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Saturday May 2, 2015

Are these boots made for walking?

Walking in the hills can be a serious business

News of the recent deaths of two German walkers in unrelated incidents in the Majorcan hills, sent shock waves around the island. How could such tragedies have happened when weather conditions were good and both women, 24 and 50 respectively, were evidently capable hikers?

The truth is that Majorca’s glorious mountains, particularly the Serra de Tramuntana range – recently declared a UNESCO Heritage site – can pose serious risks, even for the most experienced climber. In the case of the two German women, the younger had fallen down a ten metre embankment while the older had lost her footing on slippery ground and hit her head on rocks. A few years ago on a ridge near Valldemossa another hiker became disorientated by dense low cloud and fell over a precipice to his death.

Of course none of us are accident proof and sadly the unexpected can happen but there are general safety measures that can be taken to minimise problems. For one thing it’s never advisable to go off on a tricky mountain hike alone. At least if one walks with a companion or as part of a group, help can always be sought quickly. Before even commencing a hike, visitors to our island should be aware of the high temperatures and check weather conditions in advance. Sufficient water should be packed in a rucksack along with a detailed map, energy bars, sunglasses, a hat, sun cream, even a whistle, and mobile phone. I’d actually advise bringing a torch too and a change of socks.

Hotel staff or local contacts should be advised about the exact route being planned and the anticipated time of the hike’s completion. Above all, robust but comfortable hiking boots with a good grip are essential and walkers should not be over ambitious. Often it’s better to start on a relatively easy, shorter walk in order to become acclimatised to the temperature and terrain before embarking on an arduous all day hike.

Many years ago I spent a New Year’s holiday in the Lake District with a bunch of fellow university students. All of us awoke with hangovers one morning and somewhat idiotically decided to go for a long walk in the hills. The four of us set off, two of us in walking boots – although mine were brand new – and the others in totally inappropriate footwear – pixie boots and plimsolls. Although we had a map of the area we had brought limited supplies of refreshments, no whistle or torch and of course didn’t have mobile phones in those days. Suffice to say that what began as a jolly jape on relatively easy terrain soon became tough and very hazardous. After some hours in the bitter chill we ascended a steep and icy hill where we slithered and slid like sozzled snakes. In fact it wasn’t long before one of our party found his foot had smashed through thin ice below which was a fast running stream. We managed to haul his leg out but it gave us all the shock of our lives.

Too late to turn back we staggered on in the freezing wind and dark until exhausted, starving and thirsty we eventually came to a dense forest. After some hours we navigated through it until to our relief we discovered a road. Somewhat chastened we hobbled on, many miles from our base, before a guardian angel in a van drew to a halt beside us. It turned out to be a mountain rescue worker who ferried us to his home and dried out our wet clothing by a roaring fire while his kind wife made a hot supper for us. Later the good Samaritan drove us all the way back to our rented cottage, some twenty miles away.

It taught us all a big lesson and one which to this day I have not forgotten because a scar remains on my ankle where my new boots had rubbed so severely that I needed six weeks of medical treatment back at university. It’s not over-ambitious to want to climb every mountain as long as sensible precautions are taken and one never forgets that hill walking is a serious business.

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