Dangerous, intense, disorientating: A daring Christmas mountain rescue
Winter walking is rewarding but can be hazardous, as several hikers discovered last year
Christmas 2017 was a tough and physically demanding time for KMRT, but nobody complained. The important fact was that eight people had been rescued with nobody seriously injured. Photograph: Getty Images
About 8am on December 26th, 2017, Alan Wallace set off to climb Carrauntoohil, accompanied by this brother-in-law, Ger and 18-year-old son, David. A long-standing tradition exists of climbing to the roof of Ireland on St Stephen’s Day, but this morning Wallace found the mountain hushed and eerily deserted. Deep snow blanketed MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, and the weather forecast was predicting further deterioration; this had deterred the usual horde of holiday-time walkers.
His group was well prepared. A long-serving member of Kerry Mountain Rescue Team (KMRT), he is an experienced mountaineer with an intimate knowledge of the terrain. Summiting around noon, the trio encountered rapidly worsening weather. An icy gale whipped across the snowfields, while a white-out had descended on the mountain. Disorientating and dangerous, this is a condition where it becomes impossible to distinguish earth from sky.
Soon enveloped by a full-on blizzard and with no visible landmarks, they were forced to navigate by compass. Wallace recalls: “These were some of the most challenging conditions I have encountered on the [MacGillycuddy’s] Reeks. The snow was waist-deep, visibility was virtually zero, a storm was raging and the cold was intense.”
Well-equipped and experienced, the group descended a gully known as the Devil’s Ladder. Safely off the mountain, they were making their way towards the carpark and the promise of food and an evening with family, when out of the gloom loomed the KMRT rescue vehicles. Clearly, someone was in trouble.
The news: a climber was lost on Carrauntoohil. Wallace immediately grasped the gravity of this: in the prevailing weather it would be almost impossible to survive a night on open mountainside. It was imperative the climber be located quickly. Famished and cold after a long day, Wallace, nevertheless, joined his fellow volunteers in the rescue effort.
Having identified his location as somewhere on the southeast of the mountain, the climber was advised to stay put and await rescue. Several teams then headed out into the storm and began a laborious sweep search.
Eventually, the casualty was located in deep snow near Carrauntoohil summit. Now enveloped by darkness, the team had to painstakingly assist him down for immediate transfer to hospital.
In the meantime, two other climbers reported they had also become lost while descending Carrauntoohil. A team was dispatched to their location, which was on steep ground approximately 400m above the Devil’s Ladder. Now followed the physically demanding task of helping the climbers – who were showing the early symptoms of hypothermia – to descend the snow-choked and slippery Devil’s Ladder.
One of the pair soon began losing sensation in his feet, so it became more urgent to get down for rewarming. Ploughing through the deep snowdrifts proved extremely demanding, however. A fresh team, including Wallace, was dispatched to help the tiring rescuers. “It was tough going, but eventually, we managed to get the exhausted and dangerously cold climbers down for transfer to hospital,” said Wallace.
As the team were about to stand down, a third emergency call was received. A high-altitude camper reported his tent had been destroyed by the storm. The exact location of the causality was unclear, with communication difficult on a poor phone connection; then the signal died.
Working on scant information, the most likely position appeared to be the Black Valley side of the Reeks. As much of the nation celebrated St Stephen’s night with family and friends, the team transferred to this isolated area and commenced a sweep search by torchlight that continued into the early hours of December 27th, but to no avail.
According to Wallace “searching for a casualty on a dark, stormy night without location coordinates is like looking for a needle in a haystack”. That night Wallace reached his home in Killarney at 2.30am. His sleep would be short, however; the search resumed at 8am.
With its renowned fickleness, the Kerry weather now bestowed a crystal-clear morning. A rescue helicopter could be safely deployed, and soon the camper was located. Winched from a ridge – known as The Bone – he was transferred to hospital, while the team members recovered his belongings, before returning to their families in late afternoon.
Next day, there was another callout which came just before midnight. A group of three climbers reported that one of them had fallen 10m and broken a leg on Carrauntoohil’s Howling Ridge. Evacuating a casualty in ice and snow conditions from the ridge – which is graded very difficult – would involve a highly technical operation.
After discussion, it was decided to postpone the evacuation until morning. An advance party of two was dispatched in the interim with food, warm drinks, spare clothing and first aid to stabilise the casualty and prepare for rescue at first light.
This party consisted of KMRT volunteers, Piaras Kelly and Aidan Forde. According to Kelly: “It was a horrendous night when we set out; the rain was bucketing down. This meant it was snowing heavily at altitude. Luckily, it began to clear as we climbed and eventually, we could pick out the three headtorches.
“Reaching the group about 3am, we found they had already moved off the ridge. Assessing the injury, we concluded the leg was not broken, so it was possible to assist the group to Carrauntoohil’s summit. We then decided to short-rope them down by the Devil’s Ladder,” explained Kelly.
Just when all seemed under control, the mountain played its final card: the rescuers were enveloped by a severe thunder storm. Kelly recalls: “Lightning flashes lit the mountains like daylight and thunder rolled. Carrying steel ice-axes we were petrified, but there was nothing that could be done. We just continued bringing the casualties down.”
The storm passed, but in a final cruel twist, Kelly badly sprained his ankle in a hole concealed by snow. “I was in agony, nearly as bad as the casualty. Another couple of volunteers had to be called, but eventually we managed to reach safety and dispatch the casualty to hospital as dawn broke. Then when I took off the boot, my ankle was like a balloon. It took months to heal, but the success of the rescue made the pain worthwhile,” concluded Kelly.
Christmas 2017 was a tough and physically demanding time for KMRT, but nobody complained. The important fact was that eight people had been rescued with nobody seriously injured. This is what counts as a happy Christmas for Kerry Mountain Rescue Team.
Kerry Mountain Rescue Team’s winter safety advice
With short winter days, cold weather and dark skies, it’s now most important to plan ahead to ensure your safety on the mountains.
Make certain you start early, are aware of what time it gets dark and allow for weather changes. Plan your day taking into consideration the weather forecast. Leave your route plan with a responsible person. Keep an eye on the weather and be prepared to turn back or take a shorter route, if conditions deteriorate.
Sturdy footwear with a good tread
o Food and warm drinks
o Map, compass and ability to navigate
o Hat and gloves
o Torch and batteries
o Extra layers to keep warm
o Fully charged phone and spare battery
o Survival bag and first aid kit
o Ice axe, crampons and winter skills.
Further information: kerrymountainrescue.ie