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Mountaineering is dangerous - but that's the attraction

THE climbers of Glen Coe seem to be in accord: the mountains are dangerous, climbing is dangerous – but that's part of the attraction, and death and tragedy are, sadly, part and parcel of the thrill of mountaineering.

Main photograph: Steve Cox
Main photograph: Steve Cox

As one climber, Mark, in his mid-30s, said as he sat in his car, lacing his boots: "My view: you don't take any risks, you don't get anywhere, you know? It doesn't matter how well-prepared you are, accidents can happen."

Risk and loss have lain heavy on the minds of local folk in Glen Coe and the host of climbers who travel to the area every week to brave the mountains.

Last weekend, Christopher Bell, 24, Tom Chesters, 28, Una Finnegan, 25, and Rachel Majumdar, 29, died in an avalanche on the 3773ft-high Bidean nam Bian. A fifth person remains in hospital; a sixth member of the group escaped with minor injuries.

The group had been trying to descend from a peak and were at 3600ft when the snow–covered slope they were on gave way. Andy Nelson, deputy leader of Glencoe Mountain Rescue, said they would have been engulfed in a "split second".

Five days later, in a car park at the foot of Bidean nam Bian, climbers and hillwalkers are heading towards the peaks. A freezing wind scours the valley.

The local guide book says: "Bidean nam Bian is the whole majestic range of mountains on the south side of Glen Coe."

Majestic it was, certainly. Imposing, too. Mystical was how one local put it.

Graeme Wallace, a landscape photographer from Dunblane, comes into sight. He's just come down from the summit of Bidean nam Bian, the highest Munro in Glen Coe, having spent three hours getting to the top.

Is it a demanding climb? "Yes and no," he says. "There's a fairly clear trail up to 750m. I've taken the easiest route possible to the summit of Bidean. It is very icy in places, and with the recent snow, it's not always obvious where the path is, it's essential to be able to read a map and to have crampons and an ice axe.

"So if you have done very little winter climbing, then it is technically demanding. I took the route which I felt was safest today and avoided anything particularly challenging."

He adds: "There is a bit of mystery about Bidean nam Bian. It's a rugged and majestic mountain, which makes it very photogenic, although I'm still trying to find its best side."

In light of the accident last weekend, he said: "There's always a degree of hazard on the hills, particularly at higher elevations.

"No-one is up there clearing a path or setting out markers, so it's vital to check the weather and avalanche forecasts before setting off. The avalanche risk for Glen Coe last week was moderate to considerable, which is about medium risk. Today, it's considerable to high, so I've stayed well clear of the wide avalanche-prone slopes.

"Up there, you're on your own and have to make judgements, take a calculated risk, and assess the situation as you go. I guess that's what makes it so rewarding when you reach a summit."

Nearby, Daniel Crump, 28, from the Lake District, has stopped to take a look at the hills in front of him. He says: "They say this is the birth of British mountaineering - There's some lovely climbing up here."

On the subject of last weekend's events, he says: "It's the luck of the draw, isn't it?"

In Kinlochleven, seven miles away, Andrew Baxter, an independent councillor for Fort William and Ardnamurchan, is a walker who makes regular ascents of the Glen Coe peaks, including Bidean.

"Stunning scenery, fairly straightforward hill-walking, but of course things are slightly different and trickier in the winter," he says at the Post Office he runs. "There's a fine line between safety and tragedy. [The avalanche victims] seem to have found themselves on the wrong side of that line. I suspect that, whatever skills and preparations you had, once that avalanche had been triggered, there would have been nothing they could do to save themselves, such was its force."

The entire Glen Coe range is hugely popular, he adds, and the deaths haven't affected that. "You just have to drive along the glen any time over the weekend and the car parks are all full. That's how it should be. I don't think anyone in the walking or climbing community would be put off by the events, and I don't think any local people would want them to be put off. It's just a simple tragedy. No-one should be put off if they have the right skills and experience."

But locals must be affected, themselves, by such deaths?

"Whenever we hear that the rescue teams are out, our hearts sink. When I heard the teams were out on Saturday, part of me hoped that it wasn't for someone I knew from the area. Also, we have friends who might be on the rescue team or police force.

"But I don't want anyone to think that Glen Coe is some sort of accident blackspot in need of some regulation. It isn't. I think the statistics show that only 2% of the accidents on the hills are avalanche-related."

Across the road, at the popular Ice Factor indoor climbing centre, assistant manager Isobel Oakley, 30, says of accidents such as last weekend's: "It's tragic but it happens from time to time. Sometimes it can be down to people making mistakes or going on to the hills poorly equipped, though it doesn't sound like it was in this case. They were well-equipped and experienced.

"Sometimes, when the conditions are really mixed [as they were last weekend] you can just be really unlucky. To an extent, if you live and work up here and spend a lot of time in the mountains, you factor that into your risk assessment.

"But life wouldn't be any fun if we didn't do anything dangerous. Accidents are an accepted part of it – but tragic when they happen, obviously."

Oakley enthuses: "On a good day it feels like you can see almost all of Scotland." Her first winter climb was in Glen Coe. "There was a beautiful, atmospheric gully climb with huge walls of shiny ice catching the sunlight. We topped out into a stunning west coast sunset. I looked around me and thought: 'Why would I want to be anywhere else?'"

In the end, despite the risks, getting to the top of a place like Bidean nam Bian is always worth it, say climbers. Many can't find the words to express how much they love the climb.

"There's nothing like being up there and getting to the summit of a challenging Munro like Bidean," says photographer Wallace. "Some people bag Munros just to tick them off a list, which is a shame because they often go up in any poor weather and don't get to enjoy the views. The views from the top are what it's all about."

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