Team who give up their time to make sure accidents don’t become tragedies

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On Valentine’s Day three years ago, Zoe Ketteridge and her husband Jon had planned a romantic walk in the Dales.

While some might have gone for a gentle amble around Wensleydale or a spot of window shopping in Helmsley, the couple, from Leeds, had their heart set on something altogether more ambitious – they decided to scale Whernside.

Seasoned walkers, they duly checked the weather forecast and reckoned with the right equipment they would easily make it to the top of Yorkshire’s highest peak and be back before sunset.

“It was something that we had done on a monthly basis, to go out and have a really nice long walk,” says Zoe. “It was snowing, but it didn’t seem like particularly bad weather for walking. However, by the time we got to the summit the conditions got a lot worse so we instead of carrying on over the summit and onto the usual path we decided to turn back and go down the way we came.”

While the Dales can experience four seasons in a single day, most who get caught in a sudden change of weather manage to escape with just wet feet. Zoe, however, was one of the unlucky ones. On the descent, she slipped on a patch of ice and in what seemed like a split second she fell 300ft.

“I just went, I felt myself falling and I even started to laugh as I had been worried about turning 40 and I remember thinking that now I wouldn’t even reach that landmark birthday,” she says. “I remember my husband saying, ‘if you ever fall cover your head’, but instead I covered my face.

“I landed on a rock and right away I knew it was bad, but I didn’t realise just how bad it was. Jon had to scramble down to where I had fallen and he somehow managed to make a bandage for my head and tried to make sure I was as comfortable as possible.”

With no one else around, Jon had no option but to leave his wife on the snowy peak and go in search of help.

“There was no phone signal where we were, so he headed for the Ribblehead Viaduct where he was able to make contact with the emergency services who put him through to the Cave Rescue Organisation.

“I was on my own for about two hours before they arrived, it’s the weirdest thing as I knew I had to stay awake so I would be able to hear when help was arriving, but I was also acutely aware that something bad had happened and your instinct is to close your eyes and go to sleep.

“I desperately tried to think of anything to keep my mind occupied, but the only thing that came into my head was the line from the nursery rhyme ‘One, two, three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive’. I couldn’t even remember all the words, but it kept me awake until help arrived.”

Zoe was one of hundreds of people who each year find themselves coming face to face with the volunteers of the Clapham-based CRO. Reliant on donations, as the group nears its 2,500th rescue, it is hoping to use the landmark to raise awareness of the work it does.

Like many of those whose lives have been saved by the CRO’s team of experts, since her accident Zoe has been a keen fundraiser for the group.

“It was a great feeling when the they turned up,” she says. “It was like the cavalry had arrived. At first there was just one person, but then more and more turned up, each of them doing their bit to make sure I was okay and reassuring me that they could get me the help I needed.”

While the team was able to treat some of Zoe’s extensive injuries at the scene, she desperately needed to be airlifted to hospital. A helicopter was called, but as conditions on Whernside deteriorated even further, it was forced to land some way from where Zoe lay.

“They carried me across part of the way, sled me across the rest, but eventually they got me to the helicopter and from there I was taken to Lancaster Royal Infirmary.”

Zoe, who had fractured numerous ribs, needed 40 stitches to her head and was suffering from hypothermia. When she returned to work four weeks later she was still experiencing nightmares about the accident.

Those have since stopped, but she and Jon never forgot the members of the CRO who saved her life.

“I now try and fundraise for them at every opportunity,” she says. “I have competed in a couple of half marathons, raffled off a stay in our holiday home in Orlando, as well as doing bucket collections and assisting with this year’s main fundraising event, the CRO Challenge Walk.

“I am also thinking of organising a Valentine’s Day ball. It would mark the anniversary of my accident, but I also think it would be a nice way to raise even more money.”

Zoe’s fundraising efforts were recognised recently when she was chosen as an Olympic torch bearer and carried the flame through Withern in Lincolnshire.

“I am amazed by the team work and the selflessness of the people who give up their own time just to make sure they can help people like me,” she says. “I can’t think of enough good things to say about them. They have been described as the fourth emergency service and I can’t think of a better description than that.”

Based at their depot in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the men and women of the CRO are on call 365 days a year, including Christmas, which has recently become one of their busiest days as an increasing number of people take the opportunity to escape from the festivities.

Formed in 1935, the group originally provided support to potholers, but over the years service has expanded significantly.

While its name still suggests the volunteers work largely underground, 80 per cent of the incidents they respond to are overground and the vast majority of assistance is provided to people who have fallen while out hiking or running.

“When the phone rings you never quite know what to expect,” says Malcolm Linford, a CRO volunteer of more than 30 years. “It was a trip with the Scouts that really awakened my love of the outdoors and I see the work I do with CRO as my payback.”

Malcolm is just one of 80 volunteers who come from all walks of life. However, whether they are teachers, fire-fighters, engineers or window cleaners they all come together with a singular goal of helping those 
who are in need.

“You have to be prepared for every eventuality,” adds Malcolm. “We’ve been called out to a child who has somehow become stranded on the wrong side of a river and we’ve been able to reunite them with their parents, but there are also those incidents which don’t end so happily.

“Of course you see people who have got themselves into trouble because they didn’t check the weather forecast or went out badly prepared, but we are not there to judge.

“Our job is to help and sometimes, no matter how many precautions you take, accidents can still happen.”

As for Zoe, she hasn’t been back to the site of her accident, but the fall failed to put her off venturing into the great outdoors.

“I still love walking in the Dales, but I’m not sure when or if I’ll return to Whernside,” she says. “That might be one step too far.”

To find out more about the work of Clapham Cave Rescue go to www.cro.org.uk.

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