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

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