Michael Coghlan
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Michael Coghlan - Eskdale, The Lake District, 1966

An Unforgettable Experience

I had never seen a dead body, nor for that matter a badly injured one. These two forms of maimed humanity in all their horror, I was to see and touch before the day was out. I came face to face with a human object looking more like a lump of matter than a body. For the first time in my life I felt a sense of finality, a view of death.
On the morning of 15th April, one in the series of training days, at the Outward Bound Mountain School of Eskdale, we were all cheerful and getting on with our patrol jobs before a daily routine inspection. This was followed by prayers and then activities, interesting, but somewhat uneventful.
At about 4.15pm, when we were engrossed in a most chaotic tent erection period, in which all the patrol was blindfold, a bell started ringing. After a short silent pause for thought we realised that this was the Rescue Bell, one whose toll we knew could call us as a body into action to give our best in help to others. We assembled in front of the main school, and having been briefed concerning the fall of five men on the nearby mountains, dispersed at speed to collect the necessary equipment.
Every day one of the nine patrols is on duty with packed bags ready to leave school immediately if this bell rings. These had got away well before we were reassembled with kit. Their job was to give whatever first aid the injured needed, and then put them on stretchers for us to carry to safety and hospital (one patrol stayed behind at the school as a rearguard, and the rest of us, about seventy in number plus instructors, set off at about 4.25pm).
From this time onwards I lost all sense of time, my mind was filled with strange thoughts and the idea of a real life adventures. The accident took place in one of the gullies called Lords Rake on the west side of Scafell, and it was to the bottom of the valley we were taken by lorry, a distance of some four and a half miles from the school. From this point at the head of Wast Water we climbed up ghyll to Lords Rake. The Climb is one of about 2,500ft over a distance of approximately one and three-quarter miles.
Five patrols with ten people in each carried the stretchers, and every boy carried a rucksack with his kit in it, and food. The climb over very rough country, in what was at first a blustery gale, was very difficult. As it became steeper so by misfortune came snow, blinding you as you walked and making you very cold. Falling over and over as man of us did during our shift of stretcher carrying, we became very tired.
Eventually the ghyll ran into an enormous corrie, and the pass to Lords rake could vaguely be seen to our right up some very steep scree. Though the scene of the accident was invisible to us from where we stood, a small group of people stood huddled together, some fifty feet below the hidden spot.

On out arrival in the corrie, the instructors and a few boys started up the scree with the stretchers. It was incredibly steep, and everything you trod on moved off down the slope. Slowly but surely we made our way up and eventually reached the group, and could see up the gully to the fatal scene.
As I arrived one of the stretchers was being lowered down the scree to where I stood. Strapped into this was one of the two men still alive; all one could see of him was his head, this had an enormous gaping wound in it which we cleaned carefully but were unable to cover for fear of making his cranium cave in. From where I stood with one other we lowered this man down the scree, by ropes attached to the stretcher runners. Every 120ft we had to move farther down the scree, anchor ourselves to a rock and then belay the stretcher down again till the rope ran out. This job I did for the two live men, and I felt a great sense of thankfulness that I had been chosen to help these two in their greatest hour of need. The three dead bodies which we put on stretchers came down a short time after the first two, and these gave me a morbid feeling; they were like bent and disrupted matter, a very nasty sight.
It takes six men to carry a stretcher, two on harnesses at the front and two on the slings at either side. For the stretcher party I was in, we therefore had twelve men, six in reserve for a change which had to be made about every three or four hundred yards. Cold and somewhat hungry despite having had a short meal before we left the school, we made our way down. Through this was a long journey we were helped by a sense of achievement and success which we now felt after having gotten so far.
Our Patient was a young man of about twenty-five or six, now very beaten about the face and groaning in unconscious sleep; we were constantly reminded of him in his maimed state. Only just after our start of the ascent things started to darken, and by the time we were half-way down we were forced to use torches to see our way. Over bogs and scree, over stiles and across rivers we tramped, but so firmly routed were our minds, we barely noticed what we went through. Eventually at about 9.15 we arrived and got the injured into the ambulance, and having had some tea at the hostel nearby we were taken home.
No-one said much that night and we all slept soundly having been worn out by the whole proceedings. Next morning very little was said, everyone was very morbid and greatly affected as one might expect. I myself felt a number of sensations, of sorrow and pity and shock, which slowly wore off but whose mark remain in my memory and will do so for a lifetime.