Martin Moran Blog 31 Jan 2015 “Reflections on a Rescue” Avalanche on Liathach Jan 2015.

I make no apology  for re blogging this article was written by a good friend Martin Moran a World Class Mountain Guide who lives in the Torridon area. He is a man of incredible mountaineering ability a full time guide who still is a member of the local Mountain Rescue Team The Torridon and Kinlochewe MRT based in the far North West Of Scotland. This is a small team with a huge area and a team made up of local people and incredible mountains.  I tried to copy the link but I had a snag so Martin said it was was okay and I have copied his complete blog. Please read it and share it with friends it is so  sums up a Rescue and the huge effect on those involved. This to me is very powerful writing  and  I hope we all learn from it. Please share it among the lovers of the wild places and we are so lucky having such people out there doing there best for us if it all goes wrong!

Reflections on a Rescue – a difficult day with Torridon Mountain Rescue Team on Liathach

Joy heard the 2am call and I dragged myself out of bed. Two climbers were overdue from the grade III gully called George in Coire Dubh Mor on Liathach, a route that I have done on dozens of occasions. Muster time was 6am at the team base in Torridon Youth Hostel. I instantly knew that this was a serious shout. I had been retreated from An Teallach the

previous day in conditions both wild and dangerous with huge build-ups of drifted snow. The overnight weather forecast was appalling with a “polar low” due to give blizzards and storm-force winds.

Our immediate assumption was that the climbers had been avalanched at some point. Andrew J was acting as coordinator. He gave us the bare bones of information. The wife of one had raised the alarm when they had failed to arrive at the hostel as planned on Friday evening. She was back at home in Suffolk. The two friends had travelled up on Thursday night for a weekend’s climbing. Helicopter assistance was unlikely for several hours, so a foot search was launched.

Liathach - Photo Martin Moran

Liathach – Photo Martin Moran

Six of us were assigned to walk round the back of the mountain and climb into Coire Dubh Mor to approach the route. Three others, led by Jim S, would go up the south side to check likely descent routes.  Throughout our searches the prime concern was to avoid placing ourselves in unnecessary danger. At 6.30am we left the Coire Dubh car park, wrapped up to the hilt. Ryan led for a way until the path disappeared under deep drifts a hundred metres up. Mark and I took over and we staggered blindly in the storm. Ferocious cross-winds knocked us over every minute or so. The task ahead seemed overwhelming. The march to the steeping stones in Coire Dubh, a fifty minute jaunt in dry conditions, took us over two hours, but the dawn gave us better orientation.

Liathach map

Emily and Ronald remained in the lee of a large boulder to provide a radio link round the back of the mountain as necessary. I didn’t envy them as they donned down jackets and hunkered down under a group shelter. All the way through the valley the snow was knee-deep and akin to a wet quicksand, sucking the life out of the legs. However, visibility was improving. The worst of the storm had moved through. I began to believe that we could do something useful. Mark is a fit warrior. He and I took turns to forge a trail while Ryan and Charlie handled the radio communications.

After three hours we reached the corrie. A quick scan for recent avalanche debris revealed nothing. Perhaps they had bivouacked in the route. There is a cave at the crux which could provide some shelter. Cautiously, we probed higher, digging out snow pits to check for active windslab. The further we went the more confident I felt. The fresh snow, though thigh thigh-deep in places, revealed no tendency to fracture. Naturally, there was reluctance at base to give us the green light to climb higher, but we impressed Andrew that we could reasonably scout the gully and then traverse out to the north ridge of Spidean a’Coire Leith.

Charlie and Ryan stayed back to be available to traverse into Coire na Caime if needed there. Moving one at a time Mark and I ploughed between islands of rock. Soon we could see the whole route. It was empty. The mountain now revealed its full profile, blasted clean by the storm with every nook and cranny etched in wind-packed snow. The puzzle of the missing climbers was now as absorbing as it was troubling. Avalanche was no longer the only scenario. A fall on descent was as likely, and in the teeth of a hurricane the climbers would almost definitely have descended from the exit of the route direct into Coire na Caime rather than trying to get over the summit.

Mark and I climbed swiftly up Spidean’s north ridge. At the exit of George we found two tangled ropes and the remains of sandwiches. Our suspicions were confirmed. The two climbers must already have been desperate to have dumped their ropes. We reported the find and suggested an immediate switch of operation to Coire na Caime. With its lochan jewels and ice-scraped terracing this is most the lovely of mountain corries but can turn into a desperate trap in the teeth of a storm, with no path out and no phone signal. Charlie and Ryan began a horizontal traverse round into the corrie. Stornaway Coastguard helicopter was now on scene and would collect more rescuers from Torridon base.

For Mark and I the priority was to check for tracks over the summit. It was important to eliminate that lingering possibility. As we cramponned up the final ridge the NW wind still blew in occasional gusts of 50mph. We found old crampon scrapes around the summit cairn and scouted the “false line” towards Pyramid Buttress where climbers might have strayed and fallen, but there was no conclusive evidence of recent activity. We decided to complete our mission by descending the normal route down the “bum-slides” from the col east of Spidean’s summit. We dug a test snow-pit and again we found no layering. I launched down first. The ride was exhilarating. Within 5 minutes we were 250 metres lower.  Nowhere was there any avalanche debris or recent tracks. For us the last hours had been an intriguing and, dare I admit, satisfying piece of mountaineering. Despite the dread narrative that underlay our mission, we were pleased that on this rescue our efforts had made a genuine contribution to a resolution. So often they don’t.

Then we heard a burst of activity on the team radio. One of the two missing climbers had emerged at Coire Dubh car park and Gerry McP had picked him up in the team bus. He was weak and mildly hypothermic but otherwise unharmed. He had left his friend in Coire na Caime where they had bivouacked through the storm. We dared to believe that both had survived. All that was needed was a quick airlift and this story could end in triumph. Our spirits soared.
“Tell him that we have got his ropes,” I blurted out in sheer relief.
Mark and I swooped down the second series of bum-slides and reached the road in 40 minutes. Gerry picked us up. He had dropped the climber off at the hostel, Charlie and Ryan has spotted a bivouac shelter a few hundred metres away and the helicopter was on its way, but Gerry’s mood was more sombre.
“His friend was conscious when he left him, but he’d stopped shivering during the night. That’s not good.”

Back at the hostel the climber was re-warming, wrapped in a down jacket, his feet in a warm footbath. He was almost euphoric that his ordeal was over and that the rescue team had now taken over the final phase of the recovery. He recounted his epic. His friend was the more experienced climber but they had endured a terrible battering from spindrift in the gully. At one stage his friend took an hour and a half to establish a belay and became too exhausted to lead the final easy pitch to the top. They descended direct to Coire na Caime in darkness and his pal was avalanched on the way down, sustaining minor head injuries. They had bivouacked behind a boulder and he had left to seek a rescue when the wind started to drop at 8am. We could imagine how desperate a night this had been.

The helicopter reported that they were returning with victim and rescuers. With a severely hypothermic patient they would doubtless go straight to Raigmore Hospital. Meanwhile, the first survivor was taken off by the warden to have a shower and change of clothing. Then Gerry took a second radio call from the pilot, and he emerged with solemn face. The outcome was not good. The helicopter paramedic could detect no signs of life.

Our hopes were dashed. There seemed little more that I could do. There were several team members on hand to help deal with the situation and I had nine new course clients arriving in just a few hours. I needed to recover some spirit and strength for an evening of cheery meeting and greeting.

Yet I little imagined what trauma was still to come. The helicopter landed as I drove off. The prognosis was so certain that, instead of heading to hospital, they unloaded the casualty outside the hostel. Almost simultaneously, the wives and parents of the victims arrived at the hostel, unaware of the outcome. Despite strong dissuasion from the team leader and police they had flown up from London and came direct to the scene. Our team doctor Gerry managed the situation with superb professionalism. The stretcher was taken into the warden’s house where Gerry was able to confirm the death. Other members looked after his friend and the families in the hostel, and then Gerry had to give them the dreaded news. Usually, rescuers can maintain a degree of detachment from the personal drama of a fatality but not in this case.

From group management and physical determination, through technical expertise, communications skill and eventually to pastoral care of a bereaved family the Torridon mountain rescue team had done a magnificent job.

I couldn’t help but look at the press reports the next day, and on the Sky news web site a hundred and more comments had been appended to the brief story of a climber killed in an avalanche in Torridon. I should have resisted the temptation but began scrolling. One after another strident criticisms of the climbers flashed across the page. “Bloody idiots – shouldn’t even have gone out in that weather.” “Don’t they realise they put other people’s lives at risk.” “They don’t deserve to be rescued going out in those conditions.” “It’s always the same – English climbers coming up and killing themselves on our mountains…”

The vitriol of the baying mob was occasionally alleviated by an expression or sadness or sympathy, but the overall tenor was that of intolerance. How would the grieving wife, parents and friends of that young man who perished on the mountain feel when they read those posts, as inevitably they would do. How callous, how ignorant, how arrogant? Yes, these guys made serious misjudgements that cost the life of one, yet an essential human freedom is the freedom to make mistakes. Mostly we learn from them, but sometimes we aren’t given that chance. I tussled briefly with a surge of anger and switched off.  ”

(Some of the comments on social media were appalling after the accident and I tried  my best at the time to add some sense to the tirade of abuse by some. David Whalley)

Thanks Martin for the permission to use this excellent piece it is so powerful and explains the effort of a Rescue that few acknowledge and the effects on the family,friends   and team involved. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service has run a trial weekends only forecast for the Torridon Area. I hope that this evolves into a daily information service for this increasingly popular area every winter. We need every tool available to advise the lovers of these wild places of the conditions we can expect to meet as we do battle with nature!


2015 m moran blog April


Avalanches in Torridon. Commented Davy Gunn

It may be down to luck whether an unfortunate mountaineer or skier survives an avalanche unscathed, but it certainly is a matter of life and death. Two recent incidents; two lucky survivors and one not so lucky.

In light of all the avalanche victims reported in the Alps this season, let’s not forget that avalanches do commonly occur in Scotland and that it’s the terrain that can make it a matter of luck. Check the stats; burial doesn’t claim the majority of victims, it’s traumatic injury caused by hitting rock (and/or taken over cliffs and outcrops) whilst moving down in an avalanche. Scottish avalanches may not Alpine sized, but a seemingly innocuous sluff may be enough to knock us off our feet.”

Avalanche Incidents 1980 – 2010 involving MRT

  • Ben Nevis 44 incidents 28%
  • Cairngorms 32 incidents 20.4%
  • Glencoe 31 incidents 19.7%
  • Craig Meagaidh 13 incidents 8.3%
  • Southern Cairngorms 13 incidents 10%
  • North West 20 incidents 12.6%
  • Southern Uplands/Highlands 6 incidents 3.8%


Torridon an incredible wild place.

Torridon an incredible wild place.

  • I am currently updating this information with the SAIS and anyone who was involved in any of these incidents I would appreciate their input.

“Unseen from the road, the majestic cliffs are hidden.

The long walk, views expanding as we climb.

Liathach brooding in the mist, is watching?

As usual we meet a family of deer

They have been there for many years

What have they seen?

These great cliffs sculptured by time and nature.”


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, Books, Friends, Lectures, Mountain rescue, Mountaineering, SAR, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering. Bookmark the permalink.

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