Published 23rd April 2022, 17:52

    WITH the growing numbers taking to Scotland's mountains, it shouldn't come as a great surprise that 2021 was the busiest year on record for our rescue teams.

    More than half the recorded 660 incidents – 52 per cent – were mountaineering related, either rock or winter climbing, scrambling, hillwalking and MRT activity, with 715 people needing to be rescued.

    The last couple of years have also seen a concerted push by MR and Mountaineering Scotland with regular safety and skills advice for those heading for the hills, especially during the winter and early spring months. 

    What was slightly more surprising, perhaps, was some of the reaction to an article in The Guardian by Heather Morning, the former mountain safety adviser at Mountaineering Scotland and now chief instructor at Glenmore Lodge.

    Heather was discussing safety and accident statistics, and the newspaper ran the piece under the headline: Being male and on your phone are biggest dangers on Scottish mountains, says expert. It wasn't inaccurate, but headlines don't tell the full story: they are a brief summing up, a label to attract attention, where degrees of nuance are absent. The result is that often minds are made up about the tone of the article before delving deeper.

    The data showed that over a seven-year period until the start of 2019, there were 114 fatalities with just 10 of those being female. Statistics rarely tell the full story either, but you can't argue with the figures, merely the context. For instance, they don't take into account the percentage of male and female participants.

    As Heather explained: “Loss of life is complex, but there are definitely some trends. Virtually all fatalities on the Scottish mountains are men. You make generalisations about male and female attributes with regard to risk taking and obviously it doesn’t reflect everybody. But from the years I’ve spent training people, guys tend to overestimate their ability and give things a go and don’t think that they need formal navigation and skills training, whereas ladies tend to swing way the other way.”

    Her comments seemed to trigger one or two examples of male indignation despite the fact that nowhere does she suggest that men compromise safety or don't have the relevant skills compared to women. She simply states that those who do take risks are more likely to be male. And that's certainly something I have noticed over the years. 

    Despite a fairly even gender split in any mountain club I've been involved with, I have never heard a prospective female member demand to be placed in the most hardcore route first time out. 

    Not so with some of the male hopefuls. Rather than bed in gently, they throw caution to the wind and pick the toughest day on the list. This supposed need to prove oneself can badly backfire. In one case, allowing the person to go on his chosen route would have led to assistance being called for and the rest of the group's day spoiled.

    On another occasion, we were approached by one guy who obviously thought the club would offer a great opportunity to pick up women. Despite having never been near a mountain in his life this lothario said he wanted “to do something tough, not any of your pussy stuff.” I offered to introduce him to the Aonach Eagach, but once he had taken a closer look he made his excuses and his membership application never arrived.

    Sometimes it's what is unsaid that better tells the story. A group of eight on Liathach, three male and five female, and a vote on whether the ridge should be traversed over the pinnacles or via the bypass path. Only one wanted to use the path. No shame in that, but it seemed he didn't want to admit he didn't fancy the higher-level route while the five ladies did. And so, for the length of the traverse, he kept mentioning that the path looked a better bet and asking why everyone preferred the pinnacles. 

    He could easily have taken the path – the rest of the group would always be in sight just above – but what he really wanted was for everyone else to come round to his way of thinking so that it didn't look like he was the one who didn't fancy it.

    The unravelling of false bravado was never more amusing than during a scramble along the narrow ridge leading to Ireland's highest mountain, Carrauntoohil. For three days we had listened to a brash New Yorker boast loudly and constantly of his worldly exploits as he tried to impress the two young ladies in the group.

    The ridge was to prove a step too far, however. He was a good trail walker but had never had to scramble at height before. He panicked at the first hurdle, and had to be helped along the rest of the way by the two girls using their hands as foot placements. When he reached the summit, he sat down and wept. There was never a peep from him after that.