OtH 2020 – A (LONG) VIEW FROM THE HILL

Mick Womersley

Unexpectedly retired early from my professorial duties due to the pandemic, you’d expect that I’d have time on my hands. But no. I’m busier than ever. It helps to have a six-year old to look after. That gives me an excuse to play hide-and-seek in the yard, build go-carts out of scrap wood, or shoot a pellet gun at old beer cans. But there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything serious I still find myself responsible for.

A major case in point is my duties to Maine Search and Rescue. For twenty years now, I organized a college-based team as part of the civilian back-up to the Maine warden’s service. College-based teams are not rare in the US. I know of several and was even a member of two different ones, each for a while, a lifetime or two ago. In Maine, there are only about eighty game wardens for a state two thirds the size of England, and so for any serious sweep search, lots of trained volunteers are required to run the lines. For our part, there were only at most five or six call outs each year, but it was a welcome diversion from teaching and research and a chance to use some of my skills. I even ran a high-angle rescue training each year for several years, until rigging for rescue came to the state, with what now amounts to a dysfunctional national monopoly on such instruction and made those efforts moot. I also partnered with some instructors from the US Navy SERE School here in Maine to run a search team leader’s training course for two years running. Those were some of the highlights.

But when the college first switched to online teaching in March 2020, sending the students home, and then cancelled the fall 2020 intake, the writing was on the wall. I got my redundancy notice August 3rd, but I had to shut the team down months earlier, shortly after the students left, with an apologetic letter to the Wardens Service and the Maine Association for Search and Rescue (which certifies the “civvy’ teams). There’s not much point having a search team when your searchers are spread across all fifty states and not coming back to school.

This means, essentially, that a career in search and rescue that began when l joined RAF Leeming MRT back in December 1979 has finally come to an end. Not with a big leaving “do,” but with a virus pandemic. A whimper. not a bang. I suppose I could join one of the other teams, and they might even have me, but my arthritic knees mitigate against the notion. The reason authorities wanted my college team on big searches wasn’t for me and my crooked legs. It was for the fifteen or twenty young students, with thirty to forty perfectly serviceable young legs. I’m also, as I mentioned, busier than I need to be with other work, paid and unpaid, and when I’m not busy, I have a kid to look after. So, I’m done, after forty years. Que sera, sera. My most abiding memory of that first weekend out with the Leeming team in December 1979 is a moonlit Land Rover drive down the Thirlmere Road, the crags looming out over the road to the left. l expect we were heading to Grasmere, a favourite base camp for Leeming in the seventies and early eighties, but I don’t remember where we were going. I just remember the moon on what was probably Castle Rock of Triermain, a cliff I’d later climb. It was my first time in an MR Rover, and the romance of the drive through the moonlit landscape stuck with me.

There have been many other equally evocative moments in this long career. There was the time the US Park Service once flew me and a colleague over the Tuolumne peaks in Yosemite National Park, to find and track the footprints of a missing kid with developmental disabilities. Or the time a US Forest Service firefighting aircraft flew into Little St. Joseph’s Peak in the Bitterroot Wilderness of Montana, spreading the aircraft and, unfortunately, the aircrew, across a high plateau in the snow, and we raced to the summit to save them if we could. Which we couldn’t. But we at least tried. I probably lost some of my missing cartilage that day.

Mountaineers are obvious romantics; in that we believe the life of experience to be more fulfilling than a life of material comfort. And when part of that life comes to an end, whether by choice or through a global pandemic, what we have left are the memories. It goes without saying, since I’m writing this, that I haven’t given up on my editorial duties for the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Association and its quite brilliant journal On the Hill. We all have these memories to share, and if l can’t easily hack long days of sweep searching through the Maine woods anymore, nor afford the time off from being a dad, I can at least help provide this service of collective memory. I hope you enjoy this year’s issue.

Mick Womersley
The Great Farm
Jackson, Maine


CREDITS FOR OtH 2020:

UK EDITOR: Brian Canfer, with responsibility for computerising/scanning any handwritten items and emailing to Mick; responsible for maintaining/updating the inside cover and team details.
COMPILING EDITOR: Mick Womersley, responsible for receiving and compiling all items, editing format and basic English and then e-mailing to Liviu at ReclaimTax UK.
PROOF-READERS: Terry Tomlinson, Has Oldham, John Laws, and Keith Laidler
HARD COPY PROOF READER: Brian Canfer
Printers &: Distribution Worldwide:
ReclaimTax UK.

MAILING LISTS: Dave Wood
CARTOONS: Trevor Loftus and Pat Donovan
ALL FINANCIAL ASPECTS: Paul LeBon




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