Remembering Neil Moss, sixty years after the tragedy of his death in a Peak District cavern

On Sunday, 22 March 1959, Oscar Hackett Neil Moss became jammed while trying to pass down a narrow unexplored tunnel in Stalagmite Chamber – now known as Moss Chamber – in Peak Cavern, one of England’s best known caves with its imposing entrance overlooking Castleton in Derbyshire. In 2006, David Webb’s film about the tragedy set about correcting some of the myths surrounding the rescue attempt by talking to those who were there. Based on an article written by David in 2007, we look back at how the incident unfolded and its influence on cave rescue.

Late in January, an email found its way into the editor’s inbox. An appeal for help. Not for mountain rescue (the days of calling us out by telegram being long gone) but for information. And not about mountain rescue either.

‘I recently read an article on your website [Fight for Life: the Neil Moss story],’ said Pete. ‘I’d be interested to learn more about this tragic event and the brave rescue attempts. I’ve tried to find a copy of the DVD online but have been unable to do so. Having checked your website, I can’t see it listed there either. I appreciate this DVD is a few years old now but I wondered if you had any suggestions for how I might be able to locate a copy? Any help would be much appreciated’.

Well, it’s always good to receive positive feedback – not least for an article published seven years ago – and, as it turned out, we were able to put Pete in touch with the author and filmmaker, David Webb, who also happened to have some copies of the DVD.

All of which reminded us that this year is the sixtieth anniversary of a cave rescue which became a pivotal moment in caving history, the perfect opportunity to retell the tale here. We’ve also stocked our newly-expanded bookshop with copies of the DVD. Just in case.

Neil Moss Moss Chamber

Neil Moss and a schematic of Moss Chamber with the shaft © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

Moss was a twenty-year-old undergraduate, studying philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, and also the sports-loving son of a British cotton executive. By all accounts he loved to explore and where better than the vast unknown darkness underground?

He was one of eight cavers from the British Speleological Association who entered the Derbyshire cave that fateful day. Their intention was to explore a passage about half a mile from the show cave, discovered just two weeks earlier. They elbowed, crawled and climbed their way through narrow mud-filled passages, a thousand feet below ground until they reached a larger, open chamber from which a still narrower shaft led almost straight down. Slimly built and six foot tall, Moss was the first to descend.

In Race against Time, Jim Eyre and John Frankland describe how four of the party had been involved in the original exploration. ‘They knew that the tight shaft corkscrewed and was difficult. They had also estimated that the depth of the shaft was approximately forty feet but seventy-five feet of ladder was lowered down the hole in case the shaft continued’.

At around 3.30pm, Moss forced himself into the hole, ‘kicking all the surplus ladder before him. The shaft hung slightly off vertical for twelve feet, then came a difficult corkscrew twist leading to a ten-foot long inclined bedding plane and then a further vertical eighteen-foot drop’.

Thinking he might be able to move the boulders blocking the shaft to one side, Moss manoeuvred himself to a slight recess but in his struggle jammed the loose ladder beneath him. Tired of struggling, he determined to climb out of the shaft, but he never resurfaced. Unable to lift his feet sufficiently to climb back up the ladder he became ‘sandwiched in an elliptical slit only eighteen inches wide’ and asked the others to pull the ladder whilst he held on to it. They succeeded in lifting him a few feet but then the ladder jammed.

Rescuers make preparation

Rescue team members prepare to help © David Webb, courtesy the James Lovelock collection.

Muddy cavers in the vestibule

Muddy cavers exit to the vestibule for a change of clothes and to swap stories All images © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

Difficulties such as these are not rare in caving and Moss’s companions at first took it for granted that rescue would be a mere matter of lowered ropes and heaving. Gradually, the truth dawned.

Several attempts at hauling him up with ropes ended in failure, each time the rope snapping or shearing on the rock edge. By now the atmosphere was severely polluted, the air flow to the shaft cut off by his body. Moss was clearly becoming disorientated, his behaviour irrational. In The Honour of Being Human, written 25 years after the event, George Cooper, described him as becoming ‘less cooperative’ seemingly ‘unconcerned about the seriousness of his plight’ even suggesting to the others ‘that they go out and eat’.

His rescuers too began to feel the debilitating effects of carbon dioxide. Three of the volunteers lost consciousness whilst attempting to descend the shaft. A fourth, Ron Peters, succeeded in getting a rope around Moss’s chest but this only added to his breathing difficulties.

Oxygen delivery Peak Cavern

The oxygen delivery lorry with ambulance in the background © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

Carrying oxygen to the cavern

Carrying oxygen cylinders up to the cavern © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

When a delivery of oxygen bottles arrived at 12.30am, it was in the hope that this would revive Moss and facilitate his extraction. Again and again, his would-be rescuers entered the shaft but were forced back, often themselves in a confused and distressed condition.

As an RAF doctor, waist-deep in mud, pumped oxygen down through a tube, a renewed plea went out – for an experienced caver small enough to negotiate the narrow shaft.

Rescuers and police officer in vestibult

Rescuers discuss the rescue effort with a police officer © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

Early in the morning of the second day, eighteen-year-old June Bailey – later described by a British Pathé newsreel as ‘a Manchester typist’ – turned up, eager to make the descent. A number of media reports later described the part she played in the rescue effort, including that her instructions were to break Moss’s collarbones if necessary to free his shoulders. However, none of these can be substantiated, says Webb – though doubtless she did enter the cave.

By early Monday afternoon, almost 24 hours after he had entered the cave, Moss’s laboured breathing could still be heard.

‘We felt we had to try it all again,’ say Eyre and Frankland. ‘Compressed air cylinders were used to try to blow the foul air out of the tube. The walls, ladder and rope were smothered in mud. All that could be seen of Moss was an indistinct muddy blockage far below and he was last reported as being firmly jammed in an unmovable position with one arm forced into a recess under a ladder rung with the effort to free him’.

Meanwhile, others tried excavating the rock lower down, hoping to break through into a lower tunnel, but it soon became clear this was in vain.

Ron Peters

Ron Peters, on the left of the rescuers © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

The incessant rain was threatening to flood the Mucky Ducks area of Peak cavern. The advice came through to withdraw, for everyone’s safety. When the rain eased off, with one of the RAF doctors to have joined the rescue effort, they returned to the head of the shaft where they had last heard Moss breathing. But this time there was no sound. In Webb’s documentary film about the tragedy, Dr Hugh Kidd describes the experience as the first and only time he had declared death without actually seeing the patient.

Though the exact time of Neil Moss’s death is uncertain, the inquest stated 3.00am on Tuesday 24 March.

His father, Eric Moss, had waited at the tunnel entrance throughout the ordeal and it was he who requested his son’s body be left in place, before anyone else risked their lives. According to those left to clear up, the lower part of the shaft was sealed with a number of loose rocks, collected from the floor of the chamber – not with concrete as frequently reported – and an inscription left nearby.

The Neil Moss story became worldwide news, reported in newspapers in America and Australia as well as here in the UK. On 6 April, Sports Illustrated reported that ‘all was quiet for a while’ as Moss worked his way down, ‘then suddenly from some forty feet below came the terrible, factual statement: ‘I say, I’m stuck, I can’t budge an inch.’

Radio news bulletins went out via the BBC and, within hours, volunteers from all over England responded to the call for help. The RAF, National Coal Board, Royal Navy and dozens of private caving groups had joined in the rescue effort. Sadly, the intense media interest also drew morbid crowds of ‘sightseers’ and fed a number of apocryphal accounts of the event.

Peak Cavern Vestibule Neil Moss Tragedy

Peak Cavern vestibule packed with rescuers and onlookers © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

The three-day incident had a huge impact on Castleton and its inhabitants, and all those involved in the rescue. In echoes of the Thai cave rescuers of last year, some of the key figures involved received recognition at the highest level for their efforts. In August 1959, Ron Peters was awarded the George Medal, Les Salmon, John Thompson and Flt Lt Carter the BEM.

As a direct result of the tragedy, new procedures for the call-out and coordination of cave rescue began to take shape. Neil Moss did not die in vain, nor will he be forgotten. The story of his death remains a salutary reminder of the fragility of life and the nature of risk.

In 2004, it was retold in the novel One Last Breath by Stephen Booth and, in 2006, Webb – a Derbyshire caver himself – produced his DVD on the story. Filming had begun several years earlier and continued intermittently, but was finally completed late in 2005, following sustained prodding from the principal protagonists. Time was marching on.

‘In 1994, I found myself in Peak Cavern and Moss Chamber. I was already familiar with the outline details of the immense physical and emotional struggle that had taken place there thirty-five years earlier, but the large, well-decorated chamber that housed the tiny shaft which became Neil Moss’s final resting place possessed an extraordinary atmosphere that was impossible to ignore.

‘Here was human drama which had captured the imagination of cavers and non–cavers alike. The fact that, had he lived, Neil Moss would have been the same age as me, was an additional spur to retell the story, through the medium of video, using the recollections of those who were there.

‘The story was already well documented and the announcement to caving colleagues that I was planning to make a film met with mixed reactions. A few thought I’d be opening a can of worms, but most were very supportive and felt the rescue attempt an important part of local caving history and should be recorded for posterity.

‘Despite the heroic efforts in almost impossible conditions, there followed many accusations and counter-claims regarding poor organisation and incompetence relating to the failure to extract Neil. Some of the media coverage was negative towards cavers and caving as an activity. Certain quarters called for it to be banned altogether as irresponsible and dangerous’.

‘I wanted to show the structure and voluntary nature of our rescue services. The Neil Moss rescue attempt was a pivotal moment in caving history. It focused minds and changed attitudes in a manner that helped move the sport towards a more considered approach and became the catalyst for the reorganisation of the Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation. I wanted to record the memories and feelings of those who were there and present a study that was as unbiased and factually accurate as possible.

‘Two very full accounts exist – one by Eldon PC member George Cooper (referenced earlier), the other by Les Salmon, one of the rescuers. Both have since died. I was also fortunate to find a box of correspondence between Les and Eli Simpson of the BSA. This included a copy of the police log which revealed the true extent of the three-day operation.

‘My first scoop was to be granted an interview with Bob Toogood, one of the original team, who agreed to be interviewed in Moss Chamber. Spurred on by this, I went on to interview others who took part, each with a different perspective.

‘The only photographs of the site had been taken by well known French caver Jo Berger, which subsequently appeared in Paris Match (although as coroner’s evidence they should not have). My lengthy correspondence with the Paris Match office failed to produce the desired issue. However, I did receive the following week’s edition, which contained an article and photos of the diminutive caver June Bailey who had offered to help. The female angle was picked up on by the media although she had not been allowed to descend the shaft. It was some time later when Ralph Johnson produced a yellowing and slightly dog-eared copy from his attic complete with Jo Berger’s famous photos.

WVS ladies dispense refreshments

WVS ladies dispense refreshments to the rescuers © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

‘Eventually, I also received a collection of old press photos from James Lovelock, author of Life and Death Underground, which contains an illustrated chapter on the incident. He had been a freelance reporter with the News Chronicle at the time. This was the icing on the cake, as the quality and relevance of the photos was outstanding.

‘Having thoroughly enjoyed gathering material, interviewing people and making new friends along the way, I faced the daunting task of actually making the movie. The hardest part was deciding on the structure and a storyline that flowed, with twelve hours of footage to trawl through and a commentary to make, to fit the sequence of photographs. It took almost a year dipping in and out to complete the project.’

And thirteen years after releasing his DVD, it continues to be well-received. If you, like Pete, would like to secure a copy – and support Mountain Rescue England and Wales at the same time – we now have copies available in the shop.

With thanks to David for his proofreading and corrections, and to Pete, who first inspired us to retell this tale.

References: Mountain Rescue Magazine, July 2007. ‘Background to making Fight for Life’ by David Webb. Descent (195), April 2007. Wikipedia. Sports Illustrated. British Pathé ‘Pothole Tragedy 1959’ www.britishpathe.com/video/ pothole-tragedy. ‘Race Against Time’ by Jim Eyre and John Frankland. ‘The Honour of Being Human’ by George Cooper, 1984.

 

We can’t promise to make our team members bionic but we’ll do our best… the Rescue Benevolent Fund, there for the mountain and cave rescue ‘family’ in need

Usually, when I write here, it’s wearing my Mountain Rescue magazine editor’s hat, but this time I’ve popped on a different guise, as secretary and trustee of the Rescue Benevolent Fund.

There’s never a ‘good time’ to have an accident – we can probably agree on that. They can happen to anyone. The best prepared, the highly skilled, the most expensively kitted-out. They even happen to people carrying maps, compasses and torches.

Mountain rescue casualties come in all shapes and sizes, ages and occupations, male and female, at every level of technical experience. And every so often they come dressed in mountain rescue kit.

We probably shouldn’t tell you this but you might be surprised how often team members do get injured in the ‘line of duty’. Cuts and bruises, torn ligaments, snapped ‘tibs’, wrenched shoulders, hernias and heart attacks, to list a few such injuries. Stretcher carrying can be hazardous when you add slippery grass, guerilla scree, driving rain or snow and pitch dark into the mix.

Patterdale MRT Penrith MRT Andy McAlea Winter Mountain Rescue Training

Patterdale and Penrith team members on a joint winter hill training day in 2016 © Andy McAlea, Patterdale MRT.

But maybe it’s not a physical injury. Maybe it’s a particularly harrowing incident and suddenly, inexplicably, having a chat and a drink with teammates down the pub or café afterwards just isn’t enough.

And very occasionally, across the history of mountain rescue, a team member has lost his or her life during an incident.

In May 1983, the then Bridgend team (now Western Beacons) lost their team leader to a tragic accident. In weather conditions described as ‘atrocious, with strong winds and snow falling’, a group of Venture Scouts had lost their way descending Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in South Wales, and wandered onto the dangerously steep north east face. One of them became separated from the rest and fell, breaking his leg. Mike Rudall had ventured out to treat the lad, when a fall of rock crashed down the face. Instinctively shielding the injured scout with his own body, Mike took the force of the fall and lost his life.

Years earlier, in June 1969, rockfall had caused the death of the Cockermouth team leader Jock Thompson and another team member during a training exercise and injured several others. Team members were practising a new technique of horizontal stretcher lower at Low Crag above Gatesgarth in Buttermere. Jock and Jim Coyle were the ‘barrow boys’, one at each end of the stretcher, guiding it down the crag.

After one successful lower, they set off again but, as they did, the huge rock which was holding the main belay broke away and a rocky avalanche engulfed the stretcher party. Struck by the boulder, Jock was killed instantly. On the other end of the stretcher, Jim suffered a broken arm and cracked ribs.

Kathryn Wilson and Michael Stephenson had been acting as belay. The impact carried Kathryn down the crag, breaking her arm and pelvis, and catapulted Michael onto the scree below. He died in hospital the following day. Rex Usher, the ‘casualty’ on the stretcher, was buried under the debris. He suffered cracked ribs and severe bruising. Other team members sustained more minor injuries such as rope burns.

The accident had a profound effect on a very young team and it remains probably the most serious accident to have occurred in mountain rescue in Britain.

Cockermouth MRT Stretcher Training

Present day Cockermouth team members training in mist and rain, underneath Gable Crag on Great Gable © Chris Cookson.

These two incidents were devastating to team members and their families, but the lesser injuries can devastate too if a volunteer team member loses his or her ability to do their day job. It was this concern for the safety and wellbeing of the mountain rescue ‘family’ which led, five years ago, to the development of the Rescue Benevolent Fund.

The fund was set up by Mountain Rescue England and Wales in collaboration with British Cave Rescue – and its trustees are drawn from teams across England and Wales – but it became clear from the start that to protect and secure any monies donated for benevolent purposes and to ensure independent, objective assessment of any claims, it would need to be set up as a separate charity.

Our aim is to help alleviate hardship suffered by mountain and cave rescue team members and their families which arises from official mountain rescue activity. The number of claims we’ve had is still low – not least because the nature of mountain rescuers tends towards the antithesis of a claim culture. As volunteers, they don’t ask for recompense when they respond to a call-out, so it doesn’t come easily to ask for help – especially financial help – if they get injured during a rescue operation.

So what have we achieved so far? 

‘We’re still a young charity’, says Neil Woodhead, chairman of the fund and a Kinder team member, ‘so we’re still growing and learning about the sort of support team members need from us.

‘Most of our claims have been for physical rehab and this is where we think the benevolent fund can be a real benefit. Many of our members are self-employed. They are already giving up potential earning time when they turn out to a rescue so if they’re injured on an incident and unable to work as a result, it can mean real hardship. Our guiding principle is to get people back to work and back to mountain rescue.’

Of course, there are also insurances in place to protect team members but sometimes immediate help is needed and, if it’s a physical injury, often the sooner you can begin rehabilitation with physiotherapy, the better your prognosis for recovery.

The Rescue Benevolent Fund can help by covering the costs, with agreements in place with both The Fire Fighters’ Charity and the Police Treatment Centres. We’ve worked with local counsellors and mountain rescue TRiM personnel to help team members who need emotional and mental health support. And we’ve also provided immediate financial assistance.

So here comes the ‘bionic’ bit…

Patterdale team member and Lakes dog handler David Benson knows from painful experience how easily an injury can occur and how it can impact your life. A self-employed dry stone waller, when he injured his knee on a call-out, it didn’t just affect his ability to respond to mountain rescue incidents – and effectively ground his search dog – more importantly, he was unable to earn a living.

David Benson with Lakes Search Dog Brock

David Benson with Search Dog Brock, happy to be on the hill © Ian Sandulou of Romanian Search Dogs.

It was a Saturday in October, three years ago. He’d just returned to Patterdale base, after training with his search dog Brock, when a call came in to an incident on Helvellyn. Back up the hill he went. It was a difficult stretcher carry from Swirral Edge down to Red Tarn, then to the outfall and sledging down towards Greenside. Having taken his turn with the carry, David carried on downhill, alongside the rest of the group but, as he walked, his knee became extremely painful.

‘It was just a simple walk off with a light pack,’ says David, ‘but my left knee went clunk clunk to the medial side and down I went.’

His old Kirkby Stephen teammates stretchered him off the hill. ‘They’d been ask to support us on the casualty carry but got me instead!’

David had suffered a sprained MCL and, supported by the fund, undertook a week of intensive rehab just before the Christmas break. ‘I was wondering how can you do rehab all day for a week. What could they possibly do with you to fill in all that time? Well they did. I wasn’t expecting it to be so holistic. Diet and nutrition were covered, men’s health and relaxation.

‘Knowledgeable people who were happy to chat and answer questions, a good bunch of folk who created a calm, positive atmosphere and wanted to make you good again. Worth getting injured for!’

We think he was joking about that last bit but then eleven months after the injury he had a go at a regular run from Kirkland to the top of Cross Fell. ‘Pre-injury, I’ve never subbed one hour to the top, despite trying. Not that day. 59.57! I just had to send the photo to the physio team at The Fire Fighters’ to let them know what a good job they did with me!’

See, they made him bionic!

David Benson

David’s record time, thanks to his successful rehab after injury © David Benson.

…and we’ve helped deal with emotional health issues too…

Dion and Sue Llwyd Hopcroft had an entirely different experience. Shortly before midnight, in late February 2016, the Aberglaslyn team were asked to assist in the search for a young man missing in their patch. But this search was particularly poignant because the missing 18-year-old was Josh Llwyd Hopcroft and his father, Dion, was the Aberglaslyn team leader. Alongside Aberglaslyn were members of the South Snowdonia team and SARDA Wales search dogs, searching through the night.

At first light, Dion himself went out on foot and sadly it was he who found Josh, who had taken his own life. Hard to imagine the impact such tragic circumstances might have on any family, let alone one so involved with the entire incident, and both Dion and Sue struggled.

With the team liaising with us on their behalf, we were able to support them both with separate counsellors, local to them, over the course of a year, to help them come to terms with their grief.

‘It’s still raw,’ says Dion, ‘but the counselling helped me a lot. Sue too – though hers was a different experience. I’ve been in mountain rescue for 21 years. I’ve seen horrific things and I’ve always been offered counselling but I’ve just got on and dealt with it. I wasn’t sure what to do at the time but it’s the best thing I ever did. Definitely helped me move forward and we’ve got to the stage now where we counsel each other.

‘Initially, I said this is my last call-out but Sue made me aware that Josh was so proud of me and my involvement with mountain rescue so I got back into it. It wasn’t long after that I was called out to the helicopter crash in North Wales – the first team on the scene. That was pretty horrendous but I’ll never see anything worse than seeing my own son that day.’

Almost three years on, Dion is able to talk about it in part because Josh’s death has inspired the family to help other young people in similar situations. Determined to turn their devastation into a positive force for good, Dion and Sue, supported by friends, family and team members, have forged ahead with plans for ‘Josh’s Lighthouse Project’.

An idea which started with a memorial garden has expanded to creating a safe space in the shape of a glass-fronted log cabin overlooking the sea, where young people can go for counselling, group chats and education about mental health and wellbeing. The name derives from Josh’s request, just before his eighteenth birthday, to have a tattoo. He’d even designed his tattoo, in the shape of a lighthouse. He never did have it done but Sue, Dion and Josh’s brother have, in his memory, and their cabin project continues the theme.

They already have planning permission on an old school property, ground works have begun, fundraising continues, and the hope is it will be up and running in 2019. We wish them luck.

So, five years on, we’re proud of what we’ve achieved so far and still focused on working with mountain and cave rescue to help support team members and their families in need. You can find out more about the Rescue Benevolent Fund here and if you wish to help support us in supporting our team members, you can do that too. Thank you.

Based on an article first published in Mountain Rescue magazine, Issue 67 (Winter 2019), with thanks to David, Dion and Sue for permission to share their stories with a wider world.

Bowland Pennine’s 2006 ‘winter wonderland’ rescue remembered

Hard to believe this stunning image of Bowland Pennine team members battling through the snow – which surely must rate as one of the most iconic in recent mountain rescue history – is almost thirteen years old. Thirteen years! Yet still as relevant and fresh as ever.

Given the snowy conditions we’ve been seeing across the country this last week, we thought we’d give it another airing, and share the story behind the photo. This is a retrospective account from memory, by a handful of team members who were there on the day.

We often talk about temperatures dropping as you head uphill, urging walkers to take hats and gloves and spare clothing because sunshine in the valley can quickly turn to sleet and snow further up and if ever proof were needed that weather conditions can be extremely localised, this is it.

Bowland Pennine MRT Beacon Fell

Dave Matthews and Gary Sherliker on the stretcher © Bowland Pennine MRT/Andy Binstead.

Phil Lund sets the scene: ‘Beacon Fell Country Park consists of 110 hectares (271 acres) of woodland, moorland and farmland just north of Preston, in Lancashire. The summit is 266 metres (873 feet) above sea level and offers spectacular views of the Forest of Bowland and Morecambe Bay.

‘Opened in 1970, it’s popular with people of all ages. The hill has a single carriageway around it, which is one-way (clockwise) with four feeder roads and there’s a car park, café, many tracks and a trig point on the top’.

Beacon Fell Lancashire

Beacon Fell OS map (Crown copyright 100045616) + Beacon Fell on a more innocuous day © Graham Hogg, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Friday 3 March 2006 began well, with wall to wall clear, blue skies. The perfect day for a trip to Beacon Fell. But, during the morning, conditions changed quite suddenly. A huge snowstorm swept into the area dumping unprecedented amounts of snow onto ground that was frozen above a hundred feet or so. Nobody could have imagined that the volume of snow falling and accumulating would create such difficult conditions in such a short space of time.

Dave Matthews had arrived at Beacon Fell mid-morning, with a group of young people.

‘After about 90 minutes, it became obvious that people should leave the area and make their way home – and, of course, assuming the snowfall was covering a large area and not just the local high ground. Snow was now compacted at 150 mm on cold icy ground. The road from the main car park involves a steep descent with a right angle turn at the bottom!

‘One of the first to drive away was a small saloon with a male and disabled female. This vehicle crashed at the bottom of the hill, leaving the road and was left suspended above a deep culvert balanced on an embankment, the disabled female passenger helplessly trapped inside.

‘The next vehicle, a college minibus full of students from Runshaw College, Leyland, slid out of control and impacted the first. Immediately after this, team member Mick Turner descended the hill in a Freelander and managed to negotiate the turn successfully, coming to a halt to attend to the crashed vehicles. I was behind Mick in my Ford Mondeo which slid out of control all the way down the hill and hit the embankment, narrowly missing the minibus.

‘Realising that the students and staff now spilling out of the minibus onto the road were like nine-pin targets for any more vehicles likely to appear over the hill, we did our best to round them up and, with enormous difficulty, shepherd them to safety off the road. No sooner had we done this than another vehicle skidded off the road into the surrounding bog. Nobody hurt at this time. I sent the minibus occupants, and anybody else I could gather up, back on foot to the shelter and safety of the visitor centre and asked people to intercept any vehicles approaching to avoid any further pile up.

‘It was clear we needed assistance. I dialled 999 and was put through to North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) control. I explained the situation, stressing that there were no injured parties but that Bowland Pennine team members should be called out, to seek out and evacuate people from the hill. Less than five miles from the incident, the controller had never heard of Beacon Fell, and there was no sign of any snow in their location, so there ensued a long and unproductive discussion about postcodes and road names which was getting nowhere.

‘There seemed no willingness to mobilise the team, despite my assurance that there was no need for NWAS crew to attend as well. Their vehicles wouldn’t cope with the conditions, and potentially would cause obstruction, adding to the difficulties.

‘In the end, I had to tell her I was ending the call and would only talk to Police Control. A few minutes later, Police Control called me. I explained the situation, asked them to contact the team leader and give my name, and advised that there was no need for police attendance and they should not attempt to send any vehicles to the area because of the conditions.

‘The superintendent immediately contacted Phil O’Brien, the then team leader, who called out the team’.

‘A multi-vehicle RTC on the perimeter road of Beacon Fell’, read the call-out pager and team message line. ‘Ambulance service unable to reach incident due to road conditions and prevailing weather’.

Further updates added more information as team members arrived on scene. No immediate medical emergencies… numerous RTCs/trapped persons/crashed vehicles on the fell road including two Lancashire ambulances, three police vehicles, a minibus full of children plus a ranger service vehicle… all caught out by a sudden and unexpected deterioration in the weather with heavy snow falling onto already frozen roads with further snow forecast and temperatures expected to dip below freezing.

Team control was established at North Nook Lane, in one of the team’s Land Rovers.

Phil Lund was at work when the call-out came. He drove home, picked up his gear and made his way direct to Beacon Fell, with his wife driving. Stuck in traffic at one point, he noticed that the car in front was being driven by fellow team member Rick Barker, so jumped in with him.

‘Rick and I looked at each other. SNOW! At our location, it was a little dark, raining but no sign of any snow or icy roads. It was around 1.00pm and we were about 6 km away as the crow flies.

‘On our final approach we began to see what all the fuss was about. The roads leading up Beacon Fell were covered in deep snow with more falling.

‘We’d just entered a winter wonderland’.

Bowland Pennine Beacon Fell

The scene just below the Beacon Fell, Circular Road; Team members at the top of the lane preparing kit © BPMRT.

On scene, Dave continued to manage things as best he could. Meanwhile, another two vehicles descending the hill joined the mess! Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

‘Soon afterwards,’ continues Dave, ‘two NWAS ambulances arrived plus a 4X4 with ambulance personnel. They all got stuck in the snow and were no further use to anybody. One parked ambulance was sliding down the road and represented a significant danger so we tethered it to some trees.

Bowland Pennine Beacon Fell

The tethered ambulance with more down the hill in the background © Bowland Pennine MRT/Andy Binstead.

‘NWAS personnel were obviously not equipped in clothing or footwear suited to the very slippery conditions and were left to stand around keeping hands warm in their pockets for several hours.

‘As team members arrived, they got to work in the Land Rovers and on foot assisting people trapped by snow inside their vehicles around the fell. The disabled lady was extracted from her precariously suspended vehicle’.

Phil and Rick parked up, then walked up to the team control vehicle, passing the tethered ambulance. Shortly after, a fire appliance gave up trying to navigate the same road.

‘The situation was a little confusing at first,’ says Phil. ‘There were many reports of bumps and bangs but thankfully no serous personal injuries. I was tasked with a few others to check the north side of the circular road. Unbelievably, the snow was 150mm deep and showed no signs of thawing any time soon. Looking to the north, I could see bright green fields just below us, before the snow began again on Parlick and Fairsnape fells. It was deathly silent, the snow absorbing all sound. And the temperature was sub-zero with a bone-chilling breeze.

‘In the distance we noticed a car, upright but off the road, about 1 km from the team control. On arrival, there was mum, adult daughter and the family dog. No injuries but worried and cold. However, the car was stuck. Clearly our task was to get all three to safety and deal with the car later.

‘Mum was unsure on her feet in normal conditions, so the plan was to stretcher her off on the Bell and escort daughter and dog at the same time on foot. But the dog is very old and doesn’t walk very far, said the daughter. Okay, we said, the dog can sit on the stretcher too. Simple!

‘In quick time we had the stretcher assembled, casbag opened, mum zipped up and fastened in, but the dog was having none of it. No way was he getting on that contraption with these funny looking guys and straps. He was going to walk off.

‘And so, our journey began, four of us sledging the stretcher along the road, in the wrong vehicle direction but as there was no traffic, we were okay’.

Bowland Pennine Beacon Fell

Rick Barker with the daughter, dog and shopping in the background. Phil Lund front left, Dave Matthews rear left, Pete Walker front right, Gary Sherliker rear and mum on the stretcher © Bowland Pennine MRT/Andy Binstead.

During the whole operation both the air ambulance and Oscar 99 (the police helicopter) flew in and landed in the field adjacent to the original incident and then flew away again finding no use for their services. One of the aircraft had to make a quick re-landing on take-off due to the volume of snow falling.

Yet, back down the hill in bright sunshine, Phil O’Brien was acting as incident control via his radio from a bench on Preston Flag Market, 16 km away.

And the very last vehicle to come over the hill and crash into the scene was a police Mercedes 4X4! We believe a team member might still have the bonnet logo as a souvenir.

Around 26 members of the public on Beacon Fell were escorted to safety that day, to a local pub, the Green Man at Inglewhite, used as a clearing station.

A truly localised alpine winter scene, captured on film by team member Andy Binstead. Sadly, ‘Binny’ passed away in 2017.

A job well done by Bowland Pennine MRT, with an iconic set of images to capture it.

Warm baths and soggy underpants, and getting #AdventureSmart. At least some things in mountain rescue have changed

Well, here we are in 2019. Christmas done for another year. Baubles packed, tree stripped, crackers cracked. So did you make any New Year resolutions? More outdoor adventure perhaps, a bucket list to tick?

Just before Christmas, Lakeland Walker editor, John Manning, suggested outdoor enthusiasts give mountain rescue teams their best possible Christmas gift by keeping themselves safe.

‘By doing everything you can to eliminate unnecessary risk,’ he said, ‘you’re increasing the chances of those volunteers enjoying an uninterrupted Christmas with their families!’

This wasn’t to be the case.

On Christmas Day itself, just as the sprouts were being crossed, Edale and Buxton team members went to the aid of a woman who’d slipped on muddy ground at Mam Tor and injured her leg.

In the Lakes, four members of Langdale Ambleside were involved for seven hours when a man called for help because he was unable to find his way down from Bowfell after the battery on his phone (his only means of navigation) went flat. He was located using SARLOC and escorted off the hill. An entirely ‘avoidable incident’ (but more about those later).

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Llanberis team members were tasked to recover the body of a man who may have been caught up in a rockfall. The technical rope rescue, on difficult ground, lasted several hours, with team members returning to their homes as darkness set in.

And on Boxing Day, members of the Calder Valley and Holme Valley teams spent their evening searching for a missing 83-year-old man with dementia, in an area crossed with a number of waterways and challenging terrain. In a race against time, the gentleman was discovered in a Leeds street at 2.40am.

Calder Valley SRT + Holme Valley MRT Boxing Day 2018

Boxing Day incident for Calder Valley and Holme Valley team members © CVSRT Nicola Bartlett.

But, in truth, as any mountain rescuer will tell you – and many of them did, in their pre-Christmas social media posts – they are more than happy to be on call 24/7, even on Christmas Day.

It’s an ethos baked into the very bones of mountain rescue, from the moment the first ‘official’ rescue teams took shape. The very characteristic that brought them into being.

Coniston MRT Picture Post

The Coniston Fells Rescue Party, featured in The Picture Post 1947.

Warm baths and soggy underpants

It was 20 December 1946 when newly-married Ernest Sivyer and his wife Mary stepped off a train in the Lake District, having travelled through the night. He was to take up the post of secretary and guide at the Holiday Fellowship Centre in Coniston.

Later that cold, frosty morning, 41-year-old Ernest set off across the fells to familiarise himself with the area but he never returned. At first light, a rapidly assembled party of local people set out to search the area around Dow Crags and Coniston Old Man to no avail. Fifty policemen, drafted in from far afield, joined farmers and other willing volunteers to search over 100 square miles of countryside in the most appalling conditions. Heavy rain in the valley turned to snow higher up, with mist down to 500 feet and a gale blowing.

On 23 December, a young police inspector Tom Andrews made an entry in his personal diary, ‘5.30am to 6.30pm. Went to Coniston to search for a missing climber.’ Late the previous evening, he’d been instructed to report to police headquarters in Preston, in uniform, to take charge of a detachment of thirty constables detailed to go to Coniston. At 5.30am they set off, in full uniform, many wearing great coats and macintoshes, caps or helmets and ordinary regulation boots – and some carrying capes.

It rained incessantly. Tom recalled that the inspector, soaked to the skin, asked the wife of the village constable, Jim Leak – who was still out on the fells – if he could come into the police station and have a bath.

‘Mrs Leak, a friendly lady and typical of the traditional British village bobby’s wife, agreed. Then the inspector asked if there was a chance of his borrowing a set of PC Leak’s underwear before putting on his wet uniform. Mrs Leak agreed and, after a hot drink, the inspector returned to Blackburn with his colleagues.’

Constable Leak, who had remained on duty until the detachment left, eventually returned home to the police station for a bath of his own. ‘Mam’, he called to his wife, ‘I can’t find my clean underpants and vest!’

His wife replied that she had let the inspector borrow them and PC Leak would have to wait another day. History does not record whether his underpants ever made it back to their rightful owner.

Tasked to lead various groups of searchers, including the police officers, was professional mountain guide Jim Cameron – who himself spent two days checking every gully and ledge where a body might be concealed. He decided they should search Wetherlam and off they set with strict instructions not to lose sight of each other in the mist because, as Jim remarked, ‘it wouldn’t do to lose a policeman.’ But, by the time they reached the summit, there had already been several mishaps. So the search was called off.

The next day, Christmas Eve, the RAF joined the search around Coniston Old Man, the weather now fairly calm and sunny but, as the party made their way to Tilberthwaite, word reached them the casualty had been found at the foot of a waterfall known locally as the White Lady. He appeared to have fallen about 400 feet down a steep gully, having perhaps lost his footing scrambling over the ice.

It was this search, and the toll it took on everyone involved, that led to the formation of the Coniston Fells Rescue Party (as it was then called), the first civilian mountain rescue team in England, led by Jim Cameron.

And, incidentally, seventy-two years on, Coniston team members attended not one but two call-outs on Christmas Eve 2018. The first, when a young man fell at least 100 feet from the top of a crag. Fortunately for him, nearby walkers were able to go to his immediate aid and, despite the serious injuries sustained, he is alive and on the road to recovery – and grateful to the team who saved his life. The second, in the early evening, when a female walker was unable to continue her descent of Coniston Old Man, due to a medical condition. Busy day.

Coniston MRT

Coniston team members, pictured a little more recently © Coniston MRT.

So much has changed yet so much is the same

We’ve come on a bit since then. Our coats and boots make a far better fist of keeping us dry, we tend not to wear capes, and we can’t remember when we last popped into the local police station for a bath.

People still fall down gullies, slip and trip and still go missing but, where once a ‘busy’ team might deal with ten (or even fewer) call-outs a year, incident numbers can be in treble figures. And over the last five years in particular, the numbers of ‘avoidable incidents’, where there’s a lack of understanding or preparation for the adventure ahead, has grown exponentially. Which means the demand on resources and team members’ time has too.

Okay, so sometimes there are spikes and fluctuations – we get beasts from the east and storms with fancy names (and, very occasionally, peculiarly long, hot summers) – but generally, the trend is upwards with a number of teams reporting ‘record highs’ for 2018, in the Mid Pennines, Northumberland and the Peak District, as well as the usual hotspots of North Wales and the Lakes.

‘The twelve Lakes teams dealt with 654 emergency calls last year,’ says Richard Warren, chairman of Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association. ‘Just over 190 of those were what I would class as avoidable – people calling in to say they’re lost or overdue when a bit of forward planning might have prevented them having to call us.

‘We’re starting to recognise that it’s often people coming into the Lakes from outside, who don’t necessarily have an appreciation of what a big mountain is.’

A similar conclusion in North Wales prompted the launch of #AdventureSmartWales, in March 2018, to promote ‘the safe enjoyment of Wales’s natural outdoor resources’ through videos and posters, live information updates and the liberal use of hashtags.

‘We’re not aiming at the expert mountaineers or the readers of Trail magazine,’ says Phil Benbow, chairman of North Wales Mountain Rescue Association, a key partner in the campaign. ‘We’re aiming at the people who decided on the Wednesday night say, in the pub with their pals, to go to the mountains at the weekend. They arrive in blue skies and launch themselves up the mountain. The rain and cloud comes in, they’re wet and cold, they can’t see where they’re going any more, get lost, panic and call us because they think they’re going to die!’

It’s too early yet to assess whether the campaign has been a success. Indeed, whether we’ll ever be able to quantify it fully is moot. Sure, incident numbers have continued to rise but then so has the number of people going out into the hills and, historically, we know that accident figures have always kept pace with rising visitor numbers. We’re talking about changing behaviours here and that takes time. It could be several years before we know whether we’ve prevented those ‘avoidables’ from growing at the same rate.

In the meantime, we want you to go out and have that adventure. Tick off that bucket list. But know how to keep yourself safe.

Enjoy making plans (but don’t be afraid to change them). Discover the hours of fun you can have, wrestling a paper map into submission on a windy day (and plotting your path across it). Make weather-watching part of your day (because, heck, it will be anyway), and take enough kit to keep yourself warm and dry, well-fed and watered. Charge your phone before you leave (but have a notepad and pen handy too, in case you do encounter an accident and need to note down a few details before calling us).

Most of all, have fun. Make a good day in the hills even better.

Postscript: Inspired by Adventure Smart Wales, Adventure Smart Lake District Cumbria is due to launch this spring. We’ll keep you posted as soon as we know more.

Wishing you all a wonderful 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! 

Stay safe in the winter mountains with these navigation tips from ‘ultimate navigator’ Lyle Brotherton

As gusty winds from the east and dusting of snow changed the late autumn landscape over higher ground in many areas across Britain this week, we thought it timely to talk about winter navigation. And who better to do that than Lyle Brotherton, author of the Ultimate Navigation Manual and co-founder of the Ultimate Navigation School

Learn to navigate with a map and compass – it could save your life © Jago Miller.

Navigating in winter involves several challenges that you don’t usually have to worry about at other times of the year. Some are obvious, others less so. Being aware of the changes you’ll have to make to your navigation strategy before heading out into the hills will make it far easier when you get there.

Variable visibility

Our eyes are our most important navigational tool. Of course, even with fully functioning peepers, fog, low cloud and blizzards can all reduce visibility to a matter of a few metres. You’ll need to compensate for this with strong navigation skills, such as taking bearings, timing and pacing, possibly augmented with the use of a GPS device. On the other side of the coin, cold, crisp winter’s days can offer outstanding visibility. The lack of dust or pollen reduces haze and, like the song says, on a clear day you can see forever. Okay, maybe not forever, but certainly for a long way. That said, things can change quickly in the hills, so always be prepared to change your tactics.

Care with bearings

If using visible landmarks isn’t an option, you need to be able to fall back on micro- navigation techniques. The ability to take a bearing is essential, but even this has its difficulties in the winter. An object you’re sighting to help you walk on your bearing might be crystal-clear at the moment, but can you be sure it will stay that way until you reach it? It’s probably safer to break your journey down into smaller legs, using as reference points nearer objects that are less likely to be obscured by a change in the weather.

Taking Bearing Winter Navigation

Keep walking poles away from compass when taking a bearing © Lyle Brotherton.

Compass quirks

Compasses work through magnetism, but did you also know that because of this their accuracy can be affected by metal objects? In winter, we’ll quite often be carrying far more metal in the form of ice axes and crampons. When taking a bearing, try to keep your compass well away from these items, either by holding it away from you or by dropping your pack to take a reading. Small bubbles in the capsule housing of your compass aren’t usually a problem, but in cold weather they can expand and may interfere with the needle rotating correctly. They are caused by microscopic cracks in the acrylic, through which air is drawn in when the liquid contracts in the cold. Keep your compass on you so it’s warmed by your body heat. And if your compass has bubbles in the fluid, consider replacing it for cold weather navigation.

Know timing and pacing

If the landscape is devoid of features or they are already hidden by the clag, you’ll need to use timing (knowing how long it will take you to cover a set distance) and pacing (knowing how many steps it will take you to cover a set distance) to determine when you’ve arrived at your goal. But in deep snow or strong winds your stride may be drastically affected, and it could take you much longer to get there than you think. For this reason, it’s worth testing your pace count and timings in different conditions and making a note of them, so that if you need to use these techniques on the hill, you’re using figures relevant to the conditions.

Look after electrical items of kit

Headtorches, GPS devices and mobile phones all rely on batteries, but battery life is reduced the colder it gets. With some batteries this can be dramatic. For example, disposable alkaline batteries lose half their power by going from room temperature to just 0°C. Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are better, although they still have some loss of power down to -10°C. By far the best and most sensible option is lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries – both the disposable and rechargeable types – which are functional down to -40°C. Where possible, carry essential electronic devices such as your mobile phone or GPS in an inside pocket to keep it warm and maximise battery efficiency.

Taking Bearing Winter

Taking a bearing in poor conditions © Lyle Brotherton.

Taking Bearing Winter Navigation

Conditions and visibility can deteriorate rapidly. These two photos were taken two minutes apart! © Lyle Brotherton.

Plan ahead

Think about where you may be likely to need to take bearings, work them out in advance and draw them on the map. Stopping to work out a bearing when it’s freezing cold and blowing a gale is likely to result in you rushing the process and increase the probability of mistakes occurring. Also look out for potential shelter and suitable break stops, so you have a plan if the weather gets really bad at any point. An oft-quoted safety tip is that it’s wise to leave a route plan with someone when you head into the mountains. However, in good weather it’s often something we forget or simply do not bother to do. In winter, it is an imperative. Be sure also to make your plan flexible enough to adapt to changes in prevailing conditions and the fitness of the group.

Obstacles

As well as hiding features, winter weather can create obstacles of its own. Before heading out into the mountains, use the map and weather reports to work out areas that might be corniced (carrying overhanging snow) or avalanche-prone – and plan your route to avoid them. Crevasses and gullies can also be hidden by snow. Use a map to identify potential hidden hazards and know where they are in relation to you on the hill.

Landscape features

Paths aren’t the only things that can be obscured by snow. Frozen rivers and lakes, gullies and even fence lines can disappear if conditions are bad enough. In heavy rain or after a snow thaw, small streams can become raging torrents, and you might have to adjust your route accordingly.

Helvellyn plateau snow cornice

Helvellyn plateau in good visibility, but clouds on the horizon. Spot the cornice! © Graham Uney.

In moments you could be walking in this. So how far are you from that cornice or a fatal big drop?* © Graham Uney.

Paths

Most of us use paths as part of our navigation. Because many are clearly marked on maps, even if we’re not following them directly, we’ll often use them as a landscape marker to work out where we are and how to get where we want to go. Snow doesn’t care about paths. A heavy fall will obliterate them, leaving a completely track-free landscape so, don’t rely on being able to follow or spot paths on the ground in winter.

Contours

Winter conditions can actually make using the shape of the land to navigate a little easier. Thick snow can hide distracting lumps and bumps on the ground that are too small to be shown on a map but large enough to confuse the landscape. The low winter sun also creates stronger shadows and gives the land greater relief, making the job of identifying map contours on the hill a simpler process.

Expert Tips

  • Many walkers get caught out by short daylight hours and tough conditions underfoot in winter so carry extra headtorch batteries.
  • To reach your final destination you will navigate in ‘legs’. Each leg starts from a known point and leads to an identifiable point on the map. In winter keep these legs short and always be prepared to backtrack.

• Postscript: Formed by the movement of wind over a ridge or crag edge, cornices can overhang by several metres and they are intrinsically unstable. In poor visibility, you may not be aware a cornice is there, much less recognise where it might fracture, so careful navigation and orientation is important. And if you think mountain accidents related to cornices and avalanches don’t happen here, in England and Wales, you’d be wrong. In December 2010, Patterdale team members were called to an incident involving a walker who lost his life to serious head injuries and hypothermia when he fell through a cornice near the summit of Helvellyn. So beware those snow cornices – they can indeed be fatal.

Winter is coming… stay safe and enjoy the hills

Last weekend, social media lit up following an incident involving a group of walkers who set off at 7.15pm on Saturday evening to tackle Scafell Pike. They’d planned to be off the mountain in four hours but, at 2.15am, they were lost and in need of help.

Wasdale team leader Penny Kirkby pinpointed their position as near the top of Piers Gill, one of the team’s black spots and scene of two fatalities over the past twelve months (one involving a young lad without a torch). Working through what was left of the night, she guided the group down safely by phone and avoided calling the rest of the team out.

The previous Thursday, two ‘young adults’ had arrived in Wasdale at 3.00pm and set off for the summit with barely two hours to spare before darkness fell. By 6.00pm, with only the light of their mobile phones to guide them, they were lost. They had neither map, compass and torch, nor the necessary skills and experience to navigate their way through the danger areas. Nine members of the Wasdale team were involved in the four hour rescue.

Ironically, the weekend before, when the clocks fell back into winter time, a local TV and radio campaign had seemed to work. Urging walkers to ‘set out earlier tomorrow and be prepared – it could save your life’, Richard Warren, chairman of the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association, was supported on-screen by his young grandson, Ronnie, ably demonstrating the use of a head torch. Not one Lake District team recorded a call-out in the days immediately following the clock change. Possibly a first.

Perhaps, given the two incidents five days later, it’s the people coming into the mountains from further afield we need to be focusing on and, indeed, work is underway to spread the ‘safety message’ with Adventure Smart Wales already up and running and an Adventure Smart initiative taking shape in the Lakes. So expect more on this.

Wasdale MRT Scafell Pike night rescue

This is what ‘dark’ means in the mountains. Taken during an incident in September this year, on the main Scafell Pike path © Wasdale MRT.

In the meantime, those two incidents raised a few discussion points.

1. Keyboard Warriors.

Mountain rescue teams tread an uneasy line between releasing details of their incidents, whilst expressing a level of frustration that a growing number of incidents may be ‘avoidable’, and then offering information about how hill goers might stay safe, without appearing to criticise the incident du jour.

Accidents can happen to anyone. The best prepared, the most expensively kitted-out, even the highly skilled. They even happen to people carrying maps, compasses and torches (although having a paper map and compass, torch, head torch and spare batteries in your kit and knowing how they all work together might just make life easier, prevent you getting lost and avoid you having to call us out).

Yet, without knowing the full picture of an incident, the keyboard warriors are off. As Simeon Leech, of Duddon and Furness MRT noted, in the September/October issue of Lakeland Walker, the ‘armchair judges’ below the line are ‘quick to condemn and blame casualties’, to criticise and evaluate. Others will counter with compassion, valuable tips and safety advice, but it often gets lost in the clatter.

‘So’, says Simeon, ‘if you see a team posting about an incident, why not simply share the post? Or make a comment which shares a time when you had an issue or a near miss, and what you did, or could do, to prevent it happening again?

‘No casualty, no matter how ill-prepared and inexperienced, has set out to cause a call-out: they’ve made a mistake, that’s all. Maybe a silly one in your opinion, but nevertheless a mistake. Being chastised seldom encourages a person to make the necessary improvements. Being given help and advice might’.

2. Summit fever.

If you’re a hill walker intent on completing your Three Peaks – and many of the incidents on Scafell Pike and Snowdon can be attributed to this particular challenge – know that, somewhere along the way, it’s gonna get dark.

But maybe you’ve paid your money, got your sponsors, even twisted your employer’s arm into match funding. Your local paper’s rooting for you, so is the charity you’re supporting but everything hangs on that big finish.

You’ve checked the weather forecast and it’s not looking good but you’ve come this far. Okay, some of the party are a bit tired too, starting to flag, but that’s part of the challenge, right? You can’t pull out now, lose face, let down your chosen charity… can you?

Well let’s think this thing through. Because whatever your motivation – be it raising as much cash as possible for a cause close to your heart, ticking another challenge off the bucket list or scaring your more sedentary mates with a stag (or hen) do they’re ego-bound to join – is it really worth risking yours and their wellbeing, maybe even lives, by not thinking things through? Properly?

And, if your motivation is simply raising funds, why set about doing that for one charity at the expense of another?

Every time a mountain rescue team member turns out, it costs their team money – running the vehicles, heating and illuminating their base, paying the phone bills, charging the torches, restocking the medical sacks, supplying kit. Not to mention the cost to the individual team member in terms of time. Which brings us to our next point.

3. It costs team members too.

One response following Sunday’s rescue came from one of the rescued party themselves, thanking Penny for ‘doing her job’ and getting them down. It’s a turn of phrase, we know, but it struck a chord.

The point is, Penny might have been undertaking a task she volunteered for that particular evening, but it’s not her ‘job’ to do what she did. And we think it’s worth making a distinction.

Like the rest of her mountain rescue colleagues across England and Wales, she is a volunteer. An unpaid volunteer. Every time ‘the pager’ beeps (we use the term ‘pager’ loosely because most teams now get called out through their mobiles), a team member gives up their own time with families and friends, interrupts their own working lives and hobbies – and sleep – to help fellow mountaineers. Largely because they appreciate how easy it is to get into trouble, how a simple slip can prove fatal. Sometimes from hard personal experience.

But it’s not their ‘job’. And it costs them money too, getting to and from base for incidents and making sure any items of personal kit are up-to-date.

Keswick MRT December 2017 night rescue

Incident on Glaramara with Keswick MRT, in December 2017, demonstrating that ‘dark’ really is proper dark and paths become very indistinct even with torchlight © Keswick MRT.

As they say in Wester Ross, ‘Winter is coming’*…

…weather conditions can quickly become more difficult and darkness falls earlier. It’s easier to get lost and lose time.

‘Venturing into the hills in bad weather without a good waterproof map and compass and knowing how to navigate is courting danger,’ says Richard.

‘Reliance on mobile phones is a recurring issue for teams across the country, particularly as phone signals in the mountains are unreliable. Traditional navigation using paper map and compass is an essential skill for all weather conditions and can be backed up with GPS technology.’

So, if you’re planning a trip to the mountains this winter, here’s our advice.

Plan your day and route

Plan your day and route, taking into consideration a reliable weather forecast. Graphics © VARTA Consumer UK.

  • Plan your day accordingly. Check the weather forecast for your route and get a mountain forecast if there’s one available and if there’s a storm brewing, stick to a valley route or think again.
  • Make sure you have warm, windproof and waterproof clothing (and spares) – hat and gloves essential! Remember it’s usually colder and windier on the tops (and damper, if you’re in cloud).
  • Head torch, handheld torch and spare batteries are essential too.
Be aware and start out early

Start out early if you can and be aware of what time it gets dark.

  • Set off earlier in the day. Pitching up at 3.00pm might seem like a good idea when the sun is still glinting warmly through the windscreen but it soon goes dark. And in the mountains we’re talking proper dark. Black dark. No light pollution or street lamps lighting your way. More often than not, no moonlight either.
  • Don’t rely on your smartphone alone for navigation – carry a map and compass and practise using them before you head uphill in the dark.
Carry a torch and spare batteries

You’ll need a good torch and spare batteries – or carry a second torch – in case you get delayed.

  • Charge ALL the phones in the party before setting off – and maybe keep at least one for emergency calls and text messages only. Or think about carrying a portable battery charger.
  • Keep together. Allow the slowest in the party to determine the pace.
  • Take plenty of food and water so if you do get stuck you can keep your energy up and keep hydrated.
  • Know your limitations. If you’re unused to navigating in the dark, it can be extremely disorienting. Teams spend hours and hours of training time accustoming themselves to navigating and operating in the dark.

Sometimes, the bravest decision is to turn around and go back. Those peaks will still be there another day. And, who knows, your sponsors might still support your charity, proud to know that you rose to the challenge for a good cause but also recognised that changing conditions might put you and your party at risk.

Like we said at the top, enjoy your time in the hills but stay safe!

*Apologies to anyone who didn’t get the Game of Thrones reference – we couldn’t resist.

‘Man + Mountain Sir Chris Bonington’ review and a mountain rescue tale

Ask most people in the UK to name a famous British mountaineer and they’ll say Sir Chris Bonington. This time last year, media reporting of his view that mountain rescue is ‘a sport’, in which our volunteer team members engage because they ‘enjoy the thrill’, stirred a great deal of debate on and offline (not least amongst ourselves).

As we noted at the time, we suspected his comments were said with tongue firmly stuffed in cheek and the flurry of media interest provided an opportunity to tell it like it really is and set the record straight about the nature of mountain rescue.

Many of us know from personal experience that Sir Chris has long been a firm advocate for mountain rescue. We even have a little tale of our own, courtesy of  ‘Risking Life and Limb‘, which chronicles the history of the first fifty years of mountain rescue in the Ogwen Valley. It’s the story of a little known involvement between a much younger Chris Bonington and the fledgling mountain rescue team. But we’ll come back to that.

In the meantime, now in his 80s, Sir Chris continues to write about the mountains. An archive of his many adventures is now with the Mountain Heritage Trust and at the heart of the current Man + Mountain exhibition at Keswick Museum. Sally Seed went along to check it out. 

Sir Chris's own book collection

Mock-up of Sir Chris’s home office, with some of his books © Sally Seed.

‘The exhibition covers Sir Chris’s life as well as his various expeditions and the changes in mountaineering during his lifetime. One of the things that really struck me was that he’s one of very few survivors (along with Doug Scott) from a generation of climbers who conquered many of the high mountains, high walls and high challenges on our planet in a short period of just decades in the 20th century.

‘As someone who more or less remembers seeing the televised ascent of the Old Man of Hoy in 1967, it made me feel pretty old to see the reports and pictures from Sir Chris’s return with Leo Houlding to climb it again in 2016 – at 80 years of age.

‘But, to go back to the beginning, the exhibition include letters and postcards from a young Chris Bonington to his family and it’s clear he opted for the RAF for his National Service in the hope of moving into mountain rescue. He’d already caught the climbing bug after a trip to Snowdon in 1951 and then climbs at Harrison’s Rocks near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Instead, he joined the Royal Tank Regiment after officer training at Sandhurst and managed to combine that with a life of climbing expeditions, including his (failed first) attempt on the North Face of the Eiger in 1957.

‘The exhibition covers plenty of Himalayan expeditions, with lots of Everest information, as well as trips to Greenland (with Robin Knox-Johnston in 1990) and elsewhere. There’s an interesting timeline about Everest in the bay window of the museum, overlooking the park, which starts with Everest being identified as the highest mountain in 1852 and ending up with today’s expedition permit statistics – 371 Nepalese permits this year and nearly 100 more from China!

‘There’s a collection of Sir Chris’s books set out in a mock-up of his office at home and a fascinating case of his equipment – not only a brick-sized mobile phone but also a camera that he lost on the NE Ridge of Everest in 1982, found by Russell Brice on a later expedition and returned to Sir Chris in January 2018.

Sir Chris's tent

Outside the tent © Sally Seed.

‘But the things that really struck me related to mountaineering equipment – the changes, the continuity and also the involvement of mountaineers in developing kit that’s now become standard. Climbing boots have changed a lot from hobnailed ones in 1955 through to Pierre Allain (PA) climbing shoes, but crampons have hardly changed at all. Duvet jackets, mittens, tents and harnesses are all featured in the exhibition (with credits to Don Whillans for a lot of the developments), and it was great to watch some of the younger visitors to the museum trying on the bulkier samples and then asking how you could climb a mountain wearing them. Not easily, was the obvious answer.

Chris Bonington Kit: The Dressing-up Box

The Dressing-up Box © Sally Seed.

‘The dressing up box of mountain gear is just one of the interactive aspects of the exhibition – you can tell it’s been professionally designed to offer an interesting few hours for families on a wet weather day in Keswick. There are ropes and climbing harnesses to try out, a shadow board of traditional and modern rock climbing gear to be matched up and an Everest expedition tent to be explored. Certainly the young people who were there when I visited seemed fascinated and engrossed in the displays.

‘It’s sometimes easy to forget just how much Sir Chris Bonington has achieved in his 80+ years – and what it has meant for British mountaineering. Man + Mountain is a great reminder – so if you’re looking for something to entertain the family this half term, why not drop in and have a look for yourself?’

Man + Mountain Chris Bonington runs until Sunday 6 January at Keswick Museum on Station Road in Keswick CA12 4NF. It’s open from 10am to 4pm daily, the parallel Mountain Heritage Trust exhibition is British Women Climb (extended to January 2019) and there’s a great café downstairs run by West House, a Cumbrian charity for adults with learning difficulties.

But what about that mountain rescue connection (mountain rescue being the reason we’re here, after all)?

Tryfan illustration by George Manley

The mighty Tryfan as immortalised on the cover of Risking Life and Limb © George Manley.

In 2015, when I was working my way through the Ogwen archives to write ‘Risking Life and Limb‘, a story came to light about an enthusiastic young man called Chris Bonington, just starting out on his adventures, many mountains ago.

Five years earlier, in October 2009, one of the Ogwen team founders, Ron James, recalled how ‘he once helped world renowned climber Sir Chris Bonington off the face of Tryfan when the pair were both teenagers’. Bonington too recalls the incident.

It was 1952. Still at school in Hampstead, he’d just completed his A-levels when he persuaded his mother to write a sick note to say he was in bed with flu, so he could squeeze a few days climbing in North Wales.

‘Off I went, climbing with a Scottish pal, Mick Noon. We went up to Terrace Wall to do Scars Climb. It was a straight VS then but it’s now classified as a hard VS. We’d plimsolls on our feet and a few slings round our necks. Our protection was a few runners over minuscule rocky spikes.

‘We just kept going. My leading standard then was about hard VS so I thought I’ll cream this one. I was having to do a bit of layback but there was nothing for my feet and I fell off. Came hurtling down. All the runners fell out. At the bottom is a grassy angled slope. I tumbled down that too.

‘I think I was slightly concussed, I’d damaged my arm and sprained my wrist. But I was able to walk down helped by various people – Ron being one of them. It’s amazing since then how many people reckon they saw me fall!

‘I was taken to the docs in Bethesda – it may have been Ron who took me. My memory is that the doc patched me up and the next day I hitched back to London. Then of course, I had to explain how I had a patched-up head and a patched-up arm when I was supposed to be at home in bed with flu!’

His mother, he says, was ‘amazingly calm and cool’ about all his various adventures.

He later spent the summer of 1963 in Snowdonia doing his ‘board’ – thankfully without further mishap – ultimately becoming secretary of the Sandhurst Climbing Club, so it holds a special place in his heart. And, at the team’s special anniversary dinner in March 2015, Sir Chris was principal guest, sealing an association with mountain rescue which had begun so many years before on the Tryfan rock.

 

 

 

The cow that jumped out of the mine

After a short intermission (for which we can only apologise), our long awaited blog post following on from our August animal rescue tales… With eighty-odd years of organised mountain rescue service under our belts, we’ve quite an archive of rescue stories to delve into, from around England and Wales. Last time, on the back of flying sheep, tigers on the loose and an equine mountain guide, and tales which sometimes end in tears for all concerned, we promised you a ‘laughing cow story’. So here it is.

Bowland Pennine team member Mark Aldridge describes what happened,  in September 1986, when a ‘crack mountain rescue team’ set out to save a very large cow from a very small mineshaft using any means available – brute force, hypodermics and straightforward bribery.

 (The story was first published in ‘My Weekly’, 19 December 1987, but we’ve also referred back to the original notes written by the late Pete Jones, hot-foot from the mine).

Every inch of metal in my ancient car screamed its tortured protest as I hurtled round the sharp bends of the narrow, steep Pennine track towards Ashnott Farm.

The urgent telephone call said ‘someone was trapped in an old disused mine’. I should grab my wetsuit and get up there pronto. Other team members known to be cavers were on their way too.

High on adrenalin, I was met by an amused-looking police officer.

‘It’ was ‘down there’, he said. In the mine.

‘It?’ Was it a child then?

No. The reason for the urgency was none other than a lost cow! My friend, Tom Bradley, who’d called me out, looked sheepish.

Ashnott is an old lead mine which various team members had explored previously. A top entrance gives access to the lower workings but no connection can be made to the adit level due to rockfall.

This adit level can be entered from the exit end, but is a very unstable passage driven through a mix of shale and rock. A branch passage leads off, but both this and the main level terminate in roof falls.

Ashnott Mine entrance

The entrance/exit to Ashnott Mine. No place for fourteen hundredweight of Charolais cow © Bowland Pennine MRT.

I’m not going in there. It’s not safe!

From the farmer, we learned that a 14 hundredweight (700 kg), show-winning Charolais had been missing for 24 hours. Footprints had been found leading into the adit level and the assumption was that she’d entered the level in search of water.

Had he been in to have a look, we asked.

‘I’m not going in there. It’s not safe!’ he said. Aghast.

A small banking led down to a bog. On the other side of this was the entrance to the hole.

The situation looked not only uninviting, it was disgusting! Cautiously, we advanced. Fifty yards in, we found fallen roof and pieces of hair. And gouge marks from the cow’s horns.

This caused great alarm. Roof falls we could handle to a degree, but there’d been no mention of horns!

Another 25 yards on, we found hoof marks.

Another 100 yards still and the sight that greeted us was not the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered: fourteen hundredweight of cow crammed into the three feet, ten inches (1.2 metres) or so between roof and mucky floor. The only consolation was the Charolais was pointing the other way and unable to turn round.

We approached a little closer but this seemed to disturb the cow, which moved further on bringing down more roof with it. So we retreated to the entrance.

Two other team members had arrived, John Houghton and Pete Jones. We related the tale to them and asked the farmer about the temperament of his beast.

‘Quite good,’ he said. ‘But it’s never been trapped in a cave for twenty-four hours before!’

‘No heroics, lads’, said the copper, as we headed back in.

‘You won’t bloody get any’, was our response, which upset the farmer a little. The cow, it transpired, was worth well into four figures. And in calf. No pressure then.

By now, she’d moved yet further up the tunnel, back hard up against the roof, buried almost to her belly in mud and fallen material with about an inch clearance either side.

Any doubts as to whether this was a real beast, or a rubber inflatable in some really quite extreme training scenario, were quickly dispelled when the tail raised itself parallel to the roof and a gallon of cow pee shot towards us, running into boots and warming our feet, and filling the gloomy cavern with steam.

Back we went to daylight, for further discussion with yet more team members.

The only way to effect a rescue, we decided, was to encourage the cow to walk out. But as cows don’t walk backwards, it would have to be turned round at the point farther in where the side passage joined the main one. We’d need a vet to tranquillise her so team members could squeeze past to block off the passages beyond the junction. If she entered these, all hope of recovery would go. We also agreed that except when it was tranquillised, no-one should be up-tunnel due to the very real danger of roof falls.

The Bowland Pennine Land Rover, February 1978 © Bowland Pennine MRT.

‘They never mentioned anything like this at university…’

The farmer was despatched to collect planks and wooden posts, in the event of a major roof fall, and a team vehicle diverted to collect spades and other bits of planking. The cow’s head would also have to be tied above water to prevent it drowning after tranquillisation. A vet was requested via police radio and the farmer’s wife brought homemade cake.

Back on site, the vehicle moved nearer to the mine entrance, lights on. We hoped this would encourage the cow, once it was turned round, to head towards light. Spot lamps were also placed along the tunnel.

The vet had arrived. Knowing how uncooperative animals can be, he was less than enthusiastic. Kitted out with waders and a caving helmet, and briefed about the rather sticky mud all the way up to the rear of the animal, he was led to the mine like a man to the gallows, still muttering ‘I don’t like this’ as we pushed him up the tunnel. ‘They never mentioned anything like this at university.’

We asked about the drugs. His first choice would cause immediate unconsciousness and last till the antidote was given. The problem was that if absorbed through human skin and not treated immediately, it caused death within five minutes. The thought of a nervous vet, in a confined tunnel, waving a rather large, lethal needle around, coupled with the risk of broken bottles, quickly decided us against this.

His second choice would cause unconsciousness for about two hours. Much more attractive and sensible.

The vet – with Tom, Tony Bond and me – entered the tunnel to administer the injection. Pete Jones, Pete Watt and John Houghton positioned themselves along the passage as backup.

We reached the back end of the cow – now farther up the tunnel and partly under a ledge.

‘Bloody hell!’ said the vet, ‘it’s rather big’, reluctant to approach any closer.

Needle already charged, he reassessed the situation. Just as we realised the animal had managed to turn its head into a shallow depression in one wall and could just see us past its left flank.

Maybe it could turn itself around. If it tried really, really hard.

Charolais cows

‘I’m standing here. You make a move.. you make a move… You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?’ Photos: Charolais cows and noticeboard background image, courtesy of Pixaby.

Fourteen hundredweight of tired and angry muscle

Then, suddenly, with a great thrutch, it did.

‘Bugger me! It’s turned round!’

And so did we, at speed, frantically scrambling and splashing through eighteen inches of mud, fingernails tearing on rock, the air blue.

Somehow we managed to trip over the vet, fighting heroically on hands and knees to remove both himself and his waders from the mud before finally making his escape with three feet of empty wader dragging from the end of his left leg.

The needle and hypodermic, stuck in the roof somewhere, the drug bottle in the mud, were later recovered by Tony. Our choice of drug use had proved entirely justified!

The only thing that had not so far emerged from the tunnel was the cow, probably laughing its horned head off at the debacle unfolding.

At this point, the vet stated he was not going back in the tunnel. Under any circumstances.

Tight squeeze at Ashnott Mine

Tight squeeze at Ashnott © Bowland Pennine MRT.

A handful of nuts

Darkness was falling. The police officer, now on overtime, was in quite a jovial mood, no doubt imagining the report he was obliged to write for his superior officer. The farmer was at a loss to understand why his cow didn’t just walk out. ‘It must be ready to eat by now… ‘

This was our clue, so off he was despatched for a bag of cattle nuts.

And back in we went, this time with even greater caution. Armed with nuts.

The problem was that, having reached a section of the passage where the height had been reduced by rockfall, the cow was reluctant to force its way over the obstruction. But seduced by a handful of nuts, she forced her way over the debris, horns bringing down more bits of roof as she went.

Her eventual exit came at great speed.

Tom emerged from the tunnel, leapt for the banking and missed, his prone body making both a good ladder and excellent springboard for the rest of us to run up.

The last team member made it by a short head, emerging like a cork from a champagne bottle. Tired, scared and dirty, the cow stumbled out into the night air, not much the worse for her experience.

With the hole covered over by fencing and the gear put away by ten o’clock, the whole operation had taken some seven and a half hours. Without further hesitation, we set off for our nearest watering hole. At the farmer’s expense.

Flying sheep, horsey guides, mountain cats and crocodiles. Must be August.

August dawns and right on cue the rain is back, the heating’s on, sheep are launching themselves at unsuspecting walkers and navigation by horse is headline news.

Whether the horse in question was entirely cognisant of his (or indeed her) part in the story is unclear. Unlike the black and white cat, which regularly – and presumably knowingly – guides lost hikers down the mountains in the Swiss resort of Gimmelwald. Or did, a couple of years ago. That too was an August story.

Finding the path back to his hostel closed, the hiker who published this particular tale online described how the moggy led him downhill, pausing from time to time to ‘look at him to follow’. Only when the path to the village was in sight did his ‘guide’ seem to lose interest and the pair parted ways.

Last Sunday morning, in a not dissimilar story, news broke that twelve Cleveland team members had set out to search Guisborough woods for a man who called police in the early hours with very little battery life, having found himself ‘somewhat worse for wear overnight’ and now lost with an ‘injured ankle’ and no shirt. Perhaps due to his lack of battery power, an attempt to pinpoint his position using SARLOC failed to work.

He made it home under his own steam – if reports are to be believed – having seen a horse in a field and followed it to the road, from where he was able to find his own way. Cue a nosebagful of creative hashtags and a great deal of horsey banter.

Still it was a valuable opportunity to remind people that mountain rescue team members are volunteers (who enjoy their Sunday mornings as much as anyone), and that horses are not a recommended navigation aide. Map, compass, phone with a fully charged battery – all so much more reliable.

Flying sheep and tigers. And crocodiles. Let’s not forget the crocodiles.

Not all the animals that feature in mountain rescue incidents are quite so helpful. Or hashtag worthy. And sometimes they cause serious harm to humans, like that ‘flying’ sheep, earlier in August. This wasn’t strictly one of ours, but a tale from the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team, who tended to a walker hit by a sheep jumping from an adjacent crag causing potential head, neck, back, abdominal and leg injuries. Thankfully, the casualty was later released from hospital with concussion and soft tissue injuries.

Mourne MRT Jumping sheep injures walker

Members of the Mourne MRT tend to a walker injured when a sheep jumped from a crag © Mourne MRT.

It’s not unusual for walkers to be hurt by livestock – horses, cows and sheep in particular – but there’s a wider message there too, about we humans having respect for these beasts of the field, especially if there are young animals involved. Earlier in the year, Mourne team members dealt with an incident with a horse which didn’t end well for the casualty.

‘I think in both instances, the walkers may have approached the animals,’ says Martin McMullan, Mourne MRT training officer. ‘In the most recent, the sheep jumped from a ledge when approached and collided with the walker. In the incident earlier in the year, the walkers’ approach may have triggered a defensive reaction from the horse.

‘The walker was attacked, as was her friend and another passerby who came to help. The first casualty suffered multiple skull fractures and considerable brain injury.’

The sheep in our story walked away uninjured – as they often do. Sheep rescues feature heavily in every team’s incident list – marooned on ledges, lost down gullies or hemmed in by fast-flowing rivers – and many a cragfast sheep has soared effortlessly over the heads of rescuers heading her way, armed with ropes and harnesses.

Aberdyfi SART rescue sheep from mine

Aberdyfi team members used their technical rope rescue skills to rescue this ewe from a small ledge under an overhang of semi-rotten beams, rock slabs and mining spoil © Aberdyfi SRT.

Teams are happy to help the farmers by way of thanks for letting team members train on their land. But the incident also raised the question, do teams actively train for this sort of rescue scenario? We train for any number of eventualities after all, some quite spectacular. Plane crashes, hot air balloons plummeting to earth and rising floodwaters regularly feature, but sheep-specific injuries and the unpredictability of animals? Maybe not.

But from the point of view of any trauma resulting from an impact injury, then yes. All part of the training.

It’s not just farm animals we get entangled with, of course. And, sometimes, it’s not even August.

It was April 2015, when an even bigger cat made mountain rescue news as the then Cockermouth team leader, Mike Park, ‘fell foul of a tiger’ in the mountains above Buttermere, sustaining a bloodied hand for his efforts. ‘Tiger’, it transpired, belonged to ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’ comedian Bill Bailey and he managed to evade capture for a couple of hours, leading rescuers a merry dance around Haystacks and across the fells with team members in hot pursuit.

The crocodile, you may remember, slipped ashore in Carlisle, during the 2015 floods and we have no reason to suppose the stories weren’t true. We have the photo to prove it.

Desmond the crocodile/alligator Carlisle floods 2015

To be fair, we think this was an alligator, snapped (!) as it floated past rescue team members during the Carlisle floods. It was later reunited with its delighted owner, whose home was devastated by the flooding © Stu Harper.

Animal magic

In fact, animals have featured in mountain rescue incidents from the start.

Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association (UWFRA) – who celebrate seventy years ‘in the business’ this year – reckon they’ve dealt with ‘433 sheep, four horses, 16 cows, eight calves, 53 dogs, 170 lambs, two goats, two cats and even two parrots’.

In fact, it was the rescue of a lost lamb which perhaps led to the formation of the Grassington-based team, as detailed in the book about their first fifty years, ‘Anytime. Anywhere’.

Walking near Kettlewell, one warm July afternoon in 1948, Len Huff and Ken Smallpage were enjoying the beauty and peace of the countryside when they heard the bleating of a lamb echoing from the depths of one of the many old lead mine shafts in the area. After a somewhat precarious descent of some 25 feet, ‘the two men managed to bring the lamb to the surface and it trotted off bleating happily to find its mother, none the worse for its experience’.

One week later, the same two men rescued another lamb from another shaft. Both incidents were reported to the police and it seemed a precedent had been set. Early the following month, when the police needed volunteers to join the search for a missing walker, they were asked to take part. By the end of August 1948, the Upper Wharfedale team had taken shape, with these two men instrumental in its formation.

Tugging at the heart strings

Perhaps inevitably, not all animal rescues end on a happy note, despite the best efforts of rescuers.

Earlier this month, when a farmer called for help because one of his calves had fallen into Strans Gill, UWFRA took the call. With scaffolding boards creating a flat surface in the gorge bottom and flood sheeting up the side of the gorge, and the calf secured inside a large builders’ bag (to prevent further injury and protect those lifting her), she was hauled up the makeshift route and onto a trailer for transport back to the farm. The rescue operation was a success but sadly the calf later died from the injuries sustained in her fall.

Upper Wharfedale FRA Crag practice

Upper Wharfedale team members practice their crag rescue skills (with a human casualty) © Derek Hammond.

So, incidents like these – the cows and the sheep and the parrots – how DO teams train for them? Indeed, do they? Or is the training they undertake just so all-encompassing and dynamic, team members so practised at thinking on their feet, that it’s simply a matter of problem-solving using whatever kit and manpower might be available?

UWFRA’s training officer Scott Ferris thinks so.

‘Animal rescue scenarios aren’t regularly used in our training, as such, other than maybe the use of special harnesses we’ve obtained for the purpose. But these incidents feed well into our general training – especially with the newer members – and, of course, always enhance our relationship with the local farming community.’

So there you have it. We’ll talk more about training another time. For our next blog, we thought we’d continue the theme and head to Lancashire and the Bowland Pennine team for another animal rescue story from 1986, one in which the ‘laughing cow’ in question very definitely had the last laugh.

Meanwhile, look out for flying sheep and stray crocodiles. Keep your distance. And definitely think twice before you follow that cat home. Or the horse.

Tek Care Lambs sign at Crummockwater, Cumbria

The ‘Tek Care Lambs on’t Road’ sign greets drivers, throughout the year, as they head towards Crummockwater in the Lake District © Judy Whiteside.