One of my early weekends with the RAF MRT in 1972 was planned at Ben Alder a wonderful remote area just of the A9. The team went to different areas every weekend and I had my new Munro s book out, seeing what hills I may be able to climb! The team used the garage and sheds at the Ben Alder Lodge a 5 mile drive up a rough estate track near the A9 near Dalwhinnie. It was then about a two and a half hour drive after work on a Friday night, it was bitter cold as we novices traveled in the back of an open 4 tonner wagon! It was a clear night and the moon was out it was freezing and the whole place plastered with snow. It was a busy half hour and we were soon settled in the garages it was so cold. This was an amazing place, stags and hinds were right down to the road, there were hundreds of them. The keeper Mr Oswald was a long-time friend of the team and our leader George Bruce. We had the use of the estate tracks to those huge remote hills a great privilege and fantastic assistance to great days in the mountains. George took great time to build up relationship with every estate in Scotland. This was to prove invaluable for future call outs and building up the team’s area knowledge to assist us on any incident’s in the future. All the time I was learning from the way he spoke to people he had a magic touch, which I was to see on many occasions. The team took a couple of barrels of beer out which we had in the garage when we got there and it was amazing as the team members all sang folk songs round a fire that night, I loved it. The garage was where we cooked as well and most of the team were in tents. It was amazingly cold all night and next morning when we got up I could not believe the view; Loch Ericht was frozen solid as was all our water. One of the tasks is that the team members all take times to cook and as a novice I had to get up and help the cook with breakfast at 0600 and make the traditional bed –tea, round all the team. The numbers out this weekend were again very high nearly 30 people, a busy time for the cook, I was trying to pick up all the skills as if you did a bad cook you were in the river, that was the tradition. Luckily I was very glad as my Mum had brought me up to be able to cook basics including breakfast, soup and basic meals like mince and tatties they gave me great life skills for the future. Thanks Mum!
The remote Culra Lodge nestled in between the huge complex mountain Beinn Alder with Culra bothy in view was ahaven for climbers. (Now closed 2014) I was to go out with George Bruce the Team leader and 2 other team members. George had planned a winter scramble or climb up a magnificent ridge called Lancet Edge near Culra bothy right in the heart of the Alder Estate. It was a wonderful drive across the moor, full of snow and a drive across the icy river Pattock by land rover. There were stags and hinds everywhere, many following the wagon thinking that they may have been getting fed. I thought to myself people would pay a fortune to be in especially in a hard winter and this was one? The views of the mountains is incredible, snow everywhere and blue sky, these are huge mountains with the magnificent Ben Alder dwarfing its lofty neighbour’s with its sprawling ridges and huge corries. We stopped at the Culra bothy an open shelter used by climbers and left the wagon there. It is a very basic building with a fire, stone floor, sleeping space and freezing cold. I had spent many a night in bothies like these in Galloway whilst training for the Duke of Edinburgh award but this was a different league.
The objective was Lancet Edge which was opposite Ben Alder this was a ridge on the huge 1028 metres Sgur Lurtharn, it looked so Alpine and impressive. A thin icy ridge running up to a snowy plateau and to my inexperienced mountaineering mind I wondered how we would get up that ridge. We had with us a very experienced climber who had worked at Glenmore Lodge as a civilian Instructor who was one of George’s friends Davy Sharp. Davy I found out on the walk up from the Bothy across the moor was just recovering from a serious avalanche accident in the Lake District the previous winter. George was great form in walk in telling stories, talking about the area and setting an enjoyable pace, not the usual rush to the top. He was teaching and laughing all the time and in the hour on the walk in we learned many new skills. I was shown again how to use my axe and crampons on some ice on a small buttress and how to ice axe brake properly on some steep snow, we then set of kicking steps up the slope leading to ridge. As is the normal procedure we all took our place in front kicking in the snow was hard work. As we got higher, the snow became deeper and was lying in places in drifts on top of steep frozen grass. I know now that this is not a good combination.
We traversed round some steep buttress and marveled at the views which opened out as we got higher. Just below the top of the ridge I was just behind George when I heard a crack and then we were tumbling down the hill, I remember going over a crag and then tumbling and crashing over rocks. It all went quiet when we eventually stopped and I was partially buried by snow and could hardly move my legs. George was next to me and helped me get out; I had swallowed lots of fine particles snow and was coughing fairly badly. I could hear Dave groaning and George was helping him out as the snow had by now frozen, he was like us all very badly shaken and bruised. I was battered but the adrenalin kicked in and helped Dave up. George got on the radio and asked for assistance from other team hill parties as we feared that Dave would not be able to walk off. We gathered our equipment that was scattered all over and started back, helping with Dave’s bag. George though shaken was completely in control and explained that we had been avalanched and in his usual sense of humour said this was very rare in Scotland and a great honour to be avalanched in such experienced company! What a man he was, his humour was just what we needed and I was to learn so much from this great man, throughout my Mountain Rescue Career and throughout life. We managed to get back to Culra Bothy and then to the wagon by now Dave could hardly walk and was taken to hospital for a check-up. George reckoned that we had fallen over 600 feet some of it over a steep cliff, we were very lucky that no one was killed. I had used up one of my mountaineering lives!
When we got back to the Base Camp at Ben Alder we spoke to the keeper George who in his own measured way said “aye I thought the hill was pretty dangerous after the heavy snow and that wind” You were very lucky and offered us a dram. Later I stiffened up and bruising came out on my back and legs but next day I was back on the hill. I was the only one out of the avalanche who went out next day. As George said when you fall of you have to get back on straight away. I had a wonderful day on Ben Alder climbing it by an amazing ridge the Short Leachas a great winter scramble, what a day. The plateau to the summit was incredible with huge cornices by now the weather had changed and it was difficult navigation to the summit. I marvelled at the team navigating in a full white out, over this complex plateau, with its huge cornices overhanging the cliffs. Near the summit we heard a huge crash as a cornice tumbled down into the corrie. I was really tired on the way off but they dragged me up Beinn Bheoil as well which was complex as the wind was in our faces and the slopes very steep, this was serious mountaineering. Getting back to the land rover I was exhausted but again happy and the river crossing in the wagon was serious as there was a big thaw on. When we arrived back at the Lodge Mr Oswald the keeper said that we were lucky to get the land rover over the river as it could have been there for the whole winter! George had a wee word as we packed up he said, you have passed your trial you are now a Novice team member. He said that you did well but do not let it go to your head, it is a long way to go and you are just starting, take no hassle from anyone, stand up for yourself and learn every time you go on the hill.
At that time in 1972 few thought that avalanches occurred in Scotland , this is hard to believe nowadays? There was no Avalanche forecast and the weather reports were very basic. Nowadays the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) is there free for all to use. We also have the Mountain Weather Information Service which gives tremendous daily information. We were extremely lucky that day and all walked away , Davy was never the same after it, I learned so much and became a great supporter of the SAIS since.
My mountaineering apprenticeship had started what a three weekends I had What adventures already? I had so much to learn, I could not wait for the next weekend.
Have a look at the SAIS and MWIS websites there is lots of information there for you!