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27th November 2003

Dangerous Mountaineering

Mountaineers have condemned Britain's biggest selling hill-walking magazine as irresponsible. 'Trail' magazine suggests three routes which, it says, are snow-free, even in the depths of winter.

The British Mountaineering Council is one of a number of organisations which are writing to the magazine, complaining that the article is factually inaccurate and could put inexperienced walkers at risk.

One of the routes the article recommends is the Lairig Ghru through the Cairngorms - possibly Scotland's most famous mountain pass. It rises to almost three thousand feet, and goes through wild and stunning scenery between some massive peaks. The piece says "even the worst winter weather" can't spoil the route, and "there will be no deep snow".

But John Allen, leader of the Cairngorm mountain rescue team says that's just not true. He says "you get snow on the Lairig Ghru all year round. In fact, I've seen snow there in June, in the mid-summer". He told me the story of several climbers and walkers his team have had to rescue from chest-high snow on the route - some as late as April.

The other walks featured are on Stac Pollaidh in the Highlands, and round Great Gable in the Lake District. The magazine promises they "guarantee a high time below the snow", and are routes you can do any-time without "the faff" of ice axes and crampons.

But, Tim Walker, the Principal of Sport Scotland's national mountain training centre at Glennmore Lodge, says "all three are quite serious under-takings, and certainly could not ever be described as being snow-free year-round". He said even if conditions seem to be good anyone attempting any of those routes in the winter should carry a bivouac bag, an ice axe and crampons, and know how to use them.

The editor of "Trail" told me his magazine is written for, and read by, regular hill-walkers. He said his readers "do not need dire warnings on every page of the myriad potential dangers which await the unprepared, that the weather is unpredictable, or that conditions in the mountains on the day you want to walk are the ultimate make-or-break factor".

But that hasn't reassured the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, or the British Mountaineering Council. They're both writing to the magazine, complaining that the feature is factually inaccurate, and could mislead inexperienced walkers, putting them at risk.

Fergus Ewing, the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Inverness East - which includes most of the Cairngorms - is unhappy, too. He's a former mountain rescue team member he's run and walked through the Lairig Ghru and he knows how terrifying it can be to be caught in a white-out on the hills, when you literally can't see your hand a foot in front of your face.

He's calling on the magazine to print a follow-up article as quickly as possible, so its readers "know what they're taking on".
Mountaineering legend Sir Chris Bonnington agrees with that. When I went to see him at his home near Caldbeck in Cumbria, he told me the magazine is normally excellent. But this time, he said, "they've made a mistake". If the experts who really know the area - like the mountain rescue team and the instructors at Glenmore Lodge - say you get snow on the Lairig Ghru, he said, "Trail" magazine "would be very wise to listen to them, and print a retraction".

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