Britain has a proud tradition of mountain and fell rescue, free of charge and professionally delivered – yet provided by unpaid volunteers.
A mountain rescue team at work in the Lake District
That could change. The unthinkable is being thought: that mountain rescue teams (MRTs) might have to charge for their services. The reason: the charities that operate rescue in this country are being stretched to their limit by an unprecedented increase in calls for help.
One major reason for the impending crisis is the growing tendency for hillwalkers, who account for nearly 80 per cent of MRT incidents, to call for rescue when they get lost. They are, in effect, asking for a free guiding service. And the teams are not happy.
Earlier this month, leaders from MRTs throughout England, Wales and Scotland met in the Cumbrian town of Keswick and high on the agenda was how to tackle this problem. Richard Warren, regional secretary of the Lakeland rescuers and a member of the Wasdale team, told grough: “A significant increase in non-life-threatening rescues will compromise a mountain rescue team’s ability to respond to more serious incidents.”
The crux of the problem is that hillwalkers seem to be heading for the fells and mountains ill prepared and without planning. They overstretch themselves and find they can’t complete a route before becoming benighted. And with the ubiquity of the mobile phone, help is just three presses of the number nine button away.
This is causing a major headache for the rescuers. 30 parties on the fells in the Wasdale area called for assistance to get themselves off the mountains. They weren’t injured; they were simply lost. Only five of the groups were prepared to chance making their own way to safety with phone guidance from the MRT. The rest had to be searched for, found and walked off the fell.
Mr Warren continued: “Since the beginning of 2007, the Lake District has seen a steady increase in the number of callouts. It started to be noticeable in the spring: three rescues in one day on one of our region’s areas and by the end of April the same team, Wasdale, had attended 24 incidents, 50 per cent up on the previous year.
“Many of these rescues were down to the Three Peaks Challenge [in which walkers attempt to summit Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in 24 hours] which, by then, had brought the total number of 999 calls for assistance to 85. By mid November, the Wasdale Team had taken 103 calls from the police and of these, 73 had required significant team effort on the mountains.”
Mr Warren believes the problem will get worse unless national action is taken to get the message across to walkers that they need to be self-sufficient on the hills.
The leaders’ meeting looked at three possible solutions. One was to send an invoice after a callout. The Langdale and Ambleside team had produced what was termed a ‘humorous example’ but Mr Warren said it was ‘a light-hearted approach but a hint of reality and possible glimpse of the future’.
The second idea was: if a group on the fells needed a guide to get them off the mountain, then the rescue teams should give them the number of a local mountain guide in the first instance. Imagine the concentration of the mind that would induce, at the thought of having to wait for a guide to kit him or herself up and demand payment for a night hike down to the valley.
Third, and a definite runner, was a campaign to raise public awareness about how mountain rescue works, with the aim of reducing the number of ‘guiding’ callouts. Walkers, and climbers, need to know a little more about the outdoors, the risks, what mountain rescue is and what it is not.
Wasdale is not the only Lakes team to experience this problem. Half of Cockermouth team’s incidents in a 12-week period at the end of summer were for what Mr Warren describes as ‘wandering aimlessly’ or for a guiding service when ill prepared or ill equipped. This summer, Langdale and Ambleside MRT appealed for walkers to ‘get some balls’ and get themselves out of trouble.
The latest report from Mountain Rescue (England and Wales), the umbrella organisation for teams south of the border, says nearly a thousand people were assisted in 2006, an increase of 12 per cent on the previous year.
Wasdale MRT carries out a rescue
Ged Feeney, statistics officer for the body, said: “An increase has been noticed in the number of incidents attributed to poor navigation and/or preparation. Incidents reported as lost, benighted or overdue currently account for one in four mountain incidents.”
Similar problems occur north of the border. A research study by Dr Bob Sharp, commissioned by sportscotland, found that navigation was the most commonly cited cause of all incidents, nearly a quarter of the total, closely followed by bad planning (18 per cent) and inadequate equipment (11 per cent). Members of clubs, youth groups and charity groups were getting lost proportionately more than any other group.
Next year, the mountain rescue movement in Britain celebrates its 75th anniversary. Teams hope to use the landmark to start a national campaign of education for walkers and climbers on the country’s high ground. Hillwalking has been growing in popularity and there is, perhaps, a perception among some of the newer converts to the pastime that it is without risks.
Much of the outdoor media, including this website, encourages the widest possible use of our great mountain areas. There is, moreover, a prevalent gung-ho approach among some writers which emphasises the anything-is-possible outlook while understating the risks. It has to be said: mountains and fells can be dangerous. Don’t think you can rely on someone else to get you out of trouble. Our own routes state that a good degree of knowledge in navigation is essential if undertaking difficult walks.
Reliance on mobile phones and GPS receivers is risky. They are prone to failure and can lead to an ill founded sense of security. A map and compass, and the knowledge of how to use them, will not fail the hillwalker.
Thirty-two people lost their lives on the hills of England and Wales last year. If it weren’t for the hundreds of volunteers who leave their homes and families week after week to go to the aid of mountaineers, there would be even more fatalities.
The mountain education campaign will kick off in the New Year. Cumbria Tourism is backing the programme and it is hoped sponsorship will be forthcoming. The Lakes teams are also seeking the backing of Cumbria Constabulary. The MRTs are also teaming up with Where-Wolf, a company which produces a little gadget to make it easier to give an accurate grid reference. Where-Wolf is donating 10 per cent of all its pre-Christmas sales to Mountain Rescue (England and Wales). There are also plans to produce an MRT-branded version of the plastic card early next year. The rescue teams hope to have a ‘how to help yourself’ plastic card ready later in the year.
The message will be reinforced at a Spring event at Rheged, near Penrith, which will celebrate mountain rescue’s anniversary.
A casualty is carried off the fells
In the meantime: don’t become another embarrassing MRT statistic. Learn to map read and always take a torch on to the fells. Tiny emergency headlights can now be bought which take up hardly any room in your rucksack and weigh less than a sandwich. Ask Santa for one if you haven’t already got one.
The mountain rescue advice is fairly common-sense, but is worth remembering (or print it out):
- Plan ahead: consider equipment, experience, capabilities and enthusiasm
- Get a weather forecast (see our link on the left-hand menu)
- Learn basic first-aid
- Be careful towards the end of the day. Charge up phone batteries before your trip
- Wear suitable footwear and clothing and take some spare warm clothes
- Have an emergency food supply, such as chocolate or dates, in addition to your planned food
- If you run out of water, fast-running hill streams on stony beds are usually safe
- Take a map, compass and a watch and know how to use them to navigate
- If you have a GPS, know at least how to give your position (a fix) to MRTs
- Always carry a whistle, torch, and spare batteries. In winter, an ice-axe, crampons and survival bag are essential
- Climbers and bikers should wear helmets
- Party leaders should not allow groups to become separated
- Take special care of young and weak party members
- If going alone, leave a note of your route. Notify any changes if you divert from the route
- Be prepared to turn back
- If you have a serious problem, ring 999 and ask for the police, who will mobilise mountain rescue
- If you don’t have phone contact, use six whistle blasts or torch flashes, repeated with a minute’s gap, to attract attention
- Don’t rely on mobile phone coverage. Signals are often weak or non-existent in mountain areas. If you do make contact with mountain rescue, keep your phone turned on
- Be aware of dangerous terrain: precipices; steep snow and ice slopes; steep grass slopes; unstable boulders; streams in spate; gullies and gorges; snow cornices
- Be wary of exceeding your experience and ability and realise your concentration may wane at the end of the day
- Be prepared to swallow your pride: turn back if necessary, and be governed by the weakest party member.
• Keep an eye on the following: weather changes; iced-up paths; excessive cold and heat – adjust your clothing appropriately; the onset of exhaustion – keep warm and rest; illness or accident – don’t panic, make sure rescuers know exactly where you are; passage of time, especially under pressure – winter daylight hours are short
And if, despite all that, you should find yourself panicked on the fellside, unsure of where you are, just remember before you pull out your mobile: every member of our volunteer mountain rescue service has a home life, a day job, and probably aching limbs from yesterday’s callout. Check those contours, get your compass out and make a real effort to rescue yourself before you hit 999.