The light is fading fast in the Peak District and, somewhere between the heather and the hills, comes an urgent cry for help. Emergency responders scramble into action, reeling off grid references into walkie talkies as they search for their casualty: “Hello? Mountain rescue!”
They find their walker on the cusp of a valley, his ankle badly twisted and hypothermia setting in. The 18 volunteers – teachers, doctors, joiners – heave the man on to a stretcher and carry him more than a mile to safety.
This may be a training exercise but it has all the hallmarks of an everyday emergency in Britain’s national parks.
Mountain rescue teams across the country say they are braced for an extraordinarily busy summer as the cost-of-living crisis drives more people towards cheaper outdoor pursuits.
“We are fully anticipating it to be a very, very busy summer, as busy as we have ever had probably,” says Mike Margeson, operations director of Mountain Rescue England and Wales. “Certainly last year we wouldn’t want it any busier in terms of being able to cope.”
Emergency teams responded to a record 3,629 callouts in England and Wales last year, up 15% compared with 2020. There were almost 1,000 more callouts in 2021 than in 2019 as crowds of people headed for the hills during Covid-19.
There is little sign of the pandemic-fuelled popularity waning. Mountain rescue teams dealt with 1,489 callouts in the first six months of this year, generally the quieter half of the calendar, according to provisional figures for England and Wales. More than half of those were in the three most popular regions – the Lake District, Peak District and north Wales.
“It has been building up and building up, and the last five or six weeks have been really busy and very tragic,” said Margeson. He counts at least 12 fatalities in the past two months, the most recent being a walker who fell from Snowdon, Wales’s highest mountain, last Tuesday.
The vast majority of incidents are down to human error, primarily with people being ill-equipped for the terrain. Rescue teams said they had seen a significant rise in people turning up in trainers, without spare clothing, and trying to rely on Google Maps in mobile blackspots.
“We are very enthusiastic that people have realised the importance of being in the outdoors, it’s just that the numbers are so big,” said Margeson, who has worked in mountain rescue for more than 40 years.
“And the demographics: the people that would normally be on the beach in Benidorm were crowding off to join a queue for two hours to get to the top of Snowdon, or cramming themselves into the Lake District.”
There may be another reason for the rise in emergency incidents, said Richard Warren, chair of the Lake District mountain rescue teams: “A lot of people are having knee operations and hip operations now after the pandemic, and I think there are an awful lot of people coming down off the high fells, hobbling down, tripping, falling.”
Mountain rescue teams are staffed entirely of volunteers and most rely wholly on donations as they receive no money from central government. They are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
As well as responding to accidents in the hills and valleys, they are increasingly called upon by the police and ambulance crews, either for their technical expertise or when the blue-light services are stretched.
Colin Price, a duty team leader for Edale mountain rescue in the Peak District, said his team had responded to 82 callouts already this year and were on track to match last year’s record of 155.
Despite the return of mostly restriction-free foreign travel, he said the region was getting “busier and busier” even before the end of the school term. Campsites are fully booked in the Lake District too.
Margeson, a member of the rescue team that covers part of Cumbria’s Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, said: “A lot of people have gone back to going abroad but many people can’t afford it, so popping out to the Peaks, or north Wales or the Lake District is a more financially viable holiday – and who can blame them?”