Volunteers keep Central Beacons Mountain Rescue on track
What’s replacing the Land Rover Defender as the mountain rescuer’s vehicle of choice?
Two innocent words, but not the ones you want to hear just as you’re about to be lowered down a 65deg slope, strapped tight into a metal stretcher. Seven more words slip into my brain: “I really must stop volunteering for things.”
I’ve no idea what the volunteers of the Central Beacons Mountain Rescue team did to resolve the issue, but 30 seconds later I’m back on the move, staring at the sky and putting all my faith in seven Welsh rescuers and several metres of rope.
We’re in the Brecon Beacons National Park, spending a day with the volunteers who dedicate their lives to rescuing walkers/cyclists/ motorcyclists/sheep in this part of South Wales. Crucially, we’re here to learn what life is like after the Land Rover Defender.
Mighty impressive though the new model is, it’s fair to say that economics and design (after it was Gerry-fied) have meant it has slipped off the radar for the sort of working people who made the original Defender the icon it is. There is one in service with the mountain rescue team in Patterdale, Cumbria, but a lot of others are looking at alternative solutions now.
The Central Beacons team is one such example. They used to use a Land Rover Defender 110 and a Ford Ranger, but their shift away from the Land Rover was hastened by a fire at their base, and it has been an interesting, if laborious, process to find a replacement.
It’s worth reinforcing at this stage that the Central Beacons team, like most mountain rescue outfits, are volunteers. They all have day jobs, families and lives outside the red jackets. They can get up to 130 callouts a month (the summer is busiest), most of those at weekends and each usually lasting three to four hours.
Imagine all that, on top of ‘normal’ life, and now consider that you also need to go through a process of choosing, designing and building an entirely new vehicle. They must have some extremely patient partners, wives and husbands.
Other mountain rescue areas had their own vehicle suggestions, but what you soon learn is that not only are these guys territorial – the line between different teams’ areas “can be drawn in blood”, jokes incident controller Jon Goddard – but also each patch has its own specific requirements. Central Beacons don’t need incredible off-road capability from their car, because most of their area is forestry tracks. What they need is comfort, both on and off road, and practicality.
Goddard takes up the reasoning: “We needed to look at three criteria: carrying technical rescue items, medical kit and swift-water rescue equipment. We also needed to future-proof it.
“The Defender has history in mountain rescue and is a great bit of kit, but the old 110 isn’t the most comfortable or practical. Ninety-five per cent of our use is on road, so we needed carrying capacity and comfort.”
Unsurprisingly, cost also plays a major factor. The team did look at Land Rover Discovery 5s, but the purchase price made it untenable. As it was, a pair of Isuzu D-Maxes each set them back £56,000, the cash coming from donations and insurance following the fire.
The co-ordinating Mountain Rescue England and Wales body gets £250,000 per year in total from the Treasury to put towards every single team in the country. Central Beacons spent £226,000 to get their fleet up and running again (their Renault Master Incident Control van cost £114,000), so it was a massive investment in time and money for this charitable outfit.
Mechanically, not much has been changed on the D-Max, but Central Beacons did fit extra underbody protection. There are also winch mounts front and back, and designated attachment points so that ropes can be attached directly to the car. Effectively, the Isuzu becomes a huge land anchor when needed.
The winches were a clever thought. Instead of having one winch per car, the Central Beacons team has one between two that can be mounted at the front or back. So no matter which way you get stuck, you can always pull yourself out. “There’s not a lot of point having a winch just on the front that’s only going to pull you further into the mud,” explains Goddard.
The pod is the big change and makes life much easier than on the old Defender. There are three doors that open to reveal neatly sectioned storage areas, each one labelled and only as deep as the piece of equipment in it. Literally everything they need is back here, from carabiners to rope, belay devices to a stretcher, plus all the first-aid medical equipment. There are even two safes, holding the pain-relief drugs that are strictly signed out and accounted for.
Within 30 seconds of the Isuzu stopping, kit is being deployed where it needs to be. And even to a novice like me, it’s clear to see how easy and effective this car is. We’re here on a relatively bright day (mostly cloudy, but it is Wales, after all), but at night, in the wind and rain, that ease of use is quite literally the difference between life and death.
To see how well all this translates into practice, we’re witnessing two different rescues today, the first one involving a dog that has supposedly fallen down a cliff. (Dogs, incidentally, still play a major role in mountain rescue by covering vast distances, even though technology is taking over and allowing the rescuers to pinpoint casualties off the phone’s GPS.)
Following a debrief outside the Master, the Isuzu heads off towards the cliff. You can see why the team didn’t need an off-roader that was too hardcore: barring a few sharp stones, you could imagine a well-driven Toyota RAV4 handling this. One person guides the car in for the last few yards, leaving plenty of space at the top of the cliff for the rescue zone, and then the real action begins. Time to help the dog.
Despite there being seven people involved in the rescue, there’s no chaos. Every person knows their role and gets on with it. There’s a bit of chatter, but nothing that detracts from the task at hand and with an incredible discipline to proceedings. Ropes are attached to the car, chocks are put in front of the wheels (good practice, but it would have to be one hell of a hound to drag the car over the cliff) and then the rescuers start getting harnessed up.
The Isuzu remains static, cupboards opened and spilling their contents into waiting hands. Importantly, only the kit that’s needed is dragged out, so the rescue site remains remarkably clutter-free. The Isuzu just blends into the background as the humans buzz around. There’s a bit of rain about, but you can tell these guys must be used to it, as it makes no difference to the work rate.
It’s amazing how much doublechecking goes on, from ropes to harnesses to knots, but none of this feels wasted. It’s all managed efficiently and, five minutes later, one wet dog and its owner are pulleyed to the top of the cliff.
And then it’s my turn. Fortunately, Wales’s liquid sun has eased off and my stint as idiot-breaks-leg-falling-down-old-ruin begins with a vague hint of blue sky. There are seven people on my ‘rescue’ (it’s remarkable how labour-intensive saving people is, despite all the modern technology), and they run through it like it’s the real thing. I’m offered morphine, plus gas and air, then my leg is locked into a vacuum splint and I’m hoicked onto the stretcher.
It feels odd being locked into the stretcher and entirely at the mercy of a bunch of Welsh men and women. I’d better not tell them who I support in the rugby. And then I get lowered down the slope, with Rhiannon Chalmers-Brown in front guiding but the rest up at the top on a series of pulleys. The Isuzu waits patiently at the bottom.
It would make for a better story if something dramatic happened, but I’m afraid I don’t have anything to report. Even being suspended off the steep slope while photographer Luc Lacey got a different angle felt easy.
Back down on flat ground and the Isuzu gets packed away. Again, there’s no fluster – the stretcher is slid into its compartment with ease and five minutes later they’re ready to go again. It’s the drilled-down singularity of every element of the day – be that mechanical, human or vehicle – that impresses me most. Zero wastage.
What’s odd at the end of all this is that the car is most definitely not the star; it’s actually the least remarkable element of the day. But perhaps that’s the finest back-handed compliment you can pay it. By performing exactly as it’s designed to do, with a laser-focused fitness for purpose, the Isuzu lets the Central Beacons team do what they do best.
What’s it like to drive?
The Isuzu D-Max in mountain rescue trim looks an unwieldy thing, and so it proves. Our first moment in it is out to the national park from the Merthyr Tydfil base, and you can feel the weight slung out the back; think Porsche 911 but without the accompanying flat-six soundtrack (well, almost). We’re getting a wriggle on, because the team wants to demonstrate how urgent some call-outs are, and there’s a hefty degree of yaw as we round corners.
But in the quarries and rolling hills of the Brecon Beacons, it’s spot on. Out here, speed isn’t needed, or even possible, so the Isuzu settles into the cadence of steady progress. It’s comfortable, quiet and warm – three vital ingredients in mountain rescue.
Plus, it’s simple. Jon Goddard deliberately chose an automatic so that it would be easier to operate in harsh conditions. Drivers aren’t worried about balancing clutch and revs when it’s -10deg C outside and they’re on a steep incline.
There’s a rotary dial to select two-wheel drive, four high or four low, plus a gearlever to switch between drive or manual mode and a big button for hill descent control. Minimal frills.
We have a twirl around some steep gravel slopes and it copes admirably, helped in no small part by the BF Goodrich All Terrain rubber. But there’s also plenty of power from the 1.9-litre diesel engine, so it feels like only an up-to-the-axles moment will stop it crawling forward.
There are fancier pick-ups out there, with more impressive electronics and kit, but it’s difficult to argue with the Isuzu’s fitness for purpose.
Out of the ashes
25 November 2017 wasn’t a good day for the Central Beacons team. A passer-by had spotted smoke coming from their building, and by the time the fire brigade had put the blaze out, all three rescue vehicles were knackered.
“The insurance wrote all three off, as there was too much smoke damage, even if the physical vehicle was structurally all there,” explains Jon Goddard.
What’s remarkable is how little it affected the day-to-day rescuing work of the Central Beacons team. The base was moved down to the local fire station and other mountain rescue outfits offered loan vehicles. “No one was stood down,” says Goddard, rightly proud of the adaptability that everyone showed.
Four years later and they’re back at base, in the same building but with improved technology and better rooms for kit storage and training. It’s nondescript from the outside but functions exactly as they need it to. It even has autorelease charger plugs from the vehicles, so if someone drives off in a hurry, they don’t take all the back wall with them. Plus, it now has a sprinkler system.
The rescuers: four more peak performers
It’s not the cheapest bit of kit, so utility companies are the main customers. Low-pressure tyres mean minimal environmental impact and it can also float. Not something you could say of the Defender.
The icon. Cavers, like Cumbria Mines Rescue, prefer the Unimog because it can carry so much weight – vital for the sort of kit-intensive rescuing they do. A payload of up to 7500kg is handy, as is the relatively cheap used price.
The Hilux has always had a reputation for unsinkable reliability, and the latest version carries that on. It operates on a similar principle to the Isuzu D-Max but can command a premium price.
The Polaris has the advantage of being small, lightweight and quick across the ground, so rescue teams with narrow access, like Rossendale and Pendle, prefer it. A heated cabin makes it fit for winter operations.