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.

Monday, 23 November 2020

Hamish the Legend

A recollection of Hamish from an article by Gary Latter in "Climber" magazine 10 years ago celebrating his 80th Birthday. It was sent to me to comment on and add to before print having given Gary a few tales of the old fox. Gary was himself a member of the team for a few years mid 1980's when he lived locally.

I have added some personal input and a collage of pictures with some additional text but Gary's article is a good summary of an exceptional life, a legend which some of us had the privilege to be a small part of with GMRT, on film escapades, or knowing him as a neighbour in the village of Glencoe.

Born in Gatehouse of Fleet, in Dumfries and Galloway on 7 July 1930, Hamish was brought up in Greenock, where his father had an engineering business. At age 14 in 1945, Hamish noticed “a bloke lived nearby, chap called Bill Hargreaves” would go off climbing on his motorbike at weekends. Hamish asked if he could join him and  was introduced to the hills.

Hamish has made his name in many different ways: climber, adventurer, mountain rescuer, designer, film & safety work, writer and photographer. He climbed both at home and abroad with many of the great names of the latter half of 20th century mountaineering, including John Cunningham, Chris Bonington, Ian Clough, Tom Patey, Kenny Spence, Allen Fyffe, Ian Nicholson, Yvon Chouinard, Dougal Haston, Don Whillans, Joe Brown, Mo Anthoine, Paul
Nunn and Martin Boysen. 

Hitching out to the Alps at the age of 17, he recalls jam coming off the wartime ration book just as he reached Dover. Exploration and adventure have been at the core of most of his exploits over the years. Whether its searching for gold on the remote west coast of South Island New Zealand, or Inca gold in South America; searching for the Yeti in the foothills of the Himalaya, or climbing the vegetated and wildly otherworldly  tepui of Roraima deep in the jungle of Guyana, fighting off scorpions, bird-eating spiders and bushmaster snakes en route - he’s been there and lived to tell the tale!

Known by some as “the old fox of Glencoe”, Hamish has lived in the glen for over half a century, first moving to the small whitewashed cottage Allt-na-Ruigh, above the meeting of the Three Waters in 1959. He then moved further down the glen to the National Trust owned Achnacon in 1970, later building his own place, on the back road between the village and the Clachaig in 1998.

The old fox sporting a Mary Poppins look on some alpine film set

National Service for 19 months at the age of 17 was “quite a pivotal experience”as he was posted to Austria. Here, on the steep limestone walls of the Kaisergebirge, he acquired a taste for pegging from the Austrians. His attraction for pegging back home in Scotland later earned him the nickname “MacPiton”, with routes like Porcupine Wall on The Cobbler, Engineer’s Crack on the Buachaille, many routes throughout the Skye Cuillin, including Creag Dhu Grooves, and the long sustained Titan’s Wall on Carn Dearg Buttress, Ben Nevis. 

Although particularly known for his long and pioneering involvement in mountain rescue and mountain safety, early on in his climbing career, Hamish was also on the receiving end of rescues. In January 1951, whilst attempting the first winter ascent of Raven’s Gully on the Buachaille with Creagh Dhu members Charlie Vigano and John Cullen, Hamish was leading on a 160’ rope (quite a long rope at the time), when the rope jammed (it was also dark by this point). Unable to free it or descend, he untied and continued, but reached an impasse 10 feet from the top. Bridged across the iced-up chimney, he braced himself for a long night, dressed in just jeans and a thin shirt underneath his anorak. His rucksack with warm clothing was with his mates down below, who fared much better, being dressed in heavy motorcycle jackets. Luckily fellow Creagh Dhu member Bill Smith was driving up the road and spotted their headtorch lights and, along with others, including Jimmy Marshall, eventually dropped a top-rope down to him and extracted him in the early hours. “I thought I’d had it, I was so bloody cold.”

The second instance occurred in the French Alps. The teenage Hamish had an arrangement with the famous French guide Lionel Terray (first ascent of Makalu and author of the wonderful Conquistadors of the Useless). As route finding was difficult, Hamish had an arrangement with Terray, where he would solo a suitable distance behind Terray and his client. On a traverse of the Grande Charmoz, the pair had made a 40’ abseil from a situ nylon sling on a bollard. Hamish threaded his rope and proceeded to follow suit, only for the sling to break as soon as he weighted it. On impacting the small ledge at the base, his knees were driven up into his eye sockets, temporarily blinding him. Luckily he didn’t go any further down the remaining 600’ drop to the glacier. Another famous Swiss guide, Raymond Lambert was nearby, and the pair effected a rescue.

Climbing Achievements
1951: 4 routes on The Cobbler in the company of two of the finest climbers in the
country at the time, Creagh Dhu members John Cunningham and Bill Smith,
including the fine Gladiator’s Groove (HVS) and wildly exposed Whither
Wether (VS)

1952: Peasants’s Passage, Wappenshaw Wall on the Rannoch Wall, and
Bludger’s Route on Slime Wall with Pat Walsh, later combined into the classic
Bludger’s Revelation.

February 1953: Agag’s Groove (VII, 6), Crowberry Ridge Direct (VII, 7) and
Raven’s Gully (V, 5)

Late fifties instructing work for the Mountaineering Association (the predecessor of the BMC) in the Skye Cuillin saw the opening up of many good rock routes, including such well-trodden modern classics as Vulcan Wall (HVS) and Creagh Dhu Grooves (E3) both with some aid, on Sron na Ciche’s Eastern Buttress, and the fine Grand Diedre (VS), over the back of the ridge in Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda, all climbed with Ian Clough.

February 1957: Zero Gully (V, 4) on Ben Nevis with Aberdonians Tom Patey & Graham Nicol. This was Hamish’s seventh attempt at the much sought-after line, having arrived via the Carn Mor Dearg arete from Steall Hut in Glen Nevis, on learning that other teams were showing an interest.

April 1959: Titan’s Wall on Carn Dearg Buttress, Ben Nevis with Ian Clough, which came in for much criticism at the time due to its extensive use of aid, though it would be two decades and numerous attempts by several of the top climbers of the day before it was finally freed by Mick Fowler in 1977.

February 1965: First winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge, with Davie Crabb,
Tom Patey and Brian Robertson. North Face of Pik Schurouski in the Caucasus was an outstanding route with 2 bivvys, with Paul Nunn and Chris Woodall. (Still unrepeated!) The Glencoe School of Winter Mountaineering, which operated from 1964-74, over the years employed many of the best climbers in the country at the time, including Ian Clough, Jim McCartney, Allan Fyffe, Kenny Spence, Dave Knowles, and Ian Nicholson.

Glencoe-based guide and rescue team member Paul Moores‘One of my first impressionable moments of Hamish - he used to keep an immaculate garden at Achnacon. I went round to visit him. He wasn’t in the house, but I eventually found him in his garage, working on the huge V12 engine of his E-type jaguar. Hamish had his finger trapped under the cylinder head, and I managed to rig up a rope on a beam and winch it off. When asked what he would have done had I not shown up: “Well, I knew the postman was coming tomorrow.”’ ‘Hamish used to hold an annual party, usually in the Summer, with loads of folk from all over. He would make these huge trifles – at least 6 washing up bowls. Mike Begg, the producer of BBC Outdoor Broadcasts was there, with his then girlfriend, Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol. Hamish, in his fifties, was going out with Betsy Brantley, an American actress in her twenties, whom he met while overseeing the safety on the Hollywood film Five Days One Summer. While the party was in full swing, a police car pulled, up with lights and sirens blaring. “We’ve got a complaint.” The local bobbies soon took of their caps and joined the party. Later on, some of the partygoers got all the empty cans and bottles and loaded them into the back of the police range rover. After the party the bobbies walked back along the road, two of their colleagues returning in the morning to collect the vehicle.'

Paul and another local rescue team member, Hugh McNicol arrived at Achnacon on a blisteringly hot midsummers day and asked if they could swim in his pools (in the adjacent River Coe). Although never really a drinker (usually a half cider at best), Hamish used to make vast quantities of his own Silver Birch sap wine. Hamish set a table and 3 deck chairs up and opened a gallon flagon of his homemade brew, and got “completely and utterly miraculous”, then later made ‘dinner’ which was ‘eventful’ to say the least, including all the peas exploding from the microwave. Later, Paul’s wife Ros drove them all up the glen to the Kingshouse where they continued drinking. Hamish was supposed to be filming the next day, with the helicopter pilot buzzing the house, hovering outside his bedroom in an attempt to rouse him from his slumber. Hamish has never drunk since.

Glencoe local and stalwart rescue team member for many years Davy Gunn“If I had a camera in my early climbing and rescue years, one picture I wish I had taken was that of Hamish in Glen Etive beside an abandoned min-van. We had gallon cans of beans in our old WW2 rescue truck as sustenance, and lacking a plate and spoon there he was sitting on a rock beside the river with his iconic cap on, eating cold beans out of a mini headlight glass with a big dirty channel peg. That image will always stay locked into my brain as the epitome of a hard man climber picture. Yet behind that picture is a gentleman.” “Hamish is a tough customer. Cold doesn’t seem to bother him and he has always been immensely strong.” “As a young sixteen year old mad keen on climbing, Hamish took me and another local lad Ronnie Rodgers under his wing. As the youngest, as long as I tagged along on rescues not getting in the way and helping a bit, then odd bits of gear would arrive from “Fishers of Keswick” (pre Nevisport) or Typhoo’s (Tiso’s), ordered for me by Hamish to encourage me for my labours.”

GMRT Founder and Leader. Below Twisting Gully 1983

Peter Debbage:

February 1969: ‘I booked onto a Glencoe School of Winter Mountaineering course. Was told that we wouldn’t meet the great man as he was never there. And so it proved. For the first two days we were dragged up various things by Ian Clough and Jim McCartney and no sign of him. On the evening of the second day this tall weather beaten man appears with a ‘presence’. Apparently he did this. He got the others to suss out the better climbers and collared them for the third day. We were leading HVS at the time, which was a respectable grade in those days. Pointing to me and my two mates, he said “You, you and you, come with me tomorrow.” And then he disappeared. Panting up behind him in an open  necked shirt and sports jacket (at between minus 5 and 10). “What are we doing today, Hamish?” “Och I fancy yon wee gully up there” he uttered. “What grade is it Hamish?” “Och how the hell should I know laddie – it’s never been done before” he retorted. For the next 3 days we were dragged up a series of desperate new routes by Hamish. I have never forgotten that and it remains one of the outstanding experiences of my climbing career.’

Chris Bonington:

Recollections of Chris Bonington’s first encounters and climbing exploits with  Hamish are well covered in Bonington’s first autobiography ‘I Choose to Climb”; from their first meeting in on the Buachaille, when 18 year old Chris was staying with members of the Climbers Club at Lagangarbh. “Hamish handed over to us ‘gnomie’ (Gordon McIntosh) who was the slowest climber there ever was, and as a team of three, we climbed behind Hamish and Kerr MacPhail on the first winter ascent of Agag’s Groove (VII, 6) on the Rannoch Wall.” Chris was climbing in Clinker nails, Hamish in Tricounis (another type of nailed boots), with straight picked axes. Chris stayed on, and later that week Hamish and Chris made the first winter ascents of Crowberry Ridge Direct (VII, 7) and Raven’s Gully (V, 5) on consecutive days, the latter in “pretty manky condition”, Hamish having to remove his boots to lead the last two pitches in his socks. 

Both Agag’s and Crowberry were well ahead of their time – the precursor of the modern snowed up rock routes now commonplace – definitely routes in the modern idiom. Chris recalls: “It was an amazing privilege to be climbing with one of the best all round mountaineers in Britain at the time, on my very first ever winter season.” Later, in 1957 Hamish wrote to Chris, asking “how about climbing in the Alps.” They attempted the North Face of the Eiger, which would have been Bonington’s first ever alpine route (talk about being thrown in at the deep end!), but the weather turned on their first day, and they retreated in the dark. Moving to Chamonix, they set off to do the Walker Spur, but got lost on the glacier, and ended up climbing a new route on the Auguille du Tacul instead. Chris also went on to say “Two, no three of my greatest influences in climbing have all been Scots – Hamish, Tom Patey and Dougal Haston.” “ When I think of Hamish, it is with a mixture of respect, friendship and enjoyment – he has an incredibly broad interest and passion, he’s hyper strong, and also a super designer – he is one of the very, very great characters of British mountaineering.”


First all metal ice axe, in 1947– dubbed ‘The Message’ by the Creagh Dhu, later manufactured in the sixties by Massey (of Massey Ferguson tractor manufacturers), hence the early taglines “as strong as tractors”. Pivotal in the advancement of modern technical winter climbing, was a fortuitous meeting with visiting Americans Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tomkins in February 1970 at the Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe, where Chouinard unveiled his curved pick ice axe. The next morning, MacInnes had produced dropped pick axe – the prototype of the ‘terrodactyl’, so called by Ian Clough when he first saw the aggressive looking snout. Although there were informal rescues in the glen, carried out by the local shepherds such as the Elliot’s and any climbers who were around; Hamish started the team in 1959, (the year he moved to Glencoe), primarily in order to raise funds for equipment. The first aluminium MacInnes stretcher was produced in 1961. This innovative design has undergone continuous development and refinements throughout its many incarnations, with the latest Mark 7 version utilising composite materials and titanium. Various versions of these are used by rescue teams, the military and police forces throughout the world.
Hamish & Yvonne Chouinard

Author of 23 books, including the innovative 2 volume Scottish Climbs’
selective guide, which was the first guide to make extensive use of photo diagrams, though the quirky use of alpine grades for rock routes (and adjective grades for Winter routes!) never quite caught on. His ‘International Mountain Rescue Handbook’ has become the definitive textbook on the subject, and been constantly in print since its release in 1972. Several have been translated into numerous languages.


Worked as either climbing cameraman or safety consultant on hundreds of documentaries and films, including the live outside broadcast spectaculars of the Old Man of Hoy, Gogarth and Freakout and Spacewalk, in addition to producing several of his own tourist-orientated DVDs, narrated by either Sean Connery (who met on Five Days One Summer), or Michael Palin (met on Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail), both remaining good friends. Film work includes looking after safety on the Clint Eastwood Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Eiger Sanction’, and working with Robert De Niro on ‘The Mission’.

“I don’t join anything unless I can’t possibly avoid it, not even climbing clubs.” In addition to being founder and team leader of Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, also founded Search and Rescue Dog Association (SARDA), honorary member of Scottish Mountaineering Club and ex President of the Alpine Climbing Group. Mainly in recognition of his great contribution to mountaineering and mountain safety worldwide, Hamish has received many honours from outwith the mountaineering world, including M.B.E and O.B.E., a Doctorate from Glasgow University and honorary degrees from four other Scottish universities. He was awarded the ‘Great Scot Award’ in 2000, inducted into the ‘Scottish Sports Hall of Fame’ in 2003, and awarded the inaugural ‘Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture’ in 2009.

Having a blether sitting on Tom Patey's old GP surgery chair

Monday, 16 November 2020

Up at "the V". A tale of courage and empathy

Back in the day – I think it was winter 84 about late January. We had moved from Achindaroch Duror to our present family home in Glencoe August the previous year.  I was in a tied forestry house before the move but still that winter working a winch and with a felling team. It was a good winter and hard cold conditions and I had already been out on the hill doing something that day as I remember being tired.

About 19.30 in the evening the phone goes, its Willie Elliot phoning from Achnambeith. He is wondering if I fancy a walk up the path across the A82 from his house, the path that comes down from the Aonach Eagach. There is a faint light he can see.  He says its very dim and he has seen other brighter lights earlier so its likely to be a dropped headtorch running out of battery, but its irking him as he is sure it moved just a bit. “Have a wee walk up Davy and take a radio and let me know when you have it and are back down, ok”. Fiona runs me up to the end of the Clachaig road and up the hill I wander. Willie had just put out a radio call to say I was on my way up to have a look. Wull Thompson said he would come up behind me to keep me company. As is often the case team members fancying some exercise also decide to come along for the social, and so Pete Harrop said he would wander up too.

I wander up, with Wull not far behind to where the path goes right and where a prominent gully with a small side branch forms a waterfall which Willie and Walter call “the V”. The shepherds often have their own local descriptions of features they use as markers for the gathering of the sheep. I cannot see the light, so Willie guides me in by radio to above the waterfall and then up the snow filled gully. The snow is hard but takes a boot edge.

Looking up to above the waterfall and top part where the accident occurred high above a scree patch

After about 45 minutes up the path then 300 feet up the gully I find the light, only its attached to the head of a young boy of about twelve who has got himself in a bivi bag wrapped up warm. Not what I expected. A quick chat and physical exam reveal’s both lower legs broken, and he is worried about his dad who is higher up the gully. Wull is a minute away and I call for a full team call out and wait for him, and get some more info from the lad. It seems his Dad prepared him well should anything ever happen on their adventures as he tells me he has done everything his dad told him to do. Get spare clothes on, get in a bivi bag, and put a light on and flash it. Only the flash bit was missing, and to be fair the headtorch was failing and dim. No LED lights and long-lasting Duracell then. He also mentions he is from Taynuilt so local. It seems his dad was in front descending the gully when he slipped and lost control going out of site down the gully. The young lad tried to follow his line of fall then slipped and fell and remembers passing his dad in the gully and tells me his dad is bleeding, can I go help him. Considering his injuries, the lad is stoical and does not complain of much pain although he must have been in a lot.

Wull arrives and as the snow above is about winter II and there is short pitch, I put on my fancy bronze Chouinard rigid crampons which were probably not that long off my feet from climbing earlier, with Wull following just behind. After about 200 feet I find his dad who has sadly succumbed to his many injuries hung up in a steep narrowing.  That the young lad had not only fallen the same distance, but even further and flown over the top of his dad and survived is something of a miracle. Pete Harrop is now with the lad and Pete who is great rescuer and a real gent is the right guy at the right time with a calm soothing manner talking to the lad and reassuring him while the rest of the team arrive. Wull and I come down to help package the lad and wait for a second stretcher and more manpower so we can go back up to get his dad. This we did and despite a bit of difficulty we get the poor man in a bag on the stretcher and lowered down then out the side onto the descent path. We can go a bit faster as the front party have a lad in some pain and so their journey down requires more care. The young lad goes off to the Belford and his poor dad with the police to Glen Nevis mortuary. Willie is quite moved by the young lad’s plight and his courage when we fill him in on the details. Willie saved his life. Had he not seen the light then the outcome might have been so different. But then both Willie and Walter have saved many lives not only directly on the hill, but also with a keen eye and sense of when something isn’t right, maybe a car parked a bit long, a light high up, or talking us rescuers along the sides of the Aonach Eagach or Aonach Dubh in the dark by radio, following faint sheep tracks and going into places where sheep and humans alike get stuck.

We all go home with our own thoughts that night and as best we can bury the emotions of this rescue among the detritus of past ones. A few weeks pass then I get a letter from the lads mum to thank the team for its work that night, and a special thanks to Willie who had written her a beautiful letter saying how proud she should be of her son, for his courage and how proud his dad would be of how he conducted himself despite the pain and everything he endured that night. She was quite moved by this and emphasised how much the letter meant to her.  Willie writing to her has always stuck with me, and I believe she also wrote to him to thank him for writing, although I am not sure she realised he saved her sons life.

Maybe this is just another rescue tale, but to me its recall prompts that I was fortunate to be a part of a team of folk where empathy and compassion were of equal value to technical expertise, and that the folk the mountains took, and the victims were thought about by the men and women, like Willie. I am sure this remains the same, although sadly the shepherds and stalkers, true mountain men hefted to their glens, are fewer and further between now, which is a great shame.


Willie Elliot

Pete Harrop just right of centre

Wull on the right
Pete Weir Centre and Huan Findlay left. Coming out of Stob Coire nam Beith