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Meet the Team: Mario Di Maio

This year marked Mario Di Maio’s 50th year with Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team, an amazing feat for someone who started out as the youngest team member in 1970 and eventually led the team for 19 years as Team Leader between 1993 and 2012.

Explaining how he came to join the team, Mario said: “In May 1970, I worked for an insurance company and was encouraged to come along to one of the training sessions by a colleague, Jim Murdoch. I was 17 at the time and a month later ventured on my first team weekend to Kintail. During the first day’s fast-paced ascent of the Five Sisters, I felt totally unprepared and questioned whether I was up to the task of being a team member, especially after the next day’s ‘scamper’ up the Forcan Ridge. But despite the sweat and exhaustion, Jim encouraged me to build up my fitness and soon I could hold my own with the rest of the team.”

By 1976, Mario was Deputy Team Leader at the age of 23 and became Team Leader in 1993, until stepping down in 2012. Talking about his many years with the team, Mario said: “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say my life has been shaped by my involvement with the team. Fundamentally, I really enjoy the satisfaction of making a difference and participating in a successful rescue, and my 50 years with the team has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

“As I approached retirement and my 60th birthday, I decided 2012 would be the right time to step down as Team Leader and offer the opportunity to someone else in the team. After stepping down, I had planned to stay on as an operational member for another year to offer support to the next Team Leader but being part of the team kept me fit and healthy and I enjoyed the camaraderie. At the time I thought my rescue career was coming to an end but I’m fortunate to still be an operational team member eight years later.”

In 2018, Mario was awarded an MBE for his service with the team after receiving the Scottish Mountain Rescue Distinguished Service award in 2014 and the Great Scot Unsung Hero Award in 2015. He said: “When I first received the letter from the Office of the Prime Minister I was a bit unsure about the whole thing but it turned out to be a fantastic day at Buckingham Palace with my wife who was the team doctor for 10 years. I had a great chat with Prince Charles who I had met a few times previously, and we talked about Lochnagar, Balmoral, our vehicles, and his interest in the Cairngorms. The MBE may have had my name on it, but it was a reflection of the professionalism and dedication of the whole Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team.”

When asked about the changes Mario has seen in the team over the years, he said: “There’s definitely been an increased focus on mountaineering and mountain rescue skills over the years. We were very much an amateur team in the seventies but there’s now professionalism to the team that comes with huge amounts of training. This includes a high level of first aid as we must be able to look after a casualty for a long time before the handover to medical staff. Nowadays we can administer morphine for pain relief, which would have been unheard of even ten years ago.

“The improved quality of gear has also made a huge difference, as we can operate in much more severe conditions. In the early days, our team members were mainly teachers and paper mill workers but now most of our team members work in the oil and gas industry. This has its complexities with offshore rotations and requires a larger team member pool of approximately 30 people, but employers are very understanding and membership on the team often fits in well with their CSR initiatives.”

During his 50 years with the team, Mario has been involved in more than 400 callouts, the majority of which have had overwhelmingly positive outcomes. But team membership has also had its challenges: “There have been a few traumatic rescues that stick in my mind, in particular the Cairngorm Disaster of 1971 which was one of my first call outs, and the crash of two F15 fighter jets on Ben Macdui in 2001. The Cairngorms plateau is particularly tough terrain but we’re fortunate that the majority of our callouts result in successful rescues, mainly due to improved communication technology that makes it much easier for us to determine the location of a casualty.

“As Team Leader I was always acutely aware of my responsibility to lead the team on challenging callouts. It’s a difficult thing to do, asking volunteers to risk their own safety and wellbeing, but it takes a special kind of person to join a mountain rescue team and I knew that every team member would accept the risks and be willing to do whatever it took to ensure a safe and successful rescue.”

Despite the challenges, Mario only has positive things to say to anyone considering volunteering with the Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team: “The best thing about being on the team is the friendship and camaraderie. We’re very close-knit and I know I will have a lifelong connection to the team. I would recommend practising going well and fast up hills until you get fitter and find it easier. As Jim Murdoch said to me all those years ago, just keep at it!”