A Brief History of Mountain Rescue

I guess if we are going to explore the history of mountainr escue we must first travel back in time to when it became important enough an issue for there to be a need. So as we flick back through years we can quite safely say that before the 1800’s there was little need for mountain rescue, mainly because very few individuals actually headed out into the hill. Say for shepherd’s, farmers, miners and the occassional road builders.

The thing was they were all there for work, and not pleasure. It was only during the romantic movement of English Literature and art, that sparked an interest in the outdoors and wild places in both the UK and further afield. Historically though during this period ‘mass’ participation still hadn’t started to occur. In the UK at teh time we were in the throws of teh Industrial revolution, and whilst the upper class became richer and richer the common man was still stuck inside factories working hard, and as such had little time to escape to the hills. As such it was more a ‘gentlemanly pastime’.

Those that were unfortunate enough to need rescuing sadly either perished on the hills where they fell or often died during arduous evacuations across rough ground. The rescuer were the local farmer, shepherds and quarrymen who happened to be in the area at the time, and would have no doubt been paid for thier troubles by the wealthy men and women they were attempting to rescue.

There came apoint though where the view of rescuing people from mountains started to tip in the direction that we see today. As you’ll see it was often through people misfortune that opinion and practice changed, usually in a reactive way rather than proactively seeking change. The first notable incident occured in 1903, and is referred to as the Scafell Disaster. It typifies why the age old climbers phrase, ‘the leader never falls’ wasn’t so much a idyl warning but more fall at yours and other peril.

The reasons that a leader should never fall, was because a fall had disasterous consequences as we shall see with the Scafell Disaster. Firstly, there was no form of protection at the time, the only equipment available to climbers was a hemp rope that they tied round there waist. A falling leader would often fall a long way meaning lots of injuries, if the second held the fall then the lack of stretch in the rope meant that the rope was likely to snap or the climber would break there back. If the climber survived the fall, then the pressure put on the diaphragm meant that unless they could unweight the rope in 3 minutes then the would asphyxiate. Just as happen many years later on one of the first attempts to climb the North Face of teh Eiger.

What happened on Scafell was that the leader fell, and without an adequate belay, he then pull three others he was roped upto, to their deaths. This aweful accident made the mountaineering club of the time take a look at the provisions they made for rescue. So within a year rudimentary mountain rescue equipment and first aid equipment was place at rescue post in areas around the UK.

For the time being that was that, little changed for the next twenty years, until on a fateful day in November 1928, a member of the Rucksack club Edgar Pryor, was knocked off when leading a route by a lady seconding the route above him at Laddow. Edgar fell 40ft into a gully below. Breaking both his skull and his thigh, what happened next is a testiment to those around him, and one man in a hospital who took the lessons from this incident and fought a unwavering battle with government.

Whilst Edgar was lying in the gully, a team improvised a stretcher of sorts out of a few fence posts, the made a split for his leg out of a rucksac, and then spent 4 hours carrying him down off the hill to a waiting ambulance. This then took a further hour and a half to reach Manchester Imfirmary, by which time the surgeon a Dr Wilson Hey noted that he was so shocked that he had to undergo a blood transfusion before they could operate, and despite the efforts of the surgical team Edgar’s leg had to eventually be amputated.

Wilson Hey believed that the transportation and the resultant shock was in part what lead to teh limb being amputated. Imprtantly add that, ‘the absence of morphia with teh transport, did more damage to the limb than the mountain’. It was something that seemed to bother Dr Hey, who became a champion and pioneer of the development of the medical capabilities of Mountain Rescue.

Again the develop for Mountain Rescue in general fell to the Mountaineering Club, inparticular the Fell and Rock Climb Club, which set up a joint stretcher committee, to find a suitable way to carry casulaties off the mountains. In 1932 they chose the Thomas Stretch, as well as a list of equipment that needed to be placed in every mountain rescue post around the UK. Interesting many of these rescue post still exist, and many are frequently used today. Inaprticular the post in the bottom of Corrie N’snechda in the cairngorms still houses a stretcher and basic first aid equipment.

Then in 1936 this committee went on to become the First Aid Committee of Mountaineering Clubs, which was established by the climbing clubs of the time, along with notable universities, the ramblers federation and the YHA. Each group paid a 2% levy to the committee to help fund the continued provision of Mountain Rescue Posts. It was also the first time all incidents were reported to a central office, something that can’t be overlooked, as with information on accidents then something could finally be done to address the common causes.

All during this 15 year period the Dr Wilson Hey was engaged in petitioning Whitehall to licence Morphia’s use in Mountain Rescue. He was so convinced that ‘morphia reduces suffering and suffering produces shock and that prolonged shock leads to death’, that he issued morphia at his own expense and without a licence until in 1949 the government recognised the need. Ever since Mountain Rescue has had a medical officer who issues morphine.

This was the start of the Mountain Rescue service we see today, a year later in 1950 and a Mountain Rescue Committee was set up, initally with no official contact between teams, Dr Wilson Hey’s office in the Manchester Infirmary. It was around this time that local rescue teams started to form into more organised groups. It was from this organisation that ┬áMountain Rescue England & Wales was set up.

There are now 8 regions and nearly fifty MR teams that cover the UK.

This a short post based on part of the talk I gave to the 2nd Year Students at Bangor University for the Conway Centre. A large part of it was based on this page of the MREW. Hope you enjoyed the story, as much as I did. I feel a salute to Dr Wilson Hey coming on!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *