Last week, a mountain rescue team – it really doesn’t matter which one, since this is an easy mistake to make – tweeted that there had been another climbing fatality in the Scottish Highlands. Given the backlash against winter climbing from some members of the public and one or two ill-informed politicians and self-appointed commentators, the news was particularly unwelcome.
Unlike some journalists, I don’t follow mountain accidents that closely but something odd struck me about the report. First, it was only one tweet, not a cascade of them. The speed with which climbing accidents arrive on your desktop these days is matched by their ubiquity. Lots of people are queuing up to give you the bad news. This time, however, there was only the one mention – so I clicked on the link.
It lead to a 1994 story in The Independent, which they’d clearly run alongside another piece as something of interest from the archive. It reported the death of Edinburgh lecturer George Gibson. It also reported that Gibson’s death was the fifteenth that year, ‘twice the usual number’, on an article dated 27 February.
You could say that nothing much changes – the same concerned, stern tone – the same sense that this accident is part of some ghastly trend. Although given that Scottish winter climbing is more popular than ever, it’s likely, it seems to me, that despite the current sequence of accidents it’s actually safer now that it ever has been.
What has changed since 1994 is the growth of email, then the web and now social media. The latter in particular has had a major impact in the scale of mountain accident reporting. It’s not that there are more of them, it’s that more people know about them and the immediacy that twitter carries gives the issue more momentum.
Mountain rescue teams see twitter as a way to raise their profile and presumably boost fund raising. There’s nothing wrong with that, but by focussing on accidents almost to the exclusion of everything else, they contribute to the heat surrounding the issue of mountain accidents and the overall sense that something must be done, most probably something climbers and hill walkers won’t like.
The media use twitter to source stories, and as soon as I see an accident reported by an MRT, I know it will soon be appearing on a news outlet and on up the chain. The BBC in particular seem to carry every minor accident that happens. Break your arm in Tesco’s and no one cares. Do it on Snowdon, and you’ll get your own special mention on the BBC.
I’d be the last person to suggest that anyone should self-censor, but the outdoor community has to be more aware of the impression it creates among the wider public. In North America accidents are reported by the climbing community and studied properly. In the UK, we just have a lot of negative headlines and few of the important lessons.
Twitter has a useful role to play in keeping people safe in the mountains. But there needs to be more of a debate about how that happens.