Can we learn from Mountain accidents ? Should we learn from them ? Is this an old age question?

I wrote in my blog on March “Stats why bother” how the use of Mountain Accident Stats can be used in mountain safety education to highlight common mistakes and learn from them.   This is common practice in some countries and I understand that it is a very sensitive area especially if it involves a fatality. The Data protection Act quite rightly   protects people but should we not be more active in this area of accident education? The Mountain Safety Officer in Scotland  does a great job but it is a one person office. It is incredibly busy and in my mind has improved Mountain Education greatly. Whose job is it to learn from Mountain Accidents and pass on any lessons learned?

The Police rely on Mountain Rescue Leaders for their local knowledge and experience.

The Police rely on Mountain Rescue Leaders for their local knowledge and experience.

The Police have overall responsibility for Mountain Rescue and very rarely after an mountain accident is there  a statement and even rarely is there am investigation. If the Police are happy there is no foul play involved that can be it. Is this due to limited information available on what happened. If there are no witness then I suppose it is supposition what may have happened?    As a mountain Rescue Leader in the RAF I was involved in several accidents inquiries to  Team Member’s and learned from them in and tried to ensure they did not happen again, they in the end gave us  excellent safety advice. One simple one was crampons on then a helmet should be worn. Another was the use of walking poles on steep ground!  We also learned that a few of our medical protocols needed updating/ revising.  In the Flying World there is a confidential  way of passing on information confidentially where you can learn from others mistakes. It works and how many accidents has this saved?

I have asked before for stories about Mountain Rescue learning points but only got one I wonder why?

In my early years as Team Leader I would phone round the other  teams after a weekend training or call – out and  be open about problems we may have had. We were constantly training many new Team member’s and simple mistakes were made. Tying  on to climbing harness’ was one that occurred regularly and distracting team member’s when they tied on. Simple easy mistakes even made by experienced team member’s.We always checked each others harness’  at all times especially when abseiling. The crag exercises on big cliffs in training at night were huge learning curbs with falling stones in the dark making life very interesting. Training was getting a bit too serious and we had to keep it sensible.    It was a good way to learn from each other but few other Team Leaders would pass on their knowledge as if it was held against them. Loss of face is nothing compared with a stupid accident? Things we take for granted are now common training procedures all hard won from mistakes. Complacency was another especially with an experienced team on Crag  days and that became something we always watched for no matter how experienced we are!

As I returned back to my trade after two hard tours at RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss as Team Leader I was still heavily involved in Mountain Rescue. In the RAF we had a Team Leaders Course and at the end a lot of the “old and bold” would have an hour or two about being a Team Leader and the errors we made. It was a true honesty session and all involved said it was one of the best parts of the course learning from our mistakes.  We must never forget that we are all human and these days of litigation makes life a bit harder.

Learning from the past!

Learning from the past!


How many other jobs that are unpaid do you make so many life changing and key decisions? Every civilian Mountain Rescue Team Leader is that person they are not just be a mountaineer but regularly take life deciding decisions for their team and the casualty. The Police have responsibility for Mountain Rescue but the experience and knowledge is with the local Mountain Rescue Team Leader. He is the one who makes the decisions and with whom the responsibility lies if it goes all wrong! I regularly waited to ensure all were off the hill especially the SARDA Dog handlers who often worked alone in the remoter search areas . “We count them out and we count them in was always the policy”

When I was a full-time Team Leader with the RAF Mountain Rescue Teams my biggest worry was that I brought my team back safely. We were regularly called out in my nearly 40 years’ service to some of the wildest call –out all over Scotland.  We never had an area as such and traveled all over Scotland assisting the local teams.

As I got more experienced I would have to have good reason to search a very dangerous area at night in wild weather or in especially in a high avalanche forecast. If the casualty was definitely there the decision was easy you will go with care and get the casualty out as quick as possible. If not I would use all my knowledge of the local mountains and the casualty experience and route experience etc to assess the chance that the missing person may be there.

In my early days we thought we were invincible and pushed it in wild conditions. We did not have the experience or wisdom to pull out when conditions got so bad that they were life threatening to us. It is incredible to think that on a few occasions we were avalanched and got into some incredible situations that sheer luck and great fitness allowed us to. It seemed to be that if you pulled out of an area you were searching due to conditions you would lose face on the hill. I learned  after one of my hardest call –outs in the Cairngorms as a young party leader when I came back early due to avalanche conditions in the Cairngorms. I reported in to Fred Harper who was the Principal of Glenmore Lodge , I was a bit embarrassed but he said it was the correct thing to do in the conditions that day. It was great to get that comment from someone so experienced.

I never forgot that, there is no place for heroes in Mountain Rescue and you must learn from nature and gain the experience to live to fight another day. I was speaking to Donald Watt an ex Team Leader of Lochaber yesterday, he was involved in the highest levels  of mountain Rescue for 40 years, It was amazing how we shared so many thoughts on the decision making in Mountain Rescue and how his first priority was the Teams safety. He like me was at one time a young invincible on the hill with a neck as long as a giraffe. It was interesting to share similar views and keep the enthusiasm of the younger team member’s safe in the hustle and bustle of a call -out. So many lessons learned so much knowledge to share before it is all lost!

Donald Watt and Willie Anderson Lochaber MRT

Donald Watt and Willie Anderson Lochaber MRT on Ben Nevis! Look below the winchman!

The Mountains have been round for millions of years and despite the changes in equipment and technology the mountain stays the same. The dangers are still there despite the advances in weather and avalanche forecasting. We can still learn from hard won lessons from the past, it can be hard getting the knowledge out at times?

Maybe a chat from the old and bold at the next Mountain Rescue Conference ” I learnt about Mountain Rescue from that”

Any views gratefully received!




About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 36 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 4 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Articles, Avalanche info, Equipment, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Views Mountaineering. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Can we learn from Mountain accidents ? Should we learn from them ? Is this an old age question?

  1. My hubby and I were involved in civilian MR for over 20 years – he was a Team Leader for quite a few of those, and I was a Deputy for the last 3 of my stint. We always had a team debrief at the end of every call-out and exercise, to see if anything could have been improved on, and were constantly analysing and checking everything we did. The sense of responsibility when you are in charge can sit quite heavily on your shoulders! I also like to think that we cultivated a culture where any party leader or team member could easily say if they weren’t happy about going into a particular situation for whatever reason, without any fear of rebuke.
    Rope work – people always checked each other, but we also always had a safety officer every time who would check everything and nothing would go live without their say so.
    Safety is paramount!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nearly forgot – we also had as part of Team policy, that no one was ever sent trolling off on the hill completely on their own. The ‘wisdom’ of this was rather dramatically brought home one night when a team member had to leave a call out in the middle of the night. As was the custom, we pulled someone else out of the loop too, to walk off with him. Just as well – he accidentally slipped and fell down a gully, seriously injuring himself. Dread to think how that night would have turned out if there hadn’t been someone with him to both raise the alarm and do immediate first aid!

    Liked by 1 person

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