They’re studying hard at institutions around Scotland, but it seems that many are still learning the lessons of how dangerous our hills and mountains can be.
Figures show that 17-25 year olds have consistently required the most rescue callouts of any age group, and Mountaineering Scotland, the representative organisation for hillwalkers and climbers, is focusing on student mountaineering clubs as a way to instruct more young people in winter skills.
Heather Morning, the mountain safety officer for Mountaineering Scotland, says 20% of her work was with students, educating them about safety, particularly in winter. “The job was getting unmanageable,” she said.
She organises safety weekends at the Scottish National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge for the university clubs, but felt they were not reaching enough young mountaineers. “Transport is an issue for students. Many of them can’t easily get to Glenmore Lodge. I got the idea of the ‘parachute,’ someone parachuting into the existing club meets.”
Jonathan Hart, a past chairman of Scottish Mountain Rescue, was enthused by Heather’s parachuting idea. Together they approached St John Scotland, a charity which funds buildings, equipment, and training for the mountain rescue teams. Heather recalls: “We got into a discussion with St John about funding things that prevent people from getting into trouble.”
The charity liked the proposal and advertised the post. They had lots of applicants, but they needed someone who was approachable, young enough to enjoy being away with students in a residential context, but mature enough to have their respect.
Which is where Nick Carter comes in. He’s a professional mountain guide, holding the highest level of certification a UK guide can have, meaning he can take people climbing in both winter and summer.
Since 2015, he has been working for St John on the project that brings free winter mountaineering instruction to young people at student mountaineering club meets.
Nick stresses that it’s not just students who get into difficulties. “The issues were with young people generally. It’s a high-risk age group. But students were a captive audience.”
On student mountaineering club meets, they usually hire a hut or a village hall for the weekend, which they use as a base, and they go on hikes or climbs in that area. There can be anywhere from three to 40 students on a meet. For a lot of people, the university clubs are their first introduction to mountaineering.
Overall, Nick was pleased with how the project went last year and felt it met its aims. He provided basic winter skills for 58 students, winter mountaineering skills for 24, and climbing instruction for four. As he could only take up to six people out (fewer for climbing), he could not instruct everyone on a meet, but he said that during the evening, people approached him for advice about conditions, route planning, and avalanche risk.
He also has a slideshow highlighting winter safety issues, emphasising his own mistakes and how he learned to not repeat them. The evening chats and slideshows reached 181 students.
As with any new initiative, there were a few glitches, but this year the clubs know who Nick is. He said: “It feels like I’m becoming established in the student community.”
As clubs get to know him, they want more of his instruction. This winter, he is doing 13 weekends instead of the 11 last year. He’s also bringing extra gear in his van to cover any shortages.
St John have been delighted with what Nick has achieved, and they have agreed to fund the project for another two years and to expand it to the autumn meets, so Nick will be out with the clubs in September and October teaching navigation, rock climbing, and scrambling.
Ellie Parry, a master’s student at the University of Glasgow, felt that after a day out on Lochnagar with Nick, she was better prepared to enjoy the mountains in winter.
She said: “Nick was an excellent instructor; we learnt about the importance of having the appropriate kit to equip us for those unpredictable days up in the Highlands. Learning how to create shelter by digging snow holes and how to keep track of where we are using pacing and bearings was extremely useful and I am grateful for him sharing his experiences with us so that we might be safer on future trips.”
Mountaineering Scotland has educational events for the general public, not just students. More than 30 of Scotland’s leading outdoor organisations and mountain enthusiasts will be joining forces this March for Skills for the Hills, a day of lectures, workstations, and talks aiming to encourage those who love Scotland’s mountains to venture out safely. The event on March 25 at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall will be opened by journalist and broadcaster Cameron McNeish, and there will be representatives from Scottish Mountain Rescue organisations, the Search and Rescue Dog Association, the Mountain Bothy Association, the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, the Backwoods Survival School, the John Muir Trust, outdoor retailers such as Cotswolds and Tiso, and many more.
More details can be found here