History of Mountain Rescue in the UK
(courtesy of MREW)
Until the late eighteenth century, when writers and artists began to inspire adventure in the hills, walking and climbing for fun were the prerogative of the rich. The farmers, shepherds, road builders and quarrymen were there from necessity, not for pleasure. The injured either died at the scene of their misfortune or relied on ad hoc rescue parties using makeshift equipment, and possibly died anyway, their injuries made worse by the journey across rough terrain.
The leader does not fall
Tradition was ‘the leader did not fall’ and they knew the risks. In 1903, a tragic accident high on Scafell Pinnacle – the worst British climbing history had known – saw four climbers, tied together as they climbed, fall together to their death as their leader slipped. The ‘Scafell Disaster’ was a pivotal moment in mountain rescue history as a shocked climbing fraternity began to consider the increasing incidence of mountain accidents and the lack of rescue resources available. Within a year, rudimentary first aid and mountain rescue equipment began to appear in key areas. But it was an accident in 1928, in the Peak District, and the extreme difficulties encountered by rescuers, which sparked the eventual formation of the Mountain Rescue Committee.
The accident occurred on a Rucksack Club meet in November when one Edgar Pryor was knocked off the upper stance on the Long Climb at Laddow by a lady climber falling down the upper pitch. He fell about 40 feet into an adjacent gully, breaking his skull and thigh bone. Relays of runners brought up blankets and hot water bottles, a splint was devised from a rucksack frame, and the finger post from the Crowden path formed a makeshift stretcher. Nevertheless, it was an agonising business. The nearest place on the road to which the ambulance could be taken involved carrying the patient for four hours, using relays of stretcher bearers. And, on reaching the ambulance, Pryor faced a further one and a half hour journey to the Manchester Royal Infirmary.
Delivered to the Infirmary, he came under the care of Wilson Hey, consulting surgeon, who later observed that the casualty was so shocked he needed blood transfusion before he could be operated on, and that the transport and shock had so damaged the limb, he was forced to amputate some months later. ‘The absence of morphia with the transport had done more damage to the limb than the mountain,’ he said.
Searching for a mountain rescue stretcher
Meanwhile, in 1932 the Rucksack Club and the Fell and Rock Climbing Club combined to form the Joint Stretcher Committee, charged to produce a suitable mountain stretcher and a list of first aid equipment. The Thomas stretcher was deemed the most suitable as the design allowed the end carriers to see their feet and avoid stumbling, and the wooden runners gave sufficient ground clearance to allow easy movement across rock, scree, grass or snow. Along with a double Thomas splint, wooden arm splints, iodine, bandages, kettle, primus stove, eiderdown, feeding cup and urine bottle, the stretchers were to be left at designated posts for use as required. Posts were established in some of the more popular climbing areas, managed by the clubs with the help of donated funds, and under the supervision of a designated individual.
In 1936, the committee decided a more permanent structure was called for. The First Aid Committee of Mountaineering Clubs was born, composed of representatives of the clubs, including those of the universities, and bodies with allied interests such as the Ramblers Federation and the Youth Hostel Association. A central fund was organised from a 2% levy from the clubs and all accidents and use of equipment had to be reported to the committee.
It was Wilson Hey’s determined belief in the use of morphia – and its eventual addition to the equipment list – which many consider his most powerful legacy to mountain rescue. It was fifteen years before he could persuade Whitehall that ‘morphia reduces suffering, and suffering produces shock, and prolonged shock causes death’ but, so convinced was he in the benefits to the casualty, that he issued morphia to the posts without a licence, at his own expense. In 1949, the Government relented and agreed to the supply of three quarter grain ampoules for each post, except for Ogwen and Glencoe which would have six ampoules each, due to the frequency of accidents in those areas. Since that day, mountain rescue has appointed a Medical Officer responsible for the issue of morphia.
The first civilian mountain rescue teams take shape
By 1950, the First Aid Committee of Mountaineering Clubs had become the Mountain Rescue Committee, a charitable trust with membership from a far wider spectrum of outdoor pursuit groups. It was events in Coniston and Keswick which prompted the formation of the first civilian teams. Similar stirrings were occurring in the mountains of Scotland and North Wales - where the RAF mountain rescue service, initially conceived for the rescue of air crew downed in the mountains, was increasingly involved in the rescue of civilians.
The Coniston Fells Rescue Party following a mountain search which extended over several days of the vilest weather. In late December 1946, Ernest John Harris Sivyer set off across the fells but failed to return. At first light, a rapidly assembled party oflocal people set out to search the area around Dow Crags and Coniston Old Man to no avail. By next morning, fifty policemen had joined farmers and other willing volunteers to search over 100 square miles of countryside in the most appalling conditions. Sivyer's body was just 500 foot from the main road, where he appeared to have fallen about 400 foot down a steep gully. The search had taken such a toll on those involved that the first civilian mountain rescue team in England was formed, led by Jim Cameron.
Over in Keswick, an accident on Great Gable in April 1946 prompted the formation of the Borrowdale MRT (now Keswick MRT) under the leadership of Rusty Westmorland. Two experienced climbers had been tackling a climb called Shark's Fin when a gust of wind blew one of the men from his sloping hold. He fell onto a ledge, his femur broken. Their subsequent rescue was a long and laborious twenty one hours, much of it endured without food, in foul weather and darkness - exhausting for everyone involved.
Across the UK, and over the years, a variety of accidents, searches and light aircraft crashes in mountainous and moorland areas galvanised the locals into action. Initially, there was little direct communication between teams, just the six monthly meetings at Hey's rooms in St John Street, Manchester. And yet, new teams continued to spring up with similar values, similar aspirations, each subtly adapted to their own environment.
1960 saw the creation of a Scottish subcommittee, initially led by Dr Donald Duff, to deal with day to day problems. It was the first step towards a separate Scottish mountain rescue service and, in June 1965, the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland was formed.
The work continues
Teams in England and Wales continue to work together, both at local level and through the national body - now known as Mountain Rescue England and Wales. In May 2007, we were honoured to appoint HRH Prince William of Wales as our Patron.
Over the years, the growth in mountain rescue teams took its toll on the rescue post system and, in 1989, Ordnance Survey reversed their previous landmark decision to show rescue posts on their maps.
The search for the 'perfect' mountain stretcher continues to drive a dedicated few. Other equipment developed specifically with the mountain casualty in mind includes the cas bag, the vacuum mattress and the Little Dragon. Perhaps the greatest development has been the satellite and mobile phone technology which has hugely advanced the communication capability of teams and casualties. It's hard to imagine that once there was rarely even a phone line at the foot of a mountain or in the local hotel.
A full version of mountain rescue history can be found in the MREW pocket handbook - 'Call Out Mountain Rescue. A Pocket Guide to Safety on the Hills'. Available from the Mountain Rescue England and Wales website https://shop.mountain.rescue.org.uk/collections/books-magazines