Swirral Edge Fallen Couple Rescued

Swirral Edge Fallen Couple Rescued

29/12/13 Couple fall from Swirral Edge and rescued by Patterdale MRT & RAF SAR
Swirral Edge Fallen Couple Rescued 

Fallen Couple Rescued from Swirral Edge

Link to incident on Patterdale MRT's website

Comment from MountainSafety

A great team effort from Patterdale, assisted by members from Kendal MRT and Calder Valley MRT, with air assistance from RAF Boulmer. There is little information within the incident text to give clues about why the couple fell, but there is an important reminder about mobile phone limitations. 

Weather & Route

The weather in the Lake District on 29th December was dry, with some strong winds and freezing point approx 800 metres. I was walking in the Great End/Scafell Pike area, and exposed rocks above 800m were covered in a thin but strong layer of ice which was well bonded to the rocks, making them extremely slippery. Gravel/erroded paths were also frozen, meaning that movement was extremely slow and without sufficient care quite likely to lead to a slip, with any number of consequent injuries. In my 25+ years of walking I've never experienced under-foot conditions quite like that. Crampons would have been of varying use; stopping a slip, yes, but given the absence of any volume of ice or consolidated snow, quite likely also to lead to a twisted ankle given the likely uneven-ness of foot placement. The day before I was walking around the Dove Crag area of the Lakes, not too far from Helvellyn, and could see that Striding Edge had a reasonable covering of 'white stuff', tho I cannot comment personally about conditions underfoot in that area. (Striding Edge is a few hundred metres away from Swirral Edge.)

One can only assume that conditions at or around Swirral Edge on the 29th were similar to Great End/Scafell areas above freezing point.

Was Swirral Edge an appropriate place for these walkers, given their equipment, conditions and experience? (We do not know the answer...)

Swirral Edge is a Serious Place to be

The top of Swirral Edge in particular is quite steep and even with a small amount of snow or ice can be treacherous and easy for someone to slip & fall, especially as there is a section that is what I'd describe as a gravel path, which has little in the way of sturdy rocks against which feet can be jammed to prevent a slip. Brown Cove is to the north and the drop from Swirral Edge to it is very steep indeed.

Equipment to prevent a slip on the top part of Swirral Edge, when the freezing point is forecast to be below the summit or in-situ snow, should be carried and used. In marginal conditions, you could probably get away with micro-spike type boot attachments, but proper crampons are always recommended. Micro spikes are never an equivalent to crampons, but can assist with mild surface slippery paths.

As a measure of the seriousness of Swirral Edge itself, it is classed as a grade 1 scramble, thus out of the normal walkers' domain. Qualified mountain leaders (summer) are outside of their remit if they took people onto a graded route. In addition, a mountain leader (summer), is also out of remit if winter conditions are present or forecast. Many less qualified walkers venture onto Swirral Edge, and every year Patterdale MRT collect fallen walkers from that vicinity, sometimes with fatal injuries.

Emergency Phone Calls

The phone call to 999 from the male caller is said to have come though on the emergency network. What this means in practice is that the caller's mobile did not have a signal on its own network, thus it was able to 'camp on' to the signal of any of the other three UK mobile networks. This facility has been available since 2009. The benefit of being camped on to another network is that you will be able to make a 999/112 call and alert emergency services, but the drawback is that you will be unable to take incoming calls, and in this case the inability of Patterdale MRT to call back meant that they had limited information about the incident. If you are in a group, make a 999/112 call from a phone that does not show 'emergency calls only' (or similar), meaning that the police and/or MRT will be able to call back on the phone from which you called. If all phones show 'emergency calls only', it will be worth advising police that incoming calls will be unlikely, and if you have not heard back from the police or MRT within 10 minutes, phone 999/112 again, as it's still an emergency.

A point also to note is that the Emergency SMS facility does not function when your phone is camped on to another network.

Mobile phone coverage in the mountains is patchy, and if the walkers had fallen on the other side of Swirral Edge, the second 999 call would have been unlikely to get through as there is no signal on the Red Tarn of the ridge. A mobile phone must be one of the emergency communication methods available to you - not the only one.

Time of Day

The incident reports that the the male fell at 15:30hrs, which is only minutes before sunset. We don't know much about the couple, their experience or state of equipment, but the general advice is that one should be off the mountain, or at least off the technical parts (of which Swirral Edge is most certainly technical) before it gets dark. It's always possible to be delayed, for various reasons, so a head torch must always be carried, also ensuring that at least one torch in the party has a strong beam so that forward route finding is possible, rather than just seeing foot placement.

In winter, a common contributing cause of mountain incidents is down to people starting late, or under estimating the time required for walking the intended route.

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