So… why might a mountain rescue team refuse a call-out?

Much kerfuffle below the line last week, when rescuers in Scotland refused to go to the aid of a man who called in ‘wet’. Or ‘soaked’, according to another report.

In a matter of moments, media-stoked outrage at the apparently hard-nosed reaction of mountain rescuers had turned about face, towards the man who thought it wise to scale Ben Nevis without thinking to pack a set of waterproofs.

And back and forth it went.

‘There’s no way they’d have declined to go out if they believed the walker to be in danger,’ said one.

Others turned to benefit of doubt, leniency.

Clearly, our walker had forgotten that weather can change as you climb a mountain. That temperatures can drop dramatically, clouds will wait in ambush, and gentle breezes quickly whip into wind and snow. And that, once you get wet, even on a summer’s day, hypothermia can set in.

But maybe he doesn’t get out much, doesn’t spend a great deal of time in the hills, saw that it was a sunny day and decided to chance it. He gets to the top, gazes about him, knackered but happy, and then the rain comes.

Ah, he thinks, realising his own stupidity. Now what? So, worried for his own safety, unsure how long it might take to get down again, legs wobbling, not knowing how cold it might get, what wild imaginings the dark of night might bring, he does what he thinks is the sensible thing, calls 999 and asks for help.

Advised that the safest course of action would be to make his own way down the mountain as it was midsummer’s day, with plenty of daylight remaining, he chose (we know not why) to stay put.

By the time he was found in the summit shelter by other walkers, he’d been there for several hours. Warmed and doubtless cheered by the company, he was accompanied down the mountain, hopefully wiser for his experience.

Team leaders make difficult decisions about what course of action to pursue on a very regular basis. Never is that more keenly felt than in Llanberis (whose patch covers Snowdon), and Wasdale (who operate on Scafell Pike) — two of the ‘three peaks’ (the other being Ben Nevis, of course) which attract increasing numbers of charity challengers every year. And with increasing numbers of visitors come increasing numbers of incidents.

Scafell Pike Lake District Three Peaks

Crowds on Scafell Pike, one of the ‘three peaks’ © Drewracliffe/Dreamstime.com

‘We made a decision some time ago,’ says Phil Benbow, chairman of the North Wales Mountain Rescue Association and Llanberis team member, ‘that we’d only call the whole team out if we need to put team members on the hill for a known injury. Or it was clear the caller was at risk.

‘Callers often tell us their knees are sore. Or they’re too tired to go on. They just want someone to sort out their problems and the key is recognising that and dealing with it accordingly.

‘If someone just calls in lost and lonely, or tired or wet, but otherwise in good shape, we’ll offer them guidance on the safest route down and then continue to monitor their movements until we know they’re safe.

‘So… are they injured? Any medical issues? Are they in a hazardous place? If they continue down on their own, are they likely to get themselves in trouble with the terrain? On Crib Goch, for example, we probably wouldn’t leave them to their own devices. And then it’s about how you direct them down safely.

The iconic Crib Goch, in Snowdonia. Not for the faint-hearted or the inexperienced © William Barton/Dreamstime.com

‘The difficulty is when people get stroppy and demand a rescue. You have to be firm. Make them aware it might take two hours for us to get there, by which time they’ll be a heck of a lot wetter and colder so they might as well get moving. So no, wet and cold doesn’t demand a full team call-out, much less a helicopter.’

Team leaders make their decisions based on both the information they receive from the police (through whom the initial call comes), and any further detail they can glean from the ‘informant’ – much of which might never see the light of a public forum and certainly not while a rescue is in progress.

This might include medical details such as whether an informant is diabetic or has a heart condition, whether they’ve been reported suicidal or ‘vulnerable’, missing from home. With mobile phone technology the team leader will often have an exact location and he or she will be fully aware of the weather conditions and terrain in the particular area.

But there’s another aspect of this, that team members are volunteers, with jobs and wives or husbands and kids at home. The rising tide of call-outs puts increasing pressure on them too.

‘It’s the husbands and wives who get the raw end of the deal,’ says Richard Warren, chairman of the Lake District Mountain Rescue Association and a Wasdale team member.

‘When the pager goes off, for us it’s an adrenalin burst of physical and mental activity. It can be traumatic, challenging and intensely tiring and it can keep you away for hours. It’s the poor partner at home who’s left holding the fort, plans on hold.

‘And when you’ve got team members responding to two or three call-outs in succession, it’s incredibly stressful for them, and the families too’.

Ben Nevis summit in mist Three Peaks

The abandoned observatory at the peak of Ben Nevis shrouded in mist and walkers at the summit, taken in June 2012 © Buntworthy/Dreamstime.com

Back on the hill, no decision to leave someone ‘up there’ would be taken lightly. The person at the end of the line might be ‘crying or frightened,’ says Richard. ‘Equally, they might be aggressive.

‘And even if a team leader makes that decision, knowing the caller is in a safe place, with adequate food and clothing… even if they’re keeping in touch as the caller makes his or her way back down – there’ll still be that niggling doubt.

‘There’s a lot of responsibility on the team leader to make the right decision and they’ll worry about it all night.’

Only one man truly knows why he chose to go up Ben Nevis last week, as spectacularly unprepared as he did. But maybe, just maybe, it proved a valuable lesson, a turning point.

And the next time he sets off on an adventure, he’ll be sure to pack a set of waterproofs in his rucksack. Maybe a hat and gloves too.

Welcome to our blog!

Good to see you here.

This is our first ever post. We’re a little late to the blogging party but here we are. At last. We’ve even brought flapjack. And apples.

So now all we have to do is entertain you, occasionally amuse and maybe, every once in a while, tell you something you didn’t already know about mountain rescue.

I mean you already know all that stuff about those of us at the sharp end being volunteers, on call 24/7, 365 days of the year, except for that once-every-four-years moment when we throw an extra one in for luck.

But did you know that in 2017 (just your standard 365 days), there were only nine days without a mountain rescue call-out somewhere in England and Wales? Nine! And that’s five fewer than the year before.

Calder Valley SRT at Lumb Bank © CVSRT

Calder Valley SRT in action during a nighttime incident at Lumb Bank © CVSRT

Which might give you the impression that mountain rescue team members spend their days – and nights – kicking their heels at mountain rescue bases across the land (tightly coiled and ready for action, of course), just waiting for your call.

Which couldn’t be further from the truth. But it’s an assumption we hear often. That and the belief that mountain rescue is a paid-for, statutory service.

Tightly coiled and ready for action team members may be (boots and rucksacks ever at the ready, radios charged, carabiners eagerly clinking), but kicking their heels at mountain rescue bases they most definitely won’t be.

Because, being volunteers, they also have day jobs — in every sort of profession you might imagine, sometimes related, sometimes not.

We’ve got teachers and professors, tree fellers and gardeners, doctors, consultants, paramedics and nurses, firemen and police officers, businessmen and shop assistants, IT bods, graphic designers and writers, painters and decorators, odd jobbers, technical rope technicians, outdoor professionals and mountain guides and all sorts else. Men and women. Young, not quite so young and no longer ‘young’ as such, but still rocking the hill kit.

And when they’re not teaching or weeding, tapping a keyboard or putting out fires — or whatever it is they do for the day job — they’re out on the hill, walking or climbing, or spending quality time with their families. Or sleeping.

So when the pager goes off or the SMS pings, the chances are they’ll be either leaving behind the day job, or letting down their climbing mates, or missing some important date with their partners or kids (birthdays and anniversaries are a favourite, Christmas Day hits the jackpot). Or dragging themselves, half asleep, from a warm bed.

And you know that too. But sometimes it’s worth saying again.

Keswick MRT Hanging Rock © Rob Grange/KMRT

Keswick MRT attend a casualty at Hanging Rock in April 2017 © Rob Grange/KMRT

Thing is, if someone gets themselves in trouble, if it’s an emergency, if someone’s life might be at risk, they’re happy to help, whatever the time of day, whatever the weather. Because it could so easily be them out there (once or twice, it has been).

Accidents happen, even to the best prepared. And we know that for most hill walkers and climbers, preparing well is part of the fun. It can #makeagooddaybetter — whatever adventure you have planned.

So keep an eye on the weather, learn how to navigate your way round a map and make sure your phone is fully charged and location services switched on.

If you think you need our help, dial 999, ask for ‘police’ then ‘mountain rescue’.

But bear in mind we have to stop whatever we’re doing, grab our kit and get ourselves to base, then make our way to you. And, contrary to another popular assumption, we might not always be able to bring along our friends in high places (the ones with the helicopters). If the clag is down, or the wind is up, for example.

Coastguard helicopter with Lakes team members during training

Lake District team members line up for training with the Coastguard helicopter © Paul Burke

Give us as much detail as you can about the situation you find yourself in, follow any instructions you’re given and sit tight (so long as it’s safe).

We’d suggest reading our blogs while you wait but better not to use up your data. Or battery. Maybe wait till you get home.

Which brings us back to where we started. Our new blog.

From time to time, we’ll probably write about how you can keep yourself as safe as possible in the great outdoors. We’ll tell you what we’ve been up to nationally, any events we’ve organised or been invited to (sometimes courtesy of our patron, the Duke of Cambridge), and some of our more interesting tales. We’ll delve into our archive of Mountain Rescue magazines, rustle up some old favourites, maybe the odd kit review. Who knows, we might even share our favourite flapjack recipe.

We hope you’ll join us. And doubtless you’ll tell us what you think.

So here we go. We’ve made a start.