Wednesday, 1 March 2017
Mid 1980’s in Glencoe Scotland. As young rescuer under the wing of “the old fox” mountain and rescue legend Hamish MacInnes sometimes all we learned as his apprentices were put to good use. This is just such as tale.
Fiona my wife and I had recently moved back into Glencoe village from Duror, a small village 7 miles down the road. Summer day and Fiona is away at a wedding and most of the climbing stars of Glencoe Mountain Rescue are away in the Swiss alps with the local rescue team leader and legend “The Fox” Hamish MacInnes, working safety cover on a big film project called “5 Days One Summer” starring Sean Connery. Many of the same folk from the Glen who worked with him on “The Eiger Sanction”. Ian Nicholson and Dave Bathgate two Scottish climbing legends have recently bought the Kingshouse Hotel a famous mountaineering base. Lochaber Mountain Rescue stalwart Willie Anderson is painting walls for beer at the hotel. The hotel is old and needs a bit of work.
The house phone rings at about 2pm on a nice sunny August day. Its Doris here Davy, there is a rescue call out on Stob Coire nan Lochan for a fallen climber. I can’t get many folk as a lot of are away”. I ask her to keep trying to get together enough for a rescue party while I get some technical and medical gear together. A Police 4x4 pulls up outside my house and toots its siren and Stewart Obree one of the local constables is here to offer me a lift to the pipers lay bye a place where helicopters can land and a guy with bagpipes busks for cash. Stewart has already asked for a helicopter and Search and Rescue 134 - a Wessex from RAF Leuchars is on its way.
We arrive at the pipers lay bye and I get information from a witness that someone is hanging free, half way up the cliff and a woman holding the rope is screaming. I get news that the main rescue vehicle has been picked up and Richard Greive and Hughie MacNicoll who owned Mountain Technology are on the way. Ian Nicholson isn’t at the Kingshouse as he’s away with Hamish, but Willie Anderson is coming down to help. So, we have enough to do the job, but only just. 150 -metre rope’s and technical kit is sorted out and a recently landed helicopter crew agree to take 3 of us up the mountain to fly over the scene.
We lift off, and slowly gaining height over Aonach Dubh, circle and see the climber is hanging via a single rope from a running belay 20 metres above him two pitches up in “Central Grooves” (very severe 4c or 5.9). He is hanging inverted just below his belayer and about 2 metres out free hanging in space. So its at least a 40-metre lead fall and judging by the invertion of the harness down off his pelvis and that he’s upside down and not moving it doesn’t look good for him, or easy for us. A fall factor of about 0.75 and hitting the cliff and with no helmet the consequences are pretty devastating. The woman belaying appears to be held by a single anchor to a very big single block of rock which looks loose and precarious, even from the air.
The aircrew and I talk over the radio and we hatch a plan. Drop Richard, Willie and I on the top of the buttress and I will get lowered down the route, make the belayer safe and get her out of the rope system for the SAR crew to winch up. We will get the climber lowered to the bottom. While we are doing rope tricks they will pick up any extra rescuers and bring them up so they can hike to the foot of the climb with a stretcher and take the fallen climber down to a good helicopter landing pick up point.
Good belays are sorted and with the difficult task of managing the unwieldy static rope Willie and Richard lower me down the shitty loose broken ground to the top of the corner and then lower me down the 60 or so meters to the incident. Loose rock, pinnacles of blocks stacked like dinner plates and lots of debris fly past me. A few climbs up and down to get the rope directional and stop pulling rocks onto me are needed, so it’s not a quick job or safe. Some of the rocks are paving slab sized. On the way down the route I see a watch caught by its strap in a small bucket hold in the vertical corner which the climbers hand must have slid from. I see that the single running belay is an old rock peg and pretty rotten, but it held. The climbers rope is a single 9mm stretched so tight it looks like boot cord. I arrive at the belay and the very upset woman with a belay rope at its end in a Stich plate. She’s held by a single large wire nut which she is holding in place by pushing the block back as its loose. I have to spend a lot of time searching out and clearing cracks for rock pegs to both hold her at a single releasable point to cut loose and get her into the helicopter winch strop safely. Separately I have to isolate the active rope going to the fallen climber and anchor it.
As it turns out I know the fallen climber who runs a climbing instruction and guiding business. She’s a client on a rock climbing course it seems. He’s dead, its messy but that can be revisited later. I get her safe and rigged for easy release. I have his rope isolated and anchored so move down to him and make another belay for me to clip into with an adjustable sling. I come off the lowering rope, lean out and hook his rope with my hammer spike and pull him in, put a sling on him at the chest and to the harness to level him out and attach the long static lowering rope I was lowered down on, onto him. Then holding his rope against the rockface I bash it with my peg hammer. One hard blow is all it takes. He gets lowered about 60 metres to the foot of the corner where rescuers and a couple of co-opted climbers have come to help. They get him off the rope and body bagged, and I get the rope pulled back up to me and I get lowered down to the bottom and clear of the corner. Sounds easy. None of it was. Rockfall, an upset belayer who is at risk, the victims trauma and the hard physical work takes its toll.
The helicopter comes in at a hover and ever so slowly gets closer to the corner dropping the winchman slowly down and inching into the cliff. They get to her, put her in the winch strop, knife cut my big sling thats anchored to some pegs and take her up. Very impressive close mountain flying and crag rescue from the winchman. She gets flown down to the base and they come back up and take us all down to our base at the Pipers Lay bye in a couple of lifts. Its surreal as there are cars and tourists blocking the valley road and hundreds of folks, some with binoculars have been watching the whole rescue. Meanwhile the piper skirls away his plaintive notes and takes his coins.
Police statements are taken later. He’s being paid so an accident enquiry is likely. Chats and a brew then down to Hamish’s barn to sort out kit and then home for the usual ponder at another person you know killed in the mountains, thinking over many “what the fuck moments” of the rescue and what you might do different another time. And many others were to come for me in the years that followed. It takes days to come down and get rescues like that out of your head. Often the best thing is to go climbing next day. So that’s what I did. With a hangover though.
As post script. Dennis Barclay the Glencoe rescue team’s treasurer gave me a roasting for buying seven new rock pegs and half a dozen slings from the recently opened “Glencoe Guides and Gear” shop run by Paul and Ros Moore’s and charging it to the mountain rescue account. This was to replace what I had used on the rescue. As the team didn’t have much cash he wasn’t sure if there was enough money to cover it. How things have changed in Scottish mountain rescue. I often ponder that rescue was about climbers helping climbers and even had these items not been replaced (and sometimes they couldn’t be) the job would get done regardless. There was an enquiry, and someone put me up for a bravery award which I respectfully declined. The local constable being quick off the mark, good rope handling from the team above and the skill level of the aircrew (never bettered IMHO) and also climbers abandoning their days climbing to lend assistance made it all work. Climbing is about the community of the mountains and mountain rescue is just another part of looking after your own. I hope that never changes.