Published 1st November 2019, 20:24

    MOUNTAIN safety should always be paramount but a couple of stories recently made me realise just how far things have progressed in such a short time.

    One was the banning of a TV advert for gin, because it showed climbers drinking at the top of a mountain. The other was a stark warning of the dangers of wearing cotton clothing, especially in winter.

    It struck me that apart from final Munro parties, you hardly ever see anyone imbibing on the hill these days, or shambling along with horrendous hangovers. Changed days, right enough.

    And as for cotton clothes? They seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur, replaced by continually upgraded fabrics which do all the heavy breathing for you.

    Thinking back to wilder early days in the outdoors, I reckon there are a lot of people questioning just how they are still around to tell their tales. Drinking was part of the culture, the centrepiece of every trip, whether it was whisky being passed round in bothies or tents, or sweating the alcohol out with every brutal, early morning step up the mountain.

    I had work colleagues who used to head off for the weekend with the biggest packs imaginable, most of the contents being of the liquid variety. On many occasions, they never made it on to a hill, instead spending their nights pouring everything and anything down their necks and their days lying in a stupour.

    One memorable tale is of a pair heading for Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor. One was an experienced climber, the other less so, and to soothe his nerves the night before they polished off a bottle of whisky in their tent.

    When they set off next morning somewhat the worse for wear, the nervous one stumbled, fell, and broke his glasses. He couldn't see a thing without them and relayed his concerns to his mate, expecting sympathy and a call-off.

    The reply? “Ach, where we're going, it's probably for the better ye cannae see.”

    The mountain club we ran at work was always deemed to be more about the social side of a weekend in the wilds rather than bagging hills. We usually had two good days, but the second tended to be gentler after the inevitable Saturday night hoolie.

    One early start in the Mamores saw myself and a mate setting off in the dark, inadequate sleep after a late, late session, sweating out beer from every pore. It was clammy summer weather and we were overheating despite wearing the flimsiest gear possible.

    We were concentrating so much on just putting one foot in front of the other, that we had failed to notice until about two hours in that it had been raining for most of the time. What made it worse was that we were in cotton tops and trousers. Double jeopardy. Alcohol and cotton, a deadly combination. I suppose I could say we were lucky to be alive, but at the time we weren't entirely sure if we were. Alive, that is.

    Most of us are fortunate these days to have money and access to decent gear. Back at the start, it was a case of picking up whatever you could, mainly in army surplus stores. We were a ragtag outfit, soldiers of nae fortune, if you like.

    A friend's wife converted a pair of cotton trousers into breeches for me. I was pleased at the time. Now I wonder if she was actually a wannabe serial killer, a siren seamstress preying on naïve young walkers.

    At a dinner last weekend, we listened to tales of Sir Hugh Munro's early adventures; climbing mountains in the dark without the aid of a torch, losing maps in gale force winds, stripping off and then breaking the ice on a river to swim across to the other side. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he was wearing cotton on some part of his person and had also enjoyed a few snifters. The health and safety brigade would have had a field day.

    We have all become far more aware of safety and good practice. The reduced drink drive limits and an aspiration to healthier lifestyles have also had a huge part to play in the way we approach our mountain days. Venturing on to hills while under the influence now appears to be insanity, another habit that should be recognised as out of time and consigned to the past.

    The clothing message is also one of common sense. People die of exposure in the Scottish mountains and wearing cotton clothing can significantly increase the risk of developing hypothermia.

    When cotton gets wet it provides no insulation and the skin will cool quickly, unlike man-made synthetic fabrics which wick away moisture and retain warmth. Any innovation that will help save lives is worthwhile.