The Skye Cuillin. Left to Right: Sgurr nan Gillean, Am Basteir, the Bhasteir Tooth, Sgur a Fionn Choire and Bruach na Frithe

Risk & Safety

”Risk can never be eliminated, Safety can never be guaranteed”,

The above quotation from the UK’s HSE reveals a fundamental truth, one that is often misunderstood, most particularly by journalists. Too many people think of Risk and Safety in simple objective black and white terms, but this is a misunderstanding. Consider this: It is safer to sit in a car and watch someone walk up Box Hill in Surrey than to actually walk up Box Hill yourself; this in turn is safer than walking up Snowdon, which is safer than climbing Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis, which is safer than climbing the Grand Jorasse on the Franco-Italian border by the Whymper Route, which is safer than climbing Mount Everest via the South Col, which is safer than climbing K2. But people have died doing all of these things, so for none of them is safety ‘guaranteed’. Similarly, people have completed all of them safely, and have often earned widespread praise for achieving the harder objectives listed, so none of them can be unequivocally condemned as unsafe. This illustrates the nature of risk and safety, which, far from being describable in simple black and white terms, can more accurately be likened to an infinite range of shades of grey. There is also a strongly subjective element, since a mountaineering activity that would be of low risk for a very fit and strong mountain guide might be near-suicidal for the man on the Clapham Omnibus.

”Although Risk can never be eliminated, it can and must be minimised.”

”Although Safety can never be guaranteed, it can and must be maximised.”

The Definition

Risk is best thought of as the product obtained by multiplying together two factors, ‘Consequences’ and ‘Likelihood’. If either one of these factors is vanishingly small, then the ‘Risk’ is insignificant, however great the other factor. This becomes obvious if one considers examples at opposite ends of the same activity. Consider a school football team playing an away match:

Perhaps the best way to visualise this concept is to consider a graph, with Likelihood and Consequences plotted along the two axes. To make this a useful tool, numbers are usually added. The curve which separates the low-risk part of the graph from the high-risk part is called a rectangular hyperbola in mathematical jargon, but it is important to realise that it is not really a single narrow curve but a family of fuzzy curves.


Risk Assessment and Risk Management.

Risk Assessment.

Schools and similar risk-averse establishments usually have a defined procedure in place covering Risk Assessments. A formal Risk Assessment is a paperwork exercise that takes place before the venture to which it relates can be authorised. It is documented, signed, countersigned and securely filed for a defined period after the venture has been completed until any possibility of litigation has disappeared. Such formal Risk Assessments are not encountered within voluntary organisations such as mountaineering clubs.

Risk Management.

Risk Management is the term used to describe the management of risk during the venture itself, and is carried out ‘on the hoof’. It requires constant vigilance, the ability to recognise and assess dangers, and the willingness to take the most appropriate action. It should be ‘Standard Practice’ for all parties out in the hills. If a mountaineering party has a defined leader, then that leader assumes this responsibility on behalf of the party. In many mountaineering clubs, peer groups venture out into the mountains without clearly defined leaders, and in such cases it should be for the more experienced members of the party to assume this role and share with their companions any concerns they might have. A common failing, particularly with parties from the lowlands who have sacrificed scarce annual holiday for a pre-booked and paid-for mountaineering holiday, is to suffer from ‘push-on-it-is’, continuing with a planned venture even though the weather and conditions are dangerously unfavourable. Such climbers are few, they tend to die young.

Risk Assessment Procedure:

If you wish to establish your own Risk Assessment procedure, it is very straightforward to construct one from ‘First Principles’, since it requires little more than the application of common-sense. The steps are as follows:

  1. Start by considering the following three aspects:
    (a) The intended party;
    (b) The worse-case weather and conditions;
    (c) The intended route.
  2. Then identify all of the possible Hazards that might be encountered. This can usually be done by a good study of the map; it does not necessarily need the route to have been explored in advance. This task can be simplified if a standard list is used covering every conceivable mountaineering hazard. Such a Standard Hazard Checklist is provided below.
  3. Assess each Identified Hazard and allocate to it a numerical Likelihood, using a system of your own choice. Here is an example of one used elsewhere:
    5 = certain
    4 = likely
    3 = possible
    2 = quite unlikely.
  4. For each Identified Hazard, then allocate a number for Consequence, using a system similar to this:
    5 = fatal
    4 = evacuation and hospitalisation required
    3 = immediate skilled First Aid required
    2 = minor First Aid required (simple cuts, grazes and bruises);
    1 = of no significant consequence.
  5. For each Hazard, multiply the Likelihood by the Consequence to give a Risk Product.
  6. For each Hazard there will now be a Risk Product lying between 1 and 25. You now need to make a value judgement, as objectively as possible, about where you wish to draw the line. This should be a firmly agreed policy decision, and once agreed, no deviation from it should be permitted.
  7. You now need to take a long hard look at any Risk Product that exceeds your self-imposed maximum figure and ask yourself “Can we do anything to lower the risk?” [e.g., by taking a rope, roping up, and either pitching or short-roping; or by taking and using crampons; or by carrying bivouac equipment; or by altering the route; or by changing or modifying the mountaineering objective; or by waiting for more settled weather]; If we cannot lower the risk, should we abandon the proposed venture? The correct answer should be obvious!

Standard Hazard Checklist

Slipping and Tripping:


Falls from height:




Leader Incapacity:

Adequacy of First Aid:

Weather and Conditions:


Personal Factors:

Party Discipline:

Winter Walking:


Route Cards / Call-out Cards

Within many organisations the completion of Route Cards or Call-Out Cards is mandatory, but rarely so in mountaineering clubs. Meet Leaders (by whatever name) might wish to consider making blank proforma cards available to their colleagues, pointing out that if such a Card is not completed, then it might be assumed should they fail to return that they are not lost in the hills somewhere. Here are some points to consider that are often overlooked:

Mountaineering Safety Wisdom

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end”.   Edward Whymper.

“Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence”.   Hermann Buhl.

“Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment”.   Evan Hardin.

“It’s a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory”.   Ed Viesturs.

“Mountaineers are one of the few groups to celebrate before the finish line. More mountaineers die on the descent than on the ascent”.   Susan Oakey Baker.

“See that ye walk circumspectly”.   St Paul

“Prove all things, hold fast to that which is good”.   St Paul

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go”.   T.S.Eliot

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This webpage was first web-published in 2007 and was last updated 8th January 2021.