The Brecon Beacons are home to some of Wales’ most beautiful scenery – but don’t let beauty deceive you. Many of the peaks can be challenging, and you don’t want to add your name to the list of callouts carried out each year by the Brecon Mountain Rescue Team.
The team offer an emergency service staffed entirely by volunteers and funded purely by donations. They operate principally in mid Wales, working from the Brecon Beacons National Park north to Plynlimon, from the Welsh borderland westward, through mid Wales, to the Ceredigion coast, though they regularly work throughout south, mid & west Wales & around the English border.
Even the fittest, most prepared walkers can succumb to illness and injury in the wrong weather, evidenced by the tragic death of 3 soldiers who collapsed and died after taking part in a training exercise for the SAS’s tough selection process which involved marching up 886-metre high Pen Y Fan and down the other side carrying a weighted pack and rifle, then doing the route in reverse, in a set time, on a hot summer day.
However, throughout the UK, many of the mountain rescue callouts are for walkers who are inadequately prepared, with inappropriate footwear or inadequate equipment for walking conditions. Wales Online even shared a photo this January of a woman almost at the top of the region’s highest peak, in the snow, wearing high heeled boots!
Brecon Mountain Rescue suggest walkers take the following precautions in order to have an enjoyable and safe time exploring the hills:
Check the weather!
Get a reliable local weather forecast before you set off. The weather in the Beacons can change quickly. It gets colder the higher you go and wind-chill will have a significant effect on your body. At a given air temperature, wind speed reduces the temperature experienced by the body by an amazing amount – don’t under estimate its effect.
Plan your route
The team advise pre-planning a route that is suitable for the weakest member of your party and suitable for the forecasted weather (and be prepared in case the weather worsens). It’s also important to let someone know where you are going and let them know which route you are taking too – let them know what time you expect to be back, and if your plans change, give them a call! Don’t just go wandering either, have a map covering your route and a compass. Know how to use both.
What to take
Ideally walkers should have first aid training, but in any case, take a first aid kit with you – you never know when it may be needed.
Take appropriate clothing including waterproofs, spare warm clothes (lots of layers trap more warm air), hat and gloves, enough food and drink for the planned trip plus a bit extra for the unplanned part. Take a torch & a survival bag (if you don’t have one or know what one is get down to your local gear shop now, they cost next to nothing and may save your life).
Footwear wise, while many have successfully climbed Pen y Fan in trainers (and worse!), they don’t support the foot well and proper walking boots are inexpensive and offer significantly better protection. A simple sprained ankle at 886m could make your descent at least slow and painful and at worst impossible – why risk it?
Don’t rely on tech!
Everyone assumes their phone will work anywhere, but any tech can give a false sense of security. Try to avoid relying on communications or position finding technology. A GPS is a great piece of kit, but when it breaks, the batteries go flat because of the cold or you drop it, you’re on your own. Get a map & compass. The best maps in the world are made by Ordnance Survey & cover the whole of the UK. The 1:25,000 Explorer series will give you more detail than you could ask for, but make sure you know how to read it. (You’d be amazed..! ) There is a very good reason why every MRT and professional outdoor activity provider uses these maps!
When plans go astray
If things start to go wobbly, don’t panic. Don’t immediately get out your mobile phone and dial 999 (or your Mum, ‘cos she’ll dial 999 for you), unless it’s a medical emergency.
If you find yourself lost, don’t panic – use that map and compass. Try and work out where you are, use any visual or navigation aides available and do talk to strangers! Is it the end of the world if you walk down a route you hadn’t planned to?
How to contact the rescue team
If you REALLY need rescuing, make it easy for your rescuers to reach you quickly. Work out your 6-figure grid reference and throw in a description of some geographical features, use your mobile phone to dial 999, or if it isn’t working, send someone (or two if there are enough in your party to leave one behind with the casualty) to the nearest phone and dial 999. Mobiles often get a better signal higher up a hill – but don’t put yourself at risk.
Ask for Police then when you get through to them; ask for ‘Mountain Rescue’.
They will contact the appropriate Mountain Rescue Team. The system takes time – it’s not like calling an ambulance to a street. You will need to be able to tell them the number of casualties, the nature of the injury or illness and their location with six-figure grid reference. The less information you can give, the longer the process takes. You will need to stay near the phone because the Mountain Rescue Team will want to call you back. You will probably be asked to wait where you are while someone comes to speak to you, although don’t expect ambulances and flashing lights to necessarily come your way, you may not have come down the quickest or easiest way.
The whole process of a mountain rescue can take several hours, or more – so don’t expect the team to zip over in a helicopter and whip you away.
Work out how long it took you to get where you are, and add on travelling time for mountain rescue to get to the road head. This will give you a rough idea of how long it will take them to reach you. The team’s work is normally done on foot – so if you are cold/wet/hungry, you’ll be really thankful for those extra supplies in your kit bag!
In the meantime, if someone in your party is injured, remember that the casualty is, presumably, not moving much and not keeping warm in the way your body is. If it’s not going to compromise the casualty’s condition or safety, try and insulate them from the ground and wind – even in summer. (People can become hypothermic quickly, even in summer.)
Enjoy the hills – and donate!
Most of the time, the walks are great, and your only challenge will be getting a great selfie at the windy peak! In fact the path up Pen y Fan from Storey Arms is so wide and well-trodden it’s nicknamed the motorway! However, should the weather change dramatically, or you get lost, a little preparation will make the difference that gets you down safely.
Taking precautions means you will be able to enjoy the hills – and if you really enjoy them, think about making a donation to support the fantastic work of the mountain rescue team who keep walkers safe.