A Retrospect by George Bott
It’s a Log Cabin to White House, rags to riches story. The early pioneers, untrained, ill equipped but united by enthusiasm and concern, can have had no idea that half a century later the Keswick Mountain Rescue Team would be a highly organised, expertly trained organisation, proud owners of a purpose-built headquarters well stocked with the refinements of sophisticated technology.
It all began with a rescue. On 24 April 1946, Claude Elliott, headmaster of Eton, and Wilfrid Noyce, later to be a key member of John Hunt’s successful Everest team, were climbing Shark’s Fin on Tophet Bastion, Great Gable. A gust of wind blew Noyce off his holds he fell on to a ledge with one of his legs broken. Elliott went for help. A scratch group of six was collected and, after a complicated and gruelling rescue, Noyce was safely taken to Wasdale Head.
One of the rescuers was Colonel Horace (” Rusty” ) Westmorland, veteran climber and ex-Canadian Army officer. He was disturbed by the lack of any organisation, trained and willing to help injured climbers and fell walkers. Legally, the responsibility lay with the police, as it still does, but they were neither trained nor equipped for mountain rescues.
Rusty decided there was an urgent need for a team of volunteers. An appeal in the ” Keswick Reminder” produced an encouraging response some thirty men were recruited to form the initial team. Rusty was to become its first leader and he later was awarded with an OBE for his services to mountain rescue. Further, in later years, an appeal was made for an additional vehicle which could transport additional team members to incidents. This was proudly named the ‘Rusty Bus’ in memory of its founder.
It was originally called ” The Borrowdale Mountain Rescue Team” but switched to its present title in 1951. Oddly, there was some scepticism in the valley about the motives and effectiveness of the Team. This was dispelled when it became obvious that here was a group prepared to go out at any time in all kinds of weather to help anyone in trouble on the fells.
Training was vital – it still is – and a schedule was arranged to give practice in rope work and knots, techniques of stretcher handling and, above all, first aid. For some years, Dr Lyth, the Team’s medical officer, gave a series of lectures, eventually published as a handy and useful booklet titled ” First Aid in Mountain Rescue”.
The first ” official” rescue was on 3 April 1948 when a dozen members helped in a search for a missing walker on Cross Fell. By the end of the year, the Team had been involved in nine incidents, a total that contrasts sharply with the current figure of around eighty.
Equipment was meagre and inadequate a stretcher, a few ropes and pitons, and little else. Team members used their own gear and transport was haphazard, depending on what was available. That could mean anything from Dixon’s Laundry van or Young’s lorry to the Motor Company’s pick-up or a retired London taxi.
In 1954, the Team acquired a Humber Snipe shooting brake for £145, the first of a series of vehicles culminating in the present turbo-diesel Land Rovers.
Equally primitive was the accommodation for the transport and the growing accumulation of equipment. Space at the Police Station and later at the Golden Lion Inn was severely limited.
In 1961, a garage on the Central Car Park became the Team’s headquarters. It was expanded into a double garage in 1967 and remained the centre of operations – overcrowded, cramped, inconvenient – until the new headquarters was opened in 1996.
Today, with Vodapagers, callouts are slick and rapid. In the early days, they were often a matter of rounding up available personnel few had telephones and it wasn’t until 1982 that an automatic phone dialler was installed, the first step in the efficient electronic warning system that operates today.
Equipment, too, has grown, not only in quantity but also in scope. Protective clothing for Team members has progressed from ex-Army surplus to polar suits, duvets and waterproof cagoules. Medical supplies are no longer restricted to a few bandages and morphine syringes but include, for example, Propaq monitors which give an instant reading of a patient’s temperature, blood pressure, oxygen level and heart condition.
In fifty years, the Team has dealt with a formidable number of incidents: a callout in November 1994 brought the total to 1500. Certain patterns emerge. The commonest accident is a damaged ankle or broken leg, often caused by a simple slip on grass or wet rock. Accident black spots include Sharp Edge on Blencathra, the Scafell area and Shepherd’s Crag.
The impressive success of the Team has depended on several factors, among them enthusiasm, commitment, regular training and continuity. There have only been four leaders in fifty years: Rusty Westmorland OBE, followed by George Fisher MBE from 1956 to 1981, Mike Nixon MBE from 1981 to 1993 and currently Mark Hodgson. Five doctors have served as the Team’s medical officer: J Lyth (1947-1963), J D Mitchell (1963-1988), M R Turnbull (1972-1992), P White (1992 to 1995) and T Hooper (1995 to present).
It cannot be stressed too strongly that all the Team’s work is voluntary – and that includes fund raising as well as rescue and search. The new headquarters, itself a fine example of what voluntary effort can accomplish, comes into operation as the Team reached its fiftieth year. There could be no more fitting symbol of past achievements and future promise of an even more efficient service to mountain rescue.
Since George Bott wrote the above, we are now approaching out 60th Anniversary! ‘Callout’ has been updated and a new edition has been published. For details, see the ‘Callout‘ page.