WHEN 50 years ago in 1966 the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association (UWFRA) called for female volunteers to test the latest in survival kit, it received offers from all over the country.

The Grassington based rescue organisation was that year hosting a prestigious national cave rescue conference.

Rescue organisations from all across the country attended the conference, which included outdoor demonstrations and a series of talks and lectures at Upper Wharfedale School, Threshfield.

But highlight of the conference was a demonstration of a widely publicised exposure bag. The neoprene exposure bag was the brainchild of Don Robinson, technical advisor to the Wharfedale team, and lecturer in outdoor activities at Leeds University.

Mr Robinson, now 89 years old, said the idea of the bag was to come up with something better than a blanket to wrap around a cold and wet casualty in a rescue situation.

He had often been in situations where a casualty had been pulled out of a cave for them to die from the cold on their way from the entrance to the cave to a waiting ambulance.

The persuasive Mr Robinson called on Manchester firm, Beaufort, which had made life jackets during the war, to part with a length of neoprene - which had been used to make protective clothing.

Together with a six feet long waterproof zip, also made by the company, he returned to Grassington to make his 'exposure bag' - which was basically, an unwieldy sleeping bag. His first prototype resembled a cocoon, while a later modified bag had sleeves, which meant the casualty would be able to help the rescuers.

The October, 1966 conference in Grassington was affectionately termed the 'Potholers' Parliament' and was aimed at helping rescuers from all over the country improve their lifesaving techniques. And it was Mr Robinson's innovative bag that everyone wanted to see. Having taken it to the conference the year before, in Derbyshire, where it had received a lukewarm reception, it had then received national coverage when it had been used to save a Canadian student from Giants Hole in Derbyshire.

Mr Robinson recalls how he and a team travelled down to Derbyshire to offer help after the girl's plight was reported on the television. Armed with the exposure bag, they arrived at the entrance to the cave to find the young student in a stretcher which had become wedged in a narrow passage, and all efforts to move her had failed. Mr Robinson cut the girl out of the stretcher before putting her into the exposure bag, and back into a stretcher before then getting her safely out of the cave. She had been in the cave for 24 hours and a doctor at the entrance proclaimed had she not been put in the bag, she would have died. His comments were widely reported and overnight, Mr Robinson received dozens of inquiries from other rescue organisations about his bag. "There was such a demand, a made a paper pattern and sent that off, with a set of instructions how to make it," he said. He later made himself a neoprene suit in the same way - as did many other cavers at that time.

Much work was involved in developing the suit, with Mr Robinson carrying out all the testing on himself. On one occasion, he nearly drowned while testing it in an outdoor pool at Linton School, where he worked at the time. With no one about, in case anything went wrong, he got himself into the suit, but an unfortunate air bubble meant he ended up face down in the water with his arms pinned to his sides. "I got myself into it, fell into the water and was floating face down, it was a close shave because there was no one else around," he said. After that, he developed sleeves for the suit. "Often when you are rescuing someone, it is useful if they can help," he said. He also went back to his friends at Beaufort for water tight values, to prevent air bubbles from forming in the bag. On another occasion, while experimenting on how to increase the body temperature in the bag, he piped hot water from a tap in his house to the bag, while he was in it in his garden. In front of fellow cave rescue member, and photographer, Ted Winpenny, he pumped water as hot as possible in the bag, taking his body to a dangerous 105 degrees. "What I hadn't realised was if the body reaches that temperature, it will cook the brain, and I suddenly felt very ill. Fortunately, I had a helper that time, and they unzipped my bag and got me out," he said.

For the Potholers' Conference in Grassington, Mr Robinson carried out a demonstration of his famous bag using what the Craven Herald described at the time as 'attractive, auburn haired Andrea Bowen. The 20 year old then girlfriend of UWFRA member Jim Maxfield, was strapped into the bag and put on a stretcher which was moored in the River Wharfe at Burnsall. For the purposes of the demonstration, the unfortunate Miss Bowen was left in the water - with only her head out of the water - for three hours, and when she finally emerged was suffering from 'slight delayed shock.'

Thermometers were attached to Miss Bowen's body and readings taken at various intervals - a s well as the temperature of the water.

Her temperature remained constant, while the temperature of the water around her increased. When she was brought out of the river, hot water was poured into the bag and agitated, so that it reached her hands and feet - Mr Robinson explained to the onlookers the casualty would remain in the bag until the face returned to a healthy pink, or a sweat appeared on the brow. Once out of the bag, Miss Bowen - despite being a bit shaken - said she had felt very comfortable and could indeed have fallen asleep. It had only been the last five or ten minutes that her teeth had begun to chatter and she had started to feel cold. It was the second time Miss Bowen had taken part in such a demonstration, and having been attacked by midges the time before, had taken the precaution of smearing her face with repellent.

The event also included a demonstration of a rescue by helicopter, carried out by the 202 Search and Rescue Squadron, but with the use of a dummy. There was also rock blasting and rock drilling demonstrations with one described as 'spectacular' and possibly the loudest ever over peaceful Burnsall.

There was also a demonstration of underwater rescue carried out by Leeds Police, in their 'skin tight wet suits'. George Scott, of the West Riding Police, emphasised the need of stringent safety precautions and that equipment must be in the best possible condition. He praised the work of the UWFRA and also of the then Settle - Ingleton CRO, and talked about the need for a national organisation.

Today, the UWFRA is still based in Grassington, and has recently moved back into its Hebden Road premises after improvements were made to the building.

It has been saving the lives of people and animals for 65 years from the caves and fells of Wharfedale, Nidderdale, Littondale and mid Airedale. It has more than 60 well trained volunteer cavers, climbers and mountaineers who come from as far away as Leeds and Bradford and is on call 365 days a year. To find out more about the organisation and help support the work it does, visit its website at uwfra.org.uk