Travelling the hills between Glen Almond and Strathbraan. Photo: Helen Gestwicki

Travelling the hills between Glen Almond and Strathbraan. Photo: Helen Gestwicki

Mountain experts are warning hill-goers in Scotland to stay within their limits while winter conditions prevail.

Mountaineering Scotland said this season has been the best and worst of winters, with plenty of snow in the mountains but outdoor enthusiasts subject to restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The organisation, which represents hillwalkers, climbers, mountaineers and ski-mountaineers north of the border, said many people are being creative and venturing out to explore and enjoy what their local area has to offer, although some are still unsure how far they can travel for outdoor recreation and exercise or what clothing, equipment and skills are needed to enjoy the outdoors safely in the current winter conditions.

Scottish Government rules allow people to travel for exercise, but they must not go further than five miles from their local authority boundary.

The organisation said: “With more winter weather on the way, Mountaineering Scotland and Scottish Mountain Rescue are reminding people to keep within their limits, be aware of the extra challenges of winter conditions, and to remember the Scottish Outdoor Access Code applies in winter too.

“Indeed, making thorough preparations and ensuring you have appropriate skills, knowledge and equipment is more important than ever, along with remembering to park responsibly, take litter home and avoid disturbing sheep and other grazing animals.”

Stuart Younie, chief executive of Mountaineering Scotland, said: “There are fewer people about in the hills and mountains because most are adhering to the travel guidelines and tending to choose less busy areas, meaning climbers, walkers and skiers need to be far more dependent on their own skills and resources.

“The unusually cold start to this year has also brought full winter conditions to the lower hills and paths, which means we have seen skiing and winter walking taking place in areas where we wouldn’t normally see so much activity, especially in the hills accessible from the central belt.

“The basics of heading to the hills in winter are explained on our website and that’s free advice available for both members and non-members.”

Recent incidents have highlighted the situation where hill-goers have travelled further than the travel restrictions allow and have then needed help to get off the hill safely, resulting in charges and fines for the breach of travel regulations.

Support from mountain rescue volunteers is available 24/7 for anyone getting into difficulties in the hills by calling 999 and asking for police, then mountain rescue.

Damon Powell, chair of Scottish Mountain Rescue, added: “Despite the challenges the current situation is putting on our volunteer members, Scottish mountain rescue teams remain ready to respond to anyone who gets into difficulty in the outdoors, wherever that may be. If you are lost or injured and can’t get off the hill call 999, ask for police then ask for mountain rescue.”

Police Scotland echoed Mountaineering Scotland’s views, urging people to conduct outdoor recreation in line with government regulations and ensure they are prepared for all eventualities.

It said: “Over the past two months Police Scotland has received 46 calls to search and rescue incidents across the country.

“A total of six fixed penalty notices have been issued and six people charged with culpable and reckless conduct. The same period prior to the pandemic in 2019-20 saw 55 such incidents recorded.

“Police Scotland’s three mountain rescue teams work in partnership with volunteer mountain rescue teams and other emergency services and have recently had to attend a number of incident where people have travelled outwith their local authority areas and required assistance due to ill-preparedness.”

On Saturday 16 January four men from Midlothian travelled to Crianlarich in one vehicle to climb Ben More. Officers said they had to be talked off the hill via phone and text from police and mountain rescue team, and also required ambulance assistance. “The Coastguard search and rescue helicopter was also tasked to attend the incident,” police said. “The group managed to walk themselves from the hill and were all uninjured. The men, aged 23 and 24, were charged.”

“Access to a number of popular beauty spots has also been restricted by inconsiderate parking and large numbers of people travelling for outdoor recreation. This has led to increased police patrols needed in areas around the Pentland Hills regional park, Lomond Hills regional park and popular walking routes in Lanarkshire and Aberdeenshire.”

The Saturday before the Ben More incident, a family from Edinburgh travelled to the Biggar area for a walk and had to be rescued with help from police and Tweed Valley Mountain Rescue Team after their vehicle got stuck in snow.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Speirs said: “I fully appreciate that the restrictions affect how we live our lives and spend our free time, however, the best way to stay safe is to stay at home.

“To protect the NHS we also need to protect our volunteers and emergency service colleagues who, by the nature of their work, put themselves at risk each time they’re called to an incident.

“Particularly at the weekends we are seeing people travelling for leisure purposes outwith their local authority areas and sometimes getting caught out by the change in weather conditions.

“We have been very clear that we will not be routinely stopping vehicles or setting up road blocks. However, officers may in the course of their duties come across people who are travelling from one local authority area to another.

“The chief constable has made it clear that our approach throughout the pandemic has not changed. Officers will continue to support people to follow the regulations and encourage them to take personal responsibility. The vast majority of people have stepped up to take responsibility and our determination and collective effort to tackle this virus must now continue through these difficult times.

“If you do find yourself in need of assistance because of being lost, injured, or in an emergency when outdoors, then phone 999, ask for police then mountain rescue. You will be helped.”

Scottish Mountain Rescue’s #ThinkWINTER campaign checklist includes:

  • Check the mountain weather forecast – pay particular attention to wind speed, temperature and cloud cover
  • Take warm layers, waterproof clothing, hat, gloves and boots with good grip plus a headtorch with spare batteries
  • Pack plenty of food and drink to keep you going, plus some extra just in case
  • Build up your navigation skills and confidence with shorter, smaller days before taking on bigger hills and longer days
  • Be prepared to turn back if the weather or conditions change
  • Let someone know where you are going, what time you will be back and what to do if you don’t return when expected.

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