Wise man of the hills

Alan Wise  Mountain Rescue Award
Alan Wise Mountain Rescue Award

when Alan Wise decided to retire to his native Cumbria last year, a couple of Borders institutions felt his departure very keenly.

For 32 years, since he moved to Kelso in 1979, Alan, in crumpled suit and classroom, was “Mr Wise”, a charismatic (if somewhat eccentric) teacher at Kelso High, while in Goretex jacket and boots, he was “Wisey”, a mainstay of the Border Search and Rescue Unit.

On June 9, his three-decade contribution to the latter was recognised when he received the prestigious “Distinguished Service Award” from the Mountain Rescue Council of Scotland (MRCofS), presented to only a very few mountain rescue personnel each year.

Alan brought to the team a level of expertise and experience that would prove invaluable in some of the more demanding and technical rescues. An enviable level of physical fitness was remarked upon by many of his aghast young charges on outdoor expeditions with the school, when they were expected to keep pace with Alan’s relentless pace on the hill, puffing in the wake of his distinctive rolling-shouldered gait.

Heavily bearded and weathered, he is every inch a man of the mountains, and his Grizzly Adams appearance made him an easy spot around the area and in the school where he inspired generations of students (whom he fondly referred to as “silly little Herberts”) with a passion for rock formations and, more importantly, rock music. A recent pupil, Jack Wilson-Green, paid the following affectionate tribute:

“Not only did geology with Mr Wise teach me all about sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rock formations; it also taught me about rock. Real rock!

“The soundtrack to my year of geology was punctuated with blasts of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Blue Oyster Cult and even the occasional Deep Purple.

“A history of the Earth from formation to present, and a history of rock music from the 1970’s onward went hand in hand. I passed higher geology because Mr Wise was a fantastic teacher (though first and foremost, a guitar shredding genius!) and an all-round good guy.”

Another former student, Mark Tennant, recalls how Alan inspired him to join the search and rescue team, of which he is now a senior member.

“Alan was my chemistry teacher in my final year at Kelso, and it was always a great laugh.

“My introduction to Alan’s unusual rescue methods involved calling Alan in to rescue a neighbour’s cat from 40ft up a tree. 

“Try as he might, he couldn’t coax it into a rope bag with cat food, so he resorted to hacking off the limb with a saw, sending the startled cat plummeting into a waiting tarpaulin held out by the local fire brigade. Hysterical stuff!”

At a glance, Alan can absorb and memorise the contours of a map, gleaning in a few seconds an amazingly complete mental picture of the shape of the land, which he can retain when the clag descends and visibility is cut to nought.

This talent for navigation is an absolute essential in mountain rescue, and Alan has it in spades.

He’s also very much a ropes-man, although some techniques developed over decades on the hill are a little unorthodox for modern regulations.

One of his early incidents was the huge multi-agency search in the aftermath of the Lockerbie disaster. Like so many of the rescue personnel involved, Alan, a recent father at the time, was deeply affected by this, and like all those who commit themselves to voluntary search and rescue, Alan was always prepared to straighten his back, shoulder his rucksack and take to the hills in aid of those in peril.

Whether as a stalwart of the mountain rescue, a geology teacher or a rock guru, Alan dedicated three decades to voluntary service and education, and fully deserves the recognition afforded him this month by the MRCofS.

This piece may read like a eulogy, but while he is lost to Kelso, his move to the Lake District will, knowing Wisey, herald not a quiet decline pottering in the garden, but instead a full-bore return to his beloved Lakeland summits and nightly recounting of his exploits and his forthright opinions on just about every conceivable topic in the Dog and Gun in Keswick.

His team-mates at Border Search and Rescue would like to congratulate him on his award, to thank him publicly for his loyal service over the years, his irrepressible banter and his rock-wizardry, and to wish him the very best for the future.