No memories of mishap in the Lakes and South Westmorland would be complete without remembering some of the most dramatic rescues from the crags and fells. Nowadays this area is served by a series of expertly trained mountain rescue teams, who are mobilised into immediate action with their advanced climbing, communications and medical equipment within minutes of a call for help. If its a search, there are dogs at the ready; if the situation calls for very quick action, a helicopter arrives to pluck a victim to safety within an hour or so. But it wasn't always so.
The earliest calls for help in the event of accident were answered by those nearest - fellow climbers, and those who happened to be living or working nearby. There were some remarkable incidents, one particular case in the early days which inspired future generations not to give up a search too soon:
"There was an incident years back when a man called Crump was missing in Wasdale and one account was that he was found, either 18 or 21 days later, just because a party at a dry time of the year decided to ascend Piers Ghyll itself and found Crump with a broken ankle. He'd fallen into the ghyll and been lying there for that amount of time with only water to keep him alive. So, this having occured once before one felt that we must go on and on..."
There was no official rescue on an organised basis in the early years of the century, although volunteers always came to help. But there was no communication between helpers, and mistakes were made. However, the experience of those early mistakes taught future rescuers to be more methodical and systematic in their approach:
"We had a young student, Nicholas, who was working for us, who was a competent climber and he failed to return after his day off on the fells. This started a search, a big search which went on for over three weeks, every day someone had a searching party. For two days at the weekend, we'd have anything from 300 to 400 people out, and we didn't find Nicholas then. We never found him alive but he was found about a month later by some children. He's buried in Chapel Stile. And he was in ground that the team of searchers had gone over in the first hour or two of the search, at the beginning."
With so many volunteers all looking for a lost climber, it soon became obvious that some sort of overall co-operation was needed to ensure that a search was done thoroughly. Meetings with rescuers from other areas were held, and eventually a panel summoned, which united all rescue attempts.
Before mountain rescue teams were officially founded, when a climber or walker had an accident, the first call for help was answered by those nearest, who would call others from the fells, or perhaps the bar in the nearest valley pub. Farmers with ropes came to help man-handle home-made stretchers down steep fell sides, and no doubt it really was true that the legendary five-barred field gate was used to carry an injured person or a body on more than one occasion. Tales of individual bravery and initiative abounded, such as the day when things were looking pretty dicey up Middle Fell Buttress for one injured climber,when the Calor Gas delivery man happened to come by:
"I remember an occasion when there were only three of us and this fellow had broken both ankles, one leg and an ankle on Middle Fell Buttress, high up. There was no one about, no one at all, this was before we formed the Langdale team."
Setting off with just two other volunteers, one a climber and one a non-climber, the three set off:
"We got up to him, stretcher and everything, banged morphia into him he was in such a bad state, and then fit up the belays - and the lads were lowering me down, and about ten feet off the scree in the gulley a voice said, 'O.K., I'll help you!', and when I looked down it was Calor Gas Ernie, who used to take the Calor Gas round. And Ernie, who was not a mountaineer or a climber, had seen that there was a need and gone up there, up the gulley. These are the things (in rescue) that have been such a pleasure."
Friendship and camaraderie between the unofficial rescuers of the 1920s, '30s and '40s was particularly strong despite the absence of an official organisation. Some of the climbing accidents dealt with were certainly not for the squeamish, and yet the most memorable experiences were happy ones rather than sad:
"My greatest memories of rescues are of amusing occasions and beautiful occasions. Some of the lovliest sunsets I've ever seen have been whilst on a rescue. Or a sunrise when we've been out all night, some of the cloud effects. If there's something very beautiful, however much your mind is on the job, you can't fail to appreciate it, and I must say I've seen some beautiful views on a rescue. And there's been quite good laughs against myself on rescues. I remember those much more than the blood and thunder, and I know there's times when you've come back tired and so on, I suppose because of loving to be out on mountains I would say very few have been an ordeal rather than good opportunities to be out on mountains."
And, just in case the beauty of a frozen starlit night, and the welcome warmth and support of those waiting in the valley below should cause a little over-indulgence in romanticism, there was always somebody to bring things back down to earth:
"I remember one occasion when we were out, it was winter and everything was iced up, beautiful conditions, white Alpine, and we were out looking for a girl, on Bowfell...and the party I was with traversed across under Bowfell Buttress and under the crags and then we all met at Hawe Gap. And I remember so far along, on the wireless, contacting (the valley) to ask some point or the other... Starlit night, you know, perfect, everything freezing hard, and the policeman came on (the radio) and I happened to remark, 'By Jove, its lovely to hear your voice, and its warmth coming up from the valley, hearing you.' And I'll never forget Bill saying, 'Aye, well nae wonder, I'm stood by t'Aga!'"