Care in the extreme

Combining a love for climbing with his skills as an emergency nurse has given Ben Cooper the chance to work in some of the world’s most remote places

Three months into his nursing course aged 19, Ben was climbing in the Peak District when he heard someone blowing a whistle. 

“Few people had mobile phones in those days,” says Ben. “I knew it was a distress signal as I’d used the same call after a climbing accident left me with broken ribs, arms and a head injury a few months before.” 

Following the call, Ben came across a paramedic already at the scene. “A climber and his friend had fallen, just like I had,” says Ben. 

A few moments later, the Edale Mountain Rescue Team arrived. “Seeing what they did, and after what had happened to me, I wanted to help others by volunteering for them.” Twenty-five years on, he’s still involved.

Ben Cooper in climbing rescue gear

“You don’t have to be a nurse to volunteer, but my skills have certainly helped in challenging environments,” says Ben. “Being up a mountain and cold, sometimes in the dark with quite distressed people means you must remain calm and communicate well.” 

The team is on-call 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. Call-outs are usually from climbers, horse-riders and people who’ve got lost. 

“Many of those rescued have broken bones and are in shock,” adds Ben. “Hypothermia can kill, so keeping people warm is key. You have to be confident you’re able to look after yourself as well as others.”

Unfortunately, Ben’s had to recover people who have taken their own lives, or died from a fall. “We’re all trained to deal with these types of situations and there is ongoing training too,” says Ben.

“But I can still remember my first significant trauma. I was called to a young lad the same age as me. He was very unwell after a fall. He’d collapsed and I was trying to maintain his airway. We were both winched into a helicopter and taken to the hospital where I worked, where he later died.

“He was one of those patients you never forget. The sister on duty knew I was upset. She took me with her to clean him and put him in a gown, so I could do something for him. It’s not good to bottle things up.”

As well as helping those in distress up mountains, Ben’s travelled as far as Antarctica to look after mountaineers and has worked in medical teams in the South Pole. He’s even been a film body-double through his adventures.

It's amazing the volunteering roles out there for nursing staff

I spent time as a location nurse for TV and films in Greenland and Iceland. I changed my work to an annual hours contract, which gave me the flexibility to do other things I enjoy.”

Outside his day job, Ben is one of only two UK nurses that run medical courses with World Extreme Medicine in Norway’s Arctic Circle.


Ben Cooper in South Pole

Do you volunteer as a nurse?

If so, you can be safe in the knowledge the RCN’s indemnity scheme will most likely cover you in your voluntary role. It’s best to check the small print though. 

Words by Susan Embley


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