Friday, 29 March 2013

To celebrate 10 years of the CAIRNGORMS National Park - something from the archives.

Hello, ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you for inviting me to be your guest speaker tonight (you can blame Bill Wright later).

I’d like to focus on three aspects of the Cairngorms which are dear to me. Firstly mountaineering, and the great value that exists therein.  Secondly, my involvement in the management of the Mar Lodge Estate with the National Trust for Scotland and thirdly a little about ‘economic development and planning’. Something dear to my back pocket.  But first, a little background and gossip.

Back in 1986/7, or thereabouts, the then President of the Mountaineering Council, one Graham Little, got pretty fed up of me pestering him about various conservation matters in the Scottish Mountains.  He duly co-opted me onto the Mountaineering Council.  I well remember the first meeting I attended….. very formal… some well kent climbers and even a fairly infamous General Secretary of the BMC, Dennis Gray.

Not long after I found myself on regular journeys back and forth from Glasgow to Perth as MCofS representative to the fledgling Scottish Wildlife and Countryside Link, which of course had its 10th anniversary dinner in 1997.  Drennan was in the chair in those days and there was a formidable ‘organiser’, who you just didn’t say no to.  [Jennifer] I think this is where I first heard words like ‘sustainibility’, cross-compliance and precautionary principle.  All now standard fare in Government Policy. I remember feeling out of my depth.

I was soon to find a niche, however.  I became the informal planning consultant to LINK.  Unpaid, but always fulfilling.  In return I began to experience come of the rufty-tufty-argy-bargy of Scottish Conservation and the intrigue which went with it.  There’s a book waiting to be written.  Full of interesting characters. 

Over a decade later, I can be reflective and somewhat rueful.  You see, I think LINK always underestimated its clout.  It was far more important in influencing the agenda, than I think we realise even today.  Perhaps we were too well behaved.  Though recalling the amount of internal disagreement, it is hard to see ourselves as civilised.  With so many ‘windmills’ or ‘white elephants’ to charge at, how could the conservation bodies seem, at times, so disunited?

I’d instance LINK handing to the previous government on a plate the reason to reject National Parks at the end of the 80s.  “There is not enough agreement," said the minister, in the face of opinion polls that said over 80% of Scots supported National parks.  Who knows what might have happened had we said yes?  I know hindsight is easy and glib, but there was a small group of LINK members saying in 1988….. “Unite behind a simple YES to NATIONAL PARKS”.  Modern history begins when 30 years have past, so in 2020 maybe we’ll look back slightly differently about what has passed in this decade.  The course of events, which led to bulldozers beginning to scrape out a track bed on Caringorm, could perhaps have been different.  A lesson to learn.

It was in the aftermath of the failed CCS Popular Mountain review that Highland Regional Council set out its new structure plan [Highland Regional Council were of course arch opponents of National Parks].  Again with hindsight, I wonder whether HRC and the then HIDB, realised that the writing was on the wall and that we would have National Parks, if not imminently, then soon. “We'd better get the skiing sorted out before a National Park is designated”.

The upshot of all of this was the Save the Cairngorms Campaign.  We wondered at the time whether we should be the LINK Cairngorms group, or uplands group, but eventually decided on ‘Saving the Cairngorms’. And we would campaign.  Great name, great tactics. The media loved it.  The inference was save it from what?  My own inference was save it FOR WHAT.  Explaining why they should be saved, was always more important in my mind than the threats.  Convince people about what the Cairngorms should be for, and the threats would become clearer.

One of the tensions I have always had as a mountaineer and as a planner, is a continuing doubt about conservation for conservation sake.  I’m my own perspective comes from dealing with the built environment. The best way of conserving a building is for it to be used. 

I have travelled abroad to some pretty pristine wilderness areas; unaltered by man.  Indeed as a mountaineer, on two occasions I have stood where no other human being has ever stood.  I don’t want to delve too far into the psychological motivations of mountaineers at this point – and some may think it is better left enigmatic in any event.  However I have had numerous discussions over this last decade with ecologists, ornithologists, botanists, geomorphologists, and more beside….. who wonder and question man’s desire to go to wild places and do things (and by “do things” I mean other than botanise, observe birds, ecology or geomorphological features).

Like these observers of nature, who no doubt enjoy what they do, WE TOO GO TO THE MOUNTAINS TO ENJOY OURSELVES.  Call it escape if you like.  No matter.  We must recognise that wild land areas like the Cairngorms serve a wider societal need than as “conservation repositories”.  That is far too sterile.

In the day and age of “tranquillity mapping” [a delightful new planning tool] wild land areas become more and more important to society.  Our remote communities also rely evermore on visitors for their economic raison d'être, visitors who for the most part either want to see the scenery or, literally, get into it, become part of it even.

Our price to pay…… is that any such use must be SUSTAINABLE.  THERE CAN BE NO EXCEPTIONS FROM THIS.

So; ……. What are the Cairngorms for?
And if we can decide that, ……….how should they be managed?
And if we can decide how to manage them, …………is there room for development.

At Mar Lodge Estate much of this conundrum is being actively moved forward. The National Trust for Scotland acquired the Estate in 1995, after the failure of an earlier joint bid between JMT WWF and RSPB. At a stroke, the acquisition practically doubled the area of Mountain land holdings of the Trust.  There was considerable trepidation and feint hearts on Trust Council.  The NHLF was key to overcoming this with an award of approximately £10m to help with acquisition costs and an endowment. And SNH has come on board as well with a 25-year management grant.  And the mysterious Easter Trust appeared with the balance of funding required to secure the estate, with a generous donation (not without strings). 

By 1997 an agreed Management Plan had been put in place.

As a member of the Management Committee, I sometimes feel a little bewildered at the amalgam of objectives we are pursuing.  Both the Trust and SNH have their own stated public agendas and priorities.  7 management aims and principles were agreed by the Trust for the estate.  SNH set down a set of conditions for their management grant and the Easter Trust added 8 further principles of their own.  On top of all of this there is the Cairngorm Partnerships wider Cairngorms agenda, and the emerging national park legislative framework, and Percy Unna continues to lurk in the background.

The three key objectives, which emerge from this amalgam, are
1.    Conservation
2.    Access
3.    Highland sporting estate [NB not "traditional"…..]

This is beginning to resemble the environment/quiet enjoyment/economic well being objectives, which have emerged as the Scottish National Park aims. Sustainability? Perhaps.  However, we have also begun to talk of this as 'the wild land agenda'.  It is a recognition that remoteness offers the best protection, the best conservation and perhaps the highest quality experience for visitors.  This is an agenda which is so easily undermined by the need for convenience.  The confines of a 'working day', the dictats of a health and safety policy, and so on, all need to be looked at in a new light, and compromises avoided.

Since 1995 we have moved forward apace with a number of key projects. 
·          We have significantly reduced the deer numbers, without losing a single day's access, and the stalkers and ghillies now have Saturdays off. [from well over 3000 down to 1650] [less than 5% interruption of stalking, less than 1% abandoned]
·          We have converted the Lodge into self-catering holiday apartments, and they are proving very popular indeed.
·          We have begun an extensive and in depth monitoring programme.
·          We have begun an extensive path maintenance, repair and track restoration programme and over 20km of tracks have been closed to land rover use since 1995. 
·          We have continued with the archaeological conservation of the estate.
·          A Visitor Management Plan, as a detailed insert into the overall management plan is now being drafted.
·          On top of the sporting staff, there are Lodge staff, a works team and the ranger [2 + 2 seasonal, with seasonal ecologist and archaeologist].  We now have a specific Estate Manager and Smiths Gore continue to act as sporting Consultants.
·          consultative processes/open days/involvement

Busy, busy, busy.

However…….. pause for thought.  We are now, more than ever, having to face up to the rigour required to make sense of the three objectives.  In all honesty, I don't know if they have been pursued in this way anywhere else to date.  The MLEMC have always believed that the "conflicts" in the Scottish hills had more to do with a state of mind than what was actually happening on the ground.  We have wanted to prove this to be the case.

On the one hand we can have a clear and integrative agenda set down as the three key aims.  It is only once you begin to move forward with these three that the risks of inconsistency, unfairness, even hypocrisy begin to arise.  This is most easily exemplified by the contrast between the long walk in for visitors compared to the use of land rovers for management, for conservation, for mountain rescue, or for sport.

In an integrative management agenda, suddenly fairness and consistency come rocketing to the fore as key principles which hitherto we tended to simply ignore.

The one thing £10m of "everyman's" lottery money serves to emphasise most is a need to pursue this consistency vigorously.  We will have to apply this with rigour to our emerging areas of work, and emerging issues, including
·          mountain biking [national legislation]
·          Derry Lodge [positive use now agreed]
Our test of success will be the degree to which this can be replicated elsewhere in the Cairngorms by other land owners, and indeed, elsewhere in Scotland.

[Aside: Visit by JMT, Nigel and Dennis said  "This is an undertaking which would have been too big for us"]

Funicula, Funiculi, Funiculum………………….
Which brings me on to my final brief comment about the future planning of the Cairngorms.
And I cannot avoid the funicula.

I have a great deal of sympathy for many of my planning colleagues in Highland Council.  Also officials in SNH.  Off the record I speak to so many who all say, "this is madness".  I was at the Royal Fine Arts Commission last month, and Commissioners too were saying, "this is madness".  I now hear that the Chief Executive of the only private funder of this scheme is saying the same.  It isn't easy for people to stand up and speak their own mind on these issues sometimes.  Some may be afraid to breach a party line.  Especially in the circumstances which have emerged.

There has been far too much testosterone, both political and corporate driving this.  The system of "he who pays the piper calls the tune" has driven the whole matter, and done so ruthlessly.  Those doing so would do well to remember that it is Taxpayers' money, and voters don't forget. There is not a single project elsewhere in Scotland getting anything like this level of public funding.  Let's talk comparisons. What could you do with the £15m?
·          Schools: I met Peter Peacock last month to discuss the Education Bill, and discussed the appalling state of some of our schools…. especially the flat roofed monsters built in the 60s and 70s. 15 of these could be completely refurbished and overhauled.
·          Tourism: Much of the Cairngorms could have had its accommodation brought up to speed with en-suite and high quality from B&Bs to 3***Hotels.
·          Visitor facilities could have been revamped on all sides of the Cairngorms.  And it is these smaller, essentially historical, cultural or scenic attractions which the visitors come for.
·          All the paths in the Cairngorms could have been repaired, and put under suitable maintenance regimes, including community path networks for all the settlements around the Cairngorms. They could even link.
·          With some of these there would have been enough left over to still overhaul and renew the skiing facilities on Cairngorm.
I think, if funicula "madness" does go ahead, there needs to be a close examination of the planning system that can allow this to happen in the centre of a proposed national park/world heritage site.  There should be a requirement for such sensitive cases to have to undergo Public Inquiry.  Of course this could have happened if SNH maintained an objection [bit of an own goal this for the Government's conservation agency charged with promulgating sustainability.  Real doublethink here].  But even SNH had too much discretion here.  Comparisons to National Monuments/Listed Buildings come to mind.
The best I can advise is
·          It is not too late, there will be no loss of face, only credit;
·          There is much to be gained, especially wider political support;
·          There are better ways to skin this cat.  Moreover, ways that deliver more and wider benefits to all and especially to the wider Cairngorms.

To ministers and to managers alike, dealing with this issue, I would say you have to get back to the negotiating table, before you commit irretrievably to what will be an unpardonable folly.

FOOTNOTE from over ten years later.
Progress is often a process of two steps forward, one step back. Like climbing steep soft snow.  I am confident that having a National Park is a great step forward. Sometimes even organisations such as the Park Authority have matters inflicted upon them that means they are making the best of a ‘poor job’. Funicular, Beauly Denny, Allt  Duine & Stronelairg. I will continue to wonder how we arrived at An Camus Mor as well – but think that once it begins it can and will improve, especially in its linkage to Aviemore. Hey… but that is just me being a town planner.

Enjoying the Little Hills - and the big
This snowy 2013 season has meant winter mountaineering activities could be enjoyed at quite low altitudes. I have found suitable conditions to climb or ski up some rather modest Corbetts but the experience has been distinctly wintry.
Easiest, though by far the most spectacular was a stroll up Ben Tirran at 2941ft or 896mtrs - this Corbett, sitting on the watershed between Glen Clova and Glen Esk, is a fine afternoon out. Some aggressively bulldozed tracks low on the western slopes are a detractor, but fortunately most of the ascent, especially if taken direct, leads through some great hill country. It was a day when the Cloud Appreciation Society came to mind since the clouds were bizarre and beautiful in equal measure. 
Couple of weeks later the big snows enabled a ski ascent of Ben Gulabin at 2641ft or 806m it is a lesser hill than Ben Tirran, but none the less rufty tufty. Full snow conditions, an impenetrable mountain fog and intense cold made for a difficult ascent - enlivened by a fall through a cornice. Yes, I kid-you-not. A steep sided gully had submerged completely into the boundless grey-white expanse of this white continuum. Skiing uphill adjacent this gully, I was blissfully unaware of its hidden depths. Couldn’t even see it. Suddenly I noticed that my left ski was in mid-air, and before brain could rationalise this anomaly, the cornice beneath me had collapsed and I tumbled into the gully - whump - into the soft snow. Very lucky.
A torn knee ligament my reward for this minor stupidity but it wasn’t felt until later – and certainly not until well after the summit and a superb, though somewhat blind, ski down to Spittal of Glenshee.

Into March, Six nations, Scotland winning against Italy and the rather unprepossessing Brown Cow Hill 2721ft or 829m. It gave Ewan Clark (and Ella) and I an excellent ski ascent and descent. Setting off beside Corgarff Castle, the ability to link patches of snow together along with a honed experience of where snow clings and lingers best after particular weather patterns helped a satisfactory slide up to clearing , summit. Don’t be deceived at the first cairn – the more distant one is 4m higher. A good decision for a short day out and exactly the right height to get the clear views between cloud layers. The ski out was a fantastic, exhilarating ride all the way to the road – and to the Allargue Hotel in time to see Scotland beat Ireland. Great Fun.

Time for a bigger hill – the White Mounth with Graham Dudley (and Sam & Khola). From the old Brig o Dee at Invercauld it is a 5km and steep walk up through the Ballochbuie. The hard old snow lies trapped in the track and lets us don skis and head up more effectively. But still a long slog to the col between Carn an t-Sagairt Mor and its lesser neighbour Ccarn an t-Sagairt Beag. Downhill swoops to the top of the Allt an Dubh Loch before the 300mtr skin up Carn a’ Choire Bhaideach. But the best was yet to come. The wedeling ski descent down the incipient coire that is the Allt a Choire Dhuibh was just magnificent.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

On Call Kaye – March 11th 2013

Someone – was it Ron in Fife – stated that had there been a dozen deaths in any other sport or pastime in Scotland there would have been the highest levels of scrutiny and analysis. He’s correct – but you’d imagine BBC News thinks the mountaineering fraternity has buried its head in the sand and ignored all that has been happening. An old boss once told me there’s no point poking someone in the ribs and getting no reaction. Give credit where credit due – the mountaineering fraternity has been solidly poked in the ribs by (among others) the BBC. And the mountaineering fraternity has responded – but little of that response, by its nature, will hit the front page of the newspapers or the main 6pm or 10pm news.

In that very understandable context I am beginning to wonder whether Kaye Adams has something of a grudge against mountaineering. Or perhaps it is whoever is producing at BBC Radio Scotland for these programmes. Does the Call Kaye team liaise at all, for instance, with the BBC Out of Doors team? You do sometimes wonder.

The last time Call Kaye covered mountaineering she featured Dorothy Grace Elder making some ill thought through suggestions about mountain safety. This was closely followed by Newsnight Scotland picking up on the same theme and doing the same post mortem, albeit with Gordon Brewer being a good deal more sensitive and far better informed.

I was sufficiently concerned about these matters to have written an editorial piece for BBC Out of Doors - tinged with déjà vu given I had been involved in similar episodes during the early 1990s, whilst President of the Mountaineering Council. It might still be available on the BBC Out of Doors Website. You can also read what I said at an earlier blog [both recently and in 1994]. I phoned the programme several times yesterday to make similar arguments, but the producers would not put me through preferring (it would seem) the more misinformed comment available.

No one can deny that further deaths in the mountains are tragic and are cause for concern. I have concerns at the way this has been handled. For starters, the Call Kaye programme doesn’t seem able to make up its mind whether it is serious news or cheery magazine – yesterday covering antibiotics, mountain safety, last night's TV (Shetland) and wishful thinking about last days of freedom (linked to the Huhne/Pryce case).  And I must emphasise my main concerns here are about the nature of this journalism - purporting to be ‘serious’ and ‘informed’.  Since the first broadcast virtually all of the published commentary has been to criticise the Call Kaye programme and Dorothy Grace Elder and not to vilify mountaineering. Meanwhile the mountaineering fraternity has redoubled its efforts to get the messages and information out.

Let me explain why I am concerned.  So-called facts have been repeatedly put forward as the case for the prosecution (so-to-speak) on these two episodes, based on hearsay, or personal experience, which are utterly wrong. A good producer would have been sufficiently briefed to have not allowed such nonsense to be pedalled as fact, even in debate. Let me illustrate.

On Insurance - Kaye repeatedly allowed callers to suggest that 'insurance was required in the alps'. That is simply not the case. It is not against the law to go climbing or skiing in the Alps without insurance. Folk often do just that - making a calculation that in the unlikely event of a rescue they will pay for it, rather than pay insurance premiums year by year. It is a matter of choice. Clearly the difference to be remarked upon is that Alpine Rescue is mostly funded by those who have been rescued rather than by the cohort who actually go mountaineering, as in UK. I was at a Mountaineering Club Dinner in Liverpool at the weekend which raised considerable funds for the Ogwen Mountain Rescue Team – a not unfamiliar event. Another difference Call Kaye blithely ignored was the simple fact that there is no National Health Service in many Alpine Countries such as Switzerland, although form E111 does cover medical costs within EU states. I fell and broke a rib last year ski touring in France - but the medical help I received was provided free and covered by my E111.  So regarding insurance - Call Kaye has repeatedly pedalled a fallacy - which just pushes this very serious debate in the wrong direction.

David Gibson speaking yesterday on behalf of the MCofS did brilliantly, but as a responsible, publicly funded organisation chief, he can't just turn around and say to Call Kaye - "That's nonsense" and quote the BBC Charter about impartiality and balance. Not sure this programme even warrants ‘informative, educational and entertaining’. Moreover, the BBC can’t excuse itself and say that counter comment on Out of Doors provides the balance, given the differing listener audience and scheduled time of broadcast.

But it didn't finish there. Call Kaye continually linked this insurance misdirection to a rescue misdirection.

On Mountain Rescue - we simply have the best in the world. Can’t remember if Call Kaye actually said that?  My deep respect goes out to the rescuers all the time. On the few occasions I have become involved helping or supporting, they never cease to amaze. It is magnificent to succeed in these difficult, lifesaving missions [there is a terrific understated tale of rescue heroism on Ben Nevis in this year's SMC Journal]. Heavy Whalley and Heather Morning both spoke authoritatively about these issues. But they were faced with misinformed journalistic grilling or having to debate with anonymous members of the public, who were on air because they held extreme views. Of course our hearts go out to these rescuers when they retrieve the victims - it can be a grim task known only to a few of the sport’s actual participants. However, the fact that this is a volunteer based service supported by emergency services and RAF Mountain Rescue is a fundamental part of what makes it so great. Rescuers themselves will virtually all tell you exactly this. Dorothy Grace Elder found the exception rather than the rule on this matter.


Fortunately Liz Smith answered all of this very well indeed.


We also know we have the best Air Sea Rescue service in the world. Their rescue (and military) prowess is in no small order down to their involvement in real life rescue. The day that RAF Air Sea rescue has to throw crash test dummies into the sea to practice rescue – and be unable to respond to real life public in distress or needing rescued down the road - would be a complete and utter travesty. It is not what the rescue services want or what the public deserve.

You will see from what I have written elsewhere that I vigorously believe that there can be no justification for death in the mountains and we must do all that is humanly possible to help prevent it. Participation statistics and such other comparisons I will leave to others. However one comparison I have made in the past relates to the RNLI and sea rescue. That is also voluntary and largely subscription funded.  However they are not subjected to anything like the scrutiny exacted by the likes of Call Kaye, BBC Scotland News, or any other media for that matter. Why is this? Is it the mountains that make this different? The sea is just as dangerous. Whatever lies at the heart of this…I would not wish such ill-informed coverage upon them.

On Access to the Mountains – I listened yesterday morning while travelling through Scotland under a blue sky, with snowy white mountains on both sides. It was simply spectacular. I tried to imagine how any restrictions could be managed, let alone enforced. It is very difficult to reasonably work this through.  Yet for the second time on air Call Kaye mentioned Alpine ski resorts closing lifts or pistes as a blunt counter argument to what many have stated about access restrictions. It is simply not a valid comparison. Of course ski lift operators have to shut in certain conditions because they have a duty of care invoked through the sale of a ski pass ticket. But that doesn't stop the mountaineer, or ski mountaineer, or ski randonneur  from heading into these same mountains. That remains a matter of judgement for those involved. Exactly the same applies to pistes and piste marking where territory is apparently closed. That is done to maintain a duty of care, and not to prohibit folk heading off piste. Read the notices carefully and it is clear that this is “at your own risk” territory and experienced skiers / snow boarders frequently head into these, admittedly, riskier areas. They’ll carry transceivers, shovels, avalanche probes and increasingly airbag/avalung devices. They’ll understand the risk, manage the risk, and they’ll accept the risk.

Call Kaye repeatedly helps others to foster these misconceptions. Does she do this in the name of entertainment? Is it false logic posed to get at some deeper truth? Or has she simply not been briefed well? In which case does a similar degree of superficiality apply to all the Call Kaye back catalogue? I dread to think. We heard Call Kaye ask repeatedly about 'machismo tendencies' in mountaineering today – which is a trait hardly ever found amongst real mountaineers. You’ll encounter an understated humility in the face of the dangers in mountaineering, combined with a realistic degree of fatalism. The only machismo I could hear was that of the journalists bullish in their desire to perhaps put the matter straight – at least as they saw it.

©Bob Reid

This is the script I used to do an editorial on BBC Out of Doorsat teh end of January 2013 following a number of accidents in the Scottish Mountains:


"It would be a very cold heart that didn’t miss a beat on hearing about the tragedy in Glencoe last weekend. There will be funerals and memorial services in the coming weeks. Inquiries will take place and reports will eventually answer the question -  ‘what happened?’
But the question - ‘why?’ - will be the one that folk repeatedly ask their own inner selves - but will struggle to answer. Especially those folk close to the victims.

20 years ago Scotland had a string of very cold winters. Sadly there were many fatalities and the government of the day was asking questions.

The winter of 93/94 was the first time in my memory that the right to climb itself was 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, the hills were covered in ice.

Today I’m old enough to reflect that this was just ‘selling newspapers’ and you can guess the worst culprits.

But at the time a response was required. Words from that 1994 response - defending mountaineering, attempting to explain, have an eerie resonance this week.

With hindsight - I was also far more affected by the death of a friend in the mountains than I cared to admit at the time.

When BMC and MCofS met together in those days - there was always time for climbing. We worked hard and climbed hard - with Bill Wright and Derek Walker (who sadly passed away last week) - and with Andy Fanshawe.

Andy’s tragic death on Eagle Ridge in 1992 haunted me in a way I couldn’t explain – but it took 10 years before I overcame a nagging, mental block and finally completed Eagle Ridge myself, perhaps - in the process - exorcizing a ghost.

Anyway - Here’s a part of that 1994 reponse -

“It doesn't take long before all the usual, hackneyed reasoning for risking life and limb begins to sound glib in the extreme, - especially when it is a climbing pal who has died.

Death in 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 wish to live in.

Most climbers 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 still sounds glib.

PERHAPS 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.

PERHAPS - Most realistic and convincing of all is the –
"There, but for the grace of God, go I “ approach - which at least betrays a recognition by a climber, that they too could die.

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

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

Mountaineering is dangerous.

What is more, I continue to believe there is no such thing as winter hillwalking in Scotland. Hillwalking is a summer pursuit.


On the wall, just inside the door, at Plas Y Brenin in Wales, the words of Edward Whymper are carved into a tablet of Welsh Slate. I recite the passage to myself, almost as a mantra, at times of high risk in the mountains .... descending some misty, cliff strewn, icy Scottish hillside. It has served me well

"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."

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