Saturday, September 01, 2012

Book Notes: Cairngorm John by John Allen

Being in the mountains; walking them, climbing them, skiing them, painting or photographing them seems to drive people to write about them. Any book or gift shop in the Highlands of Scotland has a shelf or two devoted soley to the genre. Not that I am in a position to complain about this, of course - a click on the words "hills" on the "labels" menu on the right hand side of this page will reveal that I am subject to the same forces I describe and have spewed forth words on the subject at regular intervals since this blog begun. A high proportion of such books are written by 'extremists' who have accomplished extraordinary moutaineering feats - and presumably need to recover the costs of their months in the mountains, and so take to publishing. John Allen's "Cairngorm John" is a quite different sort of book - because from 1972 - 2007, he was a member (and for most of that time, the leader) of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. The book is subtitled, "A Life in Mountain Rescue" - which nicely summarises what makes this book both unusual and fascinating.

Two images spring to mind when a book about mountain rescue is considered; the first is of macho-posturing and adjective-busting narratives of daredevil rescue ("Thunderbirds are go!") and the second is of tutting and moaning about idiots who get into trouble in the hills, and the bother they cause. John Allen's book is neither of these, but is in fact a thoughtful and realistic memoir packed full of discussion about the practicalities and challenges of safely removing the stranded from all manner of situations - in varying medical states. While one or two of the rescued are criticised (the ill-equipped teacher who led more than thirty ill-equipped kids up onto the plateau); Allen is usually remarkably respectful of the people he has rescued - and notes that the well-equipped, and highly experienced are just as likely to be overwhelmed by the brutality of the mountain environment; as the naive tourist.

While there are some tales of heroic feats, stretchering splintered-limbered climbers off precipices in blizzards; much of the book focuses on the organisational logistics of organising and planning a rescue. Likewise, there are poignant chapters on rescue-attempts which did not have happy outcomes, where rescue dogs locate frozen bodies in the snow, and the team notify the base and return the remains to the families. This is hard reading, especially when the victim was a youngster.

The relationships between the various bodies who work together on rescues (Mountain Rescue, Air Force, Ambulance/paramedics and police) also make insightful reading. This is so, not just on the various funding negotiations which Allen was party to, but also on the use and limits of helicopters (RAF), the extent to which a mountain rescue crew should attempt medical procedures in situ at the expense of speed of extraction of the victim from the mountain environment (ambulance); and the potential that a death in the field might be a crime scene and how this affects the process (police).

Some of Allen's personal life also permeates the narrative, from his childhood, training as a pharmacist, marriage, family life, and of course moving up to the Cairngorm area when he was able to run his own pharmacy business. His own love of the mountains, and mountain sports is obvious - and he was no stranger to the difficulties that even mountain experts can get into; and talks about the serious knee injury he sustained on a climb which finally led to to his retiral from the service and a change in retirement from hills to water, from climbing boots to sailing boats.

One personal footnote I wish he had developed a little more was his loss of the Christian faith he was brought up with. He mentions gaining skills and experience running a Scripture Union holiday camp at Scoughall (a place I first visited just this summer), but going on to leave the faith. Apart from wanting to play sport on Sundays which violated the Scottish-Sabbatarian version of Christianity on offer at the time, he offers no other explanation for this departure. The sadness I feel as a Christian reading that is coupled with a bit of frustration as a reader who wants to know why!

Nevertheless, hints of Allen's upbringing filter through sometimes. He describes the evolving development of the service as they constantly sought to improve techniques, equipment and training - making enormous progress over the decades. One of Allen's major achievements was the  purchase and equipping of a new base for the service in an old church building near Rothiemurchus, a change of use he notes that still involves "fishing for men". Alongside the development of the service, I also enjoyed reading of Allen's various colleagues - quite a cast of colourful characters - over the years, and the great affection and comradeship that existed between the members of the service. He describes many of them with enormous respect and admiration - and fondness, especially for those no longer living, who gave great time and energy to this good work. The Mountain Rescue Service, although professional in its standards, remains to this day the work of volunteers - one of the reasons that Allen gained an MBE for his work.

Personally, this book has made me a little more cautious in the hills. I have always been a fairly cautious walker, but that is probably because I have done so much walking in the Scottish Mountains on my own. The added caution is not in what kind of routes I tackle, as they seem to be getting longer and more demanding!  However, I have found myself carrying more than I used to, in terms of spare layers, extra food and carrying things like a warm hat - even when the forecast suggests that it will never leave the comfort of my pack. In so many stories in this book, accidents have occurred when the unexpected happened, and the fate of the casualty was significantly affected by how well equipped they were to deal with it. Likewise - while I used to be happy to charge my mobile phone and let it run-down during the day; I now realise that so doing would leave me with a dead, useless phone were I to break an ankle and be out all night. My phone these days gets charged up and switched off!

For anyone who loves the Scottish Mountains, this is an informative and engaging book that will both educate and lead to greater appreciation for the great work that the volunteers of the Mountain Rescue Service do, and would be willing to do for any of us who got into trouble in the hills.

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