Former Harrogate schoolboy in mountain rescue effort

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A FORMER Harrogate schoolboy was part of a dramatic rescue effort in Scotland over the festive break.

Lieutenant Commander Craig Sweeney, who used to attend Harrogate Grammar School, was part of a four-strong Royal Navy Search and Rescue team sent to help a walker on Munro Beinn Sgulaird, between Glen Creran and Glen Etive in the Scottish Highlands.

The lone walker had an ankle injury and was in a precarious position near the summit, which is more than 3,000ft high.

Lt Cdr Sweeney led the HMS Gannet duty crew on the Sea King helicopter in extreme conditions on Sunday, December 18 at 4pm.

He said: “It was very dark and very cold. The cloud base was at around 1,000ft [305m] when we arrived and it really did look doubtful as to whether we would be able to fly up the mountain at all.

“However, what was also clear was that the casualty had a serious ankle injury of some kind and was not going to be able to walk down the mountain.

“Taking that into account and the harsh wintry conditions, and the fact that in such low temperatures every minute can make a huge difference to survival, we set to work to try and get through.”

The crew was assisted by three members of the Oban Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) and the helicopter was taken slowly up the mountain in swirling snow.

“Essentially, as a pilot I could see nothing,” added Lt Cdr Sweeney.

“It was intense flying which relied on dozens of years of the whole crew’s experience and expertise, and really full-on team work.

“I have trained and worked with Chief Petty Officer Jason Bibby, my winchman, all around the world and, more notably, have practised this very technique both in the arctic conditions of Norway and the desert sands of Afghanistan, where you get a very similar thing happening when the rotors kick up the fine sand particles.

“And it all led to us being able to get the job done safely and as quickly as possible in some of the worst conditions we have experienced this year.

“It was a long, slow process and it paid off when we got just below the summit where we found the walker.

“He had had the forethought to shine a torch, which we were just able to make out, and together I and my co-pilot Lieutenant Mark Wielopolski managed to get the helicopter into a position where we could set down the three members of MRT and our aircrewman.

“Conditions underfoot for the rescuers were absolutely treacherous and it was also extremely steep at that point.

“Our winchman Jason is also a qualified paramedic and was able to make immediate on-site assessment of the casualty. It appears he had slipped and hurt his leg, and had been lucky enough to fall in an area where he had enough mobile coverage to raise the alarm.

“The casualty had managed to keep himself warm in a bivvy bag, so he wasn’t suffering too badly from the cold. But I think he was pretty pleased and relieved to see Jason, the MRT guys and our helicopter.”

The walker was taken to a nearby hospital, after which the crew refuelled for the return to base.