'The Mountains of Home'

By Mel Nicholls

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Childhood me: Doctor Who’s assistant, and a volunteer with Mountain Rescue.

Adulthood me: Maybe a few extra life goals, but also.. same.

I try and live by my motto, ‘There’s always a way’. But I admit to letting my dream of being a search and rescue volunteer with Mountain Rescue slip into the back of my mind following my last stroke twelve years ago. My new goal, to climb a mountain again on my crutches, was a long distance journey that would take me to the majestic Alps and a snow covered Gran Paradiso ten years after my stroke. This achievement unlocked, my previous life plans of working in the mountains as a sports instructor and my forever pull to Mountain Rescue remained parked. Albeit with the handbrake inadvertently left off.

As is the nature of comfort zones when challenged, they stretch. And my ten year mountain led onto roles in expedition and outdoor adventure supporting and instructing young people.

Though while living in the wetlands of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, I hadn’t immediately  connected that my past life passion may be literally down the road.

It was winter of 2019 when that particular goal came fully back into view. I’m sure the fires, stoked by the environment and the people I’d began working with; a reflecting belief that more was possible, whatever your background or challenges, a growth mindset shared and inspired.

Living along a confluence of two major rivers, I know first hand of the ‘Tewkesbury floods’ and all that that involves. Where much a lifeline of the community, and sight perhaps synonymous to our rivers and flood scenes are of Severn Area Rescue Association, or SARA for short.

I’ve always held the organisation in high admiration, knowing much of their boat work and flood rescues; the local station based only a short walk from my door. Though boats and floods are only half of the operation.

As part of Mountain Rescue Association, despite the definite lack of mountains in the area, but inclusion of high cliffs in such places as Symonds Yat; our local search and rescue teams operate by boat, rope, and land to support multi agency high risk missing persons searches through volunteer crews.

(Andy Barley)

_______

I was confident within my own abilities and believed I still had important skills to offer. I believed I could, and wanted to support our community and the work to keep vulnerable people safe, through my own strengths out in the field and as the person I strive to be.

Now I just had to put on my brave boots and approach the station.

To quote - “What if I fall? Oh but what if you fly”

What had I got to lose in pushing further out of that comfort zone beyond barriers, and to try.

I’ve now been training as land crew with Severn Area Rescue for a year. There’s a lot to learn, knowledge, and skills to practise before becoming an operational member of search and rescue. In honesty, I did not know my limitations in the field, but began training with the team with the approach that we would find out, and if this was one stretch too far I would respectfully accept for all the right reasons. We all agreed on that.

Training is challenging, but rewarding. Along with my group, being readied for full operational status, search techniques becoming second nature, water self-rescues and full kit river swimming practised, and casualty care revised and real-life role-played. Through our extensive training I find my way. Be that steep ground access or simply how to carry and use my search kit when both arms are permanently occupied. There is indeed, always a way.

With clever kit choices I have been able to find the right set up for me, using Alpkit’s Pacific Crest 65L rucksack, I am able to comfortably carry all my own as well as any group kit over ground and have easy pack access through the multiple entires and roomy pockets. While there is space and a place for everything I need on my back, I have incorporated a trial chest rig set-up or joey pouch as I call it. With being reliant on my crutches I am not able to take my backpack off without stopping, so having certain kit to hand, attached between my front shoulder straps is really useful. My all-terrain crutches have been a game changer ever since discovering for my Gran Paradiso assent in 2018. Alongside these, my number one piece of kit that is the envy of the team is my Qark head torch. Many of our searches and training are at night, and the use of a powerful torch and spotlight is vital in our work as search team. The super powerful and wearable Quark lets me spotlight across rivers and floodlight large areas of open land while keeping my hands free and allowing ease of movement. It is definitely one of my favourite pieces of kit, in SARA and out.

I have certainly put both myself and my kit through its paces throughout the year’s training. This test most recently matched by a latest challenge to both raise funds for this volunteer organisation and to continue learning around the environment, and high risk people we are trained to search for.

Heading out late December into the dark of the night and into sub zero temperatures, myself and a fellow crew member set out to withstand a night outside away from any assistance or shelter, from dusk til dawn, keeping moving on foot, completing our endurance challenge by return at sunrise the next morning. The challenge set, of our own ability to endure, and as learning to replicate as safely close as we could, what a high risk missing person may go through; lost, frightened, possibly unwell or injured, in cases such as dementia, often wearing only a night dress or pyjamas, without means of help, and completely alone.

We faced freezing weather, flooded fields and uncrossable water, railway tracks, icy roads, hunger, fatigue, and after over 12 hours on our feet, we slowly and painfully hobbled our way back to station where we had set off the night before, arriving as planned at sunrise.

While we faced a considerable challenge, but it was nothing compared to what someone with schizophrenia, someone who may be suicidal, or an elderly person suffering from dementia may go through if they were out in those conditions, and facing such hazards. We couldn’t put ourselves in their position, but we did try and see our environment through the eyes of those we volunteer to help. And by doing so, cemented within us the vital work of volunteer search and rescue teams and why we have chosen to be part of that family.

I am immensely proud to be a volunteer search and rescue crew member with Severn Area Rescue Association.

_____

In looking back, if I were to offer one tip, whatever and wherever you find your mountain.

‘If what is important moves out of reach, reach further.’

(Andy Barley)

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published