Mountaineers attack 'licence' plan for Alps

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British mountaineers have condemned an attempt to introduce "licences" for people wanting to climb in the high Alps.

Sir Chris Bonnington, president of the Alpine Club, said the idea of licences, proposed by Amedeo Amadeo, an Italian MEP, was "total anathema". And the plan is likely to be met with disapproval by Britain's 150,000-strong climbing community.

Climbers have a fierce attachment to the anarchic nature of their sport. While qualifications and certificates are the rule for instructors and guides, any constraints on the freedom of individuals would be regarded with horror. Sir Chris urged "climbers in every country" to do "all they can to resist" the imposition of licences.

In a written question to the European Commission, Mr Amadeo called for a series of aptitude tests for anyone wishing to "climb or explore glaciers". In effect this would cover most of the Alps above the tree line - hitting climbers, ski-mountaineers and high- level walkers.

A "European licence" would undoubtedly lead to a drastic reduction in the number of accidents, the MEP said, pointing out that 31 people died in the first nine months of 1995 in the Italian Alps alone.

"Many tourists go climbing and often treat mountaineering as a game, setting off without proper training or equipment, thinking that they know what they are doing," he said.

So far there has only been a holding answer from Marcelino Oreja, the Spanish Commissioner for Culture, saying that information is being collected.

But the views of the mountaineers themselves have not been sought. The British Mountaineering Council only heard of the proposal by chance, when one of its 34,000 members spotted it in the European Union's official journal.

Roger Payne, the BMC general secretary, has written to the Commission expressing "extreme concern" at the idea of a licence and urging Brussels to seek the views of national mountaineering federations. He has alerted the Italian Alpine Club and the British MEP Angela Billingham, who is a member of the European Parliament sport group.

"The BMC's view is that safety in mountaineering is achieved through personal responsibility and self-reliance," Mr Payne said. "We would see this as a terrible infringement on people's basic freedom to visit the mountains."

Last autumn, the BMC mounted a successful campaign against a proposal before the Council of Europe calling for "legally enforced" climbing bans on cliffs important for biological and landscape diversity. Strictly enforced, it would have covered most of the popular crags in Britain.

The ban was part of a Pan-European Biological and Landscape Diversity Strategy - Europe's response to the 1992 Earth Summit - but John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, and other environment ministers decided further work needed to be done.