Rescue on Pillar

Site user Mark Trodden (aka Summitjunkie) recounts the story of a rescue that took place on Pillar's High Level Traverse on October 27, after one of his party sustained a head injury. It could have been nasty, but thankfully everything turned out well thanks to the professionalism of the RAF and Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team. Mark posted about this in the forums recently, and we thought it deserved an article of its own.

Late on a Saturday afternoon, at approx. 5.10 pm, my friend Andy Hutton slipped on ice whilst crossing the slab between Pillar Rock and Robinsons Cairn on the High Level (Climbers/Shamrock) Traverse, on the way to Looking Stead. Although he didn't slip over the edge (we managed to grab his waistbelt quicker than a rat up a drainpipe) he cracked his head as he fell.

Pillar and Scafell in Winter, 119 kb
Pillar and Scafell in Winter
Alastair Lee, Mar 2006
© Alastair Lee/

Initially we hoped that he hadn't been too badly hurt and after a few minutes of contemplating how close he'd been to going to the big mountain in the sky we continued. But as we progressed along the traverse his gait became more and more unsure, the pain in his head increased, and he vomited. Getting him and the rest of the group (there were four of us) to a safe spot, it became obvious that he'd been concussed and that we'd need to get him casevac'd as soon as possible; light was fading fast and we knew a storm was on its way in.

'He was concussed, and we'd need to get him evacuated as soon as possible. Light was fading fast and a storm was on its way'

After we got him 'wrapped and bagged' we initially tried for mobile signal, on the two phones we were carrying, but to no avail. I then went along the traverse for a further ten minutes trying for signal but again to no avail – it was obvious that we'd have to go higher to get signal. So, together with another member of the group, I made for the ridge heading up to Pillar, knowing that I'd have line of sight to Wasdale Head and that if we still couldn't get signal we could drop down to the hotel in the valley. Our other team member was tasked with ensuring Andy was kept warm and awake.

By this time light was fading fast, the temperature was dropping like a stone and the wind was picking up. It was especially noted that the condition on the traverse was getting worse by the minute with more and more ice appearing – the traverse is on the shaded north face of Pillar.

Andy Hutton (left) on a previous trip with pal Simon Walker, also one of the four on Pillar, 103 kb
Andy Hutton (left) on a previous trip with pal Simon Walker, also one of the four on Pillar
© Mark Trodden

Eventually we crested the ridge, managed to get intermittent signal with both mobiles, and, at about 6.30 pm, got a call through to the police with a request to alert mountain rescue. After giving all the required details regarding the accident and the group, we were asked to remain in position so that a member of the assigned MR Team could contact us for confirmation of details. By this time, light was gone and a fair nasty sleet was blowing at us.

About 15 minutes after our call to the police went through we got a call from one of the Team Leaders of Cockermouth MRT, Chris Cookson, who asked for confirmation of the location of the casualty, nature of the accident, and group details. I gave all this to Chris and then advised him that we'd have to move back to Andy's location, out of signal, as it had started to blow a hoolie and we needed to get into warm kit.

The return was a tad horrendous – the sleet wasn't just covering the route of the traverse, which can be hard enough to follow in daylight, it was covering the ice that was on it making it a bit of a nasty return. It took us nearly 45 minutes to cover less than a kilometre. However we got back to the casualty and his 'minder' safely and, after checking that both were correctly protected from the storm, proceeded to get ourselves into cold weather kit. Meanwhile, it transpired that Andy had vomited another three times.

We were surprised, about five minutes later, to hear the sirens of the Cockermouth MRT vehicles coming along the track from Ennerdale and even more surprised to see the headtorches of the first two team members arrive about 200 metres along the traverse only about thirty or forty minutes after that, having ascended some 400m or so over difficult terrain and a distance of 1.5 to 2km from the track. Those guys can shift!

'Sincere thanks go out to Cockermouth MRT, the air crew from RAF Valley and the staff at Black Sail YHA'

CMRT member Ian Cousins quickly got to grips with assessing Andy's injury and condition whilst another member deployed what has to be the biggest bothy bag I have ever seen over all of us and then proceeded to fill out an incident report. During this time, Chris Cookson was liaising with RAF Valley guiding in the SAR Sea King whose beating rotor blades we heard just five minutes later.

Mountain Rescue Chopper, 60 kb
Mountain Rescue Chopper
© Lee Jervis, Dec 2008

Very quickly the helicopter was hovering dangerously close to the rock face and just minutes later an RAF Medic appeared under the bothy bag to assess Andy's condition for winching aboard the Sea King. Whilst all this was going on, members of CMRT were assessing the best location to winch Andy from (winching from the traverse was impossible) and the pilot of the Sea King was doing a sterling job maintaining the helicopter in a stationary hover whilst all the time being buffeted by strong winds and having his visibility severely reduced by the sleet. Luckily we were located above a spot from which it was safe to winch him aboard, and less than thirty minutes after CMRT had arrived on scene Andy was being winched aboard the Sea King. By around 8.45 pm he was on his way to the West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven.

The three of us remaining were fully kitted and well prepared to remain on the traverse in our bags until first light before moving to our original intended destination, the south side of the River Lisa near to the Black Sail Youth Hostel. However, Ian and Chris kindly offered to take us via Land Rover along the valley to Black Sail if we accompanied the team off the mountainside to where their vehicles were parked. Who were we to refuse such an offer? So we dropped down to where the team had parked up (note, the members of CMRT were attentive to our needs all the way down, carrying Andy's rather heavy pack and even swapping one of our group's packs for a much lighter piece of kit when he took a bit of a tumble on the wet slope) and, once the team had de-kitted and loaded up, we were being transported to the Black Sail YH.

Chris and Ian, noting that we looked a bit dehydrated and famished, offered us Lucozade and snacks from their 'stash-box' in the Land Rover and, once we arrived at Black Sail spoke to the guardians, Martin and Suzy, and blagged us a bed for the night! Not only that, they said they'd take Andy's kit back to their base in Cockermouth and that we could pick it up the following day, so that we wouldn't have to cart it all the way back to our cars which were parked in Langdale. Those guys should surely be nominated Heroes of the Mountaineering Fraternity – we could not have been treated with greater consideration and kindness!

After saying our goodbyes to CMRT at about 11.00 pm we were guided to sit by the burner in Black Sail's main room and mugs of steaming tea were quickly pressed into our hands. After regaling Martin, Suzy, and the others in the room with our story (everyone at Black Sail had been observing the proceedings on the mountainside, beer in hand, as they unfolded) we fed, drank a bit more tea, and then got our heads down.

Next morning, after a cracking full English breakfast, Martin kindly got hold of the hospital for us so that we could find out how Andy was doing. Ironically, he was on Pillar ward! The ward nurse assured us he was 'comfortable' and awaiting assessment by the consultant later that morning, so we kitted up and prepared for our return to the cars.

After a very soggy eight hour yomp back, buffeted by wind all the way, we arrived at Langdale and de-kitted. The hot chocolate and homemade Tomato & Basil soup with crusty bun at the Old Dungeon Ghyll (yep, I know, it's a bit posh for the ODG) were gratefully drunk and scoffed before we made our way over to the CMRT base in Cockermouth to pick up Andy's kit. We were met by Chris and once again were bowled over by the CMRT's kindness – they had dried all of Andy's kit off in their drying room.

After a tour of CMRT's base, which is a fantastic place with a climb/rigging/training room that would be the envy of any climbing wall, we gave our thanks to Chris, said our goodbyes and headed over to Whitehaven to visit Andy. We found him dozing on his bed, with a nice sizable lump on the right of his head and a line in the back of his hand. He confirmed that, after having had a CRT scan and having been examined by the consultant, he had indeed been badly concussed. Apparently, when being questioned on his arrival at the hospital he couldn't recall the year or date, his home address or his home 'phone number. But now he was recovering well.

Andy had to spend a further night in hospital for observation before being released on Monday, and he's now on his way to full recovery.

On behalf of Andy, and the other members of the group, I would like to extend my most sincere thanks and gratitude to all those involved in the call out, especially;

  • Chris Cookson, Ian Cousins and the other members of Cockermouth MRT, for their speed, professionalism and downright kindness.
  • The crew of the helicopter from RAF Valley, who flew in from Anglesey and remained on station in appalling weather before airlifting Andy to hospital.
  • The guardians of the Black Sail YH who kindly welcomed us, and at short notice found beds for three of us.

Thank you all!

Cockermouth MRT is the team responsible for rescuing people and animals in the Buttermere, Ennerdale, Lorton and Loweswater valley areas of the Lake District, and north west Cumbria. Team volunteers spend 1500 hours a year on call-outs, and their annual operating costs of £46,000 are met entirely through donations. For more info and details of how to donate see the team website.

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