Avalanches, PTSD and Talking
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 bloody 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|
Winter 93/94 was a difficult year for us as the team imploded which divided loyalties over leadership. 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 the mountains already had snow. October we were at a helicopter crash involving aircrew from PGM that we all new well having worked with 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 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 in 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 in Europe as ski instructors before deciding to settle and start a family.
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 broken wind slab avalanche debris, 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 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.
Adrain "Hands" lands an anti sub heavyweight CAB on the A82 to take us to an avalanche BEM 1992.
Before the big ones!
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.
|GMRT Stalwart Walter Elliot and the late Alan Findlay digging deep|
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 and often even pre winter psyching myself up for it. Stangely it didnt affect my climbing because I was in control, so the lack of control over when a tragic event might occur was obviously subliminaly there all the time.
|When it all works and a life is saved then it's worth it|
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 easilly 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