I spent Saturday evening high up on the moors of the North Pennines in driving rain and strong winds trying to find small features in the dark using only a map and compass. There were no paths to follow, so we waded through knee deep heather, bogs and streams hoping that after pacing 800m on a compass bearing a small pond or grouse butt would miraculously appear out of the dark. This was the culmination of 10 months of training, our final assessment which we needed to pass in order to become hill team members of Teesdale & Weardale Search & Mountain Rescue Team.
It’s been some journey. Eight of us started off as trainees last April, just after the second lockdown eased. Two women and six men. It’s needed a lot of time and commitment with most Wednesday evenings and at least one Sunday a month being taken up with training and then additional time spent practising on our own. To give an idea of the commitment, in the 10 months up to my assessment I attended 42 formal Team sessions totalling 183 hours. That’s just over 26 full days of formal training. In addition, I’ve spent many more hours practising night nav, knots and casualty care, alone and with the other trainees.
The training has been superb. As well as learning how to navigate at night on the moors of the North Pennines we’ve learnt about casualty care, ropework, vehicles, equipment, radios, and search techniques. We learnt how to put together the different types of stretchers and the stretcher wheel and how to strip down the vehicles and load the stretchers into them. We learnt basic life support and a primary survey and secondary survey, how to set up the oxygen and entonox bottles and how to put on traction splints, vacuum splints and pelvic binders. We’ve done online helicopter training and learned how the search dogs are used. We’ve set up 3-to-1 pulley systems and 5-to-1 systems and 9-to-1 systems and single line systems and double line systems. We’ve abseiled off towers and been hoisted up buildings attached to the stretcher. We’ve bivvied out in November high up on the moors under a starry sky, we’ve been eaten by midges in June and we’ve been soaked to the skin by winter rain.
We’ve bonded together extremely well as a trainee group and have become good friends. We’ve supported each other through the tough times and the good times, we’ve had moments of despair and lots of laughter. It’s not always been easy and we’ve all had a crisis of confidence at some point. For me it was the off road vehicle session when I was surrounded by men talking knowledgeably about diff locks and winches and I started to think I was in completely the wrong place. But You Tube has videos on everything and by the end of the following day I could talk as knowledgeably as the next person about diff locks…… We’ve been pushed out of our comfort zones and put under pressure, just like we’d be on a call out and our resilience and confidence has grown throughout the year.
We’ve kept up the training commitment despite having significant changes going on in our personal lives. New babies, new jobs, moving house, ill partners and Covid has affected us all. It says a lot about the resilience and character of the individual trainees that they didn’t give up when the going got tough.
The other Team members have without exception been patient, helpful and supportive throughout our time as trainees. They are a great bunch of people, friendly and keen to help and there’s a great pride in belonging to the Team. They are all volunteers, they often have full time jobs and families and yet they always give up their time willingly.
We were put on the call out list early in September with the proviso that we weren’t to attend any night time callouts until we had passed our night navigation assessment. We also weren’t permitted to attend callouts in exceptionally bad weather. The first call out was nerve wracking – as my daughter kept reminding me, you only have one first call out. But it was fine, you do what you are trained to do and you don’t dwell too much on it afterwards. One of the great things about our Team is the variety in the call outs. As well as the traditional fell rescue, we may be helping the ambulance service transport a patient from a remote property, helping an injured mountain biker at Hamsterley Forest, helping the police search for a missing person, assisting drivers trapped in the snow on the A66 or helping Northern Powergrid carry out welfare checks on remote properties in power cuts. There were 64 callouts in 2021, up from 58 the previous year. Never a dull moment.
I’m often asked about the Team from a female perspective. It is a male dominated Team – out of 40 odd hill team members, only 5 are female, but with the best will in the world there will never be many women who enjoy wandering round the moors in the dark and rain. You do need to be physically strong, although with the invention of the stretcher wheel long stretcher carry outs are not needed as much as they used to be. You also need to be quite technically minded to understand how to put the equipment together and set up the ropework. But as long as you fit in and have the required skills then it really doesn’t matter who you are and I’ve never been treated any differently to the male trainees.
Why do I do it? Lots of reasons. I’ve spent my life in the outdoors and I enjoy putting my skills and knowledge to some use rather than just for personal enjoyment. I enjoy helping people and focussing on others instead of on myself. I enjoy learning new skills and challenging myself. I enjoy having a reason to stay fit and strong. I enjoy the variety of the training and the callouts, of never knowing when the next callout will be or what it will involve. Most of all I enjoy being part of a team of like minded individuals and finally feeling like I belong somewhere.
I passed the assessment on Saturday night but my “career” with the Mountain Rescue is only just beginning. I’m acutely aware of how inexperienced I am and how much there is still to learn. I need to get a lot of callouts under my belt to build up that experience and there is a lot more training to be done. I’ve signed up for my Casualty Care exam which is the next level of medical training. There will be driver training before I’m allowed to drive any of the vehicles. I’d love to do more ropework. But just for a few days I’m going to relax and allow myself to feel proud that I am now part of the Mountain Rescue.