No-one heads for the hills thinking it’s going to end badly. But sometimes, it just does.
We hadn’t been to the English Lake District since 2018, a long interruption in a sequence of visits going back almost 40 years. The pandemic, family issues – there were lots of reasons for the gap.
But to say we were keen to get back would be an understatement. I first fell in love with the Lakes in 1984, as an impecunious postgrad at Lancaster, at a place called Stickle Tarn. I had somehow scrambled together the cash for a decent pair of walking boots and, after a steep climb, crossed the lip of the hill onto the plateau below Pavey Ark and the Langdale Pikes. I turned to drink in the view down the glorious rift of Great Langdale, to its easterly origins and distant views of Lake Windermere, and my heart was captured.
Later, we honeymooned in the Lakes, took our kids there from infancy to teenhood, returned as a couple – we always had it in our minds as a place (perhaps the place) to return to.
And so it was on that fateful day this last August. What’s more, it was the year’s simple holiday – no airports, no Covid documentation, just jumping in a car, driving north, staying somewhere nice in familiar and much-loved scenery, and most importantly, spending time with loved ones.
We had a tradition of always doing a warm-up walk on Day 1 of a Lake District holiday, and on this occasion, that meant revisiting the sacred spot where my affections were first kindled – Stickle Tarn. Just far enough to warm up the muscles and joints; longer walks like the Fairfield Horseshoe could wait till later.
And so we headed up the steep, but relatively short ascent, gently re-acclimatising ourselves to the challenges of fell walking. We reached the tarn, ate our sandwiches then headed back, all in perfect walking weather – until…
Well, we’ll no doubt try to analyse what happened in that precise moment until we run out of data with which to do so – and I guess we need to, because it was traumatic, and needs working through – but there was a moment when Karen was standing, and then a moment when she wasn’t. Her feet had gone from under her, her left hand went to steady the fall but instead her wrist was cracked, awkwardly and very painfully, by the impact. We knew immediately something was badly wrong.
The irony was that the walk was all but done. The end point was within easy reach, but the small, steep rock ledge on which Karen had fallen was sufficiently inaccessible, and inescapable, that I saw very quickly that the situation was beyond us. Like suddenly living in a dramatised account of our day out, I found myself in a 999 call asking for Mountain Rescue.
One positive: we were relatively lucky not to have been further up the mountain. Another was that the weather was decent. The most important, though, was engaging with the good people from the Langdale and Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team.
Karen was in an enormous amount of pain, so we were extremely relieved when the Team turned up much sooner than the call handler had led us to believe they would. (Perhaps that’s the protocol – to give the people awaiting rescue a lift when their expectations are exceeded).
Meticulously, professionally, reassuringly, the team members marshalled the situation, applying a splint, seeking to kill the pain, monitoring vitals, and eventually stretchering Karen off the mountain to a waiting ambulance. I tried to play my part by simply doing what I was told and helping Karen where I could, but in-between times I watched the camaraderie, the teamwork, the empathy and the great good humour of these people.
And that’s the point. These are ordinary guys, volunteering to help people in distress, giving up their personal time to turn dark moments into something better. You won’t see them astride the national stage, jostling for profile in traditional or social media. They’re not seeking attention – they have something simpler, but more profound in mind.
Specifically, other people. They give of themselves for other people. And in so doing, they’re truly an example to us all.
It’s probable that none of this surprises you. Any of us who’ve seen in action those who place public service at the heart of their values, whatever the setting, knows how profoundly moving and inspiring this is. It’s a variant of that most profound of human motivations, altruism.
We were fortunate to experience this with the Mountain Rescue team, and with all those working in the NHS who, subsequently, have been working hard on Karen’s recovery. We need such role models in these troubled times.
In fact, my own strong view is that we should place them in the foreground of how we think about society. This particular blog isn’t the place for politics (you can read my other blogs for that), but any society that has as its foundation the ethos that the Langdale and Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team demonstrated on that fellside really does stand half a chance, against all odds.
Thanks, guys, from both of us. And, if I may be so bold, from everyone else in civilised society.
PS – if you feel moved to make a donation to the wonderful Langdale and Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team, the relevant webpage is here.