An Interview with Dave Rutledge, Training Officer for the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team
During the visit to the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team, Dave Rutledge, the team's training officer was interviewed to find out more about the team’s work, how they operate and what life is like as a rescuer
How long have you been in the Mountain Rescue team?
Since 1991, so 26 years.
What made you join the team?
It was a love of the hills, and an interest in people. Combining these with instructing in the hills, I recognised people get into difficulties, it could be me or someone I work with. I felt I could offer something back. I’ve always had a kind of interest in doing that. Someone I was working with was leaving the area and suggested that I take their place.
Is there quite a variety of people in the team?
Absolutely. There’s no set standard for where they’re coming from or what profession they have. The team combines a whole load of skills. However, the key thing that links everyone is a grounding in Scottish winter, the ability to not just navigate, but survive comfortably in winter conditions is vital. Within that, we’re well equipped with folk from all walks of life, teachers, doctors, joiners and police.
Are there any particular rescues that stand out in your memory?
A fair few. The vast majority of our call outs are in winter. Shorter daylight, more extreme conditions that enable people to get misplaces, so naturally that’s going to happen, and folks find it difficult to extract themselves. Poor conditions, at night, when you can’t see anything in front of you, there’s numerous occasions when that comes to mind. Some stand out because of the successes, some stand out because they ended in a negative result. Both are equally memorable.
How frequently are you called out?
Throughout the year we have between 30-50 call out. Of those some are very quick, a know location, a single casualty, that can pretty much be dealt with by one person on the end of a phone. I have been in the position where I’ve left the house and talked somebody down having ascertained their location, confirmed that and decided the best option was to talk them through the locations they were going to find and checking back with them. That’s quite a scary thing to do and a big decision to make, so when that concludes, that’s great.
And then there are the times when we’re into big, not just multi day, but multi month searches. If someone has been lost in an avalanche when we have no idea of what their route was, whilst we would obviously go and urgently search for the first few days, it’s then difficult to sustain that and it might take many months or might take a complete thawing before they are found.
That must take quite a lot of resources, is there quite a big team here?
Yes, it does require the team to be quite committed and we try to manage that to the best of our ability, using other resources as well. If we have a full team call out for a day, then obviously you can’t expected them all to come back the next day, so we’ll then draft in other teams from the locality and the RAF to assist. But it’s amazing how much time people are prepared to give.
Are there any particular weather types that catch people out more often than others?
I think people are generally better equipped now for the weather conditions they are going out in, not just in terms of the stuff that they are wearing, but in terms of the information that they gather before they start. Obviously, people have access to electronic media, they can access on their way up in the car, it’s not just a printed forecast on a board somewhere. So people are more quipped for the day than they ever have been. Having said that, it’s not 100% reliable. To access the area is that much faster now and people are thinking we can make a real day of this, driving up from the south of England maybe, and this is the tick list we wish to do this winter or this weekend. Therefore they have a tunnel vision to tick off that hill top or specific climb, and very little else is going to get in the way of that. People that work really hard on their climbing level in indoor walls where weather wasn’t a factor are transferring those skills to the outside and things like navigation come in as being a key element, grades can change because winter conditions can be thin or more loaded. All of these things factor in and catch people out.
How best would you advise people to prepare for going out into the hills?
The first thing is not to just look at it as a day out, but the preparation and lead in time is vital too. Certainly in Scottish winter, what’s happened in the previous few days is as important as what’s going to happen on that day. So, which way has the wind been blowing and has it brought in fresh snow? What were the conditions before that, so what is that fresh snow lying on? All of these are things that people should be thinking about before they head out.
Obviously it’s important to get as much information as possible, and there’s an awful lot of very good information out there, including the Met Office mountain forecasts. People should be fully prepared for, and able to interpret this information for where they are going. A willingness to turn around is important, so when you set foot on the ground and you’re thinking ‘I don’t like this, the wind’s stronger than we thought, the cloud’s down lower than we were expecting, let’s change our plan’, whatever it is, there’s always something you can do, not necessarily the one objective you were looking for.
Things start to go a bit wrong, at what stage should someone look to call out Mountain Rescue?
With things like mobile phone there could be an urgency to get in touch quickly. In terms of mountain rescue, if someone is getting cold or someone’s injured then it becomes a straight forward get in touch. Dial 999, go through to the police and they will then contact us and we can go to that location. If we have a set location, things become much much easier. If people can sort themselves out, then fantastic and often they can by just calming down, rationally looking at their last known position, and by having the navigation skills required to go out in Scottish winter, the ability to use and map and compass and have them in good working order. It’s no good going out with a big, full landranger map that gets blown away in the wind, or gets soaking wet. You have to think about how you can protect it, because that is what’s going to get you off the hill, not just your map app, which may be really useful but doesn’t negate the ability to use a map and compass and have them with you.
I think a lot of times people can get themselves off, but being out in bad weather, people have got to experience that and have got to nurture themselves into it, go out with people that are familiar with those sort of conditions so that you’re not suddenly hit with something you’ve never come across before. And don’t just have one route, but have ways of getting out of those weather conditions, getting low quickly are really important, so you can recognise escape routes and be able to use them. Look at those routes in terms of how the snow is loaded up, because if that escape route is avalanche prone, it’s going to be of no use to you.
If we come out, it’s going to be a while, that’s a given. So the ability to protect yourself from the elements and having good kit is important. Carrying a group shelter is a really useful bit of advice. You can get out of the weather. Getting into one of these raises the spirits, but raises the temperature as well and that can make a big difference.
Mountain rescue teams are made up entirely of volunteers who give their time freely to go into the mountains in any weather in aid of those in need. They rely heavily on donations. For more information and to make a donation please visit: