Probus Hears About A Journey To The Big Hill Across The Pond

Speaker Chris Perkins MVO and Probus Vice President Dr Jeff Grover

Most people have heard of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service but know little about its history and how it operates. It was first organised during WW2 to rescue aircrew from the large number of aircraft crashes into high ground due to navigational errors and bad weather. In many cases the crews, although injured, had survived the impact due mainly to slow moving aircraft. However, the remote nature of the terrain coupled with the time taken for the station medical officer to assemble a search party, caused a disproportionate number of fatalities amongst the initial survivors

Today the rescue team is a highly organised professional body whose members, in recent years, also attend civil emergencies. While being regular members of the RAF they are volunteers and attend the equivalent of thirty weekends each year in training. Kempshott resident and Probus member, retired Squadron Leader Chris Perkins MVO, was a member of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service for several years and he recounted his recollections of a significant training exercise that took place four decades ago.

With today’s ease of access to mass travel, many team members may have been fortunate to experience overseas mountaineering in the Alps, Pyrenees or even to the Himalayas. Forty years ago, the situation was very different and the opportunities to mount expeditions to further areas of the globe were extremely limited.

Supported at high level it was agreed that a specialist training exercise would be undertaken to Mt Rainier in Washington State in the northwest of the USA. At 14,410 feet Mt Rainier was a dormant volcano in the Cascade mountains and while on this exercise the expedition members witnessed the eruption of Mount St Helens that caused worldwide disruption to communications and transport.

Expedition Area containing Mt Ranier and Mount St Helens in the Cascade Mountains, Washington State

It was a major project involving a party of 15 personnel, all selected from RAF Mountain Rescue teams in Scotland, Wales and Yorkshire. The majority had alpine snow and ice climbing experience, and many were winter mountaineering instructors.

Mount St Helens before its eruption which caused world wide disruption to communications and air craft movements. The expedition team witnessed its eruption from forty miles away.

At that stage in his career, Chris was an Air Traffic Controller based at RAF Valley on Anglesey. During daylight hours it was busy with high intensity jet training for young pilots and provided a 24-hour NATO diversion facility for all manner of aircraft. The long night time hours on readiness in the radar room proved ideal for detailed expedition planning.

In those days before computers and word processers meant that documentation was produced as typed hard copy for signature and dispatched by surface post. Sometimes they were able to use the latest technology of a tele-printer. Frequent telephone liaison with USAF bases accessed their trans-Atlantic military networks and crucial contact with liaison agencies in Washington State. It was necessary to obtain approval for members of the British military to operate within the borders of the United States.

Mt Ranier and wilderness which was the target of the RAF Mountain Rescue Training Expedition

The logistics involved a RAF VC10 aircraft from Brize Norton on a training flight to familiarise several pilots with airfields across the US, transported the team via Ottawa to Washington DC, stopping overnight, then onwards via Dallas, Colorado Springs, Denver and San Francisco finally to Mather USAF base Sacramento. Instead of the planned lengthy Greyhound Bus journey up the west coast an opportune telephone call with a British Army liaison officer at Fort Lewis, revealed that his next-door neighbour commanded a C130 Hercules transport squadron at the adjacent McChord USAF base, and kindly agreed to fly down to pick up the expedition.

Vehicle hire of a Dodge mini-bus and cargo van awaited the arrival of the aircraft necessary for the movement of the team and equipment. During the two-week journey 2,400 miles were driven.  Also arranged was base accommodation, purchase of the latest US Army Special Forces Long Range Patrol rations and appropriate National Park Permits for access and travel. And, importantly, connected the expedition with the Department of Emergency Services in Washington State.

Climatic conditions throughout the expedition were ideal. Daytime temperatures rarely fell below 30 degrees Celsius, and the nights remained clear but cold at height. Such conditions aided the night time ascent of Mt Rainier, however they caused numerous dangers on the descent from opening crevasses, collapsing ice bridges and rock falls.

Chris Perkins (in red beany hat) ascending Mt Ranier

At the end of the expedition period the party was offered USAF air passage back to the UK. However, it was decided to revisit the Greyhound Bus option to experience air-conditioned comfort overnight from Tacoma via Vancouver to Calgary. Again, RAF Command came up trumps, providing VC10 aircraft space to Brize Norton via Germany.

RAF VC 10 with the expedition team on board ready to leave Calgary

The Mt Rainier expedition, four decades ago, gave all expedition members valuable experience of mountaineering, backpacking at altitude, glacier travel plus proficiency of journeying into vast wilderness areas.  It provided the team with improved practices for future emergencies in extremely difficult terrain.

This was a journey of a lifetime only made possible with invaluable military and civilian assistance. Evidence, perhaps, of the special relationship so often talked about between our two nations.