Margaret Vaughan investigates whether forcing hill climbers to pay for mountain rescue costs would reduce both the risks and the attractions

AS sure as the snow sweeps Glencoe comes a chorus of calls for a ban on climbing in bad weather, for compulsory rescue insurance, for certificates of competence. As sure as the inevitable crop of winter accidents in the hills, is the reaction of Bill Walker, the North Tayside Tory MP, who dusts down his old refrain to demand that hill users must pay the costs of rescue.

The Commons All Party-Scottish Sports Group concluded last year that the introduction of compulsory insurance cover would not save one life in the hills. The mountain rescue teams, made up of mountaineers who voluntarily go to the aid of fellow climbers in trouble, do not want it. And the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, along with the British Mountaineering Council, don't believe it would work. Worse, they fear it might lead to poorer rescue services for those who do get into trouble.

Still, Walker sees no reason why people should not insure themselves against accidents...... ``as they do on the roads and things like that''. And earlier this week the Scottish Affairs Committee announced an inquiry into rescue operations and funding arrangements which will study the case for insurance cover.

Ho hum, Nick Kempe manages not to say. He's the president of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and believes insurance in itself has nothing whatever do with the issue of accidents on mountains. It is to do with how mountain rescue is organised. ``One is accident prevention, the second is how you organise the mountain rescue teams. Our mountain rescue teams are made up of volunteers. They get excellent back-up from the police and RAF, but their work is done on a voluntary basis. That system works extremely well. On a lot of the rescue teams there are waiting lists of people who want to join,'' says Kempe.

There are 24 mountain rescue teams in Scotland, two search and rescue teams with dogs, and two RAF teams who use mountain rescue as an opportunity for helicopter training. Their main work is to go to the aid of military and civilian aircraft in trouble. Then there are the police forces who back up the efforts of the rescue teams. There is no charge for such services.

In France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, climbers who are rescued are expected to pay the costs, either to the private firms that run some of the services or to the Guides' Association which staff some others.

But nobody is ever left stranded on a glacier if they can't wave an insurance certificate at the helicopter hovering overhead: ``In fact, the situation is very complicated. People who don't have insurance still get rescued. The bill can be paid later, sometimes it is just ignored.''

The ethos among climbers means that when people get into trouble in the hills, other climbers will go to their aid: ``As soon as you introduce insurance that will be destroyed. Instead of going along to assist, there will be this feeling that people are going to be paid to do it. It would also raise all sorts of other questions about the qualifications of the people involved in rescues. People might be worried to help out in case an insurance company sues them if something goes wrong. It would simply create a legal quagmire.''

An Italian MEP called Amadeo Amadeo is trying to persuade the European Commission to introduce a system of competency tests. Anyone who ventures into the hills would have to pass a series of tests to gain a licence. This would be backed up by a compulsory insurance scheme.

``Short of patrolling the perimeters of all areas of open countryside, it won't work. It's virtually unenforceable,'' says Sam Galbraith, Labour MP for Bearsden, who in his days as a neurosurgeon became an accomplished mountaineer.

Given the impossibility of ringing hills with chainlink fences and gates to keep out unlicensed, uninsured climbers and walkers, it seems a non-starter.

Galbraith reinforces the point that, no matter the country in which you climb, rescuers do not ask you to yodel the name of your insurance company before help is offered. ``If you're stuck in a crevice no-one shouts down for details of your insurance. If you don't have any, well, that's the way it goes.''

During the past 30 years there has been an increase of 460% in accidents on hills and mountains. ``The increase is attributable simply to an increase in participation and not to any decrease in safety standards,'' said Roger Payne, general secretary of the British Mountaineering Council.

Ian McNaught-Davis, president of the international mountaineering organisation UKAA says: ``People will always have accidents but the idea that more rules will make it safer is false. You don't need a licence to go swimming, which is far more dangerous. There are no rules about sailing. Why should mountaineers be singled out?

``One of the falsehoods is that if you obey all the rules then you will be all right. In many ways rules to stick to desensitises people to the risks. There really are no hard and fast rules to protect you. It's all about taking risks - if you remove all the risk then there isn't a sport.''

The organisations see it as more important to educate people in how dangerous mountains can be. And, while it would be reckless to down-play the dangers to those climbers who take to the hills, it is also pointed out that there are rarely calls for other risky sports to be regulated in quite the same way.

Mountaineers and hillwalkers don't need explanations for what they do, but when the death toll in the Scottish hills is tallied it is perhaps understandable that the public criticises those who climb. Such a reaction is not new.

The public has been uncomfortable with mountaineering since it became a sport. When three climbers fell to their deaths on the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, the Times of London wrote a waspishly critical leader. Queen Victoria consulted Disraeli to see what should be done. Nothing he counselled, absolutely nothing.