Meet the rescue experts keeping Britain's mountains safe

Lucy Aspden
·10-min read
Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association - Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association
Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association - Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association

With news that foreign holidays will not be allowed until May 17, at least, demand for staycation has skyrocketed as Britons look to escape lockdown with a break on home soil.

Outlining the roadmap to ease restrictions yesterday Boris Johnson confirmed that the legal requirement to stay at home will be lifted on March 29, then from April 12 overnight stays away from home at self-catered accommodation will be permitted before hotels and the rest of the indoor hospitality sector can reopen on May 17.

While positive news for UK destinations who can now begin to plan, somewhat tentatively, for a busy summer season, there’s a caveat that comes with a surge in visitors to the nation’s beauty spots. This is felt most heavily by the volunteer mountain rescue teams that have been under a great amount of pressure in the past 12 months.

Making headlines recently was an incident that took place in the Lake District. In the early hours of Saturday February 6, Chris Lewis, a volunteer with the Patterdale Mountain Rescue team, fell 150m down a steep slope and had to be airlifted to hospital, when attended a rescue of two people who had broken lockdown rules to go camping in the area. He suffered multiple facial fractures and severely damaged his spinal cord. Life-changing injuries, which could have been avoided. A crowdfunding campaign, launched last week, has raised over £802,000 for Chris, with a milestone £1million in sight.

While mountain rescue bosses are overwhelmed by the support the campaign has received they are concerned about the pressures the teams of volunteers will face in the coming months, as lockdown is eased.

“Following the easing of lockdown mountain rescue teams across the whole country are concerned about the massive influx of new visitors, walkers and climbers that will come to the Lake District and the other National Parks,” said Richard Warren, chairman of the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association.

If pictures of piles of rubbish and gridlocked roads isn’t proof enough of the strain these areas were put under last summer, when foreign holidays were largely off the cards for the first time, Mountain Rescue England and Wales’ figures put things in perspective.

By the start of September 2020 the teams across England and Wales had received the same number of callouts as they did in the entirety of 2019. While areas in the Pennines and Peak District felt the strain during lockdown, due to their close proximity to residential areas, major hotspots in Cumbria and Wales were hit hard during the summer.

Put simply: “We got crucified in the Lake District,” said Richard. Typically in the Lake District a team would receive two call outs a week on average, or the busiest team, 150 recuses a year, or three per week on average, he explains. His own team, which covers the area of Wasdale including England’s highest mountain Scafell, received 107 call outs in August 2020 alone, compared to just 71 in the same month in 2019.

The data also shows the majority of callouts are due to human errors. “In the Lake District around 30 per cent of our rescues are avoidable,” said Richard.

While accidents do happen, rescuers urge visitors, especially those exploring an area for the first time, to do more to prepare themselves for the outdoors. “We want everybody to really enjoy getting out in the countryside and the mountains. We completely appreciate how important it is for people’s wellbeing and mental health – it’s never been more so. We just want people to enjoy them as safely as possible,” said Mike Margeson, operations director of Mountain Rescue England and Wales.

Mountain Rescue callout data
Mountain Rescue callout data

By doing so they ease the pressure on these brave individuals. The situations local volunteers put themselves in to help casualties shouldn’t be underestimated: “For us its bread and butter but for many it would be horrific,” said Richard. In mid-summer temperatures, which last year soared, mountain rescue teams were required to carry out rescues in full PPE.

“We’re all volunteers, and we are expecting summer to be incredibly busy. That’s a real challenge for us, because we still have to use all of the PPE, look after ourselves and be careful,” said Mike.

“Every rescue takes nearly twice as long because of all the PPE and decontamination of equipment afterwards. We really hope that people can be doubly careful, enjoy the outdoors but not go for that mega adventure they’ve been planning, if it’s possible to put those off until a little later.”

His plea, echoed by his colleagues across England and Wales, will ease the pressure on the teams’ volunteers, all of whom are unpaid and often attend rescues alongside their full-time jobs.

“People think we’re a paid service, but the 3,000 team members in England and Wales are volunteers. It’s very hard work – team members not only have to train every week, they have to do rescues and they also have to do fundraising to keep their team going. Each team is an individual charity, the quietest and smallest will cost £25,000 to £35,000 to run annually and the busiest team up to £100,000,” explains Mike.

Keswick Mountain Rescue Team - Keswick Mountain Rescue Team / SWNS
Keswick Mountain Rescue Team - Keswick Mountain Rescue Team / SWNS

The fact that these rescuers are unpaid is often overlooked, but the team members join the service for unselfish reasons. “The great thing about it is that everybody joins for the same reasons – they love the outdoors and they love helping people,” said Richard.

It’s the philanthropic spirit that is, despite concerns and worries, still encouraging visitors to always call for help and not be deterred or feel ashamed. “We’re not the mountain police, we want people to enjoy the areas – we’re there to help 24/7, 365 days a year, anytime don’t hesitate to call us to help, that’s what we’re there for. Please call us when you need us,” said Mike.

Safety advice for those heading to the fells

“You need to consider what we call being ‘adventure smart.’ If you follow the three messages on adventuresmart.uk you won’t go wrong,” advises Mike. Adventure Smart is a hub of advice for those heading into the great outdoors, out on the water or to the coast this spring and summer.

There are three questions every visitors should ask themselves before setting off: Do I have the right gear? Do I know what the weather will be like? Am I confident I have the knowledge and skills for the day? If the answer is yes to all three you’ve done your best to mitigate the risk. However if unsure about anything it’s best to, in the words of founder of the Boy Scouts Robert Baden-Powell: “Always be prepared.”

Gear

It’s not all about having the most expensive or high-tech equipment or clothing, it’s the little things that can make a huge difference. Here’s what Adventure Smart recommends everyone should have packed ready for their staycation:

A map and compass, which you know how to use – don’t rely on mobile technology, batteries can run out and signals can be lost. Ordinances Survey has a handy beginner’s guide to map reading. Avoid reliance on mobile services such as What Three Words (WTW), an app that allows users to give emergency services a unique three-word code to pinpoint their location, but which doesn’t work as effectively as many might think in the mountains. In 2019, just 13 callouts used the WTW as their navigation tool – by 2020 this has increased to 93, but of this total only 68 were accurate, over 20 per cent were between 100metres and 500metres off the marks, causing increased pressure on rescue teams.

Mobile phone – “Make sure your mobile phone is charged and that you don’t use it throughout the day,” advises Mike. While you shouldn’t rely on your device for navigation it might be essential to call (or text) for help and inevitably you will want to take pictures of your adventure. “It’s a good thing to register your phone with the SMS 999-emergency service, because quite often the signal is not good in the mountains and the text service has got more chance of getting through,” suggests Mike. A waterproof case is handy as is a powerbank to help recharge if batteries start to dwindle.

Food and water – eat well before you set off and snack throughout the day, venturing into the fells without supplies could lead to problems if you are stuck or dehydrated.

Waterproofs and layers – it doesn’t need to be expensive but a waterproof jacket is an essential when heading into the fells, even in summer (it rains on average 200 days per year in the Lake District) – weather is unpredictable and it can soon turn cold, so pack an extra layer or two.

Walking boots – “A huge percentage of our callouts are in the afternoon when people are slipping over, when they’re tired coming down the mountain and injuring their ankle or lower leg; good footwear is going to help prevent that,” advises Mike.

Torch and whistle – again don’t rely on your mobile phone for these, keep them in your backpack and they could save the day if you get caught in the dark. “People get into trouble by not having any lighting – trying to look at a map or find your way in the dark without a torch or lighting is really impossible,” explains Mike, who suggests a head torch is the most convenient piece of kit. Six short flashes in quick succession, repeated every minute, is the international signal for distress – the same applies to blowing your whistle for help.

Protective equipment – if mountain biking, climbing, sailing or skiing, make sure you have the right protective gear for your sport, it helps mitigate the risk of putting further pressure on rescue services. Adventure Smart lists the core kit you need for specific activities.

Weather

“Make a plan for the day, that’s realistics, get a good weather forecast and make sure your plan takes that into consideration,” says Mike. Checking a detailed weather forecast will help you plan a safe and successful trip. The Met Office is a good place to start, but then check specific areas to help you plan further, such as the Mountain Weather Information Service.

The Lake District weather line also has detailed weather forecasts, taken by a dedicated team daily, and provides regular updates from the fells. Look at elements such as temperatures on the summit, wind speed and wind chill.

wasdale valley - Jon Sparks/Alamy
wasdale valley - Jon Sparks/Alamy

But be prepared to be flexible and admit you may have to adapt plans if the weather has a change of heart or if conditions turn out to be more difficult than you expected. If a push to the summit looks challenging, opt for a lower level route that can be enjoyed comfortably.

It’s not just rain, wind or snow that can cause problems – high temperatures and sunshine catch many people out who aren’t equipped with enough water, sunscreen or shade.

Skills

Adventure Smart’s overarching advice is to be honest with yourself about your ability, knowledge and level of fitness. Know your limits and always plan for the least able member of your group. If you want to try something new and challenging it might be worth enlisting the help of a knowledgeable guide or expert to teach you the basics in a safe way.

Having working experience of basic first aid as well as navigation and survival skills will greatly reduce the risk of disaster – Adventure Smart lists a number of useful resources and Richard advises to use this time before lockdown ends to learn how to navigate, so not to rely on your smart phone in the future.