This is from my diary about my first weekend out with the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team in January 1972. I am on my first weekend of three as a Trial to become a member of the Mountain Rescue Team. I am a very young 18 year old skinny and only been on the Galloway hills before in winter. I have had an incredible day on two Munro’s the day before at the head of Glen Affric its full on winter and the hills are plastered with snow.
The bothy at Kintail was an old barn where 20 of us are crammed in was so cold and I managed to sleep in my issued freezing Himalayan inner sleeping bag with no feathers. The next day was another incredible winters day and I was part of a big group which climbed Ben Sgritheall from Glenelg another magnificent mountain in full winter conditions. The drive over to the mountain was amazing just a sea of hills. As for the mountain this seemed to be a race from the start and I kept up, it was so steep and serious but just hung in and was one of the first to the top. Looking back it was very narrow on the summit with big Cornices I could see Skye and Knoydart and all the Kintail Hills. The views were stunning I was secretly very happy but said nothing, we ran off from the summit again I was right on the front man, hanging in all the time.
I was shown quickly how to ice axe break the axe seemed bigger than me. It was then a drive back round time for a quick meal and then a long drive back to Kinloss, a quick beer in the NAAFI and still unwashed into the dance.
This was held every Sunday night and you had no option but to go as it was part of the tradition. I was so tired that night but so happy my first weekend seemed to go well and though little was said I knew things were going well. I was exhausted when I went back to work on Monday but so happy, I was amazed that even though the team was a military organisation there was no rank involved during the whole weekend. The team ran on respect for each other and rank did not come in to it, I noticed that very junior ranks lead parties on the hill and they if in charge ran the party no matter what rank the party was. All that mattered was mountaineering experience, this was the life for me. George Bruce the Team Leader was watching me over the weekend and kept his eye on me and made sure I was okay. He did it in a quiet way but made sure that the guys looked after me. George was to be a huge influence on my life in future years.
I was soon brought down to earth by my Boss at work who was not happy that I had joined the Mountain Rescue team; he said I would not manage it; I was too small, weedy and far too young. He was a very poor officer with no people skills and no clue. The Mountain Rescue team was in my own time at weekends and he said in front of all the rest that I would not cope, that was just what I needed to motivate me more. My job in Catering I was as a Clerk Catering and was loading and unloading rations for the station living in staff of nearly 800 who all lived on base in the Messes. It was more or less heavy labouring delivering to the Messes but with paperwork accounting and stocktaking thrown in.
The accounts had to be accurate to 3 tenths of a penny! It was very hard physical work and every two weeks a Navy wagon arrived with a huge amount of stores this was all unloaded by hand. As the youngest you drew the hard shift. Sugar and flour came in big sacks over 120 lbs, we would work all day when this arrived. The sacks were nearly as big as me. The meat was also huge in 120 lbs boxes it was hard work but I soon got the hang of it, it was all the means to an end. It was the best training you could get for the mountains and I managed it but was shattered most days.
My first plan was to pass the three week trial for the Mountain Rescue and to do this I did every shift possible to ensure that I could not be found wanting at work. The next weekend went well; we went to Braemar and had a wonderful winter’s day on the 5 Munros of Lochnagar a long day, made worse by me being given a full weight 120 feet rope to carry round. I met the local keeper a Mr Robertson held in such esteem by George he was legend along with other Cairngorm keepers. It was great to speak to them and get the local knowledge of weather etc. These were to be great contacts in the future and George taught us to respect these great hill men.
Again all day we had deep snow and poor visibility I was shown a bit more about the ice axe and crampons and shown how to ice axe break. I had to do this every weekend and show my competence each time. I was amazed by the huge cliffs of Lochnagar a place I was to love and hate during my later years. Huge Cornices were about and I was shown where the team had carried out a huge rescue on Eagles Ridge in 1969 where one of the troops was lowered to assist a fallen climber. It was a huge call out with Braemar and Aberdeen MRT and a complicated Rescue for its time.
A huge complicated rescue in 1968 and one the team learned from. Next day was a blast round the Glenshee Mountains climbing another 3 Munro’s on the Sunday in full on white out. My leader for the day was the Deputy Team Leader “Tuech” Brewer a monster of a man who was training an Arctic Expedition, where he would be away for a year. He was great and I was shown how to use a map and compass and was instructed that though I was fit, I had to get mountain skills and learn quick if I wanted to stay in the team.
The equipment given was very basic but did the job, the boots were very simple Hawkins boots called by the team “Curlies” very light and freezing in winter always wet even with 3 pairs of socks! The crampons on were very basic and were modified to the boots and took a long time and very cold fingers to put on. I had to put wet gear on every Sunday as kit was scarce and already had a plan for my first wages and what kit I would buy.
The ice axe was a huge heavy MacInnes Massey indestructible metal axe.
Why a heavy metal axe you may ask.
“There were 3 deaths on Zero Gully where the wooden axes broke as they were used as the belay. This method proved this method to be woefully inadequate, as the then universal wooden shafted axes simply broke. A metal/alloy shafted axe was the answer so Hamish went to work.
Benjamin and Steven Massey of Openshaw near Manchester drop forged the heads, and Hamish set up the assembly line in his old Glencoe shed. Bugs McKeith and Kenny Spence used the prototype on an ascent of the Eiger’s North Pillar, and Britain’s first non wood axe, the MacInnes Massey, was born.
One soon fell into the hands of the legendary Glasgow based Creag Dubh Mountaineering Club, who quickly dubbed the rather heavy hammer version ‘the Message’ as it battered the commonly used soft steel pitons of the era so badly, that in Glasgow parlance “they got the message”.
The metal shafted axe was a major step forward in axe-evolution. Early Alpinistes had little more than long poles with metal tips for grip, and to probe crevasses; as the conquests got steeper an adze was incorporated for cutting steps and later on came the pick. Refinements such as teeth to hold the axe in the steep ice came much later, and as late as 1950 Geoffrey Winthrop Young tells us “Notches on the underside of the head of the axe, often seen in shop axes, are very objectionable.” _
This is from the incredible The Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection well worth a look and support.
In the end we were carrying about 20 lbs in our sacks at least plus a rope, crampons and winter gear it put the weight up to 25 lbs, not easy. We stayed in a bothy near Braemar Auchallater it was basic but a great situation. It was the cooking tent again, though water from a tap and tilly lamps but I was getting good at lighting them.
Every Monday we had a Briefing of about an hour after work where each week we debriefed the weekend Exercise and had a lecture on the many aspects of mountaineering. You were also asked what hills you had done as part of an attempt to learn about the area we were responsible for. The team headquarters had a great briefing room and as the oldest Mountain Rescue Team in the RAF was full of history, with amazing photos and the history of the team was awe inspiring.
I was given a piece of rope about 6 feet and told to learn various knots for mountaineering. Use it even in the toilet they said it may save your life one day. It was a huge learning curve but I was so full of it, the more I did the better I felt. Getting the kit ready was not easy as there was no washing machines in the block I was in but I managed somehow to wash and dry my gear for the weekend. The team only had a tiny drying room in the block that if lucky the boots maybe dried out in a week, but as most callouts were on a Sunday night I was told to get used to wet kit or buy some of my own. I was straight down to get some more kit that fitted from the Alladins cave that was the store that the team had. I was told that I had not passed my trial yet.
Two weekends done what next. I could not wait.