Appeal to stay safe on mountain walks

Appeal to stay safe on mountain walks

13 January 2021

VOLUNTEERS from the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team have appealed to the public to be safe while walking in the hills.

Members of the rescue team — who are on call 24/7 and often out in the most challenging of conditions — have recently experienced a large increase in emergency calls and appealed to people not to put its volunteers at risk.

On December 30, the rescue team responded to five emergencies with the calls coinciding with huge numbers of people heading into the Mournes over the festive period.

Last year, the volunteers completed 60 rescues, with the number representing a 50% increase on the previous year due to people going up the mountains post-lockdown.

The rescue team’s co-ordinator, Martin McMullan, said some of those who needed to be rescued admitted that they went up into the mountains to get an Instagram picture.

Speaking to Belfast Live, he said the entirely voluntary organisation has 30 members who, when they are called out, are put at increased risk. 

“It is not just risk of the mountains, but additional risk due to Covid because we are being exposed to that,” said Mr McMullan.

“That hasn’t eased in the past year; if anything, that’s increased now. We would ask people to be considerate of all of that. One challenge we have is that there are fantastic photos going out of the mountains, what is happening is people are endeavouring to get to the top of Slieve Donard to get that stunning winter shot.”

But Mr McMullan said these individuals do not consider what is necessary to get there, but also the fact that once they are at the top, they are only half way through their journey and have to get back.

He said some of the images from the Mournes going out on various media channels have been “very enticing and very encouraging for people” and revealed that when volunteers spoke to some people they rescued recently, they said they just wanted to go for a walk.

Mr McMullan said the volunteers told those whom they assisted there were lots of places they could go for a walk other than Northern Ireland’s highest peak in winter.

“They admittedly said they wanted an Instagram shot on the summit,” he continued.

“They ended up putting themselves at considerable risk. It is beautiful up there at the minute, but it’s just not the place to be if you are not prepared.”

Mr McMullan said the rescue team does not want to tell people not to go up the mountains as “it’s not their place and they don’t ‘have the right”, but volunteers were being exposed.

He continued: “Rescues do require a big number of people and it depends who is available. We can have between 18 to 24 members respond.”

He described many of those heading into the mountains as “novices”.

He continued: “The mountains will always have an element of risk, but if you add more people there is always a much higher chance of increased calls and that is what we have experienced.”

During winter and the loss of daylight hours, Mr McMullan said people take longer than expected to complete their journey, without having a torch and other essential items with them.

“With a in temperature from October onwards and the onset of winter, you have reduced temperatures, stronger winds, higher levels of precipitation and as you go up into the mountains’ increasing altitude, there is a rapid decrease in temperature and higher rains on the summit,” he said, explaining how dangerous it really is to go up the Mournes in the current weather conditions which can be “life-threatening”.

Mr McMullan continued: “You can start from Newcastle in the day and it will be two or three degrees centigrade, but when you get to the top of Donard it could be -5. 

“If you are dealing with a 20 mile wind up there which is not uncommon, you then have a wind chill that could be the equivalent of -10 or -12 C. It’s almost debilitating temperatures.

“The trail people are moving on is frozen. You may have less visibility and can end up with exhaustion. You can see how things then snowball. Even with good equipment and if you are well prepared, hanging around the mountain top and this time of year is just not feasible.

“What we are experiencing are fantastic winter conditions, but they are only fantastic if you have appropriate knowledge, skills and equipment. If you do not have these, you are putting yourself at considerable, unnecessary risk.”

He said volunteers that people “genuinely just want to get out of the house”, but he suggest staying in lower level walks at this time of year.

He added: “There is an increased level of risk now. The mountains will still be there next summer and maybe they need to adjust their plans in the short term just to keep themselves safe.