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mountain rescue

Warning flag at Warcop military training area <em>Picture: Helen Wilkinson</em>

Warning flag at Warcop military training area Picture: Helen Wilkinson

Monday’s statement by defence secretary Liam Fox on changes to the military setup in Scotland has been widely reported in terms of its effect on defence capability and the employment situation in the areas involved. What hasn’t as yet been discussed anywhere near as fully are the consequences for the outdoor recreational community – even though these will be profound and far-reaching.

There are two main issues. The first, and the one most discussed thus far, is the effect that changes to the three Ls – RAF Kinloss, RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Leuchars – will have on the search and rescue (SAR) situation, given the heavy and historical involvement these bases have had in that area of work.

As things stand, Kinloss and Leuchars host the two Scotland-based RAF mountain rescue teams (MRTs) – there are two further teams down south, at Leeming in North Yorkshire and Valley on Anglesey. Both Scottish teams are busy: RAF Kinloss MRT attended 150 incidents during the five-year period 2005–09, while the Leuchars team responded to 73 callouts during that same five-year period. Kinloss has also been home to the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC), which provides military/police/civilian coordination in rescue-related matters.

With both Kinloss and Leuchars due to close in RAF terms, the SAR situation will undergo upheaval – but the retention of Lossiemouth as an RAF base does appear to make the situation clearer at least in relation to the Moray bases.

“The powers that be have not decided what is happening with the [Leuchars] team,” says former RAF Leuchars MRT leader David “Heavy” Whalley. “Kinloss are moving to RAF Lossiemouth – the only problem is that they will not be able to use the purpose-built MRT section at Kinloss. They will be nearer the helicopter, though.”

Given the end of RAF involvement at the Fife base, Whalley doesn’t see any hope that the MRT there will survive. “I would imagine Leuchars MRT will close,” he says, “[but] the civilian teams are so strong now I do not think it will affect rescue in Scotland. In a big rescue in the 1970–1990s we would supply 50-plus [people] for big incidents. Nowadays we are lucky if we get 25. This is due to the Gulf conflict and overstretch.

“No one is saying what is happening to the RAF teams, they have a huge historical influence and have saved many lives, but things change. I was team leader there during Lockerbie and have so many memories of the station and the local people. It will be a huge loss to the area. The country is in a mess – no money, yet we continue to fight wars in Libya and Afghanistan, crazy.”

The enormous value of the RAF SAR involvement is acknowledged by David Gibson, chief officer of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland: “Whatever the future holds for the Leuchars MRT, the MCofS wishes to put on record its appreciation of the superb work by its members on behalf of all mountaineers and the public over the years. We hope that a way forward will be found so that their essential search and rescue work will be allowed to continue in the future.”

This is echoed by Dave Morris, director of Ramblers Scotland: “The RAF MRTs have played a superb role over many years in helping with search and rescue operations in the Scottish hills. They are an essential complement to the civilian, volunteer-based MRT teams which form the cornerstone of mountain rescue in Scotland. We will be seeking assurances from the UK government that the forthcoming changes in RAF airbases will not diminish the effectiveness of the existing RAF mountain rescue teams in their support of search and rescue operations in all parts of Scotland.”

Away from the SAR side of things, the second change arising from Monday’s Ministry of Defence announcement could prove to be even more contentious, as it involves that perennial hot potato – access. Liam Fox spoke of a “new training area” in southern Scotland, the details of which have “yet to be finalised”. There has been talk of a Scottish Salisbury Plain, while another comparison could be with the Warcop training area in the northern Pennines, where upland access has long been subject to considerable restriction, both in terms of actual training activity and the risk from unexploded ordnance lying around.

Wherever the new training area is established, it will be of interest to Ramblers Scotland, which monitors not just upland access issues but also lower and mid-height ground as well. “We are surprised that the recent UK government announcement of changes in MoD operations has not clarified where and how large this training area will be,” says Dave Morris, “and what type of training will be involved. The decision to establish one of the UK’s five Multi-Role Brigades in Kirknewton, between Edinburgh and Livingston, inevitably raises questions about their associated training area.

“Proposals to extend an MoD live firing range in the nearby Pentland Hills Regional Park were defeated in the early 1990s, as was an earlier proposal to purchase a large tract of Knoydart for military training.

“In general, military training facilities and the use of the Scottish countryside for adventure training by service personnel has worked well over many years and there is good integration with other outdoor activity enthusiasts. But the scale of military training operations in Scotland looks as though it might change substantially with the Kirknewton development.

“If this leads to a large training area with high impacts from equipment use, from live firing and access restrictions, then there will be potential controversy. We will be seeking a meeting with the appropriate UK government minister at an early opportunity to get a clearer idea of their proposals and options.”

It remains to be seen which part of “southern Scotland” will play host to the proposed training area – The Caledonian Mercury has asked the Scottish environment minister for clarification without as yet receiving any reply. But wherever it is – somewhere such as Kirknewton in or near the Central Belt, in one of the huge forested areas such as Craik or Galloway, or in more traditional hill-farming Borders country – it will be very disruptive in terms of both day-to-day life and general public access.

To an extent, the weight of objection and unhappiness is likely to be related to whether the eventual area includes any significant listed hills. In the Warcop militarised zone, part of the problem is that one of the hills concerned, Mickle Fell, is not only the highest point of modern County Durham but also of the old county of Yorkshire, and the only reliable access being via a convoluted route from the east has created ill-feeling. (Even more so with neighbouring Little Fell, more or less completely “closed” despite its status as one of the English 2,000-foot summits and thus being a significant target for walkers.)

This was also part of the concern with the old proposals to militarise Knoydart mentioned by Morris – although there the threat was not just to hill access but to the wild and undeveloped character of the peninsula as a whole.

Another possible – and more recent – analogy could be with Alladale in the north of Scotland, where there have been proposals to partly close a large tract of land and create a wildlife reserve. The situation there is civilian rather than military, but again there are significant hills in play – for instance the remote Corbett Carn Ban – and this has added to the strength of feeling in the debate.

It remains to be seen whether the new military training area sparks an Alladale-type debate but with tanks instead of wolves. In “quality of land” terms, somewhere in or close to the Central Belt would be less contentious than in the bigger-hill country of the Borders – the trig point-bagging and HuMPing communities are not major constituencies, after all. There would, however, be high-profile concern from the Ramblers and other access agencies regardless of where the proposals came. Popular low-level walks exist right across the country, and as things stand the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 holds sway unless there is a clear legal reason for it to be locally revoked.

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March sunset, Isle of Mull <em>Picture: Andy Waddington</em>

March sunset, Isle of Mull Picture: Andy Waddington

This weekend – the early hours of Sunday morning, to be precise – sees the annual “spring forward” clock-change in the UK, as we switch from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) to British Summer Time (BST). This alteration – along with its autumnal companion-piece when we revert to GMT – has long been the subject of dispute and debate over what form it should take and even whether it should happen at all.

From time to time a cry goes up for an adjustment to the current arrangement, and this past year has been one such period, with lobbying for a switch to Single/Double Summer Time (SDST). This would see the October change being skipped for one year, after which the current one hour forward/back procedure would resume.

SDST would place us an hour ahead of GMT in winter, and two hours ahead in summer, making things darker in the mornings and lighter in the evenings. SDST tends to be supported by people based in the south and east of the UK, while those further north (where there is markedly less winter daylight to play with) and west (where the sun rises later and sets later all year round) tend to be less keen.

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It is worth recalling in this context that not only does Scotland comprise the northern chunk of the UK, but it is also, as a whole, surprisingly far west. There’s an old pub-quiz question: Which of the following is furthest west – Liverpool, Carlisle, Edinburgh? The answer is not what many people – English and Scots alike – might think.

An interesting alternative slant on the debate was made recently by Mike Dales, who works part-time at both the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and the Scottish Canoe Association and so has an informed interest in matters relating to daylight and safety in terms of outdoor recreation.

The idea put forward by Dales – speaking as an individual, rather than in any representative capacity – is so simple that it’s surprising no one appears to have formally aired it before (although see Richard Webb’s comment underneath last autumn’s piece in The Caledonian Mercury on clock-change politics).

Rather than add or subtract hours at the usual late-October and late-March change-points, Dales argues that the winter GMT period should be shortened from the current five months.

“Given the amount of light we have to work with in deepest winter,” he wrote on his blog (7 March 2011), “I would say we are currently right to be on GMT during this period of very short daylight hours. However, we are now in March and there is lots of light around. It’s just that a lot of it is around before we leave home on a morning and it would be good to have some of that light on an evening. From a hillgoer’s point of view we could have longer evenings in March to enjoy our walk off the hill. Or even just to potter around the garden or go for an evening run.

“So, here’s my contribution to this debate. Have the combination of BST and GMT that we currently have, but alter the dates when we fall back and spring forward. I would turn the clocks back a bit later than we do now, say around the first Saturday in November. Then at the other end of the winter, turn them forward a lot earlier than we do now, say around the third Saturday in February.

“Of all the months in the year when the current system doesn’t work well it has to be March. Surely we could tweak the current system so we get to use the light available to us in this month when winter starts to give way to spring.”

An interesting idea, and one that was picked up by the grough website, which in turn sparked quite a bit of discussion in the comments. Some grough readers were keen on Dales’ idea, but others were sceptical, with several making comments along the lines of “Get up earlier”. The actual amount of time available for use in any location at any point of year will always remain the same, of course – it’s just the way we link it to clock-time that is being discussed.

“Many people including myself do [get up early],” said Dales, when asked this week what he felt about the “up with the lark” approach. “But it doesn’t alter the fact that in a month like March when there is a decent amount of light around the best use of that light for the majority of people would be by being on BST rather than GMT.

“These last four weeks have had early morning daylight that wasn’t being used to best effect because so many people were either still in bed, or hadn’t left the house. My point is that more people would benefit from an extra hour of daylight in the evening in March than currently make use of that first hour of light in the morning. After all, we turn the clocks back about seven weeks before the shortest day, but don’t put them forward again until 14 weeks after the shortest day.”

The pros and cons of daylight-alteration frequently stray into wider political territory – as of course they need to, given the number of occupations and interest-groups affected, and the need for any change to go through the political-legal process – and Dales has given thought to this, too.

“Politicians often talk about the Feelgood Factor,” he says. “Well, an easy way of making people feel good in March would be to give us lighter evenings by putting the clocks forward in late February rather than waiting until late March.”

Dales isn’t an adherent to the SDST school of thinking: “I completely agree with the altering of the clocks for deepest winter and the arguments for having the extra hour of daylight in a morning when kids are going to school and people travelling to work, but I don’t think we need to stay on GMT beyond the end of February.”

He is keen to stress the wider benefit of a shortening of the GMT period – “it would benefit many people in society, not just hill walkers” – but his own interests and occupation inevitably make him very aware of the outdoor-recreation safety benefits.

“I read this week of a mountain rescue in Snowdonia a few days ago,” he says, “where two climbers had been benighted on a climb and had to be rescued. A simple navigation error had delayed the start of their climb and at the end of daylight hours that made the difference between completing the climb in daylight and getting benighted and needing to be rescued. That is a one-off example from the mountaineering world, but the incident probably wouldn’t have happened if we had already been on BST.”

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This might look like a raw, unedited outtake from the Highland Emergency TV series, but it’s not. It’s flyby footage, posted on YouTube on 15 December by George McEwan, of a navigation exercise held in the Cairngorms earlier that day, with members of Glenmore Lodge mountain rescue team aboard a Sea King from D Flight of 202 Squadron, based at RAF Lossiemouth.

“Several of the ‘old hands’ were picked up from Glenmore Lodge,” said rescue-team member McEwan, “and taken for a flight into the Loch Avon basin. This involved taking turns to take up station at different parts of the aircraft to see what the terrain we were more used to seeing from the ground looked like from the air.

“Several of us then took a turn at standing up in the cab, behind the pilot and co-pilot, to guide them into a particular climb by giving them directions. From a mountain-rescue point of view, it was good to see the factors the crew have to take into consideration when flying the aircraft in close proximity to steep ground.”

The helicopter circles in the confines of the glen on the southern side of Cairn Gorm, with steep ground rising above the long, frozen loch. It’s a serious place, only a couple of miles in distance from the busy ski slopes on the north side of the hill, but a world away in terms of character.

One minute 45 seconds into the video, winchman Duncan Tripp can be seen putting away some flares, which the crew use to gauge wind direction and turbulence when the aircraft needs to approach a particular location.

“All in all, a very useful exercise,” said McEwan, who works as an instructor at the national outdoor training centre. “It gave us a very good insight into why the aircraft does what it does and the safety considerations the crew have to take into account; plus it gave us experience of being ‘up front’ and talking the pilots into a particular route.”

The video itself is useful in a couple of senses, too. For all that things change constantly, and footage taken at a specific time ought not to be relied upon even very soon afterwards, the flyby does provide a reasonable conditions report of the mid-December situation as regards snow-coverage and ice-accumulation in the inner Cairngorms.

But more importantly – given the uncertain future of military mountain-rescue backup – it provides evidence of how closely the military and civilian agencies interact in complex search-and-rescue work.

“It highlights the superb training and experience held by the RAF search-and-rescue crews,” said McEwan, “and how we should do everything in our power to maintain that high level of skill and professionalism.”

Mountain rescue

Picture: Ranald McIntyre

There has been much discussion of this week’s defence review, especially of the intention to close RAF Kinloss (with the base possibly converted to Army use) and of the threat to nearby RAF Lossiemouth. Beyond the immediate military issues, there has been profound concern for the employment and economic future of Moray, given the local significance of the two bases.

One of the more specific concerns was discussed in The Caledonian Mercury on the day of the announcement, namely the effect that closure(s) would have on mountain rescue provision, both in northern Scotland and more widely. Kinloss is home to one of the four RAF mountain rescue teams (MRTs), and also to the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC), which provides overall military/police/civilian coordination in rescue-related matters.

The significance of the Kinloss provision is considerable, as indicated by figures provided by Bob Sharp. A civilian MRT member (formerly head of Lomond MRT), Sharp now serves as statistician for the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland. In the five years 2005–09, RAF Kinloss MRT attended 150 incidents (by year: 32–25–35–29–29), while Kinloss ARCC will have been involved in the majority of incidents requiring the services of any of the 31 Scottish rescue teams.

The other Scottish RAF MRT – based at Leuchars – responded to 73 callouts during that same five-year period. This is only half as many as Kinloss in part because the more northerly team is closer to the more serious hills, and also, as Sharp notes, because “Kinloss is next door to the ARCC so they possibly get wind of an incident before Leuchars”.

Exactly what will now happen is unclear. The cancellation of the order for nine Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft was confirmed by David Cameron on Tuesday, and this in turn appears to spell the end of RAF involvement at Kinloss, possibly as early as March 2011.

Pressed for more detail on this, Squadron Leader Bruno Wood of the MOD press office in Whitehall told The Caledonian Mercury that “Although RAF flying activity at Kinloss will cease, the MOD is considering if there are alternative military uses for the base. It is too early to comment on the wider estates implications, which are being considered.”

Perhaps that “flying activity” leaves the door ajar for Kinloss to remain as a coordination centre, but the MOD wouldn’t comment further when pressed for clarification.

As for non-military people with an interest in mountain rescue, here is a selection of thoughts:

John Henderson – ex-RAF serviceman and member of Moray Mountaineering Club

The closure of RAF Kinloss is devastating for the whole economy and infrastructure of the local area. For example, 38% of the NHS staff at Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin are related to RAF personnel. Local charities benefit hugely from constant fundraising activities by service personnel. Many of the sports clubs/Scouts/Boys Brigade etc in Forres and surrounding area are run by volunteer RAF personnel.

You can then factor in the valuable service carried out all over the Highlands by the Kinloss MRT (made up from Kinloss and Lossiemouth personnel) who are a well-trained, equipped and motivated organisation. Many of the Kinloss team were on the 2001 RAF expedition to Everest when they put two members, Dan Carroll and Rusty Bale on the summit.

So this closure affects the functioning of all walks of life in the surrounding towns and villages – an effect felt more personally in small communities where RAF personnel and their families are identified regularly in the local newspapers for getting involved and integrating fully in the life of the area.

The politicians do not appreciate or value this importance to small or remote areas when taking their decisions to close service establishments.

When Kinloss and Lossiemouth close it could be the worse thing to happen to this area since Culloden!

Heather Morning – mountain safety advisor, Mountaineering Council of Scotland

Since the inauguration of RAF mountain rescue in the 1950s, the team at Kinloss have provided an invaluable service for mountaineers, hillwalkers and climbers who have found themselves in difficulty. The team have worked alongside the civilian mountain rescue teams on literally hundreds of callouts over the 50-year period and undoubtedly have contributed to saving many lives.

Despite the RAF MRT’s primary role of rescuing crashed aircrew survivors, the team is often called to assist when more “man-power” or specialist expertise is required – for example, during extensive searches for missing persons or when their specialist expertise is necessary in the case of crashed aircraft. The civilian teams do not necessarily have either the expertise to deal with hazardous substances or the man-power required to conduct extended stretcher carries and searches.

The loss of the Kinloss team will also mark the end of a long chapter of dedicated involvement by some outstanding mountaineers and climbers, who have added a wealth of expertise and character to the history of mountaineering in Scotland.

Questions also need to be answered regarding the future of the ARCC at Kinloss and Sea King helicopters based at Lossiemouth, both of which currently provide a vital role in mountain rescue provision in Scotland.

Chris Townsend – outdoor writer and photographer based near Grantown on Spey

My thoughts on the likely closure of Kinloss regarding mountain rescue is that we need more information. Where will rescue teams be based? Where will the coordination centre be? It’s difficult to comment without knowing the answers to these questions.

I know some people are speculating that this is the start of the privatisation of the rescue service – MyOutdoors.co.uk has a piece on this – but I don’t think there’s any evidence for this yet. It is certainly worrying, but there’s not enough detail yet to know how serious the situation will be.

Mike Dales – access and environment officer, Scottish Canoe Association

There are two issues here: the loss of the Nimrod aircraft and of Kinloss’s role as a coordinating centre. In terms of the Nimrod’s role in search and rescue, its main contribution will be in serious situations well out to sea. From a recreational point of view, it is likely to be yachts in trouble in the North Atlantic or in the middle of the North Sea where the Nimrod would have played a key role in the search. For mountain rescues on land, or sea kayaks in trouble off the coast, it is far more likely to be a helicopter that carries out the search and rescue.

Turning to Kinloss’s coordination role, that may well have to be moved to another location – in which case the issue could be one of losing vital personnel and of maintaining efficiency during the changeover.

Andy Beaton – member of Dundonnell MRT

As a civilian MRT member, like everyone else, I’m very much waiting to see what happens when the dust settles. I’ve been concerned for some time about the likely loss of either or both of the RAF Kinloss MRT or the 202 Squadron Sea Kings at Lossie – the latter in terms of their age if nothing else.

Kinloss MRT, ARCC and 202 Squadron have been at the heart of Scottish mountain rescue for decades, and the support which they provide to the civilian teams is invaluable.

Non-mountaineers should also be concerned about the potential loss of these assets. Lossiemouth Sea Kings have saved dozens of lives in “lowland” emergencies too, attending to everything from mothers in labour to road accidents. Kinloss MRT likewise are on hand to add extra manpower for non-mountain searches for missing persons.

They are part of the fabric of search and rescue in the Highlands and I wonder how much thought has been given to what, if anything, will replace them. Admittedly, RAF Lossiemouth has not got the chop yet, but I wonder how long it is before that happens. In any event, there will be little stomach in Westminster for the replacement of the venerable Sea King.

An opinion was also sought from officials at the Cairngorms National Park Authority, but they declined to comment. The thoughts of various other agencies – including Glenmore Lodge and CairnGorm Mountain Ltd – have also been requested.

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A Nimrod MRA4 "ZJ518". <em>Picture: MilborneOne</em>Amid the Harriers-and-carriers announcements of cancellations and retentions in today’s strategic defence review, came the news that many people in Moray have been dreading: the scrapping of the order for nine Nimrod MRA4 surveillance aircraft due to have been based at RAF Kinloss.

This in turn appears to mark the end of RAF involvement at the base, which is likely to be converted to an army barracks for troops returning to the UK from postings in Germany.

While reporting of the defence review has focused on job losses and economic implications, nothing has been said about the future of the four RAF mountain rescue teams – and in particular the one based at RAF Kinloss.

The RAF maintains four teams – at Leuchars in Fife, Leeming in Yorkshire, Valley on Anglesey, and at Kinloss. Between them, they cover the UK in search-and-rescue terms. It is primarily a military resource but historically there has been a massive and significant involvement in civilian rescue, as a form of training and as a basic human necessity. Certain parts of this service now appear to be under threat.

RAF Kinloss opened as a pilot training school five months before the outbreak of the Second World War, then switched to providing operational training for bomber crews. After the war, the base was again restructured to cater for maritime aircrews, and it was during this period that search-and-rescue began to play a part.

The RAF Kinloss mountain rescue homepage outlines the thinking behind the service: “Following the Chicago Convention of 1947, the United Kingdom undertook to provide assistance to aircraft, ships and persons in distress within its area of responsibility. Secondly, we provide rescue and medical assistance to service personnel who require help during operational and adventurous training. Our service is closely linked with the RAF’s Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters. Despite the growing number of incidents where a SAR helicopter can reach the incident faster, the RAF MRS remains to date the only all weather SAR force in the RAF.”

Over the years, the Kinloss team has become renowned as an exceptionally strong and competent unit, its members spending countless off-duty hours engaged in a variety of impressive outdoor activities, most prominent among them all-season climbing and hillwalking.

A prime example comes in the form of Kinloss stalwart David “Heavy” Whalley, who was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1992 and the MBE in 2002, both for services to mountain rescue. He has racked up seven Munro rounds along the way, and has only recently stood down from the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland.

But Whalley is by no means alone in his level of engagement with outdoor activity and safety in all its forms. There has long been a huge amount of outdoor experience to be found at Kinloss; its training courses are renowned, and a great many people, both military and civilian, owe their lives to the work of the team.

Kinloss is the control centre for all four RAF teams, overseeing liaison between military rescuers and their civilian counterparts, for instance in the allocation of duties to Sea King helicopters. But there are less high-profile aspects as well, and one experienced civilian rescuer, expressing concern over possible changes, noted today that the RAF MRTs have “special skills – dealing with spilt fuel, pyrotechnics, jagged metal, explosives, etc – that we do not have”.

Until the dust settles on the fine detail of the defence review, it will be unclear whether the skills of the RAF Kinloss team are to be diluted or done away with. As yet, there has been no indication that existing expertise might be relocated to some other base. There are hopes that RAF Lossiemouth, a few miles to the east, will remain in operation (although the Lossiemouth Tornados might yet be transferred to RAF Marham in Norfolk) but whether the Kinloss rescue people could be moved there remains to be seen.

All that can be said is that, at present, the signs do not look promising in terms of a retention of military rescue services in the northern half of Scotland. Of the two Scottish RAF teams, Leuchars appears to be safe, whereas Kinloss appears to be doomed.

The Caledonian Mercury has asked a variety of military and civilian rescuers for their thoughts and fears, but thus far no-one has been prepared to speak on the record. As more information emerges over the coming days, we will report further.

Stewart Sutherland

Stewart Sutherland

This weekend will see a further intensive search for Stewart Sutherland, a hillwalker from Langside in Glasgow who has been missing for around a fortnight in the western Highlands.

Sutherland, aged 52 and self-employed, owns a chalet at the Great Glen Water Park at South Laggan near Invergarry. He arrived there for a week’s break on Sunday, 19 September, and was believed to have set alone off for a day’s hillwalking in the Kintail/Affric area the following day.

The alarm was not however raised until 26 September, when he was due to leave his chalet. His car – a red Peugeot – was then found in the Dorusduain car park in the plantation east of Morvich, to the east of Loch Duich (not in Glenelg as reported elsewhere), and a search has been underway ever since.

“I am pretty sure he was Munrobagging,” said Sutherland’s friend Derek Clark. “I don’t think he was on A’Ghlas-bheinn, as we have already done that, so the most likely target was Beinn Fhada. He may have ventured further east onto An Socach and the one with the long name [Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan] to the west of An Socach.”

The two men had climbed numerous hills together over the course of 25 years, but Sutherland was also accustomed to walking alone. “He would have stuck to the path in my opinion,” said Clark. “We tended to follow routes in the Munro book.”
He had a mobile phone with him, and, according to the Northern Constabulary missing person report, might well have been wearing a “dark blue anorak and trousers”. He is 6ft 3in tall with light brown hair starting to turn grey.

The search has involved a considerable number of rescue teams, both military and civilian-volunteer – Kintail, Skye, Glenelg, Dundonnell and RAF Kinloss MRT, along with SARDA http://www.sarda-scotland.org/ dogs and a Sea King helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth. The Stornoway coastguard helicopter has also been involved, while Torridon MRT has visited an area near Bearnais bothy, considerably further north of the main search area.

“On Sunday 3 October, Dundonnell MRT members and search dog ‘Sky’ made a search of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and the ridges and corries which lie immediately to the north of Alltbeithe youth hostel, including An Socach,” said Andy Beaton of Dundonnell MRT. “The search provided no new information about Mr Sutherland’s whereabouts.”

With high pressure building in the west, the weather looks set fair on that side of the country for the coming weekend. The hills will be busy, and if anyone finds or sees anything that might be relevant to the search for Stewart Sutherland, they are asked to contact Northern Constabulary on 0845 600 5703 or via Facebook.

Skiddaw and Keswick. <em>Picture: Mark J</em>

Skiddaw and Keswick. Picture: Mark J

Following a two-day hearing at West Cumbria magistrates’ court in Workington, freelance journalist Sarah Crickmer has been found guilty on two counts of sending a false message by the public electronic communication network to cause annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety.

These charges, under the Communications Act, arose from an incident on 26 November last year, during the time of the serious floods in Cumbria. The emergency services were stretched to the limit, and Crickmer decided to test whether the volunteer rescue services – including mountain rescue – had the ability to cover on-hill emergencies as well as the flooding.

As described by Keswick MRT (click on Rescues, then on 2009, then scroll down to the entry no.131, dated 26 November), “We received a report from someone who said she had met a party of walkers who had come off Skiddaw, reporting a man with a broken leg near the summit at 2pm. We made investigations but it turned out to be a false alarm. Police later arrested a 27 yr old woman on suspicion of wasting police time in making hoax calls.”

Speaking after the verdict, Andy Simpson, Mountain Rescue England and Wales press officer, said: “At the time Sarah Crickmer made the call, we were gearing up to bring in mountain rescue teams from outside Cumbria to relieve the pressure faced by local teams. There was no question that the mountain rescue teams wouldn’t have been able to cope with additional incidents had we been required to, and the local team coped with the hoax incident as though it was a real callout.

“As an organisation staffed entirely by volunteers, this kind of thing is extremely unhelpful.”

Crickmer will be sentenced in due course, following probation reports.

by John Knox

The Ochil teamat the new post

The Ochils team at the new post

As they screwed the official blue and green badge to their new “hut”, the Ochils Mountain Rescue Team began a new phase in their life on standby.

They are just one of the 26 volunteer teams ready to rescue – at 15 minutes’ notice – anyone in trouble in Scotland’s hills, glens, gorges, moors and mountains. Not many of the 500 callouts a year are texted to the 40 members of the Ochils team – in fact they get just over a dozen a year – but when the call comes, they have to be as prepared as the heroes of Glencoe or Lochaber.

“The Ochils may not be the highest or wildest hills in Scotland but people do get lost up there, or they get caught out by bad weather, or they fall down the gullies,” said Kevin Mitchell, the team leader. “ So we need to be ready. And that means two training sessions a month, one on a Wednesday night and the other on a Sunday.”

That training can now take place in the team’s smart new £250,000 headquarters, just south of Tillicoultry, with the full panorama of the Ochil hills visible from the windows, from Dumyat in the west to the highest point, Ben Cleuch (721m), almost due north of the hut.

The building is a gift from the first-aid charity, the Order of St John – which, in Scotland, has specialised in supporting the mountain rescue service. Over the past decade, St John’s has built 11 rescue posts and provided 25 vehicles, including the Ochil team’s Land Rover.

The new building was officially opened on Thursday afternoon by the Grand Prior of the Order of St John, the Duke of Gloucester,  and in the evening former members of the team were invited to inspect the facilities. The old boys included myself. I was a member in 1976-78, while I worked as an apprentice reporter on the Alloa Advertiser.

I recognised several old faces – some of whom were still serving with the team after 30 years, if not in an active capacity, then as radio operators or caretakers. We were shown round the training room, the garage, the equipment store – with ropes all neatly stored in canvas bags – the radio-computer room, the showers and toilets and kitchen.

It was all a world away from the police cell which formed the first headquarters back in 1971. In my day, the team had progressed to a cupboard in a scout hut in Menstrie. More recently, the team had been operating out of a garage in the local council’s plant nursery.

But the world of mountain rescue has changed, too. Many more people are taking to the hills and the number of callouts has hugely increased. The rescue helicopters from RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss are now more closely involved.

Last year, the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland (MRCS) recorded a total of 558 callouts, an increase of 4 per cent. 402 of those were hillwalking or climbing accidents. 27 people died, 228 were injured. However, an increasing number of callouts are for non-mountaineering incidents – 156 last year – ranging from motorists stranded by flood waters to sad cases of suicide. 58 people died in such non-mountaineering incidents in 2009.

The Scottish government provides £300,000 a year to the MRCS, and all other funds are raised by the teams themselves and by donations from companies and charities such as St John’s. It’s a huge voluntary effort when you think about it – all those dinners, dances, book sales, fundraising days, not to mention the time and sweat, and the skill, of those who make up the teams.

“We do it because we enjoy it,” said Kevin Mitchell. “ And also, because there’s a huge satisfaction in saving people’s lives. The next casualty, after all, could be one of us.”

Ben Hope: signal strength good. <em>Picture: Harry Willis</em>

Ben Hope: signal strength good. Picture: Harry Willis

A trip to Sutherland last week provided contrasting examples of how mobile-phone technology is a complex muddle: both impressively rewarding and completely frustrating.

In my role as The Caledonian Mercury’s Outdoors correspondent, I drove up the A9 on Wednesday evening to stay with friends in Strathspey as a staging post before meeting mad-keen Munrobagger Stephen Pyke – aka Spyke – on Ben Hope. Spyke was about to demolish the previous fastest time for climbing all the Scottish 3000-foot hills, and The Caledonian Mercury just had to be there.

Ben Hope is the most northerly Munro, and my friend Bill Cook and I needed the best part of three hours to get there on Thursday morning. I had already filed a one-paragraph outline, the idea being that as soon as Spyke reached the summit I would text through the precise timings, these would be subbed into the existing paragraph, and we would be first with the story.

This, of course, assumed that a phone signal could be obtained from the summit – and as Bill and I drove through Altnaharra, the last community before Ben Hope, I noticed an old-style red phonebox. This might yet be needed – Vodafone was patchy at best in the glens.

But although we started uphill with zero signal, and although things stayed that way until near the summit, suddenly there was life. The line of sight to the north coast – with its villages and phonemasts – was adequate. Spyke and his entourage duly arrived, I texted through the copy, and Bill took a camera-phone snap of him touching the trig point. Hence the piece was live before we started downhill. All very modern, and pretty impressive.

I had been on the same hill ten years earlier to greet Charlie Campbell, the previous record-holder. I didn’t own a mobile in those days, so wasn’t able to try the same trick. But although the mobile network did exist, I’m pretty sure Ben Hope was a no-signal blackspot. Things have moved on a lot.

So that was all splendid. Next day, however, showed how this kind of stuff still has the capacity to infuriate.

After another night in Kingussie, I set off south in mid-afternoon – and somewhere around Drumochter twigged that I’d forgotten to chase details of another story. For several months, The Caledonian Mercury has been following the case of a freelance journalist alleged to have falsely called out a mountain rescue team in the Lake District. The journalist concerned was due in court that very day, and in the Munro-record excitement I had forgotten to make a note of the court phone number in Workington.

Damn.

I pulled into the vast car park at Bruar and texted my partner in Stirling to get her to find the number online. “Am in town. Need to wait till home”, she replied.

Surely it was obtainable from directory inquiries, however. What number to ring? I tried 192, but it didn’t seem to work. The only other number I could remember (oh, the power of advertising) was 118118.

The operative had poor English and was both very polite and completely useless. The call consisted of my repeatedly spelling “West Allerdale and Keswick Magistrates’ Court” – Keswick seemed a particular mystery – and I was already resigned to my fate when, after an interlude, he came back on and asked “Sorry sir, should I look under council?” Then the line went dead. There had been three quid on the mobile, and the call couldn’t have lasted much more than a minute. I’d effectively plugged a device into the phone and pressed a button labelled “Give the 118 people all your money.”

I wouldn’t have minded had I actually learnt the court number, but I was still none the wiser – and now had an empty mobile. Aaarrggh.

The Blair Atholl village store had a top-up machine, so I asked for a fiver to be put on. The old lady was the sweetest, friendliest shop assistant one could ever hope for – a throwback to a bygone age – but after several minutes of fiddling and fumbling it was clear she had no real idea how to operate anything more modern than a set of scales.

Her equally sweet husband joined in, and seemed to have a bit more idea, but in due course a printout emerged which the old lady read to me: “System busy.” She might as well have said: “Computer says no.” Meanwhile, the clerk of the court in Cumbria was several minutes closer to locking up for the weekend.

On to Pitlochry, feeling a bit fraught, where a young bloke in the petrol station topped up the phone as if it was the simplest thing in the world, while chatting to his mate. Life seemed easy again.

Phone back on, a text came in from my partner: she had the number. It was just before 5pm, and there was perhaps just enough time – but the court was in answerphone mode, so the whole thing would have to wait until Monday.

Ultimately, the episode was my own stupid fault – had I remembered to note down the number beforehand, none of the rest would have happened. But that one mistake plunged me into a chaotic world where technology was either in the hands of distant corporates or beyond the grasp of locals with their slower, more rural ways of doing things.

One lives and learns – but suddenly the easy, everything-works joy of Ben Hope seemed a long way away.