A humorous ode to the vital work of Mountain Rescue volunteers by outdoor writer and author John D Burns
The large Black Labrador shuffled uncomfortably in front of the fire. He was, as is typical of his kind, an expert human watcher and his eyes had strayed little from the angular frame of his owner, who had wedged himself in an armchair for the last hour or so.
Bob could see that his master, He who wields the tin opener, was unsettled. For one thing the TV programme about baking cakes had just finished and he was still awake; for another, every fifteen minutes he would rise up, peer at the clock and sink back into his armchair scratching at the large bush that grew on his chin. Something, Bob decided, was amiss – and he would not settle until George did.
The TV programme about people falling over and being laughed at was halfway through when the phone in the hall rang. She who provides the odd secret biscuit and is allowed to sleep beside George called through from the Palace of Food: “I’ll get that.”
George raised himself half out of the armchair and listened intently. Bob decided that there was definitely something going on, and raised his head from the carpet, focusing his ears on the conversation in the hallway.
“Yes, yes,” said the woman George called darling, “I see. Oh dear, I’ll tell him.”
“What is it,” George enquired casually.
“Two more lost on the mountain,” Margaret said, wringing her hands in frustration. “I can’t believe it, terrible, terrible.”
George scratched the remains of his old Aran pullover and rose reluctantly from his armchair. “What can you do?” he muttered, heading for the bedroom and his hill gear.
“I’ll make you up some sandwiches, George. I do hope you’re not out all night.”
A few minutes later George appeared, transformed from the dozing householder to a man of action – well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but he had at least changed his trousers.
“And we were just settling down for a quiet night in. I don’t understand it,” Margaret exclaimed, emerging from the kitchen with a Tupperware box containing George’s carefully wrapped sandwiches. “How many is it now, losing themselves this year?”
George paused in zipping up his fleece, “Oh I don’t know, certainly the team’s busiest season for years.”
“You’d think with GPS and everything there’d be fewer folk getting lost these days.”
“Ah well,” George mused, shouldering his rucksack, “you know these hills, the weather can change terrible quick, folk just get caught out.”
Margaret proffered the box of sustenance. “I’ve made them from that nice low-fat cheese and the cholesterol-reducing spread instead of butter. Oh and there’s that reduced-fat mayonnaise you like too. Your favourite.”
George smiled and, leaning forward to peck Margaret on the cheek, reflected on how middle age had seeped into every corner of his life; now even his sandwiches reeked more of medical advice than taste. The days of bacon sandwiches and white bread soaked in tomato sauce had long gone, along with his flowing hair.
The car park at the foot of the glen was already busy with team members and abandoned cars by the time George steered his Volvo to a halt beside the white-and-red Land Rover that was the team’s only possession. Jumble sales and sponsored walks had raised enough cash to supply the vehicle over a number of years. Each tyre was the product of the sale of threadbare trousers and many miles of soggy walking by willing volunteers.
Kenny was lounging from the driver’s window, his woollen hat in danger of losing the fight to contain his mop of curly ginger hair. He waved to George as he stepped from his car.
“Well here we are again.” His soft voice was almost lost against the burbling of a nearby burn.
“Aye, here we are again,” replied George as he fastened his boots.
“Search the bothy first I thought?” Kenny asked, heaving the long aluminium silhouette of the stretcher from the back of the team vehicle. “Charlie and the rest of the boys have gone ahead.”
“Not all boys,” George said, noticing Constable Laura’s patrol car parked a few feet away.
Kenny smiled. “Ah well no that’s true. They’ll do well to keep up with her.”
The last of the evening light was slipping quietly from the glen and the November air was already turning chill as the two men (and one dog) headed up into the hills along the path beside the burn. They walked in silence, wheeling the stretcher with its load of chinking equipment between them. The track climbed steeply at first and the ascent demanded all the breath both men had before it gradually eased a mile or so before the bridge across the gorge. It was here the two men allowed themselves a pause. It was fully dark now and they both stood for a moment, watching their breath mist in the beams from their head torches.
George looked up and noticed that the stars were already beginning to show as pinpricks in the night sky. “A frost tonight, I think. I take it we are well equipped for whatever rigours we may face?”
Kenny sounded offended. “You don’t think I’d leave us short?”
In a mile, the bothy came into view, a dull glow emanating from the windows. A tall, slim female figure was first to greet them from the door.
“What kept you?”
George was all business. “Have you located the casualties, Laura?”
Laura shot George a look as though he had asked if midges bite. “Of course – here they are.”
Inside the bothy candles flickered and a small fire was struggling to keep the night air at bay. A middle-aged couple were seated on a rickety bench, both nursing cups of steaming tea.
George hurried over to them. “I can’t thank you enough,” he declared.
“Oh you’re very welcome,” the couple replied in unison, “Any time.”
“I don’t think we’d be wise to descend tonight,” Kenny mused aloud, calling from the darkness beyond the bothy door.
George followed the voice and found Kenny, Laura and half a dozen team members staring into the darkness to the glen below. By now the valley was bathed in moonlight with the folds of the low hills showing black against the starlit backdrop. Already, tiny ice crystals were sparkling on the heather. All eyes turned expectantly to George; as leader it would be his call.
“Well…” George looked at the sky, smelt the wind, touched the cold night air with his fingers. “It’s all right now, isn’t it? We could set off and it could be fine.” There was a murmur of concerned assent. “But,” George pronounced the words as though he were a judge sentencing a murderer to death, “It could all change in an instant. You can never tell.”
“No, no, in an instant… never tell.” The company echoed George’s words with dire solemnity.
“I think it wise to stay here for the night.”
En masse the team turned and rushed for the bothy door and, after a moment of jostling, all were inside.
Kenny began to unwrap the load on the stretcher. “Best unpack the equipment,” he said with some relish.
The following emerged from the folds: two fiddles, one harmonica (bent), four bottles assorted malt whisky, six packs of lager and four of beer, two wine boxes, several packs of sausages, bacon, eggs, cheese, one pack of cards, a large bag of coal and, to the surprise of nearly everyone, a bottle of vodka.
“Not everyone drinks whisky,” Laura exclaimed, and no one argued.
Some time later George sat cradling a glass of his favourite and staring into the bothy fire. Bob lay upside down warming his stomach before the flames.
“I feel a little hungry,” he remarked, mainly to himself as his words were lost amongst the babble of voices and the whine of the fiddle. He popped open the little plastic box and carefully unwrapped the delicately prepared sandwiches. He took a moment to enjoy the aroma of cheese and mayonnaise, noticing how the lettuce hung forlornly between the layers of gluten-free bread. Then, with a deft flick of the wrist, he hurled them into the bothy fire where they lay sizzling for a moment before the flames consumed them.
“How’s those sausages coming along, Kenny?” he called, recalling how grateful he was for folk who got lost on the hill.
A version of this story was first published on John’s blog. All photos © Alex Roddie.
John Burns is a mountaineer, actor and writer. For over 40 years he has walked and climbed the hills of Scotland whilst making occasional trips to more exotic location like the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Canadian Rockies. He was also a member of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team, and has taken part in numerous rescues in the Highlands. More recently he has rediscovered his love for remote bothies and regularly visits the wilder places of his Scottish home.
His recently released book, The Last Hillwalker, tells the story of a generation’s exploration in the hills set against the social background of the 1970s and 80s. From early wanderings in the Lake District to a farcical Pennine Way adventure before journeying north to the Scottish Highlands and gaining more experience, this book will appeal to anyone with an interest in the outdoors.