LATE LAST YEAR, a group of friends and I decided to climb Kilimanjaro. As part of our training in the months coming up to the big trip, we frequented the Wicklow mountains – sometimes in pairs.
On one of the first of many sessions, two of the team got lost and had to call a search and rescue team for help.
On hearing the story, those of us who weren’t involved laughed.
Although she said it was scary when it started to get dark and the fog weighed down, we thought it was hilarious that she had to call professionals to get her out. How was she going to survive Africa if she couldn’t manage Glendalough?
I now owe her an apology. After spending an evening with the Dublin & Wicklow Mountain Rescue, I’ve realised there is nothing funny about the rolling landscape of the Garden County.
For the numerous people each year who find themselves in difficulty while hiking, running or climbing on Ireland’s mountains, the rescue teams offer an invaluable service.
I joined them for a training session – one of several the volunteers agree to undertake each month – in which one of the members positions himself on a mountain and fakes an injury.
Arriving at about 7pm, there was already an assembly of 4x4s, cars and team members at a parking enclave just outside Enniskerry ready to take on whatever the exercise would throw at them.
But some members had to be ready for something even more serious. After about 10 minutes of dividing into teams and preparing equipment, ‘a live call’ came through the radio. There had been a serious motorcycle accident at the Sally Gap and the HSE had requested assistance.
No panic. A vehicle and three senior members of the team proceeded quietly to one of the vehicles and headed off in the direction of the incident. All calm.
Everyone else continued about their business of the training exercise. “Brendan”, a runner in his 40s, had raised the alarm at 7 o’clock and he needed help.
The remainder of the team split themselves into three search parties and set up the mountain, equipment in tow. The amount of equipment is the most surprising element of the whole operation. It is now not all that shocking that more than 15 people are needed for each rescue – it would take at least that many to shift the numerous first aid items, stretchers, water bottles, ropes, helmets and other kit required.
Trying to find a person on a mountain isn’t quite the same as searching for a needle in a haystack but neither is it a terrible analogy. When you’re not talking about exact coordinates and dealing with somebody who is possibly disorientated or panicked, the task becomes a lot more daunting.
Each team, which includes at least one navigator, a first-aider, an assistant (the scribe) and a radio operator, takes a specific area where the injured party is believed to be. They comb through the land by lining up about 15 metres apart and walking in a straight line together.
Once one team finds the casualty, the others are called in to help and to bring the remainder of the equipment.
In the meantime, the injured man is assessed by the designated first-aider. He is given as much attention as possible so he is comfortable and not in life-threatening danger. Then, the waiting game starts.
Light starts to fade as the first rescue team waits on extra supplies and the stretcher.
As we wait for the other teams to arrive with extra supplies, I try to figure out why this many people are willing to give up about 20 hours per week – mostly on precious Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings – for this. The answers I get are quite mixed: boredom, giving back and looking for something different all make an appearance on the list, as do past personal experiences of needing to be rescued.
The common thread across all members is a love for the mountains. Most have experience in climbing but some are just seasoned hikers. They have all completed vigorous training, including Rescue and Emergency Care Level 5, which includes instructions on how to deal with more serious events such as hypothermia.
There is also a number of trained paramedics in the team, as well as a doctor and a fireman.
Altogether, Dublin and Wicklow Mountain Rescue get about 70 callouts a year but with the popularity of hillwalking and other adventure sports growing rapidly, the probability that these will increase in future is high.
As the visitor in the crew, I’m asked about 15 times if I’m warm enough. I make several attempts at protesting my heat but am still given a duvet jacket anyway. It’s only a few minutes later that the cold descends and I’m glad my stubbornness didn’t pay off.
During our time on the mountain, there is a distant whirring of an aircraft which brings a certain reality to the current situation. Other members of the rescue team are still on a real callout. The Coast Guard helicopter we can hear is trying to get to the injured motorcyclist on the Sally Gap but the thick band of clouds surrounding the area is preventing the pilot from entering the area for the moment.
But the teams here have to concentrate on the job at hand and that is keeping Brendan warm and comfortable. A volunteer stays with the runner at all times and plenty of words of encouragement are heard. A group shelter is used for both privacy and weather protection purposes. If you happened upon this scene, there would be no way in telling it wasn’t real. The team are as professional as they would have been on a real call-out.
When all three teams join up, the first aider and his scribe are already aware of what they need. Appropriate pain medication is doled out while the stretcher team prepare for the descent.
Initially, the most surprising aspect of the whole operation is how much manpower is needed to carry the equipment up the mountain but it gets rather more difficult when an injured person on a stretcher is thrown into the mix. It is also, by this time, pitch black.
Teams of six take it in turn to walk carefully down the mountain with the stretcher after Brendan is firmly and securely placed on it.
By the time we reach the bottom, we have been up the mountain for about three hours. If it was a real exercise, it would probably have been a lot longer.
The next day I got to work and there was a press release from the team waiting in my inbox. The motorcyclist who three of the members attended to had been winched into the helicopter and transported to hospital. He survived.
Another operation had been launched that same day and a man with a knee injury was taken to safety near Lough Dan. The hiker had found himself in a spot with no mobile phone reception but other walkers heard his shouts and knew to contact Mountain Rescue.
Luckily, there is always a ready and able group of people answering that call.