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.

Crimewatch catches up with mountain rescue in Scarborough

Teams are often invited to take part in programmes such as ‘Countryfile’ or ‘The One Show’. It’s a great opportunity to showcase mountain rescue but can be a logistical challenge given that team members already volunteer so much of their time and also have to work for a living – as Ian Hugill of Scarborough and Ryedale MRT recalls.

It was early in May when Simon, one of the directors on the BBC Crimewatch Roadshow, first made contact…

‘We’re considering the potential of filming an item with Scarborough and Ryedale MRT for our new series. We’re particularly interested in water rescues since we’ve covered caving and climbing rescues in previous programmes. Can we chat about possibilities?’

Our quick chat went something like this:

  • 20% of our incidents involve working in or around water: good
  • York floods: too hard to set up
  • North Sea tidal surges: too hard to set up
  • Slips trips and falls near water: not dramatic enough
  • Searches in and around water: not dramatic enough and often a sad outcome
  • Injuries at the base of one of the waterfalls (fosses) in our area: interesting…

We agreed to take the last scenario further.

A week later, Simon called back to set up a ‘water rescue’ from below a waterfall, involving presenter Michelle Ackerley – to be filmed in one day in the next four weeks while the production crew were in the north east.

Cue a frantic period of ‘cat-herding’…

The crew were happy to film at weekend but their best slot was the late-May bank holiday – one of our busiest periods, with a number of team members away.

The first weekend in June was a possibility but would involve considerable travel for the BBC. We settled on 2 June which was not without difficulty as we were already committed to first aid cover for a mountain bike event in Dalby Forest and a street collection in Scarborough – not to mention the need to provide operational cover for our patch.

Cleveland MRT kindly offered cover which meant that fourteen of our more experienced team members were available to stage a water rescue followed by a technical rope recovery from the valley to the road.

Michelle Ackerley BBC Crimewatch roadshow Scarborough & Ryedale MRT

BBC Crimewatch Roadshow presenter Michelle Ackerley speaking to camera © SRMRT.

There were a couple of suitable venues but the landowners for the logistically easiest location were camera shy. Our second option involved a considerable carry in and out, and the access road was closed due to a landslip, but we believed we could work around the closure so settled on Thomason Foss above Beck Hole, and are grateful to the Birch Hall public house for allowing us to use their ‘back garden’.

There followed a period of risk assessment and BBC best practice to ensure the full involvement of Michelle with as much drama as possible, at minimal risk.

Scarborough & Ryedale MRT Michelle Ackerley BBC Crimewatch briefing

Paul Thompson (Water Incident Manager) briefs Michelle on the day of filming © SRMRT.

Simon and I worked on a script, over multiple phone calls, settling on an interview with Michelle followed by the re-enactment of a previous incident where a girl suffered a potential spinal injury after ‘tombstoning’ from the lip of the Foss into the plunge pool below.

Midges, beer and thunderstorms: mountain rescue in a nutshell

The team assembled one evening at the end of May to run through the scenario, provide fresh blood for the resident North Yorkshire midges and test the BeckWatter beer in the Birch Hall.

It was looking good for the Saturday but the challenges continued almost to dawn on the day, when local thunderstorms and flash flooding were predicted for early afternoon. A quick rework of the script – action first, interview second – seemed pragmatic.

At 10:00 am on 2 June, we were joined by Simon and Amy (one of his researchers) from South Wales, Michelle from Cheshire and team members from the four corners of our area. Following a safety briefing, it was time to kit Michelle out in a dry suit, brief her on her ‘injuries’ then position her at the base of the Foss.

Team member Paul Thompson acted as water incident manager with Steve Glasper as advanced skills casualty carer. Other team members executed a swimming rescue and recovery to a flat slab at the side of the beck, with extraction from the water by means of a MIBS stretcher and spinal insert. The ‘casualty’ was then medically assessed on the riverbank before she could be stretchered out.

BBC Crimewatch Scarborough & Ryedale MRT casualty assessment

Safely out of the water, the ‘casualty’ is medically assessed ready for the stretcher carry out © SRMRT.

As this carry out was initially in the cold zone in the boulder field below the falls, we pulled in other team members to assist with the carry until the swiftwater team had completed the extraction. Tony Heap took over as crag master with Jon Bateman and Russ Hayes controlling the dead end and live end of the system respectively. For continuity of care, Steve swapped his PFD for a harness.

After much hauling of ropes – using almost 1km of rope and a significant proportion of our technical metalwork and slings – Steve and Michelle were clear of the valley and Tony got to enjoy his piece to camera running through the names and purpose of each rope in the system.

Scarborough & Ryedale MRT with BBC Crimewatch Michelle Ackerley

Steve Glasper (Advanced Skills Cas Care) with Michelle in the stretcher © SRMRT.

Throughout, Simon and Amy rushed around for ‘just the right’ shot while team members not directly involved with the action provided safety cover and ensured the cameras, GoPro, radio mics, spare batteries, tripods and kitbags were in the right place at the right time. Or at least close to it.

At the end of filming, the rain came but not the forecast thunderstorm, just that steady vertical stuff that soaks you through. The result was a bizarre interview with Michelle and myself stood in the stream and the camera set up out of the rain under the bridge in the village.

Everyone appeared happy with a long and successful day and we went our separate ways which, for us, meant emptying our vehicle into the drying room at base.

While Beck Hole and Goathland (‘Heartbeat’ country) are two of our ‘hotspots’, it had been a while since we’d been to Thomason Foss in anger but clearly our activities had angered the ‘slippery rocks gods’ and we were back the following day, after hastily repacking the Land Rover, to a lady with a lower leg injury. Thankfully, it was a little downstream of the Foss, a simple paddle over the stream and a sweaty stretcher carry up to a waiting ambulance.

Scarborough & Ryedale MRT BBC Crimewatch group photo

The inevitable group photo. Of course © SRMRT.

…and then back to herding cats…

Initially, Simon suggested we might join them on the day of broadcast to demonstrate the benefits of group shelters but it transpired the BBC wanted to turn over the whole live element of the show to us. So it was back to herding cats, arranging a suitable location, five or six team members, two additional short activities to camera and some input from previous casualties. All within two weeks. On a working morning.

We settled on the area around the Hole of Hocum, high on the moors. Another ‘hotspot’, this would also provide sweeping views over the moor – ideal to show off both the team and the beautiful, remote area we train and operate in.

And it was all going so well until OFCOM threw a spanner in the works, refusing to allow the BBC Outside Broadcast satellite system to transmit in the vicinity of RAF Fylingdales’ Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station – and they weren’t answering the phone! 

Thankfully, one of our team members farms an area of land on the edge of the moors and Dalby Forest, and he was more than happy to be offered up as an alternative.

So it was off to Givendale Head for a couple of hours looking for ‘dramatic locations’ which were safe for Michelle and the production team, away from civilisation but close to the satellite uplink van, with parking for a number of police cars and the police tractor from which Michelle would make her dramatic entrance to the show.

Tuesday 19 June arrived and the hour flew. Our fourteen minutes of airtime cut between live interviews about vacuum mattresses, group shelters, ropework and the software we can use to locate casualties, alongside the footage from Thomason Foss and appeals for information to help our police forces solve various crimes.

All part of the unwritten, still voluntary, ‘job spec’ for a team PR officer but, without the dedication, professionalism and good humour of team members, none of this would have been possible. 

Postscript: This story was first published in our quarterly Mountain Rescue Magazine. To subscribe, join Basecamp.

From tins and texts, to photogenic dogs and donate buttons, raising funds for mountain rescue

Just before the Second World War, when the first green shoots of a more organised mountain rescue service began nosing their way into sunlight, things were very much hand-to-mouth. Rescue parties used their own climbing and mountaineering equipment, uprooted gate posts and five-barred gates or fashioned knotted rope into stretchers, relayed hot water bottles up the hill to treat hypothermic casualties and requisitioned coal wagons as makeshift ambulances.

It was a service driven by the enthusiasm and determination of those who turned out to rescues, pitching in with whatever they could, all contributions gratefully received. Donations came in from the climbing clubs, the families of the deceased or the survivors themselves, local outdoor retailers and manufacturers but, arguably, the biggest donors were the rescue team members themselves, dipping into their own pockets, using their own resources to save lives.

And, in some respects, little has changed. Teams may now benefit from ‘technical’ kit, badged-up waterproofs and liveried blues and twos, and some (by no means all) may now operate from purpose-built bases – and recent years have seen mountain rescue benefit from Libor grants and the generosity of some key sponsors – but team members still put their hands in their own pockets to support their commitment to mountain rescue and still spend a great deal of time fundraising. Just to keep on keeping on. Still driven. Still dedicated.

Somewhere along the way, fundraising became ‘charitable giving’ and the competition for the pound in your pocket got considerably stiffer. In March 2018, the Charity Commission reported 167,972 charities on the books. Two years ago, with the figure lower, the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) had raised concerns that people were becoming ‘charity fatigued’.

Even before that, fearful of falling donations and the rising cost of just about everything, teams had begun exploring the frankly bewildering number of ways now available to fundraise, focusing increasingly on the digital.

Yet, according to the 2018 CAF UK overview, cash remains the main way people give – although the level decreased slightly in 2017. And the number of people who gave to charity either via donations or sponsoring someone (another key area for mountain rescue), also decreased.

Search Dog Bracken fundraising with Cleveland MRT

‘This being photogenic thing in’t half tiring’. Search Dog Bracken takes a breather whilst out and about fundraising with the Cleveland team © Claire Starkey.

So where are we now?

Collecting tins remain a staple for charity fundraising in general. History hasn’t recorded with absolute certainty when the first such tin found its way into mountain rescue hands but you’ll find them liberally scattered around ‘team patches’, patiently awaiting your attention – on the counter when you shop, at the bar when you drink, inside the tourist information centre and outside the local supermarket. The latter more than likely attached to a smiling rescue team member and never very far from an extremely photogenic search dog.

Lake District Search Dogs Search dogs Skye, Sam and Beinn

Left to right, photogenic Lakes search dogs Skye, Sam and Beinn keep a watchful eye on a Langdale Ambleside team vehicle © Paul Burke.

According to the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration (SOFII), the original collecting tin was ‘placed outside the first temple of Jerusalem’ so the passing faithful could easily make donations towards the temple’s upkeep. Possibly as long ago a 900 years BC.

In his 1666 diary, Samuel Pepys describes ‘walking home whilst being swamped with charity collectors, all shaking their tins to raise money for victims of the Great Fire of London’ and, in 1891, ‘the RNLI raised £600 from the first ever street collection’.

A well-placed tin (complete with smiling rescuer and photogenic dog), can quickly fill over a busy weekend, in a mountaineering ‘hotspot’, but will often involve an entire team or support group undertaking fundraising relays in between the call-outs. So, on the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to chat about the work and raise awareness, but it’s a labour-intensive exercise for teams already struggling with the volume of call-outs.

Calder Valley Search Dog Meg

SARDA England Search Dog Meg lends a canine touch to team fundraising for the Calder Valley team. We’re pretty certain the adjacent team member WILL be smiling © Calder Valley SRT.

Thankfully, mountain rescue still hits the spot when it comes to motivating factors. When CAF asked a sample of 700 charity donors, in 2013, what made them keep on giving, 75% cited their ‘belief in a specific cause’ as the most important factor, 61% pointed to a personal experience having driven their giving, and more than 50% said their support comes from the belief that charities cannot do enough alone.

SARDA Wales Search Dog Ben on location in the Lakes

SARDA Wales Search Dog Ben, on location (training) in Glenridding in the Lake District © Babs Boardwell. And, speaking of novel fundraising ideas, £10 of every doggy shoot booked with Babs (to the value of £65+) will go towards SARDA Wales.

If you do want to give – whether that desire is driven by personal experience of mountain rescue or just admiration for its voluntary ethic – the chances are you’ll already know which team you wish to support.

But, just in case, here’s what to do.

Search them out on Facebook. They’re a friendly bunch and always keen to chat. And many of them now have a ‘Donate’ button right there, on their Facebook page.

Or check out their website. Ditto the ‘Donate’ button.

Or, if you fancy something a little more challenging then why not do just that: challenge yourself. Organise a fundraising event in their name – or join one of theirs and ask people to sponsor you.

Or sort out a legacy. Some teams also run textgiving campaigns and others have signed up for AmazonSmile (more about that in a moment). And there’s still that faithful old friend, the collecting tin.

And if you want to support all 48 rescue teams through the national organisation (that’s us, by the way, Mountain Rescue England and Wales), all of the above applies too.

Money donated to us goes towards training in specific disciplines such as casualty care, response driving and technical rope skills, as well as the perhaps less-sexy but definitely essential things like insurance, certain items of equipment and the publication of Mountain Rescue magazine. Things which all team members – and the casualties – benefit from.

You can donate online, leave a gift in your will, set yourself a challenge in our name, or simply text RESQ41 and the amount you wish to give to 70070.

You could also shop online through AmazonSmile and, every time you do, Amazon will donate 0.5% of the purchase price (on certain purchases, excluding shipping costs, returns and VAT) to us. Might not sound much but it all adds up and it’s easy.

If you already have an Amazon account, just go to smile.amazon.co.uk, log in, choose your charity from the drop down menu then start spending. Currently, alongside us, six English and five Welsh teams have registered.

No doubt, the elves of digital giving will continue to devise ever more ways you can give but, in the meantime, on behalf of mountain rescue team members across England and Wales – and our photogenic dogs* – thank you.

We couldn’t do it without you.

* As you might imagine, every one of our search dogs is extremely photogenic. Unfortunately, we only had room for a few here, but you can always pop to their respective Facebook pages – just be sure you come back to us eventually!

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

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

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

And back and forth it went.

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

Others turned to benefit of doubt, leniency.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scafell Pike Lake District Three Peaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Nevis summit in mist Three Peaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to our blog!

Good to see you here.

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

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

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

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

Calder Valley SRT at Lumb Bank © CVSRT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keswick MRT Hanging Rock © Rob Grange/KMRT

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coastguard helicopter with Lakes team members during training

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here we go. We’ve made a start.