Scottish politicians should face up to mountain madness

Scottish politicians should face up to mountain madness

by Dorothy-Grace Elder
article from Monday 18, February, 2013

“THERE WILL BE more human sacrifices for the rather selfish pleasure of a few”. It was a horrible but easy prediction for me to make over mountain deaths when I was on Newsnight Scotland last Wednesday night. Shockingly, just the next day, three more died on the Scottish mountains. That makes a total loss of nine young lives in the month since mid January, with several seriously injured. But anyone making the slightest suggestion mountain madness has gone too far faces an onslaught of defence of the illusory freedom to risk – or lose – life on Scotland’s notorious peaks in appalling winter weather.

Nit picking with an ice axe, people claim they study avalanche warnings, as if there weren’t many other awesome dangers in winter. And many still set out, despite the warnings. Next excuse up is the usual “you’re also in danger walking on city pavements” and similar twaddle.

Must Scotland become a sort of outdoor Dignitas for healthy, fit people? There was massive reaction against Margo MacDonald’s “end of life” Bill. But where’s the outcry about the need to protect healthy human life from human folly?

I wonder also if there’s a latent thought that no one wants to upset the tourism industry. “See Scotland and die” is not the best image.

The cowardice of the Scottish Parliament in shying away from this one particular form of death must be tackled. We’re not dealing here with those who must live with risk because of their jobs – fishermen, oil workers, fire-fighters. Just mere hobbyists, whose worst excesses must be at least explored.

Last month, four died in one accident in Glencoe – two were young doctors; two others were PhD students. What appalling grief for the four families and the instant destruction of many years of education and all those potentially brilliant futures.

Had as many as four died in a car crash on a bad road, press releases would be showering in from MSPs outraged that yet more tragedy had happened on a road known to be risky. But after mountain deaths, nothing other than condolences emerge and “thoughts are with the families” platitudes. Sorry – but your thoughts are NOT with families who, in future, are likely to face the same. This weekend, the father of one victim spoke out. John Chesters is the father of Tom Chesters, a PhD student, who died with his girlfriend, Dr Rachel Majumdar, and two others in the Glencoe avalanche in January. Mr. Chesters appealed, in the Mail on Sunday, to walkers and climbers to think long and hard before heading for the mountains and think of the families they leave behind.

The grief stricken father said: "Rachel had just qualified as a junior doctor; Tom was studying for his PhD in osteoporosis, so they both had a long future of helping others in society ahead of them. It just seems such a waste. I keep thinking , did he and his friends realise what tremendous grief, pain and chaos they would leave behind as a consequence of the accident? I am struggling to understand why my son was on top of a mountain, in January, in snowy conditions".

Mr. Chesters is himself a hillwalker in Devon- but wouldn't go to the top. After the four were swept away in Glencoe, another five died on the Scottish mountains. Mr. Chesters has done a public service in speaking out, one of the few from shattered families to do so and cut through this incredible veil of silence over these unnecessary deaths and the lack of any action from the mountaineering community - until the next time and the next roll-out of official piffling platitudes.

People know they’re taking a risk. They know also that volunteer rescue teams plus police and the RAF and the Royal Navy will also risk their lives trying to save them. They don’t want anything to stop them. Even the deaths of friends don’t stop some, as radio phone-ins show. But don't let's blame the victims - but the whole aura around mountaineering. However bright victims are, they're young and likely to be persuaded by the propaganda they receive of gung-ho support of "adventure", plus their love of getting together with their friends.

No one in politics is prepared to do anything practical about this madness. Yet the Government contains personal expertise - two ministers are experienced mountaineers. Michael Matheson, public health minister, is a member of the Ochils Mountain Rescue Team. Fergus Ewing, minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism, is a former member of the Lomond Mountain Rescue Team.

The Scottish Government does supply over £300,000 to Scotland’s 27 rescue teams. All the rest has to be self raised or sponsored. But the public purse is more involved in financing the police, fire brigades, helicopters and the NHS which copes with the aftermath.

As one mountaineering expert remarked innocently recently, when asked why it wasn’t compulsory to be insured in the UK for mountaineering “You don’t have to have insurance in this country because there is mountain rescue and the NHS and so on”. Granted, many of the mountain men and women are escaping the clammy clutches of today’s nanny state – rather, as Brian Monteith calls it, “The bully state”
with its lunatic diktats against the dangers of home made cakes.

Politicians are terrified to interfere with the hard won “Right to Roam” (aka the Right to Die?) Surely such desperate, tragic losses deserve at least a committee investigation by the Scottish Parliament?

This needless waste of human life rates nowhere at Holyrood compared with high hedges and tinkering with the labels from fag packets. It IS difficult to come up with practical proposals. But that shouldn’t stop a committee trying.

• There could be fines for those who set out when an avalanche warning is predicted - if they survive to be fined.

• Insurance should be compulsory. The least that will do is remind people of their individual responsibility. No requirement for insurance adds to the free-for-all mindset over a hobby, even indicates to the uninitiated that there’s not that much risk.

• Beaches are closed or fly red flags at danger times; planes won’t risk taking off in certain severe weather, so why aren’t even the avalanche areas closed at worst times?

Charging people for rescue is a non starter – Switzerland for instance can charge several thousand pounds and some American states charge a few hundred dollars. This is a dangerous idea, as mountain fans admit some wouldn’t call for help if they knew they had to pay. (Doesn’t say much for some who take to the hills, does it?) But most mountain men and women are intelligent and well educated. That makes their lobbying against any curbs highly articulate. We don’t pause to think that the highly intelligent can do stupid things. (Ask Chris Huhne.) Or that one slip of a boot makes intelligence irrelevant. Slips and trips cause 19% of all accidents on the high hills.

Nowadays, the death toll is not confined to what used to be called “wallies in wellies”, setting out without proper equipment. Almost all the recent victims were experienced, trained and well equipped. Think of the most recent tragic death of Dr Rimon Than from Wales, an RAF squadron leader and Chief Medical Officer who was an expert climber and had recently conquered a particularly dangerous 18,000 ft mountain in China.

Most who died in the last month were from England, Wales and Ireland, where strong warnings are much needed, instead of talking up the attractions of snow covered mountains. Scotland’s mountains are among the world’s most deadly – they can’t change. People can.

It’s only natural that those who have come farther, travelled hundreds of miles, will be more inclined to keep going, while locals who can visit any time may turn back.

Rightly, we lavish praise on the volunteer mountain rescue teams, who risk themselves in all weathers on around 500 call outs a year in Scotland. Few from UK teams ever criticise or spell out the real horrors of it all.

Mark Reeves, a respected mountaineer and member of a Welsh rescue team, did just that writing online “Mountain Rescue – the Truth”. He illustrated the comparison between paid police and volunteer rescuers who lose their working time and have to raise funds as well as risk their lives. He instanced the extreme dangers to helicopters, often old choppers, and wrote movingly of the trauma some rescuers suffer over the “truly gruesome sight of a quick and violent death” with blood and body parts spread over 100 metres or more.

“You might think that, as hardened mountain rescuers, we are immune to the sights that we see” stated Mr. Reeves “It was only when I asked for help and was encouraged to talk to other members of the team, that I realised that many others suffer the same images both during the day and especially at night”. After one tragedy “every time my eyes close to sleep the images haunt me”. Because the service is free, he found many dialling 999, asking for mountain rescue, “often expected an instant helicopter ride home.” Turning out to rescue four walkers lost on Snowdon, his team discovered them casually getting into their car, complaining about how long the team had taken.

When this article appeared, with its rousing ring of truth, Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team’s leaders immediately sniffed “that the article by Mark Reeves does not represent the official view of Llanberis MRT” They added primly “Llanberis MRT only issues media articles or interviews via the Team Chairman or Secretary”

Quite so. And the “official view” of so many mountain organisations is usually a deadbeat litany of namby pamby bumf – ironically, as it comes from heroic people.

This weekend the Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s website began, under their usual “Advice for Hillwalkers and Climbers”: “As we look forward to another winter weekend in the mountains, ….”

Three more died just the day before that went online, with pretty pictures of the mountains.

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