Well here’s my first bit of diversification for you. I keep talking about mountain rescue, and although I’ve only been on the team a year, I feel as though I’m perfectly able to discuss with you all what we do; whether that’s training or general information. I will not disclose however, anything pertaining to rescues or casualties, as we have pretty strict social media guidelines, set out by Mountain Rescue England and Wales (MREW). After rescues have been publicized on our webpage or in the press, then I may comment on them, but not with opinions.
For those of you that are unaware, Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Organisation is not funded. It is all paid for by charitable donations from the public, along with any revenue we generate from open days, base visits, charity events and often donations received from people we may have rescued. Myself and all my colleagues on the team do this 100% voluntarily, with no pay and we can be called up at any time of the day, 24/7, 365 days of the year. Most of us have day jobs too. Personally, I am incredibly proud to be a member of such an organisation and have always wanted to be; it’s not about being Joe Hero (although we do have such an award, amongst others!), it’s about providing a service to the public and giving something back. We are very professional as a team, but we also know how to have a good laugh, as having a sense of humour sitting atop some mountain in the dark, with the lashing rain, wind or snow in your face requires a certain fortitude; a certain job on Tryfan springs to mind! I’d like to think I’ve made some good friends on the team, which again on the hill, is invaluable. If you are interested in what we do, please visit us: clickety-click.
Again, the posts will feature photographs for you from what I may have been up to. This post in particular, will focus on our regular training with C Flight, based at RAF Valley, on Anglesey.
Our training for flying in the the Sea King is actually quite rigorous, and we have regular training throughout the year to ensure we are all current, and more importantly, competent; it’s not just a case of jumping through the cabin door, there’s a lot of safety involved as you would expect, as well as learning what you would have to do in the unlikely event of a ditch or crash. Compare it if you will to boarding a commercial passenger aircraft, although the crew don’t stand fore and aft waving their arms about pointing out the exits! The Sea King is an old aircraft, thirty years old in fact, having had their first flight in 1969 and yet I feel perfectly safe in one, despite them being a little shaky and noisy. I feel the crew should get special mention here. These guys are incredible. I have seen the pilots hold this aircraft at a ‘steady’ hover in very high winds and a blizzarding electrical storm at night, with the aircraft being buffeted about as if it didn’t weigh 6.5 tonnes. This particular rescue was on the east face of Tryfan, approximately 60 metres below the summit, a major black-spot for incidents. The guys had to fly away once due to fuel issues and the weather was very hairy; it was bad enough for us, perched on a ledge in our survival bags trying to keep warm, so I dread to think how the pilots were coping. I am in awe of them for what they do, and I have the utmost respect for them. I hope they will still be around when the Sea King is de-commissioned in 2015, as I will miss the pilots and the familiar sight of the big, yellow bird hovering around our beautiful mountains. We’ll have to get used to a red and grey one instead…
Anyway, once we had watched the usual video (which some of us probably know by heart now) we all headed outside to the waiting heli to get our cab brief. As I’ve had this training three times this year (I think), I hung back for a few minutes to get some pictures, and then rejoined the remainder of the team, listening and watching intently. Whether you think you are fully knowledgeable or not, it is still important to have this brief again, as you never know what you may forget or what may have changed; as I said, ‘current’ does not necessarily mean ‘competent’. Although this training is serious, it was good to see the cabin guys and winchy (winch man) cracking jokes. At one point, I was amused by the fact that our ‘secretary’ just appeared out of nowhere from inside the front of the cabin with tea and cake for the guys, only then remembering that there’s an entry point on the opposite side of the aircraft! I think we all have a soft spot for her!
After the cab brief, it was time for a few more pics before we all donned helmets ready for the winching exercise and the aircraft could be fired up for action. I love the sound of this aircraft; if there are different kinds of helicopters flying around in the vicinity, you can always pick out the sound of the Sea King. Besides, we tend to have the Sea King, the Police heli and the Chinooks flying around in Cwm Llafar not far from the house, so most of us who live in this area, can distinguish between them! The sound of the Chinook’s twin rotors reverberating off the steep, enclosing fortress walls of the cwm is quite spectacular.
The pilots jump in, check all the necessary instruments, and turn the ignition key! It’s fairly ‘quiet’ at first before the rotors start; it just sounds more like a very loud exhaust, belching out hot air. Then, as the rotors very slowly start to turn, and as the revolution increases, the low noise becomes a very loud whine. It’s time to kneel down now, as the force of the draught is incredible and can blow you off your feet as if you were made of match sticks; at this point, I attempt to put on my sunglasses to keep the blast and debris kicked up out of my eyes. The adrenaline and excitement starts to build. I fumble with my camera now and try to keep it as steady as possible, using a fast shutter speed, so the movement of the camera does not blur my image. All this time the draught is whipping my helmet straps against my face and neck, a sharp stinging pain. I tuck them in safe. And capture this.
Our Chairman (who gets on the hill and does the training like the rest of us) was now organising us all in the order that we would be winched, and so the first couple of guys went up; first was a colleague and friend of mine, Pete who would be embarking on his first winch. It’s quite unnerving the first time you do it, as you have to run over and under the belly of the beast, dump your hill sack on the ground, clip them on safely and then get the strop over yourself, tighten it up and wait for the thumbs sideways (think about it: you can’t see a thumbs up from the heli cabin) from the guy on the ground. It’s not really something you do in normal life, but I suppose mountain rescue isn’t normal! Pete was up and down successfully. Next up was another friend of mine Andy, who naturally pulled a ridiculous face and waved his legs around as he was winched up; he’s a character of the team, but a great guy.
My wife went up next with her ‘buddy’ for the winch. It’s a great thing having my wife working on the team with me; we can’t be all smoochy all over each other, as we have to remain professional, but you know, if there’s nobody else around we’ll sneak in a quick peck (that’s kiss for those that haven’t heard the word before)! By now the down-draught from the aircraft was pretty over-powering and cold; it could be the warmest day but in the helicopter’s powerful down-draught, you can be very cold in a couple of minutes, so I stashed the camera in the top of my rucksack. Apparently, myself and my wife, Pete and our faithful Chairman were getting winched again; all good practice I thought. Now normally, we’d be winched up and down at the LZ (landing zone) at the back of the base, or maybe taken for a quick flight around the valley. They had other plans this time. We winched in, sat down and strapped ourselves in. The aircraft’s engines revved up the power and we started to ascend into the fading evening sky. As usual, it’s normal practice to try and get a couple of pictures through the cabin door or window…
We continued to climb on the eastern side of Tryfan, above Cwm Tryfan and towards Bwlch Tryfan (a lot of Tryfan’s, sorry!) and then turned north east to ascend up the line of the south west nose of Tryfan. As we ascended, it became clear that something seemed amiss (not with the aircraft, thankfully!), as the cabin crew were looking down at Tryfan’s boulder-strewn top with concerned faces; I thought a rescue was about to take place. After a few more minutes of hovering, it became apparent that there was a family of three on the ground, who didn’t look that well equipped and it was quite late for them to be at this height; Tryfan is not an easy mountain to navigate off in the dark if you are not familiar with it, as is often the case for some of our rescues. Anyway, the family were being ‘told’ to move aside as we were about to be winched down from the aircraft, 100ft above Tryfan, roughly a little north west of the summit and Adam and Eve, the two giant boulders that are customary to jump across when you reach the summit (not recommended in the wet, due to a biiig drop over the east face!) Myself and Pete were up first, and I was absolutely buzzing now; it’s such an amazing experience and privilege to fly in this machine over such stunning terrain, and even more so when you are about to do something very unnatural – point your feet out and over the cabin door of the helicopter, over 3,000ft up and 100ft off the ground, with nothing but a thin length of steel wire supporting you and your buddy. Now once you are hanging there, with the rotors screaming above you and your brain trying to push thoughts of ‘what if’ out of your head, there’s just a feeling of calm for a moment. And then with a jolt, the cable lowers you slightly, only for it to jolt again with a very unnerving feeling as if the cable is about to snap; I just laugh as I enjoy this unnatural feeling very much. Not sure if Pete was so happy, but I’m sure he was loving it really. We were lowered to the rocks, took the strops off, and then put them on again and winched back up, with my arm around Pete to steady him and myself. Strops are very simple pieces of equipment; just a big loop fits under your armpits and is tightened at the front – if you were foolish and suicidal enough to lift your arms above your head, you’d fall to your death. Hence the rule of keeping one’s arms firmly by your sides! Pete’s face was an absolute picture; a cross between abject terror and adrenaline – considering you’d never done it before, you did an awesome job mate!
My wife was up next with her buddy. I had mixed feelings about this, as again in married life, you don’t normally expect to see your wife being lowered out of a helicopter at altitude. But I knew she was in the safest possible hands and just relaxed. As they came back up, the cable was lowered to pick up the ground winchy and bring him back into the aircraft safely. We strapped up and started the descent down to base, as it was almost dark now. We gently touched down, jumped out and ran to a safe distance and hunched together. The heli lifted gracefully off the ground into the night sky, as we waved to the crew. The big bird headed off west down the valley, with her fading lights and engine sound just a mere reminder of what we’d all just done. Thank you yet again C Flight, for a safe and fantastic flight; you guys are legends.
This was one of the best helicopter training events I’ve had on the team, as it was much more realistic to be winched at altitude instead of just 10 metres off the ground. Well, I say ‘realistic’ but in all honesty, the weather was calm, with a little wind and not the usual weather the Ogwen Valley can throw at us, which more often than not, is very poor! I say this time and time again, but I feel incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to do this kind of thing, and to fly with some of the best pilots we have; not many people have the opportunities that we have being members of mountain rescue. That said it is hard, soul-destroying physical work sometimes, in all kinds of weather conditions, on often very difficult terrain. So if you’re ever thinking of joining mountain rescue, in the UK or abroad, ask yourself: “Is it for me and am I fit enough”?
I just want to say how immensely proud I am of the team I belong to, and incredibly proud to be a member of that team, hopefully for years to come.
Thanks for reading, and if you are going into the mountains, stay safe and be prepared; don’t ever be too proud to turn around…