Mountain Rescue - The Truthby Mark Reeves Jan/2009
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Snowdon is one of the busiest mountains in the UK, as the highest point in both England and Wales, and one of the famous three peaks it has around 440,000 walkers a year ascend one of its many paths. If any of these people need assistance then it is the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team that are called into action.
Having used the mountains of Snowdonia as both playground and office for thirteen years, I have come to know them intimately. So volunteering for the local rescue team seemed both exciting and adventurous, as well as a way to put something back into this mountain community that is my home.
Three years down the line, my opinions have changed towards mountain rescue: views developed from my experiences that have been both rewarding and horrific. Like all mountain rescue teams across the UK, the service is free, however they are also self funding meaning that as well as rescuing people they have to raise enough funds to buy and maintain essential equipment to operate effectively. Whilst signing up to and accepting this, it is my belief that in order to sustain our work, something needs to change.
However, the government doesn't seem to agree. A recent e-petition that went to Number 10 asking that they carry out their responsibilities in providing for local emergency services under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, was dismissed with the response that this was the job of Local Resilience Forums, not central government.
In the case of mountain rescue, this would be through the local police authority, who call out and co-ordinate mountain rescue teams when they are required. The only provision the teams receive are radios, and officer support if the incident is suitably serious. On the odd occasion, the local constabulary will foot the bill for supper if we have had a long and arduous job.
The members of the public we rescue are more often than not blissfully unaware that the service we provide is essentially self-funded and provided by volunteers. Many of those people dialling 999 and asking for mountain rescue often expect an instant helicopter ride home.
On a recent job, Llanberis mountain rescue team - the busiest in the UK, having dealt with over 80 rescues already this year - turned out to rescue four walkers lost on Snowdon. On turning up at the car park, and questioning four people casually getting into their car who fitted the description of the informants, the team were met with complaints about how long the team had taken to rescue them. These people were oblivious to the fact that we aren't a full-time organisation, ready to move the instant the call comes in, like the fire brigade.
If rescuing the incompetent and ill-equipped is one end of the spectrum for the Llanberis team, the other is grave. The problem of mixing people, the honey pot of mountains that is Snowdon and the associated steep ground, cliffs and gravity, is that at some point, gravity will win. When it does, the results can be devastating.
If we are lucky, we can have a real chance to reduce the suffering and prevent any further injury, speeding any casualties towards more substantial medical care in hospital. This is where the work is really rewarding, and this year we have had more than the usual number of climbing accidents. In one incident this year, the team's work helped a badly injured climber keep their foot when they reduced the fracture at the scene and the careful management of the casualty in difficult and steep terrain prevented a broken vertebrate from resulting in paralysis.
Most of the team are climbers and accept the risks that our sport involves. Educating climbers to safely participate in mountaineering is a major part of my work outside the team, however the risk is always there. As a climber I am glad that there are rescue teams that would come to my aid should I have an unfortunate accident, however travelling abroad to climb mountains nearly always requires additional rescue insurance, or a hefty bill should you require rescuing.
The sight of a helicopter or mountain rescue team turning up at the scene of an accident is more than a welcome sight, and a sight that too many people seem to be taking for granted. From a rescuer's perspective, it's just the wrong side of exciting, being winched out of a helicopter, the rotor's spinning feet away from a cliff, often onto steep and dangerous ground. If the situation isn't enough to send a surge of adrenaline through you, then the ageing air stock of the RAF is.
Helicopter travel itself isn't without potential danger. It takes a lot of maintenance and finance to keep these machines airborne, often resulting in the aircraft being grounded for a significant amount of time. Once this year it happened on our landing zone in Nant Peris, when a helicopter malfunctioned as it went to take off.
This was a close call, unofficial reports from the RAF pilots hinted that if the aircraft had become air-borne, the aircrew and at least two members of the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team could have been in a potentially fatal air crash. This is food for thought every time you step into a helicopter. Heinrich's ratio of air accidents echo through my head: for every serious accident there are 29 minor accidents and 300 near misses. Should we start to question the move towards what seems like an increasing number of near misses and the unending march to critical mass, before someone can say I told you so?
Often though the helicopter can offer us no more than an exciting and bumpy ride as high as the cloud line. Since many accidents happen in poor weather, the need for a team that can deploy on foot, quickly and in force is essential. On top of this, the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team is extremely proficient at managing rescues on the most dangerous terrain Snowdon has to offer; places where few experienced mountaineers would dare to tread through choice.
Whatever the terrain, the worst calls out we have, and we have them several times a year are the fatalities. Sometimes they are as simple as a heart attack or stroke: which we call 'clean'. The casualty is intact, and despite possibility of the family being on scene, are easier to deal with.
My first experience of a 'messy' job was shortly after I joined the team. A climber had fallen a long way off the east ridge of Snowdon, and two of the people he was with had become stuck on a precipitous ledge half down a cliff, in their attempted to search for him. Night was falling and half the team went up to find the living whilst the other half went down to the, inevitably, dead.
Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team did make the headlines this year when we recovered Michael Todd, Manchester's police chief, off the top of Snowdon. This was my first contact with the dead. This had the tragedy of a man who had suffered what was reported to be a mental breakdown, pushed over the edge by the media threatening to make public his alleged affairs, and then swarming around Llanberis for a story. In the case of fatalities, the team's PR officer gives a brief statement or interview to the press in the lines of "Llanberis team responded to a call out today, and after a search found the body of a deceased man fitting the description of Michael Todd" and the rest of the team are expected to keep any details confidential.
In providing so little information and not courting the media, does Llanberis Rescue Team miss out on much needed exposure? Would column inches equal pounds in the bank that we can put to great use?
The real story should had been the team's fight up the mountain in high winds and driving snow with a stretcher to basically man-handle him down. We tried our best to give as much dignity to the deceased as we could, but high on a mountain it is hard, physical and unpleasant work. What I found hard to deal with in this incident was my personal anger towards this tragic man so involved with police that he must know the pressure that voluntary teams are under, and yet he still choose end it high on the side of a mountain. Obviously he wasn't thinking rationally at the the time, which make my personal thoughts toward him harder to deal with.
As a volunteer, I find it hard to justify body recovery as a free service when an undertaker would charge for the transportation of body from a house to their morgue - and they don't have the joys of an hour or more carrying a stretcher down a mountain that takes upwards of 12 people for it to be anything other than a complete struggle.
Later that year a young child slipped and fell off one of the ridges on Snowdon. There was no media circus for this tragedy. Carrying this boy's body off the hill, knowing what I know now, I am glad he was already in a body bag. Two weeks before I wrote this, I was one of the first few people on the scene of a fatal fall from Crib Goch, a knife-edge ridge, where a slip at the top would result in a potential 500ft fall.
What many people don't appreciate is that any death in the mountains is treated as suspicious and evidence gathered to try and piece together a story of what happened. Photos and video of the scene are taken as soon as possible, before the body is moved and then recovered, for the coroners' court. At this incident, my background as a adventure film maker was something that I wished wasn't on my CV: filming the area in minute detail was not pleasant.
That detail is still with me two weeks after the incident, every time my eyes close to sleep the images haunt me. As we scramble up the hillside, the full force of the impact is apparent, as clothing and rucksacks that have been ripped off his body are strewn across the mountain side; a mobile phone broken and scattered; blood, and body parts spread out over 100 metres or more. It was truly a gruesome sight of a quick and violent death. Two days after the incident I had had so little sleep I had to phone one of the team's co-ordinators, who happens to be one of the UK's experts of post traumatic stress and mountain rescue.
You might think that as hardened mountain rescuers we are immune to the sights that we see. Even on the inside of the team, I was unaware of the extent of this issue within the team. It was only when I asked for help, and was encouraged to talk to other members of the team, that I realised that many other members suffer the same images both during the day and especially at night. In the most part they go away but many team members report seeing those images years after, albeit less vividly. This particular problem became apparent to rescue teams after Lockerbie when a large number of search and rescue dogs and mountain rescue teams were called to assist with the search for body parts and debris that was spread over a large tract of Scotland.
At present my experiences have made me wonder whether continuing to volunteer for the rescue team is right for me, as I don't want to experience that again, but can almost guarantee that at some point I will be confronted by a similar corpse at the foot of Crib Goch. It makes me question the voluntary nature of the teams if we are to deal with these horrific things. Working as a freelance instructor, I was unable to take time off to get my head together after that last horrific recovery, as without that work I won't get paid. And so, it effected my work as well as my personal life. The inability to sleep through post-traumatic stress, that takes 3 to 6 weeks to pass in most people, seems just too big a price for me to pay.
For me though, the saddest thing about the deaths is that those left behind often need a focus, and often that is the rescue team that recovered their loved one. They often work tirelessly to raise funds for us. A fiancée of one of the people we recovered raised enough money for the Llanberis team to buy its first dedicated vehicle: the Land Rover is called 'Matt' in his honour. Before that, we used team member's personal vehicles or borrowed a Land Rover from the local hydro-electric power station.
This brings into question the funding of the teams when compared with, say, the Fire or Ambulance services, who have all their equipment provided for. In Llanberis there is a retained fire crew, they are called out fewer times a year than the rescue team and get a set income when then are 'on call' whether they are required or not. Yet the Mountain Rescue Team, which is busier, and arguably requires as much training to protect itself, as well as providing a similar level of first response to medical care as a paramedic, is required to fund those courses and equipment from our own coffers and attend training courses in our own time, and at our own expense.
A full time paramedic earns £19 to 24k a year, so when their shift is over, they can go home. All members of rescue teams have regular jobs, so when they are called out to search throughout the night they still have to turn up for work the next day. Whilst many employers are understanding, when it ends up as being twice a week or more, limits are quickly reached. Llanberis Team does have 60 members, but often it is the same 20 who regularly attend call outs.
When it comes to post traumatic stress, full time emergency workers have a excellent support structure in place. Often working alongside colleagues on the same shift, as such formal and informal debriefing happens far more regularly, after traumatic incidents. Their employers also have a duty to look after the physical and emotional well being of their employees. In mountain rescue it could be days before you can catch up with the others who have shared those nastier moments, as such you can feel more isolated, and in turn make things harder to deal with.
Closer to mountain rescue is the RNLI which, as a voluntary self-funded organisation, seem to manage a lot better, possibly because of a higher profile in the public eye. Despite being voluntary, they manage to offer a basic call out fee of £15, as well as remuneration for attending any training course where the volunteer might have to take time off their normal job. Not to mention the massive capital outlay of buying and maintaining crucial boats.
On the other hand, HM Coastguard recently went on strike on because of a pay dispute - if only mountain rescue teams were that lucky! Whilst I am not saying that all rescue teams need to be paid professionals, I feel that something needs to be done to help the busiest teams in the UK. A call out fee similar to the RNLI, maybe even charging people who are basically in need of a guide for the guiding that they receive or even charging for the recovery of bodies, could be instated.
Many of the mountain rescue teams around the UK, as well as people whom I call my friends on the Llanberis team, will be outraged by my statements. However the team I am involved with averages two rescues a week throughout the year. These rescues involve working in the most difficult conditions. Is expecting rescue teams to not only turn out on these rescues, raise the necessary funds and attend the associated training just too much to ask from a voluntary group? Last year the Llanberis team spent in the region of £30,000, which is a little more than the sort of money you can get by waving a collection box in front of people. If we started handing out a bill every time we were called out, it would cause outrage, however would courting controversy help move the service forward?
The Llanberis mountain rescue team respond to around 90 incidents a year. You can donate to the team on their page: llanberismountainrescue.co.uk.
Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team wish to make it clear that the article by Mark Reeves, while being a compelling, and very personal well written article, does not represent the official view of Llanberis MRT. The article also does not reflect the views of the vast majority of the other 50 plus volunteers who make up Llanberis MRT. Llanberis MRT only issues media articles or interviews via the Team Chairman or Secretary.
Llanberis MRT along with most MR in the UK is based on a voluntary basis, with volunteers who are all extremely competent local mountaineers and climbers who are willing to respond to assist other mountaineers and hill goers in distress. There is no compulsion on any member to respond to any incident, all involvement is completely voluntary, and it is up to each individual to decide on how much time and commitment they give to MR. Full and complete confidential professional support is available to any Team member who might be affected by any situations they might have witnessed or been involved with during MR activities.
Chairman Llanberis MRT
You can read more about Mark Reeves on his blog: Life in the Vertical
Mark is also a professional Mountaineering Instructor. You can find out more on his other site: