How do you train a group to deal with crisis situations. A bit like Mountain Rescue do? Leadership in a crisis situation. 

It is a commonly often asked  question that I am asked “How do you train a team to deal with a crisis situation and what skills do you need to lead a Team ?”

I was extremely lucky that I was  trained by some of the best through my RAF Mountain Rescue Career and learned from them at an early age when I joined the team at 18 in 1972 . My first Team Leader George Bruce was a real people person and a motivator a great communicator and organiser.  He knew most of the Landowners but also more importantly the keepers and Ghillies and through him we made great contacts that would last for a lifetime. Pete McGowan another Team Leader (TL) was an “action man” on the mountains, he lead from the front and pushed the standards at all levels. He held most of the current Mountaineering qualifications and pushed the Team and made great contact in the mountaineering world.  Ray “Sunshine”Sefton another TL was a mix of both but with huge experience to support his leadership skills and a man who knew Scotland so well. He had contact with most of the Mountain Rescue Teams,the Police and the helicopters and introduced us  to them. He had been around since the early 50’s in Mountain Rescue and had been there seen it and done it. Ray told me that none of us are irreplaceable and the sign of a well trained team is it runs seamlessly without you, that was a hard lesson for me. He also said you must take time off with your family and friends to remain fresh and take breaks especially in big incidents and handover to your deputy or another team leader that was another huge lesson.   These people and many others all guided me and looked after me in my wild days and it was due mainly to them that I achieved my dream of being a Team Leader.


I was also given a chance early on as a full – time Deputy at RAF Valley in North Wales by Alistair Haveron my Team leader down South. He gave me the responsibility and supported me in my brushes with hierarchy in the RAF and some of the civilian teams in the politics that could occur in these early days. He was a hard man and helped sort me out and gave me huge advice that I took a few years to realise. I got lots of experience of a different type of call – out down South in Wales and learned a lot from them. He helped me push my climbing never to a great standard but one I was happy with and my technical  skills in the busy rescues we had down in Wales. We also had the Wessex helicopters on the station an we formed a great bond that would also last for my career. I learned so much from the SAR Crews about the helicopter and their limitations, this was of huge value.

I also was posted to RAF Leuchars where I worked with Don ” the Laird ” Shanks he was the Team Leader.  In 1987 there was a tragedy when the Wessex helicopter crashed on Ben More during a rescue. It was carrying the Killin Team Leader Harry Lawrie who was killed in the crash . Two good friends were badly hurt in this tragedy. We were on our way back to RAF Leuchars and watched it happen. It was a nightmare that I learned so much from as Don kept me down on the Control that night!  It was an awful few days but one that always will be with me throughout my life. 
When I decide to try for Team Leader it was a long  Team Leaders course held in Wales and lots of pressure at the time.  When learned so many new skills and it was a huge learning curb. It finished with a huge incident with many teams RAF civilian, the Police and the helicopters involved and  I had learned to keep my cool and passed in the end. We had so many exercises from stretcher lowers on the Anglesy Gogarth sea cliffs, even some Caving but much was spent on the problems we may encounter from Aircraft crashes, mountain incidents to the loss of a team member. Add to that the Administration of a team from 25 – 36 all different individuals and dealing with their problems and discipline. We were sent on course to instruct the military way that we modified for our needs. In all it was a hectic time it was never easy in my mind as a few were sure I would fail. I did not thank fully and hopefully I had learned from many who spent time on me and seen something that few others had seen?


The word “Team Leader” is now a buzz word in the work place but the RAF Mountain Rescue  has had them and still does since its formation in 1943. It took a long time for the civilian world and Industry to take the title on to all walks of life.

I made many friends with the Civilian team leaders great men like Hamish MacInnes of Glencoe,Donald Watt and Terry Cornfield of Lochaber and Peter Cliff from Cairngorm. In addition Graham Gibb of Braemar, Billy Stitt from Killin and Gerry Ackroyd of Skye. They all and many more taught me so much! There were so many characters in every team so much advice and so much to learn! You never stop learning.  

 I will go back to the the question how do you train a team to cope with a crisis?

Firstly you learn from the past from those who led you, inspired you. You pick out there good points and learn from their mistakes.

You  try to treat everyone as you would hope to be treated, you look after each one of your team as if they were your son or daughter. Then you train them to the best of your ability in all aspects that they may need. Communication is so important and ensuring that you know each and every one in your team never easy. You try to make them and their family want to be part of this team and build a bond between you all.

We trained hard at all the skills needed to operate in the worst conditions and to make it as safe as it can be.  That was never easy getting the correct blend with many young tigers who like us all thought we were invincible on the hills. You also need to be aware that you do not need a Team of superstars but one of all levels and each can offer other skills.  I tried to have fun times as well and when things get hard look after each other. Have a mentoring system for newer member’s and keep a look out for the future leaders and help make them grow.  I was lucky I had superb Deputies  Team Leaders and party leaders who kept me right no easy task, they made huge decisions on many incidents and you back them a support them. They took a huge burden of me and shared so much especially on the big incidents and I can never repay their efforts over the years. We in the RAF teams were really good at giving huge responsibility to the young leaders within the team in training and call – outs they never let us down.  After a tragic call – out we really tried to look after each other and this was before the days of the realisation of PTSD. In the end there can be a great trust in each other and huge changes in each individual who like myself benefited from the new skills and confidence learned. We also had a lot of the old and bold who had been about for many years in several teams and they brought new ideas and old ones to the table and kept us in line.

In my opinion there is no – one else in the UK who are so versatile  as the Mountain Rescue Teams are!

How many Agencies are completely self reliant, fitness, have their own transport that is so versatile, communications equipment and the skills from mountaineering, medical and so many others to assist in so many other incidents. The range of these is incredible from the bread and butter Mountaineering incidents, urban and rural searches, floods to rail/ plane crashes in remote areas? Add to that the Teams that the regularly work and train with the helicopters, Police, Coastguards  Ambulance and the other Agencies on incidents.

Few other Agencies has so many volunteers unpaid who are regularly out training and on incidents constantly updating and learning new skills ? The debriefs from each incident are always one to learn from and so the system should keep improving and keeping up to date with technology and new ideas.

Each team member is an individual with their own views, mountaineers especially are always known for this way and yet they work so well as a Team. If you ask the team leaders they may say it is not always and easy task to “control” such a group but that is what leadership is all about. We have trust in our leaders as we trained them and they usually are out in front while as TL you can be in Control wagon away from the action. You respect their decisions and yet advise when needed the safety of the team is your sole responsibility one thing I and all Team Leaders are aware off.

People may think that the military teams rank would play its part and running a team was easy? Thank God that was not the case in my opinion and it was mainly about experience and ability that mattered not rank and that took a bit of handling for some especially the officers within the team and the RAF. In the end that group of people will end up being a huge part of your life in the good days and the sad ones. That is what being in a team is about and many are still great friends 30 years on.

At times you have to be hard it is not everyone’s choice and some are not up to the task but that is also part of the job telling folk it is not for them. That was never easy or telling someone  that due t other pressures family, medical etc it was time to take a break.  I was learning every year and hope that many that I mentored learned from my mistakes.

As George Bruce my first Team Leader said ” The mountains have no respect for rank” Yet as soon as we were back on Station or in the presence of senior officers “we played the game”


Finally there was our man in charge and in the military we always have to have an officer but in charge of the RAF MRT teams we had in the old days and Inspector Of Land Rescue (ILR) They cam in all shapes, sizes, experienced and not so in mountaineering, most were great people but like in life we had a few idiots. I was lucky I met some great people and by God we gave them a hard time but they always supported us.  Sqn Leader Bill Gault was an ILR in my time at Lockerbie and was a navigator from Greenock and a helicopter man. He was a superb manager and he made the tragedy of Lockerbie work for us as he was the focus for the hierarchy and the contact and let us get on with the job.  He did this because he new and trusted us and it was not a career move for him, he fought our corner all the time.  He was a one man band at MOD and we owe him and most of his predecessor a lot.

Thank you all.

There are so many ideas and thoughts in this blog and I would appreciate any views as we can all learn from each others experiences.

Mark Hartree

Hi Hev’s. One thing that I think that makes the Team is the common sense of purpose and the general love of the comraderie of being in the mountains. Contrast this to being in industry or other walks of life, where sometimes the end game objective can be only vaguely defined, poorly articulated or maybe misunderstood. Our purpose was more clear, and everyone displayed a passion for a successful outcome – be it finding someone, completing the training excercise, getting a lock-in the pub… getting up and off the route in one piece, or bagging that last hill. Good TL’s , DTL’s and PL’s enabled confidence to be gained and skills developed. Give the troops a common objective, a real problem to solve where the outcome affects lives, and some outstanding things will happen, which we just called ‘a job’. Leadership lays the way to enable great things to be achieved. My TL’s shaped me.

The greatest joy was seeing one of your own becoming a Team Leader and watching the incredible way things moved on. I was so privileged to have had several of my troops achieve that and so many others end up as great people in life and other careers. Thank you all lovely no may it continue!

Comments Neil – Absolutely agree – “I had two of the best – Peter McGowan and Taff Tunnah (RIP). Peter had a reputation as a hard man, and he was, but he was simply doing his job to get the team to a good level of fitness and competence in order to safely get the job done – he put me on the straight and narrow at Valley in 69 70 for sure – cheers Peter. Taff was also a good leader and an Air Force man to the core having been aircrew, MR and an officer in the Regiment – sadly missed.”

    Pete Ross ” Aye to that. A hard school no doubt. But some of the experiences both good and occasionally bad, moulded you as a human being whether you realised it at the time, or not. Stripped me of my youthful arrogance pretty damn quickly too! As for characters? Where do you start? Great days.”

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 Aircraft incidents, Equipment, Friends, Mountain rescue, Mountaineering, Views Mountaineering. Bookmark the permalink.

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