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The changing face of Mountaineering Scotland through the Covid pandemic

By Jenny Gillies

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Wild camping should have a 'leave no trace' ethos.
Wild camping should have a 'leave no trace' ethos.

In a year when the way we looked at the outdoors changed, the role of organisations representing those who use it has never been more important.

With increasing numbers now going into the mountains, Scottish Mountaineering, the country’s recognised body for hill walkers, climbers and ski-tourers, has been working harder than ever to ensure people access the hills in a safe and responsible manner.

A large part of their work is also to protect the mountains and wildernesses that Scotland is so proud of.

To find out more about how Mountaineering Scotland is adapting, I got in touch with Stuart Younie, their CEO. Stuart is a life-long hill goer, learning to ski at Cairngorm at an early age before adding rock climbing, scaling Munros and mountain biking among others to his sporting portfolio.

He joined Mountaineering Scotland in 2018, bringing with him over 20 years of experience in the outdoors industry.

I began by asking how the role of Mountaineering Scotland has changed in the past year.

“As a membership organisation our core objectives haven’t changed; we work to represent the walking, climbing and ski touring community on issues that matter to them," he said.

Mountaineering Scotland CEO Stuart Younie.
Mountaineering Scotland CEO Stuart Younie.

"Like everyone, we have had to adapt how we operate in response to the pandemic, focusing on responding to the lockdown and, when it eased, engaging with sportscotland and government. This meant we could provide the right guidance and advice to enable people to get out and enjoy the health and wellbeing benefits of being in the hills and mountains while ensuring we all play our part in addressing the public health emergency and keeping each other safe.”

Travel restrictions have, obviously, played a major role in how we can access the mountains, but Stuart feels things have improved since the first lockdown.

“Although the travel restrictions have been difficult for many of our members, particularly in the larger towns and cities,” he said, “our work has meant we have been able to ensure that, since last summer, climbing, hill walking and now snowsports touring can still take place within the travel limits.”

The organisation's ongoing campaigns haven’t stopped either; it is the third year of the #ThinkWINTER campaign, promoting winter mountain safety, with training activities now moved to online delivery.

The indoor climbing community has been particularly affected by the national lockdowns and Stuart explains there has been a distinct shift in the way Climb Scotland works to engage with climbers online and support the climbing walls themselves.

“Our team has also had to switch away from its normal focus on youth climbing competitions and working with indoor youth climbing clubs to work more directly with the climbing walls,” said Stuart. “Unfortunately all but one of Scotland’s climbing walls are currently closed under lockdown rules, but we hope to see them reopen again as things start to ease, and our role will once again be one of communicating the relevant guidance to climbers and working with the walls to allow clubs to restart activities.”

For those, like myself, who follow the activities of the sporting representative bodies, it has been interesting to see how working between organisations has increased.

“Yes,” agreed Stuart, “one of the real positives I have experienced this year has been the willingness of organisations across the outdoor sector to come together to support each other. We worked really closely with other outdoor and adventure sports as we came out of the first lockdown to ensure that outdoor recreation was one of the first things that people were allowed back to do under the detailed guidance we all produced, and we are looking to re-establish that group on a more permanent basis.”

Mountaineering Scotland's #ThinkWINTER campaign focuses on making people more aware of winter conditions in the mountains.
Mountaineering Scotland's #ThinkWINTER campaign focuses on making people more aware of winter conditions in the mountains.

It’s been a tough time for freelancers and the self-employed in all sectors, but Stuart feels that a cross-body approach has helped support the many self-employed within the sector.

“The partnership we have through our Mountain Safety Group and particularly our work with Scottish Mountain Rescue, Glenmore Lodge and Mountain Training Scotland has proved to be a very influential and important way for us to engage with the professionals working in the sector, many of whom are the hard hit self-employed, freelancers and small business owners. Continuing to work closely with each other will be critical in the resumption of activities as lockdown eases and also in helping to manage the pressures we are likely to see again this summer.”

The pressures Stuart mentions were hard to miss during the summer of 2020 as holidaymakers flocked to the Highlands to enjoy the freedom and space Scotland has to offer.

“The strain on our visitor and access infrastructure is going to continue as more people want to escape the day-to-day of lockdown when it eases and get out to explore what Scotland has to offer – and who can blame them?

"Mountaineering Scotland was at the forefront of raising the issue of ‘dirty camping’ back in the summer of 2019 and although that really hit the headlines in 2020 there were also a lot of challenges relating to car parking and litter more generally, as well as the problem of increased erosion on popular paths and particularly some of the upland and mountain routes.”

Stuart feels what popular locations experienced last summer had been building for some time. “The pressure was accelerated by the growth in demand for domestic tourism, while holiday accommodation was very limited, bunkhouses and hostels on the whole remained shut and formal campsites remained closed or limited occupancy to caravans and camper vans.”

Climb Scotland is working with climbing walls with a view to reopening.
Climb Scotland is working with climbing walls with a view to reopening.

He continued: “I think there has been some positive movement from government and public sector agencies but we need to do more, and quickly, if we are to avoid the problems that local communities faced last summer. There is a need for a much more integrated national approach which looks more strategically at where investment is needed, and I hope that landowners and local authorities will be able to work together to resolve some of the issues and help rural communities capitalise on what’s likely to be another summer of holidaying closer to home.”

So, despite all the challenges, it seems that Stuart and the outdoor industry is remaining positive about what might come next, and they need the support of the hill going community to continue their essential work.

“It would be great to see more people joining us to support the work we are involved in, as it doesn’t just benefit our members, it benefits anyone who enjoys walking, climbing or skiing in the mountains of Scotland, and we are the only membership organisation working to represent the interests of that community.”

He suggests going online to be inspired to join up. “We launched a promotional video just before Christmas which is a great introduction to who we are and what we do and you can find it on our website at www.mountaineering.scot. There is a lot of other useful information on the website, whether you are just starting out or managed to get your first few hills in last summer and are looking for a new challenge.

"With a new guidebook to the Munros just published, there has never been a better time to get out and enjoy the Scottish hills and mountains and we’d love to help support people on that journey.”

For many, the mountains offer respite from the challenges of day-to-day life.
For many, the mountains offer respite from the challenges of day-to-day life.

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