“You two should join the mountain rescue team.”
The words floated around the open door behind us and wafted past. Charlotte and I looked at each other. More words followed.
“They need more women.”
We looked at the partially open doorway expectantly. Jo’s head popped round it.
“You’d be ideal,” she continued.
Charlotte and I had been in deep discussion about wellbeing targets. A student teacher at Brough Primary School, she had just delivered an excellent lesson and we were sitting in a work area reviewing her achievements. As part of the University of Cumbria’s initial teacher training team, I had come in to observe her teaching and check how she was finding things. Knowing how to switch off and relax was part of the conversation and we had discovered a shared interest in the outdoors. Charlotte had just started going to the climbing wall with her boyfriend and we were comparing notes of indoor versus outdoor climbing. It was at this point we realised Brough’s walls had ears and Jo, the school manager, had been listening in.
“My husband is the team leader,” Jo added by way of explanation, “of the Kirkby Stephen Mountain Rescue Team. They’re always on the lookout for new members. Women especially.”
“How many have they got? Women I mean.” I asked.
“One member at the moment.”
My mind immediately assigned that woman to an administrative role, where it was swiftly quashed by Jo’s next comment.
“Kath is one of the deputy team leaders. She’s brilliant. Knows how to get the best out of the team.”
I was impressed.
“How many men?” Charlotte queried.
“I’m not sure, about thirty or so,” Jo continued, giving us a little more background to the team before heading off to make coffee. We completed our meeting, writing up targets for the week ahead and arranging a next visit.
Later, while I packed up the laptop, I realised that Jo’s comments had struck a chord in me. As a seasoned hillwalker with over three decades of Lakeland fells experience, I knew the profound importance of the rescue teams to the area. In my eyes they had superhero status. However, what on earth would I, even as a woman, especially one in her middle years, have to bring that would be deemed of any value at all?
I took this up with Jo as I signed out at the school entrance.
“Don’t worry about the age thing. It’s being fell fit and knowing the area that’s important. It sounds like you are, from what you were saying earlier,” she explained.
I said I’d think about it.
The idea got buried under a busy period at work but, occasionally, usually while I was out walking, my mind would keep returning to that conversation. The idea really appealed. I love being in the hills, enjoy being with others in that environment and was ready for a new challenge. However, this was tempered with a question I could not ignore – do I have what it takes to join a team of legends?
Long story short, in the spirit of nothing ventured, nothing gained, I took a deep breath, contacted the relevant people and applied to join.
The process is a careful and wise one and lasts about a year. This allows each individual and the team to see if this is something that works for all concerned. Everyone is a volunteer and I was relieved to see that they come in all shapes, sizes and ages. There is a substantial time commitment to the training in that first year with an associated expectation of attending around 85% of these twice monthly sessions as well as being secure in bad weather/night navigation. The first six months are deemed an induction period where prospective members take part in training but do not attend call outs. If an inductee has engaged with the required training and shown themselves to be suitably capable, then they become a trainee. This next six-month period opens doors to further training; first aid, driving skills, protocols when working with police/ambulance/helicopter crews, etc. They also join the call out system. After a year, full membership beckons and all that this entails.
The Kirkby Stephen Mountain Rescue Team (KSMRT) is one of 12 Lake District Search and Rescue groups and is responsible for an area covering the varied Upper Eden geography of High Cup Nick, Stainmore Common, the moorland and hills between Keld and Hawes and Cautley Spout. The team also works closely with neighbouring MRTs including Kendal, Penrith, Teesdale, Swaledale and the Cave Rescue Organisation (CRO).
As a current inductee, one of six this year, I still feel very much on the side-lines, watching and learning from the expertise of our teammates. We have been made to feel extremely welcome with a clear expectation to get involved and have a go. There’s a warm sense of camaraderie and respect and some healthy humorous banter too. Each session leaves me continually refreshed and inspired by the focussed, methodical, passionate and caring approach shown by everyone. These folk indeed are amazing; a fact brought home recently when we went in for our mid-month Wednesday training evening in October.
There was an odd amount of activity at base when I arrived for the session at 7.30pm; the vehicles were being prepared, with one Land Rover already leaving, full of team and kit.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I walked into the building.
“There’s been a call out,” Kath replied, on her way up to the control room. “We’ve cancelled the training session.”
“Oh,” I said, “what do you want us inductees to do? Just go home so we’re out of the way?”
“No, actually, we think you should stay and watch what happens in the control room. You can see how we coordinate a search and rescue.”
The control room contains various communication devices that, between them, ensure as full a signal coverage as possible in an area of hills. Digital radios and mobiles allow team members to communicate via voice, text, WhatsApp messaging, email and video.
Whatever works is used.
Active radios are tracked on an interactive map displayed via a large computer screen allowing the viewer to see at a glance where the team and the vehicles are through their radio use. The SARCALL (search and rescue call out) computer system is a contemporaneous report of all relevant information that is displayed on a log. It is accessed by the emergency services so relevant common messages are shown on what looks like an interactive table or spreadsheet. It effectively means that all agencies involved in a call out have one place to communicate their actions and requests.
We could see that Cumbria Police had received an emergency call around 6.15pm from a couple in the north Howgills. The wife had slipped during their afternoon walk and, as a result, could no longer weight bear on one foot. Any 999 call will register the location of the caller’s phone and the husband’s mobile had shown where he and his wife had stopped, a fact confirmed by phone finder software that the control team then used. The couple were about 2km from the nearest farm track, in a river valley.
We watched and listened; to the radio messages and how these were recorded, the team activity as they drove as far as they could towards the couple, the decisions made about equipment to take for the walk in, the response to extremely boggy ground and the realisation they would need more people to carry the stretcher. A stretcher needs 6-8 carriers with replacements to share the load over on a long carry. This looked to be about 2km. With only 10 KSMRT members available that night, KS control room called the Kendal team and asked for support.
The interactive map lit up with their radio use coming online.
We heard too the decision to take equipment to respond to hypothermia.
“The couple will have been waiting a while by the time we get to them,” Kath explained who had briefly been in contact via text with the husband. He did not have much mobile phone battery left.
“He said they have waterproofs and a torch but haven’t eaten since lunchtime.”
I had completely forgotten the time, absorbed as I was in all that was going on before me.
“How long does it take to reach a casualty then?” Rick, a fellow inductee, asked.
“It depends on where the casualty is. Somewhere closer to base can be reached in a minimum of 45 minutes. Realistically, with this case, it’ll be nearer two hours from the moment they contacted Cumbria Police. By the time the team have dropped everything at home/work, driven here, checked the vehicles, assessed the nature of the call out, whether a search is required, any injury information and other assets needed and then headed off….well, it takes time even though we work swiftly. The wet and muddy conditions have certainly not helped us tonight either. It sounds like they’re wading through a rollercoaster of a quagmire out there just now,” Kath mused ruefully.
We were quiet as we let that information sink in.
The October evening was dry and mild but, as I have since discovered, that means nothing. For a naked human body at rest to neither cool down or warm up, the ambient temperature needs to be thermoneutral. For us, that’s about 27 +/- 2°C. Below that temperature a person must take active measures to stay warm (insulation, shivering, exercise, etc). Despite some tropical temperatures this summer, the reality of our climate is that it is possible to become hypothermic at any time of the year. Being immobile for 15-20 minutes is enough to start the process unless measures are taken such as adding insulation and ensuring the person has eaten and drunk enough. I could now see why the team were taking supplies of warm clothing and food, but even so, two hours of sitting could not be comfortable for this couple, alongside with the pain of the injury.
The interactive map lit up with activity in another team’s area. Radios were being used on Helvellyn and we could see from the signal trails that the whole mountain was being searched.
“What’s going on there?” Chris asked.
“Looks like there’s a rescue on,” pondered Dave, who had been typing into the SARCALL system when the relevant KSMRT activities needed logging.
“There’s a lot of radios being used,” commented Rick, “that’s a lot of people on the hill.”
“And you can see how they’re searching too,” interjected Kath. “Look how the radio trails follow the main routes up Helvellyn. They’re following the normal paths that most folk take. It’s a start point to a search.”
It transpired that the Patterdale team had also been out looking for a couple. They were found later that night in the first stages of hypothermia, very disorientated and confused and needing hospital attention. Thankfully, they had left route plans with their walking group which had expedited their recovery by the team and no doubt saved their lives.
Hypothermia tends to creep up unannounced, appearing gradually and is therefore easily missed. Responding to initial comments or observations about shivering with spare clothing, shelter and food can go a long way to preventing the onset of the ‘umbles’ (grumbles, stumbles, fumbles, mumbles). At this point, with severe hypothermia on the cards, the person is unable to care for themselves. “Mountain Rescue” magazine, published by Mountain Rescue in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, highlights some of the dreadful statistics related to this condition. One casualty, in mobile contact with a MRT, died simply because he was unable to follow their instructions while he awaited their arrival. Another casualty took two days to find because his disorientation kept him wandering about.
Our couple were successfully found and evacuated safely with the ankle strapped, the wife stretchered to the vehicles and a judicious use of thermal heat blankets, extra clothing and snacks to help them warm up. I believe they went to a local hospital the next day to have the sprain injury X-rayed.
The team returned to base around five hours after it had all begun; a combination of two teams with 15 members and three vehicles deployed, and a sense of a good job well done. Accidents happen and this is what all the MRTs across the UK are there for – to help, to preserve life.
But, as I realised, when I’m out and about, I can do my bit to keep myself safe and let the MRTs deal with more pressing issues. With more people than ever making the most of our wonderful outdoors, the Lakeland MRTs call out rate has unfortunately also increased from an annual average of 440 pre-pandemic to 531 in the first 9 months of 2022. 25% of those callouts could have been avoided if people had been better prepared.
Cue the #BeAdventureSmart campaign, recently adopted in the Lakes, which wants me to have a great adventure yet avoid the avoidable at the same time.
It asks me the best questions:
1. Do I have the right gear?
I’ve always carried a big rucksack on the hills. In fact, for most walks. It contains a first aid kit, map, compass, waterproof jacket and trousers (they make good windproofs too) spare clothes (down jacket, hat, gloves, buff) a whistle, USB power bank, torch with spare batteries and a watch. I take more food than I can eat, a flask of coffee and carry a bladder of water. Up to 3 litres on a hot day. On a cool, breezy day I’ll take a bothy aswell. This is effectively a cheap lightweight tent without poles that you sit in. It has provided a warmer sheltered environment for lunch stops when the weather has deteriorated or, as summit temperatures now drop, it is too cold to rest for long. My friends think I’m mad, carrying all that kit, but I think I’d rather be deemed dotty than dead.
2. Do I know what the weather will be like?
I’m not sure what I’d do without the MET Office weather app nor the Lake District National Park Authority’s Weatherline website. Both give me a pretty comprehensive overview of the conditions at valley and summit level and I have aborted or changed walk plans at the breakfast stage of the day if the weather forecast suggests wild times ahead. It’s not just rain that I look for, but wind speed over the summits. Battling a gale is an energy sapper at the best of times and takes chilling to a different level! There’s plenty of walking spot alternatives in the Lakes and surrounding counties if the weather is better in other locations. Plan A can wait if necessary and I’ve found Plan B has been just as good, if not better!
3. Am I confident that I have knowledge and skills for the day.
The hill safety attributes drummed into me many moons ago when I took the then Summer Mountain Leader certificate have stood the test of time. I know my limits and my abilities and walk accordingly.
On solo days I rope in a hill buddy. This is someone who is awake somewhere on the planet with a mobile phone, a signal and the confidence to contact the police and ask for mountain rescue should I need them to. I message them my start/end point, car details and route overview. Through the day I send time marked texts or WhatsApp messages briefly updating them my location and progress. Along with a photo or too to keep them entertained. At the end of the walk, I send a sign off message and they can stand down. It’s a nice way to walk solo with the comfort of knowing I’m not alone.
As a result, I have had the best days out because I’m prepared.
Our couple had gone for a leisurely walk in the hills near their holiday accommodation on easy terrain. And why not? I do the same with my partner, take a romantic stroll to stretch the legs and enjoy the glories of where I live and work.
But we also appraise the three questions and take a rucksack each of appropriate kit for that “what would happen if?” moment.
I really would not be able to live it down if I needed to call a MRT out for something I could have avoided. As a still prospective and aspiring team member, it is highly likely those remarkable heroes of the KSMRT would not let me hear the last of it either!