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.

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17 thoughts on “So… why might a mountain rescue team refuse a call-out?

  • Volunteering comes second to family and work otherwise issues and stress take their toll. That doesn’t figure with individuals that don’t take precautions and responsibility for their own life excursions expecting others to freely and immediately bail them out at their least inconvenience.
    I don’t envy Mountain Rescue team leaders decision making for the rescued or rescuers but thankfully leaders are of stout heart and bags of experience.
    Needless to say, it can only get worse……

    1. What we need to understand in order to prevent similar incidents, is why it made sense to the guy to set off so poorly prepared. Simply calling out somebody as stupid doesn’t help understand the rationale behind his actions.

      His decision made sense to him, and if it made sense to him, then it might make sense to other people. We should be looking at how we can learn from his error in order for us to prevent further errors which might not have such a positive outcome

      1. Thanks Mark. Exactly the point (or one of them) I was hoping to make with the article. I’d be interested to know what his motivations were, what went through his head, and how he felt after a night on the hill, albeit in the summit shelter. In fact, should he be reading this, I’d be happy to hear his story (away from public forums) – it might help inform how we develop safety awareness through initiatives aimed at preventing unnecessary call-outs, such as the #AdventureSmartWales campaign and the work the Lake District teams are doing in their region. In the meantime, it seemed a good opportunity to tell a wider story about how teams operate. Good to see the volunteer side of things being noted and appreciated in so many of the comments here and elsewhere on social media.

  • This is daft….the top of Ben Nevis always has at least 100 people on there….especially on the longest day of the year.

  • The correct decision was taken too many people go out unprepared then expect others to pick u after them despite obvious risks to them or their families

  • Wow. This is only going to get worse. They shouldn’t be allowed out if they are going to call in just because they are wet. The mountain rescue teams do an amazing job, I hope they are there for me one day if I fall down injured and are not on call to someone who can’t be bothered.

  • This is also a common problem on Croagh Patrick in The West of Ireland which attracts a more than proportional share of fanatics, inexperienced climbers and leisure walkers due in part to its status as a holy mountain and place of pilgrimage. During my 12 years with Mayo MRT we had our fair share of wet walkers or clueless ill prepared people finding themselves at the top of a mountain with temp’s 7 or 8 deg colder than the base and only then giving some thought as to how they’re actually going to get back down.
    We’ve been verbally abused for suggesting to people on an ascent that they perhaps aren’t adequately equipped and maybe should consider turning back. Or for suggesting the same to adults with shivering children on tow or on their shoulders. And yes we’ve had the indignant demands for a helivac as if it’s their right cos they were stupid enough to go up a mountain unprepared and are now wet and cold.
    As others say it’s always a very difficult call for a team leader who generally operate on the premise of “if there’s any doubt, Call the team out” but nonetheless always a hard call to get it right every time.

  • Mountain rescue teams in all areas do a great job and are the unequalled experts in the area and should never be judged by armchair hero’s!

  • I never ever venture out up the fells of Eskdale wasdale and duddon without all my kit. Cause I learnt the hard way in my youth of not being prepared and got soaked up Scafell and miserably made my way back down but I didn’t bother the mountain rescue as it was my stupid doing

  • Sure we’ ll put our lives on hold and on the line for you, but your stupidity it will cost you X amount for a guided descent. could I have the long number on your card? Absolute throber!

  • when others aresafe and snug by the fire the Wasdale team are often out in freezing blizzards on Scafell and are sometimes out all night. They often answer 3 calls in a day and winter is the time most idiots find their way up there ill prepared. Our local team risk their lives every winter for idiots but in a bad case would never consider not responding. They do an amazing job, and they have to take great care and be well prepared. They should be praised as all mountain rescue teams should be not pilloried by people who know nothing about their work on the mountains.

  • One word. Responsibility. Who is responsible for the walker being wet and tired. Not the mountain rescue team. In today’s society people seem less and less to take responsibility. Stupidity can affect all of us in certain degrees. I’ve been on top of Ben Nevis where I saw a man and his son in shorts and t shirts and trainers. In October.
    I would personally like to thank mountain rescue.

  • Having been on an outing in South Africa many years ago when a person needed a ‘proper’ rescue ( broken bones, hypothermia , night spent in a mountain stream up to his waist ) and experienced several incidents with other pursuit volunteer rescuers I am grateful for people who put themselves in harms way to cover situations ranging from bad luck to downright stupidity. A shout for help to one of these services is in my opinion a last resort and I would only expect the least effort required ranging from guidance to find shelter or fix a breakage to actual rescue but I would never ‘expect’ anyone to deliberately put themself in danger for my safety. I guess I was brought up differently to a public that is prepared to phone emergency services because they need a ride home after drinking too much or because their internet is running slowly. Snowflake generation!

  • I once became disoriented in the lakes, near Middle Fell, the mist and cloud came in, my inexperience prevailed and I had to make a survival decision. So out came the cheap orange, plastic bivi bag, the flask of coffee, and inside I climbed. About 5am the following morning, clear blue sky and all clear, down I went. The following evening, in my tent at Wasdale Head, the worst storm in a long time hit the area, we were lucky.

  • Even when walking in a group, I was taught to be fully independent with kit and would never walk without rain proofs and first aid kit/survival bag and chocolate emergency rations.
    Now walking by myself or with daughter, we are fully kitted out even in this last amazingly hot summer. An accident could mean many hours waiting on the fells!
    I was surprised when getting advise on a new ruck sack that the shop girl advised a much smaller day sac, which I would have struggled to get all the above kit in.
    I would be horrified to have to call out Mountain Rescue but am very grateful that we have such an amazing group of volunteers if an accident did happen.

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