Hunt Report, or the Munro Show.

On the wall, just inside the door, at Plas Y Brenin, there are the words of Edward Whymper carved in a tablet of Welsh Slate.

"Climb if you will,
But remember that courage and strength
are nought without prudence,
and that a momentary negligence
may destroy the happiness of a lifetime.
Do nothing in haste;
Look well to every step;
and from the beginning
think what may be the end."

I recite this passage to myself, almost as a mantra, at times of high risk in the mountains .... descending some misty, cliff strewn, icy Scottish hillside for instance. It has served me well. However, I have a suspicion that it has become rewritten for the eighties and nineties.

For it will make a man or of you.
You'll have pleasure and fulfilment.
It will keep you fit and strong.
You'll be one-up on the rest of society
(who don't really understand).
You'll travel and discover new places,
whilst discovering yourself....."

You get the picture .... I should also have mentioned "blue skies"advertising and I leave you to judge which of these two passages prevails today.

As a result I have a growing uneasiness about the ever higher profile that climbing seems to have. It is certainly no longer a minority pastime, not that the increase in numbers per se worries me. That should be to the benefit of all, and to society in general, with better health, more fulfilment and so on.

However....mountaineering does seem to have lost its humility, its understatement, its respect for the mountains. It has become brash, maybe too brash. Whether in lycra upon a climbing wall or on a mountain bike, or in fleece on a Munro, I come across far too many who haven't realised that there are depths, as well as heights. That mountaineering is about self-exploration, as well as tick-lists .... about individual responsibility, as well as collective bonhomie.

Don't let me mislead you though. I am a `dyed in the wool' climber, and will continue to be so for the rest of my life. So from a mountaineer's perspective, let me briefly run through some of the issues and answers that face the mountaineering fraternity. Some are worrying, whilst some give cause for optimism.

Let me start with the pessimism


An insurance system for mountain rescue will not work. It won't save lives, and could even promote a false sense of security. It is a myth that has been bandied around in the media that in some countries climbers must have insurance.

The truth is that in some countries, some of those rescued might have to contribute to the cost, which is not the same thing.

Well we're already doing that in Scotland. Climbing, hillwalking, mountaineering, all contribute towards the cost of our voluntary rescue teams.

Moreover, in Scotland alone those pastimes are worth over £400 million annually to the Scottish economy. The UK sum must be even more significant, making our pastime a very sizeable contributor to the Exchequer. So spurious political finger wagging about the cost of rescue helicopters, for instance, is seriously out of order. If, insurance isn't the right approach however, we must ask what is the best way of supporting mountain rescue.


The MC of S views safety in the mountains as one of its key areas of interest. Indeed, along with the BMC and the MC of I we have made significant inputs to the new Guidelines on Mountain Training. However it must be remembered that the vast majority of climbing is non-contractual. How many of you in the audience were taught to climb, as opposed to just going out and doing it? [about 20 hands were raised; Ed) Now, how many of you just learned to climb? (about 80 hands were raised, and the Minister signalled neither way; Ed).

Significantly, there is not a similar emphasis in MCofS policy on the teaching of mountaineering since part of climbing's underpinning ethos has always been an experiential approach to learning. There was a "great training debate" in the 70s in England, in which the BMC became heavily involved. No such debate has taken place in Scotland.

Perhaps the time is right to begin to question priorities. For example, the official line from the Sports Council on Glenmore Lodge is that "the range of outdoor courses is designed primarily to encourage, promote and increase the number of quality leaders, instructors and coaches ..... but also for the public to enjoy the outdoors through participation in a range of activities".   No mention of lessening the incidence of death in the Scottish Mountains.

As I said at the start, there is only one real way of gaining that intuitive feel for the mountains and that is through experience. You really cannot shortcut this process.
The exponential growth in climbing, hillwalking and mountaineering has the reverse effect on the overall levels of experience in the climbing population. With every new entrant to the sport, the average levels of experience are reduced [see figure 1]. This leads to what I call a "Skills Gap".

Unfortunately all the trends and forces in mountaineering today are driving the numbers up, which in turn forces down experience levels, and increases the skills gap. I see few initiatives attempting to address this skills gap.

I therefore believe it is time we reassessed the role our National Centre plays in our sport. Has the Lodge lost touch with the grass roots of the sport? Is it time for an advisory committee for the Lodge, similar to the successful set up at Plas Y Brenin in Wales.


This is the great bete noir, but I feel it creeping up on us in a number of guises. Scottish Vocational Qualifications, and National Vocational Qualifications for climbing are under discussion. The number of leadership qualifications increase as the sport diversifies. There are European Directives on the provision of services, and European Regulations about Personal Protective Equipment. Well, I believe it is about time there was subsidiarity for mountaineering .... a recognition that there are just some things that cannot be pigeon-holed to suit the mandarins. As Mark Vallance says in the latest Wild Country Catalogue "The assumption that tighter standards will reduce accidents does not cater for the uncontrolled environments of rock and ice".


One of the key ways that the MCofS believes our mountains should be protected is through the use of the Long Walk-in. Judging from how our accessible mountains seem to be the ones that have the worst safety records, perhaps it is time to start making them more remote again.


In a sport where fashion has become one of the key elements of equipment choice, there is a worrying downside to the success of some of the major manufacturers. Equipment is rigourously marketed, adding to the growth in the numbers participating (though at some of the prices around today, its surprising that anyone at all starts climbing). All those new entrants to the sport mean bigger margins. In one retailer, who shall remain nameless, there were "Muriel Gray kits" on sale, ready for all those new female entrants to the sport. Maybe I'm being overly jaundiced, but I rarely see any allusion to the fact that climbing is dangerous within the sales literature .... just plenty of reference to adventure.


There are those in government who would wish to do this. I say, if it ain't broke don't fix it. That is, however, not axiomatic with this government, so we should be prepared. Personally, if there is to be such a thing as a peace dividend, I believe it is in the useful deployment of services such as the RAF Rescue Helicopters on civilian duties. One of the things we may learn this afternoon, is whether the closure of Leuchars Rescue Flight has resulted in additional fatalities in the hills, as a result of response times.


What can you say about them? Most of us probably did some great climbing when we were students. What is it about student clubs though, that makes them so prone to mishap. In a sense, they are a microcosm of what is happening in the greater climbing fraternity. Instant skills gap. The MCofS wants to target this particular sector in coming years to lessen its high risk nature.


Gizmo's I call them. They include Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) sets, cell net phones, transmitters, and so on. Maybe some of you have used them. My own view is that they can never replace the intermediate technologies of map, compass, whistle and torch, all of which you'd need to carry as well, in case the high technology failed. It's bad enough having to deal with compass bearings that vary, and make those acts of faith. Which would you trust, though .... the one run by batteries? The worst case scenarios for some of these gizmos are frightening. How many summits do you know in Scotland that are only a few metres away from the edge of some pretty significant precipices.



There are some new technologies we should be thankful for. Our clothing for instance has significantly helped increase our chances of surviving enforced bivouacs, bad weather, and even snow holing. Breathable waterproofs, plastic boots, better axes, stronger helmets, all help. My own current favourite, and I have no qualms in naming the designer ... Hamish Hamilton ... is the range of Buffalo equipment that combines warmth and wind proofness, using modern equivalents of the raw materials that Eskimos have used to combat similar conditions since prehistory.

Yes, it may come as some surprise to some of you, but the Scottish Hills are on a similar latitude to Hudson Bay. In winter the weather is more often ARCTIC, than not. It can be pretty bad in summer too .... I've been caught in blizzards in every month of the year in Scotland.


The MCofS organised the first Winter Safety Skills Courses well over 20 years ago. Since then, each winter, a significant number of climbers and hillwalkers get skills training in safety in winter mountaineering. They are an undoubted success. In some years we could have filled the available places four times over. The MCofS is committed to developing this form of training, though not necessarily with the Lodge, where up until now we have had to go, because that was how the grant in aid to carry out such training was given to us. 

It is known that this form of training is unpopular with the administrators, and with the trainers, but if the usefulness of the medium is ever more plain to see, how is it there isn't an even greater commitment to do more.


I know only the Scottish ones well, and they do an incredible job. Every climbing club, should run at least one fund raising event each year (not sponsored walks through the Lairig Ghru) on behalf of the rescue teams. (They should also run one for the MCofS access and conservation fund .... but that's another conference).

Comparisons with the RNLI were never made by the popular press this winter..... but they are entirely run on voluntary subscription, at significantly higher levels than mountain rescue. One thought .... Why can't I buy Mountain Rescue Team Christmas Cards every year, while RNLI ones are so readily available?

The RNLI also deal with significantly more deaths, but do so outwith the basking spotlight of our popular press. Why? How do they do it?


There are now over 130 clubs in Scotland, and over 250 in England and Wales. They remain a significant and influential grass roots of the climbing fraternity. I am optimistic that they will continue to be good schools of climbing.

and finally………….


This is a useful forum for progressing mountain safety. Set up after a similar winter to this one, it is an attempt to get all the players in mountain safety around the one table, and united in the front they present to the media. It was the idea of my predecessor, Graham Little, and the then vice president of the MCofS, June Ross. On it are represented the various mountaineering and rescue organisations, and the Scottish Sports Council, presently provides the administration.

I have slight fears that mountaineering's voice is being drowned out by dint of the number of other organisations that are represented, MRT, UKMTB, SNSC, Medical, Police, Education Authorities, Sports Council, SAIS, and more I'm sure.


In conclusion I'd like to end this brief introduction to some of the broader issues in mountain safety, with a little advice to those who would "climb, if they will"

1) There is no such thing as winter hillwalking. Hillwalking is a summer pursuit (and in most Scottish summers, you need to be prepared for winter) IN WINTER THERE IS ONLY MOUNTAINEERING.

2) Know your limitations, and don't be afraid to say no. It ain't chicken .. it is just being realistic.

3) Turning back (indeed, not even getting out of the car) isn't an admission of defeat. Its wisdom and sound judgement coming to the fore.

4) Errors of judgement are the main apparent cause of accidents - knowledge, experience, and an ability to use both could be critical. As my predecessor, Graham Little frequently reminded me ....."The time to relax is in the pub, not at the top of the climb."

5) Individual responsibility is the name of the game. It is your life, your risk. Never abrogate that responsibility to others. Participate in the decisions, even if you feel like the dampener on enthusiasm. What you perceive as enthusiasm could be rashness. You could also spot someone else's mistake.

6) And finally a message for the experienced. Always keep on teaching. I was climbing at the weekend on the Aberdeen Sea Cliffs, and out of a habit born from much teaching of the less experienced, observed my partner mis-tie a figure of eight. "That's right ....Treat me as a novice" was my partner's response as I pointed out the error; but it was not resentment, more an instruction to continue something he appreciated.

Ladies and Gentlemen. I hope that I havn't treated you as novices, and I'd like to thank you for listening. I hope that the workshops this afternoon come up with some positive outcomes, maybe some recommendations that the MCofS, amongst others can carry forward. If you're off climbing this weekend .... look well to every step.

rgr/mc of s/smsg conf