An accident in the hills

It occurred to me much later (many years in fact) that actually I should not have been there. In fact no seventeen year old should have been there. Not because it was particularly dangerous – which it was; not because it was exhausting – which it was; not because it was a school day – it was Monday May 2nd and it was my first A level year. But because dealing with a battered corpse is always traumatising.

The Brecon Beacons are fairly gentle mountains, and the Brecon Beacons Mountain Rescue team was one of the least busy of these volunteer organisations. It was rare then to hear about an ongoing rescue on the news, but that is how we heard about Mike’s death. He had been leading a team which had been called out to assist two venture scouts who were stuck on the north face of Pen-y-Fan (the highest peak of the Brecon Beacons). One of the scouts had slipped from the ridge that runs between the three main peaks of the Beacons in quite appalling conditions with driving snow and rain.

The ridge of the Brecon Beacons looking westwards, so the north face is on the right.

Calling it a face makes it sounds like a rock face like the north face of the Eiger, but in reality it is a steeply sloping mixture of cliffs, scree and grass. It is also very unstable when it is wet. Two of the scouts had slipped from the ridge path and had fallen about halfway down the face and one of them was quite badly injured. The uninjured scout left his friend with another member of his group who had managed to scramble down the face to help them. This lad managed to walk down the valley and called the police from a farmhouse. The police had then called out the mountain rescue team. It took the team a long time to find, and then get down to the where the scouts were stuck on a small area of slightly flatter ground underneath a scree slope. It was beginning to get dark and the weather had got even worse and the decision was taken not to take the scouts off the hill but to wait until morning. The mountain rescue team, of course, stayed with them.

At some point during the night, the scree slope above the place where they were sitting started to move. The casualty was immobilised by his injuries, and while most people were able to dash away from the danger zone, he could not get away. Mike flung himself across the casualty and was hit by the falling rocks, one of which crushed his skull.

The following day the two scouts and the mountain rescue team were lifted off the mountain by an RAF helicopter. Mike was the first member of a mountain rescue team to be killed while on duty, and the story made the news – which is how we heard about it. It was no surprise then that our team was called out on the 2nd to go and bring down Mike’s body.

Article from the Guardian from May 3rd 1983.

Mike was the first member of a British mountain rescue team to die on a rescue and the group that met early that morning was in a very sombre mood. Usual on a rescue there is a lot of banter and chat, the team members know that they are going to go out in challenging conditions, and they usually do not know what they will find. Of course we always hope to find a missing person alive and well, but maybe about one in three call outs the person is missing because he or she has died. So the banter goes back and fore as a way of dispelling the unease. But this time the mood was dark, we knew there was a body, we knew where it was, we knew who it was. We knew this was not going to be nice. We loaded up the gear and walked up the valley leading into the front of the mountain. I carried half of the stretcher, a rather cumbersome bit of kit to manage especially when you also had to carry your own pack.

There were about twenty or so of us, but only eight would be needed to actually climb up and get the body. We paused at the bottom of the face and waited for the team to regroup. Eight of us volunteered to go up, I am not clear why I did, I think it was because I was carrying the stretcher. I know that my father did not. We climbed up the face, taking great care as it was still raining hard as it had been since the day the scouts had the original accident. The face of the mountain was becoming increasingly unstable as it got wetter and wetter. The clouds swirled around us as we made our way up. It did not take that long to get up to where Mike’s body had been left. It was quite a mess, half his head had been shoved in, his belongings lay scattered around. The team had left the previous night without clearing up, there had seemed to be little point. We put the stretcher together and lifted Mike’s now rigid body onto it. All the time we were there we could hear rock slides from around us on the mountain. At one point the gully above us slipped, much as I imagine it had done the previous day. Luckily for us there was only a trickle of small rocks dislodged and no-one was hurt. I slipped backwards though and put my hand behind me to stop myself falling. When I got back up my hand was covered with slime from the rocks on the ground – Mike’s brains were all over my hand.

After that we just strapped the body onto the stretcher, quickly gathered up all of the abandoned belongings stuffing them into our own packs. Slowly and extremely carefully we made our way back down the mountain, slipping and stumbling on the steep, wet ground. Carrying a stretcher with someone on it over rough ground is hard work and the eight of us were very glad to hand it over to the rest of the team when we got down. And after that moment, I can remember nothing more about the day.