Safety First by weedavie


Cra’s recent spat with Mountain Rescue got me thinking on the topic of hill safety. My first thought was it’s over-emphasised. Of sports I’ve played, I’ve been hurt worse at football, skiing and squash. Mind you I’ve also seen a worse injury at bridge, normally a non-contact sport. An ill-considered comment about a failed six no-trumps bid led to a flat out brawl in a desert oil-workers’ shed but I’m wandering.

Countries show their attitudes to safety in their guide books. The English, ignoring the fact that their country's nearly flat and is so stowed with folk that the only way you'll get hurt is sitting down and being tripped over, have fearful warnings on the dangers you'll encounter. They also insist that you should travel in packs of forty or so as a further safety measure. Our own Scottish ones tend to be rugged and matter of fact "There is some exposure but all too soon the fun is over...” I've only just realised that looks suspect. Irish ones on the other hand are like talking to a long-winded blether in the pub. "You now come on a long stretch of bogland. This could present difficulties in mist. Ah you should have taken a bearing a mile ago, why didn't ye?"

People can get prissy about safety. The worst are the fleece-wrapped assistants in your local outdoors shop. “You can’t use that boot with a crampon.” When you’re young you think you can have a sensible discussion with a Jehovah’s Witness but you learn you can’t and it’s just as hard to get through to the said assistant. So you settle for “OK, I won’t use a crampon.” Nutters can gauge insincerity and they realise you’re probably lying but they’ve limited options. In fact a firm three season boot will take a reasonably flexible 12 point crampon. You wouldn’t go up an ice-face with it but it’s going to stay on and give you a solid grip and support. However I’ve watched someone with a twisty walking boot shed a crampon on a narrow ridge and it’s not something I’d like to repeat. Nobody got hurt, there was just a high fear factor.

Bad equipment gets fewer people into trouble these days than does good equipment.
Bad equipment gets fewer people into trouble these days than does good equipment. Lashings of Gore-Tex and the latest toys, electronic thingies or just a mean looking axe and you feel master of the universe. But as the late Jimi had it “are you experienced?” My early errors came in bundles. There was a day I “led” a party up Ben Lomond. It was a day of perfect inversion and we emerged through a dazzling white cloud plateau from which erupted the summits of snow-capped peaks. Our own particular peak was getting steeper and I realised I was having trouble kicking into the frozen snow. I bent my path to an overhanging rock. Once there I had the worst of both worlds. Momentary safety, couldn’t go back and a steeper way forward. Ten minutes later I froze in the middle of a traverse back across the slope. A long way below, the slope ran into a rock field. I pictured bouncing like a pinball among the boulders. I saw that one companion had started trying to cut steps with a Swiss Army knife and one had such light boots he couldn’t dent the snow at all. At that point Gill went “Oh for God’s sake!” and just started steadily kicking upward. The Swiss Army knife followed. Sheepishly I kicked back to retrieve the lad in soft boots. We made it back to the car in darkness and listened on the news to an over-stretched Mountain Rescue listing the faults they’d encountered in a record day for call-outs. We were guilty on every count except getting caught.

What is safe equipment? Well the first thing about it is you’ve remembered to pack it and fitted it with batteries. If your head-torch is under the sink (and that’s the only place I’ve used it in anger recently) it’ll not get you off the hill. In my pack I definitely have survival bag, torch, map and two compasses (I’ve thrown some away and demagnetised another.) Appropriate clothing and waterproofs are generally essential but I remember Gordon finding he’d no anorak on top of Beinn a’Bhuird about 10 miles from the car. It kept looking like a downpour but it never materialised. That time of year he’d only have taken a soaking but he’d be sure to believe he’d pneumonia so it was just as well. I’m sound on food but can get by without and in Scotland you pick up water as you go, not something to try in Galway. Things that get in lists but I’ve trouble seeing as essential are first-aid kits and whistles. First-aid kits seem a bit like packed lunches which have not enough key ingredients and lots of non-essentials like bruised apples and own-brand soft drinks. Whistles are just eccentric: a ukulele would be as convenient and you’d get a better tune out of it.

I hate to say it, I carry a mobile phone. However mainly it’s switched off. People who receive or make calls in the wilderness destroy the illusion a bit. As I’ve done it myself under pressure, I just look long-suffering when it happens. People say leave route details and I often do. But sometimes I picture a less than map-conscious partner trying to explain Mam na bhFonsai to a Dublin Garda. As for when you change the route and you’re trying to send back Beinn an tSaighdura against the efforts of predictive texting… I do leave a route card when I’m walking solo. I’ve heard people who think lone walkers are less safe but mostly you’re more aware of where you are and what’s going on. Just like you take extreme care on a narrow ridge and then fall over in the car park.

Do you really need it?

If you’re in difficulties don’t call for help without thinking. I mean if you see someone going over a cliff it’s sensible to get people on the alert but if you’ve a chance to assess injuries and options then do it. Ronnie dislocated his shoulder on the Stuic on Lochnagar. Going back was no option and he didn’t fancy hanging around for the MR so he carried on one-handed. The easiest way was also the most exposed but he finished the scramble. He then opted for the seven moorland miles back to the car. His troubles weren’t over. His father who was with him had never had a chance to drive Ronnie’s new sporty car. There was no option but to give him the keys. The journey at top speed twisting down Glen Shee is one Ronnie still winces at today. A dislocated knee might have been a different story but it’s always worth remembering “Touching the Void”. Take a day or so and crawl out.

I’d as soon go on the hill in stockings and suspenders as carry a GPS but we all have our little ways. Ice axe and crampons should be carried in winter unless you’re certain you won’t need them and myself I pack goggles between November and May. I’m not keen on walking poles but tricky river crossings are one point where I miss them. Of course the biggest objective risk of injury is on the drive there and back. It nearly happened to Ronnie’s mate Paul. It had been a miserable day on the hill and in spite of thickening snow, Ronnie, Hoss and Paul stopped for a pint in Killin. When they left it was really treacherous and finally a car sliding down the hill broadsided Ronnie’s. Paul jumped out “Thank God we weren’t using my car!” As Paul drives a company car, it was only Hoss’s lightning tackle on Ronnie that prevented serious injury.   weedavie Jan 2008.