Mountaineering & Expeditions

Mountain Rescue | Q & A with a Volunteer

Operating in the Wicklow Mountains, Wayne Jenkins is a mountain trainer, leader, and rescue volunteer

You know how sometimes you’ll have a succession of back to back free weekends lined up and then come away from them afterwards feeling like you haven’t really made the most of them; that you haven’t really done anything with them? We’re all guilty of letting big plans dwindle to middling plans, dwindle to small plans, dwindle to nothing plans. Some people though, make the most of their time; people like Wayne Jenkins.

Wayne Jenkins, when he’s not doing the day job, operates as a mountain rescue volunteer in the Wicklow Mountains just outside of Dublin. He doesn’t, as he tells me during our chat, do it to “pay the mortgage” or “the bills.” He does it, he says, because he’s “good at something” and likes “to help people.”

We caught up with Wayne over the phone to find out what life as a mountain rescue volunteer is like, whether it ever gets frustrating, what his top tips for gear are, and what his views on the mental health benefits of being outside are. As well as being a mountain rescue volunteer, Wayne is also a Qualified Mountain Leader and a National Trainer for Mountain Skills.

Hi Wayne. Tell us a bit about what you do…

I’ve been working as a Professional Mountain Leader since 2011. That’s when I started teaching people mountain skills. Mountain skills is a two part training weekend so you do ‘Mountain Skills One,’ which is basic introduction to map skills, how to read the land, and how to measure and pace your distance as you move across the map and the land.

And then ‘Mountain Skills Two’ is more advanced so there’s night navigation, and intricate compass navigation. After people do their training for that, they go and fill their logbooks with 14 walks minimum and build up their experience that way.

“Once you reach that personal qualification it means someone can mind and manage themselves in the mountains”

Then they can put themselves forward for a mountain skills assessment, which is a final weekend but it’s an assessment. Once you can prove to the assessor that you can navigate daytime and nighttime around the mountains, and you can answer the questions confidently about what gear you need and what procedures and what cautions you should take including making out a route card and being able to use a route card practically then you’ll be signed off as qualified mountain skills person.

Once you reach that personal qualification it means someone can mind and manage themselves in the mountains, and it also gives the individual the confidence to lead a walk and just sort of mind and manage personal friends and family. It’s not a leader qualification. It’s just a ‘go for a walk and bring your mates with you’ thing.

Pictured: Wayne Jenkins

Do you think people underestimate the skills required to navigate in the mountains?

Yeah, it happens a lot. People underestimate the conditions, the severity of the mountains in Ireland, and the UK. Especially if they come from, say, mainland Europe or over from America or South America where they have alpine ranges… they can easily look at the mountains of Ireland and the UK as just rolling hills.

“People underestimate the conditions”

The environment here though is a lot different, it’s a lot more damp, it’s unpredictable weather, and when the cloud drops in low and you can’t tell which way you came from it’s very hard to retrace your steps unless you have the ability to use a map and a compass. Some people don’t bring that with them. So yes, it does happen on a reasonably regular basis that some people would underestimate the environment and the conditions.

You must often see people who are clearly unprepared for it from a gear point of view, from a clothing point of view, from a knowledge point of view, from a training point of view?

Now, look it doesn’t happen too much but it does happen sometimes. I would always have the attitude as a professional trainer, but also within my capacity as a mountain rescue volunteer, I would always have the feeling that they’ve gotten off the couch, they’ve brought themselves, and their friends, and their family, maybe their children out for a walk on the mountains and while they’ve underestimated the conditions, the equipment required, they felt they’d be ok to go for the walk without the training… yeah, look if they get into trouble and we have to go and get them. We get them and that’s fine.

Even when I meet someone on the mountain when I’m out guiding or walking, even though I’m a professional, it’s not my place to tell people to turnaround and go back down.

“You leave the decision with them”

I’ll just say “how are you getting on”, or “are you having a good day”, and they might say “oh is that the way up to the top of the mountain… are we nearly there.” In that situation, I might just gently to say to them “look… you’ve got another hour to go and there’s a bit of cloud coming in there, and it’s going to get fairly cold and rainy up at the top so it’s up to you if you want to go up but just mind yourself and if you get in trouble call mountain rescue.”

You leave the decision with them. You guide them gently without telling them to get off the mountain. It’s not my place to tell people what to do. It’s about guidance, confidence, and also a little bit of reality you know.

It’s not on you to police the mountains?

No, look for me as a professional mountain leader if I’m with a group of 12 people, or 10 people, and I’m taking them off the mountain and I see four people going up wearing jeans, runners, and they don’t really have the right gear I’ll say “hello” to them gently and just very, very, gently ask a few questions that will give me the right information and then you’ll just try and take it from there.

“Are you guying all the way up, guys?”

“Oh, no… we’re just going to go up to the top of the waterfall and back down.”

“Ah, no. You’ll be grand then.”

“People have made the right decision when you give them a little bit of advice or a nudge”

And in a situation like that, if they’re on a firm trail, they should be fine. But I’d also say to them “Look if anything happens just call 112 and ask for mountain rescue.”

But then what can happen to me is that I’ll finish my guiding job for the day, be in my car,  and be halfway home when the team gets activated and then I have to drive all the way back to the same place, get out of my car, and go back up the mountain to meet the four people I saw two hours ago. That hasn’t happen to me yet thankfully, as people have made the right decision when you give them a little bit of advice or a nudge.

Sounds like you’ve been quite lucky. Is there a sense of frustration with the job?

Yeah, no I’ve never had to go back up and meet someone. I did get a phone call once where we had a father and son who were lost on the highest mountain in the area, and I was responding but it was a delayed response because I was a bit further away.

The person had been got and was being escorted down and the team leader phoned me and said “do you know Mr XYZ” – whatever you want to call him, and I said “no, no” and the team leader said to me “Well you should. You taught him Mountain Skills 2 last weekend.”

“Develop your skills and practice your skills step by step. Don’t go out and climb Mount Everest right away”

So there was one case where I’m personally aware of where someone has come out to me to do their advanced navigation, their compass navigation, their specific navigation, and they decided the following weekend would be the time to go to the highest mountain in the area, with a bit of low cloud and that coming in, and it didn’t work out well for them.

They tried to fix it, organise it, and when he felt it was a little bit beyond his experience he put the phone call in and yeah… that was the one that I remember where someone went for the big one just a little too soon.

Since then, when I’m teaching my clients, I always say “Look. Develop your skills and practice your skills step by step. Don’t go out and climb Mount Everest right away.”

Don’t run before you can walk?

Exactly. Build up your confidence and skill.

Are you on call 24/7? How does it work? 

So Mountain Rescue teams work, and as far as I’m aware this is how they work across the UK, like this. Here in Ireland, with the 12 rescue teams in Ireland, everyone is on call and on standby 24/7. 365. But, you know, it’s a voluntary service and what I say to anyone new joining into mountain rescue is that mountain rescue doesn’t pay your mortgage, or your bills.

The priority of the focus must always be your family and your work. Your family and your work must come first. And then if you are available, according to your schedule outside of work and family commitments, well then… you attend… and you respond to as many callouts as you are available for.

“Mountain rescue doesn’t pay your mortgage”

Now it would be expected that you should be able to attend 33% of callouts. So for three callouts, the minimum that would be expected of a mountain rescue volunteer would be a 33% attendance.

And look sometimes it can be a busy weekend, and you might make all of the callouts or 50% of them. But then it might also happen that the next 10 callouts might go against your work schedule, or your daughter’s communion, or a wedding, or you’re away for the weekend.

We are volunteers so if you have a weekend off and you need to go out with your wife and relax well that’s your own time and there’s nothing people can do about that. People should not schedule their lives around mountain rescue.

Pictured: View from Djouce in the Wicklow Mountains

What is it that drove you to want to give up your free time to do the mountain rescue stuff, and the mountain leader stuff?

I’m a salesman really, in general. At the moment, I’m a general manager of Tourism Offices within EI Travel Group? And I’m also in business development. So I’m always customer facing, I always have to be the salesman, the manager, the happy face, the “Yes, sir. No problem. We can handle that and do this for you” man.

So when you do a full week of dealing with the public, staying on a manager’s profile, and doing your best… it is nice on your own personal free time to be able to just take off the manager’s hat and the mask… and just go up the mountains and get a bit of headspace, just be amongst nature, just feel everything from the breeze, to the elements, to the wind, and the smell, and the forests, and the grass, and the elements, and the view… it’s a full sensory experience going out into the mountains and out into the wild.

“Just that sort of full sensory experience… it’s hard to beat it. It’s good for resetting you”

I’d even say this for anyone. Just to get out into a park in a city, see the squirrels running up a tree, feed the ducks in the pond, smell things like freshly cut grass and pine forest needles and anything. Just that sort of full sensory experience… it’s hard to beat it. It’s good for resetting you.

Would you say you’re an advocate for the mental health benefits of being outside?

Absolutely. It’s huge. Walking, hill-walking, in Ireland has been the fastest growing sport in the last ten years. And especially with the global economic recession that kicked in, from what was it, 2009 onwards. A lot of people found with the financial pressures of the recession that the golf club membership, that the tennis club membership, the country club membership had to be cut back on all this but they still needed somewhere to get their thoughts together, relax, and just try to clear their headspace from their bills, from their responsibilities, and the pressures of the economic crash.

A lot of jobs were lost and so I found that a lot of people were going into the mountains. For me personally, I used to be in car sales and then when the recession kicked in my personal love was for hiking and enjoying the mountains.

“A lot of jobs were lost and so I found that a lot of people were going into the mountains”

While I was between jobs, during the recession, I then went and did my professional qualifications to become a mountain leader. Before I did that, the mountain leader course, I had volunteered my time with a mountain rescue team because I found so much love, and joy, in the mountains. I had a natural, and sort of self educated, love for it.

I also did a bit of the mountain skills courses to get myself sharp enough to navigate in the mountains. I found that I wanted to give something back and that’s the big thing about volunteering. If you’re particularly good at something that’s where people go “You know what I’m good at something, and I’d like to help people.”

And this goes right down through the whole volunteering spectrum. Some people are good at listening to problems and talking to people, and hearing people. So they might be good on helplines. Other people might be good with homeless people and food shelters, and soup kitchens. And then if you have a particular skillset, and a passion for a particular area like what I have, well then… volunteering as a mountain rescue person is the way to go. I know I get tremendous reward from the effort.

Pictured: (From L to R) Paramo’s Velez, Alta III, and Velez Evolution

What’s your top tip regarding gear and equipment?

What I say to everyone starting off in the mountains, and this can be printed and quoted, is “spend your money.” Everyone has a budget. From top class to bottom. Everyone has a budget. And what I say is “Within your budget. Spend as much money as you can on a good jacket, and good boots.” And then everything else you can get wherever you can get it.

“It works for my body fit, it works for my body temperature, it works for my movement”

Some people are millionaires and they’ll buy the most expensive jacket, the most expensive boots, and some people have a restricted budget. Whatever your budget is, whatever your budget range is, spend as much as you can on a good jacket and a good pair of boots. Once you get those two right, everything else falls into place.

What are your thoughts on Paramo?

I’m a big advocate for Paramo. I love Paramo.  It works for my body fit, it works for my body temperature, it works for my movement and my mobility. I find that I don’t get too hot in the gear. I find that I don’t have to strip down, layer up, layer off. It works for me.


For more information on Paramo Directional Clothing, head to their website. 

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