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Cairngorm John: A Life In Mountain Rescue

Author John Allen
Publisher Sandstone Press
Reviewed by Ed Douglas
DateThursday, 19 November 2009
Rating 3 out of 5

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‘This is the nature of suspicion,’ warns John Allen in his autobiography Cairngorm John: A Life in Mountain Rescue. ‘Once it has entered any system it is difficult to eradicate.’ It’s a little depressing but hardly surprising if there’s more suspicion washing around the dramatic world of mountain rescue these days. Just consider the statistics.

Scottish mountain rescue recorded 387 outdoor recreation call-outs in 2008. That’s a rise of 16 percent on 2007. The number of non-recreation incidents also rose from 125 to 140. Alongside that increase, the appetite of the media remains voracious; mountain rescue stories have become a regular staple, bringing new and often ill-informed pressures on what remains a volunteer organisation.

Allen’s worm of suspicion has, in this particular case, prompted him to wonder about those ‘victims’ who take advantage of their recent ordeal. He recalls the case of Jacqueline Greaves, the 53-year-old grandmother who found herself marooned for two nights in February 1994 on the Cairngorm Plateau and told the press soon after her rescue that she was ‘looking forward to a pint of Guinness.’

After Jacqueline made a few quid – actually, a substantial five-figure sum – recalling for a tabloid newspaper how guardian angels had prevented her from falling over a cliff, the appetite for similar stories mushroomed and the inevitable happened: someone faked his own emergency and then pitched to the media that they might like to have his exclusive story – for a fee.

Not surprisingly, Allen takes a dim view of this kind of behaviour and suggests Jacqueline Greaves might have given a portion of her windfall to the organisation that brought her to safety. I imagine these thoughts were more forcibly expressed in the pub than they are in Allen’s book.

Such cynicism isn’t confined to Scotland. Chamonix mountain rescue doctor and guide Emmanuel Cauchy, towards the end of his outstandingly readable memoir Hanging by a Thread, reflects on how the relationship between practitioner and client has been strained:

‘For guides, safety has become essential, sometimes at the expense of a spirit of adventure and discovery. My guide friends often come to me for information, wanting to know exactly what happened, from the medical point of view, in an accident. I try to stay neutral and that’s not always easy. I’m one of them, after all. I am also a great supporter of freedom of action in the savage arenas of the mountains. This is the difference between mountaineering and other sports. Yet I am also of the opinion that there must be limits. Clients are not objects, they must be treated with respect.’

Both these books reflect on decades of service saving lives in the mountains, but they are chalk and cheese in tone. Cauchy’s story is high-octane stuff, a kind of literary crack. I genuinely couldn’t put it down. And far from being full of bravado and self-love, it reveals a world of grim humour and occasional lapses of judgement, of exhaustion and periodic resentment, along with some truly astounding rescues.

If you’ve ever watched a helicopter on its way to a rescue while jamming up a granite crack in the Chamonix Aiguilles and wondered what happened next, then this is the book for you. It’s much more like the real ER than Everest ER. Just be prepared for some bracing but often life-affirming honesty. Faced with yet another corpse to collect – a corpse that later miraculously comes back to life after some pretty nifty interventions – Cauchy is ruthlessly honest about what’s in his head:

‘I was reminded of the feeling I used to get when I first started out. The selfish relief I felt on learning that the victim was dead and nothing more could be done. I was more worried about the help I was going to be able to give than the tragedy the person’s death would be for their friends and relations.’

Perhaps because he’s so aware of his own shortcomings – he has his own share of epics that he’s happy to laugh about – Cauchy is never critical of those scooped up by the rescue helicopter. We tend to be wary of professional rescue services on the Continent, but gosh, it turns out they’re as foolishly in love with the mountains as the rest of us.

John Allen’s story is told at a less breakneck speed. I’ve had cause to interview him a couple of times following accidents in the Cairngorms and found him measured, even cautious. He’s not the only MRT leader who likes to keep the media at arm’s length, and I can’t say I blame him much. As the great Vinny Jones once said: ‘Too many people have too much to say about stuff they don’t understand.’

Informing the media, however, is one of the reasons, Allen says, that he decided to tell his story. And that means reheating some old controversies, mostly to show how they got it wrong. Most striking to me, because I know her widower, was the tragic death of Jane Thomas, who perished from hypothermia on the Plateau, and its heated aftermath.

Allen blames misleading headlines following Thomas’ death for sparking a damaging public debate among rescue doctors about treating hypothermia. Jane was located not by the Cairngorm MRT, but by rescuers from the RAF. They decided that she was not only still alive, but might be saved. As Allen points out, given the circumstances in which she was found, it seems highly likely that Jane was already dead. Even if she wasn’t, she was beyond saving.

Nevertheless, the RAF’s attempts, which included cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, left the impression that Thomas might have been saved. In fact, giving CPR to someone in a deeply hypothermic state prompts the heart to fibrillate with usually fatal results.

Cauchy, in his book, recalls a similar case – but resolved in a hospital emergency room – where a man who’d been down a crevasse for three nights with a core temperature of 23°C had his heart shocked back into life. (This was after a doctor unwisely, and against advice, started CPR.)

Similar cases to Cauchy’s but in the Swiss Alps prompted Dr Alastair MacGregor, a former medical officer with the Scottish Mountain Rescue Committee, to tell a journalist that there ought to be a ‘heightened awareness in methods of resuscitation for victims of severe hypothermia’ while adding that this was not criticism of those who attended Jane Thomas.

Those who did treat her, however, were not impressed and through gritted teeth told the same journalist they were well aware of their duties. Allen tells us that with Thomas’s husband and family grieving this was no time for public debate, but felt compelled to write to the press to set the record straight.

Jane Thomas died in 1993 but the resentment this one story created still clearly burns. Allen doesn’t mention where it appeared or who wrote it. But it seems likely to me that the journalist sniffed a controversial angle and bounced the doctors involved into responding to something that was largely manufactured. It’s an ugly world.

Then again, hypothermia is still a mysterious condition. Doctors do have different opinions. It’s not the end of the world if they disagree. Cauchy, in his book, is quite open about such issues, and more informative than Allen, despite the latter’s attention to detail. I think the lesson is that however much you dislike journalists, have a strong approach to dealing with them – and don’t allow one story to sour relationships.

How would the media respond if the 1971 Cairngorm tragedy, when six schoolchildren were lost in a blizzard, happened today? Given how the BBC dealt with the OMM adventure race last year, the pressure would be intense. The police are masters at media management. Do mountain rescue teams recognise that?

Alas, the world is not as restrained as it used to be. Allen gives a hilarious example of how things have changed in his long career. A teacher, lost in mist with 39 London schoolchildren on the benign slopes of Meall a’Bhuachaille, calls for rescue. The teacher demands a helicopter. There’s a polite but determined exchange of views. Does the teacher have a map? Er, sort of. The mist lifts, revealing the easy path down. Now they are not lost. But they are frightened.

Finally, the team set out for Meall a’Bhuachaille to lead the schoolgirls off only to discover that they’ve got bored waiting and have come down anyway. ‘What kept you?’ quips one of the girls as the two parties meet. Kids, eh? I’m not sure why Allen chooses not to mention the school’s name. Why be coy? It took six seconds with Google to remind me it was the Beth Jacobs Seminary for Girls. I wonder where the teacher is now?

There’s no doubt that the mountain rescue service in the United Kingdom is a remarkable organisation. Or rather, many organisations, since each team maintains a large amount of autonomy. John Allen’s generation, now winding down to retirement, grew up in a world that seems now to be a foreign land. (His mother was a prison officer at Barlinnie Prison in the 1930s. Now there’s a role model.)

Younger generations grow up expecting services to be delivered. Why? Because they live in a world of turbo-charged consumerism where ‘delivery’ is all politicians talk about. The mismatch between the girls at Beth Jacobs and the tough, self-reliant world John Allen grew up in is striking. Mountain rescue teams developed in Allen’s youth to help like-minded hill-goers in distress. Now rescue teams are abused by bored school kids dressed in bin-liners.

Worse, according to Allen, is the tendency by the police to use lowland Scottish teams for non-recreation purposes. This is distorting the original purpose of mountain rescue. Lowland teams, he says, can pump up their call-out numbers and so qualify for greater financial support. There’s a drift to treating mountain rescue as a more general, but still amateur, search and rescue service. He fears a split between those who still focus on the mountains and these more generalised teams.

Allen is clearly a man with strong opinions, and no doubt those he excoriates in this book will have their own take on things. (Apart from the media, he seems to have it in for Scottish conservation charities.) But if you want an in-depth look at the challenges facing mountain rescue, and the immense contribution it makes, then Allen’s book is an invaluable source.


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