Monday 25 January 2016

#020 The 2016 Spine Safety Team

The 2016 Spine Race showed just how far the event has come in the past five years, with a combination of racing dramas, challenging winter conditions and impressive personal stories of endurance making it a vintage year, maybe even the best ever Spine yet.

The Spine Safety Team has also developed in many respects. For the first Spine, we had about the same small number of staff as racers which started at Edale and the deployments were decided in the moment. As the numbers of starters grew, so did the safety team and also the level of advance planning needed for the team to be as efficient and effective as possible. We now begin refining the deployment plan and putting together Safety Teams at least three months before the race itself.

It is testament to the work and contribution by all of the Spine Safety Team and Race Organisation that other races are looking at our methods and procedures with interest. Specifically, how we can run an event like this in winter with all the variations that can throw at us and not be constantly calling on Mountain Rescue.

Regular Spine Challenger competitors, Tim Vriendt and Stef Schuermans, have organised their own new event, The Legends, held in the Belgium Ardennes, March 2016. For this they have brought in expertise from The Spine Safety Team.


The leaders at the front were nip and tuck right up to the final day, until Eoin Keith stole a march on pursuers Pavel Paloncy and Eugene Rosello Sole. Eoin had made the bold statement that his 2015 finish was simply a reccie in preparation for winning in 2016. He appeared unstoppable in his quest, setting the bar to a new high by taking a huge chunk off Pavel’s course record.

The Challenger too brought many new stories and new faces. There has been a succession of fast performances in this 108 mile dash. Making it highly competitive and arguably now as difficult to win as the full Spine. 

Fresh from their work dealing with the terrible flooding north of Manchester just before the event, we welcomed members of local Mountain Rescue Teams racing a special version of the Challenger. Thankfully for local communities, the water levels had reduced, although the effects are bound to be felt for months.

But, to paraphrase seasoned Spiner, Richard Lendon: “The Spine is more than just touching a stone wall at The Border Inn, Kirk Yetholm (or opening those double doors at The Market House in Hawes). It’s about the experience, the camaraderie and being out there on the trail.”

It’s what I struggled to adequately articulate in the interview with Summit Fever in the 2015 Spine movie, leaving the viewer with the cheesy, if not now legendary, Spine chest thump. Thank you to all the folks that joined in the chest thump salute during Spine week, you made it real!


Race Directors Scott & Phil, had a clear vision for the race organisation with specialist teams, each working autonomously, but sharing information and resources when required to ensure the best possible response and outcome for racers and race volunteers alike. 

At times of high demand, a new on-line incident recording system enabling fast dissemination of information. Each incident remained open and was monitored until the action was closed.


This year’s safety team was based on the model I developed for the 2015 Spine. I have already written in previous blogs about how the horrendous storms in 2015 played havoc with our best laid plans. However, there were still very worthwhile lessons to take forwards.

The first was Safety Team structure. New for 2016, was two teams of Coordinators (Darren Hunt & Jayme Morgan + Stuart Smith & Lindley Chambers) on an alternating 12 hour shift. The shifts ran from midnight to midday, then from midday to midnight. Coordination can be extremely intensive and unrelenting so the aim here was that each pair had a decent opportunity to rest as well as to get out of the Ops Room and see some daylight during the week. In addition to the shift teams, coordinator Paul Gale took care of course safety reccies and supervising CP5.5, Byrness.

The collective skills set and experience of this year’s coordinator team is worthy of note: Mountain & expedition leaders, MRT, event organisation, military service, civilian blue light emergency service, aerospace safety investigation and highly regulated nuclear industry.

This year we especially focussed on communications. Not so much the method of communication, i.e predominantly mobile phone and occasionally sat phones, but rather the way we use them. With extensive experience of the Pennine Way, we now have much better knowledge of mobile black spots, meaning that the SST’s on the ground could be deployed far more effectively.

With Teams using various mobile networks, dual chip phones or Manx sim, if there was a signal available, most of the time someone could connect to it. The preferred method of routine coms was by text, which is succinct and much easier transmitted than voice call. It also freed up ops room phones for incoming priority calls.

In addition to racers having trackers for racers, we also made more use of trackers for SSTs and Medics. On several occasions they proved invaluable in our ability to direct SSTs to racers:
·         For  routine welfare checks
·         To assist in bringing a racer back on track after deviating off route towards a major hazard.
·         To locate racers in difficulty
·         To locate a member of the public (more on this later)

For the fourth consecutive year, medical matters were in the care of Exile Medics, headed by Brett Roccos. We worked closely with Brett and his excellent team, to support competitors. There are many racers who were able to progress a lot further due the assistance of the Exiles doctors.


Like many Ultra Races, The Spine could not exist without volunteers. As SST Coordinator, in addition to race safety, my aim is that our volunteers have the best possible experience during their time with us. The fact that several return year after year, hopefully proves that we are doing it right more often than not. It is often said that working on The Spine can be as hard as racing, but I have heard on many occasions that it is equally as enjoyable.

Many potential Spiners and Challengers use their time on the SST as fact finding for their own future race plans. I’m very much in support of this, Volunteering on a SST provides opportunities for selective course research, route finding, potential conditions underfoot and local resources such as shops and pubs. As well as seeing the effects of race attrition, SSTs can gauge how their endurance capabilities, navigation, hill and expeditions skills compare with the finishers.

The plan for SSTs worked very well this year and our teams were much better rested in between deployments. Throughout the SST there is a diverse range of experience, from Ultra Racers, Mountain Rescue, Emergency & Military Services, Mountain & Expedition Leaders. This is only part of the story, in addition to their professionalism, every member of the SST brought humour and camaraderie which contributes to the Spine ‘race family’ atmosphere.

To all Spine Race volunteers, I offer my sincere thanks for your commitment to the success of the 2016 race. And I look forward to seeing you again, either in the Safety Team, as a Spine Racer, or simply on the hills and trails.


This year the weather was, relatively, kinder to us than 2015. Thankfully there was no repeat of successive gale force weather fronts, preventing movement of racers and the Spine Safety Team. That said, the conditions were far from easy. As if dialled up to order, mild temperatures yielded to Baltic cold, perhaps catching some racers off their guard. 

Snow soon added to the mix, giving a positive Arctic flavour to Malham, Pen-Y-Ghent and the approaches to Hawes.

Safety teams were mostly all in position according to the deployment plan when the snow fell. From these locations of most usefulness and with Exile medics distributed along the race split, the team remained effective. Throughout the week we continued to work around traffic disruption, the whole Spine Team minimising road trips during the night on re-frozen surfaces.

With the leading elites staying a step head, the snow mostly affected the peloton and lanterns rouge. Based on a course reccie, the safety team implemented a diversion, of equal distance, around the Cauldron Snout outflow. Thus, removing the potentially hazardous river edge traverse and frozen scramble up to the dam.

Further snow and drifts on Crossfell meant racers at the rear of the field were grouped together for safety. John Bamber and Paul Shorrock enjoyed a busier than usual stay at Gregs Hut this year, with a number of forays out onto the trail for welfare checks on slower racers. Exile Medics also made the prudent decision to station one of their Doctors at the hut.


The tough conditions underfoot, sudden drop in temperature and fatigue all took their toll on racers. The pace of many began to slow, at times to as little as 1km an hour. At the same time racers completing the Cheviot reported their exhausting efforts breaking trail and post holing, through deep drifts (which was corroborated by watching their trackers).

With the significant reduction in pace of mid-field racers, there was a growing concern among the collective Race Organisation - RDs, SST, HQ, Exile Medics – that:
i)          The Lanterns Rouge could not possibly finish the event in time
ii)         There was a high potential for multiple hypothermia/exhaustion casualties whilst on the remote Cheviots.

In this knowledge, to allow this situation to occur would have shown a reckless disregard for welfare of both racers and the Safety Teams up on the hill. Hence the Byrness cut off had to be brought forward, a decision not taken lightly. This decision was borne out by the fact that the last racer to arrive at Kirk Yetholm did so just 28 minutes prior to the 7 day race time limit.

Most of the racers who finished carried with them stories of epic conditions up on high ground. As it was, our SST’s up at Refuge 1-Lamb Hill and Refuge 2-Auchope had a busy night.

Hut 1 was manned for the duration by experienced Spiner & mountaineer, Mark Caldwell. He was joined by Al Pepper who had completed the Challenger earlier in the week. They helped ensure that racers were safe to continue the Cheviot traverse.

Racers were grouped together in at least pairs (many did this automatically) so that they could share work breaking trail, navigating and also looking out for each other. Past years has shown this buddy system to be very worthwhile.

Our strategy for Hut 2 was to deploy a succession of Teams who would then remotely shadow a group of racers on their final descent into Kirk Yetholm. Coordinator, Darren Hunt, was able to drop off several teams at the College Valley road head, enabling them to reach Hut 2 much more quickly than the standard Halterburn walk in. At one point we had five safety teams on the hill.

With space at a premium in Hut 2, racers who were fit to continue were encouraged to eat, drink and then push onwards to the finish. This was a fine balance, but worked well thanks to Exile medics doctor in-situ and the can-do efforts of the SSTs.

Next year there may not be snow on the ground. With thanks to all SSTs who have provided feedback, we will have to look at improving the water carry up to the Huts. Given the conditions, we took the decision to carry up some extra rations packs to Huts 1 and 2. Whilst I’m sure this was universally appreciated by competitors, we have to be careful that there is not a future expectation of noodles, rat packs or hot drinks service at hut and bothy locations. The main reason, is that SSTs may not actually be in there, but deployed out on the course.


Many of you may have read reports in main-stream media that two Spine racers were rescued by Borders Search And Rescue from the area around Auchope Hut on the final night of the event. Not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, the headlines were incorrect on many levels. With thanks to assistance from Jon O’Connell’s (SST1) father and his media connections, the BBC quickly corrected their copy.

In summary the actual events are thus: A member of the public independently walking the Pennine Way was seen by Spine Racers on the Chevoit ridge. Concerned for his welfare they called Spine Safety Ops, who then tasked an SST to assist. The member of the public was walked to Hut 2 where he was assessed by an Exile Medic and efforts were made to rewarm. After a couple of hours and still concerned for the person’s well- being, BSAR were called, who responded on foot and also brought in SAR Helicopter. On reaching the Hut, the member of the public was deemed fit enough to walk off the hill accompanied by the BSAR team.

As this was happening, a fatigued Spiner being closely escorted off the hill by one of our SSTs needed a little extra help. Instead of us sending up another SST, BSAR who were already in the immediate area offered assistance, for which The Spine is extremely grateful.


The Spine is billed as a self-sufficient and most brutal race in Britain. There has been much commentary on social media that, with the introduction of CP1.5 Malham and CP5.5 Byrness, The Spine is now easier. I think this year proves that the event is still as tough as it ever was. What I would say is that there is a difference in the safety systems we have put in place as a duty of care to our competitors and staff.

However, the Race Organisation is mindful that the self-sufficient ethos is not ‘chipped away’ turning a great race into a beige race. Hence, the Spine will remain in its current mid-winter slot, compulsory kit items such as stoves and rations should be carried at all times and there are definitely no pacers.


·         Make sure navigation skills are well practiced in the conditions which they are to be used. i.e. on a cold wet trail and in the dark.

·         Look at the weather reports and adjust strategy / kit / clothing accordingly.   Eg would snowshoes have been a useful addition this year?

·         Be aware of own pacing. The strategy of just meeting cut offs does not work for many competitors who try it, with a lot DNFs this year due to too much time on the feet, insufficient rest and sleep deprivation - even before the revised cut off at CP5.5 is taken into account. The suggestion here is to build some contingency into a race finishing strategy. Start with aiming for a 6 ½ day completion, which leaves 12 hours for weather events or indeed a little extra rest in the final stages.

·         Come to the Official Spine Training Weekend in autumn for an enjoyable 2 days totally focussed on the top tips, shared experience and essential skills needed to finish The Spine.

·         Start your build up to the 2017 Spine now.

·         Join our ‘Complete Spine Racer’ course offered by Official Spine Training Provider, Ranger Expeditions / Stu Westfield – Spine Safety Team & Training Coordinator. Within an informal and friendly atmosphere (for small groups and 1-to-1) we guide you through kit, strategies and share insights from the 5 years of the Spine Race to help you achieve your Challenger or Spine finish. We also spend plenty of time in Pennine Way country developing your route finding navigation skills.

Stu Westfield
Spine Safety Team Coordinator
Legends Safety Team Coordinator
Ranger Ultras Safety Team Coordinator