Belfast Telegraph

Mournes Army cadet incident wasn't freak event, warns mountaineering expert

By Cate McCurry

The Mournes form one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the UK - but Northern Ireland's unpredictable weather can turn the scenic landscape into a deadly and treacherous trap, an expert has said.

A group of 63 young people were rescued from the Co Down mountains yesterday in an emergency involving a group of cadets from England.

The Cleveland Army Cadets Force were taking part in a summer camp when the weather quickly deteriorated and emergency services were called.

Mike McClure, who has been working in the outdoor sector for over 30 years, has described how conditions in the Mourne Mountains can change quickly and dramatically, creating a dangerous and challenging environment.

Mike, the manager of Tollymore National Outdoor Centre, said that recent heavy rainfall would have resulted in poor visibility.

"One of the challenges is when it rains heavily, the rivers rise very suddenly," he said.

"I've seen them rise two or three feet in an hour and that presents challenges too, like getting across flood water.

"Poor visibility and high winds make walking difficult and people move slower.

"The weather system in the Mournes is also a bit unique as the winds tend to be stronger because they are funnelled through the mountains. Rainfall tends to be much higher because the hills push the cloud level up, therefore you get heavier rain, so the visibility closes down and you can't see where you are going.

"Having good navigation skills and being prepared is the key but sometimes things get a bit out of control. What happened on the Mournes wasn't a freak event, it was a bad day in the hills.

"In those events people will get wet right through and become overly tired and exhausted, and their body doesn't cope properly.

"The body starts to retain any heat that it has into the core. Your brain, heart and lungs - all the core organs - regulates your temperature and stops blood flow to your extremities, including your hands and feet."

He said that problems arise when the body's core temperature starts to drop and that is what is known as 'exposure' and hypothermia.

Some of the army cadets were treated for exposure by paramedics at the scene. Mike added: "The core temperature drops by a few degrees and that's easy to happen in really cold, wet and windy exposed conditions. Even with decent waterproofs you can get very cold pretty quickly in those conditions."

While it has the potential to be serious, quick and effective attention can avert a serious outcome, says Mike.

"In that situation you need to get people into as much shelter as you can - like a tent or shelter.

"At Tollymore National Outdoor Centre we do what we call a risk benefit analysis as we believe there are huge benefits in taking people out into these environments and giving them the opportunity to be challenged and grow their own knowledge of working in a team.

"Sometimes things go a bit wrong and people get wet and cold, and we deal with it as quickly as we can.

"The Mournes is an unpredictable environment.

"A day like yesterday would have been difficult for the helicopter to reach so it's generally a team on foot that will have to attend to them. It's an experience they won't forget."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said the group is safe and well, and praised the emergency services for their swift response.

"The cadets were from Cleveland in England for their first summer camp in Northern Ireland," he said.

"By all accounts the trip had been very successful so far, with adventure activities, cultural visits to the Titanic centre as well as building character and team leadership skills.

"Every cadet force will have a summer camp, we have two battalions here who will go away each year. Our own cadets frequently do exercises in the Mourne Mountains and many other spots across Northern Ireland.

"The weather took against them seriously and the leaders with them took the right decision. Some of the children had twisted ankles and there was lots of rain coming in. Quite rightly they made the decision to withdraw."

Belfast Telegraph

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