MP renews call for climbers to have insurance

Mountain deaths: Avalanche victim is named as Easter weekend walkers get safety warning
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The Independent Online

A climber who fell 1,000ft to his death in an avalanche in the Scottish Highlands was named yesterday as campaigners renewed their calls to get climbers to take out rescue insurance.

Kevin Wilson, a 42-year-old plumber from Acomb in York, was climbing on Creag Meagaidh, Kinlochlaggan, on Thursday when he is believed to have been swept off a ledge near the summit of Pumpkin Route.

His companion, Richard Harrison, 32, a company director, of Dringhouses, York, suffered an ankle injury and was carried off the mountain by members of Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team.

The Scottish Office yesterday issued a warning to climbers and walkers to take extra care this weekend as most peaks are still covered in snow and affected by icy winds and blizzards.

Mr Wilson's death in the mountains - the seventh climbing death this winter - has led to renewed calls for climbers and hillwalkers to have compulsory rescue insurance.

The Labour MP Bill Walker, an ardent campaigner, said "it seems only logical that the user should pay and not the taxpayer". Mr Walker, whose Tayside North constituency includes a large slice of the Grampian mountains, added: "Insurance doesn't guarantee you will be rescued. It guarantees you will be capable of meeting the cost."

He envisages money passing from the rescued climbers' insurers to the Exchequer and back to the police and helicopter services. In Scotland, there are some 900 volunteers in 24 civilian teams, plus two RAF teams. RAF or Navy helicopters are involved in some 60 per cent of rescues.

Mr Walker says volunteers in the rescue teams would not be working alongside anyone paid any more than now, but the taxpayer would be spared some of the cost and rescue facilities could be improved.

However, many volunteers are fiercely opposed to any commercial intrusion and the military helicopter crews value the "live" training.

But Mr Walker's campaign has been given a new platform. The Scottish Affairs Select Committee has opened an inquiry into the mountain rescue service, with insurance one of the key issues. Announcing its inquiry, the committee declared 1993 to be "the worst year on record, rescue teams saved 317 lives but 62 were lost". Last year there were 34 fatalities.

Alfie Ingram, secretary of the Mountain Rescue Committee for Scotland, is contemptuous of MPs wasting taxpayers' money on the inquiry. "The present system works well and is very cost-effective," he said.

"The whole insurance thing has been pointed out to be to totally inappropriate to the British scene. I was hoping they had rather seen the light by now."

Most climbers and walkers do take out insurance when they go abroad. The basic rescue and medical cover offered by the British Mountaineering Council costs pounds 44 for up to 17 days or pounds 97 for a year.

Whether any charge is levied varies widely. In the Swiss Alps a helicopter pick-up would trigger a bill of typically pounds 2,500 and the climber is unlikely to get out of the country without paying. In France and Italy there might be bill but you probably would not be pursued. And in Austria free rescue used to be the norm but can no longer be taken for granted.

However, the Mountaineering Council for Scotland has told the committee that search and rescue provision is peculiar to the terrain of each country. In Scotland it often means protracted searches across wild land in poor visibility where teams of volunteers are the only practical means.

Mountaineering groups in England and Wales have also protested to the select committee over any move to introduce compulsory insurance.

Doug Scott, vice-president of the British Mountaineering Council, regards it as a knee-jerk reaction reaction by "misguided and alarmist" politicians.

"As climbers, if we are to live our lives to the full, we must never allow our freedom of choice to be narrowed, whether it be by government agencies or commercial insurance companies," Mr Scott said.

Scottish Highlands casualty list

Seven people have fallen to their death in the Highlands this year:

1. Kevin Wilson, 42, fell 3000 ft from Craig Meataid

2. Fraser Ross, 17, a schoolboy, fell 250ft from

Sgurr nan Gillean on the isle of Skye

3. The Dutch climber Jacobus van Herk fell 900ft at

the Observatory Gully on Ben Nevis

4. Paul Bell, 36, fell 1,000ft from Castle Ridge, Ben Nevis

5. A Frenchman, Allain Fretet, 34, fell 400 ft from

Castle Ridge, Ben Nevis

6. Liam Wilson, 22, fell 600ft from Sgurr nan Gillean

7. Paul Potter, 42, from Surrey fell 2800 ft from Aonch Dudh