Imagine being asleep on a cold night, wrapped up warm in your duvet next to your husband, with your children sleeping peacefully in the room next door, when your phone wakes you up VERY LOUDLY. What happens next is autopilot: I check my phone and reply to the message, get up, go to my bottom drawer and grab my hill clothes, get dressed as quickly and quietly as possible, go down stairs, put on the kettle, grab cereal bars, make sandwiches, fill a flask, grab the appropriate map and my kit, get in the car and I am driving out of the village in about 15 minutes.
I am in a Mountain Rescue Team in Northumberland and what I am dealing with could be caused by many things: a missing vulnerable adult, an intentionally missing (vulnerable) adult, or a group of lost/overdue/scared people, amongst other potential scenarios. I have dealt with a couple who wanted to spend New Year’s night on top of a local hill watching fireworks but got scared as it was windy and couldn’t find their way down. Fortunately we have members who volunteer to stay sober for just this sort of scenario and were able to escort them off the hill. Or there were the two ladies who had gone walking on a rainy day down a steep clay soil path next to a river, fallen going over a
stile and one landed on the other and both had bust knees – they were wearing pink crocs. Sometimes it’s an allergic reaction to something or an asthma attack that won’t calm down. Regardless of who it is or the situation, we go and are happy to do so. We don’t judge, we help. The particular night I am recalling involved a group of students and was when I lived in Macclesfield and I was with the Buxton team. We were called out in the middle of the night to a group of lost walkers who had decided that a walk on Kinder sounded like a great day out.
It was a very claggy night: the ground was wet, the air was wet and very soon I was wet. Even with the experience we all had between us, our search section had to work hard to stay oriented and keep track of where we were on the map. Time and distance become illusions in the mist. Eventually a search dog in a neighboring search section found the group: cold, scared and hungry. We all joined up to escort them off the hill.
What I saw was a group of students who had little concept of their terrain and its possible hazards. They didn’t know what to expect, what could go wrong and didn’t know how much they didn’t know: that it was winter, got dark early, the weather at night is often foggy, the terrain is unclear, it is cold, very cold up high in the wind; in fog you can’t see where you are going, you get disorientated, your night vision is nearly useless and even if you could see into the night, you can’t necessarily find the route down if you can’t even recall where you are and where you are meant to be going! They didn’t have suitable clothes, shoes, or even a torch between them. None had a map and I doubt they could have used one even if they had, let alone a compass. They had no concept of how long their route would take them.
Nearly all these skills need to be learnt. They are not things that you necessarily think of if you are used to walking around your town with street lights, in crocs, playing in parks and when you can run home quickly if it rains to change into dry clothes while someone makes you a hot drink. Like I said, you often don’t know what you don’t know. But to be fair, even the most experienced walkers, with all the best kit, can still have accidents or become ill and still need our services. Outdoor ed, however, can help reduce my broken nights of sleep. If these students had been exposed to more outdoor experiences, encouraged to be outside in differing weather, finding out which shoes work better (not pink crocs!), the benefit of decent clothing and just how cold you can get when you are wet; taught to consider direction rather than relying on a street sign; how hungry you get when you are physically active because of the calories you burn, and to be more confident on diverse terrain, then I might have been able to stay asleep that night. They may have learnt how to problem solve and make a decent judgement earlier in the evening because they had a better understanding of their physical abilities and limitations. But they hadn’t. They thought that Kinder looked like a nice day out. Outdoor ed may have exposed them to what they didn’t know, and encouraged them to find the answers. Instead twenty or so of us and our partners had a disturbed night’s sleep, and our employers yet again had to be gracious to us as we turned up fuzzy-headed and sleep deprived the following morning. So yes, put me out of a voluntary job – because we don’t get paid for doing this, MR in England and Wales is purely voluntary – learn decent outdoor skills and keep Jen and Catherine in a job. Be safe on Britain’s hills. They are awesome when you are introduced to them safely.