Thursday, 17 August 2017

An interim history of Glencoe MRT

Another find from the old PC to share. I can't remember what magazine this was written for could be "Cas Bag". Maybe it was just my pride at being a member from a very young age and at a time when I was not only a good athlete but pretty nails in bad situations. It was also a bit like a climbing club to some of us and I rubbed shoulders with many legends. Team members climbed all over the World from alpine grand courses to 8,000m peaks often together so previous to the mid 90's it was pretty unique but it made good climbers good rescuers. So forgive my rather prosaic writing and inflated view.  Certainly a great bunch of folks and a great core of mountaineers who socialised and climbed together and I am sure its the same today. When I wrote this it was the transition from Hamish retiring and John taking over with me as deputy. John did a sterling job as leader for the next 20 years. 


"Who has the hills for friend
Has god speed to the end
  -  His path of lonely life
And wings of golden memory"
- Geoffrey Winthrop Young

Mountains are dangerous, and the hills of the highlands especially so for those who do not respect the fickle ways of the weather and hostile nature of the terrain.  Mountains are dangerous - so are people - many misfortunes have occurred due to nature executing a terrible revenge on a momentary negligence or naiveté.  Why do people live work and play in the mountains?  Like love and hate, pleasure from the mountains is hard to define.  A first climb is like first love, never forgotten, a bench mark for all other recreations and relations.  A  winter ascent, breaking out of the icy confines of a gully into the gloaming of a sunset, snow on far away hills pink and blushing, is like an incurable venereal affliction,  the itch never leaves and relief only comes from another impassioned assault.

"As with sweethearts, so with places.  No lover can say that he knows the one or the other until he has been so often that he has lost count of his visits". 
T. Ratcliffe Barnett (Scotsman 1929. Describing the hills of the Blackmount)

People have accidents on the mountains and always will.  Attempts to regulate our culture and recreation has left mountaineering as a last bastion of freedom, where genuine adventure and misadventure can be sought without rules and regulations. Rescuers are mountaineers and all mountaineers potential rescuers.  We in the Glencoe team offer no overt criticism of the victims of misfortune as there is no adventure without risk and team members are adventurers who accept fully the implications of the choices others make.

Early days
Looking back to before the team was formed we can only admire the courage of the early rescuers going to the hill to search or evacuate those in trouble.  In the early part of this century mountaineering was a largely middle class pastime.  It is a testament to the early rescuers that despite probably seeing the early climbers as a somewhat eccentric bunch, it never deterred, nor I doubt would it ever have crossed their mind, not to help someone in trouble.  Often ill equipped and with only paraffin lamps to guide the way, they accomplished some amazing feats.  No helicopters then.  Aitcheson the keeper  from Leac na Muidhe or one of the other farmers in the area, be it Achtriochtan or Achnambeithach, Dan Mackay at Altnafeadh or Downie from Allt na Reigh, would cycle round to gather together a search party, perhaps including the local bobby if available.  If it was an overly technical rescue perhaps additional manpower would be sought from any climbers in the area, or a telegram sent to the SMC clubrooms for assistance.

Later as mountaineering grew in popularity a new class of mountaineer appeared from clubs such as the Lomonds and the Creag Dubh.  With little money and poor equipment they relied on the hospitality of Dan Mackay or Downie for a good doss in the barn.  A weekend trip to Glencoe for this pre W.W.II generation was a true test of determination.  Finish work on Saturday afternoon, hitch or scrounge a lift on a passing lorry to the Glen, doss the night, climb next day then try and get back for work on Monday morning. For the true taste of adventure at this time the book "Always a Little Further" by Alastair Borthwick captures this enthusiasm.  Even in this little gem of a book there is a rescue.  A second could not follow his leader exiting from the Devils Cauldron of the Buachaille Chasm.  The leader descended to the Glen Etive road where he stopped the local butcher who was delivering meat. The two went to the top and pulled the stranded second to safety!

After the war mountaineering took off on a big way and there was a tremendous proliferation of climbing clubs, mainly from the universities.  This popularity of course resulted in an increase in the accident rate, but due to the clubs coming to the Glen as bus parties climbing in one area, there were often sufficient available for self rescue.  This ability to help themselves, and the increasing number of incidents prompted the provision of first aid and stretchers at rescue posts in the Glen by the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland.  Groups could then get access to equipment and effect a rescue with a proper stretcher.  Previous to this it was not unknown for someone to be carried off on a masons wheelbarrow or some similar improvised transport.

As the post war years progressed accidents became more common due to the increasing numbers taking to the hills.  The RAF mountain rescue which was primarily for the rescue of downed aircrew, sought a new peacetime role, and required training.  Many weekends would see personnel, also volunteers like their later civilian counterparts, from RAF Kinloss or more commonly Leuchars MRT in the area for training.  These RAF teams carried out many rescues in the Glen and when the civilian team was formed, provided additional support on protracted searches or busy weekends.  This close working relationship, in particular between RAF Leuchars MRT and later when the SAR Wessex helicopters were based there, continues to this day, although the SAR helicopter flight has now been closed, much to the chagrin of all involved with mountain rescue.

Several figures deserve special mention in the history of rescue in the Glen. Donald Duff of whom more later, and of course Hamish MacInnes.  Also, a history no matter how brief, would not be complete without mention of the Elliot family who without doubt set the foundations of the team and who continue to take part in rescues.  Walter Elliot senior and his sons William and Walter received a certificate for distinguished services to mountain rescue in 1976.   Another potent figure from the early days of pre and post formation of the team, was Sandy Whillans, first as a constable, and later as a sergeant in the Argyll constabulary.  A strong personality and a commanding voice, often heard before seen, Sandy took part in many difficult rescues and was a dedicated rescuer. John Arthur - Dennis Barclay - The Knowles brothers and a great stalwart, Eric Moss who came to the team after leaving the Army (Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders) in which he had retired as a major.  Also Huan Findlay from Achtriochtan who was a powerhouse on a long stretcher carry and who's son is now a valued team member.  Alan, Huan's son, Malcolm son of team member Alan Thompson and Jamie, the son of another long standing team member Will Thompson are second generation rescuers.  Also many bar staff of the Clachaig Hotel took part in rescues through the years, some going on to become full members after taking residence in the area.

Formation of the team
The Glencoe Mountain Rescue Committee (later reformed to team) was formed in 1961 at a meeting convened at the Clachaig Hotel Glencoe. This meeting was called by Hamish MacInnes then a resident climber and climbing instructor in the Glen, for the purpose of forming a local mountain rescue committee. The committee consisted of Dr. Duff then resident general surgeon at the Belford Hospital Fort William as president, Hamish MacInnes secretary, Brigader Martin Hon. President and N. McLaughlin treasurer. The Elliot family of Achnambeith of whom the father, William senior had been active for some 30 years or more in rescue, and who's two sons, Walter were also key figures and elected onto the committee, although absent at the inaugural meeting.  The Elliot family have been a keystone in rescue in Glencoe.  The small cottage in which they dwell has been the focal point of many rescue operations, and it would be true to say that literally hundreds of mountaineers have received succour from the family while awaiting news of  injured or lost friends.  Also elected in their absence were Dennis Barclay and J.W Simpson.  In addition to the office bearers elected at the meeting, other founder members present were Hector Beaton of Achtriochtan farm (Now Findlays), J. Feeny, E. Blackhall and J. Robertson.

Insurance in the early formative days of the team proved difficult.  The only solution at that time was for team members to become special constables.  This is now no longer the case which is just as well as it proved a contentious issue.

Dr. Duff was also instrumental in forming the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team, and personally took part in many rescues on the Ben and Glencoe.  Dr. Duff could certainly be regarded as the father figure of mountain rescue in this area, as it was his motivation that formalised the formation of the two teams, bringing together local shepherds, mountaineers and forestry workers on a more organised basis.  Up till this point rescuers were a hotch potch of whoever could be got hold of at the time of an incident, with a telegram sent to the Scottish Mountaineering Club in Glasgow for assistance, or assistance requested from the  Lochaber branch of the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland if technical climbers were required.

As an insight to Dr. Duff I have reprinted this extract from the SMC Journal 1969:
Donald G. Duff, M.C - M.B.E - FRCS 
In 1945 the EUMC had a winter meet at Achintee farm and it was there that I first heard of Donald duff.  Gordon Parish took me to meet him and we found him battling his way to the Belford Hospital in filthy weather on an old bicycle.  This typified the man - independent, scorning hardship and always keeping himself fit.  Even in the coldest weather he never wore an overcoat or sweater to work.  His love of mountains was great and the Belford Hospital was always known as an emergency bothy for stray mountaineers. The hospital saw many other facets of his interests and it was not unusual to find him coming up from the boiler house where he had been carrying out experiments on rock fusion in furtherance of his interest in vitrified forts.

Perhaps he is most widely known for the Duff stretcher which he developed for Mountain Rescue work - and it was always a source of pride to him that one was taken on the 1953 Everest ascent.  He formed and led the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team and a call out on Ben Nevis always benefited from his boundless energy, and it is all too often forgotten that when the team staggered wearily to bed after a hard night Mr. Duff had to then begin his work as a surgeon on the casualty.  Because of this devotion he was awarded the M.B.E and made an Honorary Member of the Club, which he joined in 1946.

I knew him best as a medical colleague from working in Fort William.  He was always approachable by his patients - a somewhat rare trait in many N.H.S hospitals - and his medical skill was diverse.  In these days of specialisation one rarely finds a man who is a surgeon (and known for a specialised instrument for neurosurgery) a good General Practitioner and also skilled in Obstetrics.  In his medical work he gave vent to his inventive leanings in a variety of instruments that might have looked strange but nevertheless were highly effective in his hands.

Hamish MacInnes, who for the next 33 years was the Glencoe team leader.  From an engineering background, and for many years at the forefront of mountaineering both here and abroad.  Hamish is one of the great technical innovators of rescue. His textbook "The International Mountain Rescue Handbook" can be regarded as a definitive text on the subject {being revised 1995/96}.  Hamish was instrumental in the formation of the team and like Dr Duff before him, designed a stretcher for mountain rescue work.  The "MacInnes" stretcher is now the workhorse of Scottish Mountain rescue.

The Glen & The Team
Glencoe has a rugged geography and unique geology.  It has the greatest number of Chasms and gully systems in the UK, and the longest narrow serrated ridge on the mainland {Aonach Eagach}, unbroken for 3.5 miles and all above 3, 000ft.  Glencoe's main peaks radiate from the central massif of the Bidean range, and many are mountaineering expeditions due to limited access up through river gorges or through cliffs. 

As a rescue team, the Glencoe MRT covers from Loch Etive & Blackmount round to the Duror of Appin hills {which also have Scotland's deepest pothole from which we also carry out rescues}, North to the Kinlochleven Mamores, over Corran Ferry to Ardnamurchan and off course Glencoe itself.  This is an area of some 600 square miles with 35 peaks of over 3,000ft and 100 of 2,000ft or more. The team is also currently taking back the Ardgour area which as part of Argyll was in its area and included in Glencoe guide books. With the new Corran ferry boats, links are much better and access from here quicker by day, It is a sobering business getting dropped off by helicopter at an approximate location somewhere in Lochaber or Argyll the dark and in bad weather. A fair degree of luck in assessing just quite where you are is required!

The Scottish Mountain Safety report on mountain accidents highlighted that Glencoe was a dangerous place for the inexperienced mountaineer. 23% of rescues in this area are for fatalities.

The team operates a two tiered response system.  All team members are called by radio, with a telephone backup by three designated team members wives.  Coverage is achieved via a relay station on a hill above the village, and talk through repeaters at crucial points.  If a report of a serious injury is received a Priority Call out takes place, a helicopter, immediately requested, and within 5 minutes one of three 4WD rescue vehicles leaves for a designated rendezvous point. 

On arrival some team members leave immediately carrying, resuscitation equipment - spare O2 - vacuum mat and technical equipment as required.  Additional equipment is taken up as required or when information trickles back to those from further away who arrive at the rendezvous site later.  Regardless of other equipment required, the First Aider with resuscitation equipment is always away fast even if he leaves on his own.  This "Priority" call gets someone to the injured mountaineer as quickly as possible.  Due to now being called occasionally by mobile phones, team members can on occasion be with an injured person in the Glen within 1 hour from an accident occurring.  This speed of response, followed by prompt transfer by helicopter, has proved beneficial to the critically injured.  We are fortunate in having a good working relationship with the RAF and Navy SAR helicopters which proves invaluable. Likewise the staff of the Belford hospital are extremely supportive of our efforts and provide excellent feedback to us.

Other, less immediate call outs require a less hurried departure. Less immediately important calls would be for those who are cragfast {stuck} or for a simple lower leg fracture, {a common injury for hill walkers}, or when a large scale search needs organised.  It should be borne in mind that off the 60 or so rescues that we do each year, some will require 6 to 8 hours in execution due to technical hazards or bad weather, and large scale searches can take from one to three days {and in some cases months}!

During a probationary year a team member must display the ability to move over difficult ground, summer or winter in the dark, and be willing to work unaccompanied.  A team approach is of course mandatory, but we do not regard mountain rescue as a training ground for those who are not already sound mountaineers.

Equipment Notes:  x 2  for each 4WD Vehicle

Laerdal Heartstart 911
Nellcor N20 Pulse Oximeter
Pneupack Pulse Oximeter
Sabre 240 Aluminium  O2 Sets
SOS Aluminium "D" O2 Sets
Ambu Spur BVMs
Oro/Naso Airways/Laryngeal Masks
Combitube airways
3 x Sets adult Stifneck collars
Intubation Kit
Hartwell Medical Aeromedical Vacuum Matts
Asherman chest seals
Analgesia: Nubain  - Cyclomorph &  Narcan

2 MacInnes Mk 5/6Stretchers
3 x Casualty Bags - Flectalon
6 x Body Bags
8 x 160- 300 - 500 Ropes
Rope pully's - Descenduers etc.
5 x Handheld 1 million  candle power searchlights
3 Million  candle power parachute flares

1 x Landrover TDI
2 x 4WD Customised Turbo Charged Transits. Each Have:

3 Base Radio sets &  Scanners
Roof mounted 2 million candle power  searchlight
Roof mounted 8,000 watt Tannoy system
Large night vision sight from Conqueror  battle tank
Perimeter  floodlight system

Motorola GP 300 series + Scanners {each team member has a personal set}
2 private frequencies +  National Rescue Frequency

David Gunn