Friday, 16 July 2010

Mountain Rescue in North Wales..the early years

Barbara James Collection©
Barbara James is one of the UK's most respected female activists.Despite inherited eczema and allergies which made Barbara James different from her classmates,. She was lucky.The severity of her eczema had lessened when her teacher introduced her to the Snowdonia hills. In 1964 she became a full time mountaineering instructor and mountain rescue first aider in Capel Curig at a time when there were few females instructing or leading difficult rock routes.

Divorced in 1976 and with a mortgage to pay, Barbara needed a job, and became the first and possibly the only woman civilian to be employed by MOD to train soldiers.At the Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion in Folkestone she learned another language, new codes of behaviour, and to lead expeditions.

After early retirement, Barbara took her first holiday in I I years. She was probably the second person to go, unaccompanied, to the magical Falkland Islands soon after the conflict.Alone she walked up Tumbledown, communed with wild life and was told that "Anyone can learn to fly". So on return, her 50th birthday present to herself was to get a Private Pilot's Licence.A year later she flew a Cessna 40 hours solo around Florida.

But nothing Barbara had done was as challenging as surviving alone after moving to Tenerife. Only the magical El Teide National Park and the genuine, spontaneous kindness of the Canarians ensured her return. Barbara James now lives happily in her Mediterranean retreat and part of the year in North Wales.

Mountain rescuers require not only technical skills but also expert first aid training. Perhaps today it is hard to believe that in the 1960s there was no recognised first aid specialist training until Dr Ieuan Jones Senior, Accident Officer in the Bangor C&A hospital created a course that would train lay people throughout the UK. Ieuan had gained experience when dealing with severe back injuries in the mines near Mansfield; later his skills helped to save life in the Gulf War. He did more to save life than any person I know.

Pre-war, and for a while afterwards, mountaineers were few, most were university trained, many knew to each other and when injured, they rescued themselves. The official history of rescue in mountains started in 1933 when the Joint Stretcher Committee, after 1946 to be known as the Mountain Rescue Committee, was formed by members of two renowned clubs, the Fell and Rock Climbing Club (founded in 1906) and the prestigious Manchester-based Rucksack Club (founded in 1902). The latter also founded the British Mountaineering Council in 1942.

Eustace Thomas, born in 1869, designed the Thomas Stretcher with a strong aluminium frame, canvas bed and pull-out carrying handles; only its wooden runners occasionally needed replacing. This stalwart stretcher, plus a first aid sack and a casualty bag, was left where it might be needed. In 1934, Dr Wilson Hey bravely flouted the law and stocked morphine at some rescue posts until, by 1949, the NHS contributed first aid equipment and morphine.

By the 1950s, not only were the numbers of hill walkers and rock climbers - from a wide variety of backgrounds - increasing but also mountaineering centres with full-time staff had arrived. In the Ogwen Valley the old lady who owned Ogwen Cottage gave the stretcher and first aid rucksack to the rescuer with the best footwear. In 1959 she sold her cottage to partners Ron James, Tony Mason and Trevor Jones. They started Ogwen Cottage Mountain School and the residential instructors, their friends and nearby mountaineers did all the rescues.

The early 1960s an increasing number of school children, youth groups and other young people were being introduced to mountains. Without basic training courses and qualifications for teachers, scout and youth leaders, sadly an unacceptable numbers of accidents, hypothermia cases and fatalities were happening. (NB Equipment then was very basic. It was still uncommon to wear waterproof trousers on wet days or crash hats on rock climbs and varying sizes of car and plane nuts, threaded onto slings, were rock climbers’ protection).

Before the end of the 1960s the first courses for teachers and youth leaders (the Mountain Leadership Certificate) and for professional instructors (the Mountaineering Instructor’s Certificate, MIC) had been designed and were running. (My MIC certificate, signed by Jack Longland and Fred Bristoe, is dated 5th August 1969.)

Whilst Ron James improved the technical side of rescues - he arranged for the Thomas Stretcher to be expertly split into two parts for ease of carrying uphill and he experimented with the Perche Barnarde and the Mariner stretchers and the Tragsitz that he had imported from abroad. Ron also founded the Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Organisation and ran training courses for carrying the Thomas stretcher and lowering it vertically down a cliff face with a ‘casualty’ for the enthusiastic volunteer rescuers who had varied full-time employment and hill experience. However the first aid training then available was a very basic St John’s course. It was woefully below the standard required.

It was after two tragic accidents that our first aid skills took a stratospheric leap forward. One person had died from a broken nose because at that time ‘leave treatment to the rescue team’ was general practice; a casualty was lying on his back with blood filling his lungs. Not long afterwards, because the ground was rocky and access with the stretcher was difficult, an injured person was picked up and carried towards the stretcher party. Death was due to severe internal injuries being caused, or compounded, by the untrained lift. I was more an observer of casualty care than a participator until one man’s initiative improved mountain rescue first aid training throughout Britain.
In 1967 Ieuan had put together a slide lecture that pulled no punches. In the University of Bangor’s New Arts lecture theatre every Thursday evening for a term, I enjoyed every minute of his fascinating talks and his challenging sense of humour. We soon learned that the number of puffs on his cigar, on a scale of one to three, would indicate the gory level of the next slide. He showed these pictures, many taken in hospital, in an attempt to accustom us to seeing unpleasant injuries; after three puffs it was not unusual for someone to pass out - often a man with a goatee beard! After the lecture we migrated to a nearby pub. It was a wonderful experience to be able to discuss with Ieuan topics raised in his lecture.

The practical training sessions and the very time-consuming individual practical examinations were run by Ieuan’s wife, Joan, a highly competent, very strict nurse. Ieuan’s advanced course was no less compelling thanks to his skilled teaching and the final part was a day spent in casualty. Wearing a white coat I felt the leg’s break, saw the x-ray and watched the leg being straightened and finally plastered; this invaluable experience will stay with me for ever.

On the first MIC course it was very noticeable that those of us in North Wales who were lucky to have benefited from Ieuan’s expertise were better trained that instructors from other centres in the UK. Soon scout groups and university climbing clubs, heard about Ieuan’s course, so those of us who had passed his instructor course ran the basic course around the country. Ieuan’s course did more to save lives on mountains, both in Britain and abroad, than any person I know. His courage in that era to train lay persons to diagnose and to make decisions on the mountain, often in far from perfect conditions, was unprecedented, yet he has received no reward. Ieuan was a very brave doctor and those unlucky enough to be injured owed him an enormous debt. For over twenty years, his hand had guided rescuers throughout the whole of Britain, yet most of the casualties never even knew his name. Sadly Joan died in 1992

'Itching to climb' can be ordered through.

Barbara James 2010©