Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Mu dheireadh de na fir beinne

The Strath of Glencoe and neighbouring Glen Etive has many legends stretching back into ancient history. From Irish/Scots and bardic legends such as Deirdre and Naoise through to Clan battles, massacres and folk of fame and authorship.

Such ancient legends are incomparable with the people who have made the Glen their home and hefted themselves and families to these hills and Glens in modern times. Many of these were shepherds trying to make a living from an austere and difficult landscape.  Sheep were not the highlanders friend in bygone days. But the sheep soon became a big part of the highland economy, and the folk who tended them hardy souls, and by necessity damn good mountaineers. Through this they became the very backbone of early rescue from the mountains and later formative in the creation of Scottish mountain rescue teams. Along with fellow men and women from the estates the contribution of these families to this way of life and especially to mountain rescue should not be overlooked.

Sadly Glencoe lost the last of these hill men this week when Walter Elliot passed away.  Vicki Sutherland wife of Alastair current Chairman of Glencoe and Glen Etive Community Council summed Walter and the Elliot's very well in a community Facebook post:

"Our neighbour up the Glen, and Alisters childhood friend Walter Elliot passed away on the 11th July in his 91st year. Walter died in the small white cottage in the heart of Glencoe where he and his 5 siblings were all born. Their parents moved to Glencoe from Luibeilt which lies between Corrour and Glen Nevis in 1922. Their Father Wattie Elliot was a Shepherd and Stalker and long before any formal Mountain Rescue Team was formed rescued people off the hills in Glencoe. Both his sons, Willie and Walter were members of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue team first formed by Hamish MacInnes. Walter, also a shepherd and stalker was awarded an MBE for his services to the Mountain Rescue. Walter & Willie, both unmarried lived at Ach-na-Beithe with their sister Doris. Hogmanay at the Elliot's was the traditional place for all in the Glen to bring in the New Year, The tiny low ceiling rooms were packed to bursting and Doris provide a spread of Venison sandwiches and Clootie dumpling and the whisky flowed! The Glen will not seem the same with the death of the last of the Elliots at Ach-na-Beithe and we will mourn the passing of the old way of life and the "craic" that was always to be found there"

Its hard to sum up a family that was not only in the heart of the glen but its beating heart. The epitome of Highland hospitality and the very spirit of mountain rescue in early mountaineering's heyday in Glencoe. Walter Senior was part of an ad hoc shepherd group along with the other local keepers helped on occasion by the Scottish mountaineering club (summoned by a telegram sent to the SMC clubrooms) who undertook long epic rescues. One in particular taking a couple of days on Stob Coire nam Beith for a rock climber with a broken leg as the telegram was missed by a day because no one was at the club room to receive it. The chap survived! Undermanned, with poor equipment but a blithe spirit in often trying conditions it was to this the two young Elliot boys served an apprenticeship as shepherds and rescuers, later being the very foundation of Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team. The respect shown to the family by team leaders past and present such as Hamish MacInnes, John Greive and Andy Nelson, and from the teams members was always evident, and the Elliot's wise counsel often sought on a difficult rescue where a shepherds knowledge of the terrain got the team down on an path to safer easier passage, or their keen eye spotted a car parked up too long, or maybe a strange light, over the years saving dozens of lives. If parked up at Achnambeithach the rescue team was never short of a cup of tea or a venison piece if Willy had been stalking. New year was not complete without a visit to Achnambeithach, and the cottage itself has witnessed many dramas, such as the man laid out in the Sunday parlour dead after his recovery from the mountains by old Walter and helpers. The Stramash when he unthawed alive as he was obviously hypothermic is the stuff of legend. All those needing help were taken in and while a family member such as Doris was calling out the team many poor souls had an ear and tea while help was on its way.

The family were good to me as daft young man. Walter himself leading the way when I myself was rescued as a teenager with some friends. I was fortunate to have been on many rescues with Walter. He was a great hill man with an intimate knowledge of Glencoe and a really good mountaineer. Anyone who has helped gather sheep from Glencoe and Glen Etive will be aware that you need a good head for heights and be damn good on your feet. So its very sad that the last of the Glen's, and perhaps its greatest shepherd mountaineer, has gone. It is the end of an era both literally and figuratively, my few words just cannot do justice to that passing.

Below are a few pictures of some of the shepherds, all of whom were rescuers and folk who loved the mountains. Truly the passing of legends and end of an era.

Alastair MacDonald top left and his search dog Roy. Alastair was shepherd in Glen Etive and the Buachaille and worked closely with the Glencoe shepherds at clipping and gathering times.

Taking the stretcher upfront  local shepherd Alan Findlay son of long time rescue team stalwart and Achtriochtan Shepherd Huan Findlay

Picture left Huan Findlay and right Peter Weir. A shepherd and Forest worker doing the stretcher graft. 

An Achtriochtan shepherd in more recent times, Sandy Watson

2nd from left Willie Elliot accompanied on his left by rescue stalwart Wull Thompson and right by Sandy Whelan's.  Also well known guide Jeff Arkless, husband of Brede Arkless the UK's first female guide.

Sandy Macewan Gleann leac na Muidh Shepherd and nephew of the Elliots

Walter Elliot on the left and Alan Findlay right digging out a deeply buried avalanche victim

Top right Walter Elliot senior on a rescue from the Coire Gabhail circa 1930's

Walter Elliot Jnr on the right digging out an avalanche victim. Midnight Hogmanay 1980 Creise

Willie Elliot going to be spy in the sky on Rescue 134 with John Anderson 1978

During the 1960's and early 70's many MRT's became "special constables" to gain insurance cover. Above are a mix of Oban and Glencoe rescuers from "Y" Division Argyll.  When GMRT was able to get its own insurance cover folk quickly left the "Y Fronts".  To be fair "Y" Division exerted no influence and left local MRT's to it, and the policemen who came out were terrified. The exception was Sandy Whelan's who both as an ex RM Commando and local bobby on the beat was himself a mountaineer. 

An early rescue of a fatal avalanche victim circa 1957 from opposite the Elliot's cottage up in a gully just West of the AER decent path to Clachaig road end. The young Elliot brothers would no doubt have been in there digging.

The highlighted links "Strange Light" and "rescued as a teenager" are to another couple of tales.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Renaissance of a Mountaineering Community

Its such a stoke to see all the great winter mountain and climbing pictures from the many folk who have made Lochaber and in particular North Argyll/South Lochaber their home. Summer and Winter weather is such a big part of our moods and positivity. Its undoubtedly a hard place to live, even as someone born and bred here I can attest to that suffering from the darkness of depression at times. But living here teaches patience and gratitude for when the good days come. And my goodness didn't they come in full over the last Month if your a winter mountaineer and ski tourer. So many folk out on the mountains having fun and enjoying the epic conditions. Fantastic hill walks, snowboard adventures, ski touring exploration and steep technical ice climbing.

The local mountain community has always had its dips and surges so its great to see it on the up and despite Covid. In the past these good times were beset by tragedy which set back folks enthusiasm when key movers and shakers were lost from the climbing community.  As a young man the best climbers in the area were by default in the rescue team, it just came with living here. Or they worked for Hamish's Glencoe School of Winter mountaineering (GSWM), Ian Cloughs Glencoe climbing School or were doing some private guiding work. Qualifications back then were just being a good safe mountaineer as there were few formal qualifications and no NGB's with the exception of the BMC.

My own early days were touched by folk who had lost their best friends in the Italian Climb tragedy on Ben Nevis when 4 locally based climbers were avalanched and only one survived. That survival all alone above the avalanched party was remarkable and required much fortitude. Events like that knock a climbing community back, as its heart is temporarily gone. 

Italian Climb Avalanche Aftermath
The turn of the 1960's to 70's were over shadowed by this, even before more loss occurred. Tom Patey although not a local was a frequent visitor, and was often in the village at "Tigh Dearg" Ian and Nicki Clough's house, or putting out tunes with my uncle Charlie Campbell up at Clachaig.  As a boy I saw  a slide show on the Old Man of Hoy by Patey in Tigh Dearg the Cloughs house. I was a pal of one of Nicki Cloughs nephews who came up in the summer holidays, and we swam in the river most days or fished. Little did I know I was rubbing shoulders with mountaineering legends when in having tea and buns.  They certainly inspired me as that's what got me hooked into climbing. Patey's death through lack of attention to safety on the "Maiden" a sea stack took away a climbing legend and character.  Although a great mountaineer he could be reckless and a bit cavalier. The mountains don't forgive complacency especially in the form of an old carabiner used to hold your trousers up and no system back up such as is taught nowadays. 

Then Ian Clough was killed on Chris Bonington's 1970 Annapurna South Face expedition right at the end near camp one, when it was all over bar the shouting after Dougal Haston and Don Whillans summited and were back safe. More than any other sad loss this wiped out the heart of the local climbing community and was keenly felt in the village as he was liked by all. 
Local lad Ronnie Rodgers on the Slabs

Ian Clough

Mountaineers are nothing if not resilient and addicted to their passion and new blood came in. Notably active at that time were the various instructors both part and full time with GSWM. Spence, Fyffe, Nicholson, Knowles and MacInnes himself, as well as Wull Thompson and John Hardy when not cutting tree's down for a living. Dave Knowles was killed on the Eiger, hit by a rock kicked off by a rigger on the film Eiger Sanction starring Clint Eastwood. Dougal Haston was the safety advisor on the film but after this incident left the film set and Hamish MacInnes took over. The most memorable scene had Clint Eastwood himself doing the stunt work falling down the North Face swinging over the face by an assembly of ladders tied together by Hamish. Dave Knowles loss again affected the local climbing community. He and his partner lived at Invercoe.  So as you can see the 1970's when I started had a bit of a cloud over them. Haston died in an avalanche in Leysin where he lived and worked. A film was made of him "Haston - A life in the mountains" which would be a good  festival film if it can be had.

Robin Campbells fine eulogy to Dougal Haston "Cumha Dughall"

I met Dave Knowles in the Clachaig bar one afternoon after climbing Clachaig Gully for the umpteenth time (it was handy and has a pub at its foot) and he gave me some very good advice after I mentioned how the psychological barrier for local hard routes was so high with folk either trying to psyche you out with route info on how hard things were, implying only legends got up them. "youth", he said, don't climb in Scotland. Get yourself down South away from all that bullshit and climb there then come back and climb. It was good advice as most (but not all!) the local routes I later climbed required no superhuman powers. However superhuman or not, some routes winter and summer stood out for sheer boldness. Like most things the bullshit barrier is the hardest bit and pure psychology. When on the sharp end you just get on with it.
Hamish MacInnes in Mary Poppins mode on a film set

The late 70's early 1980's were much better with another generation coming through, of which I suppose I was one, as was Fiona. Ed Grindley was very active on rock, and living in the village. Paul Moores  had his local guide business and a thriving shop "Glencoe Guides and Gear" which was run mostly by his wife Ros. A proper climbers shop. George Reid was living locally and going through the Guides scheme and hungry for routes, and some of the old hands such as John Hardy, Alan Thomson, Ian Nicholson and Wull Thompson as well as many other were active.  Mid week evening climbing in high summer including mountain routes, and at weekends a big gang would meet up in the Ferry Bar and hatch plans to be out and about, sometimes en masse at a mountain crag. Visiting climbers joined the fray with regulars like Joe Brown and Mo Antoine in among it. The end of the day would see a mass exodus to Kingshouse for a session and late night, sometimes all night if the next day was to be wet. The 80's for me were the best as I was pretty motivated and strong and the scene was good. Not only for local based climbers, but Cubby and others were thumping out the routes, Glen Nevis was getting its best new developments, and folk were busy doing alpine seasons, expeditions or just cragging.  And there was a lot of film work either on major films or local outside broadcasts.  Even the 80's had its setbacks as a local climber lost his life on central grooves

Ed Grindley in somewhat relaxed mode
belaying me on the F.A of "Sisyphus"

The 90's onwards were a bit doldrums to start as families were coming into the world, folk moved on and the scene around the main meeting point the pub was more serious as drink driving laws were enforced and folk just went home after climbing. But there was still an active local scene from rescue team members and joint services climbing instructors. The untimely death of local lad Allan Findlay in a car accident in the Glen put a cloud over things. Also another local climber Ray Darker from Ballachulish tragically fell to his death on Skye. Sadly I was involved in a couple of rescues for folk who I knew, finding them both dead. Dougie on the North Face Aonach Dubh and Bish under the Lost valley bridge. Even recently the mountains have taken as well as given, with the loss of our cycling buddy Chris Bell on Bidean and a young local climber in Deep Cut Chimney. I am not sure you ever get over these things but somehow mountaineering communities develop a resilience and get through it as although glib the Tibetan proverb "It is better to have lived one day as a Tiger than a thousand years as a sheep" has something in it. 

Davy Gunn on "Line Up" 1983
I took a total scunner a few years ago, and hated the mountains. Too much tragedy and loss looking back and a feeling I had wasted my life on mountains and rescues. The superficial thrills of skiing and day shift of ski patrol were more social and a lot more fun. I hated climbing for a bit, but through my sons enthusiasm, keenness and ability I got back into rock climbing and now really enjoy it again, especially sport climbing, and I especially enjoy the craic with folks at the two local walls 3 Wise Monkeys and the Ice Factor. The staff there are all motivated and upbeat and get out as much as they can, and happy to chat with old has been's like myself. 

Yvon Chouinard. Glencoe and Ben Nevis have
always attracted folk from all over the world 
I mention these early time as a bit of background history for folks to see what it was like here in the past, and because the interregnum from the 90's until now to me seemed to have less of a vibe than the 1980's. Of course it may be I just wasn't a part of it, so this is very much a personal take. With an expanding network of active folks in North Lorn and South Lochaber things are looking up. Many new folk have made the area their home specifically for the easy access to the outdoors. I call them new Scots. They are invested in living here, contribute to the community and love the mountains. Their enthusiasm be they beginner or expert is great to see, and I love seeing the social media pictures of folk having fun outdoors. More than anything its great to see a vibrant strong mountain community in the area again. Maybe post Covid when the climbing walls and pubs are open again the tales of adventures and the hatching of plans can be more social, even those talked about with beer goggles on. I look forward to that.

Click the hyper links for more interesting background info. Click the pictures to enlarge

The future is so bright we need doggles

Monday, 14 December 2020

Avalanches, PTSD and Talking

First Published winter 2014. Someone read this article after seeing it mentioned on Facebook so I have taken the liberty of republishing it. Not so that it debriefs me as I am well over that and the incidents mentioned below. I have dealt ok I think with the vicissitudes life has thrown at me since, so whatever I did worked.  Since this was published John Greive has retired for MR.  He along with Hamish he made a huge contribution to MR and GMRT and he is succeeded by Andy Nelson an experienced local guide and rescuer.  I am sure through TRIM PTSD will become less common.

Forgive me if the dates are out for the events below. 36 years of this shit melds one event into another a bit, and I didn't keep a diary. However my memory is imprinted with the thoughts and things that happened, and what's below is a snippet of bad things and perhaps the only ones that could be written about, as others are too messy. I hope it helps those who are struggling and makes them realise they are going to be ok as they are normal.  Take care, your families need you whole.

Incidence of PTSD after being avalanched

I have been reading a book on trauma. Not physical trauma but the trauma of stress and anxiety from a normal person being exposed to an abnormal event and having major psychological issues often years later. Dealing with disasters such as Lockerbie the RAF has an excellent and pro active approach, and the struggle to come to that point after generations had refused to acknowledge this form of trauma is at the heart of the book. The common term these days is PTSD.

Reading the book evokes many memories for me, and in particular some not very good ones. While I no way would say that I saw or dealt with anything like a big air crash, I had my moments finding friends dead, watching friends get killed and removing pieces of what used to be someone from debris of one type or another, including helicopters. These moments were overcome with the support of friends, family and mainly my stoical and loving wife and immediate family. We the rescuers get MBE's and at least some acknowledgement, but on reflection I don't know how the partners our immediate debriefers put up with it as there is nothing there for them but hassle. Family are the real heroines and hero's of medicine and rescue.

In the 1990's the UK medical profession was still burying its head in the sand about PTSD and certainly in civilian MR to have acknowledged a problem was not the done thing. At that time I was very much the main medical provider in the local MRT and on my first year as deputy leader. This had been the worst period I could ever recall for a series of fatal accidents and very serious injuries. I had become a full BASICS member and done their PHECS and with doctors advanced trauma/medical courses and had already done the first pilot Scottish ATLS course under Ian Anderson at the Victoria Infirmary. With A/E electives, and ambulance service placements on the first Paramedic response units in Dundee and Motherwell via the Scottish Ambulance Service. I already had 20+ years of attending accidents under my belt.  But the winter of 93 onwards were a succession of putting into practise many new skills for the first time, including the first use by an MRT of a defib. Pain was treated by IV opiates, and that winter I decompressed my first tension pneumothorax and also got a Royal Marine resuscitated who went on to live a meaningful life. His name was Simon. You remember the names of the success's. It's easy, as there aren't very many!

Winter 93/94 was a difficult year for GMRT and it came through with a new start and new leadership, but the stress's had taken a tole and there was a cost to good folk who didn't deserve to be hurt. That summer was as busy as the winter, and as autumn came early at the end of September as the mountains already had heavy snow. October we were at a helicopter crash involving aircrew from PGM, folk that we all new well having worked with them on films for Glencoe Productions. It  had a rotor strike on the hill above Ballachulish. I will not forget finding a pair of legs sticking out of the peat in torchlight. When the snow came in storm depth two folk were buried in an avalanche and dead in Summit Gully. Two weeks later after four day search we find a young man dead in an icy gully after a bizzare series of events involving a "medium".  She turned out to be correct on the location! Then the traditional Xmas and New year "come up and get me" flashing lights, followed by severe winter blizzards leading to extended road closures. At this time I was working as the solo ski rescuer/patroller at Glencoe Mountain on weekdays, so was often rescuing skiers by day and climbers by night. Fiona and I had previously worked a season in Europe as ski instructors before deciding to settle and start a family.

Doing this stuff and going home to your family as if nothing has happened is not "normal"

John Greive was the leader of the team from 1993.A very good mountaineer with an intimate knowledge of Glencoe, John had strong instincts and quickly these gut instincts would ring alarm bells if things don't feel right. A lot of lives have been saved because he has run with these. John and I made an unlikely pair as the new leadership. I can honestly say that he was an exemplary leader. Often last off the hill or last onto the SAR helo to get off the mountain until sure his troops were safe, and willing to fight any jobs worth who interfered with patient care or caused delay in someone getting help. Victims sometimes need that kind of advocacy in mountain rescue. Cut through the bullshit and bureaucracy and get them help then deal with any fall out later.

GMRT in action at an avalanche BEM. John Greive Team Leader

So, when in February 1994 John is on the radio saying a group (who were not climbers) had walked up into the entrance of  the access corrie to the Buachaille and not returned, and the wife of the missing is at the Kingshouse and it doesn't feel right to him - then believe me you stop eating your tea and take notice. A father, son and friend had gone for a look up into the Corrie and not returned. The preceding days the head wall had been loading but climbers had come down it, and as its a couple of thousand feet to the entrance then we thought and hoped the missing folks were just stuck in the dark.

A group of us including Steve Kennedy, Pete Harrop and Malcolm Thomson were in the lead with Hughie, Wull and Kenny Lindsay and others behind. We went into the entrance gulch and were in among broken wind slab avalanche debris, we then worked our way up to the little re-entrant that comes down from the Dwindle wall side. I was all for getting stuck in and starting a spot probe search. Steve stopped and said he wasn't happy and I remember saying "come on lads lets just get stuck in" when Steve said "listen" and then shouted "avalanche!" I hadn't heard or seen anything, but folk were scrabbling up the rocks out of the gully and I followed suite although at first it seemed surreal, but the big roar and huge blocks from a  monster of a  slide roaring past and up the sides like the tide lapping our feet as we scrambled up soon made it seem pretty damn real. Steve's instincts saved the lives off about seven Glencoe MRT that night. We jogged off the hill high on adrenaline and retired to Clachaig for a dram. We were shaken badly by how close a call it had been. A lot of wives and kids nearly lost their partners and dads, and as deputy on scene I should have been less complacent.  It was that close to tragedy its hard to believe we got away with it, and one of those things we thought best kept quiet as it was so nearly a further big tragedy to what now apparently lay beneath. Next day we were up the hill again, and the slab debris had about 40ft of hard wet frozen snow debris on top. Hard to probe, hard to dig.  The RAF MRT came and helped and put in a huge amount of work trenching. Due to being fairly near the road the TV crews could access the scene so we were under there watchful eye. Four days of hard work and we had to give up as it was too deep.

Adrian "Hands" lands an anti sub heavyweight CAB on the A82 to take us to an avalanche BEM 1992. 

A few days later truly a massive blizzard strikes, roads are closed and we get a call that three climbers are missing from Curved Ridge. Although folk will talk about the snow of winter 2014 that one in the 90's was the worst I have ever known.  We parked the yellow rescue trucks bang in the middle of the A82 at the Kingshouse junction and land SAR 177 with Adrian "Hands" as pilot.  I was first on as observer up front with Ronnie Rodger, and we fly around the mountain on what was a blue sky morning with feet deep snow covering everything.  John suggests we fly the East face "Ladys Gully" side and we see nothing, but I get "Hands" to overfly the Chasm which you could have skied down.  The Devils Cauldron was filled level. Snow depth for that about 180ft (that spring it was fun to climb up the 180ft snow chimney and the back wall of the Devils Cauldron). We got winched out below CB at about "Pontoon" the rock climb, and start to zig zag the slope when Ronnie finds a glove then a few feet further down a crampon. We know we are on the right track and call up the team who included Mick Tigh who offered his climbing clients as spot probers. After a couple of hours Tony Sykes who was then in his first year in the team shouted he had found something. He was right under the rocks of CB. Blue sky's had gone and we were now in a blizzard, but in about an hour had dug out the three victims all on top of each other in a tangled mess of trauma and equipment. The following day early morning I am back up to the ski rescue and passing the Buachaille and looking across at where the other three other folk are still buried and it clicks that at any point in the next weeks/months John or I will get a call to look at something nasty in or poking out of the snow. Something happened at that moment and I still remember it. Like my happiness switch being switched off and a knot in my stomach.

Living next to the vehicles gave me the task of keeping them clear. 
Often 3 or 4 rescues each weekend in the 90's. Pre mobile phone.

The wife of the missing father and son came to stay in a Bed and Breakfast just around the corner from me, and was waiting for us do do something when the thaw came. The local vicar was very good with her, and I take my hat off "chapeu" to the local Police, in particular Sgt Kenny Lindsay who acted as her link to what was happening. Knowing she was waiting on resolution was a constant burden for her and for us. Meanwhile climbers fall off and get killed, injured and skiers break bones including the UK head of marketing for Sainsbury's who breaks his back on the Fly Paper and who I have to deal with. Thankfully he made a good recovery, but not many folk get a private ambulance to the airport for transfer to a spinal unit - no pressure on the medic!  It was a fantastic ski season, not unlike the one past but with more sun and 6 weeks of skiing back to the car at Glencoe

The RAF teams have an odd probe of the big tip over the coming weeks, but nothing is found. Then one day early April a walker phones the Police as he says he smells something. John calls us out and though there is no smell (maybe we are used to it) we have a poke around as the level of debris has reduced by about 20 feet. We find victim one at a depth of 2 meters. An hour later and a bit away we find number two. Number two's recovery - something happened inside me. I didn't get upset by physical trauma having seen plenty (and suffered some myself) and had by this time been on the recovery of well over a hundred fatal victims just in the mountains never mind the other stuff. Yet I stayed for the next hour until we found number three at the very spot we had been standing the night we all nearly got buried. This wasn't a troubling scene visually, yet somehow it broke something in me as there was a big pocket or space around the victim. I dropped my probe, didn't speak to anyone and just walked off the hill. I crossed the bridge at Lagangarbh and the local undertaker had three grey fibreglass coffins open with the lids off leaning against the stock fence at the side of the path. I glibly remarked that trade had been good this winter. Three weeks later I got a donation of £350 for the team in the post from him.

GMRT Stalwart Walter Elliot and the late Alan Findlay digging deep

I walked past the coffins, up onto the road and thumbed a lift to Clachaig where I got pissed on Scrumpy Jack and had to be taken home. What Fiona, Esther and Duncan made of this slobbering drunk I have no idea, but I can just recollect Fiona laying me on the couch and taking off my boots and covering me with a blanket. At some point in the night I tried to get up to bed and fell down the stairs breaking all the pictures on the way down. What patience and tolerance my family must have.

I moved on from the above (I thought) and until five years ago was still involved in MR and dealt with many more horrific events including people burning in helicopters and finding another two climbing friends (Dougie and Bish) dead. It all diminishes you but by that time I had a better coping mechanism and new about debriefing, and the pub and team get together's and socials helped my colleagues and I.

I was fortunate that from 1994 I had many good friends in the team who were not frightened to call me an arse if I got it wrong and support me as I supported them when some events became overwhelming. You know who you are - so thanks guys.  It wasn't until I left the rescue team which was in Jan 2009 after yet another triple fatal avalanche where I found the last victim by probe, that I realised that since 1994 my happiness button had faulty wiring.  In the intervening years folk would say of me at times that I was a driven man.  I would drive myself into the ground physically running and racing my bike and seemed to cope with the extreme stress of life and death decisions, yet I would get random  anxiety attacks over very minor things. My local GP sent me to speak to someone who over a few months talked me back over things until a light went on that my head was telling me I had been feeling like undertaker in winter, not a medic. This of course wasn't the case, its just that somehow an event, an image and a period of time had imprinted that thought. With rethinking and knowledge of this  faulty thought imprint I was sorted, the light back bright, and I was released from a thinking trap that winter equals death and loss. 

When it  all works and a life is saved then it's worth it

Was this PTSD?  I don't know. What I do know is that dealing with nasty things has a cost. It's all very well being in a rescue service, but you are also volunteering your family for it, and they are the foundations for you at the sharp end. Don't take that for granted, and make sure they get recognition and be sure to be aware of colleagues who might struggle. It's not a weakness. It's simply not normal to deal with abnormal disturbing events and not have a normal reaction. When your head's sorted you can still deal with tough shit and know you are ok.

Why am I sharing this now? Winter 2013 was a nasty one for avalanches. The emotional toll on some of the rescuers dealing with the avalanche that took our cycling buddy Chris has hit some folk hard. Even as a ski patroller there was no avoiding the toll with the loss of Danny and the events both leading to this, and the toll on friends and ski patrollers after. I had my own complacent re visit of the white room and an injured hip and spine to deal with, but had the time to be an ear to listen to folks and easily conclude that 2013 would fuck up some folks.

2014 has been the shittest winter weather I can recall in a while, although paradoxically the sheer volume of snow made everyone wary, so despite the most recorded avalanches at least no one died. The baggage of 2013 like a rollover lottery carried over though, and I think its time we all recognised that it's human and normal to suffer after abnormal events. Help is out there and books like the one mentioned de mystify what happens to us. Maybe if "Heavy" and guys like me are more open about it then the subject gets an airing and folks who are struggling can get the support they need.

Trauma. From Lockerbie to 7/7

A newer local MR rescuer said to me this winter "all you do is run around looking for beepers - what do you know about digging up avalanche victims".  Not a lot I said, other than it requires no brains. Avalanche education and prevention gives me more satisfaction.

Post Script.
I realise this blog post makes uncomfortable reading.  It certainly wasn't comfortable to write and in no way felt like an exercise in navel gazing. It has been a work in progress from 2013 when a member of a local MRT came to see me very troubled by some events.  Then another had a tough time with depression, and in the meantime a few folk couldn't put some events behind them and every conversation was dominated by a specific avalanche event.  This winter another person has struggled to the point of needing help as a rollover from the same event.  My purpose in this blog post is to show there is nothing wrong. That asking for help is not a weakness and that your family can only take so much and give so much.  Help is available but has to be sought. If not for your sake then the families. To not be troubled by the pain of misfortune from the loss of young lives -  now that would be abnormal!

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Being Searchable

Who knows what this winter will throw at us in these uncertain times. For sure the ski areas that are open may well be very busy indeed not only with regulars, but snow hungry off pisters who normally ski the alps and may well be complacent about our smaller mountains that punch above their weight literally when it comes to avalanches. 

Nothing substitutes good planning and knowledge to avoid getting avalanched, but the very nature of the sport is uncertainty and with enough risk exposure bad things can happen. It's fair to say as ski patrollers and hard charging skiers that means us. The point has been laboured often enough by me that nothing substitutes having the three essentials of transceiver, shovel and probe and being slick with deploying them effectively, and managing the scene well, which comes down to practice. 

Sadly mountaineers do not have the same philosophy as off piste skiers and tourers about companion rescue, and the focus is very much on prevention such as the SAIS "Be avalanche Aware".  All well and good, but sadly when buried often the mountaineering victims cannot be found in a timely manner by companions, and worse still organised rescue even if on scene quickly has few means of finding them other than probing, or with luck a search dog. Recco is not a panacea for this, but it does add an incremental gain and every year lives are saved by it as victims are found alive. From burial, avalanche search statistics show that companion rescue gives the best chance of survival, then Recco and also in the alps avalanche dogs, with least live recoveries from formal probe lines. Probe lines do find folk alive but not often, and while most victims are eventually recovered by a probe strike it's down to the sheer numbers of searchers and length of time poking in the snow, all mostly at the wrong end of the survival probability curve. Spot probing, a random poke in the snow in likely spots also occasionally results in a survival, but that's down to luck unless it's a really small confined slide. If you're searchable you're found more quickly and more likely to survive.

Recco continues to be accepted into more clothing brands and now also into mountaineering clothing as the "be searchable" message gets through to the winter recreation public.  Recent additions are Patagonia and Arcteryx into mountain specific technical garments. The Recco SAR pod is now with more helicopter based search and rescue units such as Air Zermatt, PHGM and CS Chamonix and to sites across North America. Quite a few notable success stories from this, and not all avalanche based with some in water or in dense forest.  When the helicopter flies at a height of 100m, it is able to scan an area that is 100m wide. When the speed of the helicopter is 100 km/h this translates to 1 km2 coverage within six minutes.

As the UK's trainer for Recco I am happy to offer advice on training on the system to anyone interested. I also sell aftermarket reflectors and for BASP members and patrollers I can offer a discount. I can do either single pocket reflectors to be carried, or helmet reflectors. Two reflectors are the optimum to carry. Please note if you have an Ortovox transceiver that is less than 4 years old it will already have a Recco reflector inside its workings as a backup. 

Unlike a transceiver search along a flux line, Recco harmonic radar is a straight line to the victim and a Recco R9 detector is equipped to search both harmonic radar and 457kHz transceiver simultaneously. The 457kHz is analog allowing a greater range than digital and the ability to hear more than one signal and detect overlap. When nearer the victim the Recco becomes primary and a second rescuer hones in on a digital transceiver signal - or vice versa. Who cares who finds the victim first as speed is the key. If you're not searchable then the odds are stacked against you until someone pokes you or it thaws.

2 x Recco reflectors £40
Ortovox 3+ Transceiver £209
Ortovox "Beast" Shovel £47.50
Ortovox 240 alu Probe £35

Be searchable!

Avalanche Education. Problem or Solution?

What is intended to be the solution to avalanche incidents is education of the mountaineering public. Making them aware of pre-trip planning, weather and avalanche forecasts, and human behavioural issues. Cognitive thinking traps using the popular acronym FACETS is one example of softer "thinking" skills now used as part of the education package.


Parties traveling in familiar terrain made riskier decisions than parties traveling in unfamiliar terrain. This effect was especially pronounced for parties with substantial experience and training.


Group members want to be accepted by members of their parties. “Accident parties that included females made riskier decisions than parties of all males. The effect was most pronounced in parties with little avalanche training. It is notable that these were precisely the parties in which women were least likely to participate.”


Parties that were highly committed to a goal – a summit, ski slope or an objective in deteriorating weather – made riskier decisions than parties just out for a day. This effect was most pronounced in parties of four or more.


Accident parties often contained a de facto leader – someone who was more experienced, older, or more skilled. Novices were more likely to follow the leader into dangerous situations than when novice groups made decisions by consensus.


Parties took more risks when they were racing a closing window of opportunity, such as competing with another group for first tracks.


When skilled parties meet other people in the backcountry, they are more likely to take risks than parties that are less skilled. This effect was most pronounced in groups with the highest levels of training.

Most of the education of mountaineers is based on avalanche avoidance such as "Be avalanche Aware", a very sound proposition, but every year dozens of avalanche incidents are reported, some with victims buried, or missing for long periods before recovery, sadly dead.  And they are not "Searchable"Despite superb forecasting and reliable weather data its “plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose” same old same old.

Q. Is there a tendency for avalanche trained folks to have more avalanche accidents not less?

Could it be that certainty is being implied via processes, to an environment where no such thing is possible – ever!  Facilitated by educators such as instructors, guides, and others? Folk leave training courses feeling more educated and empowered as they have more knowledge. Maybe thinking they will have travel in avalanche terrain a bit more dialled. Is it a false sense of more certainty where none exists?

Q. Is there ever certainty in steep snow covered terrain?

Educators spend a lot of time on bells and whistles during training to imply gaining some degree of certainty during snowpack analysis to make decisions on safe travel. I understand the need for bulking out a course to paying guests with the commonly taught practical "doing" things, like  rutsch blocks, column tests and snowpack study, with other investigative stuff.  But its not future avalanche forecasters they are teaching, its recreational mountaineers and skiers and these investigative skills are perhaps irrelevant distractions from self and spatial awareness.  Off most value in these “tests” is a group stopped then talking, communicating concerns, and making collective decisions. This pause is often when individual concerns are aired, and leader decisions can be challenged or discussed. As the proverb goes “in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king”. Some knowledge can be better than none in the right head, but ask yourself if it’s the one leading your group, are you being listened to, and do you feel happy with where your all at. Listening to that bad feeling from someone in a group can save lives. Speak to individual survivors of an avalanche incident and a precognition feeling will have occurred to many but may have been ignored or supressed. I think it was Reinhold Messner in “The 7th Grade” who said ignoring these precognition feelings is folly. Its been 35 years since I read that book but this comment stuck as it resonated with events in my own life even then as a survivor of a couple of near misses to me that took friends, although these were not all on the mountains.

Precognition or prescience is not paranoia but often your senses and sensory awareness picking up recognizable patterns, perhaps from previous life events and experiences. 20:20 hindsight is no use when you can't breathe so we should heed the senses.

As a personal example. One day way back mid 1980's a friend Paul Mills who was fairly new to winter climbing said he wanted to climb No 6 Gully a classic grade 4 in Glencoe. He wanted to do it the old fashioned way to see what it was like cutting steps, no ice screws, a single rope and just some pegs and slings. Off we went soloing up the banked out lower pitches on soft snow until we got to the last and main ice pitch where Paul belayed me from the ice cave, and I set off up the icy corner to a peg runner and cut hand and foot holds until over the top. 

I was going to go over to belay across to the right where a little chimney finishes up. A couple of steps and my senses went into overdrive. The top bowl was loaded with a deep yet dryer slabby snow blown in from cross loading, and I would have to cross it with the pitch below me to go over if it slid. I didn't like it at all, so I back climbed all the way back and down to Paul, a not inconsiderable use of energy and adrenaline. He was not best pleased but regardless the decision was made to solo down the post holes we made on the up, so it was ok with care. 

We exited the gully and met a group of four lads one of whom was the boyfriend at the time of local girl Mary Anne, daughter of one of my climbing partners Wull. We had a chat and they asked why we had back climbed down and Paul took the piss a bit saying the step cutting had worn me out and I was an old fearty. I mentioned the exit snow and that I wasn't happy with it but didn't labour the point.  

We headed back to the village and later learned that  two had gone over the pitch in an avalanche and it also caught the other two lower down. All 4 went out the bottom of the gully over the luckily banked out first pitch terrain trap and all the way, almost to the stream crossing. Several hundreds of feet! They were all cut up and bruised with the worst injury a broken wrist, so extremely lucky.  I was asked later as to why I hadn't talked them out of it. I am sure that I felt it was a personal choice and that my prescience wasn't enough to talk someone else out of it. And yet both before this and after heeding this precognition saved my life. I am not a risk avoider having done many daft things including soloing. But ignoring that inner voice going "whoa there" is also a big part of what I didn't go on to do.

I also read a very good article based on the French SERAC database on touring accidents sice published in Montagnes magazine which is worth translating:

A key passage: "The first striking result confirming the central place of humans in the preservation of their security is the following: in almost half of the accounts (49%, n = 35) a risk is perceived, intuition or felt , to a greater or lesser extent. aware by the participants, but they maintain their commitment. Conversely, 13% (n = 10) of respondents report an avalanche event whose onset or extent completely surprised them. In avalanche events more than elsewhere, practitioners describe perceiving the danger, or at least the intuition that something is wrong, but they "go there anyway"Thirty-five practitioners describe that they sensed a dangerous situation, but maintained their commitment for various reasons, which sometimes cannot be explained to themselves"

Q. Do avalanche safety tools, like the three essentials (beacon, shovel, probe) ABS/Avalung increase risk acceptance?

We humans fail – period. Only when we have checklists and procedures that compensate for our proneness to error can we (to some extent) either prevent the failure or mitigate failures consequences. Safety tools are an essential part of that mitigation. If we cannot predictably and 100% reduce the risk, we can at least reduce some of the consequences. Carrying the tools to reduce the consequences should not comfort us to increase the risk, but it subtly it does. Wearing a helmet skiing as an example you just go faster. Having an ABS folk push the envelope and ski sketchier terrain which up to a point they might get away with on a clean runout, but not if there is a terrain trap. Risk appetites go up when folk carry consequence reduction tools when it shouldn't. That is in essence being human, and fallible.  

I listened to a good podcast from Silverton Avalanche school in the San Juans Colorado a few days ago on this very subject "risk homeostasis". Silverton is an area where we have family connections as my wife’s brother lived there until recently before moving further down the pass to Durango, his wife was secretary for Ouray SAR at one time. The guy from the avalanche school there (it’s the oldest in the USA) gave an example of going to the top of a 32 deg slope with a group and getting them to dump their beacons, shovels and probes and any ABS within the group, then asking them to ski the line. They all threw their teddys out the cot, but it should have made no difference. Its either safe to ski or its not. No grey areas.

And for fecks sake, who in their right mind skis a slope in the knowledge that they might need the mouth piece from an Avalung in their thrapple in case their entombed and literally then have to breath from the crack of their arse!

 Q. What do we know before we go, and what should we do while we are going?

  • The worst folk to be with are consciously incompetent, or reckless and impulsive. The next worst are ignorant and unconsciously incompetent
  • The best folk are UIAGM Guides or other mountain professionals including seasoned and trusty amateurs who you trust, who listen and make considered decisions i.e those who have both an unconscious and conscious competence.
  • For the amateur needing to get good experience, this is a process towards the same level of unconscious and conscious competence as the professionals. This helps prevent bad experience - hopefully!

Among the winter mountains we ditch certainty and embrace uncertainty and make decisions accordingly. 

To survive until pensionable age a high level of respect for the mountains while their guest is required, and letting them tell you if your welcome or not that day. Heed what they tell you and heed your precognition.

We do not conquer the mountains we travel among them, and when we get avalanched its on us for not listening and not seeing. An avalanche course may be an important tool along the way, but so is understanding your Johari window.