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A new record for Scotland's misleading mountains - this year they claimed 54 lives: 'The freedom to climb, and die'

THEY form Britain's last wilderness, drawing visitors from around the world. Advertising executives use their beauty to sell products from mineral water to sports cars, and they are the setting for the latest Robin Williams comedy.

But the traditional image of the mountains of Scotland has been marred by tragedy. The deaths last week of Jane Thomas, 33, and two off-duty paratroopers bring to 54 the number of people who have died in the mountains this year, the highest figure ever. In fact, more people have died walking and climbing in the mountains than have been killed on Highland roads.

In the past three years, 17 per cent of reported accidents on the Scottish mountains have resulted in death. This is the same level as at Chamonix, in the French Alps, which is considered one of the most dangerous mountain regions in Europe.

Guides and safety experts are divided on why the figures are increasing, but most say too many inexperienced day-trippers and climbers are underestimating the dangers of the peaks. As recent cases show, however, experience and thorough preparation are not always enough. Lance-Corporal Paul Callaghan, 26, and Private David Reid, 24, of the Parachute Regiment, were seasoned climbers who were well equipped for winter weather and had recently taken part in high-altitude exercises. On Wednesday their bodies, still roped together, were found in the Glencoe area. They are believed to have been caught in an avalanche.

Jane Thomas, from Penrith, Cumbria, was also a fit and experienced climber. Last weekend she set out with her husband and a friend for a day's climbing in Coire an Sneachta, one of the north-facing corries of the Cairngorms. As the weather closed in, her husband returned to their base. The remaining couple later split up. Mrs Thomas was rescued from the mountain after lying exhausted for more than 14 hours in temperatures as low as -25C. She died later from hypothermia.

As well as the deaths, more than 300 climbers, walkers and skiers have been injured on the crags and slopes this year. The number of deaths has risen steadily in recent years, from 26 in 1989 to 43 last year.

Alf Ingram, secretary of the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland, the co-ordinating body for rescue services, said: 'The mountains of Scotland are misleading. They may not be as high as the Alps or as steep, but they are much further north. When you get up above 1,000 metres, there is nothing but the wind between you and the North Pole, and when it starts blowing and the snow closes in, conditions are arctic.

'Also, distances to get off the mountains are often greater than many people think. Some plateaux in the Cairngorms are 15 miles wide. The Highlands should really be treated like the Himalayas, not like the Lake District or Peak District with a bit of snow on top.'

'White out' blizzards with winds of 100mph can make navigation, except for very experienced mountaineers, almost impossible. Combined with wind-chill temperatures, they can be deadly.

Andy Anderson, training officer for the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland, said: 'It's a mistake to think the mountains can be made safe. Everybody that goes there should really ask themselves whether they are prepared to accept some risk - if not they shouldn't be there. Weather, the level of training and proper equipment are important, but at the end of the day nearly all accidents are the result of poor judgement. People must be prepared to turn back.'

Increasing numbers of people from outside Scotland are taking to the country's hills - up to 150,000 each weekend. As the Scottish tourist industry continues to promote the Highlands these figures are expected to rise. Half of those killed or injured are from England, Wales or overseas. Police and rescuers say that the visitors, many of whom are unfamiliar with the terrain and determined to reach the peaks after travelling hundreds of miles to base camp, take extraordinary risks.

Sergeant Jock McLean, of the Northern Constabulary, who has patrolled the Cairngorms and Lochaber for 30 years, said: 'There are many folk up nowadays who don't know the land well. If the weather takes a turn for the worse, locals often say, 'Oh well, we'll turn back or give it a miss, there's always next weekend'. But for many, it's their weekend away and they are determined - sometimes too determined - to enjoy it. They push themselves harder and take risks without realising that they are gambling with their lives.'

Some ridge-walkers and hikers are also poorly equipped to cope with rapidly changing weather conditions. However, the Scottish Mountain Safety Group, established five years ago to boost awareness of the dangers of setting out without at least waterproofs and survival rations, says the number of 'wallies in wellies' on the slopes is declining.

There is also criticism of some walkers and mountaineers who buy the latest and most expensive equipment but fail to learn how to use it before going out on the hills. Even climbers with experience admit it takes time to become accustomed to new crampons.

Changing weather patterns are also blamed for the higher accident rate. The cold, stable winters of the Seventies and Eighties have been replaced by freeze-thaw conditions, meteorologists say, creating a higher risk of avalanches.

The rising death toll has prompted calls for mountain authorities to restrict access to the mountains in bad weather. Climbers and walkers angrily reject attempts to curb their 'rights'.

Kevin Howett, national officer of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, said: 'What we do is about freedom, getting away from the rules and regulations that stifle everyday life. Fortunately, it would be impractical to block off access to the hills, but if anyone tried, it would make people doubly determined to resist. They would probably deliberately come out in bad weather to assert their freedom to roam.'

Education, not regulation, is the way to reduce accidents, officials say. 'We have to hammer home the message that mountaineering and hill-walking are great sports, but that the mountains must be treated with caution. People should go well equipped and keep practising their navigational skills,' said Ian Collie, chairman of the Scottish Mountain Safety Group.

Despite improvements in education and training, experienced walkers and mountaineers insist that total safety is impossible and would be undesirable. 'There will always be an element of danger, and that is one of the main reasons why climbers and walkers do what they do,' Mr Howett said. 'You want to pitch yourself against nature and to come away having achieved something. When there is so much snow and wind there is a 'white-out', you are so disorientated that you do not know whether you are walking up or down hill. At that time, you can only rely on your judgement and skills to get you off the mountain to safety.

'One mistake - a wrong bearing or wrong turn - and you could walk straight off the edge. That's the thrill, and if you take it away you would destroy the sport. You have to have the freedom to kill yourself.'

(Photograph and map omitted)