A comment on mountain safety

pointfivegully

There’s been a string of tragic accidents on the Scottish mountains this winter. Which is a little strange given how there’s actually been very little snow and fairly mild conditions (climate change I suppose, rather that a steady build up it all comes at once and then melts or avalanches off). A few weeks back two highly experienced climbers died on Ben Hope, while Ben Nevis has now seen three accidents with multiple fatalities, notably a fall off the ledge route and just the last few days three were killed in an avalanche in nearby number 5 gully.

Now inevitably the media position is, oh mountaineering, in particular these adrenaline junkies hanging off of cliffs, its really dangerous and should be banned. Well statistically, climbing is still safer than sports such as cycling, field sports, horse riding or water sports. So if you’re going to ban mountaineering, you’d have to ban these as well presumably. And according to mountain rescue statistics, in 2017, only 51% of call outs were for actual mountaineering related emergencies (although admittedly its usually more a 60/40 split). The rest are for things such as rescuing motorists trapped by snow or general search and rescue.

Another point is that a lot of these accidents have occurred on fairly easy routes. No. 5 gully and the ledge route are Scottish winter grade I or II, which is technically a winter scramble rather than an ice climb (easy climbing or hard walking depending on your point of view). In fact, this I’d argue is the problem, people are equating “easy” with “safe”, but that’s not the way it works.

The Ledge route for example (I’ve been up both of these routes before) is fairly exposed includes an airy scramble along a very narrow section of ridge. A grand day out, if the weather is good and you’ve a good head for heights. But certainly it comes with a certain level of risk, and that risk factor soars in the wrong sort of weather conditions or poor snow, or if the party is simply inexperienced (or poorly equipped). And no. 5 gully tends to accumulate rather a lot of snow and is thus prone to avalanches. It also tends to build up a large cornice on top and on at least one occasion I’ve been up it and we had to climb back down as we couldn’t safely break through the cornice without risking it collapsing on top of us.

Given that there was a “high” avalanche warning in effect on the north of Ben Nevis over the last few days one has to assume the climbers in the most recent accident either didn’t see the forecast. Or, as foreigners, they just weren’t aware that this particular gully is avalanche alley in the wrong sort of weather conditions.

But to be fair, I’ve seen scenarios where quite experienced climbers have gone out in bad conditions and argued, oh we can’t do Tower ridge today, lets do the ledge route or CMD arrete instead, that’s easy. And again, yes they are easy, but that doesn’t make them any safer in bad weather. If you’ve backed off one ridge because you think its unsafe, what magical thinking leads you to believe that another ridge on the same side of the same mountain (just narrower and more exposed!) is somehow immune to these dangers?

And for the record, its actually hillwalkers rather than climbers who are most likely to get into difficulty. Statistically only a tiny fraction of call outs are for climbers (94% hillwalkers, scrambling or climbing the remaining 6%), be it in summer or winter. The vast majority of accidents happen on well marked walking trails in summer (accidents being 3.5 times more likely to occur in summer than in winter). So this magical thinking extends to walkers as much as climbers, with people equating “easy” for “safe“, which isn’t always the case.

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Careful navigation off the summit of Ben Nevis is essential, particularly in winter

Case in point, the pony track up Ben Nevis (otherwise known as “the tourist route”) is probably the most likely spot in the UK for a mountaineering accident. Because while on a sunny summer’s day its a nice easy walk along a wide path (so wide many climbers call it “the motorway”), it can be very different on a bad day. Snow and freezing temperatures on Ben Nevis in summer is not unheard of. While in winter, temperatures can plunge to below -30’C and the snow can be several metres deep (hiding any waypoints or features under deep snow). And the path passes by several large and dangerous gullies as it approaches the summit. Gullies that in winter might be hidden under massive cornices. So careful navigation off its summit is essential (meaning you need to know how to use a map and compass!).

As the saying goes, the mountain doesn’t know you’re experienced. And some of that experience should come with knowing when to go down or not even to bother going up in the first place (or if and when things go south, how to get out of dodge). Hence the golden rule of mountaineering “going to the summit is optional, coming back down is compulsory”.

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