Hidden dangers lurk in hills

Winter Safety in the Hills
Winter Safety in the Hills

THE less than eagerly anticipated winter weather began to strike at the weekend, and whilst many of us would consider doing anything but heading for the hills in such weather, for others it is just like a huge playground.

However, last year the Border Search and Rescue Unit was inundated with callouts during the winter, prompting team members Damon Rodwell and Mark Tennant to issue some winter safety advice.

Damon said: “This time of year is a favourite with many of the folk who spend time in the hills, and we Borderers are lucky to live in a real gem of a playground, but the games we play in winter can very quickly become serious.

“We may not have the dramatic grandeur of the Highlands, but the weather in our uplands can be every bit as fickle, and the beautiful rolling nature of our hills can make navigation pretty tricky at times.”

The Border Search and Rescue Unit can call upon almost 24 volunteers at any hour of the day, 365 days of the year, and the team are getting ready for another busy winter period.

“We’re now busy gearing up for the heavy-weather callouts that we get through the winter,” said Damon.

“These may be as simple as helping the ambulance service to reach snowed-in casualties in their homes, but can also involve mass turnouts on snowy nights on the hilltops, searching for lost walkers.

“We are very keen to encourage people to enjoy the outdoors – it is a passion all team-members share - but we would like to offer some advice on staying safe outdoors through the winter.”

• File a route plan before you leave and make sure someone knows where you’re going. If you change your plan, try to phone home with the changes.

•Many winter incidents are caused by people not having a head-torch, and spare batteries. Don’t get caught out in the dark!

•Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. The weather can change incredibly quickly in the winter hills. Even if it is calm and sunny when you set out, there’s every chance it will be blowing a hooley and tipping down sleet by lunchtime. Take spare warm layers, hat, gloves and – most importantly – a waterproof outer layer.

• Carry a mobile phone, and make sure the battery is fully charged before you leave.

•Make sure you can spot the early signs of hypothermia, which include uncontrolled shivering, lethargy, confusion and lack of co-ordination.  Carry warm, spare clothing, a water and windproof layer and extra food to keep energy levels up. A hot flask is also essential. Hypothermia kills. If you’re struggling, find shelter from wind and rain.

•Even in our local hills there is plenty of ground sufficiently steep to make ice-axe and crampons essential in winter conditions. Make sure you pay attention to the weather; cold temperatures with snow on the ground lead to hard, slippery conditions underfoot. If you’re not suitably equipped, avoid steep ground.

•Many of today’s smart-phones have built-in GPS (satellite navigation). If you’re relying on this, make sure you know how to use it, and what the figures mean. It’s no substitute for a good working knowledge of map and compass, but it can be handy in pinpointing your position if you’re lost in very poor visibility.

•With all electronic equipment, make sure you leave home with fully charged batteries. Batteries can be much less efficient in very low temperatures, so carry spares. Keep electronic equipment close to your body (in inside pockets) to keep it warm and working properly.

•Have escape routes worked out in advance. If you become lost on high ground, call home to report your last-known position if you have a signal, then retreat to lower ground, out of the wind and the cloud if possible.

• If you’re in a group, keep together, especially in poor visibility.

•If things go belly-up and you need help, call 999 or 112 and ask for the police and then mountain rescue.

•The following information will make your speedy rescue much more likely: location - this can be a map grid reference, lat/long co-ordinates from a GPS or just a rough approximation of where you think you are; the condition of any casualties; the number in your party; mobile numbers of anyone in your group.

Damon said: “Every year we have callouts to attend people who have come unstuck through neglect of the basics.

“Accidents will happen, but keeping safe in the hills is almost always a simple matter of proper planning, suitable equipment, recognising your limitations and sticking to the sensible side of dangerous.”

The Border Search and Rescue Unit, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2013, keeps three fully equipped bespoke off-road vehicles, one of which is due for replacement, at its base in Kelso.

Damon said: “Mountain medicine is a very specialised discipline, requiring a particular set of skills, a body of expert knowledge that has been built up by mountain rescue teams over the last century and a large arsenal of equipment designed to facilitate the treatment and extraction of casualties from the hills.

“These casualties are often found in a state of advanced hypothermia with possible spinal injuries and other complications that make prompt and careful treatment critical.”

As well as being called out to help in the hills, the team are also regularly called upon to help the police and other emergency services in searches for missing people across the Borders, north Northumberland and Midlothian.In river searches they can call upon the expertise of their web-footed colleagues in the Borders Underwater Search Team.

Damon added: “Our membership is drawn from all walks of society. We have medical professionals, teachers, engineers, civil servants, businessmen, current and former military personnel and a motley collection of other volunteers.

“The common theme is an altruistic commitment to search and rescue, a high level of physical, technical and medical training and a willingness to drop everything when the call goes out, grab a pre-packed rucksack and head for the hills.

“If this article has been useful, or if you enjoy the outdoors, please donate to the Border Search and Rescue Unit by texting BSAR41 £3 to 70070 (the amount can be anything from £1 to £10).

“We have average annual expenses, including purchase and maintenance of vehicles and equipment, of about £30,000 - the majority of which we raise through charitable donations.”

For more information on the unit, including details on how to volunteer, visit www.bordersar.org.uk