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Ian Findlay retires after 32 years in Mountain Rescue

This week Ian Findlay retires after 32 years service to Mountain Rescue in the Teesdale and Weardale Search and Rescue Team.

Of "northern farming stock" and following two years National Service in the army, he moved into teaching at Plumbton Agricultural College in Sussex. His speciality at the time was livestock and conservation and this was to play a major part in his future career and beyond. In early 1974 he moved to Forest in Teesdale and took up a post of conservation officer for upper Teesdale with the Nature Conservancy Council. His main aim was to work with the farming community to encourage conservation within an internationally renowned botanical area of Great Britain.

Ian's membership of the then Upper Teesdale and Weardale Fell Rescue Association came via an unusual route. "Living in the upper part of the dale I was often called by either Don or Marion Robinson the wardens of Langdon Beck youth hostel when parties of school children were over due. At that time many enthusiastic teachers were taking school parties onto the fells totally unprepared. It was not unusual for me to be involved with two to three of these parties per month. As a result of this Dennis Coggins, the then team controller asked me to become a member. It got so bad that I personally went to County Hall to highlight this problem to the education authorities. Initially I was met with some indifference but with the backing of the fell rescue team slowly things started to improve.

Ian feels the rescue team then was very different to the team we know today. "It was not as big but everyone was still very enthusiastic. We only had one vehicle and two portable radios. Probably the biggest difference was that we only dealt with incidents on the fells."

High Force water fall was to play a big part in Ian's time with the team. It initially started with a rather unusual request. He was asked to give advice to a TV company who wanted to do an advert promoting Ford cars at High Force. This involved the company constructing an imitation rock above the falls and helicoptoring the car onto the top of the rock. To make this easier they wanted to cut down a number of trees. Ian quietly explained that those trees had been there hundreds of years and they were not going to be cut down for a thirty second advert.

Ian was often called by the landlord of the High force Hotel whenever anyone was in trouble near the falls. This was the case in 1986 when a father and son fell into the water above the falls. The father miraculously ended up on a ledge twenty feet below the lip of the falls. When Ian arrived he swam across the river, upstream from the falls with two climbing ropes, abseiled down to the man and assisted by passers by, the man was hauled to the top of the cliff. Ian then walked the father back to his family. This was probably the most traumatic incident Ian had to deal with in his time with the team. All the time during the twenty minute walk the father was asking Ian if he felt his son would be okay. This was a very difficult time as tragically the child did not survive. For Ian's action's on this day he was later awarded a bronze medal by the Order of St John.
In 1979 the team were called out for the first time, but not the last, to an incident away from the fells. Large amounts of snow had fallen over the dales leading to drifts over six feet high. A van driver was reported overdue in the Eggleston area. Ian was part of a group which went out and searched many of the roads in the area but the body of the man was only discovered by a snow plough a few days later.

Just before Christmas in 1988 the team was asked to assist in searching large areas of Kielder Forest and Southern Scotland following the explosion of the Pan am plane over Lochabie. Ian, with other team members spent three days searching the wooded areas. In Ian's words "This was a grim do. We found many personal items including passports, money and clothing. To look at the picture of a child in the passport was especially difficult. About six months after we returned I received a telephone call from a young man in America. He had been the boyfriend of one of the eleven people whose bodies were never found. I had found his girlfriends passport and somehow he had got my name and managed to trace me. He was desperate for information because he had heard that the enquiries were winding down. This of course was not the case and I was able to put him into contact with people who could assist him."

The local hill farmers will certainly miss Ian's expertise. He has rescued 91 sheep which have become stuck on crags throughout Teesdale and Weardale. Ian's rescue technique involves leaving the sheep for two to three days " to hunger" then abseiling down to the crag. Once he has managed to get them on their back he ties a rope around their horns, attaches it to his harness and lets the sheep hang between his legs while he lowers himself and the sheep to the ground. "This may sound uncomfortable for the sheep but I remember one time when I looked down between my legs to see the sheep chewing grass which was within her reach as she passed a ledge.

In 1996 Ian was awarded a MBE for his conservation work. At the time he was quick to praise all local farmers. "Farmers in the Upper dale have always been very helpful to me with regard to conservation. I never looked at it from an extreme point of view, I realised, that farming and conservation had to work hand in hand for it to be a success."

Although working with the rescue team can be at times distressing, it does have it's lighter moments. I remember going to the aid of a lady in her sixties who had broken her ankle below Cauldron Snout. We put her in a stretcher and started to carry her to the top of the waterfall. During this time she told me it had been 50 years since she had last been here and it looked like she would not see the falls again. We diverted the carry out over towards the falls and lifted the head end so she could have a view of Cauldron Snout. Despite being in some pain she insisted we hand her camera so she could take a photograph.
On another occasion the team were involved in rescuing a stranded motorist in upper Teesdale. When we found the elderly man it was possible to reverse the car out of the drift. The man was nervous and said he could not see out of the back to reverse properly. I put my arm through his open window in order to steer the car. We had not moved very far when the man inadvertently closed the electric window trapping my arm. This of course caused the car to veer off course and it knocked one of my colleagues over a wall. The car eventually stopped and I ran over to find out if he had been hurt. All I saw were the bottoms of two Wellington boots. My colleague had fallen head first into a five foot snow drift. He was completely unharmed but it took us ten minutes to dig him out.

The team holds exercises every month throughout the year. In his 32 years with the team Ian has attended more than 350 exercises in all weathers. Many present and former Team members owe a great deal to Ian's training skills. "The spirit and banter within the team is what I will miss most. The Team has always attracted a cross section of people, although volunteers they work in a professional way to help their fellow human beings in trouble",

Ian was asked if he would take on an administrative role within the team. His reply probably sums up the nature of the man, "No. I am much more use out in the field, reading the countryside and managing the troops. That's where my skills lie."

Although Ian is retiring from the team he will not be sitting at home with his slippers on watching the TV. He is a keen photographer and is currently compiling a video of wildlife and farming methods in all seasons within the dale. He is chairman of the parish counsel, chairman of the independent monitoring board at Deerbolt Young Offenders Institute and still carries out various conservation surveys.

Team leader Dave Bartles-Smith said "My overriding memory of Ian is his commitment to ensuring the Team is able to deal with and operate in the harshest of terrain and conditions. Long stretcher hauls and navigation on high fells in the poorest of weather and visibility would always make Ian's day, and so it should. Over the years, Ian's knowledge, intimacy of the land, and leadership in the North Pennines has often left me and others in awe and inspired. You can teach the basics of mountain sense, but it is only through experience that anyone gains real skills and knowledge, and Ian's many years of High Pennine adventure will be a miss to the Team, but must surely leave us all with something to strive to emulate.

Steve Owers

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