Wednesday, 2 March 2022

À la recherche du temps perdu - or getting an MOT?

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste …
Shakespeare Sonnet 30

Today has started as a stunning cold sunny March morning so I decided to walk back after dropping my car for its MOT. An enjoyable wander where I bumped into an old climbing and rescue colleague and we chatted about all things mountain. In conversation he said, by the way I must thank you again for saving our lives, me and my belayer 27 years ago. Not quite what I expected! Among the many boxes of memories some locked away, it took me back to the night in question and especially the guys who I was with. Great guys and sadly one, Millsy, no longer with us.
Paul Mills "Millsy" and Rescue 137 Sea King
The night in question was late February, bitterly cold and moonlit to the point of making a head torch largely redundant. Al, a very experienced local climber had set off earlier that day with a local lad learning the winter ropes. Their route was North West Gully Stob Coire Nam Beith. NW Gully is a modest 450m grade II/III winding its narrow way up past "the Pyramid" and "Sphinx" and if taken direct can be a bit harder on steeper ice. The rock architecture is fantastic and although the route is 450m in the guides, its actually a lot longer than that to the summit and feels quite alpine in scale. That day it was bullet proof neve and in great condition. No mobile phones back then and no great shakes to be a little late back so Al's wife was not too concerned when he wasn't home by five o'clock, although like myself we often started early and expect to be back 4 o'clock-ish.  However, when they had not come back by Eight she phoned Hamish. He wasn't at all concerned as Al was experienced and no point in calling the team out when they were probably just finishing late. She however felt something wasn't right so called him back again at Nine to get the same response. Meantime, as one of Al's friends she called me and asked what she should do, so I said I would get a couple of the lads next door and we would go have a look. I radioed the team and said three or four of us were going up for a nosey to put her mind at rest. My neighbours at that time were Peter (Chalky) White on one side, and Paul Mills on the other. Chalky was a forecaster with the SAIS, ex RAF MR, and a damn good mountaineer and rescuer. Paul "Millsy" was working as an independent MIC after leaving Glenmore Lodge and at that time was staying in a wee damp hovel of a cottage next to Tigh Dearg which has since been knocked down. Gary Latter was in it before him. Someone else came out as well but I cannot for the life of me remember who!
Pete "Chalky" White.
Wearing the safety gear of the day building Glencoe Mountains new chairlift 1990
We set off up into the corrie moving pretty fast as it was now about ten pm at night, and made our way around the right of the corrie to near the "Rognon" a raised feature on the West side up towards Hidden Gully, and started shouting. Faintly we heard shouts back and could just about make out that one was injured. This changed things a lot and we moved into rescue mode, called up the team and asked for a SAR helo. Millsy and I headed down towards "the Gate" and around as we were a bit lower and started soloing up NW Gully. By this time its getting on for eleven. We climbed up until we reached the right fork of NW and a variation finish, and Chalky was able to direct our lights to the shouts and a faint beam of light he was able to see. The right fork goes up the Sphynx to the Mummy where there is a hard pitch up to the shoulder. This is probably old fashioned grade IV, short and steep and a bit of a sting in the tail after a long climb. We got to just below their belay at about midnight when SAR 137 a sea king, the first we had seen as the Wessex had just been retired, arrived in the hover above us. It was horrendous from downdraught and blowing snow and bitter cold. We could tell Al's leg was very badly broken, Tibial plateau in pieces, and tibia open # out the knee after a fall and crampon catch. And the young belayer hypothermic and in a poor state, going down fast. The helo stayed in the hover above us for about 40 interminable minutes for a highly technical winching operation from difficult ground. John Greive could be seen in the door and was ready to be winched down if needed to help. The winchman did a fantastic snatch rescue courtesy of a knife and balls of steel. We never again doubted the Sea King after as previously we thought it wouldn't be up to the job like the Wessex.  

That left us in the gully smothered by spindrift and frozen with a back climb of 350m+. Bugger the abseiling as too cold. The gully we found had loaded up with slab to a depth of about 50cm or more from the hover and a funnel effect from the summit slopes so we had to be careful.  Its a complicated area but we knew it as well as anyone so headed down, but wanted to avoid the steeper section of NW Gully above Isis Buttress. I knew a shortcut down a narrow corridor left of Isis. I remember going first into the gully facing forward both axes placed and a whump and roar as it went off below my feet, I had to climb over the crown wall with Millsy following. We didn't give it much thought as shit happens. Down into the corrie where we met Chalky and whoever, and in the wee small hours as the light was coming up we descended back down the path to the Elliot's. The Elliot's were all in bed, the team had gone home so it felt a bit of a let down, but nothing for it but home for a brief sleep and for me at that time back up a hill to Ski Patrol at Glencoe where Pete Weir was manager.

Al's tough,  and a long rehab after reconstruction at Raigmore followed.  The young belayer survived but only just and would certainly have died that night if out any longer, as might Al. It's a dilemma often occurring in mountain rescue where experienced folk are late and no one wants to embarrass them by calling out a rescue team too hastily, and when is the right time to worry and take action? There are no right answers and I have put my own wife in that position when late back from a new route and she was calling John and he rightly said we would be fine as I was with Arthur and Andy and surely we couldn't all be dead!  He was right. And of course John had good keen instincts and saved many lives by taking no chances and getting the team out early on many future occasions when leader. Hamish made a call that night, and we as our brothers keepers made one too. There is no right and wrong and such are the heavy  burdens of a rescue team leaders role. The public are probably unaware just what a big responsibility that is in teams like Glencoe and Lochaber, and in my own time as both deputy leader and team leader I also had to make them on occasion.

Post Script:
I felt I need to get this tale down. Surviving 10 hours hanging on a rope with a shattered leg with a relatively novice young climber freezing to death while also cajoling the novice to stay with it and encourage them to survive took a lot of courage from Al. Not all survival stories are on the telly, and courageous men walk among us, and even on days your car is in for its MOT you might meet one.

PPS: Since publishing this I have discovered the 4th person was Al's son Malcolm who was a second generation rescuer and good climber who has recently retired from MR.

1987 A sad outcome for two climbers killed by an Avalanche in NW Gully.
MR can be brutally pragmatic