Scottish climbers and Insurance

I caught a rant from some Scottish Tory MEP (a rare soon to to be extinct breed) who was arguing on the BBC radio 4 (can’t find the link but here’s the article that sparked it all) that all climbers in the Scottish mountains should be insured by law.

This is largely as a result of what has been a fairly bad winter for Scottish climbing, with about 14 fatalities on the hills this winter alone. That’s more than have occurred in many single years. Many of these have been caused by avalanches, probably a result of the fairly heavy snow this season, indeed I was out last weekend, and it snowed again at sea level while I was getting ready. Now 9 times out of 10 the people who get into trouble on the hills tend to be the “amateur” guys who try to climb Ben Nevis in winter in Jeans and Trainers (not recommended! its a completely different mountain in winter to the summer peak you can stroll too). but many of the fatalities this winter have been more experienced and well equipped parties, which is I’ll admit, rather worrying.

Most disturbing I thought was an avalanche in the Chalamain Gap. This is about as tame as it gets in Scotland in winter. The “gap, a break in a ridge in the Cairngorms, about 30 – 40 minutes walk from the main ski area carpark. It is often where instructors take their charges to teach winter skills (largely because its assumed to be safe territory). You actually have to walk partly downhill from the ski area car park to get to it, as its not at a particularly high elevation.

Of course I must point out a slight flaw in our MP’s plan, most mountaineer’s already have insurance. To be a member of any mountaineering club affiliated with the MCoS (Mountaineering Council of Scotland) or BMC (British Mountaineering Club) you need to have at the least 3rd party insurance cover (its part of you’re membership fees!).

The BMC and MCoS have long opposed any idea of making such insurance compulsory, not because they worry about the burden placed on their own members, but the impact on those who aren’t members of any club, but maybe take the odd family day out on the hills or tourists. In short by making mountaineering insurance compulsory, you would be turning all the mountains of Scotland into some sort of elitist private members club, something both mountaineering organizations are wholly against (they’re not run by Donald Trump!) as I suspect also will be anyone involved with tourism in Scotland.

Certainly both organisations want people to enjoy the hills safely. Indeed as a member of a student club we were always in contact with both bodies organisations for training and safety awareness talks or outings to train up new members. But slapping a heavy handed “insurance” policy on isn’t necessarily going to work or magically going to improve things. Indeed it could make the situation worse and not better!

Indeed the proposal from our Tory is that the insurance should go beyond just covering third party injuries but also extend to rescue costs as well. No doubt this reflects typical Tory “why should I pay for someone else” jitters over what has been a fairly busy winter for mountain rescue teams.

It is worth remembering however, that all the mountain rescue teams in Scotland are run by volunteers. The helicopter service is currently run by the RAF and RN, although the government is proposing to privatise this service (as I mentioned in a prior posts, here and here). As I mentioned then however, the RAF/RN often regard these flights as good training exercise, they need to keep helicopters on standby to pick up downed airmen (from RAF training flights) and thus if the government’s looking to make savings hear they’ll be disappointed. Thus one has to question what such a policy will be paying out too?

And what about other activities? Skiers for example? They are actually more likely to get into difficulty than climbers (we see a big pile of snow, we go around it, they go straight over the top of it! indeed I recall a late season climb in the cairgorms a few years back, I saw a loaded bank of snow above me and began to detour around it, no sooner had I done that but 6 skiers came flying over the top of it!). What about canoeists? or downhill mountain bikers? or fell runners? (if you think mountaineers are insane going up mountains in winter, watch these guys do their thing sometime!) or indeed cyclists on roads? Water sports of any kind are consistently rated the most dangerous sporting activity (even swimming in a pool!) and the numbers killed or seriously injured in water sports always outstrips all other sporting activities (combined!) by an order of magnitude. As one yachtsman has admitted (see here) if mountaineers need rescue insurance then they’ll need it too (and likely pay a heck of alot more than me in premiums!).

Its also worth remembering that while someone being stranded on a mountain might make for scary tabloid headlines, but the thousands of motorists who need to get rescued every years (tens of thousands this year) from stranded cars or accidents on wintry roads also need to get picked up by mountain rescue teams and helicopters. The only difference is they fall into the “dog bites man” rather than “man bites dog” column of journalism. But far more people are killed or injured on roads in winter than on the mountains. Shouldn’t motor insurance cover rescue costs also? After all anybody who gets in car in winter, particularly in Scotland, must realise the risks they are taking in doing so, as accident statistics (as well as basic common sense!) will tell you the risk of getting into an accident or stranded driving in winter are much higher than in summer.

Of course selling a massive insurance premium hike to the public won’t come across as so populist, as I pointed out regarding similar comments from Jeremy Clarkson (whose Top Gear buddy Hammond had to be rescued, least we forget, by air ambulance after a stunt gone wrong).

Indeed, since we’re talking about, what about those people who don’t go out and do any exercise at all, which is statistically speaking far more risky. We all know the health risks that smoking, drinking and a high fat diet pose, particularly when combined with low levels of exercise Why should my taxes pay for someone else’s NHS treatment? (probably because unlike the Tories I’m not a heartless bastard!).

Insurance Scams

Again the MCoS and BMC oppose such a measure as compulsory rescue insurance, because it will make climbing an “elitist” activity. And inevitably many people, not their members of course (they go out often enough to make it worth their while), be they tourists or occasional day trippers, will just go out any insurance cover at all. What then? Will there be police at the foot of every mountain ready to arrest them?

Experience in other countries (such as some Alpine regions) with compulsory insurance or with private operators providing cover (notably many developing world climbing regions, such as Andes or Himalayas) are not encouraging. People are much more likely to risk it and go without insurance (particularly if they are either too old or young to qualify), get into difficulty and then often hold off from calling for help until its too late, leaving an even bigger mess for the rescue team (a British father and Son were unfortunately killed in the alps just the other week). Indeed I recall being out in Canada myself, and while I restricted myself from anything too daunting, I certainly wasn’t going to sit in the valley and sip coffee! And I saw plenty of others (likely without any cover either) going much higher.

At the other extreme there are a number of “rescue scams” running in some parts of the world. The BMC just did an interesting piece on these in Nepal (via its latest edition of summit magazine, not available online yet tho!). Basically the instant someone starts charging for rescue, it becomes a commodity (i.e. someone somewhere can make money out of rescuing people) and inevitably some less than honest people start arranging unnecessary rescues. e.g. a guide turns around tells a client with a bit of cramp/mild altitude sickness they need to be rescued (as opposed to a thirty minute breather and some Sherpa tea or going down for the day and trying again in the morning) and calls in a helicopter. A massively inflated rescue bill (with kick backs all around) for the insurance company to pay is submitted, who respond by hiking up premiums. Before anyone says that this would never happen in the UK, consider the number of elaborate insurance scams that professional criminals are pulling as we speak, often faking accidents on roads or taking swan lake dives off bits of broken pavement. Indeed just this week, even a cop got in on the act.

“Considerable” tabloid hysteria

Finally I would argue that at least part of this whole saga is driven by tabloid press reports of climbers going out when the avalanche forecast was quote “Considerable“. Why the tabloids ask, go out with a forecast giving a “considerable” risk of avalanche? How dare they expect the taxes we don’t pay to (not) pay for their rescue (by volunteers!).

Well largely because tabloid journalists haven’t got a clue how to read an avalanche forecast. The SAIS (Scottish Avalanche Information Service) operate a five point scale of snow pack stability going from Low to Very High, with “considerable” in the middle of the scale (i.e. for for most of winter this is normal after a snow fall). As the Swiss institute for Snow and Avalanche Research point out a “considerable” risk of avalanche means:

“The snowpack is moderately to poorly bonded on many steep slopes…Triggering is possible, even from low additional loads particularly on the indicated steep slopes. In some cases medium-sized, in isolated cases large-sized natural avalanches are possible”

This is quite normal in situations where snow has recently fallen. I could argue that after a snowfall the risk of avalanche of the snow off you’re roof is “considerable“. If the tabloids were to be believed that would mean we don’t go outside any time snow has fallen. The advice from the experts in such scenario a is:

“Experience in the assessment of avalanche danger is required. Steep slopes of indicated aspects and altitude zones should be avoided if possible….”

In short a “considerable” forecast doesn’t mean the whole mountain is a no go area. It just means you need to read the forecast carefully and avoid certain danger zones (the indicated aspects and altitude where danger is predicted). This of course means you need to be up to speed with avalanche awareness and if you’re not, then off piste skiing or hiking is a really bad idea. The SAIS discuss this themselves here.

Casing point, I was out in Wales this year (where there is no avalanche forecast, but that doesn’t make it any safer!). I noted as I ascended that much of the snow around me was only 24 hrs old (always a warning!). I also noticed that my planned route would take me into corrie where the prevailing wind was building up a steep wall of snow (loading to use the term the snow slope) otherwise known as a “cornice” at the headwall. That created a potential avalanche hazard. At a safe point at the bottom of the slope I dug a quick inspection pit and I didn’t like what I saw and I wasn’t in a mood to go up onto it and “find out” how stable the snow at the top was by standing on it.

My options were to go back down (always an option you need to consider!), or alternatively skirt around the corrie. The crest of a ridge 1km to my left for example, while rocky and icy showed no significant loading with snow, so while I had to scramble up onto it (of course I’d brought an ice axe and crampons just in case this happened), it represented much safer ground. This is often quite normal, if the corries are dangerously banked out with snow, sticking to ridges is often safer. Of course this isn’t always the case!

By way of contrast my planned line of decent took me down a ridge. However, I observed at the top of it that it was much narrower and steeper than I’d originally thought from the map. Furthermore it was heavily corniced (again likely with unstable powder snow). If the visibility dropped (e.g. a white out) it might be all too easy in such a situation to accidentally wander into the fracture zone of a cornice. Now while I thought the risks of this happening were low (weather was cloudy, windy and dull but not stormy), I decided I’d rather not be taking the risk of calling out Prince William (his got his wife and the wee-in on the way to worry about!) from RAF Valley. So I went back up over the mountain and down my route of ascent (a pain having to go back up a mountain you’ve already climbed, but again you have to be prepared to do it sometimes).

Of course had I just read my weather forecast a little more carefully the night before (again, there was no avalanche forecast for this region) I’d have realised that while conditions on the north face of this range were a little dicey, on the opposite South side of the mountain they were fine. Had I just started the walk from there all difficulty would have been avoided (then again, the south side of this peak is boring!).

But as my example above shows it is possible to avoid danger. Of course sometimes things happen, people wander off route, slip, someone gets ill and the party needs to descend quickly, an unexpected change in the weather, etc. Or indeed they just throw caution to the wind and ignore the dangers.

Indeed casing point, the other weekend I was out and saw a guy take a slide a 100m down a steep snow slope. He didn’t have an ice axe or crampons on and the snow in this north facing corrie was still frozen solid. Now he got up afterwards unhurt (that happens quite a lot of the time!) and in his defence of the 4 days last week I was out this was the only time I genuinely needed my crampons (and it is extremely rare to encounter snow in that state this late in the season).

Of course the idea that accidents “just happen” doesn’t sit well with the media, particularly on a slow news day.

So yes, while mountaineering in winter is risky, its not any less risky than a lot of other activities, such as driving on snowy roads! If we followed the tabloids line of reasoning all activity would grind to a halt every time a snowflake falls (as unfortunately does still happen to many schools). Getting mountaineers to pay rescue insurance would be a massive over reaction, and won’t really solve anything, other than scare off tourists and create a host of new scams for criminals to get rich off of.


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