In praise of mountain rescue

RescueMainland Britain is home to some 94 mountains – which in this example are those that have been identified having a relative height of 600 metres or more. When taking into account the smaller Marilyns (which have a relative height of at least 150 metres), the total grows to a staggering 1,551.

All this makes for a huge area for Brits to get out and explore. There’s the attraction of taking in some breathtaking views from the summit, not to mention the practice of so-called ‘munro bagging’, where avid climbers tick off mountains they’ve scaled in a bid to cover them all.

It also means, however, that there are plenty of dangerous territories across Britain which pose a real threat to the inexperienced climber. Thankfully, there are mountain rescue teams ready on hand to rescue those who have got themselves into peril. These experts take to the mountains to rescue lost or injured climbers, often without payment or reimbursement for their time. These everyday heroes are the Mountain Rescuers.

Location, location, location

Despite often being referred to as one of Britain’s emergency services (alongside the police, ambulance or fire services), mountain rescue teams are staffed almost entirely by volunteers. Further, each team operates as its own charity, responsible for generating funding alongside keeping the local area protected.

Though all teams from around Britain come under the umbrella of Mountain Rescue (England and Wales) or the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland, these are broken down further into local areas. In England and Wales, large geographic areas (such as the Lake District or South Wales) have their own regional mountain rescue associations, which each then have their own teams covering specific locations. So for example, the Mountain Rescue (England and Wales) organisation presides over the Lake District Search & Mountain Rescue Association, which in turn is the co-ordinating body of the Kendal Mountain Rescue Team (MRT).

Over the border in Scotland, meanwhile, it doesn’t drill down quite so far. Instead, there are 31 recognised mountain rescue teams that all come under the ‘Scottish Mountain Rescue’ banner. These are simply split into 27 volunteer mountain rescue teams, three police teams and one from the RAF. In total, some 1,000 volunteers give up their time to help keep people safe on the Scottish mountains.
Despite these demarcation lines, teams will often cross boundaries to support their fellow teams if needs dictate, seeing as time is very much of the essence in rescue operations.

The volunteers

Although the thought of mountain rescuers may invoke images of helicopter crews diving in to rescue someone lost out in the fading light, this is just one aspect of the numerous volunteer roles. Often, teams will be required to scale peaks on the fleet of off-road vehicles or even head out on foot. For this reason, volunteers need to not only be avid mountaineers but also prove a certain level of physical fitness.

Mountain rescue doesn’t start and end with helping stranded ramblers down from steep hills, though, Countless operations undertaken by mountain rescue teams include wading through fast moving water to help stranded swimmers, kayakers or others who have fallen foul of the water.

On top of fitness and a love of mountaineering, volunteers need to be wholly committed. The calls can come at any time of day or night, fair weather or foul, so volunteers must be ready and prepared for the call. At three in the morning, with driving wind and rain, volunteers can be sent on treacherous rescue operations to save someone who got themselves into trouble because of their own ineptitude or poor planning. Despite all this, the volunteers cannot decide or discriminate but instead head out to fulfil their duty to the best of their ability. This is a much rarer and more valuable trait than a love of the outdoors or reasonable fitness levels.

If all this wasn’t enough, a sympathetic ear is also required, as volunteers also have to deal with friends or family members of the stranded, who are sometimes more stressed or anxious than the person needing to be saved!

For mountain rescue volunteers, however, these early morning calls, trips out into the wilderness or traipses through rivers in all manner of conditions pale in insignificance to the pride they feel in representing the mountain rescue service and the inherent value in their efforts. This is what not just helps them get out for each rescue, but thoroughly enjoy doing so.

Getting involved

As countless sports coaches have attested over the years, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Most mountain rescue teams will accept volunteers of any age from 18 to 70 – or maybe even older – provided the individual is sufficiently fit. There are no qualifications required before signing up, but rigorous training will be offered.

This training is yet another way in which dedication is rewarded. After all, volunteers aren’t just called upon to rescue stranded individuals but also need to give up notable chunks of their time to keep up with their training. After all, sending an under-trained volunteer out on a daring rescue could end up making the situation more dangerous for all involved.

If all this seems a little too much of an undertaking, or individuals are not certain of their ability to carry out the job as well as expected of them, there’s no need to give up on mountain rescuing altogether. Many teams have other positions that volunteers can fill without having to commit to dawn trips up the mountainside. The wider support team can be tasked with anything from running the gift shop to keeping a presence online or even giving publicity talks.

Each team should have a list of available positions on its website, as well as links to application forms. All that’s left for individuals to do is find their most local team, seek out the right job for them and get involved!

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9 Responses

  1. Zoe Newsam

    I think you might find mainland Britain includes Scotland. Which has a tad more than 94 mountains over 600m…

    Ordnance Survey, the national cartography organisation? Really?!

    1. Tom

      Hi Zoe,

      We’re referring to relative height rather than absolute height. In terms of relative height, there are 82 mountains over 600m in Scotland, though as you say there are many more in terms of absolute height.

      We decided to use relative height rather than absolute height as we felt it would give a more accurate measure of how high the mountain feels to those climbing it and to Mountain Rescue teams aiding them.

  2. Bob Sharp

    Never in my 40 years of walking and climbing in the UK have I come across such a silly measure of height. What matters to walkers and rescuers (I’ve been involved in MR for 36 years) is the actual height one gains and looses. Your body tells you clearly about absolute height and not a relative measure. So, if you’re lowering a casualty some 200metres then that’s what it is and nothing less! I’m reminded of the old adage – KISS!

  3. Derek Hall

    Hi Tom,
    like Zoe I think your statement of 82 mountains over 600 metres is quite misleading,even although you refer to this as relative height.This is giving added status to hills like Goatfell on Arran and Ben More on Mull and the Cuillin in Skye which are ascended from sea level.
    Whereas it is mostly altitude that gives rise to more extreme weather conditions and causes exposure problems irrespective of the height from where the ascent would start .Consider the start of hills say at Glenshee which are considerably over 600 metres.

  4. Tom

    Hi Bob and Derek,

    As Bob mentioned – the actual height gained and lost when moving a casualty is hugely important – this is why we used relative height (the height of the climb from the base) in the article. That said, we recognise that there are other ways of defining mountains which could have been used and all peaks on our maps show the height from sea level.

  5. Zoe Newsam


    No-one else uses relative height. The Ordnance Survey yourselves use absolute height. The amount of height you gain & lose on a rescue has very little to do with relative height, as you rarely start that walk in from the point at which the relative height is measured, and it’s never a straight, simple ascent.

    I’m afraid the way the blog post is written conveys ignorance in its first sentence.

    1. Ah. So it is. If you are currently a Mountain Rescue team member do you have a photo we would be able to use? (it would have to be your photo or one where we would have the photographers permission).

      1. Jack

        Hi Jonathan,
        Have you got an email address I can send an image to? Or if you could email me with the address I have provided, I will attach one to my response.


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