For most of us a trip to the mountains is, on reflection, an uneventful affair. I’d go as far as to say routine in many cases, the trip there, the walk or climb, a local pub, and the journey home. A neat little package which in most cases goes to plan. And that can be the case for thousands of walkers for the entirety of their time in the hills. There will be tales to tell, always something to recount in the bar afterwards, but no white knuckle stuff. That is for the few, for other people, the unprepared, the unlucky. For some it means minor celebrity, a flirtation with newspapers or television. For some it can be life changing, a Touching The Void moment that changes the direction of their life from that moment on. For others, sadly, it means the end, and their tale can only be told by others. John Allen was a member of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team (CMRT) from 1972 until 2007, and its leader for around twenty years, and he has more experience in this area than most. If the old adage that you should learn from other peoples mistakes is true then this book is a must read for anyone who visits hills and mountains
John’s tale initially reminded me of that of Tom Weir, the famous Scottish naturalist, mountaineer, and author. Hailing from Glasgow, Allen, like Weir, felt the calling of the hills as a youngster, and similarly set off from Glasgow by bicycle to explore and learn about the Highlands. John, rather than making the mountains his primary career, became a pharmacist with a string of chemist shops across the Highlands. So his stint as member and leader of CMRT is perhaps an even more impressive achievement, successfully balancing family life with business and mountain rescue, and the book provides an insight into his life other than the mountains.
It is however the mountains, and mountain rescue which is the focus of the book. When John Allen joined the CMRT, it was still, while not in infancy, early days for mountain rescue. The CMRT was formed in the early 1960s, and the book in part charts the development and funding of the teams, and their working towards gaining professional acceptance, establishing a firm position in the process of rescuing those people who get in difficulty in the mountains.
While the book covers environmental issues, as well as John’s personal life, the thread which connects everything is that of the incidents which John and the CMRT have had to deal with. These can make for grim reading, and the tales range from the inspiring and uplifting to some which are very upsetting. For the most part John refrains from passing judgement, something newspapers and the media are all too quick to do sometimes. Instead he lays the background and explains how the incident occurred, and how the team responded. It is clear from the book that even though the search for, and recovery of bodies was an experience the team were to become accustomed to, that those incidents involving children had a great effect on all of them. It does not make for pleasant reading.
At a time when the UK Government is forging ahead with its proposals to privatise the Search And Rescue helicopters, a move which CMRT have expressed great concern about, this book should also be required reading for anyone involved in that process. John rightly praises the SAR helicopter crews, and I can fully agree with the view that a privatised service could not be relied upon to provide the same level of skill, commitment and dedication that John describes here.
Once started it is hard to put down, however upsetting or uncomfortable it becomes in parts, and you will be left with a greater understanding of mountain rescue teams and the volunteers like John Allen, who are willing to drop what they are doing and head into conditions most of us would think twice about even going out in, to come to the aid of complete strangers. This is an essential book, one which anyone who ventures out on the hills should read. In fact, make that MUST read.
Cairngorm John by John Allen is printed by Sandstone Press and retails for £8.99.