Friday, 11 November 2016

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

Written in 1974, Chris Brasher's article originally published in the BMC's Mountain Life magazine, tapped into the widespread public concern that was being expressed at the time, in relation to a series of mountain tragedies and close shaves involving parties of young people taking part in mountain expeditions organised by schools and outdoor education centres. Hard to imagine now in an age when schools, outdoor centres and those involved in outdoor education have become paranoid about public liability and fear of litigation, back in those far off days,rules and regulations which governed the actions of organisations and individuals taking youngsters on outdoor activity courses, was of course, far more relaxed. 'Abandoning' youngsters in a mountain environment and leaving them to survive and return through their own skills without interference from instructors, was an integral part of a centre's survival and navigation course experiences.

Ironically,the increased regulation and tightening up of outdoor education in the UK has led to massive decrease in the number of youngsters now experiencing outdoor activities. With many LEA outdoor centres since the 1970's now closed down and sold off, and outdoor charities forced to likewise cease their activities, there are many who would argue that the initially well intentioned actions of the state, has had a serious detrimental effect on outdoor education in the UK.

Everyone of us who has ever been in charge of a party of boys or girls on a mountain expedition must fear the thought of the moment when we have to call out the search parties. On Sunday March 17th that moment came to Chris Abel, the master in charge of adventure training at Bredon School, Tewkesbury. The fear is of the hullabaloo that follows every major search for a party of kids — the enquiries by news reporters and television teams, the criticism of other climbers and the tut-tutting of the public. But, that fear can, and must, never interfere with one's responsibility to call for help as soon as it is needed. I myself have known this fear when three different parties of boys were late at their camp site on an exercise that I had set.An exercise which I know now had too many boys in it and was too arduous. Luckily they were all rounded up — after a vast expenditure of my energy — before dark. And I have been on the other end, quizzing masters in charge of parties that have involved massive searches and then writing about it in the press. So now I examine myself before putting pen to paper and I employ one criterion: would publicity help enlighten others and perhaps — just perhaps — help prevent the same sort of thing happening again?

One has to be careful about being too pompous. There is after all no such thing as a safe mountain. With our unpredictable British weather almost any mountain, however apparently welcoming, and at any time of the year, can be dangerous to people without the complete skills and judgement of the mountaineer. So accidents will happen. Having said that, the case of the Bredon schoolboys and Chris Abel, the master in charge, does warrant examination because, in my opinion, there are one or two factors which resemble the case of the massive search for the Hertfordshire schoolboys on the Carneddau last Easter. Bredon School have a cottage called Dorwen (OS sheet 153, G.R. 772 148). On Saturday March 16th, after a morning of instruction in climbing and abseiling, six boys from the school, aged between 13 and 15, set out in two parties of three — one party at 13.50 hrs. and the other at 14.10 hrs. Their route was via the Trig point 1547 and then to Bwlch y Giedd (2,400 feet), on the shoulder of Bannau Brycheiniog, and then by a very steep sheep track (not marked on the map) which leads past the southern end of Lyn y Fan-Fawr to a rendezvous on a minor road at GR 852214 (OS sheet 140). The distance; according to the school, is nine or ten miles and they were supposed to rendezvous with Chris Abel at 17.30 — approximately three and a half hours after they set out.

They carried two emergency rucksacks between the six of them. Each sack contained one tent, one sleeping bag, a plastic bag holding spare clothing, and a one man 24-hour food pack plus one pound of chocolate. Each sack weighed about 24 pounds when dry, perhaps 30 pounds when wet. Each boy had an anorak, a nylon cagoule and corduroy or cavalry-twill trousers. None of them had waterproof trousers and some were without a woollen cap or gloves because the weather was good when they set out. The boys reached the Bwlch at 16.35 hrs by which time, the mist had come down and the wind had risen. In unpleasant conditions -strong wind, cloud and a hint of hail — conditions with which they were not familiar- they could not find the sheep track and rather than face the steep slope down to the llyn they decided to turn back. For some reason (perhaps fear of the steep escarpment on the East) they did not attempt their planned alternative route of coming down the SSE ridge of the mountain (a gentle ridge) until meeting the main road at Gwyn Arms. (This ridge, incidentally, is part of the proposed Cambrian Way)

 They camped before dark -sunset on that Saturday was just after 18.00 hours- beside a stream at the estimated position 816214. When they did not turn up at the rendezvous point, Mr. Abel and two others started looking for them. Two of the searchers reached the Bwlch at 18.30 and blew their whistles. The boys who were no more than three quarters of a mile away, heard the whistles but the searches did not hear the boys' reply; perhaps because of the wind? Next morning, Sunday March 17th, Chris Abel walked up from Dorwen cottage to Trig point 1547. Visibility was good and the Bwlch was clear. He scanned the whole area with his binoculars and could see no sign of movement. He then went back to the cottage and called out the search teams. That Sunday afternoon more than 100 people searched the area and found nothing. One of the boys was feeling ill and this seems to have spread a certain amount of lethargy amongst the rest of the team. At one time during the day they left their camp standing and went up the Bwlch to try to cross it but were again turned back. They were not found and they settled down to another uncomfortable night, during which there was a slight snowfall.

Next morning, Monday March 18th, they struck camp and set off back to the cottage. They were sighted and rescued by an R.A.F. helicopter at about 0900 hours when they were less than one and a half miles south of their camp site and three and a half miles from the cottage. Chris Abel says that similar parties from the school have regularly done this trip on many occasions before in both directions. Experience, he says, shows that 3-1/2 hours is a reasonable time for it. He himself has been organising this type of expedition for the school for 10 years and before that he was at the Devon Outward Bound School. (Some instructors will no doubt comment that the law of averages had to catch up with him sometimes). He did not set the boys off at an earlier hour because they were involved in climbing and abseiling instruction and because he wanted them to be well briefed and to have a good lunch. The trouble arose, he feels, because one of the party was not feeling well and because the cloud came down half an hour earlier — and it came 1,000 feet lower — than had been forecast.

Now for our comments:

1. The distance by the best route on the map is 8 miles. The height gained is 1700 feet. Two boys out of the six were loaded and the speed of any party is the speed of the slowest. Using the R.A.F. formula for a loaded party of 2-1/2 miles per hour plus one hour for every 1,500 feet gained, the formula time for the expedition is 4 hour 20 minutes. This would put the boys at the rendezvous point at 18.20 hours — after sunset. We realise that formulae are no substitute for experience and Chris Abel has far more experience of this area than we do. Nevertheless, is this not another typical instance of that terrible British habit (of which we ourselves have been guilty many times) of setting out late in the day and not allowing an ample margin of time before dusk. Should not we aim to be at our terminal point by mid-afternoon — or earlier — thus allowing plenty of time for wrong route finding, not feeling well, dawdling over lunch or any of the other diversions that seem to spring up in the hills?

It is worth recalling that the Cairngorm party did not set out until well past mid-day and that the Hertfordshire boys were still at the stream in Cwm Eigiau at 16.00 hours when they were supposed to rendezvous on the summit of Foel Gras at 17.30 hours.

2. Again there is a similarity with the Carneddau incident in that the crux of the Bredon schoolboys' expedition — the crossing of the Bwlch — came near the end of the expedition when there was much less than two hours to darkness. Should not the crux of any "adventure training" expedition come early in the day when the boys are fresh? It then gives them a tremendous glow of achievement to speed their way for the rest of the day.

3. This business of staying put. Many experienced mountaineers felt that all the praise lavished on the Hertfordshire schoolboys (including a Mayoral reception!) for their "sense" in staying put would only lead to other parties of schoolboys bedding down for the night at the first sign of trouble and then waiting to be rescued. If this sounds harsh, then please remember that the Hertfordshire boys were "found" by a couple from Cambridge after they had been "lost" for over 18 hours but they did not want to go down to the Conway Valley with the Cambridge couple because it was in the opposite direction to their rendezvous. And what, may we ask, were the "well- trained" Bredon schoolboys doing throughout Sunday when conditions were such that their master could see the whole route up to the Bwlch.

The pendulum of human experience as tends to swing in an exaggerated way. Before we knew about Mountain Hypothermia, lives were lost because parties and individuals would press on when conditions got bad, the body got wet and exhaustion approached. So out went the call "to stay put and keep warm". And very good advice it is. But it does not mean staying put for two or three nights when conditions are such that escape is more than feasible. Because if this goes on then the fears of those people after the Carneddau incident — fears that our lives would be spent looking for "stay put" parties — may well turn out to be only too true. 

Perhaps it all comes down to this one to truth: that a party is only ‘well-equipped’ in and ‘well-trained’ if it is able to cope with the worst conditions that are liable to be encountered on any expedition. We confess that if that ‘truth’ was always rigidly applied then many famous climbs, many famous expeditions, would never have taken place. But we put it to all our readers that there is a world of difference between an expedition undertaken by — as the phrase goes — ‘consenting adults’ and those set by a school, education authority or outdoor pursuits centre when those in charge are "in loco parentis" to the boys or girls who are setting out on the expedition.
Chris Brasher: Mountain Life-April/May 1974