Sir Chris, Mountain Rescue & Media Misrepresentation

Comments made by Sir Chris Bonington pertaining to mountain rescue services recently made their way into articles in both The Times and The Telegraph, which he later wrote were taken out of context. Editor of Mountain Rescue magazine, Judy Whiteside, penned a personal blog post in which she addressed Chris' comments, misrepresentation in the media and the reality of life in a mountain rescue team. Judy has kindly allowed us to reproduce an updated version of her post below.


'Rival mountain rescue teams are competing to get to stranded climbers', said Sir Chris Bonington on Friday morning, according to both The Times and The Telegraph, adding that he considers mountain rescue 'a sport', in which the volunteers engage because they 'enjoy the thrill'.

Langdale Ambleside team members at work in the dark. © Paul Burke
Langdale Ambleside team members at work in the dark.
© Paul Burke

None of these contests have 'quite got to fisticuffs', he said, despite getting 'quite heated'. Only a matter of time, we were led to suppose, before a fist fight erupts somewhere over which team gets to put the stretcher together in a howling gale, in pitch darkness, while the meal they left behind grows cold on the plate.

For a fleeting minute, I thought it a belated April Fool, lately discovered by some wag and posted online. But no. 'Hannah Furness, arts correspondent. Friday 13 October 2017. 9:32AM' runs the byline in The Telegraph, atop an article which does its level best to unravel the sustained effort over recent months – by rescue teams in the Lakes and North Wales especially – to stem the flow of 'avoidable' call-outs and encourage hillgoers to better prepare for their adventures.

Admittedly, Ms Furness redeems herself a little towards the end, by seeking the more measured view of Andy Simpson, press officer for mountain rescue in England and Wales. 'I would certainly never encourage anyone to deliberately put themselves at risk,' says Andy, 'or to go out ill-equipped believing it doesn't matter because they'll be rescued.

'We are always keen to help, but it's a serious business and we would always encourage people to be properly prepared.'

But still.

Sir Chris had been asked, at Cheltenham Literature Festival, for his thoughts about unprepared climbers and an alleged over-reliance on technology to get them rescued. At least the 'volunteer' message came through loud and clear, but why had he chosen to represent mountain rescue teams quite as he did?

A couple of days later, Sir Chris posted a welcome statement on his social media feeds – and spoke on BBC Radio Cumbria – explaining that his reported comments 'that mountain rescue had almost become a sport in itself and that teams from different valleys had competed to reach a casualty first' were light-hearted and reported out of context.

He went on to say that there are some serious issues that need considering when more people are clearly heading into the mountains with a lack of basic skills and sometimes inadequate clothing and equipment.

'As I have always done,' he concludes, 'I will continue to voice my strong admiration for, and offer my support to, those involved in mountain rescue'.

Langdale Ambleside MRT battling nothing more than the elements. © Paul Burke
Langdale Ambleside MRT battling nothing more than the elements.
© Paul Burke

His words had struck a nerve.

Here was a highly-celebrated figure in the mountaineering world apparently suggesting that the whole thing is a game and it's okay to go out there and get yourself in trouble because, hey, there are whole teams of restless gladiators back at base, just kicking their heels and itching for the chance to swing a few punches!

Sir Chris walked a while with us, when my pal and I did the Coast to Coast, six years ago, raising funds along the way for mountain rescue. I interviewed him more recently, for my book about the Ogwen Valley team, Risking Life and Limb (I won an award you know!), where he recounted a tale of his 'almost rescue' as a much younger man, by the then fledgling team. He was even guest of honour at their 50th anniversary dinner. My understanding was that he's always been very supportive of mountain rescue.

So, whilst Sir Chris's comments were hugely disappointing, I had suspected – hoped – they were said with tongue firmly stuffed in cheek. Sadly, any humour he intended got lost in translation – and copy editors never could resist a provocative headline. It wouldn't be the first time the words of mountain rescue team spokesmen or women have been sensationalised or misquoted.

But what this whole media storm HAS done, is provide an opportunity to tell it like it really is, to set the record straight about the nature of mountain rescue, the teams and their members – every one a volunteer – from my own very passionate, personal perspective!

photo
Cockermouth MRT's Chris Cookson (AKA 'the Gremlin') races to the top with barely concealed glee.
© Michael Lishman

So if it's not a game, where's the fun in it?

'Is this characterisation fair?' asked a researcher from BBC Radio 4.

Good grief! Do they have to ask?

In a word. No!

Mountain rescue may be many things to many people.

To the casualty, it's that welcome flash of colour looming through the mist, pain relief, hope, the heroes who defied the weather and all other odds to get them to safety. Or keep them alive. It's the banter, the warmth, the voices of reassurance, the calm efficiency, the professionalism.

To those involved in it, mountain rescue can become a life-long commitment, an all-consuming 'hobby', a near full-time occupation, the opportunity to put something back and be part of something uniquely bonding.

It's also humbling, challenging, exhilarating and scary at times, blackly funny, hugely uplifting, life-affirming, soaked-to-the-skin-wet, bone chillingly cold, up to the ankles in sheep shit and peat bog, beyond exhausting. High risk, endlessly fascinating and sometimes frustrating. And delivered free, of course, to those who need it.

Mountain rescuers can be many things too. Fiercely independent, strongly opinionated, skilled mountaineers and canny navigators who don't see themselves as 'heroes', confident, compassionate and committed (not least to the growing requirement to train to ever-higher standards, for an ever-widening menu of services), and athletically fit (you try running up and down the same mountain three times in one day with a load of kit strapped to your back).

Perpetually grumpy, particularly when tired (or in possession of a pint), generally good company and just a little eccentric. Oh, and frequently smelly (sheep shit and peat bog, remember).

Yes, they love what they do (why do it otherwise?), but gladiatorial in nature they most definitely are not. At least, not when it matters, when someone needs their help.

Sure, there might be a bit of cross-team banter but teams increasingly work together on rescue operations, not in competition.

And then there's the families and friends of Sir Chris's 'thrill-seeking gladiators'. Kid's birthdays, anniversaries, wedding parties, holiday flights, work commitments, trips to the climbing wall, grocery shopping, ceiling painting, gardening chores, visits from the in-laws – very little is sacred, believe me. Anything and everything can be cancelled at the sniff of a call-out. Including a decent night's sleep. Many a marriage has floundered thanks to mountain rescue.

And all for what? A few rounds of fisticuffs?

‘Right, then… who’s up for it?’ Cockermouth  MRT brace themselves for the fray. © Michael Lishman
‘Right, then… who’s up for it?’ Cockermouth MRT brace themselves for the fray.
© Michael Lishman

Wild in the country

Sir Chris also firmly believes that people should be free to explore the wilds, learning 'on the hoof' as he did. I don't think anyone in mountain rescue would disagree with that sentiment but there's no disputing that the world has changed.

Once upon a time, there was self-reliance, inner strength, personal responsibility and the acceptance that if you got yourself into a tricky situation, you quite possibly had to get yourself out of it. Or die.

Now we have smartphones and apps lulling aspirant hillgoers into a false sense of security and apocryphal tales of walkers who think it appropriate to call for a helicopter because they're late for dinner or forgot their butties, calls which might just prevent a real casualty from receiving timely help.

In Snowdonia and on Scafell, we have the never-ending stream of Three Peakers and charity challengers, testing their mettle against the elements – often ill-prepared, inadequately dressed and with barely any mountain experience.

Last month, a young man attempted to climb Snowdon in his underpants to raise funds for a dementia charity after his grandmother developed the condition. Commendable and heart-felt but he was totally unprepared for just 'how cold' he would feel. By the time he reached the summit, he was shaking uncontrollably, feeling sick, going deaf and his eyesight was 'going funny'. Llanberis MRT and paramedics treated him for hypothermia before he descended the mountain on the train, wrapped in tin foil.

Meanwhile, in the Lakes, a '100% avoidable' incident saw Patterdale team members called away from their own dinners only to find the 999 caller tucking into a meal and a glass of wine at the pub. It transpired that the four reported missing were part of a much larger group of 76 and – worse still – their 'organiser' was safely tucked up back in his accommodation, oblivious to the whereabouts of the remaining 71!

Incidents can keep team members on the hill – away from their own lives – for many, many hours at a time. Often, this is due to the logistics and time involved, getting to a casualty, treating them and then evacuating them from the mountain in timely fashion, but sometimes there are multiple casualties, or three or four incidents in quick succession.

Helicopter help may not always be an option – and without the helicopter, it's down to the muscle power available to carry that casualty downhill. Through the bracken and peat bog. And sheep poo.

And, once the casualty has been safely delivered into the hands of the medics, it's back to base for another hour or more, cleaning and sorting kit, washing down vehicles, restocking medical sacks, checking oxygen and Entonox cylinders, writing reports, making ready for the next call – and possibly, too, dealing with the anxious friends and family of the casualty.

Then there's multi-agency incidents like floods or murderous gunmen on the loose or missing children – none of which is likely to inspire a punch-up, more a calm determination to get the job done, as efficiently as is humanly possible. And stay safe.

Ogwen Valley team members hard at work in the Carlisle floods. © Karen Phillips-Craig
Ogwen Valley team members hard at work in the Carlisle floods.
© Karen Phillips-Craig

Why then, if not for the fisticuffs?

Asked for his opinion on the matter (one that I can publish), the Gremlin (who, if you haven't yet fathomed, is my other half and a long-serving member of Cockermouth MRT), offered that he 'would much rather be out climbing than out rescuing people' – which seems a little at odds with the fact he's off like a whippet at the ping of an SMS, usually with a beaming smile on his face and a not entirely convincing 'Sorry, I've got to go'. (I say 'ping', it's a little noisier and considerably more insistent in nature than that.)

It's a sentiment I found expressed online by his mountain rescue colleagues around England and Wales – and doubtless echoed in Scotland – usually accompanied by an appropriately devilish emoticon. Just so you know there's a wry smile on their lips. That humour again! Tsk.

Why does he bother at all then, I ask?

And then begins a story not dissimilar to every other rescuer I've ever chatted to: an initial involvement with an emergency situation, the desire to learn how to help next time, a developing interest in climbing, the fact that mountain rescue was traditionally climbers and mountaineers rescuing fellow climbers and mountaineers, then joining a team because that's where his mates were and that oft-cited desire to 'put something back'.

From there a deepening commitment thanks to deputy leadership, a seat round various committee tables, meetings and more meetings, tasks to complete and a mountain of paperwork to scale, and a deep reluctance to let others down – casualties or colleagues.

Like the rest of his team mates, he quite clearly enjoys what he does, enjoys the camaraderie, the banter, being out there in the mountains, the satisfaction of doing the job well. But nobody doubts that this is very serious business. People's lives and future wellbeing are at stake.

Once mountain rescue has you in its grasp, its hard to shake off. It becomes a way of life, inspiring a selfless commitment which is rare in today's society.

Bar-room banter is one thing but, trust me, when the boys and girls racing up the hill in the sleeting rain and biting wind, with the half stretchers and the medical sacks and the oxygen cylinders strapped to their backs, get to the casualty site – all the while barking into their radios and trying to ignore the nagging hunger pangs – the last thing on their minds is whether they've beaten the 'other side' to it.

Footnote: Thank you to Paul Burke (Langdale Ambleside MRT), Michael Lishman and Karen Phillips-Craig (Penrith MRT) for their images.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Judy Whiteside


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19 Oct, 2017
Really silly question, but why is the UK the only European country without a professional rescue body? Why is it don't these amazing people don't get paid? Third world countries like Spain can afford it, it seems they should be recognised as a professionals here in UK.
19 Oct, 2017
Ireland has a similar set-up, all teams are voluntary. By the way I don't; think Spain is a third-world country!
19 Oct, 2017
I raised this same question with a member of a Peak District rescue team recently, and it seems that many in mountain rescue worry that if it was to be funded by central or local government, operations may become subject to political influence, or the vagaries of economic policy. If Mountain Rescue were presently state funded, we may well be looking at a seriously underfunded organisation if the cut backs made to police forces are anything to go by. By being funded by charitable donations and similar, mountain rescue teams are able to oversee their own funding streams, and more importantly, free to determine how those funds are used without political or commercial influence. I imagine that the same goes for corporate sponsorship. And Mountain Rescue teams are not alone in adopting this view — the RNLI is also funded through donations and grants and manned by volunteers, and has successfully been saving lives at sea for decades. Yes, these organisations do essential work that is often under-appreciated, and they can sometimes struggle to secure sufficient funding, but perhaps it's a case of "if it ain't broke. why fix it"?
19 Oct, 2017
If multiple teams are being deployed to the same incident, isn't there a problem with allocation of resources? In other emergency control rooms they have decent visibility of who's deployed where - I wonder if the same level of tech is available to mountain rescue, or if when the call is passed on from 999 they just pass it to any and all available teams in the area. Sounds like there's room for improvement in this area.
19 Oct, 2017
1. Europe is a whole different ball game to walking in the British hills as say opposed to the Alps where a lot of walkers/climbers belong to one of the very large (by British standards) national clubs, think SAC, and all the sub-divisions within each club. In the UK the vast majority of walkers in need of rescue services are not members of any affiliated club and certainly very unlikely to have any insurance, automatic if you are in SAC or similar. 2.The rescue themselves do not want a Govt. backed rescue service with all the hoops etc that this would entail. They are all volunteers and proud to be so. 3. As usual the press never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and refer to C.B. because he is known to just about every man/woman in the street, not the unknown head of some rescue team, that won't arouse the same interest, and we all know what appears in the press is true! 4. When I lived in Nant Peris, the base for the Llanberis team, I was frequently asked why I was not in the team. My reply, mostly unprintable, is that why should I spend my evenings and nights, out in foul weather looking for some fool that can't be bothered to even carry a map and compass, but has a mobile handy to help someone else get them out of the pickle they have bought on themselves. Many of my friends were in that team and some of the stories were truly unbelievable. 5. The rescue service was originally set up by climbers and hill walkers to rescue their own but now Joe Bloggs thinks it is almost a Govt. dept that is there to call out on a whim. So the next time you are passing an M.R. collecting tin, stop and add a few pennies. It all helps. I fortunately have never had to call upon their services in nearly 60 years in the hills, but you never know!
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