Climb the winter peaks, but heed the ptarmigan

Mountaineers will be safe if they learn respect, says Jim Crumley
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The Independent Online
The dead of winter - the phrase has an epitaphic ring these dire Highland days when winter obliterates the mountains for weeks at a time and climbers die in all the usual places - Glencoe, the Cairngorms, Ben More, Ben Nevis ...

Grim rituals unfold, rituals of countless Februaries. Climbers climb into places where they should not be in conditions which drive summit- dwelling ptarmigan down on to the low ground, gasping for breath and fleeing for life. Mountain rescue teams assemble several times a week, often taking time off from indulgent employers, risking their own lives for the lives of others, their mountaineering kin.

Tabloids bay. Weary clichs are dusted down: we must pay for the privilege of our own folly. Crucially, the rescuers disagree. Mountain rescue is one public service in the Highlands which the Government cannot prune or privatise. It works, and it is free, because there but for the grace of some mountain god or other go the volunteers who staff the teams.

There are frustrations of course, and injudicious curses when the climber on the end of the rescue rope is an oaf. But the volunteers go and go again because they understand the forces which impel winter climbers. They know - we all know - that the best of winter is the undiluted single malt of mountaineering. Like all the best malts, however, it is utterly uncompromising and it extracts a fearful price.

But does it really need to be this bad? News bulletins have pronounced a fearful toll this winter, this month in particular, amid weather conditions which many people, even many climbers, would find incomprehensible. One bulletin announced that a rescue team had turned back for their own safety. It takes a lot to turn back a rescue team. All too often, alas, it is a discipline the climber does not pack with his ice axe and crampons. The climber has a weekend to play with and is going to cram as much mountaineering into it as he can, and he thinks he knows better than the ptarmigan. The ptarmigan is born to the summits but knows precisely when to dive fast downhill seeking survival's sanctuary, passing askance the climber on his way up.

Herein lies the first lesson. I plead for self-regulation. You have to know how good you are. You have to know how bad the mountains can be. You have to know how your best matches up to the mountains' worst. If doubt infiltrates halfway up, or three-quarters of the way up, or a hundred yards from the summit, take the ptarmigan way out. There will be other days. The mountain will wait for you.

Herein lies the second lesson. I plead for an apprenticeship. I was lucky to be brought up in a tradition of hill-going which demanded an apprenticeship. Mine was served on the lowly Sidlaw Hills north of childhood Dundee. They were mountain enough.

I progressed northwards to the higher hills of the Angus Glens and these in turn became mountain enough until I detected among the regulars there a preoccupation with the ultimate northern horizon - the Cairngorms - and it became irresistible. Northwards again, then, but with the principles of the craft ingrained, and the cautions of wiser heads in my ears, those sage "bewares" which teach - no, which demand - respect for the great- er scale and the greater forces of wilderness.

Herein lies the third lesson. I plead for the voluntary abolition of Munro-bagging. It was a singular disservice which Sir Hugh Munro performed for mountaineering Scotland when he wrote down his tables of summits over 3,000 feet. He turned wild nature's grandest gestures, its cathedral structures, into something competitive and collectable. Indirectly, his invention pushed more and more climbers out on to mountains and into conditions far beyond their competence in pursuit of a tick on a list. I urge all unfulfilled would-be Munroists to tear up their lists.

That will not happen of course, because Munro-bagging is big business, fuelled by gear manufacturers, publishers of guide-books and magazines, and even a few professional guides. But it is a seriously flawed approach to mountains and one which begets seriously flawed philosophies. More than once I have heard a Munroist branded an inferior being because he had only climbed in summer. The only "real" Munroists are the ones who climb in winter ... that is the hideous implication at work in the minds of Munro-bagging's most sinister perversion. It is a significant factor in the litany of the dead of winter.

In the face of such a phenomenon I plead one more cause. It is that we can all improve the quality of the going -the way we think about mountains and mountaineering. We are,better, safer mountaineers when we try to understand the mountain rather then merely climbing to pronounce it climbed; when we try to forge bonds with the mountain by learning a sensitivity to its moods. Such things do not come easily because the high ground is nature's exclusive preserve and we are strangers there. The Scot on his native heath values a moral freedom to roam and claims it for his birthright. So he should, but it is no more than a hollow arrogance if he will not acknowledge in the mountain midst a subservience to nature's lows. If the ptarmigan are flying downhill, you have no business going up.

But there are ways to improve the quality of the going. All over the Highlands for years now there have been notices on pub and hotel walls warning climbers "Never go alone". I think it is not good advice. When climbing in a club or a party, tribal loyalties hold sway and drown out the mountain's voice. Fear of failure in the eyes of others pushes people past their limitations. But going alone heightens sensibilities to your surroundings, makes you more aware of your limitations and teaches you to work within them. Everyone who climbs should climb alone at least once, even if all you do is walk a low mile among mountains and sit and listen to the sounds and the silences of that company. The memory of it will outlast every mob-handed expedition you ever make.

I regret the inflicting of outdoor recreation on the school syllabus, like algebra. It is no substitute for the apprenticeship and the joy of discovery. I regret the advent of that species of climbing school which can teach a 16-year-old to tackle what we used to call a "VS" grade in two weeks. He has learnt to run before he can walk - and may never learn to walk. I regret the pervasiveness of the Munro-bagging culture, and I hold it culpable.

No one can look at the toll this and countless other winters have taken of men, women and children and deny that most of the deaths were avoidable, avoidable by following the only code of practice which works: self-regulation. If the mountain is beyond your limitations on the day you choose to climb it, you shouldn't be seen dead there.

The writer is the author of `Among Mountains', Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, £14.99.