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SARDA Wales Assessment Weekend

Conversations in the office the other week:

“Oh, it’s meant to be horrible this weekend”
“Looks like our lovely autumn’s coming to an end”
“Ugh, have you seen the forecast?!”

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This forecast was absolutely inevitable as SARDA Wales assessment weekend was taking place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Snowdonia and it wouldn’t be right if people stayed warm and dry and the bunkhouse wasn’t a steaming, musty fug of wet kit, wet dog and wet people by the Friday night!

Humpty Dumpty does gymnastics!

Nerves are always running high and the starts are earlier, meaning the evenings are a little more subdued on assessments then they might ordinarily be. Timings are also tight and strictly adhered to, out of respect for the assessment candidates, so when I arrived on Thursday night I decided to spent 45 minutes sorting out my kit and organising my food, rucksack, sleeping arrangements, etc in good time and whilst it was still dry, something I became very glad of as the weather rolled in later. In particular I knew it was going to be necessary to have plenty of food with me, hot drinks and as much warm clothing as I could stuff into my rucksack since, although I would be wearing a lot of it before I set out, lying still in a howling gale for 5 hours or so would mean I would quickly get wet and then cold. So by the time I set out on Friday morning I was wearing 3 layers, leggings, fleece-lined walking trousers, waterproof trousers, thermal waterproof gloves, hat, fleece lined boots and 2 pairs of socks and carrying a spare thermal sleeping bag, bivvy bag, quilted jacket, fleece-lined jacket, spare gloves and hat – watching me getting into a bivvy bag on a hillside in all that is like watching Humpty-Dumpty do gymnastics!

Snails for company

On Friday I was sent to the beach at Fort Belan, Dinas Dinlle on the northern end of the Lleyn Peninsula so that the lowland search dogs could work that area. I hid in long sea grass beneath the dunes on a headland with what would have been a view of the airfield where the new Search & Rescue helicopter operates, had the mist not been so thick. As it was I could hear the drone of the helicopter and just make out its misty silhouette as it flew off around 10am then I settled in, at least enjoying the fact I had mobile signal and could therefore message friends and mess about on social media, read a Kindle book, etc. In the mist the calling of the curlews and oystercatchers on the mudflats was beautiful, so haunting, even if I couldn’t watch them as much as I wanted to, and in the long wet grass I had snails for company!

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The rain started to pour and the wind grew stronger, forcing me down into my bivvy bag, so I couldn’t hear Jake the Labrador approaching. He approaches his bodies like he approaches everything in life, with enthusiasm and gusto and he leapt off the hummock above me and landed on my chest – the rule is not to react to the dog until the handler reaches you and speaks to you, which is all well and good except when you have a chocolate Labrador standing on top of you! A few wet slaps in the face with his tail later and his handler Jim arrived, when Jake and I could then have as energetic a game of “tuggy-duck” as you can manage when you’re wrapped up tight in a sleeping bag and the dog is pulling you down the hill like a large camouflage slug clinging onto a stretchy rubber mallard!

Search dog Moss

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A couple of hours later Anthony and Search Dog Moss arrived. Moss is a veteran who has already saved lives and restored people to their loved ones and whilst he loves his game of ball when he has made a find, being a gentleman of maturing years he also likes a bit of quality time in the form of a cuddle with the body and I was more than happy to oblige.

Search dog Izzy

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Search Dog Izzy, on the other hand, saves her cuddles for the evening and when she find someone it’s all about the squeaky toy which you have to tug and, when you’ve liberated it from her, throw it as far as you can knowing that she’s as fast as a rocket so she’ll be back with it within seconds for you to do it all over again!

Scrum for showers

The handlers were all kind enough to ensure we could be out of our hidey holes and back at our vehicles by about 2.30pm and in the scrum for the showers before dark. No time was wasted lighting the fire and finding places to hang soaking wet gloves, jackets and bivvy bags ready to do it all over again on Saturday.

Even though it was training and assessment time, Search Dogs and Mountain Rescue remain ready to respond and at around 6.30am on Saturday there was a callout to a missing person in North Wales. Two handlers who were available deployed but made it half an hour down the road before, happily, the missing person was found safe and well by other searchers so by 8.30am, as we were just sorting out our areas for the day, they’d already been out and come back – and missed breakfast!

Cefn Du

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The rain was pouring off the roof of the bunkhouse in sheets, the wind was blustery and everyone was resigned to a very wet and uncomfortable day. I was asked to hide up at Cefn Du, remote high moorland between Waunfawr and Llanberis and driving through the floods and the water pouring off the narrow moorland road gave an idea of just how tricky a day it was going to be. After a very damp walk-in I was asked to hide in the ruins of a sheepfold which gave some shelter but the water pouring off the mountains found its way wherever it could and I became aware of trickling by my head as a tiny spring became increasingly full throughout the day.

It made for a dramatic day with the cloud clearing for a few seconds to give magnificent views of the mountains then just as quickly enveloping everything in a mist so thick you couldn’t see further than 5 metres. With no mobile signal and radio communications limited to essentials you learn to become quite self-reliant and to fall asleep or study blades of wet grass in more detail than you ever thought possible!

Tuggy duck was no more...

Jake the Labrador decided to be gentle with me when he found me this time, and Tuggy Duck had obviously quacked his last so Jake strutted proudly about with his newest toy, Christmas Penguin, and played hard to get with it. It had been a tough area, with water running in large streams off the hillside making the land boggy and the heather soaking wet and although there was a good strong wind to carry scent, it was nevertheless a challenging search area for all concerned.

I wriggled down into my sleeping bag once more, as tight up against the wall of the sheepfold as I could make myself against the driving rain, found my trusty Bill Bryson download on my phone and tried to allow myself to be mentally transported elsewhere.

A gentle 'kiss'

After an hour or so, tinkling bells alerted me to the possibility of another wet nose in my ear and a damp dog trying to get into the sleeping bag with me but it turned out to be Izzy who is always extremely ladylike when she finds her casualties, giving them a gentle “kiss” before running back to bark to her handler to bring her back to the casualty and, more importantly from Izzy’s perspective, bring her squeaky toy with them. Undeterred by the conditions Izzy bounded off repeatedly down over rocks and into the wet heather to retrieve her toy, time and time again, and we made sure she had a good long play to reward her hard work.

The assessors, who are both search dog handlers, asked if I could remain in position so they could let their dogs out to search for me, as they hadn’t had much chance to “play” all weekend. The pressure being off, I waited in my spot for another 45 minutes for visits from the lovely Cluanie and Scout (a video of Cluanie finding me can be seen on Lanyon Bowdler’s Twitter feed from Saturday 7 November) before starting the arduous pack-up of wet kit in driving rain and howling wind, which always feels more exhausting than it ought to be, and the damp walk-out to my car where I steamed steadily on my way home!

As a result of the weekend Wales has a new fully-qualified Lowland Search Dog Team, with Ester and Izzy, who will be able to bring their skills and dedication (and squeaky toys!) to any situation where the emergency services need voluntary but specialist 100% professional assistance in searching for a missing person.

www.sardawales.org.uk
http://www.staffordshirelowlandrescue.org