Happy Christmas…

…and a new year packed with adventure. But, whatever you’re doing, keep safe!

Christmas – the time for merrymaking, over-eating, socks and, if we’re very fortunate, fellwalking – is almost upon us. So we thought we’d ask John Manning, editor of Lakeland Walker magazine to offer some timely advice for the festive season.

John Manning Lakeland Walker
John Manning, Editor of Lakeland Walker

It seemed ridiculously early at the time, but we put the Christmas edition of Lakeland Walker to bed at the end of October, well before the festive spirit had seized the magazine’s creative team. We have to plan ahead, you see: the mag hit the streets on 7 November but, as a bi-monthly, it’s available in stores into the New Year.

Being the Christmas issue, it contains the obligatory suggestions for treats that I reckon might make perfect stocking fillers for the fellwalker in every readers’ life. The goodies include Wainwright DVDs (of course), a Terry Abraham DVD (naturally), some traditional sew-on patches for your rucksack (but not your waterproof), a Scafell Pike towel (definitely not for navigation) and a varied selection of books, perfect fireside reading when the weather’s too Cumbrian to venture out. Most ideas were accompanied by a suitably bright colour photo – well, it’s only right that Christmas looks cheerful.

The suggestion that’s brought the best response so far, however, was the one that lacked an illustration. It was headed simply ‘Support Mountain Rescue’. It read:

‘If anyone deserves our thoughts and support over the festive period, it’s the volunteers of Cumbria and the Lake District’s mountain rescue teams. Two ways you can help spring to mind. Firstly, a donation will help keep their vital any-time service alive for those crucial, unexpected moments when we might need them (if you’ve ever called upon their services, think of it as a token of gratitude; if not, think of it as one in the pump for later). Secondly, plan your fell outing carefully, take heed of the weather forecasts, and go equipped to cope with whatever Nature might throw at you. By doing everything you can to eliminate unnecessary risk, you’re increasing the chances of those volunteers enjoying an uninterrupted Christmas with their families!’

Over the last year, in conjunction with the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association, Lakeland Walker has run a series of features penned by various members of the area’s twelve teams. Offering advice and anecdotes drawn from Lakeland incidents, the hope is that they will communicate important fell safety messages to readers and perhaps – because I like to think the magazine’s readers are already fairly enlightened – that they’ll spread word even further afield.

The inspiration for the column was a series of Lake District rescues through 2017 which were deemed to have been ‘avoidable’. In other words, the call-outs weren’t triggered by genuine accidents but were down to either a lack of preparedness, a lack of experience or skills, or pure and simple foolhardiness. Fellwalkers and others were getting into dire straits because they weren’t properly clothed or equipped, lacked an ability to navigate, hadn’t checked a weather forecast, or hadn’t thought through their day’s plans.

The frustration of the rescue teams’ leaders and members, expressed to the media and occasionally through online incident reports, was practically tangible. Volunteers were being summoned away from jobs, families and their own recreational activities because someone hadn’t given their day’s preparation quite enough attention.

Of course, the paragraph quoted above focused on the Lake District teams, but similar frustrations in Snowdonia prompted the launch of AdventureSmartWales in 2018 (soon to be rolled out through the Lakes too), and the sentiments expressed apply to all volunteer mountain rescue teams, across the UK.

As well as an urge to help readers understand the safety messages that mountain rescue personnel want to convey, I have a personal investment in supporting the mountain rescue service.

Two decades ago, a friend and I were trapped by a storm on an Irish mountainside. We’d been walking MacGillicuddy’s Reeks in County Kerry, a classic ridge walk of twelve miles, which includes eleven 3,000-foot peaks between the Gap of Dunloe and our digs in Glencar. Coming off Carrauntoohil (3,407ft/1,039m) in low cloud and a strengthening wind, I took a sharp right-turn on to the jagged Beenkeragh ridge instead of the intended gradual swing-right on to gentler Caher. Within minutes, before I’d realised my error, we were hit by a Force 9 gale and, convinced we’d be blown off the ridge, sought shelter in a steep west-facing gully.

Though navigationally challenged we were, fortunately, well-equipped, with spare clothing and a little spare food and drink, and spent the night huddled together in a two-person survival shelter. Our Glencar host had known our intended route and, when we didn’t show for dinner, alerted Killarney Gardai, which passed the call to Kerry Mountain Rescue Team. Almost twenty-four hours after our benightment began, MRT volunteer Bernard Ford followed the sound of our whistle through dense swirling cloud to arrive at our side.

‘So you’d be the two we’re looking for, then?’

We couldn’t have been happier if Father Christmas himself had turned up!

We descended, relieved, tired but otherwise intact, thanks in no small part to those mountain rescue volunteers. My navigational error had resulted in a dozen or more volunteers being dragged away from their own families and jobs, yet they seemed overjoyed to find us, and their banter lifted our spirits. We later learned that they had been combing the mountainsides, in appalling conditions, since dawn. Such a degree of dedication and concern for our wellbeing, was humbling.

Rescue team members across the British Isles respond readily to any calls the police send their way. After all, someone in danger is someone in danger, no matter how they got there. The urge to assist seems to be overriding, and is non-judgemental.

Bowland Pennine MRT Snow
Over ten years old but still such a powerful image. Stay safe this Christmas and avoid being a casualty. Image © Bowland Pennine MRT.

Still, if a few column inches in the pages of Lakeland Walker can help prevent any of our mountain rescue volunteers being dragged away from their loved ones over this festive season, then we’ve achieved something. If a few more people are more aware of their own responsibility for their own safety, all well and good.

And if a few donations trickle into mountain rescue team coffers in the run-up to Christmas, all the better.

You could take a look at one of our earlier blogs to find out more about how teams go about raising funds.

And if you want to support your local team – or the team which covers your favourite stomping ground – find them on Facebook (many now have a ‘donate’ button) or search out an individual team’s website. You might even find they have other treats for sale. Or you can donate collectively to Mountain Rescue England and Wales.

Whatever you’re doing this festive season, stay safe and have fun. In fact, that goes for 2019 too! 

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