Wasdale MRT rescue – What have you seen from a wild camp recently?

Wasdale Mountain Rescue winter callout
Wasdale MRT callout on Scafell Pike.

“….Mike (Wasdale MRT Team Leader) and the others were telling me, snows were waist deep on the Pike, the winds were in excess of 50-60mph with stronger gusts. It was not a place to hang about. It was a 6 hour rescue operation for the team, many of them having left their families behind, dropped work and headed out into some awful weather. At night. In winter.”

I wasn’t due back from my recent Lakeland jaunt until tomorrow but thanks to severe storms I returned back home with my tail between my legs at the weekend. Some of my finger tips are still frost-nipped which is annoying. Alas, I’m not back in the land of the living for long. Wasdale and the Scafells are calling and I’ll be plodding the western fells again later this week.

Even though it’s been unseasonably warm down in the valleys (I noticed snow drops and even daffodils sprouting in places!) up on the high ground of the Scafells it’s still winter. Make no doubt. The contrast as you ascend is astonishing. Once you hit about the 650m mark, the temperature rapidly drops which I found rather unusual for a hike never mind in winter.

Force Ten Argon 200 wild camping winter Scafell Pike
Camp at Hollow Stones – was snow when I pitched but a wee thaw dropped in overnight.

Pikes Crag and Scafell along with Mickledore were absolutely caked in thick snow. Soft snow at that. When I was wandering about in the area, none of the snow had truly consolidated to justify strapping on crampons for comfort. It made for tricky and arduous walking – or at least it did with my heavy pack.

One morning I was brewing up a coffee while camped at Hollow Stones. I was debating where and when to head out to higher ground as the winds roared in over Lingmell Col from the east. It was all a bit grim, but I learnt that some sunshine and lifting of clag was due later that day according to the Met Office (as usual this didn’t materialize of course).

A young couple passed right by my tent at one point without acknowledging my presence as I sat in the porch admiring the views of the sinister looking crags of Scafell. The path they were clearly seeking was some yards away nearby – marked with cairns I have to add. I thought it was odd and consequently observed their meander through the boulders and streams of Hollow Stones from the comfort of my nylon shelter.

Not being one to pre-judge, but they didn’t appear to be kitted out for winter conditions and also looked somewhat lost and rather ‘fashionable’ too. Heck, I just fling on what kit is available. No colour co-ordination for me I’m afraid. Guess I sound like I am pre-judging now? But you’ll see where this is going.

The visibility in the locality was pretty fair. But they still tortuously snaked around and about all the wrong places on the fellside (as in the route up was elsewhere).

Some time passed and I noticed they were still all over the place ascending the deep snow on the flanks of Mickledore. I figured I’d do my bit and be a good Samaritan and began shouting over to them. I was concerned for their well-being and that the route they were undertaking was going to be a bit too much. I for one didn’t fancy it on appearance alone. They were constantly zig-zagging on the fell side in the snow, dropping down, and then going up again.

Alas, due to the strong winds they couldn’t hear me. Or at least so I thought. They may well have been ignoring me! They did as they walked past my tent! Most folks pop on by and greet me and make the usual jokes about being a ‘madman’ camping out (I’m not of course! Many of us camp out on the fells in all seasons!).

I relaxed at my humble abode a little longer, packed some video kit and reluctantly began my late morning stroll to Piers Ghyll and Lingmell along with The Pike. Having lost sight of the young couple I assumed they were OK and my concerns were just those of a pretentious old fart assuming the worst for their safety. We all do it don’t we? “What’s that silly bugger doing over there?” or “In wellies?! Up here? Crazy person.” I’m sure there’s more. You get the gist.

I eventually reached Lingmell Col and the snows were knee deep, almost up to my mid-thighs in places. The winds were very strong and continually battled to knock me over and down the slopes. It was not a day to be heading up to the summit of Scafell Pike for the inexperienced or the tired. Only the masochistic. I normally fall into the latter category but having been out for 11 nights I quite simply couldn’t be arsed. I’d had my fill of storms by this point in the trip. They’d been incessantly rolling in off the Irish Sea day after day.

BBC England Lingmell Col
I tweeted a photo of snow on Lingmell Col and BBC News posted it on their website!

So I took the sensible decision to retreat and wander elsewhere cowering behind rocks as I endeavoured to capture the harsh environment on video for my Scafells documentary.

I even bumped into a friend – photographer Stewart Smith – a rather nice morale boost. We chatted and descended back to Hollow Stones. You know that scene in the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’? Where the character Ali approaches Lawrence out of a mirage? It was a bit like that seeing Stewart dressed to the nines appearing like a ghost out of the blizzard. He’d been up The Pike and informed me it was pretty damn awful. Winds were bad, and whiteouts made the visibility somewhat null and void. Even so, he had fun and managed to capture some nice photos of ice clad rock and such like from the summit. I was a little envious in truth.

Later that evening back at my tent, with food on the go, me wrapped in down snugger than a bug, I was mentally preparing myself to head out into the strong winds and dark to position my DSLR amongst some rocks to capture a couple of night timelapse scenes of the surrounding crags. Forecasts indicated clear night skies as the evening unfolded (and for once the Met Office were spot on).

However, as I was about to set out and stumble about the nearby boulders a bright light casting enormous shadows began to illuminate my vicinity. It took me by surprise. There’s only one group of people I know who carry such powerful torches up onto the hills and that’s the mountain rescue. Indeed it was the local Wasdale team and they were ascending Scafell Pike from all it’s northern angles.

A couple of hours later they were all slowly but surely making their way back down where upon volunteers Richard and Tim (who works in the Wasdale Head Inn by the way – so buy the guy a pint) popped by my tent to have a chat. The winds often knocking them over onto their backs as we talked (felt a bit guilty about that, but there was no room in my tent!) And later I caught up with Mike Gullen the team leader and the rest of the team. It was nice catching up with them as I’ve been filming the local MRT for my documentary.

Scafell Buttress, Lake District winter
Scafell from camp. More snows arrived later in the night and following day.

It transpired the couple I saw earlier in the day had to be rescued in horrendous conditions from Broad Crag Col by Scafell Pike. Normally the team may have considered leaving them out for the night or if possible guiding them back down via phone if conditions and the victims equipment were adequate and safe.

Alas as Mike and the others were telling me, snows were waist deep on the Pike, the winds were in excess of 50-60mph with stronger gusts. It was not a place to hang about. It was a 6 hour rescue operation for the team, many of them having left their families behind, dropped work and headed out into some awful weather. At night. In winter.

It was bad enough around my camp. I’d double-pegged/guyed the tent and then some. And it was still violently fighting the winds. Mike made me promise to be off the fells the following day as a worst storm was due to come in off the Irish Sea. I didn’t break that promise either. I was only too happy to retreat and head home the following day.

But what struck me, was the sheer determination of the team to head out and rescue the young couple. Needless to say they weren’t impressed by them being ill-equipped and lacking experience to head out in such conditions on such terrain in the first place. But the team still went out. And they’re all volunteers!!!

The young couple must’ve thought I was a nutcase knowing I was camped out nearby. I was inclined to agree at this point I have to admit. But thankfully thanks to the team they were now safe and well.

Having got to know the team in recent months, it really brought it home to me personally the role they play and what it entails. It’s a cliche to say this – I know. But they truly are heroes and heroines. The work they do, sights and conditions they have to contend with is beyond my comprehension. I have the highest regard for them. All MRT teams.

And you know what? They’re only human!

The poor buggers were out in conditions that night I’d personally not wish on anyone. And they don’t see a penny for their efforts. They’re a charity. You could say they have to beg to raise funds. They have to beg for for help and support and such like from the government. And I could put my last breath on it that to many out there, they’re under appreciated. Taken for granted. Not to us regular outdoors folks, of course! But to Joe Bloggs and his partner who ascend such a mountain in conditions they clearly had no bloody place to be in.

This wasn’t an accident. This was poor judgement on the couples part.

Why on earth did it not occur to them when waist deep in snow, wandering about like lost sheep on the flanks of Mickledore surrounded by towering cliffs and battling strong winds and the ever present clag to just turn back??

Mike Gullen told me in an interview some months ago that the most common mistake people make in such scenarios when out on the hills, is not knowing when to turn back. The consequences of the action of carrying on, increases the chances, the risk of something going wrong.

Sadly only experience can teach many of us, all of us, when to stop and retreat.

Accidents will and do happen. But what I witnessed that day and night – was this an accident? Could’ve been eventually I suppose. Quite possibly a tragic one too. Even so, it wasn’t. The couple were lost. Benighted. That’s poor judgement and lack of experience I guess. And we’ll all fall into that category at one time or another even if we come away unscathed and with no help. I certainly have.

Heck, should I have been camped out up there in such conditions I was experiencing? To me it was part of the routine. To others it may be perceived as being absolutely crazy. I guess it’s a bit of both to be honest.

And thankfully, for all of us the local MRT volunteers will always be there on hand. To help those irrespective of all the above to come to your rescue.

Hence, on Lingmell Col experience taught me it was best not head up The Pike that afternoon. For me and my needs anyway. Aye, I couldn’t be arsed to in truth but that’s beside the point. Experience lead me to head elsewhere with thought and care. The Scafells will still be there when I go back. And it was experience and a big nudge from the Wasdale MRT that lead me to head down off the fells the next day (despite a calm before the storm).

I was not going to argue with them. I was only too happy to head off. But observing all I did that day, it certainly opened my mind to my own activities in the outdoors. And the people who may have to come out and help (hopefully I’ll never need any).

Which leads me to how and why I think such rescues occur. It’s part of the ‘Best of British’ mentality we have in this country. Folk look forward to their trips away. Sometimes planned months in advance. They’re chomping at the bit to get their outdoors thrill. Be inspired. Try out expensive new kit they’ve bought (and sick of wearing around town or at home).

But we’re all at the mercy of the weather. Our wonderfully varied and dramatic maritime climate doesn’t change at the flick of a switch to make our jollies away more enjoyable.

And sure as hell, most people will not let a bit of clag or strong winds or whatever stop them stepping out on to the hills in their boots. Living in hope that just maybe – just maybe – they’ll get lucky with the weather and enjoy something scenic and wonderful. And therein lies the problem.

Immediately, you could argue that taking that attitude and persistence leads to that point when experience should say to turn back. Not bother. But it’s not as black and white or clear cut as that is it. We all know we can have some bloody fun times out in poor weather on the hills. It’s good for team building, self-confidence, self-reliance and mental stamina. I’d say so anyway. You take the rough with the smooth. Character building stuff.

But I guess some of us at some point will overstep that line of our comfort zones. Sometimes deliberately for thrills. And it’s that element of risk, that point of knowing when to stop and retreat, the laws of chance and so on all go into the melting pot and it’s pure luck how it will all transpire.

So being thoughtful about it all, who am I to say this young couple were ill-equipped or lacking in experience when heading out that day? Who am I to have judged them and felt compelled to yell and suggest they head elsewhere? It’s all about perspective I suppose. Mine was they looked lost and well out of their comfort zone. But how would others perceive me peeping out my tent with a fag in one hand and a malt in the other?

All said and done, once the team left after a quick break I stayed up til 4am capturing some ace shots of the night sky over the Scafells. I figured I wouldn’t get much sleep anyway thanks to the storm and evening’s events. So I wrapped up warm and found shelter behind boulders and let my DSLR roll pointing up at the heavens above.

12 hours on the Scafells I’ll not forget in a hurry….

Star trails over Scafell Pike, Lake District wild camping
One scene I managed to capture after MRT’s rescue. Star trails over Pikes Crag, Mickledore and Scafell.

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