Mountaineers defend risks in the Highlands Mountaineers fight to retain risks in sport

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The Independent Online

With the first snow having already fallen on the Scottish hills, the British Mountaineering Council took pre-emptive action yesterday, pointing out the pleasures and pitfalls of its sport before the inevitable crop of winter accidents.

A good winter in mountaineering terms - a decent cover of snow and ice and the weather to get out on it - will mean more deaths. Past statistics suggest that about 20 mountaineers will be killed in the Highlands this winter.

Just as predictably, their deaths will be followed by calls for a ban on climbers taking to the hills in "bad" weather, for compulsory rescue insurance and for certificates of competence.

The BMC rejects all such restrictions. "For the mountaineer the most important freedom is to be able to take risks," said Doug Scott, the council's vice-president, a man who has courted the fine edge for decades from the Highlands to the Himalayas and suffered serious injury.

"Those reacting in knee-jerk fashion to highly publicised mountaineering accidents have simply failed to see that there is a success story writ large over our hills every winter, when thousands of walkers and climbers safely and competently deal with all the hazards and enjoy the freedom of the mountains," Mr Scott said.

Contrary to the winter crop of newspaper headlines, statistics suggest that the number of incidents is falling as a proportion of the increasing numbers taking to the hills for recreation.

The proportion of incidents resulting in fatalities has also fallen, partly as a result of better protective clothing stopping people simply freezing to death.

Nonetheless the risk is realenough. In the winter months of 1994 (January to April and October to December) on Lochnagar, a popular winter climbing area south of Braemar in the Grampians, there were 63 incidents with 15 deaths. In the first three months of this year there were two deaths in 16 incidents.

Though the image of winter mountaineering is of a climber with ice axes and crampons on a desperate ice face, by far the commonest cause of accidents is a simple slip or stumble, often while descending on easy ground. In winter, avalanches become the second greatest cause. The statistics reinforce the BMC's case that there is no such thing as winter hill walking, only winter mountaineering.

Yesterday's London press briefing, supported by Chris Bonington, president- elect of the Alpine Club, and Ian McNaught-Davis, president of the world body for mountaineering (UIAA), was intended to put the risk into perspective, counter the calls of "misguided and alarmist politicians" for regulation, and emphasise the need for climbers to hone their winter skills.

The BMC represents clubs with a combined membership of some 35,000 - perhaps a third of the British climbing fraternity. Its president, Paul Nunn, was killed in the Karakorams, Pakistan, in August.

However perverse it might seem to the non-practitioner, the vast majority of climbers share the view of Mr McNaught-Davis: "If you extract the risk from climbing there wouldn't be a sport at all."