Heroes of the hills

You've got to respect the mountains, I always tell folk. By all means, get up and enjoy some of the glorious views the Mournes are just waiting to offer anyone prepared to put a few hours effort in. But you've got to respect them. That's why I'm always careful and as prepared as I can be when I head up.

That said, even for the most prepared and experienced hiker,  things can go wrong. One moment of carelessness or an accident, and you can find yourself stuck - and in need of help.

And I must say knowing that there is a stirling team of volunteers there to act as guardians for us all is of tremendous comfort to me as I make my way over the craggy granite of the Kingdom.

And never more so than a few weeks ago when Ryan Simpson and I witnessed the most amazing of rescues in the heart of the Kingdom of Mourne, deep into the dark, rich blues of twilight.

We had spent the day having a gentle ramble through the hills, summiting Binnian in mid afternoon, with cloud inversions coming and going throughout the day. The light was gentle, the temperatures were decidedly mild, and the scenery before us was amazing.

After enjoying the most tranquil of sunsets from the north tors of Binnian, we sat on into twilight and blue hour, soaking in the view, chatting about life, the universe and everything, and waiting for the full moon to make an appearance for some moonlit photography to cap the day off.

We had just packed up our gear to head for Buzzards Roost, when we heard that unmistakable sound - a helicopter was approaching. As it got louder and louder, we could see the lights come into view. It was clear then that this was a mountain rescue helicopter - and that someone was in a bit of bother.

The chopper circled around the summit of Slieve Bearnagh, one of the steepest peaks in the Mournes. And for the next half hour we were witness to some of the most amazing skills by the pilot and crew of Rescue 999 from Prestwick as the helicopter got into position, perilously close to those unforgiving craggy tors that sit atop Bearnagh, and winched their man down to the casualty below. It then circled around, holding position while the injured hiker received treatment, before coming back in again to winch them all to safety.

Meanwhile, there I was, over 3 km away on the summit of Binnian, watching - and photographing - it all. Given how dark it was, I needed to go for longer exposures. But, when the helicopter was in winching position, it was locked rock solid. The chopper in my 2 second exposures was pin sharp. Boy, those pilots are good!

After about half an hour, the helicopter left, silence returned to the mountains, and Ryan and I were left wondering who was injured and hoping that they were okay. And, after seeing all of that, we picked our way down off the summit just that wee bit more carefully, I can tell you!

Next day, I loaded the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team page on Facebook to find out more about the rescue. And this was their post.

I posted my photo in the comments, only for somebody called Conor to reply, saying he was the guy lying below at the time with the broken ankle!

As someone who spends a lot of time in the mountains, I have been very thankful to know that, should the worst happen, there is a team of people - volunteers - who would be there for me. I am always as careful as I can be, of course, checking the weather, having the right gear, letting people know my route, travelling with others when I’m going to be hiking in the twilight or darkness. You have got to respect the mountains. But it’s great to know that these heroes of the hills are there, just in case.

My good buddy, Ryan Simpson, poses in the moonlight, with Bearnagh behind him. We picked our way down very carefully that evening after witnessing the rescue...!

So it is my great honour and privilege to partner with Mourne Mountain Rescue Team to help raise some funds for them. There are three prizes on offer: a framed A3 print of the rescue taking place, plus two other A3 prints taken earlier that evening from Binnian. To enter, you simply have to leave a £2 donation on our fundraising page https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/FramedPrint and you will be entered into the draw which will take place on 2nd June.

So head on over to that page now and enter - and help spread the word so that we can raise as much as possible for these heroes of the hills!