RESCUE teams called to save a woman stranded in the hills in sleet and hail ended up searching for 76 walkers.
An operation involving a helicopter from RAF Boulmer, a police helicopter, the ambulance service, officers from Northumbria Police, two mountain rescue teams and two specialist response teams from Hebburn was launched in the Cheviots, Northumberland.
Initial calls reported a female walker was exhausted and could not carry on, but as crews raced to the scene they were shocked to be updated first that there were three casualties and then that there were 76 people who needed locating.
Mark Silmon, team leader of North of Tyne Search and Rescue, said: “It was a surprise. I was speaking to RAF Kinloss and they said Boulmer had collected three people and the other seven in the group were making their way down. Then I got a call 10 minutes later saying in actual fact there were 76 people.
“I was surprised and concerned as to how we were going to find them all. Where do you start looking for 76 people scattered across the hills? It was an interesting day, put it that way. It could have been potentially quite serious given the number of people.”
About 60 rescuers were called on Sunday at about 12.30pm, although not all of these made it to the scene before the end of the operation.
North of Tyne Search and Rescue were joined by Northumberland National Park Search and Rescue Team, who both parked at Langleeford along with four ambulances and three police vehicles.
Although only three people needed airlifting to Wansbeck General Hospital, suffering from exhaustion and hypothermia, the weather was so bad rescuers decided the walk had to stop. They found about 20 walkers up on the hills and guided them down, but were concerned about locating everyone as other walkers had headed north and were making their own way back.
Mr Silmon said: “They were not appropriately kitted for the weather, hence that’s how they got into difficulties. Everyone else managed to get off the hill themselves, but it sparked a major search.
“They were ill equipped and hadn’t informed anybody of where they were going or have the means to tell who had started and finished. Most events organised like that have checkpoints at the start and finish, but they didn’t bother with that procedure.
“It was not as well organised as it could have been.”
Organiser Jeff Carr from Broomey Road in Wooler, a 61-year-old butcher at Farm to Freeze, said he had organised walks for 25 years for Lupus UK as his wife Helen suffers from the immune system disease.
He has raised £30,000 over the years and the weekend walk raised a further £1,000.
He said: “Everyone was all right. I was well prepared. It’s one of those things. It’s a horrible feeling.
“We knew the weather was going to be heavy rain, but most of us are experienced walkers. It was sleet and hail, but off the top it wasn’t so bad.
“I thought I was covered, to be honest. There were 20 first aiders on the walk, two paramedics, a nurse and doctor, with transport at Broadstruther and a map handed to police.”
He said the airlifted woman, from Wooler but living in Kent, was back in Wooler after a few hours.