The annual RAF Winter Course is on this week and today and myself and my pal Dan Carrol will meet them tonight in the Cairngorms. The teams are up for a week training and it is an annual event since the 1950’s. It was decided after the famous Beinn Eighe Lancaster Crash that the teams needed winter training and so evolved the Winter Course.
Winter course memories – The RAF Winter Course is held annually in the Cairngorms and has been run since 1951 after the RAF Mountain Rescue Team were involved in the Lancaster Crash on Beinn Eighe. I have written about this tragedy on several occasions and the team was poorly equipped and trained especially in winter. After this an Annual Winter Course was held to give that unique Scottish winter experience to all the newer Team members from the now three RAF MRT that now exist. RAF Valley, RAF Leeming and RAF Lossiemouth.
My first winter Course was an incredible time – 2 weeks of the hill with one day off where we travelled to Fort William. The first few days we did basic winter skills but spent the first night of the Course in a snow hole on the Cairngorm Plateau. It was an eye opener in these days, as we had 6 UK based teams plus 2 overseas Cyprus and Masirah in the Persian Gulf. 40 team members would arrive and it was a unique one to one instructor/ pupil ratio. It was a huge learning curb for all and we had a few epics. To take 30 -40 out into the snow – hole sites was wild at times and we had a few near misses as most of the pupils were unaware of the dangers at times. The weather could change very quickly and in these early days storms were often not forecast, a few times we were very lucky indeed and my Blog has tales of mid night evacuations, epics finding the snow holes after a night navigation exercise and hasty evacuations in wild storms, roped across the plateau. I had one occasion where one pupil who went out in bare feet to visit the call of nature in the middle of the night. He had no boots on and slipped on the hard ice and could not get back up the slope. He was lucky that my dog realized something was up and woke me barking in the middle of the night. He was pretty frozen but survived okay apart from a bit of embarrassment and he learned about snow – holing from that. Nowadays the snow hole phase is done later in the Course and the numbers are far easier to control and the potential dangers are wildly known and respected.
A pal put a photo up of our Annual Winter Course in the Cairngorms and Ben Nevis where we introduced many to a Scottish Winter. As always we were involved in many call outs. The lessons of taking care were always heightened when often on the first two days of winter skills the odd climber would hurtle out of a Gully and land at our feet!
These made a few of the younger folk and us all take even more care when mountaineering in winter. I look back on instructing and running over 30 annual winter Course and we learned so much! They were a hard two weeks with one day off and so physical. It was the constant checking of the weather and avalanche conditions and planning the climbing were always a busy time and day after day it took its toll.
Many times we struggled for good conditions and ended up bothying or intensive navigation training a key winter skill! On the “blue sky days I remember getting 6 routes in Corrie an’t Sneachda climbed in a day . The Corries were full of characters and it was always great to be back safe after an adventure.
At night we had lectures many from the top climbers or Avalanche experts enhancing our knowledge. On the wild days on the Ben or Hell’s ‘Lum it would be a wait at the top of the routes for the new winter leaders on their first big lead, the cold hanging about memories. Then arriving late with exhausted troops to maybe a call out ! Looking back how did we do it!
The troops soon appreciated the skills taught and how a slip in winter can end up in a disaster! The climb is only part it’s getting of the crag in the dark or poor weather and the hanging about in Glencoe, the Ben or the Cairngorms with the heater full up!
I was glad to leave the responsibility of running the courses and getting the troops all back after a days climbing safely was enough for me! Giving the young leaders responsibility on a big route on the Ben was interesting to see how they coped and thankfully few let us down over the years!
This year the RAF Mountain Rescue will be up for their annual winter course and things move on. Health and Safety applies now even more but we were doing hill assessments every day and monitoring the routes planned each night taking into the consideration experience, weather, Avalanche report and conditions.
Now it is more formal and things improve as the gear, knowledge, modern technology improves but the danger is still there. Mountaineering is dangerous but with good training simple skills the risks are more manageable and you learn every winter. So enjoy this big winter but practise the basic skills no matter the improvements in gear and technology it’s your skill that gets you through the winter safely!
This was from a past Course “The weather this year has been pretty full on and I could see that in the wind blown faces of all last night, there is little respite in the 10 days of this years course. It is very important that you do not push it to far as it is east to try to get a route in marginal conditions in wild weather after days of storms and high winds. Many skills have been learned though and it is still a very worthwhile Course as they all agreed. The Ben was out this year due to the huge amounts of snow but I was telling about my last year of running the Course. I had half the Course over in the second week on the Ben, it is a huge change for the younger course members with a big walk in and walk out daily compared with the Cairngorms. I always waited at the top of the Ben to ensure all were safely up there routes when I ran the Winter Course. It was a typical Ben Nevis day and I had done Gardyloo Gully and was waiting on just below the top on the rest. It was getting late about 1800 in February when I heard on my radio ” Any Alpine callsign this is Alpine Dave!” Before I could answer Alpine Pete came back ” Go ahead ” Alpine Dave said “he was stuck just below Tower Gap and needed help” Alpine Pete said “would love to help but I am on Braeraich in the Cairngorms!” At this point I broke in and told them to get off the Civilian Mountain Rescue Frequency – The local Police could pick it up and go to our own frequency purely for the military! I spoke and knew that Dave had a very powerful student “Stormy” with him and asked to speak to him. I knew that” Stormy” had done Tower Ridge on several occasions with me and was up to leading it. I asked him if he was happy to lead the crux in deteriorating conditions, he was fine and very controlled. He lead it well and my pension was safe again. We met them just below Tower gap and it all went well we put rope up to speed the final ascent and pulled Dave up like a cork out of a bottle on to the Ben plateau. The banter with the Police and Lochaber MRT was good as I had spoken to them during the wee incident but it was all in hand. Poor Dave was a bit shell shocked but we soon had the typical MR humour going and had a long wander off in the failing light to cope with. Stormy was chuffed with his big lead and ended up a very sound mountaineer and Dave was none the worse for his adventure. It could have gone so wrong, but in the end it worked out and Tower Ridge in wild weather is never to be underestimated, especially when tired after two weeks hard walking and climbing.”
In the past we used to have a big party at Grantown at the end of the Course “a staying alive party we called it” in the usual MR humour. Many of the girls and partners used to drive from Kinloss and some from Leuchars for the evening party these were great days. These were magic days but is was good to see that the troops are still the same calibre. They may be fewer in number, the gear better but the hearts are the same as in 1951.