Wednesday, 26 January 2022

Avalanches, PTSD and Talking

First Published winter 2014 

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 at work 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 some acknowledgement, but I don't know how the partners our immediate confidantes 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 our 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 pre hospital courses, 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 done 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 coming  through with a new start Hamish having retired and new leadership, but the stress's of that process 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 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 bizarre 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 and night were often broken as we had Esther my daughter newly born.

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, the wife of the missing walkers is at the Kingshouse and things don'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 team members strung out behind. We went into the entrance gully 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, the rumble and huge blocks from a  monster of a big wet slide flowing 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 leader 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 the snow. 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 digging and trenching. Due to being fairly near the road the TV crews could access the scene so we were under their watchful eye. Four days of hard work and we had to give up as it was too deep. The 3 walkers remained buried.

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. We parked the yellow rescue trucks bang in the middle of the A82 at the Kingshouse junction and  SAR 177 with Adrian "Hands" as pilot land on.  I was first on as observer up front, with Ronnie Rodger in back, we fly around the mountain on what is a blue sky morning with feet deep snow covering everything.  John suggests we fly the East face "Ladys Gully" Central Buttress side but we see nothing at first.  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 Central Buttress 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 Central Buttress. Blue sky had gone and we were now in a blizzard, but in about an hour we 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 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 clicked 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. It was to be a very long wait.  The local vicar was very good with her, and "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. It was a fantastic ski season with 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 probe 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. I stayed digging 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 Macara) dead. It all diminishes you, but by that time I had a better coping mechanism and new about debriefing, and the pub!

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 decisions wrong, and also 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 what my head was telling me, that I had been feeling like undertaker in winter, not a medic. 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

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 and I had my own involvement with that. Even as a ski patroller there was no avoiding the toll with the loss of Danny in an avalanche off the West of Glencoe Mountain 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 was 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 folk 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. 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.

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!