We Never Wanted To Call The Mountain Rescue…

The following is a true story about two walkers who needed the help of the Wasdale Team - It is very well written and accurately describes the event of that day..............I can confirm this as I was there.  It shows how even the experienced can get into difficulties.  We have all got lost at sometime in the past, it takes courage to admit it and just that little bit more to write about it.

                                    Richard Warren - Secretary WMRT,19 March2000        

Is it the case that the more time you spend in the hills, the more experienced you become, so reducing the chances of needing to call out the MRT, or is it, by the law of averages, more likely that their services will be needed the more adventurous you become? We don’t know. We do know however, that for us it was the latter, and weren’t we pleased that we always put £1 in the collection box every time we saw one on the bar or in the Barn Door Shop.


We knew the area. We’d read the guidebook, and by it’s reckoning, we had plenty of time to get up and back down before dark. Yes, it was misty on Great End, with about 50 yards visibility, but after having clambered up The Band with no great problem, we paced our way from the summit cairn perfectly on two compass bearings, to the meeting of with the path back to Calf Cove. I remember thinking to myself that “the Mountain Rescue would have been proud of us”. Little did I realise that later that night we’d be telling them in person.


From Broad Crag Col we worked our way down the scree, watching Holly, our 1 year old Border Collie, with her flashing collar, chasing the pebbles. We had stopped off on the way to the Lakes at our local RSPCA to buy the collar. “Why on earth do you need a flashing collar?” said the RSPCA man. “We’re going somewhere very dark” I replied in a deadpan sort of way. I never guessed just how dark it was going to get…


I knew that at the foot of the scree was some broken ground, and if we kept to the right, we would arrive at another scree that would lead us down to the Corridor Route. 10 minutes later we got to the Corridor Route as planned, and celebrated with an oatmeal crunchy bar thing.


Which way now? We knew the Corridor Route, with its steep drops to the left, and its 15-foot scramble. We also knew that in 10 minutes it would be pitch black. It was still misty, with visibility now down to about 30 feet. We chose to head up to Lingmell Col, then drop down to Hollowstones, where we knew we could pick up the recently pitched National Trust path down Brown Tongue.


Very dark now, head-torches behaving like full beam on a foggy road, we worried that instead of Lingmell Col, we would head off back up Scawfell Pike. We checked the map again. The O/S showed we should make a 90-degree right. We checked, searched, and checked again. We found the path. Good. The clue we didn’t understand fully was that we could hear running water to our left. We checked the map yet again, but put the noise down to the recent rainfall in the area. Down we went, the path becoming more and more indistinct. My sixth sense kicked in and told me something was wrong. We carried on even more cautiously. Suddenly, I realised that to our left, very close to our left, was a huge chasm. Piers Ghyll. Reported to be the deepest ravine in the Lakes, some 300 feet in places, this was not a good place to be in the dark with near zero visibility!

  Piers Ghyll1.jpg (112341 bytes) Turning Point Piers Ghyll.jpg (100480 bytes)  Piers Ghyll, a deep ravine to the  north-east of Lingmell - not for the  feint hearted, especially in the dark.

Should we retrace our steps back up the vague path, or do we carry on down into the darkness? Either way, we risked falling into the Ghyll. I was worried; really worried, although I tried not to show it. My partner was panicking, really panicking, with real tears. “Do something” she said. Good idea I thought, but what? I know, try the mobile phone. Amazingly we had a signal. If we went lower down we would almost certainly lose it. Do we ring 999? What would we say?


The gentleman on the emergency switchboard asked us which service we needed. “Mountain Rescue” I replied. “Just a minute” he said, “I’ve got a list of numbers, I’ll see whose on call”. He put me through to a lady who started to take details… The phone signal dropped out and I was left talking to a useless piece of technology, which by now seemed to be our only hope.


I dialled 999 again. “A colleague of yours has just taken details, and put us through to the Mountain Rescue” I said. At this point, I still didn’t realise that I was not talking to the local emergency services, or indeed the previous call centre, but was in fact talking to someone in Aldershot! (Due to some idiosyncrasy of mobile phones and relay transmitters, a 999 call can go anywhere in the country!)


“We don’t do Mountain Rescue” she said, “We can put you through to the Coast Guard though: are you anywhere near the sea?” The signal dropped out again.


I redialled once more. Goodness knows where I was talking to, but this time, when I explained our predicament, by some wonderful piece of personal knowledge, the operator put me through to the Cumbria Police in Penrith. I gave the officer our details, and asked for the Wasdale MRT. He told me someone would ring us back, but if not, to call him back. We waited. Nothing happened. The time was going very slowly for us. I decided to ring back. It was then that I realised the only number I could ring was 999. Who would answer? Which county were they in? I went through it all again and asked for Cumbria Police. Got through – good. Different officer… go through it all again. “Keep calm” she said. “Sit tight and don’t move”. We were shivering with the cold. “Wasdale MRT will ring you”.


19:15. A telephone pager went off in Nottingham. Julian, the Wasdale MRT co-ordinator rang me. We had a good chat, agreed our location and possible courses of action, but he pointed out quite rightly that the MRT were not an escort service for people late down from the hill. I think though, he sensed our panic, realised the potentially fatal situation, and agreed to send someone out. Should we then wait where we were, close to, but not able to see the gaping chasm or should we head back up the dodgy path to join the Corridor Route once more? We decided on the latter. Julian had decided to send someone from the Wasdale Head Inn up to Sty Head Pass and then up the Corridor Route where hopefully we would meet him before too long. “Just in case” he said, “I’ll send 2 guys and a dog up the path alongside Piers Ghyll, and they’ll catch up with you from behind”. I wondered to myself how they would be able to see when we couldn’t. Maybe they ate lots of carrots! “Either way” said Julian “They’ll find you, and get you down”.


We took his advice and headed back up the hill. Visibility was about 10 feet by now, and still very, very misty. Overflowing with adrenaline, we set off up the hill, all traces of fatigue gone for the moment. Piers Ghyll seemed ever nearer and ever deeper to the right. Really scared now, I told Jill to concentrate the beam from her headtorch at her feet, and not towards the Ghyll. To be on the safe side, we decided to veer slightly to our left, away from the noise of water. We were left with only the wind and the sound of our hearts pounding. We struggled upward, but came upon a rockface. I knew we had lost the path; I knew I was exhausted and I knew I had lost the ability to think straight. We had to stop. Jill wanted to carry on, but again we agreed we could be climbing back up Scawfell Pike. Out came the survival bag. In we both climbed. On went the extra fleeces we still had in our rucksacks. We drank the rest of our coffee, and tried to eat the rest of our food. We were very cold, very unhappy, and had no signal on the phone. We couldn’t go forward, and were scared to go back down. I did discover though, that if I waved the phone around in the air, I managed to catch a signal. I couldn’t understand why – I was too cold to care.

  Overnight Accomodation.jpg (45536 bytes)  Where Jill & Ian spent their cold night, beneath Broad Crag Col. 

21:00, the phone rang. It was Howard at Mill Forge, Wasdale’s MRT Headquarters. I told him we had heard a dog bark, but assumed it was in the valley, - the sound blown up the mountain on the wind. He encouraged us by saying that Tim, one of the team, had passed Sty Head, and was only about 10 minutes away from us. I thought this was a bit optimistic at the time, but 10 minutes later we blew our whistles anyway. After a while, with no obvious response, we became a bit disheartened, and stopped blowing. Howard also agreed to ring us every 30 minutes “Just to keep us company”.


21:30 came and went. No phone call. 22:00 came and went. Still no phone call. I discovered later that I had stumbled and fallen on the phone, turning off the ringer! A rock dislodged itself and crashed down the hill to our left. Scary!  22:30 no signal - no phone call. Totally despondent now.


Around midnight we were awakened from our bitterly cold state to the sound of shouts and a dog barking. This was it! They were here! We shouted, we blew our whistles, we poked our dog to make her bark! The voices became louder as they got nearer to us……...and then faded away.


The wind was so strong the team never heard us, so they departed to search elsewhere.


Imagine how we felt.


After a while I summoned the energy to ring up and tell someone that we had heard the team. This, of course, meant going through all the procedure of 999, Cumbria Police, telling someone else the story. The phone battery was going a bit flat by now. I asked the chap at Cumbria Police if he could talk to the MRT direct, instead of going through the Division HQ at Cockermouth. He couldn't do that, but agreed to call the local Police at Whitehaven.


01:00 the phone rang. We had left it switched on permanently in case anyone called. I fumbled to find the right button to press. "Hello" I said, hoping to talk to someone. It was the ansaphone! Bill Patterson, the Team Leader had left a message to say they were on their way. This was reassuring in part, but didn't really tell us much. The battery was getting very flat now.


01:20 the phone rang again. "Hello" I said again, this time expecting the ansaphone. "This is the local Police at Whitehaven", said a voice. "The Mountain Rescue Team are…" The battery went dead. The Mountain Rescue Team are what we wondered. Are on their way! Are in the pub! Are going for a curry! The possibilities were endless. Insane laughter disappeared into the mist.


I fumbled to replace the battery in the phone. I got out the spare batteries and took the back off the phone, removed the rechargeable one, and the springs launched themselves skywards!


We talked about our favourite food. We even played I-Spy! "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with B". "Blackness". "Got it in one".


It was 03:00 before we heard voices again. I was drifting like a computer screen-saver - asleep but ready as soon as the mouse moved. We shouted together, we blew together… they weren't going to get away this time. We still didn't know which way they would come - uphill or down. (Later we discovered that we had left Piers Ghyll far behind, had in fact crossed the Corridor Route, and had headed back up towards Broad Crag Col). Louder became the voices. They were going to find us. We saw 2 orange pinpricks of light below us. This was scary until we realised it was our head-torches reflecting in the eyes of Blisco, the rescue dog. Two shadowy figures lumbered out of the darkness, closely followed by another. The two dogs, (ours and theirs), were going mad by this point but it didn't matter, they had found us. "Welcome to the Hotel California", said Richard as he covered us in his bivvy shelter. The other two, Tim and Paul were busy agreeing on the grid reference - one using the traditional map method, the other using his GPS.


In the shelter we immediately began to warm up. Out of the wind, and sharing body heat. It was so welcome that we almost didn't want to leave… almost!!! We asked whereabouts we had ended up, so out came the map again. He pointed with his gloved finger, but of course that was a bit vague. "I know" he said, "you see that crumb just there…" at the moment he said this, Jill wiped the map in an attempt to make it clearer. The crumb disappeared. It had been one of those nights. It turned out we were only about 100 yards from the Corridor Route anyway. It also turned out that the rock fall we had heard previously had nearly hit Tim over 6 hours earlier. He was that near to us!


We left our temporary home reluctantly, and began the weary trek down. I was chatting to Richard about the shapes of Great Gable, Ling Mell and Kirk Fell, when it occurred to me that the mist had lifted. Seems the MRT do eat carrots!


We made Hollowstones, and the team set up the bivvy tent again, to give us shelter from the wind, and more warmth from shared body heat. They had given us the option of walking down Brown Tongue to the valley floor, stopping as and when we needed, or to wait on the fell for more members of the team to be dragged from their nice, warm beds. Why? Simply to bring us Mars bars and steaming hot chocolate. We felt uneasy about causing more fuss, but in my exhausted state I realised I was still not capable of rational thought. The team again made the decision for us.


Being in the bivvy tent again was almost surreal, and at times quite a giggle as we swapped tales and discovered that we had mutual acquaintances up and down the valley. We pointed out that instead of the treat of staying in a Hotel room rather than go camping, we were in fact spending the night under canvas anyway! Dog Paul and Richard even got round to telling ghost stories… Blair Witch? No thanks! This was also the time when we got the expected reprimand for not leaving details of our route and ETA back down. It should be very easy to leave your information somewhere – pub / corner shop anywhere where someone could raise the alarm if necessary.


We were glad we had the presence of mind to admit defeat and ring the MRT. We were also glad that on the other end of the phone, Julian was alert enough to realise that even though I was trying to keep my voice calm, we were in a serious pickle, close to panic and in need of help. At the top of the shopping list now are a bivvy shelter and a GPS. These two items alone would have made our stay on the hill much easier, but would probably have avoided it altogether.   

We will be eternally grateful, and forever indebted to the friends we made that night on the hill. To Richard, who missed his committee meeting, Tim who should have been working in the Wasdale Head Inn, Dog Paul and of course Blisco, the Rescue Collie, who made first contact with us, and befriended our own Collie. Dave and Howard and Julian and all the others whose names went over our heads or who were working behind the scenes.


Thanks to Ian for letting me publish their story - Richard