There but for fortune

It was thanks to the climbing gremlin we’d headed for Wales at the weekend. He and three other Cockermouth ‘rescue rock-rats’ had arranged to swap ideas with members of the Ogwen team on the Sunday. Would have been rude of me not to take the opportunity to visit too.

Strange how the threads of life connect, often in the most unlikely ways. When I first set foot in Bryn Poeth, AKA ‘Oggi base’, nestling in the Ogwen Valley, at the foot of the magnificent Tryfan, I never imagined I’d one day write a book about the place. Much less have that book entered for a couple of mountain book prizes. And that day, in June 2007, remains etched in memory, not least for the large amount of tea consumed, so I thought I’d take a rest from moaning about diggers and footpaths and share it here.

TryfanBook
Bryn Poeth, nestling in the shadow of magnificent Tryfan © George Manley.

Back then, I was one of a group of trainees with the Rossendale & Pendle MRT, in Lancashire. As the team secretary, and editor of Mountain Rescue magazine (both purely desk-bound roles), it seemed a good idea for me to understand what happens at the sharp end, so I’d joined in with the training programme several months earlier. Now here I was, with a couple of experienced team members as mentors, visiting RAF Valley for the day, to undertake basic helicopter training with the iconic yellow Sea King. Little did we know that matters would take a surreal turn in the form of a call-out for the crew.

Safety briefing done, fear about the imminent death awaiting us should we grab the wrong this, clutch the wrong that suitably instilled, we prepared to wander back from the aircraft for a welcome brew in the mess. But no sooner had our bums left those seats than Bing Bong! went the station tannoy.

Job on, says Chas, the winchman paramedic. A female casualty had apparently fallen above the Ffynnon Llugwy reservoir in Snowdonia. As it was a mountain job – and at this stage it was unclear whether the Oggi team had been called – Chas requested that Andy and Barry (our two mentors) assist him. Whisked off to the operations room, via the boots of their respective cars for appropriate kit, they emerged moments later complete with flying helmets to enable access to radio traffic. We watched them board the aircraft and disappear into the gathering Welsh cloud.

There was nothing more to be done than loaf on the leather sofas, fight for the remote control, catch up on the tabloids, and avail ourselves of the Valley tea caddy.

Abandoned by our leaders and locked inside a military base, there was nothing more to be done than loaf on the leather sofas, fight for the remote control, catch up on the tabloids, and avail ourselves of the Valley tea caddy. All the while believing they’d be back in a mo and our training would resume.

Two hours later, the aircraft landed. Out went the fuel tanker, back came the fuel tanker and back up went the Sea King. Word came they’d left the winchie at the site. Rumour had it there were now two casualties, the second a heart attack, and incredibly from the same party. But where were our two?

Later still, back came the aircraft again, and once more our hopes fluttered higher that this training we’d looked forward to for so many weeks would continue. But back out went the fuel tanker, in came the winchman, back came the fuel tanker and back went the winchman. Still no sign of our lads. They’re off to Leeds now, someone said. Hospital transfer. What? Are our two walking back?

And yet, still, we wondered about the possibility of a resumption in proceedings but an afternoon of tea and music channels had taken its toll. We’d grown decidedly listless. People had anniversary parties to get home to, beer to drink. Then in came a member of the ground crew. Sorry but the training’s off. You can go home. Just as well really, we’d run out of tea bags.

And then, almost simultaneously, a call from Andy. They were en route to Oggi base. Could we drive up there to meet them? So off we set up the A5.

SeaKingHackette
A sight no longer seen: the big, noisy, smelly yellow bird hovering over Idwal © Hackette on the How.

Debrief on a life cut too short, too soon

Back at Oggi base, I was fortunate enough to sit in on the debrief. I heard of the tragedy that had unfolded, and the sheer professionalism of this small group of volunteers in dealing with its consequences, as we’d bantered our way restlessly through an idle afternoon.

Sometimes, tragedies occur when people go into the mountains clad in little more than running vest and shorts to push their own personal boundaries of endurance and fitness. Sgt Paul Upton was a serving soldier with the Parachute Regiment when he fell to his death during the ‘Welsh One Thousand Metre Peaks’ race.

Who knows what passed through his head that morning, as he prepared to join his companions in this gruelling race? Doubtless he was fit, doubtless he had been training for many months for this very day. But, somewhere above Ffynnon Llugwy, as he crossed Carnedd Llewelyn, he lost his footing and fell 150 metres to his death.

The disjointed information which filtered through to us trainees whiling away our time at RAF Valley was no less confusing to those at Oggi base. The initial call from North Wales Police, at 10.55am, had indeed suggested that a woman had fallen and been unconscious with injuries. Both land and air ambulances were en route and the ARCC contacted. The map reference, plus the information regarding ambulance resources, gave the impression the incident was at, or very near to, the road head at the dam.

Ten minutes later, a call from the police stated that the air ambulance would not be attending – just as it flew overhead the casualty site! Another five minutes and another call suggested there was also a thirty-five-year-old male with a heart attack, at a similar grid reference.

Team member Chris Lloyd had called the informant who confirmed there was only one incident, the road ambulance was at the road head but the casualty was, in fact, 200 metres away. The air ambulance radioed in saying it was unable to assist on the steep ground and that 22 Squadron were already on site. 22 Squadron radioed in stating this was a fatality and, in line with fatal incident protocol, Oggi troops would now be required at the scene.

Meanwhile, our lads on the aircraft listened to the radio traffic as the Sea King flew across Anglesey, following the A5 as it meanders through the Ogwen Valley towards Capel Curig, before turning left just after Ogwen Cottage and up the hill to circle the reservoir. It would be a snatch and run, Chas explained, his intention to treat the casualty as an MI. He would go down with either Andy or Barry, then the other, their task to perform CPR and bag and mask. The basket stretcher would be lowered, casualty loaded and winched and off would fly Chas, leaving Andy and Barry to fend for themselves on the hill.

As they approached the lake, they saw several vehicles, including the land ambulance, and Helimed was just leaving. The casualty lay on very rocky ground and it didn’t look good, so down went Chas alone. As the aircraft came out of the hover and flew a couple of orbits round the reservoir, he quickly diagnosed life extinct – a heart attack brought on by massive trauma. No longer a snatch and run, this was now a job for the coroner.

Leaving the winchie with the body, the Sea King transported our two back to Oggi base, in exchange for Oggi team leader Jed Stone and Chris, who still believed this to be a simple fatal heart attack incident. Only as they approached the casualty site did they realise this was going to be more unpleasant.

Mars Bar, Nutrigrain, sock, shoe, map – a tick list of tragedy

In line with the fatal incident protocol, the area had to be thoroughly photographed and recorded. Aware that ’22’ might not be available for too long, given the shift in urgency, Jed requested the collection of further troops and kit. Back to the site went our two with a couple of Oggi boys, then the aircraft returned to refuel.

‘This gave us valuable time to gather and record evidence before we bagged the body and readied it for the winch up,’ explains Chris. ‘The aircraft returned with another two troops and some technical kit. The body was then moved from the mountainside and we set about trying to find the cause of the accident.’

As they ascended the steep grass and scree slope they identified evidence of the fall. Clods of earth and impact marks, and the everyday detritus of an outdoor life – Mars bar, Nutrigrain bar, a shoe and a sock, map – each marked with an orange flag. Soon a fall line became obvious – a diagonal straight line from the body to a point two-thirds of the way up the hill, and the foot of a fifty-metre vertical crag.

As team members made their way round to the top of the crag, they identified a departure point. Anchors were set up and Oggi’s John Hulse abseiled down the line. He found scuff marks and part of a water container. All of these were photographed and he was lowered to the bottom of the crag.

With all the evidence photographed, bagged and sealed, GPS reference noted, and then signed for, by 3.00pm they had left the scene for the Oggi Land Rover parked at the road head, some ten minutes away.

Back at Oggi base, having pottered up the valley under late afternoon sunshine, I watched the Land Rover meander down the hill and along the road to Bryn Poeth, still little appreciating the tragedy my team mates had become embroiled in. Jed’s firm reiteration that if anyone had been emotionally affected, they could access the critical incident experts at North Wales Police for guidance, underlined that this was no ordinary call-out.

I recalled Barry, in similar circumstances on our own patch, reminding team members that despite his thirty years as a serving police officer – dealing with more than enough death and trauma – he still never knew when an incident might come back and bite him. Frame of mind, time of month, family conflicts, emotional stress, personal bereavement, whatever. So many other factors in the mix at any one time. Experience does not inure you to horror.

Debrief over, we set off back to Lancashire, leaving Jed, John and Chris at Bryn Poeth, collating the information.

‘Steady on!’ Then he fell

Next day, press reports speculated whether race organisers should have called off the event, given the change in weather conditions. Having set off under beautiful sunny, clear, blue skies, runners quickly climbed up into heavy cloud. Good navigation would have been essential. And, whilst cloud may be an adverse condition, it’s not an extreme condition. It’s also annoyingly common at the top of mountains!

An inquest, two months later, heard that Upton – just thirty-seven years old – had been warned by doctors not to do ‘any strenuous exercise’. A member of his family said he had been going back and forth to America and had come back with a deep vein thrombosis. He still had a month to go on his tablets yet he was apparently seen as medically fit enough to take part in the race.

Major David O’Brien, who was running in front of him, said they were running as quickly as they could through cloudy conditions but, because of the descent, he’d started dropping back. Upton was almost directly behind him and he shouted ‘Steady on’. Then he heard the noise of him slumping. ‘I saw him fall until he came to rest at the bottom.’ O’Brien followed him down. ‘As I approached, I shouted but there was no response. I was aware he had a bad injury to his head.’

Sgt Upton’s death had been caused by a fractured skull due to a fall from height. Before the race started, it was revealed that he had received a medical examination when the DVT and Warfarin had been discussed but was declared fit. He knew the risk he was taking. He knew the exertion he would be required to put into this race. Deputy coroner Nicola Jones described it as ‘amazing bad luck’, saying he had lost his footing descending the mountain.

Back to ‘normal’

With any mountain rescue incident, once the job is complete, normal life resumes –whatever that may be. Team members go back to their jobs, their family outings, their abandoned paintbrushes and long-cold dinners. For the family and friends of Paul Upton, and for those running the race with him, it would never be quite the same again. A divorced father of two, he was still young, still serving in the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, based at Brize Norton, still looking forward to the active life ahead of him. He was due to remarry later that year.

For those involved with the rescue, the image of his death may fade, emerging again when least expected, a haunting moment of sadness. One of my fellow trainees had spent the day worrying whether the initially reported ‘female casualty’ was one of his mates, out on the hill in that same area whilst he was ‘playing with helicopters’. Even as he drove away from RAF Valley he’d had little reassurance that this was not the case. Doubtless he was somewhat relieved to meet with those friends again, safe and sound.

Chris Lloyd spent the evening at a fiftieth birthday party thinking about a bereaved fiancee and fatherless children. Andy travelled home the 120 miles to Bury, and a family outing to the local pub garden. Pint in hand, he gazed at the sky. What should fly overhead but the very Sea King from which he had been winched to an unforgiving Welsh mountainside not six hours earlier – now en route back from Leeds. What are the chances of that?

And as for me, hearing the debrief and Barry’s lucid account of the day en route back home, the image of another similar death and subsequent body recovery, in a Lancashire quarry, sprang to mind and stayed with me for the evening, superimposed on the events of the day.

I was also reminded that the spirit of voluntarism, the care and concern for a fellow mountaineer which drove our predecessors to form a more organised mountain rescue service, is still alive and well in our mountain rescuers today. Long may that continue.

I admit I came down on that wire, from that big, noisy, smelly yellow bird sporting a grin from ear to ear. Probably beyond. I may even have shrieked.

Several weeks later, incidentally, we travelled to North Wales again and this time I did get winched. And, unlike my rescue colleagues, who – of course – maintain professional calm at all times under such circumstances, I admit I came down on that wire, from that big, noisy, smelly yellow bird sporting a grin from ear to ear. Probably beyond. I may even have shrieked.

Everything crossed

And now, here I am. Having trusted me with writing their story (one in which Cockermouth also features, strangely), this amazing group of individuals have entered me and ‘Risking Life and Limb’ for both the Banff Mountain Book Competition and the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. I share the long road to shortlist with old hands and climbing luminaries such as Doug Scott and Kenton Cool. Needless to say, everything I have will remain well and truly crossed until the autumn.

Postscript

Speaking of those threads of life connecting us – many, many moons ago, George Manley (who drew the wonderful illustrations for the book) and I worked together on the same advertising freelance circuit in Manchester, but our paths never crossed. Two years ago we met through our mutual links with Ogwen and ‘Risking Life and Limb’ is the better for it. Small world. And thank you George!

 

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