calcinations (calcinations) wrote,

Safety in the hills

This post has been sparked by the deaths of 5 people just this year in this hills. Two are not yet confirmed dead, but have been missing on Ben Nevis for 6 days now, and there is no chance that they are still alive. Historically I have read of a number of occasions when people's bodies have not been discovered for 2 or 3 months, only with spring melting the snow and ice are they revealed.

It seems clear to me that the most lethal period in the hills is the winter, with many deaths caused by avalanches, weather and simple falls. In the winter, the chance of slips and falls is greatly magnified, and the consequences when the temperature is 0C instead of +16 much greater. It is the exposure overnight that killed the two walkers in the borders. They were apparently experienced and knew the area well; unfortunately few details are available but it is likely that one or all of them had an accident that reduced their mobility.
Climbers who climb in winter have a pretty bad accident rate, for obvious reasons. Avalanches kill a surprising number of people, sometimes none in a season, and 4 or 5 the next, in part because they can engulf an entire group, and not so many people are equipped and trained to survive them.

Of course part of the reason for writing this post is also to reassure myself that I am walking reasonably safely. For instance I don't go climbing, and I choose the walking conditions carefully, so as not to be out in a storm. This appears to be part of the problem with the borders fatalities, I recall that the weather on the day in question was not great, with rain and cloud and wind. (The following links were found when searching for information about incidents in Scottish hills)
The danger of the weather can be seen by this old incident from 1971:
6 children and adults dead on Cairngorm.

It seems that 2 days out on the hills was too much for them, and was not actually intended, but soft snow impeded their walking and meant they were not at the shelter of a hut when a storm and blizzard arrived. Nowadays I'd like to think that most people would see the weather forecast and not go out at all, but the death last April or May of someone on Ben Nevis in weather that was far worse than I would go out in, indicates that is not the case. Mind you I have been on Cairngorm in conditions halfway to a blizzard, with visibility maybe only 10 or 20 metres. Fortunately my party was reasonably experienced and used compass bearings to navigate and a barometer to cross check location. Another time on the western plateau we were all adults, and as such were much better able to forge our way through the snow, whereas the 1971 incident involved teenagers who were much less physically able.

Regarding the accidents that occur in the hills, I found this interesting post from the BMC:

Bob Sharp’s study also reveals that the most common causes of incidents are poor navigation (23 per cent), bad planning (18 per cent) and inadequate equipment (11 per cent). Common shortcomings with equipment include the lack of compass, head torch or crampons on icy ground.

The only times I recall getting lost (and it was my fault) were when I didn't actually bother using a compass, and were in the borders, where it didn't really matter. (There have been another couple of wee incidents, involving groups of us, but they ended happily) Bad planning sounds familiar, although again with experience I know not to do it. These days I carry more equipment and am careful about the routes I take, sometimes discarding some because of the steepness or exposure. I recall once skiting across the plateau of Lochnagar because snow had melted and refrozen as ice, making it hard to walk across, jumping from non-iced rock to rock. I had crampons in the minibus but had underestimated the requirements, there being little snow and ice visible from below.
I do though always carry a couple of torches, including a nice new headtorch with a better performance than most of the risible wee things sold in outdoor shops.

Just before the above quote, it says:
As Ged Feeney, statistics officer fro MREW, puts it: “the prime causes of incidents in British hills are a failure to develop skill and experience in controlled conditions, failure to temper plans to suit the ability of the least able in a party and failure to have and know how to employ the proper equipment, particularly relating to map and compass.”

Yup, all those are things I have experienced, but mostly in controlled conditions and only rarely with a bit of luck to get us out of a scrape.
The report that is referred to is available here:
Scottish Mountaineering Incidents
Covering incidents from 1996 to 2005, so a little out of date, but might make interesting reading.

However, it is important to note that, according again to a quote from the BMC article:

According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA), you are far more likely to be injured playing sports like football and cricket than hill walking or rock climbing. ROSPA reports 1,000 accidents per 100m hours for walking and 4,000 for rock climbing. Cycling scores 7,000 and horse riding 10,000.

So as you would expect, the more severe your activity on the hills the greater the risk, but, one of the issues compared to say horse riding is that help is not a phone call and an ambulance drive away, it is often many hours away. Hence the deaths that hit the headlines.
The above article from last year is somewhat interesting, and reiterates the important point that training and experience is important. I have a fair bit of experience, but have spent the last 18 months re-learning it after being off the hills for years. I have invested in newer equipment, and take a more risk avoiding approach and carry more food and clothing than I used to. I've also just recently bought a new watch which has barometer/ altimeter and compass function. The latter is only for backup, but it is useful, and the former are very useful, for both weather prediction and estimating your location. This works by it telling you that you are at 802m, which means you must be somewhere around the 800m contour line, so you compare what little you can see of the landscape with the map. It is also handy for telling you how close you are getting to the summit.
One of these days I shall get a GPS, but I note the various articles above keep complaining about people who are over reliant on their GPS or phone or whatever and there's always the battery issue.

In fact back in January the mountain rescue picked up some lucky people from Ben Lomond who were using their phone for a torch in the dark and hadn't proper location finding equipment:
This is not a new thing either, it happened in 2013 too:
This group had no map or compass, torch and two were wearing trainers!!!!

However I am happy to report that when I did a munro by Loch Lomond back in September last year or so, everyone I saw was at least wearing boots and seemed to have clothing and rucsacs and food with them.

It turns out that back in early 2013 there was a bit of a media storm over the number of deaths in the Scottish hills that winter. Now most of you know I hold much of the current field of newspapers and journalists in contempt for their general uselessness and inability to enrich and inform our lives. Although to be fair it appears the contretemps also took place in the broadcast media.

Anyway, here's Cameron McNeish's February 18th 2016 take on why people go walking, note he's also fed up with saying it again and again, so he reprinted it from 2013:!Mountain-Accidents-and-Mountain-Safety/c1q8z/56c5e8100cf2d76542b2938c

He takes on 3 general points made by numpties:
One: mountaineers should be made to take out insurance.
Two: the mountains should be closed off during and after bad weather; and
Three: mountain rescue teams should be professional.

As you can see, all three would involve more spending of taxpayer money and government bureaucracy. We see this too in the world of sailing, where it is possible to buy a boat, sail out the harbour in a storm and drown yourself and your friends, as happened at Whitby a few years ago. So every now and then possibly well meaning people, or just blethering idiots with no life, suggest it should all be tightly controlled and monitored.

But as has already been shown, hillwalking is pretty safe compared to many activities, it's the sheer numbers that do the damage. (As they do to the hills too)

One of the idiots responsible for the Feb 2013 brouhaha has a stupid article here:

Naturally most of the comments disagree with her, although it is rather amusing that an article that appears to encourage government restrictions on people's activities has a side bar poster that says “Keep calm and read Friedrich Hayek”, who was a right wing liberal economist sort of person who wrote “The road to serfdom”, which argued that the welfare state was part of a slippery slope leading to evil socialism, and made a living writing about how bad government intervention is.

Anyway, it should be fairly clear by now that I think that education and encouragement of learning about and gaining experience of mountaineering/ hillwalking is a good thing, and big government schemes would not be practical or desirable.
More facts and arguments against such numpties can be found here:

the author noting that
Tragic though mountain deaths are, every week we lose so many to drink in drugs in the UK. Yet it seems to be an accepted fact that this happens, day in day out. The government is pushing for a fit society and to get people out for the health benefits involved; yet we had to spend an hour on a programme defending our sport!

Mind you last year some fell runner got lost in a mass run in the highlands, and got a bit hypothermic before being found. Radio Scotland convened a discussion with a mountain rescue person, a fell runner and someone else, seemingly expecting that they could get a good argument going between the different people with different backgrounds, but instead they all nicely agreed with each other about the importance of being properly equipped and good navigation skills. Which was nice to hear.
You'll always get accidents and things that go wrong through nobodies fault at all. Good equipment and experience can help ameliorate such things, although obviously I have less sympathy for the non-equipped. The trick is how do people get the experience without being exposed to some risk, an issue that parents will be aware of, and indeed I just read about in a short story by Rudyard Kipling in “Plain Tales from the Hills”, from 1890. So it isn't exactly a new problem.

In my own case, I built up the experience by walking in Scouts, led and trained by leaders who had more experience and skills than I did. After that I walked a lot in my local hills, mostly on my own. Then at University I went for walks with more experienced people and got more experience that way too, despite their sometimes cavalier attitude to safety and equipment.
I also own a number of books about safety on the hills, and have read and digested them and compared them to my own experiences. Of course the Sharp report referred to above indicates that experienced people also get into trouble through overconfidence.
What I suppose I need to top things off would be a proper training weekend somewhere like the famous ones held in the Cairngorms.

So stay safe out there, and remember to walk carefully.
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