Ben Nevis rescuers and climbers left poles apart

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The Independent Online
Controversial marker poles, intended to save lives, could be reinstated on the top of Ben Nevis this Christmas if the area's mountain rescue team sees a break in the weather.

The saga of the two poles on Britain's highest mountain is one of soul- searching, uncomradely rancour and potentially of life or death in the graphically named Five Finger Gully.

Fatalities on the Ben are a feature of every winter, with the avalanche- prone Five Finger a particular black spot. To aid navigation off the cliff- girt summit, the Lochaber mountain rescue team erected two 3m-high aluminium poles, set in concrete. That was in autumn 1995. But last month climbers who object to the nannying intrusion of the poles cut them down with a hacksaw. There is a wicked rumour that the saboteurs have cut the aluminium into strips and intend hammer it into "free the Ben" mementoes.

The Lochaber team has now acquired high-tensile steel replacements and hopes to put the poles back by New Year. "Maybe we'll do it with a Christmas party," Miller Harris, the team secretary, told The Independent. Atrocious weather has already forced the abandonment of one attempt to do the job. And, however rugged the new poles, the saboteurs have warned they will be chopped. "The team are just creating work for themselves," said one opponent.

To the non-climber it probably sounds a silly affair. But to climbers, who, as a body, attach great importance to the freedom to take risks and pit themselves against rock and ice in an unsullied environment, safety aids present an ethical dilemma.

The dispute has grown into something akin to a religious schism. Roger Payne, general secretary of the British Mountaineering Council, described the Lochaber team's decision to act without consulting the wider climbing community as "arrogance of the highest order".

Mr Payne has in turn been accused of high-handedness. The 50-strong Lochaber team was particularly incensed at a suggestion that they were behaving like first-aiders at a football match.

"We took extreme exception to that," Mr Harris said. "All our team are experienced mountaineers, including three professional mountain guides." Ben Nevis, 4,406ft high, presents a tricky navigational challenge to climbers who often reach the summit in gathering dusk and driving snow, having completed one of the exhilarating routes up the mountain's ridges and gullies.

To descend safely requires precise compass work, with a vital change of bearing at a distance that has to be paced out. But in "white-out" conditions and battered by a cross-wind, it is easy to stray left towards Five Finger. The corrie at its head is a classic avalanche trap. With chilling regularity the Lochaber team has had to carry off the bodies of its victims. "We spend an awful lot of time in there," Mr Harris said. "If there's one place team members don't like going in winter, it's Five Finger. We have warned people that the poles are no substitute for good navigation. But if they save one life, or keep team members out of danger, they must be worth it."

Last winter there were no accidents in Five Finger, though no one is claiming this was necessarily due to the poles. Elsewhere on Ben Nevis there were three fatalities last winter. With 5,000 cards in circulation showing the bearings to follow from the poles, Mr Harris said the saboteurs could have a lot on their conscience if someone had an accident while searching for a missing pole.

Kevin Howett, general secretary of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, still hopes to talk to the Lochaber team about a compromise - possibly putting the poles back for this winter only and then reviewing their value. But he is not optimistic of getting a meeting.

"MCofS believe people should take responsibility for themselves. The safety emphasis should be on teaching people to navigate properly and understanding the risks," said Mr Howett, who knows the draw of Five Finger from personal experience. "We are desperately trying to keep the hills as pristine as possible and if we can put up poles on our highest mountain how can we protest about other unsightly developments on the hills? We end up looking like hypocrites."

Both the MCofS and the BMC are concerned about poles giving a false sense of security. Markers and two high-altitude shelters were removed from the Cairngorm plateau in the wake of a tragedy in 1972, when six teenagers died in the snow after failing to reach one of the shelters.

"Measures which give the illusion of safety and encourage people to venture on to serious mountains without the necessary skills are fatally flawed," Mr Payne said. "What the Lochaber team have done smacks of a `something- must-be-done' approach without thinking through the long-term consequences."

Doug Scott, one of Britain's most experienced mountaineers, recalled finding two frost-bitten climbers on Denali, a 20,320ft peak in Alaska. "They were mumbling would we radio for the park service helicopter. Poles fall into this same category." They lulled people to where they may not have experience to cope, he said. "But it is also a question of aesthetics. Above the last field boundary, the mountains should be left as they always have been, with no mark of man."