Mountain rescues hit new peaks as pandemic spurs Spanish hiking boom

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MADRID (Reuters) - A helicopter hovered above a snow-capped mountain in Spain's Catalonia region and hoisted an injured climber to safety, footage shared by the rescue team late on Monday showed, the latest callout during a surge in hiking accidents.

Catalonia's mountain rescue brigade reported a 16% increase in callouts to help hikers last year, while in Madrid the figure jumped 27%. Rescue services linked the increase to novice hikers flocking to the mountains to escape coronavirus lockdowns.

In the latest rescue operation, a 48-year-old man fell and damaged his foot on Monday while attempting to summit the 2,500-metre Comabona peak in the Spanish Pyrenees.

"I call it the caged bird syndrome," said Mamel Jimenez, a Madrid-based guide, who has seen a sharp rise in the number of people heading to the Guadarrama mountain range outside the city.

Scrambling to rein in a spiralling pandemic, Spain imposed one of the world's strictest lockdowns last spring, even banning brief walks outdoors.

When restrictions eased in May there was an immediate spike in visits to national parks and green spaces, said Inigo Ayllon of the FEDME National Mountaineering Federation.

"It created a rebound effect. After being locked up, people wanted to find broader horizons and reclaim that sense of freedom."

(Reporting by Nathan Allen; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Mike Collett-White)