The pressure is on for Kerry rescue volunteers


As Ireland celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966, Myles Kinsella, a UCD student set out to climb Ireland’s highest mountain.

Tragically, her day ended with a fatal fall from the east face of Carrauntoohil. Soon after, a member of an English school group also died while climbing in the same area.

In light of these events and the growing number of people heading to McGillycuddy’s Reeks, Frank Lewis of Cork-Kerry Tourism has assembled a team of volunteers ready to provide search and rescue services to fellow hikers on the slopes of the tallest mountains in Ireland. The renown Kerry Mountain Rescue Team (KMRT) was born.

In the meantime, a lot has changed in terms of equipment, search management, remote first aid and climbing skills. Unlike the informality of the early years when volunteers had no specific training, mountain rescue has today become a complex business.

All first aiders are trained in remote emergency care, with ongoing first aid training to maintain these skills.

Each member of the team is required to undergo training in a wide range of skills such as casualty care, rope work, lowering stretchers, cable car rescues, helicopter winching, fire management. search, navigation and radio communication.

But one factor remains unchanged from the early days: the mountain rescue service is provided on a completely voluntary basis and members do not even receive travel costs when using their own vehicles. Such altruism is not universal.

In most European countries mountain rescue is a paid commercial service. As a result, most climbers and hikers consider it prudent to insure against the extraordinarily high bill that can ensue if things go wrong.

In the past, such a system was hardly necessary in Ireland. Mountain accidents and subsequent calls were rare as relatively few people used the Irish highlands.

Additionally, hikers tended to be cautious and well-equipped because, in the days before cellphones, they knew safety was in their hands. The most common reason for calls for help in the past was when someone wasn’t coming back from the hills.

Now in the age of the mobile phone, rescuers may become aware of an incident soon after it has happened, but are often embarrassed when the phone turns off. The only option then is a manual mountain side sweep, which is the most laborious and demanding task a rescue team can face.

For years the voluntary rescue system worked well, with the KMRT never failing to answer a call. This summer, however, there was a sharp increase in the number of requests for assistance, which put additional pressure on the rescue services.

During the first three weeks of August, the KMRTs were called, on average, once a day for mountain accidents. While the situation has not reached a point where the team has not been able to respond when called upon, the pressure is undoubtedly increasing on the relief volunteers.

This pressure comes mainly from reckless walkers who see mountain rescue not as a last resort, but as a first resort when a problem arises.

According to Alan Wallace, Pro Assistant at KMRT, “Being called several days in a row puts enormous pressure on volunteers who are seriously engaged in what they do. Volunteers who must juggle daily tasks and family commitments.

“Volunteers increasingly exhausted and worn out by sequential calls. Volunteers who are loath to judge the sequential errors that underlie serious accidents.

And most of that trauma and time-consuming rescues could be avoided if those heading for the hills took the time to properly prepare. Wallace urges those who set out to plan their route in advance and have the skills to competently navigate even in the most difficult conditions.

“A lot of accidents happen when walkers wander off the trail and over steep terrain and then become steep (unable to go up or down), but competent navigation skills should keep walkers on the road. They should have enough spare food, protective clothing, and torches to stay outside safely after dark, and at least one person in a group should carry a map and compass they know how to use.

Simple, sane rules every hiker should obey – yet so many people ignore them at considerable cost. These people should now think about the huge benefit of having a free mountain rescue service available to everyone, and show respect for our rescue volunteers by planning carefully to eliminate stupid and avoidable calls.

The full story of the Kerry Mountain Rescue Team is contained in John G O’Dwyer’s latest book titled ‘Wild Stories from the Irish Uplands’ available at currachbooks.com

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