The rolling hills of the Sperrins and the tranquility of the many forests dotted across Tyrone and beyond don’t scream danger by any means.
Yet people have to be rescued and helped to safety each year, after getting into difficulty in what often starts out as a little adventure into the great outdoors.
It’s a situation familiar to a lot more people over the last 14 months as the cabin fever caused by the closure of shops, pubs and restaurants saw droves of novices head for the hills, completely oblivious to the perils in store.
Every forest park, mountain trail and outdoor amenity in Tyrone has had record numbers of visitors over the last year – and with that has also come record numbers of emergencies.
Despite the fact that these same amenities had to be closed for around 12 weeks during the first lockdown last year, the North West Mountain Rescue Team (NWMRT) has still seen a whopping 40 per-cent increase in the number of call-outs.
This figure only emphasises how necessary it was to close the public parks and forests back in March 2020, a decision which undoubtedly prevented additional pressures being heaped on the already stretched emergency services.
In so-called normal times, NWMRT – which has volunteers from all over Tyrone – would respond to around 35 call-outs each year, about once every ten days.
What many people may not know is that the NWMRT covers the whole of the North, apart from the Mourne Mountains, which has its own rescue service.
The team was formed in 1980 in Derry and over the years it has expanded to Fermanagh and then to Belfast, covering the Antrim Glens and Belfast Hills and everywhere in-between.
Tyrone man Trevor Quinn, who is the press officer for the rescue service, explained that NWMRT has three sections covering the North.
“We would occasionally provide support to our neighbouring teams across the border, Donegal MRT and Sligo/Leitrim MRT in particular. There are 11 mountain rescue teams across the island of Ireland north and south under the overseeing body Mountain Rescue Ireland,” said Trevor.
“Currently there are 68 members involved, a small proportion of which are non-operational, they don’t respond to call-outs but work tirelessly behind the scenes in the running of the team.”
For Trevor, becoming a volunteer involved some blood-letting.
“I was first involved with the team from a very young age when my late father was a member. As a teenager, I was lucky enough to be nominated as a voluntary casualty, often with fake blood and all the works for some of the dramatic scenarios.
“I joined the team once I was 18 for a few years and then work/life commitments took priority. In 2013, I returned to the team with friend and colleague Gary Reid, also from Dungannon.”
There have been many memories – both good and bad – from the hundreds of call-outs which Trevor has been involved with.
He continued, “Every call-out affects us in different ways. However, I can say that none of us are superheroes, we are not invincible by any means.
“There have been tragic stories of mountain rescue personnel sustaining serious injury or worse. This hit home for all of our members when one of our own was injured on a training weekend in Co Clare.
“Due to the nature of the injury and their location they were air-lifted to hospital for treatment then soon got their way home, with a slow recovery. Thankfully they have made fantastic progress and resumed training with lots of skills to share.
“It is always a very rewarding feeling knowing that we have responded successfully to a call-out, be it a medical emergency or a search for a missing person.
“In 2017, the team responded to three separate incidents within a short space of time, the third having the team making best advantage of our members being located throughout the province.
“During a training exercise on Divis Mountain, team members were alerted to a missing family pet dog. While search patterns were sent out another request came in to assist an injured walker on Cavehill. A response crew were soon deployed to Cavehill to assist the treatment and extraction of the casualty to an awaiting ambulance. The third call that day came through with a report that two young walkers were lost in Banagher Forest, near Dungiven.
“Due to our members being so spread out, we were able to call in help to be able to respond to such incidents. The young couple were soon located, assessed and walked back to their car. Being involved in any rescue gives us a great sense of reward and pride in our team, to accomplish that three times in one evening is something else entirely.”
Trevor said the lifting of restrictions has also brought major relief to NWMRT.
“The number of incidents increased by 41 per-cent during the period of lockdowns, compared to the same period of time in the previous year. We ran a public campaign to negate a rise in call-outs due to increased numbers taking to the hills during the pandemic, and we urged them to keep to known routes and stay within their limits.
“Our team activities were reduced to ‘call-out only’ along with lots of online training where possible. It is good to see better times now that training and fundraising events can take place to keep our skill sets fresh and equipment up-to-date. There’s also a social aspect as our colleagues become great friends.”
New members are introduced to NWMRT on an annual induction programme, however the training and equipment can be expensive and so the rescue service relies heavily on donations.
With the public’s new-found love for the great outdoors here to stay, Trevor said educating people about risks is now a central focus.
He added, “As a mountain rescue team we often hear people voicing their appreciation for our work, many would say they had never been up a mountain before.
“Some of our call-outs have been to assist the farming community, even an occasional animal rescue where it would be unsafe for a farmer to reach a stranded sheep for example.
“We live on an island that does not have the biggest mountains, but our weather makes them hostile with a fast-changing environment, and therefore our extended charitable purpose of educating the public on hazards in mountains becomes more important.”