THE leader of the UK’s busiest mountain rescue team has issued a renewed plea for a helicopter to be permanently based in Lochaber.
John Stevenson has spoken out after official reports confirmed a record number of call-outs for Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team, which he leads.
The Lochaber unit had a record 105 “shouts” in 2011, which accounted for more than a quarter of all Scottish rescues. The team, made up of volunteers who juggle full-time jobs and family commitments with their mountain duties, rescued 153 people from the hills, with three fatalities recorded.
And with neighbouring Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team attending over 60 call-outs in the year, Mr Stevenson said this strengthened the case for a search and rescue aircraft to be based in the Fort William area when RAF and Royal Navy services are replaced by a fully civilian set-up in 2016.
Statistics released by LMRT this week showed that helicopters were used in 51 per cent of the team’s rescues in 2011 – down on previous years. The reduction was put down to “availability and reliability” which LMRT say is likely to become an “increasing issue”.
The nearest RAF rescue helicopter is at Lossiemouth and can take up to 90 minutes to reach an incident on Ben Nevis.
Mr Stevenson said: “Between ourselves and Glencoe, over 60 per cent of mountain rescues take place in this area, more if you include the Cairngorms.
“The process of moving from a military to fully-civilian is underway and is set to be implemented by early 2016. We really need to have a proper debate about where these new helicopters will be based.
“We use them the most so I believe it should be common sense for a helicopter to be permanently based here in Fort William. It is something Glencoe and ourselves have argued for a long time but it really needs to be emphasised how important it is.
“Our report highlights the need for a helicopter here and with the number of incidents rising every year having that resource would be a huge advantage.
“However, it then opens up another debate about where you locate the landing and refuelling site.”
In late May, the helicopter refuelling site was moved from the former pulp mill at Corpach to a site at Carr’s Corner on the edge of Fort William.
However, Mr Stevenson said there are major concerns about the suitability of this site due to its proximity to the A82 trunk road.
The Lochaber News has been told that Northern Constabulary has expressed concern about the potential for road accidents to happen due to motorists “rubber necking” when one of the giant Sea King helicopters comes in to land at Carr’s Corner.
Mr Stevenson said: “Carr’s Corner is purely a refuelling stop which is on a temporary lease. Its limitations were shown up during the recent world cup mountain biking.
“We had a rescue on that weekend but the helicopter couldn’t land at Carr’s Corner because the site had been taken over as an overspill car park for the bike event. The copter had to go to Oban to refuel which is certainly not a good situation when time is of the essence.
“At this time of year we are really running out of options in terms of dedicated landing sites for the rescue choppers.
“The West End car park is often full during the summer and we’re technically not allowed to have the aircraft land next to our team base in Glen Nevis Business Park, which to us would be the ideal location. However, we recognise the concerns of residents in Claggan about this.
“There is a site close to Claggan Park, off the Achintee road which we believe would be another perfect landing site. Talks are ongoing between various parties on this.
“It’s one of these things that is dragging its heels and I really hope we can get the situation sorted out as soon as possible.”
Busiest team spent 3,845 hours on missions
ACCORDING to the LMRT 2011 review, the youngest casualty rescued was an 11-year-old girl and the oldest a 72-year-old man.
Predictably, the largest percentage of LMRT activity is based around Ben Nevis (64 per cent) and Glen Nevis (eight per cent). The “Ben path” accounted for 19 of the rescues, with the second most popular spot on the Ben being Tower Ridge with seven rescues, and Five Finger Gully with three.
Glen Nevis had 13 rescues with Steall Falls and Steall Gorge accounting for eight of these.
Aonach Mor, Aonach Beag and the Grey Corries had only three recorded rescues over the year, although there were probably others carried out by the staff of Nevis Range.
Other locations included Knoydart, Rum, Ardnamurchan and Glenfinnan.
A total of 3,845 team man hours was devoted to incidents throughout the year.
LMRT secretary Miller Harris said: “In 2011 we attended 105 incidents which were about 25 per cent of all mountaineering incidents in Scotland (413) last year, maintaining our position as the busiest team by some distance.
“The number of incidents recorded throughout Scotland has been increasing as teams now record non mountaineering incidents which take the total incidents in Scotland to 564 in 2011.
“The trends show a steady increase in both rescues and rescued over the last 12 years. Our recorded figures are actually lower than actual, as we do not record the many over-dues and talk-downs which occur throughout the year.
“We are gradually ensuring that all incidents are logged and recorded as funding from the Scottish Government grant is partially based on activity, both number and time, involved.”