Snow and cold take deaths to record high: Rescue workers are warning climbers of changeable weather, reports John Arlidge

THE WEATHER was blamed by mountain rescue workers yesterday for the 14 deaths in the Highlands so far this year - twice as many as in the same period in 1993, and the highest recorded figure for the opening months of any year.

Mountain safety groups warned climbers and walkers in the Scottish mountains to guard against unseasonably variable temperatures and winds, which have been accompanied by the heaviest snowfalls for seven years.

Alf Ingram, secretary of the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland, said: 'In the past two months we have experienced temperatures from plus 5 or 6C to minus 27C with the wind chill, and winds of between zero and 125mph.

'Sometimes these changes have occurred within a 12- or 24-hour period, so that people who have looked out of the window in the morning and thought that they would be going out for a pleasant stroll or climb for the day have found themselves locked in a battle for survival.'

Douglas Paterson of the Glasgow Weather Centre said: 'There is much more snow on the slopes now than at this time last year because, unlike 1993 when a prolonged thaw led to serious flooding, temperatures have stayed mainly below zero. As well as creating avalanche problems the snow, combined with high winds, has also led to the build-up of large cornices (snow overhangs) - which are extremely dangerous.'

Last week Jacqueline Greaves, 53, fell through a cornice in the Cairngorm mountains and spent two nights in temperatures below minus 20C before being rescued.

The body of an Irish climber, Kevin Mulroy, 29, from Edinburgh, was recovered from Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain, yesterday morning. Rescue teams said the man and his companion Brian Boot, 27, from Chester, made a 'navigational error' while attempting to descend in 'white-out' blizzard conditions and fell into a gully.

In response to the latest deaths, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland yesterday issued safety guidelines for climbers. Kevin Howett, national officer for the council, said that despite warnings climbers and walkers were underestimating the dangers on the peaks.

'The mountains of Scotland may not be as high as the Alps or as steep, but they are much, much further north,' he said. 'When you get up above 1,000 metres there is nothing between you and the North Pole, and when the wind starts blowing and the snow closes in conditions are arctic.'

Climbers should check long- and short-range weather forecasts and local avalanche warnings before setting out, he said. If navigating with a map and compass was not 'second nature', they should practise the skill. He added: 'You can't beat the mountains but you can come to terms with them. We are not saying climbers should stay off the slopes, but they should act to minimise the risks.'

(Photograph omitted)