This is a true story of a Munro walk that went wrong and ended up involving a mountain rescue callout. Naturally, out of courtesy to those involved, names, dates or places will not be mentioned. If by any chance any of the people involved at the time should read this tale, my purpose isn’t to belittle anyone or point the finger – it is merely to present another viewpoint on mountain rescue.
Tales of mountain rescue are often told by rescue team members, from their point of view (and a sympathetic one it usually is) and also sometimes by the victims. However, I’ve never read a tale written by the third person (or persons) involved – that of the worried friends or companions making the call to the emergency services. Consequently, I don’t believe many people have much inkling as to what that side of the ‘rescue triangle’ is like so I’m writing about it here.
While on a Scottish meet organised on a walking forum, I was still in the process of Munro-bagging and so, rather than join most of the others on the proposed walk of the day, I had my own plans. I casually asked if anyone else wanted to accompany me on the two Munros I’d chosen for the Saturday. A friend and fellow forumee said she would like to come, as did two other girls I didn’t know. I outlined the route I was planning to take and suggested a start time and said I would drive the others round in my car to the start point.
I was quite a bit concerned that my friend was suffering from a chest infection and said I wasn’t sure whether she should be attempting the walk but it was agreed she’d set off with us anyway and see…
We set off from the small carpark in low cloud and cold drizzle, fully kitted up in waterproofs and followed the burnside track up the hillside.
As it had been pretty wet weather, the burns were in spate and fairly difficult to cross. I have a set solution to these conditions – rather than risk getting my boots and socks wet, I take them off and wade across barefoot – the cold water certainly gets your circulation going! One by one, we struggled across each burn – my friend wasn’t so keen on some of the crossings so I just stood in the water and helped her across the more difficult sections – much better than a walking pole!
We eventually reached the first col where we stopped for a break. By now the clag had lifted and it was a much better day, albeit still cold and damp. After ten minutes or so we continued towards our first Munro peak – a fairly gentle ascent up a long ridge. We plodded steadily upwards but my friend’s chest was giving her quite some trouble and she started to lag behind a bit. I mentioned this to the other two girls but they just ploughed on ahead unperturbed…
Although I didn’t consider myself ‘the leader’ of our particular group, I didn’t want to see it split up – I felt we should be sticking together. But, as my friend dropped further behind and the other girls got further ahead, I was finding it difficult to keep us in a group.
My main concern was my friend so, after quite a few minutes of what I call ‘sheep-dogging’ – rushing repeatedly between the folks ahead and those behind, I decided I must concentrate my attentions on the person at the back of the group. I again mentioned to the girls ahead that she was getting further behind and struggling and that I thought we should try to stay together and then ran back down to look for our back-marker who was, by now, out of sight below us.
I ran about from side to side on the ridge until I spotted her below the ridgeline but still ascending. I ran down to meet her and explained that the others had got very far ahead and that we’d probably have to leave them to it – she agreed. I was having grave doubts about whether she could actually make it up the hills though and was asking whether she should go back down – she looked quite ill. She said she was going to continue however – I think she was worried about the burn crossings anyway.
I accompanied her to the top of the shoulder and we stopped for another rest. Looking at the route ahead, I had an idea. Quite often, when I’m walking with Richard, we split up for a while to let him take a short-cut or miss out a ‘top’ I’m doing. Clearly in view across the corrie was the col at the far end of the first Munro. It looked very easy to get to from where we were standing so I asked if she wanted to cut across the corrie floor to the col and meet me there – the clear weather looked like holding.
She agreed so I continued off up the hill at a good pace – I needed to get a move on if she wasn’t to wait too long in the col – they are often cold and draughty places. After a minute or so, I looked back to see how she was getting on with the short descent into the corrie and was immediately perturbed – I couldn’t see her anywhere!
I stood for quite a while staring at the descent and the corrie floor but couldn’t see my friend at all – where had she got to? It had only been a couple of minutes since I’d left her but she had completely vanished. Thinking she’d maybe got into difficulties on the descent into the corrie, I hurried back to where I’d left her.
I set off down the hillside for quite a way looking and shouting for her but all was silence – there was no sign of her whatsoever. I was a bit concerned to see that if she’d cut down too early into the corrie there was quite a steep section of rocky hillside. I peered at the boulders but couldn’t see a figure anywhere amongst them nor, still, one in the corrie.
After dithering awhile, I decided that it might just be a case that she was in the corrie but, being dressed in fairly dark clothing, maybe she wasn’t visible. In the end, with some misgivings, I started off again up my hill – by now I was starting to tire after all the running up and down the hillside.
I puffed on up to the summit of the Munro, all the time looking into the corrie to see if I could spot anyone but saw no-one. Maybe she’d already crossed the corrie and was waiting for me in the col – I hoped so…
The descent from the Munro was very steep and rocky and the path was very clambery. That meant my attention was fully focussed on getting down safely to the col and I couldn’t look anywhere apart from where I was putting hands and feet.
As the ground eased, however, I looked down to see… no-one at all. The place was completely deserted… I felt sick. Where was my friend? I had no idea what to do… In the end, I decided the best course of action was to race after the other two girls, check she wasn’t with them, tell them what had happened and, together, decide on a plan.
The ascent of the second Munro was up very steep grass and quite a climb. By now, with the stress and worry and all the running around, I was feeling exhausted and felt near to collapse. I struggled on upwards and, nearing the summit, looked up to see one of the girls heading back down towards me looking worried. Where was my friend? she asked. I told her I’d lost her way back and didn’t know what to do. We continued up the last bit to the summit where the other girl was sat at the cairn.
I related my woeful tale to them and we debated the possible courses of action. In the end, I thought it best we hurried back to the car as quickly as we could on our originally proposed route (easier than retracing the route over the mountains) in the hope that she’d gone back down to the car. The others agreed and we hurried off down the mountain to the long track out through the glen.
When we hit the glen track, we probably did the fastest 5 miles walking ever and were soon back at the car. As we rounded the corner of the buildings near the carpark, I was holding my breath hoping my friend would be waiting at the car. It was a forlorn hope – the carpark was deserted…
By now it was around half an hour before dark so quick action was needed. First, I phoned another friend who was on the meet but not on our walk to see if he was back at ‘base’. Unfortunately, as it was a large group attending the meet, we had more than one base – there was the campsite, the bunkhouse and the Youth Hostel so he had to check all three.
I said we’d lost my friend. He was quite incredulous and asked what I meant we’d ‘lost’ her. I briefly explained but said it was urgent he look for her. He said he’d ring me back…
After ten minutes or so, he was back on the phone but it wasn’t good news – she hadn’t miraculously appeared back at base. I immediately dialled 999 for the emergency services and asked for mountain rescue.
Initially, as always for a mountain rescue, I spoke to the police who co-ordinate the rescue. I’m not sure whether it was my pronunciation or not, but the police had no idea where the farm was that we were parked at, although I would think the MRT often start rescues from there.
There then followed a series of phone-calls which were so frequent, I had my policy of never having my phone switched on during a walk confirmed as very sound (although naturally I’d had it switched on since losing my friend on this occasion). I always charge my phone the night before I set out on a mountain walk as a matter of course. After around an hour of constant phone-calls, the police asked me how my phone battery was – I peered at it, by now in pitch-blackness, and was horrified to see I was down to one bar – my phone could give up any time!
I was nowhere near my car as there was no signal there so couldn’t ask the two girls, who were snugly sat in there with my engine running to keep warm, for their phones. To get a signal, I’d had to walk way down the track towards the road and stand atop a hillock. By now it was quite a rainy and windswept hillock and I realised I was shivering…
Now periodically talking to the mountain rescue guys, I was amazed to find they weren’t coming from the nearest base as the area didn’t belong to that base – they were coming from at least an hour’s drive away. The police were coming from nearer to hand and said they would soon be with us.
After about an hour and a half stood atop my hillock, the police and mountain rescue stood me down for a while so I went back to my car. By now it was around half past six. I updated the cosy girls as to what was happening, shovelled some hot drink out of my flask and some sweets down me, and then my phone and I had another date back at the hillock… which I couldn’t find in the dark any more!
Eventually, when I started crossing a bridge over a burn, I realised I hadn’t gone that far down the track before and set off back again to look for my hill. Going that way, into complete darkness, I didn’t have confusing headlights from the road and soon relocated my hill and re-mounted it to await more calls. There was another call from the police to say they were nearly there and I saw a car appearing along the main road. The car, however, passed the turn off for our track and continued briefly. After it milled around a bit, I realised it was indeed the police but that they really didn’t know where the carpark was!
Eventually they found the turning and came bumping up the track towards me. I flagged them down and we drove back to my car – we had their radio now so I could turn my damp and dying phone off at last.
Not long after the police arrived, the mountain rescue van did too. They all piled out and started getting kitted up for what was, by now, a very foul-weather walk. The rain was tipping it down and it was even colder. I was invited into their van to study the map with them and explain, yet again, what had happened.
I pointed out exactly where my friend had disappeared on the map and mentioned that there had been some steep, rocky ground in the area. Pretty soon, the bulk of the team set off and I was left sat in the van with their radio operator. Now things had quietened down, the team had set off and I no longer had anything to do, my mind started racing through all the possibilities. The more it raced, the more awful my thoughts turned.
I listened to the heavy rain battering on the roof of the van. I thought about the poor rescuers setting out up a hill in the dark on such a foul night and felt guilty. I began to have visions of my friend lying amongst the wet, greasy rocks at the foot of the steep slope into the corrie, her head bashed in and her body immobile with the rain pouring down on her and exposure taking hold.
The police had asked me for her full name and address – I had visions of them having to inform her parents. By now I was crying quietly. What would I tell the group back at base I wondered miserably? Was it all my fault? I should never have sent her on the short-cut. The other two girls sat comfortably in my car, cut-off from the drama and the guilt… but if only they hadn’t got so far ahead and we’d all stuck together, maybe none of this would have happened?
Around 2100 hours, the police said there was no point in us waiting around and that we should go back to our base and get some food and get warmed up. I drove us back along the road over the moors feeling exhausted (and also now nearly out of petrol!). Peering into the darkness, I suddenly saw a stag threatening to bound into the road from the side and braked harshly. He didn’t continue onto the road and so we continued our dark, wet journey.
By 2130 we were back at base and the other two were getting a meal. Although I hadn’t really eaten anything since breakfast (I don’t generally eat more than a biscuit on the hill) I didn’t feel able to eat anything and just sat gloomy and exhausted at the table. No-one was yet pointing any fingers at me – most were either commiserating, assuring me things would turn out alright or just chatting to me about other things as if to take my mind off it – very thoughtful but I’m afraid it didn’t.
I’d put my phone on to recharge when, suddenly, at 2200, it rang. I picked it up and answered it – my friend’s voice came through.
“That’s me found” she said.
Thank God for that. After a very brief conversation, she said she’d see me when she got back and I went off into my room and slumped into bed in total darkness. Unusually for me, I had a thumping headache – I never get headaches.
Probably half an hour later, my friend was dropped off by the police after an exciting helicopter ride out from the valley at the back of the hills. After a brief exchange with the people in the main area of the bunkhouse, she came into our room to tell me what had gone wrong.
She’d basically got the wrong col when I was pointing it out to her and had been heading for the gap after the second Munro – a col we would never have gone to on our route as it was actually the valley down the back of the hills! She’d seen the first two girls heading up to the summit of the second hill and me stomping up the first one and realised she’d missed the Munros altogether and that we wouldn’t meet up at all.
By then, it was not that far off dark anyway and she realised she wouldn’t have time to go back up over the hills and knew she could never catch us up anyway so, in the end, she stayed put – of course there was no phone signal down there. Not having a map, she didn’t realise she could have walked out of the head of the valley, past our second hill, and there met the good track back to base.
She’d found some shelter in an old sheep fank and sheltered there as best she could. She said she knew I would get the mountain rescue out as soon as I could but she knew it would be quite some time before they found her. Unworried, she settled down for a long wait in the rain. After quite a few hours, she heard the helicopter and signalled to it with a light. It then swooped down, picked her up and flew her back to the waiting police car.
Apparently they’d found her pretty quickly. I was still amazed how long an actual rescue takes though from the initial, worrying call out, to the rescuers arriving at the caller and then setting out on the hill.
Seeing the state of me, she said she thought I’d had the worst time as I’d not known where or how she was, while she knew she was fine and just had to wait to be picked up.
The sequel to this took place a day or so later when I next got on the internet (still up in Scotland on my trip). I e-mailed some of my friends in Lakes mountain rescue teams and asked what I could or should have done or not done. Apart from saying that groups shouldn’t really split up on the hill (and that everyone should have a map), they said I’d handled it the best I could and done mostly the right things. That was their take on it – they appreciate that exactly the right actions aren’t always taken on the hill as you’re in the thick of it and don’t have the time to sit and reason things out the same.
Shortly after this, I logged onto the forum – I had a feeling things probably weren’t going quite so well for me on there – I was right! No-one who had been on the meet had any criticism for me but those who hadn’t been there… I was apparently the world’s worst ‘group leader’. I wasn’t fit to take groups out on the mountain in my care. I should be shot. I was an absolute disgrace… and so the abuse and ranting went on.
My friend and the others from the meet valiantly tried to defend me and insisted I’d done the best I could and that I wasn’t the ‘walk leader’ but to no avail. Due to an almost total lack of moderation of the insulting comments, and many of my defending comments being either moderated or pulled altogether and, of course, the fact that I was still in a very shaken state so a bit het-up, it ended shortly afterwards in me being thrown off the site. This was apparently partly due to me getting a bit shirty in reply to some of the very abusive and accusatory private messages sent my way! Maybe I should have meekly taken all the abuse but, unfortunately, that just isn’t my way…
Anyway, at least the upshot of all this was that I started this blog rather than post my walk reports on forums (something I’ll never do again). Must be the only good thing to come out of it all apart from, of course, my friend mercifully being okay.
Lessons learned: yes, everyone should take their own map on a walk (I think we’re all guilty of tagging along without a map – I certainly am as you can see from my An Teallach walk post).
Even non-organised groups should really stick together – or at least stay in twos or suchlike. Sending people off on a shortcut is probably not all that wise although I still do it with Richard – but then I know him extremely well and know what he is and isn’t capable of.
I’m sure there are other things I did wrong – feel welcome to leave constructive suggestions in the comments but try not to be too harsh – things are different when you’re having to think on the spot on the hill!