Sue Agnew, Team Leader of Assynt MRT
(Pictured 4th from left)
How long have you been involved in mountain rescue and what made you join? I’ve been involved for 14 years. I wanted to join after a climbing accident I was involved in over 20 years ago, and I just didn’t know what to do to help my fallen friend. It resulted in full MRT call out and helicopter evacuation. He had life-changing injuries as a result of the fall, and I wanted to make sure if I was ever in that situation again, I would be ready to respond. Of course, that was a purely selfish reason, and there are so many more reasons for me to be part of Mountain Rescue now.
Did you have an extensive knowledge of the mountains and mountain skills before joining mountain rescue? Yes – I was a keen hillwalker and rock climber as my mother had been (we were dragged up hills as children!). She really encouraged my interest in mountains and climbing. I did quite a lot of skills based courses to help develop specialist areas such as winter skills. However, my understanding of the safety side was probably less developed when I joined, and I wouldn’t take many of the risks now that I did when I was younger!
You’re the only female team leader of a Scottish mountain rescue team, what’s the best bit of being part of the team . . . and in being in charge! It’s the volunteers that make up the team, and that’s the best bit. We’re all out there to look after each other as well as do the job we train to do. Every individual brings something unique to the team, which makes for an interesting mix, and I don’t differentiate between genders. I’ve made some lifelong friends, and had some incredible experiences (not all good) in mountain rescue, and learned a lot about myself. One of the best bits is seeing younger team members develop, but also some of the ‘older’ team members get huge satisfaction in passing on their skills, as well as helping others. As for being in charge, whilst sometimes it has its frustrations and stresses, mostly I get a huge feeling of pride when we are tested and respond in the professional manner we aspire to, proving all the hard work we put in is worth it.
What are you passionate about and how does this link into your mountain rescue work? I’m passionate about our countryside and landscape, and I believe everyone should respect the fantastic rights we have to enjoy it. Whether climbing, walking, caving, kayaking or just enjoying looking at it, we should all look after it. I like getting to know an area really well – and having that knowledge of the ground links into how we respond as a team.
How do you feel when a call comes in and you have to abandon your plans and head out of the door? There’s always that immediate adrenalin when a call comes in, and I’ve learned to just stop for a few minutes and think. Sometimes that involves putting the phone down, and getting ready mentally to respond. Calls can be chaotic to start with as I assess the incident, then instigate the process of getting the team called out. I then have to juggle the phone calls, texts and messages, as well as getting my boots on and kit into the car. I have a hugely supportive partner who knows to get some food ready for me, and leave me to focus on getting ready to go. I’m really bad at remembering food – and often come home after a shout to realise I’ve had little more than an energy bar all day. That, and old banana skins, can be all that’s lurking at the bottom of my rucksack!
What is your fondest memory from your time with mountain rescue? There are too many! Mostly they are some of our training or social events – we’ve had cracking parties in bothies, bonfires and marquees in fields, call-outs while we’ve been in the pub, laughs and good craic. Food and drink are often involved. Then there’s the SARDA dogs – we love training with them. The common theme, is that they are all with a great bunch of team members (and their dogs).
Do you hold any other roles within SMR? I’m a Trustee with the Scottish Mountain Rescue Benevolent Scheme.
How did you end up the north-west of Scotland? Good question! Chasing jobs, and probably looking back on it, I was looking for somewhere that suited me to settle. Originally from Gatehouse of Fleet, I’ve moved around England and Scotland, and after a short spell in Orkney, took a job in Ullapool. And that’s where I ‘ve stopped. It has the best of everything – stunning quiet countryside, where you can lose yourself for days if you want; lochs, sea and islands; a fantastic community, and proximity to a whole lot more of Scotland if you want it.
If someone was interested in joining a rescue team, what advice would you give them? Don’t be put off by thinking you are not fit enough or don’t have enough skills. Each team has different needs, and sometimes its more about ‘fitting’ into the team, than being the fittest or fastest on the hill. You do need to be able to commit the time, look after yourself on the hill, get on with the variety of personalities, and we prefer that you’ve got a bit of mountaineering experience under your belt.
You live in a remote and stunning part of Scotland, when you have some time to yourself what do you choose to do? I will say it’s feeling less remote these days, but mostly I just like being outdoors exploring places – I have some favourites, but I’m keeping those secret. I love the sense of travel and exploring – with or without a challenge. It could be going into the caves, or heading off to a bothy or quiet spot to camp, or just walking coast to coast. Then there’s being on the water kayaking or skiffing. Just getting out doors is good for the soul, and I’ve learned during lockdowns that there’s an awful lot on my doorstep that can be just as interesting and rewarding without having to go too far.