Are Runners Safe in the Mountains?
[Editor] Malcolm MacIntrye is the Support Manager of the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team. In this blog Malcolm draws upon his extensive experience to offer advice on things runners should consider before heading into Scotland's more remote places.
I’ll confess to being biased on two counts. I consider myself a mountaineer (not a trail runner, or even a night trail runner); and I’ve been involved in the Braemar Mountain Rescue team for a long time (25 years). Over these years one hotly debated topic that recycles every now and again is the runner vs hill-walker, light and fast vs being prepared for foul weather and any imaginable incident.
I’ve noticed my rucksack getting heavier and fuller; as mountain rescue experiences make me try to prepare for any eventuality, I add electronic gizmos and their back-up batteries to my pack (head-torch, spare head-torch, gps, avalanche transceiver, mobile phone; that’s five each AA and AAAs without spares so far), never mind spare duvet, hat, gloves, food…I then look at a hill-runner and absolutely envy the light-is-right tactic and lack of boots or rucksack. However, I also wonder what happens when you do go over an ankle, or worse?
I’m sure many runners are familiar with the compulsory gear check-list necessary for some events - the Illuminator is no different. [Editor: see advice & KITLIST DOWNLOAD here!] However, some runners still take ridiculous steps to circumnavigate these lists, ending up with either too little equipment or useless, and pointless, items to carry round. So what is the answer to all this?
Mountain rescue statistics, at least in Scotland, are not full of ill-equipped hill-runners succumbing to hypothermia due to a lack of adequate clothing, and even night runs such as the Illuminator generate very few incidents (though the level of marshalling and lack of need to navigate may be factors). There are a lot of statistics relating to overdue walkers, or benighted climbers, or navigational errors leading to the above.
However, runners do have accidents in the hills; and sometimes they need the services of mountain rescue to help them. But then, so do well-equipped hill-walkers and climbers. My own view is that an individual needs to weigh their experience, skills and how they are feeling (fitness, health, mojo) against the weather, their goals and other factors such as who else is there and who knows your plan.
I think some accidents, not all, happen when stepping outside your comfort zone includes not making a reasoned or cautious assessment of your plan and preparing adequately for it. Or worse, abdicating responsibility to others for the decision making, or letting your desire to run faster, further or harder cloud your judgement. Which is why you MUST take minimum gear on some events because left to our own devices we can all cut corners when it suits us.
I do appreciate light and fast; it will be a shock to those who know me but I have at times enjoyed running in the hills and I get it. I also try to reduce my rucksack burden when I’m out in the hills, even on rescue call-outs. Unfortunately though the unpredictability of many call-outs and the need to take extra equipment for others who have not planned appropriately make this really challenging.
My father-in-law, a keen Munroist (he has five left to “do”), met a younger couple on a windy and rain-lashed west coast hill. He had his usual walking rucksack; they had decided to leave theirs in the car. On the hill top, they had a brief chat, then they admitted they had to press on as they were too cold to linger any longer. He did see them again so they clearly made it down OK and presumably were happy with their day. They had, after all, made a decision based on their experience, knowledge and hopefully taking in to account the weather forecast. But it’s the “what if” factors that would worry me, and still worry me and prevent me going up hills without what I consider minimal essential equipment. I recall biking with someone who had not taken any spares; because he knew “you guys always take plenty of spares and tubes”. He was correct, we do.
Mountaineering, in the broadest sense of the word, has a tradition of looking after yourself and your companions. Self-reliance is a necessity in the mountains where rescue is not always a certainty. Whether you are running, walking, climbing, mountain biking or doing any other related activity, by exercising self-reliance you are planning and taking responsibility. Which is a good thing and only adds to the experience, in my view! I do not to think that means runners are more or less safe than fully equipped hill-walkers; "all the gear and no idea” is not being self-reliant either.
What I would advise any person heading to the hills to do, is not ignore weather forecasts, cautionary information and other users' tales of woe. Please head off into the hills having planned and considered what might happen. Age-old advice such as “look well to each step” is still highly relevant and says it all. If you are happy that you have considered your skills against the planned activity and possible outcomes and have prepared for these, then go for it. The rescue team is not standing at the side with arms crossed tutting!
Rescue teams are full of positive people who enjoy the hills and are there because they understand that mountaineers are self-reliant individuals; but we also look after our own. Best laid plans do not always go right; accidents and incidents happen and you might not always be able to sort it out yourself. We are very lucky that in this country you do not have to pay for rescue. I am sure many will have travelled abroad to other mountainous regions where either insurance is mandatory for rescue (without a life-changing bill!); or in remote areas just not available. Here, volunteers train regularly, fund-raise for equipment and vehicles and strive to provide a 24h dedicated mountain rescue service. A massive part of this is the support and assistance from the Coastguard helicopters, which again is not charged directly to the casualty.
So are runners safe in the mountains? I think people are more or less safe depending on the quality of decisions they make. And there is a lot anyone can do to improve the quality of their decision making, from attending training courses, running / walking with groups or clubs to reading local guidebooks and dedicated online forums.
Please consider supporting the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team either through a direct donation at the event (or when you see a collection box!) OR why not become a Pledge Place Runner and get a free entry to the Illuminator?