Thursday, 18 June 2020

The Strath of Glencoe

It's been quite some time since my last blog post.  It's been reasonably busy with bike hire and repairs despite the awful weather and late spring.  We have also had family commitments not least of which was attending my sons graduation from Aberdeen University.

I am having a year off the bike racing as I need to re balance my time and health.  I am however re kindling my lifelong affair with fishing.  I have fished since I was maybe about six years old and remember my mother having to put a worm on a hook for me as I didn't like them, and epic frustrations from my dad with tangled line at the tidal pool. Those who knew his patience level can imagine the expletives!
Blackbirds nest next to a place I fish.  We meet every day. She flew back in and was obviously not bothered
Pink Hawthorn or "Mayflower" which is where the saying "nere cast a cloot till may is oot" comes from.  Only this year your cloot shouldnt have been cast even in June!
Early trips up to Loch Ba with Jock MacDonald and his boat, and many future boys own expeditions wandering over Rannoch moor, losing wellies in bottomless bogs and using the sound of the train at Rannoch so we knew we had walked 180deg in the wrong direction and would miss Andrew the local bus driver waiting for us on the A82 if we didnt run were all character forming, especially when still only 10 years old. My mother was worried sick. 

Later trips to Bealach and even out to exotic locations like over the hill to Lundavra and a shot of the good boat if it wasn't out.  My early rod was a split cane 9ft with a level taper line and small flies bought from rare trips on the bus over the ferry to the excellent Rod and Gun shop next to the bus station in Fort William.  There was always good advice and help form the two older gents who ran the shop, and later when I had a few quid saved from working the "Grotto" petrol pumps they set me up with a nice hollow glass 9'6 fly rod and reel which I still have.  It was a very soft action rod and later nearly broke at the lower brass ferrule with a small grilse from the "Doctors Pool" on the Duror. There wasn't a puddle with fish in it that I didn't explore, and some rock climbing was required on occasion to reach hidden pools  I revisited one last year and the pool which would have given me a half dozen big sea trout  up to 3lbs and maybe a grilse, was absent of fish including the many small brownies that would come to the fly.  Banks of Sitka spruce have probably made the water too acidic.
Lower Coe falls and its water worn rocks.  There are intials from the ealy 19th century chipped into the rock from when Strathcona removed the arch that spanned the river to improve Salmon access.  You need to know where to look .....

It's fair to say in some ways that these explorations were among and a part of the mountains. As a teen when introduced to the heady mix of mountaineering, climbing, alcohol, women, and exotic places (but not many exotic women sadly) to pursue the mountain addiction. I suppose I became quite good at climbing, and climbed many of the classic hard routes and test pieces.  I was also lucky to be a very young member of the local rescue team at only 16, having already been going on rescues with a neighbour since I was younger.  These were the days of shepherds, stalkers and forestry workers with only a few climbers.  Money was scarce, politics of rescue non existent, and only the needs of the victims was at the forefront.  The reward was good craic, a plate of soup and a few free drams and maybe a "lock in" at Clachaig or Kingshouse.  A once a year issue of socks and thermal underwear was a bonus, but no one was without a good "Cag" and boots, the essentials.  There was no parading about like a shops dummy with overpriced Arcterxc.

Lucky for me I met Fiona who was to be my wife and climbing partner and who kicked me from manual labour as a wood cutter (my excuse - it kept me strong for climbing) to using a brain neglected from being kicked out of school.  She liked the bad boy rebel bit in me which was really nothing more than being pissed at a crap secondary school with dysfunctional teachers.Without her I would never have achieved professional level medical and mountain qualifications.
The Hump Bridge and still waters below
The thread throughout all my life in one way or another has been fishing and in particular the River Coe, who's flow has served as a metaphor for much of my life. Steady, placid, reflective, angry, raging, unclear.  I always liked Neil Gunn's book "Highland River" but only in later life when reading it again did I truly understand it as a "Quest" and how much it resembled my own life.  
Looking up "The Strath"
I had a truly lovely walk up the river today following a salmon which has a very distinguishing mark on it's nebb (nose).  Having watched it from the sea pool weeks ago, it was good to see it again having moved upriver again to another pool.  It was sitting quietly in a spot where an old local poacher "Willie the Bridge" would show me fish.  Willie is gone and so is his Rabbit snare and the need to take a fish, so it was safe lying there just waiting.  It will wait until the next fish comes to that spot then will move upriver again to another lay up. Up river there are places where a fish might lay for two months conserving its precious fat and red carotenoid energy supply until the next and final urge to reach home kicks in.  Marvellous resilient creatures that we should respect and take from only with care.
The Celtic symbol of knowledge and inheritor of Solomons wisdom lays waiting
If I might borrow again from Neil Gunn, who by the way is no relation, just imagine a nice day ambling up the river with a camera thinking of "The Atom of Delight".
House Martins? or Swifts?  have made burrows for nesting in the fallen river bank

The ever changing river course
Click the images for a larger size

Friday, 12 June 2020

Top to Bottom on Central Grooves

Mid 1980’s in Glencoe Scotland. As a young rescuer under the wing of “the old fox” mountain and rescue legend Hamish MacInnes, sometime 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. A summer day and Fiona is away 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 had 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 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 there 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 upside down 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 roll 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 with no helmet the consequences are pretty devastating. The woman belaying appears to be held by a single nut anchor behind 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 a 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 to  get her into the helicopter winch strop safely. Separately I have to isolate the active rope going to the fallen climber and anchor it.
Top to Bottom Lower

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 rock face 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 the 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 winch-man slowly down and inching into the cliff. They get to her, put her in the winch strop, knife cut my big sling that's anchored to some pegs and take her up. Very impressive close mountain flying and crag rescue by the winch-man. 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 coin.

Police statements are taken later. He’s being paid so an accident inquiry (FAI) 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 inquiry, 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. Even with Covid 19 that shouldn't change. Am I my brothers keeper? as a human and mountaineer the answer is always yes.


Dennis the treasurer on right. Hughie kneeling by the woman. The pair either side of Hamish were lost skiers on Sron a Creise and Wull (arms akimbo) and I saw them get Avalanched into Cam Glen. Picture circa 1980