Lancet Edge on Geal Charn avalanche near Ben Alder many years ago. I took an interest in Avalanches from that.

Its Winter 1972 February.

This is the last weekend of my Mountain Rescue Trial with the RAF Kinloss MRT. We were off to Ben Alder and were staying in the Garages next to the Big House Ben Alder Lodge up the glen. Access even then to the Glen was restricted but we were given access to train in the area and allowed to use the garages as a Base as the Big House was not in use.

It was an incredible place to be and it turned out to be an eventful weekend.

This was an amazing place, stags and hinds were right down to the road, there were hundreds of them.

 

The keeper Mr Oswald was a long-time friend of the team and our leader George Bruce; we had the use of the estate tracks to those huge remote hills a great privilege and fantastic assistance to great days in the mountains. George took great time to build up relationship with every estate in Scotland as this was invaluable for future call outs and building up the team’s area knowledge to assist us on call outs in the future.

 

All the time I was learning from the way he spoke to people he had a magic touch, which I was to see on many occasions. The team took a barrel of beer out which we had in the garage when we got there and it was amazing as the team members all sang folk songs round a fire that night, I loved it.

The garage was where we cooked as well and most of the team were in tents. It was amazingly cold all night and next morning when we got up I could not believe the view; Loch Ericht was frozen solid as was all our water. As normal the duty cook one of the tasks we all had to do. As a trialist I had to get up and help the cook with breakfast at 0600 and make the traditional bed –tea, round all the team. The numbers out this weekend were again very high nearly 30 people, a busy time for any cook. I was trying to pick up all the skills as once you passed your trial one of the first things you did was cook. The rules were the same if you did a bad cook you were in the river, that was the tradition. Luckily I was very glad as my Mum had brought me up to be able to cook basics including breakfast, soup and basic meals like mince and tatties they gave me great life skills for the future. Thanks for that Mum!

 

I was to go out with George Bruce the Team leader and 2 other team members. George had planned a winter scramble or climb up a magnificent ridge called Lancet Edge near Culra bothy right in the heart of the Alder Estate.

Note it had been bitter cold that night at least – 15.

Lancet Edge

It was a wonderful drive across the moor, full of snow and a drive across the icy river Pattock by land rover. We passed the Garrons ( highland ponies) There were stags and hinds everywhere, many following the wagon thinking that they may have been getting fed. I thought to myself people would pay a fortune to be in this landscape and it was all for free, wonderful. The Estate feeds the deer especially in a hard winter and this was one. The views of the mountains was incredible, snow everywhere and blue sky, these are huge remote mountains with the magnificent Ben Alder dwarfing its lofty neighbours with its sprawling ridges and huge corries. We stopped at the Culra bothy an open shelter used by climbers and left the wagon there. It is a very basic building with a fire, stone floor, sleeping space and freezing cold.  I had spent many a night in bothys like these in Galloway whilst training for the Duke of Edinburgh award but this was a different league.

The Bothy at Culra now closed due to Asbestos. No sign of it being fixed. Oct 2019.

As I already said our objective was Lancet Edge which was opposite Ben Alder this was a ridge on the huge 1028 metres Sgur Lurtharn, it looked so Alpine and impressive. A steep ascent up thin icy ridge running up to a snowy plateau to my inexperienced mountaineering mind I wondered how we would get up that ridge.

We had with us a very experienced climber who had worked at Glenmore Lodge as a civilian Instructor who was one of George’s friends Davy Sharp. Davy I found out on the walk up across the moor was just recovering from a serious avalanche accident in the Lake District the previous winter.

George was great form in the walk. He was telling stories, talking about the area and setting an enjoyable pace, not the usual rush to the top. He was teaching and laughing all the time and in the hour on the walk in we learned many new skills. I was shown how to use my axe and crampons on some ice on a small buttress and how to ice axe brake properly on some steep snow, we then set of kicking steps up the slope leading to ridge.

It was very steep going in places with foot deep snow in places.

As is the normal procedure we all took our place in front kicking in the snow was hard work. As we got higher, the snow became deeper and was lying in places in drifts on top of steep frozen grass. I know now that this is not a good combination. We traversed round some short steep buttress and marvelled at the views which opened out as we got higher.

Just below the top of the ridge I was just behind George when I heard a crack and then we were tumbling down the hill.

I remember going over a crag and then tumbling and crashing over rocks. It was so quick and I felt the Rocks I was hitting.

It all went quiet when we eventually stopped and I was partially buried by snow and could hardly move my legs. It was terrifying yet the sky overhead was blue and clear.

George was next to me and helped me get out; I had swallowed lots of fine particles snow and was coughing fairly badly.

I could hear Dave groaning and George was helping him out as the snow had by now frozen, he was like us all very badly shaken and bruised.

 

I was battered but the adrenaline kicked in and helped Dave up. George got on the radio and asked for assistance from other team hill parties as we feared that Dave would not be able to walk off.

We gathered our equipment that was scattered all over and started back, helping with Dave’s bag. George though shaken was completely in control and explained that we had been avalanched and in his usual sense of humour said this was very rare in Scotland and a great honour to be avalanched in such experienced company!

These were the days before mobile phones, accurate mountain weather reports and there was no such thing as an Avalanche Service.

What a man he was, his humour was just what we needed and I was to learn so much from this great man, throughout my Mountain Rescue Career and throughout life.   We managed to get back to the wagon by now Dave could hardly walk and was taken to hospital for a check-up. George reckoned that we had fallen over 600 feet some of it over a steep cliff, we were very lucky that no one was killed.

I had used up one of my mountaineering lives!

When we got back to the Base Camp at Ben Alder Lodge we spoke to the keeper George who in his own measured way said:

“aye I thought the hill was pretty dangerous after the heavy snow and that wind”

You were very lucky and offered us a dram. Later I stiffened up and bruising came out on my back and legs but next day I was back on the hill. I was the only one out of the avalanche who went out next day. 

As George said when you fall of you have to get back on straight away.

 

Next day I had a wonderful day on Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil  climbing  Alder by an amazing ridge the Short Leachas a great winter scramble, what a day.  The plateau to the summit was incredible with huge cornices by now the weather had changed and it was difficult navigation to the summit. I marvelled at the team navigating in a full white out, over this complex plateau, with its huge cornices overhanging the cliffs. Near the summit we heard a huge crash as a cornice tumbled down into the corrie. I was really tired on the way off which was complex as the wind was in our faces and the slopes very steep, this was serious mountaineering.

Getting back to the land rover I was exhausted but again happy and the river crossing in the wagon was serious as there was a big thaw on.

When we arrived back at the Lodge Mr Oswald the keeper said that we were lucky to get the land rover over the river as it could have been there for the whole winter!

 

George had a wee word as we packed up he said, you have passed your trail wee man, you are now a Novice team member. He said that you showed them but do not let it go to your head, it is a long way to go and you are just starting, take no hassle from anyone, stand up for yourself and learn every time you go on the hill.

 

My mountaineering apprenticeship had started what a three weekends I had had. I said I would get a better understanding of Avalanches and attended an early course at Glenmore Lodge where I met the late Blyth Wright.

What adventures already? I had so much to learn, I could not wait for the next weekend.

I had to visit the Medical Centre as my body was fairly bruised after the avalanche. I had huge bruises on my body.  I had a sore chest and was coughing a lot and got x-rayed. I was told that I had swallowed a lot snow and will have damage that may be permanent. As a young man I never thought about this but developed a cough which has stayed with me to this day.

My job still involved lots of lifting rations into storage; there were no lifting devices it was all done by hand. Every day we delivered to the Messes and huge wagons would come in from the contractors we would move them into our store, it sometimes took all day. By next day I could hardly move and after being checked again by the doctor, he gave me a few days off, which I did not take and just went back to work. I had bruised my ribs as well as my back which took ages to heal; he also confirmed that I had swallowed a lot of snow as I was coughing a lot. I dare not risk any problems with the team as my work were not happy with me being on it already.

There would be many problems ahead with work I felt, but I tried so hard always offering and working late and doing extra shifts when people went sick to help me with getting out with the team. My work was so worried about me getting time off for call outs during the week. In fact there were very few most of the 10 -15 incidents were at weekends in my own time or at Christmas and New Year when the team was out training. Anyway I was told I had to learn my job first, which I felt was no problem as to me a monkey could do it, it was a “game” and I had to play it and keep them happy.

It was hard to accept but it was to be with me for most of my early RAF Career as work and Mountain Rescue collided.

 

 

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 Articles, Avalanche info, Friends, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Munros, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Weather, Wildlife. Bookmark the permalink.

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