Scottish Mountain Rescue – 1980 ‘s To 1990’s – Tragedy, Helicopters, plastic boots, new gear, avalanches and big searches and lowers!

This period was when I had become a full-time Deputy Team  Leader and after a spell in North Wales  I came back up North to RAF Kinloss.  Mountain Rescue in Wales was interesting and for the first time I was stationed with the helicopter crew at RAF Valley and learned much about the use of helicopters in Mountain Rescue. Mountain Rescue was changing dramatically the big thing was the use of the helicopters and the Wessex was one we all came to love, Mountain Rescue was very different . Team equipment was improving as were communications, radios were getting better and some teams even had radio repeaters put up in areas of bad reception.

Plastic Boots and new crampons like Foot Fangs made life a bit easier.

Plastic Boots and new crampons like Foot Fangs made life a bit easier.

Plastic Boots were all the rage – gone were wet and cold feet but at times they hurt they broke your feet into the plastic boots. Gone were the days when flares were set off and were used to bring parties of the hill after a call out, radios worked and though still heavy were fairly efficient and very costly. Polar fleeces and Gortex made personal gear a lot more efficient when you look back there were huge influences on mountaineering.

Stats - 1989 - a big rise

Stats – 1989 – a big rise –

By 1989 – the format in the SMC Journal had changed and the Statistician John Hinde was busy man with increase in call -outs to 215. Ben Humble the guru of Mountain Safety and accidents had long gone and I wonder what he would have made of all these incidents?  If you compare that to the 1970 figures it is a big rise in 10 years. One of the comments made was the most man hours were spent in looking for Solo hill walkers usually male and the number of injuries wearing chamfered heel footwear! A big talking point at this time.

The SMC Journal showed that in 1970 – the Mountain Accidents were:

80 call outs – 22 fatalities, Most call -outs was Glencoe and most fatalities was Ben Nevis (5) 20 accidents were due to slips and trips and many due to the poor footwear.

There were 11 accidents to roped parties and man – hours by Mountain Rescue Team was over 20000. Many were now taking to hills, the winter climbing explosion was happening and the new books and guides brought many to enjoy Scotland’s Mountains. Books like the Munros by the SMC and better climbing guides improved knowledge and the numbers coming to the Mountains exploded.

Books on the Munros and others enticed many to the Mountains.

Books on the Munros and others enticed many to the Mountains.

Munroist – who had completed and registered with the SMC, there would be many more who had not.

  • 1901 – 1970 – 96 Munroists
  • 1970 – 1980 – 211 – (115)
  • 1980 – 1990 – 721 – (510)
The Bell Stretcher as used by the RAF teams on Ben Narnain.

The Bell Stretcher as used by the RAF teams on Ben Narnain.


Team training was changing. Most of the teams were all now having annual first aid courses and regular training days covering various subjects all in the teams own time.  A few had a base Lochaber used the Police station, Torridon used the Youth Hostel, Cairngorm had a base near Aviemore in the Heritage Centre  and for many  others it was a garage to hold the kit and the odd vehicle all paid for by the teams. All the teams relied on charity and raised money through various events, the river race in Glen Nevis was one as was the collection tins in most pubs in the climbing areas. Most of the teams struggled and money was very hard to get and the radios very costly were at times funded by the Police. All the  teams had little money and it was hard work raising funds for the new equipment and gear a  constant struggle. Teams were busy all over Scotland with big Rescues taking place. Large lowers were now happening on many of the big cliffs and rescue gear had been adapted to cope.

Early Gear !

Early Gear ! Modern Gear !

During the 1980 – 1990 there were 21 Fatalities caused by Avalanche incidents all over Scotland and this huge increase led to the formation of the Scottish Avalanche Service (SAIS) and the public and Mountain Rescue Teams gaining much more information and training on Avalanches. We take this Service for granted nowadays but in the late 80’s many thought that this service was a waste of money.  Avalanche posters were placed in key areas  in the Glen and in the pubs to inform the public.

The old Mountain Rescue badge

The old Mountain Rescue badge

The Scottish Avalanche Project began in 1988 as an avalanche forecasting service funded by the Scottish Sports Council and operating in 2 areas, Glencoe and the North Cairngorms. This ran for 2 winters, with the addition in 1989-90 of Lochaber and a weekend pilot scheme on Lochnagar.  After this the Project was permanently adopted by the Scottish Sports Council and became the Scottish Avalanche Information Service. Teams now were carrying out Avalanche Training and some even carried Avalanche Transceivers though extremely costly could be life saving when teams were working in avalanche territory.


1986 Avalanche Glencoe

1986 Avalanche Glencoe – tragic job probing .

The increased use of helicopters meant that in good weather many incidents were dealt with by them and great work was done by the crews and the teams. We all began to rely on the support of the Rescue Helicopters and the new Sea Kings that were being introduced, Flying in the mountains is never easy as the photo below shows.

Wessex crash Ben More

In 1987 the Killin Team was involved in a tragedy when the Wessex crashed on Ben More on a call out killing the Team Leader and local Policeman Harry Lawrie. Another team member was badly injured as was the winch man. Heroics were performed by the Killin Team that night that involved pulling the injured out of the helicopter.  This was a tragedy that shook Mountain Rescue to its core and reminded all of the dangers involved in Rescue.  žAfter carrying Harry off the hill, that awful night,the next day both the Killin & RAF Leuchars MR teams were on a first light search for the fallen climber that the rescue was originally for. They located and carried her off, sadly she had died in her fall. I was never so impressed by how the Killin Team coped during this period. I was there when it all happened and ran the Search next day for the missing climber what a bunch of people. Killin Team and its member’s are still great friends after this tragic event.

Harry LIP.awrie R

Harry L.awrie BEM Killin Team Leader.


The Mountain Rescue Committee had an annual training weekend sponsored by Shell ” The Shell Seminar” usually at Glenmore Lodge where teams sent representatives to update and learn from other teams practices. Local Guides and Instructors assisted and knowledge was spread throughout the teams. These were informative and could be a great social weekend where many Agencies outside Scottish Mountain Rescue gave talks, . Many held workshops and new gear was tested, from medical and first aid, stretchers to  clothing and other rescue equipment.  There were many characters in this era all over Scotland and these Meetings could be pretty heated but much was learned. It was also great to meet many from other teams, who had similar views and ideas. There were some key people who should not be forgotten, many who asked the questions that are still relevant today in Mountain Rescue. People like Hamish, Ian Nicholson, Davy Gunn from Glencoe, Donald Watt, Terry, Willie and the crew from Lochaber,Peter Cliff, Chris Barley , John Allen  and the Cairngorm Team,  The “Glenmore All stars” Gerry Ackroyd Skye and Graham Gibb from Braemar. Add to that characters like Mick Tighe, Irish Brian and so many more, each team had its characters  these were interesting times in Mountain Rescue.   Yet many of the teams had so many unsung stalwarts, who knew there area so well.   Meeting at the  Seminars  at Glenmore were great as on a call out you rarely had time to speak to other teams on call outs  and many friendships were made that have lasted years. Teams were working together there were many big searches running several days  and involving over 100 plus searchers and dogs.  At times the weather was very wild and it is incredible that fe rescuers got injured on rescues. The Gods were maybe watching us?

Lockerbie 1988 – Few know of the work by the Mountain Rescue Teams in Lockerbie and the lasting effects on many?  The local Teams were there from the start and played a huge part in the locating and recovery of casualties. How many nowadays know the tale of what the teams and SARDA did?

Lockerbie Map - a huge involvement by Mrt and SARDA.

Lockerbie Map – a huge involvement by Mrt and SARDA. 1500 klm search area.

All wreckage was plotted on the master map by the  Teams and this was information was updated regularly to the Police. Every few hours!

Search Teams were debriefed – given a break and went out again and again.

Every casualty had to be left in place and the position marked on the map. A Policeman was attached to each casualty. This was a scene of crime

Sadly Looters were on scene by first light!

A huge Press camp set up – World news Satellite tv the tragedy was world news. MRT were now facing the world media and learning all the time!

Teams involved – žTweed Valley,žMoffat,žBorders SAR,žRAF Leuchars/ Stafford/ Leeming/St Athan

žSARDA – Scotland and England and Wales

žCoastguards/ Raynet

ž9 Helicopters, žWRVS. Many others.

1988 Lockerbie Memorail

This was a massive incident the biggest in the UK by far and Mountain Rescue played a huge part. Training Exercises held between Teams in the Borders helped in the chaos and trauma that occurred. Mountain Rescue should be proud of what they did in this tragic period.

After this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?  (PTSD) was accepted by many organisations. It was accepted  that it did occur and training and help was offered. It would take years for many to accept that such an awful experience such as Lockerbie could affect even the most experienced rescuers.  There is still a long way to go  even nowadays in my view.

A heavy Read but worth it for many Agencies that are involved in trauma!

A heavy Read but worth it for many Agencies that are involved in trauma!

The Sea King was operating in Scotland at this time at RAF Lossiemouth and there were fears that this a far bigger aircraft would be difficult to work with on the mountains? The increased size of the aircraft  meant a far bigger down-draught for teams working below especially on steep ground there was a fear that it may even blow away a team member. The Wessex was to be phased out in the mid – 90’s and was by now so well-loved by all the teams.   These would be tricky times ahead in getting used to the new Sea King. Lessons were being learned already and passed on after each Exercise or call out. The Sea King could take many more passengers.  There was also lots of training was being done by the two RAF Teams trying to sort out the way for teams to work safely! This sounds familiar “a new aircraft and the worries of Mountain Rescue”?

RAF p ropaganda at the time

RAF propaganda at the time a magic aircraft and crews.

Interesting times ahead!

A very near miss !!!!

A very near miss !!!!

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, medical, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Weather. Bookmark the permalink.

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