Thoughts on a personal Mountain Tragedy and a huge thanks to all who risk their lives for us.

These words from my nephew on the search for his Uncles.

“God bless all those in the search, human and canine alike.”

After over 40 years involved in Mountain Rescue every mountain accident is a tragedy. Over the years my involvement has led to the loss of 10 friends over the years. No one knows more than me the work of all the Agencies who work so hard on every incident in the mountains. The Police, Mountain Rescue Teams, SARDA the helicopters and the local support they receive from Estates and local folk. The ethos of giving your time to search for people you have never met in the depth of the winter is hard for many to accept. In this world that few do anything for nothing I am always amazed by these good folk who are rarely in the news or media for their unselfish actions. Most teams train monthly and the ongoing training involves so much time and effort, all unpaid and voluntary.  

I left Mountain Rescue in 2011 but still get involved speaking and having the honour of working with the Teams. Mountain Rescue is unique family and I have huge respect for all the Teams how hard they work to raise funds. This is especially in the Far North and West away from the honey pot areas. These are wild areas where without helicopter assistance you rely on the Estates for the use of tracks to get to the hills. Most hills are at least 6-8 hour days and in winter the paths are snow-covered. In deep snow in the heart of winter I mile can be 2 in heavy snow  and the hills and ridges have big cornices that require constant navigation awareness. This in winter is winter mountaineering  gone is the 6 hour walk in summer along a well made path to a Munro summit it can become an expedition that can take all day. Navigation in winter is critical crampons and ice axe and the skill to use them are always needed. This winter will be a long one and a  winter summit can be hard-won. One day out each winter bagging a Munro does not make you an experienced winter mountaineer this comes with many years of winter Mountaineering. Even then you learn every time you go out.

Early yesterday I left at 0430 to meet the Mountain Rescue Teams and Search Dogs involved in the search for the missing brother Neil  Gibson in Wester Ross. I was going up to thank the Teams before they started their searches for Neil  who is still missing with his dog since Thursday night. His brother Alan was located yesterday by the Teams they had been out winter Mountaineering and had not returned from a Munro in Torridon area. I was unaware of their names until my sister called and Neil and Allan are her nephews and Uncles to her children.

It was a difficult call as it came when was out walking locally with friends it was made worse when it is a family member my sister and she would want to know my opinion of what was happening. I had to explain what the teams would be doing, the weather influences and how hard an area this is to search. This year is a big winter and the area where Neil and Allan went missing is some of the remotest mountains in Scotland yet to many the most rewarding to climb in winter. I have been on these mountains 3 times in last two years always in winter it is a place I love for it wildness and unexplored cliffs.

All Photos Ryan MacLean Torridon MRT

After Alan was found my sister and the family wanted me to thank the Teams so I left early yesterday  for the 2 and a half hour trip to Torridon. After Inverness the weather was full on winter with snow most of the way just before Achnasheen. It was still pitch dark and as I headed down to Kinlochewe the light was breaking and in between snow showers showed the hills pretty plastered and the roads needed great care.

I stopped near where the Search was starting at Coulin Estate and the Teams started to arrive at 0730. The forecast was a wild day with heavy snow showers considerable avalanche risk and at times clear weather but windy high up. I met the Torridon Team and the RAF Mountain Rescue team as they set out up the Estate road and thanked them for all their efforts and for finding Allan yesterday a hard heartbreaking task. This was the 3 rd day of searching for some of them, they would be tired  but they still came out to search again. It is incredible to see how hard they work in full on winter conditions, that take a relentless toll on the body.

Soon the car park was quiet they were off, the TV camera was and I was glad  I said a few words to thank everyone for their efforts. I met Dundonnell MRT as well they were going to search another area and thanked them from all the family. SARDA were just behind them they had several dogs out searching and I had a few words with them. They had come from a training  weekend at Roybridge and had come in to help, what dedication. Many of the Mountain Rescue  Teams and SARDA I know personally and many take it for granted what they do. It is only when you are personally involved that you see what is the normal to Mountain Rescue is exceptional outside this tight family.

A big snow shower came in as forecast and the views were soon gone everything was covered in a new blanket of snow . The Teams and Search Dogs  would soon be briefed and then out searching the wild moors and cliffs hoping that they can find Neil. The snow plough passed as did a few cars hoping to get a day on the hills life goes on most folk are unaware.  I left them had some time on my own these mountains mean so much to me and I prayed they would all be safe.

Later the hills cleared the huge Torridon giants appeared through the cloud and the wild snow plastered summits came into view. It was bitter cold and silent as only the mountains can be the stags were down and they darted into the moor and were soon heading off.

Late that night I was told the Teams had a hard day searching in extremely wild conditions. The Search found nothing so the family have to wait till the weather improves. The Teams and SARDA were all of the hill safely and my mate Shane the team Leader of the RAF Lossiemouth team saw my light on in my house and gave me a brief. It was 2230 and he was just getting home, he looked exhausted.

I thanked him again for everyone’s efforts and the update and to pass on my thanks for all their efforts. Few will realise when the Teams and SARDA go back to work today what they have been up to this weekend. Teams all over the UK have been busy and many lives saved by these unassuming folk.

Why do they do it ? It is never easy to understand the pull of the mountains and wild places that can make a day turn into an epic. Despite the best forecasting data, weather remains a potentially lethal wild card for any expedition. “You can mitigate risks, but you can never remove them,” Thousands have been out all over the UK enjoying the winter safely and only sad tragedies make the headlines. 

There will sadly some comments in the media as this is after any mountain accident  accident many “armchair mountaineers”  will have their say.  I always think of the family who will be reading the many comments in the media. The only folk who should comment  is the Police and the Teams but they rarely do. Just think of the effort by all involved by all Agencies in such wild weather and serious commitments of all involved.

Its is humbling to have seen what they do and I thank you all from all the family. Thank you all stay safe. If your Mum , Dad, husband wife relation was involved with the teams, SARDA and helicopter give them a hug from me, they are special folk.

My grand-kids arrive today weather dependant so that is just what I need, life goes on for us all. If your going out in the hills take care and tell folk where and what your plans are.

Thanks to Ryan Torridon MRT for the use of his photos, they show a bit of the weather yesterday and on this incident.

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 Enviroment, Equipment, Family, Friends, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Munros, Views Mountaineering, Weather, Wildlife. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Thoughts on a personal Mountain Tragedy and a huge thanks to all who risk their lives for us.

  1. Jacqui jones says:

    What a truly beautiful piece of writing. It made me cry. I love those wild places, particularly around Torridon but would never attempt the hills in Winter as I am not good enough. I admire those that can and do. My heart goes out the families of the Gibson brothers. I have been following the story with that gut wrenching feeling from the beginning that this was not going to end well. I am praying that Neil has got himself to a place of shelter and will make it. MRT’s and SARDA are all amazing. My husband briefly served with Aberdeen MRT and we owe the Killin MRT the life of one of our dogs. Five of them turned out one Sunday afternoon to abseil down to the ledge he had got stuck on and pop him a rucksack and haul him back up. I was so grateful I would have done anything for them. So we made a personal contribution and then went onto raise over £500 through cake sales. If only rescuing Neil and Alan had been as simple as rescuing Shuggie the Border Terrier. Bless all those who give up their time and Risk their own lives to help others.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Karen Tolmie says:

    Please pass on sincere thanks from the many many people of Nairn who have been willing the to teams on the find Alan, Neil & faithful Archie. So sad an outcome. A wee town still hopes for Neils return

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely words. People forget that mountains give and take.

    Liked by 1 person

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