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Snow saves climber in 800ft plunge

A WOMAN student was in hospital with spinal injuries yesterday after an 800-foot slide down a snow-covered mountain above Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands. Soft snow cushioned her careering descent of the boulder-strewn steep ground, probably saving her life.

Sarah Woodroffe, 20, who is studying at Durham University, was descending Bidean Nam Bian, the highest peak in the area, when she slipped and fell late on Tuesday afternoon. Her companion, a man from Hertfordshire, tried to raise the alarm, but was unable to descend the mountain due to failing light.

Passing climbers heard their calls for help and alerted mountain rescue teams. Ms Woodroffe was airlifted to Belford Hospital, Fort William, suffering from a fracture to the cervical spine and also to the left knee cap. She was later transferred for specialist treatment at Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, and is expected to "walk out" of its spinal unit in two to three weeks.

Slips on steep ground are the commonest cause of accidents in the Scottish hills. Survival is then a matter of luck and the type of terrain the victim hurtles down; the fewer the rocks, the better the chances. On New Year's Day, Michael Burnham, 26, an engineer from Bristol, fell more than 900ft down Sgorr Dhearg, another Glencoe peak, and escaped with minor injuries. But only a few miles away Paul Fooks, 38, from Nottingham, slid 1,500ft to his death on Sgurr a' Mhaim.

Paul Williams, secretary of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, said Ms Woodroffe and her companion were descending from the summit of Bidean when she slipped at around 3,000 feet. "Her injuries could have been far worse," he said. "If the snow had been rock hard she would have gone off like a rocket."

Weather conditions were "generally mild", but the rescue operation was hampered by mist, making it difficult for the helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth to land. Ms Woodroffe had to be carried by team members almost to the main road.

Ms Woodroffe was among a group of 12 to 15 people, including some other members of Durham University mountaineering club, on a privately arranged holiday in the area. They had split into smaller groups for the day and were due to meet in the late afternoon.

"When they did not arrive, the alarm was raised by the others," said university spokesman Keith Seacroft.

Ms Woodroffe, from Lincoln, is a second-year geography student. She is a qualified trainer for the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award Scheme and before going to Durham, spent four months in Switzerland helping to organise activities in the Alps for the Guide Association.

In a separate incident, a rescue helicopter was scrambled from RAF Lossiemouth as darkness fell last night after a rucksack and its contents were found on Ben Nevis. No one had been reported missing, but members of the Lochaber mountain-rescue team were flown to the area to begin a search.

For all the horrors of the New Year holiday period, serious accidents are falling as a proportion of those going out on the Scottish hills to walk and climb.

Kevin Howett, national officer for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, reckons the number of hillgoers has at least doubled. On a fine weekend day, there may be 50,000 people at play in the Highlands. However, the number of fatalities has fallen from around 45 a year in the early Nineties to 25 last year.

Mr Howett said: "People are better equipped - very few people are going up the Ben [Nevis] in high heels, and the effort ... in trying to educate people about the risks seems to have paid off."