Mountain Rescue in Scotland is carried out on a voluntary basis by members of the various mountain rescue teams. Each of the teams is based in a particular area, and has, in principle a specific area within which it is available to help. In practice the teams cooperate considerably and these boundaries are very flexible.
The teams do not only carry out the rescue of mountaineers. Their work is probably better described as "rescue where mountaineering skills are useful". Examples of this would include rescuing motorists stranded in snow or more recently searching for pilots of "downed aircraft" in the mountains. Many teams are extremely underfunded.
Who needs rescued anyway?
No doubt this is a popular question. I'm sure that (amongst those people who don't fully understand or appreciate winter mountaineering) an extremely popular answer is "idiots".
Sadly, sometimes it happens to be true but mostly it's down to sheer bad luck. Doing everything the right way, carefully and in a timely manner is a great way to reduce your chances of having an accident in the mountains, but it's not enough to completely eliminate risk. Mountaineering at all, at any level involves the participants accepting a certain level of risk and continuously measuring all the risks they encounter while they are in the mountains. (Then there are the other risks when they finally make it to the pub!)
Not being in the mountains is the only way to be 100% sure you won't have an accident there. Every mountaineer would agree - that's not an acceptible compromise... and so we accept risk. Risk at various levels. Some highly skilled mountaineers/climbers push themselves to the ragged edge embracing "danger" and "risk" but often it is those who push themselves the closest to the edge that are the furthest from it.
Most accidents happen to "walkers". So what can go wrong?
- Avalanches - reading reports and digging a snow pit to check suspect slopes doesn't eliminate A Chance in a Million.
- Extreme Weather - it can happen suddenly, without warning on the nicest days - now that you can't see, what do you do? (Hypothermia)
- Rock & Icefall - you can still receive a nasty head injury if you're wearing head protection. If not, you could be killed.
- Mistakes - clothing, food, navigation, judgement.
Your Best Chance
OK- you've done everything you [reasonably] could to avoid having an accident but now you have. What's you best chance of survival now? Your climbing companions.
That's probably the only simple answer: if you're lucid then you [all of you] need to discuss and decide on the best course of evacuation. Don't mess around hoping a badly sprained ankle will get better in the middle of winter. Do you need First Aid? (You've all been on a First Aid course, haven't you?)
If you're avalanched then your companions could be your only chance. See the Avalanche Server Pages for reports and information. You did remember a snow shovel, didn't you?
Your Last Chance
The Mountain Rescue Teams should never be thought of as your best chance. They're your last chance - it could take them hours to get to you even given an exact [and correct] location. Depending on your injuries, you could be dead by then. You and your mates are still your best chance.
Assuming you do need assistance to get off the hill or the injuries are actually very serious - what's your best course of action? As usual you can't leave the casualty unattended unless there is no other way to get help. If you must leave them on their own in order to get help make sure:
- There's no risk to their airway. (See Ian Roy's guide to head injuries.)
- They are sheltered from the weather and protected from cold.
- They have food and water/hot drink
- They have a whistle, and are using it (possibly a mirror to attract attention).
- They have a torch/flashlight.
- You know where they are.
- You have enough protection/food.
- You can get to help safely and quickly.
- You have a whistle and are using it.
The international distress signal with a whistle is basically "SIX LONG BLASTS EVERY MINUTE - REPEATED"
MOBILES PHONES are great in an EMERGENCY but should only be used in an emergency. Mobiles should never be relied on... reception may be crap, the battery might fail in the cold, it might smash, the wind could be too loud. But it might save your life. Don't rely on it though - do everything else you can first - learn first aid, winter skills, navigation, leave a route plan, read the avalanche reports, think about the weather - BE SAFE.
- But your fine:
OK - you go out and suddenly the weather does the unexpected. Well, you expected that but it's really severe and you're on the Cairngorm Plateau and you can't walk against the wind. You can't see either, and its freezing cold and getting late. You have decided to dig a snow shelter because there's no way you can get off the mountain.
You have spent the night on the hill and the storm's blown over. Did people know you were out? Were they expecting you back? Will people be looking for you? If the answer is yes, try and let someone know that you are ok as soon as possible. Even if you don't think anyone's looking for you they might be - if you have a phone, call the local police station and let them know you're ok (give them your vehicle registration - they may have found your empty car).
- And you need help:
This is when it gets really dangerous... If you didn't let someone know where you were going and when you'd be back then they won't alert the police when you don't get back on time. If you didn't leave a route-plan somewhere no-one knows where you went. Your only chances are:
- Someone saw you.
- Someone finds your car and decides to call help.
- Someone hears your whistle
If you have:
- Told family friends where you're going and arranged to "check in" when you get back.
- Leave them a route-plan. Leave one in your car and one with someone else (Youth Hostel, Police etc)
If you're using your whistle, other climbers may have heard and either reported it or come to investigate. Being prepared pays dividends. But remember - if you've left route-plans - pick them up and let people know you're ok. Remember to check in with friends/family too.
Once you're safely in the pub, cradling your pint by the fire and reciting the story of your epic day in the mountains, drop the price of a round in the local MRT's collecting tin because one day, it could be you.