Feeling a bit like a pushy dad I strapped my daughter Katie onto her skis two days after her third birthday. The weather was great (cold and dry), the snow was nice and Katie’s older brother and sister were off with their ski instructors. Katie skied a few metres with a huge smile on her face and, giggling away, just kept on saying “I’m skiing, I’m skiing”. It was a magic moment of fun, introducing my young daughter into an outdoor sport that will hopefully stay with her for the rest of life and take her to mountains right around the world. An hour later I was helping dig four avalanche victims from the snow that buried them in Glen Coe.
It turned out to be the worst ever avalanche incident in the Scottish mountains. A group of six young walkers triggered an avalanche on their descent of Bidean nam Bian that swept five of them down a long slope and buried four of them. The remaining one that stayed clear of the avalanche called the mountain rescue very quickly and went to help the one who had been avalanched but not buried. Glen Coe Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) got to the scene very quickly and called Lochaber MRT for assistance. By the time I got there three of the people had been located from under the debris and we found the fourth soon after. Everyone got down off the hill by around midnight. I went home to my family and gave everyone a big cuddle as soon as I got home.
The combined MRTs did an excellent job. Everyone set to the task with professionalism and determination as if it was one of their own they were looking for. However, it was not as grim a job as you might think even though (or because) the outcome was fairly certain right from the start. In the untidy arena of avalanche debris it is easy not to notice details of the people you find. I tried hard not to see their faces, what colour hair they had or even whether they were male or female. I tried to treat them just as bodies so there was no connection to me, so it did not become personal. The police woman was confused when she interviewed me afterwards about why I did not notice if it was a male or female we found last.
Most mountain rescue callouts come in the early evening just as we are relaxing after a day of work with a cup of tea. We all race in to the team base and can be flown in to the location straight away. It’s often about an hour from being in my warm living room to being high on Ben Nevis in full-on winter conditions. It can come as quite a shock to the system.
Last winter we received a call out to help a team in Minus Two Gully. I missed the first helicopter lift which took three team members and dropped them onto North East Buttress where the climb finishes. North East Buttress is a grade IV climb itself so being dropped off with the winch cable onto the buttress covered in hard snow and ice must have been quite exciting. I was winched in to the bottom of the climb with Joe. The helicopter flew very close to the rocks at the foot of Observatory Ridge to get us in to the Minus Face. The pilot did some amazing flying that night and we were buzzing! It was a beautiful night, cold and dry, and we loved being able to help out the guys who had even managed to get themselves down the climb. It was only when the helicopter came back in to pick us up that it got uncomfortable as super sharp spindrift was blown around in the down draft.
The weather is not normally that nice though and we don’t always get lifted straight to the scene. More often we get lifted half way or we just walk in from the bottom. We try to get to the scene as quickly as possible and it’s easy to forget to take the time to look after ourselves. When you’re out for a regular walk or climb in the hills with less time pressure you walk at a steady pace and adjust your clothing to stay comfortable. On a rescue we often don’t bother so much. There’s a job to be done and we just get on with it. We race in to the scene, stand around for a while to sort out the casualty and then work like crazy carrying a stretcher down the hill.
It’s easy to be so focussed on helping other people that we forget to look after ourselves. It’s normally only afterwards that the cold and tiredness hits home, which shows just how absorbing the role is. When there’s a casualty to focus on, it’s nice not to notice the cold or the wind for a change.
Mike Pescod is a member of Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team as well as the owner of Fort William-based Abacus Mountaineering, and we're proud to support him as part of our Pro Team. Thanks to Mike for the words and images.
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