The Risks Of Being Rescued

The Risks Of Being Rescued

 Bill Dallas, Braemar MRT

Bill Dallas gives a personal insight in to the risks of winter hills to walkers, climbers, hill runners when things go wrong and you have to call for mountain rescue.

In the Scottish mountains during the winter months the margin for error when things go wrong decreases significantly compared to summer. A situation occurring in the summer, resulting in a bit of discomfort can in the winter become life threatening very quickly. The drop in temperature, reduced daylight, rain or wet snow and subsequent wind chill are all against you if you are losing control of the situation. You may have become immobilised due to an injury, perhaps a slip on ice or your group became lost when the cold killed the battery in your GPs/phone (which can happen without warning) or you have simply made a navigational error in the mist. If you find yourself needing to be rescued the ability to be self-reliant, even for a few hours (as I will try to explain here) is more important than ever.

Anyone who has stopped on a windy mountain top for any length of time, even just for lunch will have experienced how quickly the body cools. Imagine a situation where you are forced to stop, whether through injury or being just tired wet and disorientated. It’s dark, wet, windy cold and getting colder every minute. The damp layer of clothing created through perspiration is becoming  chilled against your skin and the rain or melting snow is starting to penetrate your outer layer.  You hadn’t expected this to happen. Worse still you hadn’t prepared for it either. You are starting to realise that what had begun as a walk up a hill on a fresh winter’s day is rapidly becoming a life threatening situation. The feeling of panic is starting to increase as the chilling cold is very quickly starting to occupy your every thought. Your hands and feet are already beginning to feel numb and every gust of winds bites into you and the snow is starting to sting the exposed skin on your face. Unable to move from where you are lying all that’s left is to do is huddle into a ball and hope help is on its way.

Hypothermia - a major risk in the Scottish mountains is the cold and wet. The longer you are exposed to the cold, damp environment combined with the wind, the less your chances of survival. Even in relatively benign conditions, for example, a 20 MPH wind and air temperature of -2 degrees C equates to a wind chill of -9 degrees, your survival time shortens as the wind speed increases and the temperature drops.

Hypothermia - Dying of cold

For Scottish Mountain Rescue teams this is not an unusual situation for us to respond to; but how do we respond and how can you help us to help you? Have no doubt we will find you, but whether the find becomes a rescue or a recovery, is in most cases, much more in your hands than it is in ours.

It’s obvious that a team can only react when they know there is a problem, but the time from the incident occurring to raising the alarm can be as little as a few minutes to a few days. Don’t assume your phone will have a signal or even work. Mobile phones do not like the cold and batteries can die in seconds when cold which is a real likelihood; particularly for a GPS you are regularly taking out of your pocket to use.

No matter how you contact us be prepared to give the following information. If you must send some of your party away to raise the alarm be sure they take a note of the location with them.

  • The location of the incident (ideally a six figure grid reference and a named feature)
  • The number of casualties
  • What is wrong with the casualties
  • Are the casualties deteriorating?
  • Details of the equipment in the group i.e. group shelter
  • Your contact telephone number and any other mobile numbers in the group

Calling Mountain Rescue

Ideally, you will be able to contact us quickly and once a call to 999 has been made the MR team coordinator will be alerted and an assessment made on the situation and this is dependent on the information given. The coordinator will use all the facilities available to confirm a location and try to establish direct communications to the distressed party. An initial plan will be made indicating the level of response required, and the MR team members will be mobilised via text to muster, if the conditions are good, and assuming it’s available, the Coastguard helicopter may also be requested.

Often winter weather conditions will prevent us from flying and the ability to raise the initial alert can be delayed for several hours. All this adds to the delay in eventual arrival at the scene. During this period you should be equipped to prevent your situation deteriorating to a dangerous level.

Dealing with helicopters

Essential First Aid

The MR team initially deploy a hasty party; this is a small team made up from the first members to reach the base. They will be travelling light, carrying the essentials to deal with the situation. Their priority is to reach you as quickly as possible and give support to stop the situation getting any worse. They will make their way by the quickest means possible to the location we’ve been given. From the moment the incident occurred to the team arriving on scene you have to be able to look after yourself. This will be several hours.

Even the best technical clothing will not wick away all the moisture from sweating and the most expensive jackets eventually succumb to wet external precipitation. As you have stopped moving and are most likely exposed to the wind your body core is going to start getting cold very quickly. You should carry in your pack extra clothing and an Emergency bivi bag or group shelter.

At the MR base the hasty party have departed, and the rest of the team start to muster. Arrival time for team members is realistically more than an hour from the first alert. They will be given a brief and pull together more equipment as guided by the information you initially passed to the coordinator. This will include medical kit, perhaps a stretcher and warm clothes/blankets. The team know the biggest risk to a casualty is hypothermia. The risk increases as the minutes pass. They will also be carrying their own personal winter kit adding to the weight of kit being transported in on foot.

Back on the hill, the weather isn’t easing, if anything the wind speed has increased, snow is whipping across the tops, visibility is zero, you are starting to realise that you will be out here for a while. Properly prepared you may be feeling cold and uncomfortable, but still in control. Unprepared and your anxiety levels continue to rise, you may even start to feel drowsy as the shivering eases. Stopping shivering and being drowsy are clear signs you are drifting into the next stage of hypothermia.

The weather prevents the hasty party from being lifted by helicopter. They drive as far as they can, but know they have a 3-mile uphill hike from the end of the track. It’s been 2 hours since you contacted 999 and the first team members have just started walking. The packs are heavy, it’s dark, the ground underfoot is a mix of snow and wet mud. The wind speed is increasing making the going even harder causing them to perspire heavily and as they start to climb it all just gets worse. Visibility is down to a few metres. A sense of urgency pushes them on.

The rest of the team members are now in the Landrovers and are leaving the base with additional kit. They will move much more slowly on foot than the hasty team but likely in contact with them via radio. The additional kit is heavy and the stretcher cumbersome. This is tough going in any conditions but when it’s slippery and dark it only further slows progress.

On the hill, hours stationary in the cold, wet and wind is taking its toll. You were lucky: you were able to raise the alarm and you were able to give your position, but it is almost 4 hours since then and still no sign of help. Your group are starting to doubt it will arrive in time, you know you have used all your reserves and alert levels are starting to drop. You are colder than you have ever experienced before.

If you are still conscious you may see some lights of the hasty party’s headtorches heading towards you. Once on scene will very quickly take control and start to assess the situation; their priority has been to minimise the time between the alert being raised and finding you. They will carry only the essentials to prevent the situation from getting worse and to treat injuries. This is all based on the information which was passed to them by you via the coordinator. The team get to work initially providing as much shelter as possible, preventing further heat loss and prioritisation of any medical treatment.

Almost 5 hours from raising the alert the rest of the team arrive carrying more medical supplies, stretcher and warm layers, but you aren’t safe yet. The more conscious and alert you are the easier it is for the team to treat and safely extricate you and your group. A three-mile stretcher carry over rough ground in the dark is going to take several hours. The team has no effective way of warming you, they can only try to prevent further heat loss. Everyone in your party will feel relieved that help has arrived, but the team knows this is still a potentially high-risk situation.

The team medics treat injuries, administer any pain relief and prevent further heat loss. You will be “packaged” which depending on the injury, basically means you are put onto a stretcher in such a way as to prevent further injury and heat loss. Concerning for you and any of your group looking on, we may attach you to a portable defibrillator. Cardiac arrest in an unconscious cold casualty is a real risk especially when moving them.

Once safely packaged the long carry out begins, it is a strenuous task requiring multiple team members to safely carry out a loaded stretcher, but ultimately you would be delivered to an ambulance and qualified paramedics for onward transportation to hospital.

I hope you can get an understanding of the challenges facing MR rescuers and the responsibility you should take as a hill goer. The Scottish weather is fickle at any time of the year, but in the winter mountain top temperatures tend to stay at zero degrees or below. You will get damp if not wet, when you are moving this is not such a problem, but when stationary the cold wind efficiently reduces your body heat turning an incident into a serious problem very quickly if you aren’t prepared for it. Time to raise the alarm can be extremely long and then, as you have read, we still have to get to you.

Be prepared. Help us to ensure we can rescue, rather than recover you.

Bill Dallas is member of Braemar Mountain Rescue Team.

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