Mario di Maio
Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team was formed in 1964 and the formation of the Team was very largely down to the efforts of a small but enthusiastic group of climbers and walkers who were members of the now defunct Aberdeen Venture Club. The Team's formation was principally in response to a growing awareness that there needed to be a more structured approach to the problem of organising and conducting search and rescue operations in the area of the Cairngorms and the lower hills of Deeside and Donside. With very limited funding and almost nothing in the way of specialised technical equipment, the early days of the Team relied very heavily on the good will of Team members and some local businesses to provide the necessary resources to undertake rescues. Being based in Aberdeen, transport to the hills in the event of a callout was somewhat problematic and Team members were regularly required to use their own cars and of course they had to provide all their own equipment. Throughout the early years of the Team finance was always an issue, paying for fuel; purchasing specialised rescue equipment and generally making sure that the Team had the resources available to undertake rescues was a challenge. The Team was largely responsible for meeting all its operational costs and in the early days this was achieved to some extent by the collecting, bundling and selling on of old newspapers! There was of course at that time a thriving paper industry in the area and indeed many of the original members of the Team were employed in the paper mills in Deeside and Donside.
The Team eventually acquired a couple of vehicles courtesy of a local garage owner and, thanks to the Order of St John, the Team also moved into premises behind what was then St John's Hospital in Albyn Place. The relationship between the Team and the Order of St John turned out to be extremely beneficial to the Team, and through the years the Order has helped to provide financing for both vehicles and equipment. When the Order of St John sold the Hospital in Albyn Place they undertook to find and fund new premises for the Team. This eventually resulted in the construction of a custom rescue base in Elrick on the western edge of the city. The Team moved into the new base in 1997 and now enjoys the luxury of a large drying room, meeting room and garaging for all the rescue vehicles.
Team membership is open to anyone over the age of eighteen who can demonstrate a high level of fitness and mountaineering competence. The Team does not undertake to teach potential members the basic skills of mountaineering and most recruits to the Team come with considerable mountaineering experience. Membership of the Team is on a volunteer basis with a potential on call commitment of 365 days a year. Team members serve a period of probation during which time they are assessed for mountaineering competence and the acquisition of specific mountain rescue skills. Following successful completion of the probationary period new members will have their name added to the callout list and become fully-fledged members of the Team.
The majority of Team members live in and around the Aberdeen area, and although membership of the Team is not in any way restricted by residence it is obviously important that in the event of a callout members can gather quickly at the Team's base in Elrick. Team strength is presently thirty with several Team members having been involved in mountain rescue for more than twenty-five years. Team members are drawn from a variety of walks of life; however, they all share a love of the hills and a strong sense of commitment to mountaineering and mountain rescue. Membership of the Team requires considerable dedication both in developing and maintaining the technical skills required for mountain rescue and of course making sure that your personal mountaineering skills are maintained at an appropriate standard. The reality is that most callouts take place during the hours of darkness and in bad weather, and the ability to operate safely and competently in the sort of conditions when most sensible people would not wish to venture out is an absolute requirement of Team membership.
The Team trains throughout the year with approximately one training day per month and a weekly programme of Thursday evening sessions normally held at our base in Elrick. Training days are normally organised around the Team's forward bases at Derry Lodge and the Spittal of Muick. The training programme concentrates on developing mountain rescue skills such as casualty handling, steep ground evacuation and search procedures. Thursday evening training during the winter concentrates on first aid and theoretical skills related to mountaineering such as advanced navigation techniques and avalanche assessment. During the summer months the Team spends Thursday evenings at the sea cliffs around Aberdeen developing personal climbing skills and cliff rescue techniques.
The Team prides itself on having a professional approach and is committed to an ongoing programme of training and development. As part of our training programme the Team regularly takes part in joint exercises with Braemar and Police Scotland Mountain Rescue Teams. It also trains regularly with Royal Air Force search and rescue helicopters.
Over the years the Team has been involved in many rescues and searches, some of these have been very high profile incidents such as the Cairngorm disaster in November 1971 when five children and an adult died in a blizzard on the Cairngorm Plateau. The Team was also involved in the search and recovery of the American pilots who died when their two F15 Fighter Jets crashed near the summit of Ben Macdui in 2001. Much of what the Team undertakes however is the more routine search for and rescue of climbers, walkers and skiers who are unfortunate enough to get into difficulty in the Cairngorms and the hills of Deeside and Donside. The Cairngorms of course constitute the highest continuous area above one thousand meters in the United Kingdom; they are also the snowiest and windiest part of the UK and as such pose particular challenges to those who venture into them for sport and adventure at any time of the year.
In all seasons of the year navigation on the Cairngorm Plateau can test the most experienced hill walker and mountaineer. Bad weather in the mountains is the norm and in the Cairngorms poor visibility and rapidly changing weather conditions can quickly disorientate and confuse. The ability to effectively use a map and compass is almost certainly the key skill for anyone venturing into the mountains - having said that we still find ourselves called out regularly for individuals and groups who quite simply are unable to navigate. Indeed we frequently find that people are not actually carrying a compass or a map, and increasingly we find folk relying on GPS devices and mapping software on mobile phones. The message is really quite simple - carry a compass and a map of the area you are visiting at an appropriate scale and make sure that you know how to use them.
Most years it snows at some point during every month of the year on the Cairngorm Plateau, something that frequently catches people out. In an average winter - if there is such a thing anymore - the Cairngorms can be relied on to provide near Arctic conditions during the winter months. Strong winds combined with low temperatures create significant wind chill, and of course there is the challenge of dealing with difficult walking conditions in terms of ice and deep snow. In winter greater attention needs to be given to route planning in order to minimise the risk of being caught in an avalanche and also the greater energy and time requirements of dealing with more challenging underfoot conditions. The carrying of an ice axe and crampons in winter is not optional and certainly if you are planning to visit the high plateaus of the Cairngorms then they are an absolute must. Like a map and compass however simply having them in your rucsac is not enough. The ability to use an ice axe to arrest a fall or simply to provide some additional support on steep ground is a critical skill for winter walking in the mountains. Mountain Rescue Committee for Scotland statistics show that uncontrolled slips and slides account for a significant number of callouts during the winter months; many of these slips result in serious injury due to the fact that the unfortunate walker is unable to stop the slide before picking up momentum and then hitting rocks. Many walkers now use walking poles and there is no doubt that they provide great support and help to reduce the loading on the knees when descending. It is important however to remember that walking poles are no substitute for an ice axe, and it essential to transition between poles and axe whenever the slope steepens or the underfoot conditions suggest the potential for a slide.
In an average year the Team may be called out up to fifteen times; however in some years we see a significantly higher number of callouts, and although the winter months do tend to be the busiest for rescue Teams in Scotland the number of incidents during the summer months has steadily grown over the years. Callouts vary enormously in scale and scope and may range from a protracted search operation over several days covering many square miles of high plateau to the extrication of an injured climber from high on a cliff face in a remote corrie. The evidence would tend to suggest that the demands placed on mountain rescue Teams will grow as more and more people take to the hills for exercise and adventure. The need therefore for Teams to maintain and develop skills and resources has never been greater. Funding this is a challenge that all rescue Teams face and although there is now some financial support from the government it is still up to individual Teams to find the necessary resources to allow them to operate efficiently and effectively.
Specialist rescue equipment is very expensive and great care is taken to ensure that equipment used on callouts is serviceable and in good condition, we are always aware of the fact that lives depend on it. Since rescue equipment is often used in less than ideal conditions its life tends to be short; we are constantly researching equipment that will combine the elements of durability and low weight and inevitably these requirements come at a not insignificant cost.
The greatest ongoing expense which the Aberdeen Team faces, however, is the purchase and maintenance of vehicles. At present the Team operates with four long wheelbase landrovers, and three custom built trailers. Meeting fuel costs and general vehicle maintenance is a significant financial challenge and one which constantly occupies our thoughts.
Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team has for some forty-three years organised and run an annual sponsored walk which aims to raise much needed cash to support the activities of the Team. Each year with the blessing of the local estates we hold a walk on the first Saturday in June; normally about twenty-five kilometres in length the walks have become something of a pilgrimage for folk who know of the work of the Team and who are anxious to provide practical support by raising money.
This year's walk took place on Saturday 7th June on the Glen Tanar Estate. Details of the walk can be found on the Team's website www.amrt.org.uk.
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