Peak District’s insurance policy is 50 years old

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The Peak District Mountain Rescue Organisation is half a century old. Colin Drury meets the team who have have undertaken thousands of rescues and saved hundreds of lives.

The strangest rescue Ian Bunting remembers making was out at Stanton Moor during the summer solstice one year.

Edale mountain rescue, training on Curbar Edge

Edale mountain rescue, training on Curbar Edge

A woman celebrating with friends had slipped and broken her leg. Fortified by drink, she continued to party until 4am when it became clear that, firstly, she needed hospital treatment and, secondly, the group had no way of carrying her down the moor.

“So we were called,” says Ian, operations support officer with the Peak District Mountain Rescue Organisation. “Standard job. Except it was this new age gathering. When we got there, she was completely naked. She had 15 volunteers going out in the middle of the night to help her down a moor but she’d not bothered to put a stitch on.”

Welcome, reader, to the occasionally surreal, always eventful world of the PDMRO.

This 340-strong volunteer organisation - which is on 24-hour call to help people standard, lost or injured in the national park - is 50-years-old in 2014. Since its formation in 1964, members - more than 60 of who currently come from South Yorkshire - have undertaken thousands of rescues, saved hundreds of lives and helped in emergencies ranging from the 2007 Sheffield floods to the hunt for debris following the Lockerbie bombing in Scotland.

Edale mountain rescue, the team's landrovers

Edale mountain rescue, the team's landrovers

They’ve found walkers who’ve got lost, rescued climbers who’ve broken bones and helped fishermen who’ve had heart attacks - all in places which an ambulance could never reach.

Car accidents, suicide attempts and crashed light aircraft have all fallen under their remit.

“One chap called us while he was trapped upside down in his glider,” says Ian. “He had no idea where he’d come down but he knew he wasn’t happy - two broken legs.”

In 2013 alone they attended 286 incidents. Most recently five of the organisation’s seven teams found themselves in a high stakes race against time to locate a family of four lost after mist descended while walking on Kinder.

Edale mountain rescue, Dr Justin Squires with one of the teams medical packs

Edale mountain rescue, Dr Justin Squires with one of the teams medical packs

“They called the police as their phone was dying about 9pm and we finally found them at 3am,” says Ian. “They were hungry and cold but they were okay. If we’d got to them much later, though, things could have been very different.”

Rarely, as it turns out, do they rescue naked people, or others who have got into difficulty through lack of foresight. Indeed, tonight, as The Star joins the Edale team practicing crag face rescues, this is something team leader Ian is keen to stress.

“Most times you read about us in the papers it’s because someone has gone out into the moors in flip-flops and a sombrero,” says the 43-year-old construction worker by trade. “That kind of thing does occasionally happen. But it’s rare.

“With the vast majority of rescues you’re helping someone - climber, walker, cyclist - who has got into difficulty through no fault of their own. That’s what we’re here for. We’re an insurance policy for people enjoying the Peak District. In fact we’re better than an insurance policy because we’re all volunteers and we’re free at the point of rescue.”

Edale mountain rescue, team leader Ian Bunting in the control room at their headquarters

Edale mountain rescue, team leader Ian Bunting in the control room at their headquarters

It was tragedy which first brought the PDMRO into being. Or, more specifically, three tragedies.

For years rescue operations were carried out by ad hock groups covering different parts of the Peaks. None were co-ordinated, none were easy to contact and none were equipped to deal with the trio of fatal events which occurred between December 1962 and March 1964. The first ended with the death of two children, aged seven and 11, who had gone missing from Glossop and weren’t found for five days. The second saw two climbers killed in an avalanche in Wilderness Gully. And the third resulted in three rover scouts, aged 19, 21 and 24, perishing in the Alport Valley. Search parties took days to locate them in what is a relatively accessible part of the Peak.

“Following that it was realised searches needed to be better organised and rescue operations better co-ordinated,” says Ian.

A meeting was held at Buxton Police Station on September 24, 1964, where a basic search control panel was established. Thus, the Peak District Mountain Rescue Organisation was born. Fifty years on, it is a somewhat different beast.

Back then, as a survey taken in 1971 shows, the organisation had just nine stretchers and even fewer vehicles, while the 240 volunteers had to supply their own protective clothing.

These days, seven different teams (Edale, Woodhead, Kinder, Buxton, Derby, Glossop and Oldham) cover the area. They have 19 vehicles packed with 21 stretchers and state-of-the-art medical bags worth £2,500 each. Volunteers, meanwhile - a mix of doctors, firemen, teachers, builders and a dozen other professions ranging in age from 18 to 75 - are given 18 months intensive training, ranging in everything from navigation and first aid to rescue management.

Once qualified, they must keep their phones on at all times in case of an emergency. In effect, members go about their everyday lives while constantly on call.

“Why do I do it?” ponders 43-year-old Justin Squires, a doctor at the Northern General Hospital by day and a member of the Edale team for 20 years. “I’m an outdoors person. I love coming out to the Peak District. So it could be that one day I need these guys. This is me paying my dues. Plus the team is great. There’s a real camaraderie.”

It’s not always easy, of course. Operations can be difficult, long and take place in atrocious conditions. Even tonight’s training session is made difficult by periods of sheet rain. Middle of the night call-outs aren’t uncommon and jobs can be grim to say the least - the team were called to Wales to help in the hunt for murdered five-year-old April Jones in 2012.

Not every rescue is successful, either. Fatalities aren’t common but they occur. Seven people died in incidents the PDMRO were called to last year.

“Quite often, it can be something like someone having a heart attack while they’re walking and there’s nothing you can do,” says Ian, a Rotherham lad who now lives in Stoney Middleton.

“But the bad one I still really remember was in 2009 where a woman fell while she was climbing at Stanage Edge. We got to her and did everything we could but when you’re giving someone CPS in the middle of nowhere, a long way from where an ambulance can get to, you know things aren’t good.

“We’re all volunteers and we don’t have the emotional training of the police. The older heads just have to put a shoulder around the younger members and tell them we’re making a difference.” Undoubtedly that’s true. The organisation - which has a headquarters for each of the seven teams in their own patch - costs about £300,000 to run annually, most of which comes through charitable donations. But police and ambulance services appreciate the work the teams do so much, they are regularly given grants by both.

“I think to some extent we are the fourth emergency service,” says secretary David Lee, regional secretary. “We may be volunteers but we are run as a professional unit. These are the best. If you need to be rescued, you’re in safe hands.”

* The Peak District Mountain Rescue Organisation is looking for funding and new members. To find out more, visit www.pdmro.org.uk

Newspaper appeal

Back in another age if you’d got lost or stranded out in the Peak District, there was every chance a rescue operation might be organised through the local newspaper.

That’s exactly what happened when James Evans went missing on January 4 1925.

After the keen hiker was reported missing, the Manchester-based Rucksack Club placed a note in that afternoon’s paper asking for volunteer searchers to meet in Hayfield that evening. A couple of hundred men turned out but to no avail.

James’s body was eventually found on January 10. The coroner recorded exposure as the cause of death.

Nonetheless, putting such a notice in the paper remained an occasional way of recruiting volunteers for more than another decade.

Two bad breaks

Anyone can get into trouble in the Peak District - just ask Ian Bunting, team leader with the Edale Mountain Rescue Team, part of the PDMRO.

One of his predecessors twice needed to call for help himself.

The then deputy leader of the Edale operation, who hasn’t been named, broke his leg while walking at Kinder Scout in the late Eighties.

He called his own team to come and rescue him.

“Then a couple of months after he’d recovered, he was out at Stanage Edge when he slipped and broke his other leg,” says Ian. “That proves a serious point, though: even the most experienced people can need rescuing. We’re there to help everyone.”

By the numbers

7 teams - Edale, Woodhead, Kinder, Buxton, Derby, Glossop and Oldham.

19 vehicles - 12 landrovers and seven control vans.

21 specialist stretchers - each costing £1,800.

75 age of oldest member of the team.

286 incidents attended last year.

340 volunteers.

555 square miles, area of land covered by the organisation.

14,000 man hours spent on operations in 2013.