It was 3 days before Christmas. We had been searching for over 20 hours, battling the horrendous weather that had encompassed Cumbria over the last few days. Three Mountain Rescue Teams and The Search and Rescue Dog Association (SARDA) teams had been tasked to search for a young man who failed to return after a day walk amongst the Eastern Fells. His car had been found at Burnside a few miles to the North of Mardale Head, but that was all the information the rescue services had to plan our searches. We were the first to arrive and inherited Crash One, the first vehicle to depart. Our task was to search Mosedale, West of Shap and then continue up on to Harter Fell and work our way round to the summit of High Street. The area around High Street was renowned for it`s ability to confuse the most experienced hill walker who often found themselves temporarily unsure of their location; I simply called it being lost!
Across Haweswater to Riggindale and High Street
The weather during our 20 hour search had been what we euphemistically called “changeable”! Driving rain and very strong south westerly winds continued for the first few hours as we made our way from Shap along Mosedale, conducted a brief search of Mosedale Cottage, a bothy, and then continue on to Gatesgarth Pass. Mosedale is a notoriously wet area, boggy in fact!
As we continued to the lower slopes of Harter Fell the wind had swung around to the North East and the temperatures plummeted. It was now snowing quite heavily. Soon we approached the summit. We had been soaked earlier. Easy to become very cold. We needed to keep moving. Our descent took us to Nan Bield Pass where we stopped briefly huddling in the shelter to reorganise our kit. A hot cup of Ribena, luxury, and we continued our search.
Nan Bield Pass shelter
Visibility was down to inches. Navigation had to be precise. We were pacing to measure distance and of course accurate compass work was essential. Progress was very slow. We were a team of 5, but there were probably in excess of 50 other team members, some with Border Collie Search Dogs working other areas. Over the next few hours or so we continued searching with only occasional radio traffic disturbing the incessant noise of the wind.
Around 0230 hrs we had completed our task. Time to go home, we thought. We called Op Con. (Operational Control). Many of us had been at work the previous day, all of us volunteers with full time jobs. I had received a call on my pager at 1145 hrs. I was at the Base by 1200 hrs.
By now we were tired and waited impatiently for a response from base. The radio suddenly burst back into life after a seemingly very long silence. We received the news we were privately dreading. We had been assigned a further search area. Confirming the coordinates, we quickly formulated a plan and continued our new task. A very short lived whinge by all of us and then heads down and on with the task; this young man had to be found, he would not survive long up here in these appalling conditions!
The hours passed, conditions worsened & to make matters worse our personal supplies were now almost depleted. I had half a packet of KP nuts; some of the others had a few Jelly babies & someone was the proud owner of the remnants of a very badly bruised banana! For speed during call-outs we just grab “Crash Bags”, our rucsacs, that contain the basics for the task. The Crash 1 team was used to quickly locate and treat the casualty and then evacuate them. Tonight was different. We had been searching for 16 hours, it was 0400, still pitch black. Most of us had not slept for over 24 hours.
We continued our search, close together, well drilled. We were all deep in our own little worlds. These searches are really very mundane, systematic processes. You had to stay alert. I knew from bitter experience how easy it was to miss something. One step, two step, one step two step, concentrating became harder and harder as the night continued. I looked to my right. Pete was almost invisible and I beckoned him in a bit closer. The minutes passed into hours. The wind persisted.
Over the years I had spent a lot of time in this area, recently being accompanied by Jack, my young Collie, my best mate. In real life I was, amongst other things, a passionate photographer and would often bivvy (light weight camp) up here on The Fell overnight with Jack, on location and ready to take advantage of the stunning early morning light.
High Street Summit
My mind drifted back to last summer, a distant memory now. I remember walking off the Fell one morning, our shoot complete. We had bivvied near High Street summit and were now making our way off down to Nan Bield Pass, to continue past Small Water and back to Mardale Head to my van. It was very misty with almost zero visibility. My pack was heavy with all my bivvy and photography gear and I rested for a couple of minutes on a rock. I gave Jack a biscuit but unusually he appeared more interested in something else out to the West. I could hear or see nothing unusual, but his finely honed sensors were operating at a much more advanced level than mine! His ears were erect and suddenly he rushed off into the mist making that curious noise that only he made when welcoming someone. I called him in vain but he was on a mission. Then out of the mist he trotted back with a friend, a very handsome Border Collie, a bitch. "Come on son!". He came and introduced his new friend. No collar, I assumed a farm dog. She was in great condition. Where on earth had she come from?
Then out of the mist I could see someone. Both the dogs looked intently towards the approaching figure. He was walking very strongly, carrying a shepherd`s crook and traditionally dressed. “Good girl Tess”. The Collie wagged her tail. Both Jack and Tess welcomed him. “Found a friend then Tess”, he said stroking Tess and Jack simultaneously. He looked at me. “Hi lad, fine dog, not much of a morning eh?”. We chatted for a while. He was a local shepherd farming in Kentmere. Been farming for as long as he could remember, learning his craft from his grand father and father. He clearly loved his Collie and unusually for owners of working dogs, showed a lot of overt affection to her. He wanted to confirm we were ok as he often found walkers up here who were lost. I reassured him we were fine and after a brief conversation about Hefted flocks and the future of hill farming they both disappeared into the mist, turning briefly with a cheery - “Tek care lad”. Jack looked on intently, he clearly had eyes for Tess!
￼Another few hours passed and we had finished our second assigned search area. We radioed Base for further instructions, sheltering behind a small crag. Shortly a 3rd task was assigned and the well practised process started once again. Someone muttered, “The wife will kill me, we are supposed to go Christmas Shopping today”! One of the younger lads simply said “Bollocks to Christmas Shopping!" I shared his sentiment, at least for now!
Well, good news, we were now operating at a lower altitude in the valley and slightly sheltered from the utterly brutal North Easterly wind. All our food and water had gone, although there was no shortage of the latter amongst the saturated valley floor with the becks bursting at the seams! But we were all very hungry.
As we started our last line search, the Radio burst into life. I crouched down and answered. We were recalled!
We walked along Riggindale all content to remain in silence, cocooned in our own little worlds. From the Western shore of Haweswater we looked across to Mardale Head car park where we could see the welcoming lights of the Team bus! As we passed a stile I cheerily announced that I often photograph Adders over the wall there in the summer. Loads of them bask in the sun! No one answered, unable to find the energy to respond to such trivia! Well, I thought it was interesting!
We arrived back at Base by 1045hrs. The process of cleaning vehicles and kit started. Essential but all very routine. I arrived home at 1225hrs.
Somewhere in the distance I could hear a phone ringing. I eventually realised it was ours! I couldn`t remember coming to bed! I staggered downstairs. Jack welcomed me enthusiastically and after giving him a pat I answered the phone. I couldn`t find it at first, as usual strategically positioned under an array of cushions, magazines and assorted other junk! Why can`t people put the bloody phone back I muttered!
“Nick It`s Dave”. Hi Dave. “Did I get you up?” No; well sort of. “Ok mate, search is called off, they don`t need us tonight!” Thank fuck for that! “Yep, didn`t want it again tonight!” Have they found him? “Nope, but weather is so bad it`s off for now. What are you doing for Christmas?”.
I returned the phone to the cradle and wondered how long it would stay there! My mouth tasted like a Badgers Armpit, or so I assumed having no experience of said anatomy! I staggered into the kitchen and turned the kettle on. It was 1800hrs. Where was everyone? I sat down with my tea and robotically turned the television on. Ignoring the TV I sat there supping a huge mug of sweet tea and listened to the wind, still blowing strongly. It would take a miracle for anyone to survive a night out in the open on the Fell in this weather. Would our next task be to carry out the body. I dispensed with that thought immediately.
I started to sort out my kit. I re-supped (re-supplied) my rucsac so that all was ready should we receive a call-out again. With this weather another call-out was very possible.
Well, no more call-outs, and we went Christmas shopping in Kendal the next day. I was feeling more human by then. I actually enjoyed it! On returning home, I said to Sue that I might ring in to see what was happening, “Don`t you dare!” was the razor sharp and rapid response. I did not need much more convincing and poured us two very large alcoholic drinks! Heavenly! It was snowing heavily.
Christmas Eve duly arrived. Sue and the kids had gone into Penrith to do some last minute shopping. I was tasked with cleaning the house and prepping dinner. Then around 1000hrs the phone went:
“It`s Gav Nick”. Gavin was Team Leader. Hi mate, Happy Christmas. “Happy Christmas Nick, just to let you know he`s been found!” Wow, where? “Well apparently he was found up on the Kentmere side by a shepherd who then took him back to his farm. He needs a pick up as his car’s at Burnside, would you mind?” No probs. “Take No 2 and make sure he is ok. I`ll text you the address of the farm.” Ok, I`ll ring later when I have completed. “Thanks Nick, weather`s getting worse again, mind how you go".
I rang Sue. She was not impressed! She mentioned something about did I realise it was Christmas Eve! Yes darling but I`ll be back by 1300! Her words were, well, quite succinct; “Do not be late or you`ll have trouble locating them in the morning!” I got the message!
As I drove along the A6 Sue's warning still rang clearly in my ears. I chuckled to myself. In fairness, the Mountain Rescue families put up with a lot. The weather was horrendous, road conditions poor. Think I`ll go back on the M6, should be better than this!
Kendal was soon negotiated, lots of traffic and contrasting greatly to the solitude of Kentmere. The snow lay quite thick here. Glad I had 4wd, the roads were very treacherous. I had scribbled the name of the farm on a bit of paper and tried to read the directions. Visibility was down to not a lot but eventually I found the farm, more by luck than judgment. We were In the middle of nowhere at the end of a long track.
A typical Lakeland farm cottage beckoned, smoke leaving the chimney being violently assaulted by the very strong wind . A Christmas wreath hung on the old oak door. I knocked. The door opened and I was met by an elderly Lady with a beaming smile. “Hello, I’m Jean, I was worried you`d have problems getting here with this weather, come and have a nice cup of tea.”
A warm welcoming atmosphere, the unmistakeable smell of a farm house kitchen mixed with the traditional smells of Christmas; a real Christmas Tree in the corner! A huge kettle simmering on the Aga, a Christmas cake waiting patiently to be iced and some newly baked Mince Pies! I looked at some great black & white photographs on the wall as Jean made the tea. One particular image caught my eye. A fine looking man standing proudly with a stunning Border Collie sitting next to him. He looked familiar …..
I was about to ask Jean about him when the latch lifted on an internal door and in walked a slightly tired looking young man. I smiled, and offered my hand. Hi you must be Stephen, I’m Nick, Mountain Rescue. “Hi Nick, thanks for coming down to get me.” He looked curiously out of context here and slightly uncomfortable.
We chatted quietly, and I confirmed I would take him back to Burnside to get his car. 2 large mugs of tea arrived with not 1 but 2 Mince Pies! I thanked Jean, stopped talking and got stuck in; proper tea and those Mince Pies, so tasty!
Stephens kit was scattered around on the floor near the Aga drying. I chatted to Jean; usual thing; the weather, what are plans for Christmas, how is farming doing! Clearly a very wise, no-nonsense kind of person, typical of the Lakeland breed!
With the weather still closing in and being very aware at what fate may occur to my nether regions if I was late home, I suggested we leave shortly and having thanked Jean both for her kindness to Stephen and for the great Mince Pies and tea, I went outside into a white out to turn round the Land Rover. Useless windscreen wipers, I muttered to myself. I waited a minute or so and Stephen joined me. I waved goodbye to Jean.
The journey to the M6 was slow; conducted almost in silence as I concentrated hard on staying on the road. The road conditions were now very bad. Once on the motorway we settled down to a steady 30 MPH. Only 2 lanes open. Hope the roads are ok down to Burnside Stephen. Will the car start ok do you think? “Yes should do Nick, new battery this winter.” You are staying with friends in Penrith aren`t you? “Yes, friends of mine from College”. I was pleased he didn`t have far to travel in this weather.
Another 5 minutes silence and then Stephen turned to start a chat. “Funny old thing Nick". What`s that Stephen? I thought he was going to chat about his adventure on The Fell.
“Just as I was about to leave I asked Jean If I could thank her husband. He was the chap who rescued me on The Fell. He was very kind and walked me back to their farm. I didn`t see him at all during the evening. Anyway, after I asked where he was so I could thank him, she smiled at me and said he wasn`t here just now but she would pass on my best wishes. I didn`t seen him or his Collie since we arrived back at the farm.”
I looked at Stephen briefly and just said something inane like never mind I am sure he was busy, you know, farmers never stop working, but I could see he was puzzled! I think he thought I wasn`t interested but in truth I was concentrating hard on keeping us on the road.
We eventually arrived at Burnside. The road down the valley past Askham was ok, not too much snow and we soon had Stephen`s car started. I followed him back down the valley and into Penrith. I beeped and waved him farewell as I turned off into the Esso garage, topped up the Land Rover with diesel (we always leave the team vehicles full of fuel), filled in the paperwork at the base, one final check and drove home. It was 1630hrs, and Christmas starts now I thought! What a busy few days it had been!
It was now a new year. Several days in and all the remnants of my hang over departed! The house was curiously quiet. All the guests had gone, Sue was back at work, the kids were with friends and Jack Boy and I were enjoying some real boy-time together! We had done a quick 5 mile morning walk, I actually ran a lot of it feeling good and was pleased to be back out doing some serious exercise after a fairly lazy Christmas and New Year! Jack boy was in fantastic condition, what an athlete! Bet he was raring to go again this afternoon, but for now we had another mission planned. We were going down to see Jean In Kentmere, the farmers wife who looked after Stephen just before Christmas. Something had been bothering me.
The oak farm door opened. “Hello Nick, lovely to see you again, I was expecting you back”. A very happy New Year to you!. A lovely beaming smile welcomed us, “Bring your dog in if you want”. Expecting me back?
Another huge mug of tea arrived accompanied by a huge piece of Christmas Cake! Stephen asked me to thank you and he sent some money up to buy you these flowers, “They are lovely Nick thank you and please thank Stephen”. I will Jean. He wanted me to thank your husband ……....
Jean looked at me and smiled. “I had a feeling you`d want to see him, shall we finish our tea and then I want to show you something.”
We walked down the road toward Kentmere, and soon we were at the end of the valley. We passed through a gate. Things were about to become a little clearer in a way I had never imagined!
We had entered the grounds of St Cuthberts Church Kentmere. Jean looked across and smiled. I read the inscription:
“Daniel Braithwaite 1919 - 1981, Shepherd of these Fells”. Jean held my arm, to steady herself.
“I miss him so much, he was a good man, he loved the Fells. CANCER, cancer ........... him and Tess were so close, I often said he loved her more then me! She went a few weeks after Dan. Vet said there was nothing wrong with her. She died of a broken heart. We scattered her ashes here with him.”
“When he was here, him and Tess would always be helping people up on’t Fell, they were well known for that. Silly old bugger`s still at it!”
￼I drove home radio playing quietly. Shall I ring Stephen and tell him about my visit, I pondered. No, I think we`ll just leave it at that!
“Nick, Nick!” Sue rushed out as I parked the van. “You left your pager. It went off a few minutes ago so I rang in. The Teams been called out!”
We started the long slog up The Rigg to the summit at nearly 3000ft. I hadn`t told the lads my story yet. Plenty of time, it was going to be another very long night.
Half way up there was a very brief lull in the wind. I could hear the unmistakeable sound of a Collie barking above us, way off in the distance. I wondered if it was Tess ......
The rain started. Pouring down to be precise!
23 December 2013