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Ireland’s mountain rescuers: Technology is no substitute for having a fit, dedicated team

In contrast with most of Europe, Ireland’s mountain rescue service is entirely voluntary

View going down Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohill in Co Kerry. Photograph: iStock

As Ireland celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966, Myles Kinsella, a UCD student, set off alone for an ascent of Ireland’s highest mountain. Tragically, he died in a fall on the east face of Carrauntoohil.

Soon after, a member of an English school party was also killed while hillwalking in the same area.

In those days there was no mountain rescue team in Kerry and the remains of both casualties lay on steep, inaccessible terrain. After a time delay, they were recovered by rescuers who travelled from Dublin.

In the light of these sad events and with increasing numbers of walkers having recourse to the mountains of the southwest, Frank Lewis of Cork-Kerry Tourism took action.

In July 1966, he assembled a team of volunteers from Killorglin willing to provide search and rescue services to those in difficulty on the slopes of Ireland’s highest mountains. The renowned Kerry Mountain Rescue Team (KMRT) had been born.

Like other Irish rescue teams founded around this time, KMRT consisted of hillwalkers without any special skills who simply committed themselves to respond if there was an emergency on the mountain. In the case of Kerry, this commitment was immediately tested rigorously.

Cork man Bill Collins was climbing on the then-unmapped eastern face of Carrauntoohil when he fell and was seriously injured. The relatively inexperienced KMRT members were then faced with rescuing Collins from a most dangerous location.

The all-night rescue that followed from what has since been denoted Collins’ Gully, remains one of the most demanding epics in the history of Irish mountain rescue.

With a storm raging, it required eight perilous hours in darkness to lower the casualty and a further three to carry him to an ambulance. Later, rescuer Paddy O’Callaghan recalled: “The terrain was desperate and we had no helmets and only minimum equipment. We could have been killed or injured ourselves but the mission was a success and we went on from there.”

This “baptism of fire” experience demonstrated clearly that providing a rescue service on unforgiving mountain slopes was no place for well-intentioned amateurs.

In the half century since the coming of Ireland’s dedicated mountain rescue service, much has changed in terms of equipment, search management, remote first-aid and climbing competencies. In contrast to the informality of the early years, mountain rescue has become a complex undertaking.

All rescuers are qualified in remote emergency care, with ongoing first-aid training to maintain these skills. Each team is obliged to provide training in a wide range of skills such as casualty care, ropework, stretcher lowers, rescues by cableway, helicopter winching, search management, navigation and radio communication.

But one factor remains unaltered from the early days: unlike continental Europe, the Irish mountain rescue service is provided on an entirely volunteer basis. Members do not even receive travel expenses when using their own vehicles.

Clearly, mountain rescue remains a time-consuming endeavour
 

According to Mountain Rescue Ireland: “Any request for emergency assistance in the upland and mountainous areas on the island of Ireland is met by a volunteer response from one of the 11 mountain rescue teams that compose Mountain Rescue Ireland. These teams are on standby 24/7/365 to respond to requests for assistance and are tasked through the 999/112 emergency phone system.”

In 2018, the teams responded to 371 incidents with 73 of these involving serious injuries while there were 22 fatalities, with the volunteer members donating a total of 13,634 hours to mountain safety.

Clearly, mountain rescue remains a time-consuming endeavour, but technology has removed some of the foot slogging.

Changing nature of mountain rescue

Recently invented, the Sarloc application has reduced the number of full team callouts by enabling rescuers to pinpoint the location of individuals seeking assistance. However, since it requires the possession of a smartphone along with an internet signal, it does not always work.

The alternative then is a manual sweep of the mountainside, which is the most labour-intensive and demanding task that can face a rescue team.

Alan Wallace, an experienced rescuer with KMRT, explains how the nature of mountain rescue has changed over the years. “In the past, mountain rescue teams were called out when someone failed to return from the hills. This very often involved a night search. Now with mobile phones, we can become aware of an incident soon after it happens, but we are often hampered when the phone battery quickly dies.

“With regard to Sarloc it is a brilliant timesaver when it works, but it can often be difficult to get a signal on the mountains. This means, it works about 50 per cent of the time, so for other times we still have to get boots out on the mountainside for a sweep search.”

One modern invention, that appeared initially to offer a huge labour-saving potential in mountain rescue situations, is drone technology. It is easy to imagine teams avoiding a laborious volunteer search by sending a drone up the mountain with a camera to identify the location of a lost walker or causality and then sending the rescuers directly to them.

At night, drones can be fitted with a thermal imaging camera to identify the heat coming from a human body
 

Like most other things in life, however, it isn’t quite that simple. KMRT have acquired a drone, but so far conditions have never been right for its use. According to Colm Burke, public relations officer at KMRT: “The drones work best on the days we need them least. They are ineffective in high winds, heavy rain or poor visibility and these are typically the type of conditions when we have call-outs. They work well in calm, clear conditions, but on these days, it is generally fairly easy to identify the location of a casualty.

“At night, drones can be fitted with a thermal imaging camera to identify the heat coming from a human body, which might seem very useful in a search. The problem is, however, they also pick up every sheep and goat on the mountainside while the relatively short battery life limits their effectiveness on the high summits. One possible application for drones I can see in the future involves the quick delivery of food, clothing and medical supplies to those marooned on a mountainside.”

Burke believes there is still no substitute for having a team of fit, dedicated rescuers who are immediately available to respond to a mountain’s emergency. “They can give reassurance to those in trouble, remove them safely from dangerous locations, assess the nature of any injuries and stretcher the casualties off the mountain if necessary.

“No drone will ever be able to do these things, for mountain rescue is, I believe, essentially a people-based activity. I think there will always be a need for human input when it comes to assisting those who find themselves in trouble in the uplands.”