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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Thoughts on a mountain tragedy

The professional outdoor world has been ablaze with debate and discussion over the past few days, thanks to the findings of a fatal accident report by a Scottish Sheriff.

The full judgement can be found here, but in summary, the inquiry concerned the death in 2012 of Graham Paterson, an experienced hillwalker and climber who was self employed, taking clients out in the hills of Skye. Although Mr Paterson had been taking clients out since 1995-96 and has been referred to as a mountain guide, he did not hold any formal qualifications in this area. This forms the background to some of the Sheriff's recommendations.

Mr Paterson fell on a grade 4 winter climb, in the company of a client who had asked for, and thought that she was going on a winter walk. When the accident occurred, the client did not know which mountain she was on, let alone the exact location, and Mr. Paterson was badly injured and unable to tell her. With considerable difficulty and at considerable personal risk, the client was able to descend the mountain and summon help.

Evidence was given by a local MIC holder and by the deputy head of the Scottish Adventurous Activity Licensing Service (AALS). Both were unequivocal that the client should not have been on the route she was, given her own stated level of experience, and that furthermore she should have been more involved in the route planning, as well as being provided with emergency procedures.

The Sheriff states in his report that 'the underlying cause of the risks to which (the client) was exposed was the unregulated nature of mountain guiding in Scotland' and that 'it is incumbent upon policy makers to discover a means by which mountain guides in Scotland are properly qualified and equipped to provide the service which they promote and which they operate for commercial gain'

This is no knee jerk reaction, the likes of which can be seen in the uninformed comment of the Daily Mail every time there is a death in the mountains. The Sheriff did not call for a minimum level of qualifications, nor did he call for the banning of non-professionals from the mountains and uplands of the UK. Instead, at a time when the UK government has been considering removing the requirement for licensing of outdoor activities for children, the Sheriff seems to call for the expansion of the AALS approach to the adult sector.

The current situation in law is that an outdoor professional can demonstrate their competence in a number of ways, including the use of formal qualifications. It is also possible to demonstrate competence through long experience. Where the competence-based route can fall down is in the area of continual professional development, in particular keeping up with developments in best practice and new technology. The licensing approach, with its emphasis on technical advisors, attempts to address this concern.

The distinction between children and adults that forms the basis of the AALS regime is based on the premise that adults are (or should be) more able to understand and assess the risks involved in an activity. When commercial services are engaged however, this process of risk assessment becomes blurred, and in practice, paying clients expect that risks will be managed for them.

So, licensing, a no-brainer right? Well, at a cost of £700+ for a 1-3 year license under AALS, many small providers are discouraged from taking on licensable activities. If this approach were extended into the adult market, how many small businesses would decide to pack it all in? Would we be left with a few big players taking people out on the same routes and offering a less than personal service, or would prices simply rise to absorb the licensing and technical advice fees?

There are no easy answers, and this case appears to be unusual rather than indicative of a wider problem amongst outdoor professionals, but I believe there is some wisdom in the cautious steer given towards licensing by the Sheriff. Regardless of the next steps though, there will always be risk in the mountains. The focus must remain on sound judgement and decision making, with external controls a secondary concern.

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