Epic at Loch Etchachan ! The Sea King!

I had a look at the Breamar MRT Twitter account last night and a few others, there looks like plenty of snow about. They were deep in the heart of the Cairngorms at Loch Etchachan with the burn full of green ice and the hills scoured by the winds and it looked very wintry indeed. With a bit of blue sky weather at the weekend it may be busy on the hills and climbs. I love this area deep in the Ciarngorms and the Hutchison hut recently has been  renovated by the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA). It is still a place of great wildness and beauty and in winter only visited by a few.

Typical Cairngorm weather.

Typical Cairngorm weather.

I had a real epic in this area in winter it was during the Black Winter in the 90’s a sad crazy spell when there was a huge amount of accidents. The date was the 4 th March 1995 We were looking for two climbers who never returned from a days climbing in the Cairngorms. It was day 3 of a wild Cairngorms Call – out we were not sure where they had gone to climb do as is the norm the net was thrown even wider. I was with the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team and we were asked to search and assist the Breamar and Aberdeen Teams in the Southern side of the Cairngorms. The weather was crazy huge winds and a big avalanche hazard at that time. We met at Glenmore Lodge for a pick up by the Sea king helicopter and I had over 20 troops pretty exhausted from two days searching. When we were given our area in the middle of the Cairngorms they would drop us by loch Etchachan and we would search from there! I was pretty worried but thought there would be no way we would get in to this area not in the current weather. How wrong I was, as we waited at Glenmore Lodge with the usual cups of tea a normal kindness shown by the lodge staff. We got the message that the helicopter was inbound. There is a refuelling dump at the Lodge so the helicopter can make great use of this facility and make several flights from this base.

map gorms

As usual the brave boys from Lossiemouth helicopter flight said they would have a go and I was in the first attempt. It was poor visibility and heavy snow showers but we sneaked up Strath Nethy – me up front the rest in the back oblivious to what was happening. It was some great flying we sneaked in through Loch Avon getting buffeted by the wing but what views of the great cliffs of Shelterstone and the aptly named Hells Lum We eventually landed down near a frozen Loch Etchachan. It was as wild as I can remember the hills were packed with snow and as we flew over huge drifts of snow were scoured on the hills. I am never the best of flyers but this was one scary flight. As we got off the spindrift was awful one minute you are in a warm helicopter next minute in a white hell. You are ready in the aircraft for what the weather can give you and as soon as we were down on the ground and I thanked “The Lord” The goggles and face masks were on and we watched the helicopter make use of a break in the clouds and fly over a clear but wild Cairngorms. There was no shelter just get the bothy bags out and sort out a plan! I was sure the weather was coming in again so we had a break and looked at our search options. We had 20 minutes till the rest arrived it was a windchill of -20 and spindrift and very cold and uncomfortable.

Our friends Breamar Mrt were on the hill and having a hard time they were amazed that we had arrived and I asked to keep in touch as there was a huge avalanche danger. A lot of my team were unaware of this as many were tired and on a rescue just want to get the job done but safety comes first.

The crazy conditions and the depth of snow about in that winter. This was a search in Glencoe 15 feet drifts. The Black winter.

The crazy conditions and the depth of snow about in that winter. This was a search in Glencoe 15 feet drifts. The Black winter.

I was just sorted out when I heard the helicopter coming back again making use of the break in the weather and we soon put up a flare and in came the Yellow helicopter. When he comes in on a day like this the spindrift is incredible and you have no chance of seeing anything. We could hear him and stayed where we were wanting him to drop the guys and go. This was soon done and soon there were now over 20 team members in the middle of the Cairngorms. As the helicopter started to move away a whiteout came in along with a wind and visibility became zero! We all huddled together and heard the helicopter try to break off but after a few minutes it was still very close. The visibility cleared and it was over the frozen loch Etchechan and struggling to get out. then it seemed lost again in the spindrift. Trying to speak on the radio was no use so in all the din and wind I got the message to a few of the troops and we started heading onto the frozen Loch to give the helicopter some visual reference to get out. I had to get to the front of the helicopter and give the crew a reference ? Most of the troops had got the message and formed a line about 10 metres apart showing the way out down the glen eventually the crew saw us and turned the helicopter over the Loch and headed out. That was a close call.

We regrouped after the helicopter left – I was pretty shaken as were a few of the more senior troops a lot of the younger ones were unaware of what had occurred. It all became silent as only this wild place can be and apart from the constant snow, wind and spindrift awful but beautiful. it was well after midday by now and we had decisions to make. This is where things really got interesting, Breamar Mrt were a lot higher than us and having a rough time I could hear it on the radio. I was unfortunately in charge and said we can do little here in a rescue capacity it was getting into a survival scenario we will have to make a decision. We got a message not to expect any helicopter support we were on our own and the weather was getting worse. Our transport and Base Camp were over the Cairngorm side of the hill a long serious epic walk in these conditions. There was no way I was taking over 20 troops down to Loch Avon and back over the Cairngorms in these crazy conditions of weather and the very serious Avalanche danger?

To be continued


About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 36 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 4 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Avalanche info, Bothies, Friends, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering. Bookmark the permalink.

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