In the Middle of a Mountain Rescue

by Richard Jones

Accidents can happen in the blink of an eye, no matter how confident you are in your ability to tackle the terrain around you, or how experienced you are, or what the weather is doing and so on.

The job that the various mountain rescue services do around the country is critical in being able to respond to potentially life or death situations. As I know only too well.

A cold-weather walk on the Three Dales Way

I was walking the Three Dales Way in March 2019, having spent a day mountain biking in Nidderdale with a friend. We’d headed to Burnsall and walked the first leg to Kettlewell on the Dales Way, alongside the River Wharfe.

Here, my friend departed and was replaced by my partner, Georgie, who had driven up to join me in walking the second and third legs. It was cold, but we did the walk over to Malham in glorious sunshine, joining the Pennine Way at Malham Tarn and heading down to the spectacular Malham Cove for our evening in Malham itself. 

The forecast for the final leg was not looking too good, initially indicating that it would be raining, with the possibility of snow later in the morning. We decide to set out reasonably early, ahead of the rain, to cover as much ground as possible before the weather deteriorated.

From Malham, the route heads east back to the start at Burnsall, and we passed by Janet’s Foss and made our way to Gordale Scar. The route normally offers two options here, but scaling the Scar itself, which involves clambering a rocky climb, would be a bad call during poor weather: two waterfalls send large amounts of water cascading down the rockface.

I managed to navigate my way around the water to get up close to the waterfall for a photo, but I could hear Georgie calling out to me. Looking around, I saw what she was shouting about, as snowflakes were starting to fall in place of the drizzle. I turned and retraced my steps, and we set off back to the road and the alternative route up the hill.

Snow over Malham

The conditions turn treacherous

Shortly afterwards, the snow was coming down heavily and a couple of inches lay on the ground as we reached the top of the hill. It was fine, though. We had walked numerous times in snow, were wearing several layers and waterproofs, and had spare gear in our backpacks. We continued onwards and it was actually really enjoyable. It’s not often that you get to be out in the wilds in such conditions.

We passed a farm at Bordley and headed towards a walled track, where the tops of cows’ heads peered out at us as we approached. Georgie went over the wall stile first. As she reached the top to go over it, there was a huge gust of wind, I heard a scream and she disappeared from view.

I clambered up and she was lying flat on the floor the other side, a good five foot drop, crying out in pain. Initially, I asked her if she could move so that we could try and get into the shelter of a barn a little further down the hill, but that clearly wasn’t possible, so I got our sit-mats underneath her so she had some protection from the cold floor.

Calling for help

Looking around, I could see a farmer working in a Land Rover about ½ mile away. I checked that Georgie was okay and set off running to meet the farmer — it seems crazy now, but in my head I had the idea that he might be able to drive over and put her in his Land Rover to take her somewhere. 

When I reached him he immediately suggested I call Mountain Rescue, which I realised I should have done before; however, after looking up the number, I just got an answerphone message. Instead I rang 999, called an ambulance and started running back, with Martin the farmer heading to the gate at the road to give directions.

The ambulance crew arrives

By the time I reached Georgie, she was also on the phone to the ambulance service, and the ambulance itself was right behind me, followed by Martin and his sheepdog behind that.

The two ambulance guys were amazing, but they struggled to get up the hill to Georgie. As they were bent over checking her condition, I realised that under their fluorescent jackets they were just wearing t-shirts, which were riding up and exposing skin to the cold and snow.

That really brought it home that we were in a precarious situation and even the ambulance medics were at risk. They soon came to the conclusion that Georgie could have a serious back injury. Between them and me, we didn’t have the equipment or manpower to get her off the hill safely, so they called Mountain Rescue. 

Mountain Rescue

Luckily, the accident had taken place quite close to a road, and very shortly we had people running at us from various directions. They took immediate control and set about getting Georgie stable and into a stretcher.

Mountain Rescue at work: the team surround the stretcher. Mountain Rescue lift the stretcher.

I was tasked with holding one side of a large tarpaulin sheet to protect everybody while they worked on her. The calm but utterly confident and professional way in which they went about their work was amazing to see, but even I began suffering from the cold, and as they were about to start the process of lifting her down the hill to the ambulance, I was despatched to sit in the warmth of the front seat.

Around two hours after she’d fallen, Georgie was safe in the back of the ambulance and heading for Airedale Hospital, where x-rays would later show a fractured vertebrae in her lower back.

At the time, they said she had been around 10 minutes from hypothermia, and it could have ended up much worse had it not been for the swift response of the ambulance crew and then the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue team. One of the mountain rescue group very kindly gave me a lift to my car so that I could get myself over to the hospital too.

Just to make the day even worse, after they had dropped me off, I saw that I had a puncture. I had to change the wheel, still in heavy snow, before precariously making my way to the hospital to see how Georgie was bearing up.

The aftermath of the injury

Georgie ended up being in hospital for three days before she was able to get on her feet, which in itself was amazing considering the injury. She had suffered a wedge fracture of the vertebrae. It’s quite a common compression injury from a fall like that, but it had her off work for around six months, and even longer before she was able to get out walking again.

We’re now almost three years on from that accident, and Georgie still suffers daily pain and isn’t yet back to walking the sorts of mileages we were doing before.

Her injury was a freak accident, a combination of the sudden gust of wind, snow and ice on the wall stile, and the greater drop on the side that she fell.

Lifesaving work

In the aftermath, the Fell Rescue team posted about the incident on their social media and this attracted comments, including one or two bemoaning the foolish people heading out walking in that weather.

We were glad that the team immediately responded to tell them how well-equipped we were and that we’d not been taking risks. It had just been an accident of the sort that could have happened to anyone at any time, and that is why they are there doing what they do.

As someone pretty experienced in getting out into the great outdoors, it was humbling to see the incredible work these folks do up close. Had it not been for their rapid response and calm assessment of the scene, our outcome would have been much worse.


The Mountain Rescue teams across the country save lives, of that there is no doubt, and these amazing people do all this as volunteers. For that we will always be hugely grateful.

Originally published 20/01/22

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