A Brief History Of Mountain Rescue

This is a scheduled post. I am currently walking the Wales Coast Path to raise money for the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team. (Update: I completed the Wales Coast Path on 7th February 2022 and raised £1,300)

There was not one incident, nor one meeting amongst some group of government officials around a long and polished table that decided on the need for wilderness search and rescue teams across Great Britain. Most of our Mountain (and Lowland) Rescue Teams originally formed locally and separate from each other. Sadly, for many, the catalyst was terrible tragedy.

In many areas it was not even seventy years ago, that the established response to a suspicion that a person was missing in the wilderness was still being met with a self-appointed responder, sometimes a police officer, sometimes a publican, knocking on doors to raise the alarm and gather a group to head out and find them. In many mountainous areas, this was a regular enough that it was an accepted part of life in those villages, towns and settlements that existed in the shadows of the hills.

As the second world war came in and more military planes took to the skies, horrific crashes started to happen with alarming frequency in the mountains; enough crashes that, in many areas, the RAF started establishing specific response services to aid with search and rescue of downed airmen. A large influx of people then started to take advantage of the newly granted Right to Roam (coinciding with a rise in car ownership), and as more and more new emergencies started stretching these RAF and community services, local police forces also took the initiative to form teams in response.

A horrific aircrash up on the Triple Buttresses of Coire Mhic Fhearchair, on Beinn Eighe in 1951 saw the formation of the Torridon RAF Mountain Rescue, whilst the death of five walkers caught in a 1959 storm at Glen Callater on Jock’s Road saw Grampian police set up the GramPol Mountain Rescue Team. In England, it was a much, much earlier disaster in 1928 on the Scafell Pinnacle where four climbers, attached to each other, fell to their death, that resounded across England and Wales and caused local services to begin dedicated response units.

However, it wasn’t long before it became apparent that the RAF and the police were struggling; often a lack of specialised skillsets, as well as funding, and prioritising their more usual job responses contributed to these set ups not being as effective as it was initially hoped. Once again, the local civilians stepped in and soon, those services became manned by local volunteers who had the training and knowledge, and were willing to sacrifice their time to make Rescue Teams that now held wilderness rescue as a priority with the practical experience to make them work.

By the 1960s, most of the police and RAF teams had been taken over by civilian volunteers. Since the 1920s, there had been advances in wilderness medicine and first aid; a new stretcher had been designed in response to a 1928 accident in the Peak District that saw a fallen climber attended to, but unable to be extracted for hours until a makeshift alternative finally bore him on an agonising four hour relay to the ambulance. The Thomas stretcher was now created for use within the teams; preferred for its clearance and maneuverability over many types of terrain. The stretchers, along with other equipment that included splints, a primus stove, iodine, bandages and urine bottles were stashed where they could be easily accessed when a rescue was called out.

The addition of morphine in 1949 to the stashes was contentious, but extremely necessary and no doubt instantly started saving more lives on its approval. The government permitted three quarter grain ampoules to be kept at each post, allowing this amount to be extended to six ampoules in Ogwen and Glencoe due to the significantly higher amount of callouts in those areas. Mountain Rescue Teams now have a Medical Officer on each team in charge of all medical operations, including the application of morphine.

From the 1940s to the 1960s these formalised civilian Mountain Rescue Teams were established, mostly with very little interaction between them apart from a meeting every six months at a house in Manchester. But all shared the same values and were adapting to their environments. In 1965, Scotland formed its own subcommittee.

Wilderness medicine and emergency response equipment has come a long way since the days of rounding up the local farmers to find missing men in the hills and each Mountain Rescue Team maintains their own equipment and resources, but will immediately share them should the call arise whether it is for wilderness or urban search and rescue. The search and rescue for five year old April Jones, abducted from her home in Machynlleth in Wales in 2012 saw the involvement of 23 mountain, lowland and cave rescue teams. It encompassed 208 search areas and 13,400 collective man-hours on search.

In 2015, mass flooding in Cumbria, York, North Wales, Salford and Lancashire saw a call go out for Rescue Teams that had specialised experience with water rescue. 32 teams responded to help with the crisis. Three weeks later when the waters rose again in the north and northwest of England and Wales, a 52 strong contingent of team members from Devon marched in.

There are now 74 Mountain Rescue Teams across England, Wales and Scotland, as well as additional Lowland Search and Rescue Teams, Cave Rescue Teams and SARDA Dog Teams. Each team is still entirely voluntary and all rely on donations to meet their operating costs. In 2017, 2,110 callouts resulted in a Mountain Rescue deployment, using 97,208 volunteer hours. There were only nine days that year without a Mountain Rescue call out in England and Wales.

In 2020, the number of callouts rose to 3,080 with the mountainous regions of England and Wales bearing the brunt of the increase. The numbers have not yet been released for 2121, but we can almost certainly expect an even bigger rise.

Llanberis Mountain Rescue; Then and Now

Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team has been the busiest Mountain Rescue Team in England and Wales since 2016. This August it responded to 49 callouts, setting its new monthly record. The previous record had only been set the August before.

All Mountain Rescue Teams rely on donations to keep running, and to keep hikers, climbers, cyclists, and all wilderness adventurers returning home safe from remote and wilderness areas. You can find out more about your local Mountain Rescue Team here or your local Lowland Search and Rescue Team here. Scottish Teams can be found here.

If you wish to donate to support my winter walk of the Welsh Coast for Llanberis Mountain Rescue, my JustGiving link is here. I deeply appreciate any and all donations.

If You Experience an Emergency

Finding yourself completely lost or injured in the middle of nowhere is utterly terrifying, and your health and your safety should always be an absolute priority regardless of time of year.

  • Do not try and be stubborn or be concerned about ‘causing a fuss’ and attempt to keep going when chances are you will make the situation worse.
  • If the incident occurs in the day, do not wait until light is fading to call for help. Especially now we have shorter daylight hours. The more hours of light Mountain Rescue has to work with, the quicker they can aid you.
  • Do not wait until your phone battery is down to 20% after trying to navigate your way out of a misdirection. Even if you have a power bank on you.
  • An InReach device has a long (many days) battery life and instantly contacts the local emergency services and rescue teams regardless of signal. These are expensive, but if you are heading out regularly they are worth your consideration.

Where there isn’t a Mountain Rescue, there will be a Lowland Search and Rescue; these teams are all wilderness search and rescue teams and operate in all open country areas across the country where it is difficult for the traditional emergency services to reach.

To contact Mountain Rescue, call 999, ask for the police, then ask to speak to Mountain Rescue and you will be connected immediately to your local Mountain or Lowland Rescue. If you have an InReach device, you only need to push the SOS button.

Recommended Books:

  • In The Shadow of Ben Nevis – Iain Sykes (Lochabar Mountain Rescue Team)
  • Cairngorm John – John Allan (Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team)
  • Call-out: A climber’s tales of mountain rescue in Scotland – Hamish McInnes (Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team)
  • Mountain Rescue: History and Development in the Peak District 1920s-Present Day – Ian Hurst (Buxton Mountain Rescue Team)
  • The Shout; The History of Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team 1968-2018 – Tony Harrison (Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team)
  • All in a Day’s Work: A History of RAF Mountain Rescue in Snowdonia 1944-46 – David W. Earl, Compiled from the diaries of LAC John Campion Barrows (RAF Llandwrog)
  • Search Dogs and Me – Neil Powell (SARDA)
  • Call Out Mountain Rescue? A Pocket Guide to Safety on the Hill – Judy Whiteside

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