You’ve been enjoying a day’s walking in the mountains but now with darkness closing in you find yourself separated from your group.
The wind has whipped up and a gust has just blown you off your feet. You realise you are lost and find your compass isn’t working. Even more dramatic, imagine losing your footing on ice, falling 50 feet over a precipice and sustaining a serious leg injury or experiencing the nightmare of being caught up in an avalanche. You lie there unable to move and fear the worst. How reassuring then to know that a team of experienced mountaineers are on their way to search for you and take you safely off the mountain. These scenarios are all too real and typical of the experiences of hundreds of people in distress on Scotland’s hills and mountains each year and who rely on the courage and selflessness of mountain rescue volunteers coming to their aid.
What’s On caught up with one such hero, Willie Anderson, Leader of Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team (CMRT) to find out more about this vital emergency service.
So, how long have you been a part of CMRT and what attracted you in the first place?
I’ve been involved with the mountain rescue service for over 35 years and have taken part in over 1500 rescues. I’ve always been keen on mountaineering and realised that people stuck on a mountain are best served by people who live in the area and are themselves mountaineers. We understand the attraction, and the dangers, of the mountains. The Cairngorms can be a very dangerous place, particularly in winter.
How many members are in CMRT and what are their backgrounds?
We have just over 40 team members who come from all walks of life with backgrounds in retail, communications, trades and professions. We have four doctors in the team which you can imagine is a great asset.
And everyone is an unpaid volunteer?
Yes and we are on call 24/7. Every team member gives of their time and skills, going to the aid of anyone in trouble on the hills. Volunteers meet one Thursday and one Sunday each month for skills training and there’s always lots of maintenance to do here at base such as checking equipment and maintaining vehicles.
So what do you need to be a volunteer?
We need a lot more than willingness to do the role. The conditions on Cairngorm are about the worst that weather can throw at you; the wind alone can gust at over 120 miles per hour, so it’s crucial that the team can look after themselves in blizzards and white-out conditions. You have to be able to navigate at night and move comfortably on steep ground so a good level of fitness is important. You have to be dedicated, ready to turn out for a rescue regardless of the time or weather.
Are you a purely civilian service?
Mountain rescue in Scotland is the responsibility of the police. Here in the Highlands the police do not have the time, skills and manpower to carry out mountain rescues and that’s where the civilian mountain rescue teams come in. The police hold us in the highest regard as we are their greatest asset when persons are lost or injured in the mountains. There are 27 teams in Scotland. Lochaber, which covers Ben Nevis, has most call outs but CMRT is the next busiest.
Why do people get into difficulty?
A number of contributing factors but, most commonly, inexperience and an unwillingness to change plans. People should remember that the weather dictates everything.
So what happens when you receive a call?
Once the police take a 999 call, usually from an anxious companion or worried guest house owner, they contact me in the first instance. If I’m unavailable they try the next person on the list. Whoever takes the call from the police will mobilise the team. Sometimes people can be talked down the mountain without the need to launch the team. If the incident is low scale, it may only require a couple of people to attend; – we always send a minimum of two rescuers. However a major incident could involve most or all of the team as well as other local organisations who provide assistance such as Cairngorm Mountain and Glenmore Lodge.
How do you reach high, inhospitable terrain?
Normally by Sea King helicopter, piloted by the RAF. It’s not unusual to be somewhere in the Cairngorms National Park and hear the whir of a helicopter overhead. If it’s a yellow craft, it’s probably us or Braemar Mountain Rescue on a mission or taking part in a training exercise. A good radio system is essential for communicating with each other and the command centre.
Training must be intensive?
Yes, we do lots of courses and training. We try to keep all our rescue skills up to a high level. In a team of 40 these skills vary from member to member. Unfortunately fatalities do happen but, until you face such a situation, you don’t know how you will cope. Much of the training is practical. For example, rigging up stretchers and learning to lower them over a crag from a moving helicopter. There are lots of do’s and don’ts to follow too. It wouldn’t be a good idea to wear crampons in a helicopter which has its fuel tank immediately below your feet!
How much does it cost to operate the service and how is it funded?
The CMRT’s annual running costs are around £70,000. Some £16,000 comes from the Scottish Government and £7,500 from the Northern Division of Police Scotland but that leaves a massive shortfall. We are always looking at ways to improve our revenue stream, such as sponsorship, and we rely on the goodwill of others to help us continue with this free service. Donations, of any amount, are always appreciated and we are extremely grateful to those who leave a legacy. People can donate through our website, www.cmrt.org.uk or by supporting fundraising efforts. Many of these are organised by local community groups and we are indebted to them for their efforts.
With winter approaching what words of advice would you give to those heading for the hills?
- Check the weather forecast before setting off and watch the weather when you’re out as it can become challenging in a very short space of time.
- Be avalanche aware. Check the avalanche forecast; assess the risk and take advice from those at the sharp end.
- Do make others aware of your planned route and location.
- Be prepared. Wear appropriate clothing and bring a map and compass. Good equipment is important but make sure you know how to operate it; surprisingly many people have all the kit but don’t know how to use it.
- Be flexible with your plans. Be prepared to change them or to retreat. Frustrating I know but better that than putting yourself, and others, at risk.
- Realise your limitations, particularly if you are inexperienced. An individual’s perception of cold or bad winter weather may be completely different from the reality of potentially treacherous conditions at the top of a mountain in the Highlands.
To learn more about CMRT or to donate to this remarkable organisation, visit www.cmrt.org.uk