The Great Blizzards of 1978.

I was posted on promotion to RAF Buchan near Buchan at the time of the great Blizzards of January 1978. I was on the hill in the Mamores near Fort William as Ray Sefton the Team Leader let me come out with the Team even though I was posted away. I managed to get away by train on Friday afternoon and get to Kinloss always having to leave for the Aberdeen train first thing on a Monday morning. I was keen and it cost but I wanted to stay with the Mountain Rescue. I had just completed a huge North to South Of Scotland and was very fit and had that youthful feeling of invincibility on the hills. Weather forecasts were  basic in these days and  yet there was a forecast of a big storm coming in but we still set off for An Gearanach in the Mamores a grand but tricky hill in winter. It was snowing very heavily when we left and the wind got up as we made our way up to the very corniced ridge and despite a white out made the summit. These were the conditions we trained for “The only all weather SAR” was the buzzword. Then all hell broke lose and it was a fight for life too get off the hill quickly descending down very steep terrain. The hills were alive with avalanches and the wind was crazy! We were very lucky to get down into the Glen when the whole side of the hill avalanched and swept down right by us.   We were lucky and several other parties all had near misses several were avalanched and even the drive out of Glen Nevis was incredible. as we fought with chains to get back to base. The radios were alive with epics going on all over and we were needed.

The Mamores a wild place to be during “The Great Blizzards.”

By now Ray Sefton who was the team Leader was at the Police station and cars  and people were stuck all over Scotland. Once he had collected his team and we were all accounted for.We were sent to the Rannoch Moor with Glencoe MRT  and rescued over 50 motorists many children and old people with no kit. Cars were buried and we had to dig them out using the big 4 tonners as refuges to transport the people to the land-rovers and safety. We had stoves on in the wagons trying to heat up the people. This was in the days before the roads had gates on them to stop motorists driving into danger.  It could and should have been a disaster but for the efforts of the Police and teams. Next day we nearly lost a helicopter near Tulloch the Rescue Control Centre had lost communications with the aircraft. This caused incredible worry as all the helicopters were very busy on rescues all over Scotland and the weather was still wild. It  was very worrying as we were set off to find it and help the crew. We managed to drive past Roybridge and then set off in waist deep snow in places We had permission to use any houses for shelter if needed as there were a few holiday homes just passed Tulloch. It was crazy we kept swapping leads due to the depth of snow and after 2 hours we heard the noise of the helicopter and it had a wee snag and was sorted and gave us a lift back. We were so glad to see them. 

We then spent 5 days attached to a fleet of helicopters based at Inverness were we were used to assist the helicopters on a storm bound Scotland. We dug lorries from the a9 under 20 feet of snow and even went to the aid of a train that was stuck up North. We fed sheep and helped remote crofters and pregnant Mums it was an incredible time for us all. It was a great learning curb how Ray Sefton handled the situation. What a cool man and always looking to the next problem. We were so well treated and  made many few friends at Raigmore hospital in Inverness with the nurses, causing Ray a bit of a problem as the team dispensed to parties in the Nurses home. That is another story!  When it all ended I was dropped off by helicopter at RAF Buchan and was  given a bollocking by some officer who was supposed to be my Boss  for being Absent Without Leave (AWOL). Ray Sefton sorted it out and went from ” Zero to Hero” next day! It was not a rare occasion to get hassle after a call out by these so called idiots in charge of you! In the end there were at least 50 stuck on Rannoch Moor, 25 stranded between Cluanie and Invergarry, 15 missing Fortwilliam. Climbers missing in Laggan area, a Wessex down missing for 3 hours! a busy time. Plus the missing train up North. It was in the days of limited paperwork and it was classed a one call-out by the Team!

—

This is an extract by Squadron Leader Bill Campbell, AFC who I was later to work with at Lockerbie. Bill was part of a huge helicopter force that saved so many lives over this period. What great people, to land in Aviemore High Street and the A9 is a thing I will never forget. What a bunch of guys.

Library Reference Number: 202

The Blizzards Of 1978  Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

We had had a couple of met warnings of the imminent arrival of North-Easterly Severe Gale Force 9 increasing to Storm Force 10, which meant winds of 35-40 knots gusting to 50-60 continuing till at least midday Sunday. We got a taste of the weather to come when we were scrambled, late in the afternoon, to an exhausted member of an RAF Regiment training expedition who had collapsed at Faindouran Lodge in Glen Avon in the Cairngorms, a most inaccessible place in the conditions with knee-deep powdery snow being blown by a strong north-easterly wind at 2500 feet. We got back to base after dark, put the aircraft to bed and noted in the log ‘Rotten Weather’. In our absence another met warning had arrived – ‘snow and sleet overnight with moderate to heavy falls with drifting’. We kept ourselves briefed throughout the evening as weather forecasts became more ominous. Finally at 23:30, just before going to bed, I phoned the Rescue Co-ordination Centre (RCC) at RAF Pitreavie Castle to check if there was anything in the wind for tomorrow. They replied that they had just been called by Northern Constabulary at Inverness asking for a helicopter to be at their landing site as soon as possible after first light, and warning that it could be used all day on a number of incidents.

These incidents lasted several days and tested the crews to the full.

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer when body slows, loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Aircraft incidents, Friends, Mountain rescue, Views Political?. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Great Blizzards of 1978.

  1. don says:

    From Don Shanks, I remember the “Great Blizzard” and was on the Invergarry det. Lots of cars stuck one van with 800 crayfish one car with a ceilidh band coming back from a gig. The abiding memory was giving away all our kit and having to light the “bomb” and have it firing up between the seats on the RL…who did that risk assessment on that one !

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  2. heavywhalley says:

    Yes Don – The bomb between seats incredible keep them coming! You coming on Thursday to the Kinloss party?

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  3. Andy Craig says:

    I was in the Wessex with Ray Hoey and Jim Dolan. Les Grosvenor (pilot), Nav was an Aussie, winchie was Mick Brodie. The conditions were severe blizzard with the chopper icing up. Les managed to get it down literally on the side of Loch Laggan at a cottage called Rubha na Machaidh. After a while in the chopper Mick scouted the cottage and broke in through a window using a piece of metal to slip the window catch. this was still in the morning of the Sunday. Jim and myself had been at Aviemore all week on the Safety in Mountain Venture Training course run by Bill Brooker, Ray on a weekend off. After a few hours the wind and snow eased a wee bit and it was decided to leave the crew in the cottage and head to farm at the bottom of Creag Meagaidh. The call out was for a missing walker there. His two mates had called in from the farm and were in the room used a shelter there. It took us 3 hours to cover the 3 km to get there. The snow was chest deep, could not even see the armco barrier on the road side, it was more a swim than a walk! The crew were picked up by a Navy Sea King, the Wessex was not recovered for quite a few days as it was iced up. We ended up with KMRT in the ATC hut in the Fort on the Monday via the Navy Sea King and finding the missing walker who had bivvied. We got back to Leuchars several days later via a lift to Kinloss with Mick Trimby and rail warrants from Gen Office to get back by rail. Quite a week! The cottage was directly across the Loch from the big house used in Monarch of the Glen and I always think of the 3 hour struggle when I drive that stretch of road in 3 minutes!

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  4. Peter Birtwistle says:

    I was out on the Glen Dessary hills with Terry Moore when the blizzards hit, needless to say we bailed out and only just made in back to Fort William. I was on that little walk out from Tulloch, and remember following the tops of the telegraph poles for awhile, but the highlight was the nice pick up with the Leuchars Wessex in blizzard conditions. The next request was to go and find the Inverness to Wick train, we were picked up from Fort William and on the flight up the train was found and the next 5 days we were operating out from the Police HQ in Inverness, with only the clothes I was wearing and my rucksack. Thanks go to Bob Anderson for lending me his boots one night!

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  5. Arkletten says:

    I was a passenger on the Lost Train that got stuck on the line between Forsinard and Scotscalder in January 1978. I was headed to Orkney from Edinburgh. What an adventure! We ended up being helicoptered out. We spend two days there on that train. Our fuel had run out by the second day so the heating was off by then. If we had to spend another night there, it would have been in total darkness, without heat, not a pleasant prospect, but thankfully RAF helicopters arrived on the second day in the afternoon and rescued us.

    I remember the train was half empty as we left Inverness where we’d had to change train from Edinburgh. The guard coming down to Inverness from Wick and Thurso who had seen conditions worsen, advised British Rail to cancel the northbound train and put passengers up in a hotel. But instead they decided it would be OK if they just put another engine on, so we set off with two engines, front and back.

    The wind got really wild as we headed north and the snow started coming down in huge wet clumps. It was actually horizontal. The train ploughed on, getting up speed in the dark to cut through the drifts. I was frankly terrified. I looked at a woman across from me. She was a black American, in uniform, she looked like Condoleeza Rice, very smart and cool, I guessed she had something to do with the military up there, and she looked none too comfortable either, with the way the train was rocking around the tracks and swaying wildly in the wind

    Neither of us said anything, not wishing to alarm the other. Suddenly the train gave a huge jolt, and then started juddering before coming to a complete halt. This was the point when the last two carriages had apparently jacknifed and snapped off from the rest of the train. By a great stroke of luck there were no passengers in these two carriages at the back, or they could have been either severely injured, and certainly trapped. The guard had just been to the back to check parcels and noted there were no passengers. The carriages jack-knifing caused the rest of the train to jump off the tracks, and the juddering was us running along the stones between the tracks.

    Apparently there had been a further break, as the front engine, plus a couple of carriages, had snapped off from the middle section where I was and most passengers were, and continued along the tracks for a further distance before becoming embedded in a snow drift. I remember our lights were still on though… It was night. The guard had pulled the dead man’s handle in our section of after it jack-knifed as apparently it was not working.

    After about 15 minutes the guard re-appeared and told us the train had de-railed and that we needed to transfer to the front section where the engine was, as these carriages were warm, and await rescue. I remember the transfer vividly. I was wearing an antique beaver lamb fur coat I’d bought in a vintage clothing shop. I wasn’t cold, but it was the most unsuitable clothing for a blizzard, as the huge clumps of vertical snow just stuck to it and it weighed a ton. I had welly boots though! I couldn’t see more than two feet, the snow was that thick. The wind was ferocious, we faced directly into the wind. The snow, as said, was horizontal. I went right into your eyes, clinging to your eye-lashes, so you actually couldn’t see anything. It was really wet heavy snow. The transfer was really difficult, even for a fit young person. There was one guy on the train who was returning from hospital with a broken leg in plaster, and another who had just had kidney surgery in Aberdeen, some elderly ladies, and a wee dog, belonging to the man with the plaster cast, who turned out to have a great sense of humour and kept us all cracking up.

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    • heavywhalley says:

      Great story and thanks for all the information it was a crazy time!

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    • heavywhalley says:

      Many thanks there must be so many stories from this period a great addition.

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      • Arkletten says:

        Thanks.

        Apparently the helicopters that rescued us came from Shetland. Aberdeen was snow bound and we heard that those at Lossiemouth were frozen. Once we got into the air a short distance and looked below, you could see the snow suddenly fade out. When we got to Thurso (or Wick, I can’t remember which) there was hardly any snow.

        We had a transistor radio and every hour on the hour we would gather to hear the latest news reports of our rescue. That was when we heard that Aberdeen was closed and that the first attempts to rescue us had failed because the helicopters were unable to get off the ground.

        There was a group meeting amongst the stranded passengers and railwaymen. A command structure very rapidly established itself! This was fascinating to observe, just how quickly people pulled together and assumed various roles. The command structure was unchallenged and emerged by a kind of natural consensus within the group, most of us were complete strangers to each other, but this leadership structure just emerged naturally.

        It was decided that when the helicopters arrived, it would be women and children first! So, though fit and strong, I was shuffled off in the first chopper to land, but I heard that subsequent choppers came from closer to hand.

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