Cloud clears on the summit of Ben Lui: should routes up mountains such as this be waymarked?

Cloud clears on the summit of Ben Lui: should routes up mountains such as this be waymarked?

Scotland stands accused of ‘mountain nihilism’ in its continuing opposition to adopting the practice of waymarking footpaths on its high ground.

Writing an opinion piece in the Herald newspaper, in which he admits he risks losing more friends than over any other subject, columnist Iain MacWhirter says it is almost impossible to find your way on the Highland’s mountains without a map, compass and local knowledge. It is, argues MacWhirter ‘time to end this silliness and start giving people the odd direction or two.”

The invective against the long-standing custom of leaving the nation’s mountains free from finger posts and yellow arrows brought a response from the chief officer of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, who invited MacWhirter – clearly a lover of the hills – to spend a day on the mountains with the MCofS’s mountain safety adviser Heather Morning.

In an open letter to the newspaper, David Gibson says she would be able to explain to him why map and compass works, and why marking paths never will – at least not in Scotland.

In this week’s article the political commentator, who was earlier this year elected Rector of Edinburgh University, put the boot into Scotland’s hillwalking ‘elite’. Nowhere else in Europe, he argues, do visitors arrive and find an almost total lack of maintained paths and waymarks.

The Black Forest, he says, has 45,000km of waymarked hiking routes; Scotland 570km. In France, in the Haute Provence or Alps, there are 240,000km of routes maintained by 6,000 volunteers.

Visitors to Scotland arrive expecting to find waymarking and are shocked and bemused to find barely a cairn to guide them.

Waymarking on the Vasaloppsled route in Sweden

Waymarking on the Vasaloppsled route in Sweden

In Germany there are even rest shelters every few kilometres where fresh water can be found, a situation similar to that in Sweden where basic forest shelters can be used freely by walkers. Scotland does, of course, have a system of bothies, but these are not on the same scale.

There is a longstanding antithesis in Scotland to anything that is seen to despoil the wilderness. MacWhirter’s journalistic colleague Cameron McNeish has written against the construction even of simple cairns to guide the unwary walker when the Scotch mist is down. This attitude, says the Herald columnist, harks back to the historic background of the Highlands as a playground for the landed gentry, from which hoi polloi must be excluded.

Heather Morning: offer to guide Iain MacWhirter up Curved Ridge

Heather Morning: offer to guide Iain MacWhirter up Curved Ridge

He admits that, despite undertaking mountain leadership and Outward Bound courses, he still has difficulty finding the right buttress to start Buachaille Etive Mòr’s Curved Ridge. The MCofS’s Gibson says that MacWhirter needs the expertise of Heather Morning to show him how to navigate properly.

Far from increasing safety in the mountains, waymarking and maintaining footpaths might tempt the less able to take routes beyond their abilities, Gibson contends. He says in his response: “Encouraging ill equipped people – in terms of both equipment and basic skills – into the hills using marked routes, would be totally irresponsible.

“As evidence, I cite Ben Nevis. The tourist track up the Ben is well constructed, and marked on the summit plateau with cairns, yet there are incidents each year where walkers lose their way, sometimes with resultant injuries or fatal results in what can be at times an arctic climate.

“We would expect the logical outcome of marked paths to be more mountain rescue callouts. Presumably you would then be lobbying the Scottish Government for more financial support for mountain rescue to cope with the increase in incidents?”

And it simply doesn’t tally with experience that foreign tourists expect to see signs on the hills. The chief officer says: “A colleague of mine worked for four years for Cairngorm Ranger service. Her view is that this is not the opinion of the majority of visitors to the ranger base; many express the view that it is preferable to keep the mountains unmarked and untainted by human influences – factors which encourage self reliance and challenge.

“It is surely Scotland’s wild land which brings the visitors, not an expectation that marked paths will help them find their way!”

Scotland’s mountains demand respect, argues Gibson: “Knowing how to use a map and compass can save your life. Marked paths would not render their use redundant, but would simply encourage ill equipped walkers to venture into the hills expecting routes to be marked.

“What if they missed a marker? How regularly would you suggest marks be placed? Who would be responsible for deciding where to place them, or if one was accidentally missed, or if one was no longer visible? Who would be liable if there was an injury or fatality? And who would negotiate the marking of routes with land managers?

“The right to enjoy Scotland’s mountains is founded on traditional rights, now enshrined in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.

“MCofS fought hard to gain these legal rights and we continue to act on a large number of access issues despite the legislation. We also recognise that mountaineers have a duty to respect the landscape, both in terms of our impact, and the risks involved, and we provide a range of educational and information resources on our website to help hill-goers understand the issues and how to deal with them.

The West Highland Way is one of few waymarked routes in Scotland

The West Highland Way is one of few waymarked routes in Scotland

“Mountaineering in Scotland is important to the health of many, and to a rural economy where visitors from home and abroad come to enjoy what is left of our wild land. Regarding visitors to Scotland, we would like to see your evidence for the assertion that visitors from overseas expect to see marked routes.”

The debate over safety and signs on routes has rumbled for years and resurfaces whenever there are fatalities. Two recent deaths on the Clachaig Gully route off Aonach Eagach have sparked heated exchanges over the desirability of warnings either on the route or on nearby car parks.

Ben Nevis, the most enticing honeypot of Scottish mountaineering for inexperienced walkers, has signs explaining the dangers of the route. Last winter, mountain rescue teams in the English Lake District put up signs urging walkers to go equipped with ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge of how to use them after a spate of accidents on snow and ice, and North Wales Police appealed for Snowdon to be left to experienced winter mountaineers after three deaths in close succession.

Both the MCofS and the British Mountaineering Council stress the risks involved when walkers take to the hills. The Scottish council’s participation statement says: “The MCofS recognises that climbing and mountaineering are activities with a danger of personal injury or death. Participants in these activities should be aware of and accept these risks and be responsible for their own actions and involvement.”

MacWhirter says: “Hillwalking is a mass participation sport and people come here from all over the world.

“You can’t just tell them not to come unless they’ve spent 20 years learning all the routes. Anyway, it is a kind of conceit, a form of vanity, that only people who are experts in hillcraft should be allowed to go on the hills. It is mountain apartheid. The paradox of wild land is that it has to be managed to keep it that way. It’s time to start telling hillwalkers where to go.”

Heather Morning told grough she will visit the Clachaig Gully within the next few days to see just what the problems are at the site, which is not recommended as an escape route from the aonach. She is also interested in cataloguing Scottish mountain blackspots, to make walkers and mountaineers aware of the potential hazards at the usual accident sites.

For all the arguments, it is clear that hillwalking is still relatively safe. Both MacWhirter and Gibson agree on that.

“The number of mountaineering incidents has varied little since 1980 despite many more venturing to the hills,” the MCofS chief says. “The fact that there are so few mountaineering accidents isn’t due to one factor; it’s due to a wide range, including improved clothing and footwear; availability of navigation courses, better guidebooks and maps; improved information on mountain safety, avalanche conditions and mountain weather; better training of mountain leaders; and better educated and informed hill-goers.”

Nihilism or not, the debate over Scotland’s wildernesses will continue. And people will continue to climb its mountains, with or without waymarks.

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