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It’s your call – top tips for avoiding a mountain rescue call-out

Thoughts from women who have been rescued and female mountain rescue volunteers, discussing common factors in emergency situations within the Scottish mountains


Girls on Hills co-founder Keri Wallace being winched into the helicopter during mountain rescue training 2012


Last year, analysis of Scottish Mountain Rescue data across a seven-year period (up to 2019) identified a number of risk factors involved in the likelihood of a mountain rescue call out. These apparently include being male, navigating with a mobile phone and having poor/no awareness of avalanche risks. In this blog we unpack what these statistics might mean and explore the circumstances that lead to rescues. How can we avoid becoming a statistic?


Credit Keith McKerral, Glencoe Mountain Rescue


Common cause

 

We asked Emma Pearce, a Girls on Hills guide and volunteer for Lochaber Mountain Rescue with over 20 years rescue experience, what are the common causes of call-outs that she sees on Ben Nevis?


‘In the winter, it’s common to see call-outs as a result of physical trauma, usually caused by climbing accidents, avalanches or slips and trips in the winter conditions. But we receive many call-outs from people with navigation issues or as a result of fading light at all times of year' says Emma.

 

Kirsty Pallas, Mountain Safety Advisor for Mountaineering Scotland agrees; ‘The most common mistakes come from underestimating Scottish weather and terrain, whether that's getting lost due to mist coming in, getting cold without enough clothes, or getting cragfast (frozen in fear on rocky ground) when something's steeper than expected’ she says.

 

So how can we avoid making these common mistakes? ‘Researching lots before your day out will help, plus trying to be proactive with decisions rather than reactive. Check the map earlier (i.e. before you're definitely lost) and put on extra layers sooner, before you get too cold’ suggests Pallas.


In a recent survey of female hillwalkers, 39% said they experienced anxiety about their ability to self-navigate. As a company that delivers navigation skills courses, Girls on Hills shows women that there are no gender-based differences with respect to map-reading which would make women poor navigators (despite this being a common gendered stereotype)! ‘Women can be awesome navigators and are usually empowered and thrilled to learn this new skill. If you are nervous about putting your skills into practice, just go into overkill mode’ says Girls on Hills co-founder Keri Wallace. ‘Carry a smartphone (with a navigation app) and a GPS if you can afford one - there are some inexpensive models on the market. Use everything avilable to you. Just make sure you know how to use these devices and view them as an extra layer of support to your map and compass work, rather than the thing you rely on.'


Skills courses are invaluable

'The same is true of your layering system' says Wallace. 'Don’t think about what you need to stay warm on your walk, think about what you will need in a worst case scenario. This will not only make you safer if the worst happens but it will help with your confidence – knowing you are informed and have everything you need. If the weather changes and you find yourself unsure of your location, it is time to slow things down, not rush about in a panic. Put all those layers on, so that you can feel comfortable and can think straight. Take your time to assess the situation and make every effort to get decisions right the first time, rather than flapping about all fired-up by adrenaline, getting wet, cold and even more lost. It’s not enough to carry the right equipment with you – you have to know when and how to use it’ she explains.

 

‘No matter how sure you think you are about navigation, or if you are with a group and they are sure, if you have even the slightest doubt, it only takes 2 mins to check your GPS or look at the map! Don’t ever feel pressured to hurry up or not double-check if you feel it is safer to do so. Skills courses are invaluable and I would highly recommend investing in brushing-up or learning new skills to keep yourself current and safe’ says Girls on Hills Patreon Fiona Bennett, who was rescued in 2014.


Accidents happen


Fiona was rescued after an incident on the Cuillin Ridge where she became injured and trapped by a tumbling boulder. But Fiona doesn’t fit any ‘high risk’ demographic – she was a fit, healthy and experienced hill-walker with knowledge of the ridge. ‘Looking back, I learned loads from the experience and it gave me the motivation to take every chance I got to go out into the hills once my leg recovered. It gave me a new appreciation for all types of outdoors adventures, big and small’ says Fiona. ‘Accidents can happen to anyone but previous experience and knowledge can help keep you calm, assess the situation, and take the appropriate actions, rather than panicking and potentially making things worse’ she says.


Fiona was an experienced hillwalker but still needed we should all be prepared for is they do!

‘There are plenty of blameless accidents’ says Pallas. ‘Just don't be afraid to call MRT out - we don't judge and volunteers understand that sometimes these things just happen. It's better to call us out early and not need us, than leave it too late, when it’s dark and folk are getting seriously cold’ she adds. ‘We'd prefer to know something has gone really wrong and that you're descending slowly, than have a sudden more urgent call later on’.

 

If you do find yourself in need of the rescue services, what should you do and what information should be relayed? In an emergency, if you need to call out Mountain Rescue phone 999 and ask for Police and then Mountain Rescue.


Credit Keith McKerral, Glencoe Mountain Rescue

 

‘As rescuers, the basic information that we are looking for after an accident is when and what has happened’ says Girls on Hills guide and Glencoe MRT medic Sarah MacDonald. ‘Was it a fall? If so, how far, free fall, tumble or slide? If it is an injury, what happened and how serious is it? What is the casualty’s condition? It’s really useful to know their current position - preferably with a grid reference. Ideally we would find out what the terrain is like and what the weather is doing. From a medic’s perspective, I would want to know how many people are involved, their names, ages and phone numbers, plus any known medical issues/medication. From the point of view of locating the casualty, it’s helpful to know what clothing they have on, (e.g. bright red jacket), or what equipment they have with them, for example a survival bag or a head torch.’


BBC video featuring Sarah MacDonald and Glencoe MRT


 Mobile phone reception in the Highlands can often be intermittent or non-existent. If you are involved in an incident on the hill and need to call assistance but can’t get through, there may be enough signal to send a text message. You can contact the 999 emergency services by text if you have registered with the emergency SMS text service. Just text the word 'register' to 999. You will get a reply, with simple instructions. This takes about two minutes of your time and could save your life!

 

The kindness of strangers


‘After my accident, we realised that we were nearly out of food, which made the prospect of a long wait seem so much harder!’ says Bennett. ‘Thankfully a young chap called Joe appeared, who was an aspiring mountain leader, with a supply of Mars bars which helped keep energy levels up’ recalls Fiona. ‘While it can be tempting to cut weight, it’s always worth having a few extra energy gels or emergency rations tucked away. We had plenty of layers (all of which were needed), so don’t scrimp on that extra layer in your bag just in case – it’s better to have it and not use it, than need it and not have it!’ she adds.


Fiona’s rescue story jumped out at us here at Girls on Hills, when we heard about MRT aspirant Joe coming to Fiona’s aid. Joe Smith was a lively, talented and committed trainee within the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, who we knew as a fellow MRT volunteer and who sadly lost his life in a climbing accident in 2016. A memorial fund set up by his parents in his name, later supported Girls on Hills in our initial year; providing us with some financial support for a Mountain Leader asssessment (for which we are very grateful), which in turn has enabled us to educate and inspire future mountain enthusiasts to be both safe and responsible in the mountain environment.


‘I always will be in massive debt to Joe, the Skye Mountain Rescue team and Emma the nurse I had, who all went above and beyond expectations. The selflessness and kindness of people will always stay with me’ says Bennett.

 

Hillwalker Sara Mead was rescued by the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team after slipping and breaking her leg hillwalking in 2018. ‘Since my accident, I have developed an acute awareness of how easily things can go wrong. Now I carry a first aid kit, foil bag and more provisions in my pack always, regardless of the difficulty of the walk’ says Mead. ‘I’ve always been a slow walker, but I’m even slower now, as I take time over my foot placements and will often stop to take in the view. I have less confidence going downhill, especially when wet or icy, but using walking poles helps with that. I still enjoy hill walking, I just use more equipment and carry supplies to give me the confidence I need to do so. Exactly one year after my accident, I arranged a guided hillwalking and mountain skills day with Girls on Hills to celebrate my recovery and to further develop my mountain safety. It felt great to get out in my local hills again!'


Credit Keith McKerral, Glencoe Mountain Rescue


Due diligence


‘It may be the case that men are statistically more likely to be rescued than women or that those who navigate by smart-phone are most at risk but in reality anyone can have an accident’ says Wallace. ‘The fact that women accounted for only 10 of 114 fatalities recorded, has more to do with the greater number of men out in the hills than women. If you are navigating using a mobile phone, it suggests that you are new to hillwalking and/or don't have the neccessary map-reading skills, putting you at higher risk of navigational errors'.'


'There is a lot we can all do at the planning stage to make ourselves safer; make sure we plan a sensible route that is within our capabilities or that has suitable escape options, know how to self-navigate, consider the mountain weather and hours of daylight. We are responsible for ourselves when we step out into the mountains (even when we’re in a group), so we should be capable of being independent and to get down safely if required. In winter, it’s easy to underestimate the Scottish winter weather or how much harder the navigation becomes in snow. I always recommend that folk go on an avalanche awareness day or specific winter navigation course if they plan to do a lot of winter hillwalking' says Wallace 'Find out what you don't know, refresh your skills and plan ahead. Are there any mountain rescue black spots on your route?' she asks.


Keri Wallace as a mock casualty, MRT training 2012 (with ex-team leader John Grieve)


If we have a healthy respect for the mountain environment and build up our skills and experience incrementally, then we’re doing all that we can do. Mountain Rescue are there to help with the rest!


'I've had a long road to recovery' says Bennett. 'But I have since climbed over 50 Munros, Kilimanjaro and other long distance walks. I have regained my confidence in climbing and even re-climbed Sgurr Dearg, led by one of the rescue team, Jonah Jones. This was a massive step for me in my recovery and in regaining confidence. I have done what I can to raise some money for the rescue team and the amazing work they do.'


Show your support


Scottish Mountain Rescue is a charity that represents 25 mountain rescue teams across Scotland. However, both Lochaber Mountain Rescue and Glencoe Mountain Rescue are part of the Independent Scottish Mountain Rescue collective. As independent teams, they are registered charities in their own right and donations can be made to these local teams directly. All mountain rescue teams rely on volunteer time, donations and fundraising to operate. For more information visit www.scottishmountainrescue.org


Thanks to Mountain Rescue, Fiona is now recovered and back enjoying the hills. Fiona is a Girls on Hills Patreon. You can join our Patreon community here.



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