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Sunday, 26 October 2014

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Team still rescuing after 60 years as the fourth emergency service

One of the Lake District’s busiest mountain rescue teams is celebrating its 60th anniversary tomorrow.

Little did Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team’s founder members know, when they met at the town’s Central Cafe on February 23, 1953, that the group would go on to become the area’s fourth emergency service.

The 2009 floods, tragedies, fell top rescues and aircraft crashes – the Cockermouth team has seen them all.

It now has 42 members and in its 60-year history has been called out 1,110 times to help walkers or climbers in trouble. About 1,500 hours a year are spent on rescues.

On call 365 days a year, team members are all volunteers and many juggle their rescue commitments with full-time jobs.

The service was born out of a mountaineering club and its founder members included Gordon Young, John Bell, Peter Chandler and Jack Jackson.

At that first meeting, JB Joyce, of Eaglesfield, was elected president and medical officer, JH Tyson secretary and Mr Bell was named treasurer.

Around 40 people attended that meeting, including members of the Keswick team, which was set up six years earlier, including its president Colonel Westmorland.

But the group almost disbanded in 1969, after two members died during a training session.

A stretcher-lowering exercise went wrong, killing Michael Stephenson and Jock Thompson and injuring five others.

It was a difficult time for the team, and many wanted to wind up the group, but they found the strength to carry on largely because of the determination and courage of previous team leader Jim Coyle, now 70, of Dalton Street.

The current team leader is Mike Park, of Pardshaw, who joined the team in 1984, following in the footsteps of his father Jack.

Mike, a land surveyor at Sellafield, has been team leader for five years.

He has been involved with the team since he was a youngster.

He said: “There was an aircraft crash in 1983. I was not officially in the team but went out with my dad.

“The team was called out in the middle of the afternoon and when we got up into the hills we had to see if there was anybody alive and took fire brigade cutting equipment with us.

“We were told by a police inspector that we had to guard the aircraft so I blackmailed my dad into letting me stay out with him during the night as the sleeping bags and tent we had then were mine!”

Mike, 47, who was recently awarded an MBE for his rescue work, said: “It is all I have ever known my whole life.

“The team is a bunch of like-minded people who want to go out on the hills day in and day out and put something back into the community.

“It is a professional service but beyond all that we all like having some fun on the hills and rescuing people is just something we do when that bleep goes off.

“You usually find our employers are our biggest supporters alongside our families.”

There are now 12 mountain rescue teams in the Lake District, but in the 1950s only Keswick and Coniston operated before Cockermouth was formed.

During those first years, they were attending on average six call-outs a year. Now it ranges from 50 to 60 – and their busiest year was 2010, when they were called to 84 incidents.

Some of the calls can be heart-breaking for team members and Mike said one of the worst in the team’s history was when a six-year-old girl died on Helvellyn in 1977 after she and her father got separated from a walking party.

In the early days police got in touch with individual members for a call-out, but now Mike is contacted and he gets in touch with as many members as possible.

Mike said: “After that initial call we can usually get to the incident within the hour.

“That first couple of hours is vital but you can be out for the whole day. It is simple – you don’t go back home and don’t stop until the casualty is on the helicopter.”

For the first few years the team would meet before a rescue outside the town’s police station, but eventually an official base was established.

A garage was built at Fairfield car park, where Sainsbury’s is now, when Jim persuaded his father to help, with the rest of the team acting as labourers.

Town businesses donated to help support the building of the garage and this support has continued during the team’s history.

Following a massive fund-raising campaign, the team’s current headquarters in Station Road was opened in 2002.

It houses the team’s vehicles and contains training facilities, storage space, communications equipment and a meeting room.

Jim and former chairman John Dempster, who joined the team in 1956 aged 15, was actively involved in getting the project off the ground.

Mike said: “The local community really wanted us to be situated in Cockermouth as it gives us that link with them.

“There were discussions about having more out of town locations but we made the right decision to stay in the centre.

“In 2002 this building was probably too big for us but we grew into it and now it is just the right size as we have invested in a lot of equipment.”

The 60th anniversary celebrations will begin tonight with a dinner for current and former members at the Hundith Hill Hotel.

There will be an open morning tomorrow for former members and supporters, with a demonstration at Lanthwaite Green, followed by an open afternoon for the public at the Station Road HQ from 2pm.

l See a video of Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team’s work at www.timesandstar.co.uk

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