March 1990 – DEAD MEN DON’T WAVE
The article below to me describes a Mountain Rescue incident, few will know of but it was typical of many rescues that go unreported.. Five mountain Rescue Teams – Lochaber, Glencoe, RAF Kinloss, RAF Leuchars & SARDA searched for a young 17 year old who was lost alone in Ben Nevis in winter. This was a busy time most of us had already been away on Call -outs for may days, the teams were exhausted, we had not seen our families for over a week “but the casualty must come first” In these days the teams were as always assisted by the RAF Wessex / Sea King helicopters flying in typical winter conditions. This is an article written by Pete Kirkpatrick who was the Team Leader of RAF Leuchars at the time, too me it is what Mountain Rescue is about. Five Mountain Rescue Teams over 5 Days searched and this was after many days of constant call –outs.
How could a dead person be waving at me? My eyes must be mistaken. Tiredness and the constant peering into the mist were creating false images. It could not be true, but if it was, by hell it was some surprise.
Those five days had started with the RAF Leuchars Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) undergoing a normal weekend training exercise in the Arrocher Alps. During every weekend, the 6 RAF MRTs train around the hills to maintain fitness levels and expertise. The usual result is teams returning to their units, contented and weary late on a Sunday night.
This Sunday, started to change shape around Crainlarich on the journey home. Over the radio we heard of a rescue taking part on the Buachaille in Glencoe. An offer of help was made and accepted.
The incident involved a crag fast climber high on the mountain. In true good MR fashion we carried the world to the scene, in the hope it would not be used, but reluctant to ascent the mountain with hope alone. Happily, the climber was recovered quickly and assisted off the mountain. The team went to ground in the Kingshouse Hotel on the edge of the Rannoch Moor, four to a double room, one snorer per room.
Monday. The rain lashed down and the windows rattled. Inside the dining room the team tucked into a civilised breakfast, girding their loins for the drive back to Leuchars – or so we thought. Telephone call – assemble the team and report to Hamish McInnes in Glencoe.
Two overdue climbers had left yesterday for a route on Stob Coirre Nan Bieth, and had not returned. The weather was causing concern. It seemed wise to combine RAF Kinloss and Leuchars, Lochaber and Glencoe MRTs members and go and find out why?
That day the teams assisted five climbers from the mountain. Three who had never been reported missing but needed help, and the original pair who walked in uninjured having survived an enforced bivouac. The MRT workforce had put in a considerable effort due to the gale force winds, difficult ground and snow conditions. Another night in the Kingshouse was needed, too tired to go home now.
Tuesday. Another telephone call, report to the Fort William Police Station and assist in a search for a missing seventeen year old lad called Garry Smith, lost since yesterday on Ben Nevis. Quickly formulated opinions passed through the brain, but as yet not for public consumption. Yesterday’s weather, his lack of experience, the statistics of the big bad Ben – this lad was a goner.
Over 120 people swamped the mountain and helicopters scoured the visible areas. Danger spots were probed carefully and fearfully. His parents had travelled up from Manchester. This was not another lost person; it was now somebody’s son. I have a son capable of the same misguided mountain enthusiasm. (Pete’s son is the now a very well-known mountaineer he is the world famous Andy Kirkpatrick)
Mountains are there for pleasure and adventure. Epics are great if you survive. The trick is having the epic only once and learning from it. Was this lad still capable of learning?
We helped to search Five Finger Gully and expended more nervous energy than physical in the dangerous ground. In a last chance throw of the dice, a night search seemed appropriate. A small group went out again. A lone Landrover waited remained in the Glen, hopefully awaiting a positive radio message; no such call came. The searchers returned to their sleeping bags, depressed.( The teams were exhausted and many heads were down quit rightly we were all exhausted and many were getting pressure to go home and back to work)
(I was helping organising the search from Fort William Police Station with Donald Watt the Lochaber Team Leader and Pete is right this was the last day of our chance to find Gary alive. The teams were exhausted this was the last chance to find him. The family were with us things were looking bleak)
Wednesday. New search areas, but no new information. Tired hearts and legs ascended the mountain again. No stretchers were carried. Private opinions had been voiced – bodies don’t need rescuing, only finding.
My team had been tasked to search the slopes north of the main footpath above the half way Lochan. Difficult rocky ground to walk on let alone search in misty and sleety conditions. The area was finally reached and the separate parties began to slowly search across their 500ft portion of the mountain. I was in the top group and five minutes into the search I could see an arm waving from a red shape. A mixture of emotions and thoughts ran through me – relief, guilt, concern and professional questions on what to do next? Satisfaction would only be allowed if we got him off this mountain alive.
He was barley conscious and soaked through to the skin and half covered in a plastic sheet torn to shreds by his crampons. He was alive – just.
During the next 15 minutes other party members arrived, dry kit replaced wet clothing; sleeping bags, hats and gloves eventually cocooned his body. The message of ‘You’ve been found, but it’s not over, hang on, don’t give up now was firmly implanted – repeatedly!
Down below, the news of the find had revitalised everybody involved in the SAR operation. A tremendous combined ‘Will to Live’ seemed to transmit upwards.
(When Gary was located the radio message came in to the Police Station, the cheer that went up when we were told that Gary was still alive but in a bad way, he had a chance, I will never forget that message and the huge hug from a big burly Policeman)
Below, beneath the mist line sat the Leuchars 22 Sqn Wessex, only 60 seconds flying time away, poised, waiting for the opportunity to snatch the casualty and save him an hour of bone jarring man handling. Suddenly the mist parted and that window of opportunity appeared. Rapid plans were made between the ground party and the helicopter. A quick in and out, a difficult winching operation, pray for the break to last – let’s do it!
The helicopter closed carefully with a constant eye on the swirling mist. The winch man descended into our welcoming arms. Strops were placed. Checks were made – thumbs up.
GO, GO, Go – gone. Gone to live another day.
As I said in the introduction it was an incredible rescue and what a result for us all. The teams all came off the hill feeling elated, Ben Nevis had shown mercy this time, Gary had hung in there and been found. It was a huge rescue attempt by all the teams and it never matters who locates the casualty we are all part of a big team. To me this was one of the best Rescues I have ever been involved in and what rescue is all about. This will be one of many stories to do the rounds at the RAF Leuchars/ Kinloss Re Union this weekend. I was in the Fort William Police Station when the news came through that he was alive. The family were about, there joy and tears were shared by all. Cheers came over the radio from all teams involved and a massive cheer in the police station said it all. Big tough Lochaber bobbies had a tear in their eye as did many of us. Words do not describe how we felt.
Thanks to Pete Kirkpatrick for permission to use his wonderful article it still makes me think of these epic call – out and the amazing people that are involved in Mountain Rescue.
“Dead Men Don’t Wave” – “The Casualty must come first” There is always hope. Please share if you feel this of interest?