Clear and present dangers
Two deaths in as many weeks last autumn reopened the debate around safety in adventure activities.
Scout leader Chris Oliver from Devises in Wiltshire died in Octo- her after falling 150 feet down a steep gully on Cader tdris in Wales. The group of four adults and 15 scouts had been ascending the "pony path", an easy route to the summit.
For some reason Mr Oliver ad a 14-year-old scout left the group and attempted a direct route up the Cyfrwy Buttress, a route which a local mountaineering instructor described as "unclimbable".
"I couldn't possibly imagine anyone with any relevant experi- ence choosing to do that route," said Andy Hall, head of the Arthog Outdoor Education Cen- tre at the foot of the mountain. "I wouldn't go anywhere near it. It's loose chunks of stone."
A week earlier 10-year-old Jonathan Attwell had plunged 600 feet to his death after beconY- ing separated on the summit of Snowdon. Leaders on that trip were criticised for choosing the east ridge route. "That is not a footpath,"
Snowdonia national park warden Sam Roberts told reporters. "It is a scramble."
Britain's mountains can be treacherous places and teachers lanning to take children on to the peaks need to have the skills and knowledge to lead safely in conditions where a mistake can have tragic consequences.
Legally the situation is decep- tively simple. Teachers owe a duty of care to their pupils, which they discharge by looking after them in the way a reasonable parent would. This is the in locoparentis responsibility first established in 1865. The law expects teachers to plan activities with children's safety in mind.
In the outdoors the simplest way to do this is to use a recog- nised provider y a licensed activ- ity centre. tf a teacher plans to lead an activity there is a legal respon- sibility to ensure that available guidance and advice is being fol- lowed. But on the high peaks lead- ers should also possess a relevant qualification. The Department for Education and Employment does not stipulate what this should be but refers to the governing body of the sport, in this case the Moun- tain Leader Training Board.
"The easiest way to demon- strate competence is to acquire a piece of paper,"
says Doug Jones, director of the White Hall Open Country Pursuits Centre in Der- byshire and chair of the MLTB.
But there is more than one bit of paper.
The simpest qualification is the Basic Expedition Leader Award issued by the Central Council for Physical Recreation. Assessed over a weekend, the award is aimed at leaders who want to take groups into the countryside.
"It's not a mountain qualifica- tion," says MrJones. It would be suitable for areas like Cannock Chase or the South Downs, but not on steep ground or in remote country.
For wild country areas, where walkers depend upon themselves, or where a group would encounter steep ground, the appropriate qualification is the Mountain Leader Award (see opposite page).
This prepares people to lead groups in "summer" conditions, which means that there should be good visibility and firm ground underfoot. It's possible to have summer conditions in January, while Cairngorm can deliver "winter"
conditions at any time. A higher qualification, the Winter Mountain Leader Award, covers the skills needed to use crampons and ice axes.
The MLTB is also investigating an intermediate award, between Basic Expedition and Mountain Leader, which would allow lead- ers to take groups into areas they know well. A number of authori- ties, including Derbyshire and Nottingham, have developed their own awards which are rati- fied by the MLTB and which are aimed at those taking groups to areas such as the Peak District.
Problems arise when teachers accompany groups into areas which are challenging but not necessarily mountainous. The dangers may not be as obvious, but the risks are still present.
In 1995, children from Stoke Poges middle school in Bucking- hamshire were swept to their deaths at Land's End in Cornwall.
No one appreciated the potential risks of walking close to crashing waves, which carried the children away. In another incident, an 11- year-old girl died when she stum- bled and fell on a woodland walk.
She was descending through steep terrain, less than a mile from the Shropshire centre her school was visiting, when she fell.
Neither of these visits would have required a Mountain Leadei Award and yet it is arguable that if the teachers accompanying them had had more training in outdoor environments, the acci- dents may not have occurred.
* Mountain Leader Training Board, Siabod Cottage, Capel Curig, Gwynedd LL24 0ET. Tel: 01690 720314.
Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits, DfEE 1998. For free copies tel: 0808 100 5060.
Central Council of Physical Recreation, Francis House, Francis Street, London SW1P 1DE. Tel: 020 7828 3163.