The Lochaber team accomplished an 'incredible' rescue on Ben Nevis's North Face. Photo: Peter CC-BY-SA-2.0

The Lochaber team accomplished an 'incredible' rescue on Ben Nevis's North Face. Photo: Peter CC-BY-SA-2.0

The head Scotland’s mountain rescue organisation has responded to comments made by a team following a dangerous mission on the UK’s highest mountain.

Simon Steer, chair of Scottish Mountain Rescue, said the operation to bring an injured man to safety from high on Ben Nevis on Thursday was one of the most dangerous for years.

Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team said the man faced ‘certain death’ on the route in Observatory Gully as Storm Abigail struck the mountain. Posts on its website and Facebook page made reference to poor radios and level of insurance.

The Lochaber team said: “We volunteer to assist whenever we are asked to. We do this on behalf of ‪Police Scotland‬ who have the statutory duty. In turn they do this for the Scottish Government. The ‪SMR‬ are the body representing the interests of the rescue teams.

“We find ourselves in the situation where police officers on police rescue teams are better insured then civilians doing the same task. We think this is just wrong. Let’s start with parity at least with police.”

Mr Steer, who is himself a volunteer member of a mountain rescue team, said: “It would be hard for most people to fully understand the conditions that faced Lochaber in accomplishing this rescue.

“The team had to traverse lethally steep and unstable ground, in the face of 100mph winds, snow, thunder and lightning. The conditions were apparently some of the worst experienced in a decade and, of course, the whole thing is exacerbated by darkness.

“Keeping yourself alive in these conditions requires exceptional mountaineering skills. Keeping somebody else alive in these conditions is nothing short of incredible, and a testament to the remarkable lengths that Scotland’s volunteer mountain rescue community will go in the service of others.

“The Lochaber team are quite rightly, well known, and their contribution of 130 rescues and around 7,500 man hours this year alone gives an indication of the commitment to others, and the disruption to personal life that mountain rescue requires.

“This also applies to teams across the country such as the Ochils, Tayside, Arrochar, Search and Rescue Dogs, Lomond and Braemar, to mention just a few of the 27 teams, whose volunteers put themselves in harm’s way to serve others in the wildest of weather and the wildest of places.

“Scotland’s mountain rescue teams provide a free, world-class service that is a credit to the generosity of the Scottish spirit and sense of community. We can be justly proud of them all.”

He said Scottish Mountain Rescue benefits from a direct grant of £312,000 from the Scottish Government, for which he said the organisation is immensely grateful. It also receives some additional funds and support from the UK Government for training and equipment. That money is used to directly support the mountain rescue teams who actually do the rescues, he said.

“The reality is, however, that mountain rescue teams are being asked to respond to a greater volume of incidents, and to engage in a broader range of activities to help people, that extends beyond the traditional understanding of ‘mountain rescue’.

“The funding, while a valued contribution, comes nowhere near covering the basic running costs of this essential emergency service. This means that, on top of their actual rescue activities and their training – a major personal commitment alone – teams have to call on their volunteers to spend more and more time fundraising, in an increasingly competitive charity fund raising environment.

“It’s no surprise therefore that, after an incredible rescue effort, teams sometimes question the minimal level of central funding support. We have raised the issue of the level of funding with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, and we are looking to have further discussions to improve the position if at all possible, within the current constraints of public funding.”

Mr Steer said radios used by Scotland’s mountain rescue teams were vital but ageing and in need of replacement. He said: “If you are operating in extreme environments, in the dark, a robust, functioning radio is not just a nice thing to have, it is an essential piece of lifesaving, and life-preserving equipment.
“The reality for all teams is that we urgently need to find a way to replace ageing radios to fit with new operating requirements. As suggested above, teams already have their hands full rescuing people, training so that they can rescue people, and keeping themselves financially viable.

“It is unreasonable to expect us to be able to raise the £750,000 we estimate we require to replace all radios. We have raised this issue with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, and he has helpfully offered the support of his officers in finding a solution. Again we are appreciative of this support.”

On the question of the Lochaber team’s claim about having inferior insurance for its members, he said the umbrella organisation was looking into the matter.

“Scottish Mountain Rescue are currently reviewing insurance provision with Police Scotland. We are aware of the suggestion that there may be a disparity in provision for police officers undertaking rescues, and the provision for volunteers.

“At the present time we are not aware that this is the case and we have asked for clarification from Police Scotland.”

Mr Steer also said discussions were underway on the future structure of Scottish Mountain Rescue. A meeting on 31 October heard a suggestion from three teams, Lochaber, Glencoe and Cairngorm, that the organisation be split, with mountain rescue belonging to a separate group from search and rescue.

The teams argued that, with many teams being asked to carry out wider search operations, the idea of ‘mountain rescue’ was being diluted. The three teams, which are involved in a high number of traditional mountain rescues, said funds were not being allocated in a fair way.

Mr Steer said: “As suggested above, the shape, size and scope of the service provided by mountain rescue teams has been changing and evolving.

“As a representative body, Scottish Mountain Rescue has initiated a review of its shape and functioning to ensure that we can best meet the needs of our increasingly broad membership.”

Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team had not responded to grough at the time of posting.

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