Dog Tales Part 4 – Wild winters and hard days.

Let me introduce myself: My name is Teallach I was a very soft Alsatian and I have been asked to write about my life in the mountains.

Introduction – I was very lucky to have spent all of my life on the hills, mountains and wild places. My mother was Dreish another Mountain Dog she told me when I was very young that if I was lucky I may be able to choose this way of life as well. Dreish was an incredible dog a fully trained Search and Rescue Dog in Scotland (SARDA) and Wales, like her owner very fit and strong so I had a great pedigree. She had won the SARDA Madras Trophy in 1977 for best Novice Search Dog she was a machine. After a few weeks where I was bottled fed by Allister’s wife Pat I met my owner a very small loud human, he had a strange name” Heavy”. 

He was introduced to me and the other pups but it was my huge feet that mattered to him and for 12 years we looked after each other. Mainly to be honest I looked after him!

RAF Kinloss MRT

I am now back in Scotland and 1983/84 were  really hard years it was another big winter after Heavy went to Canada ice climbing for a month so I was looked after by the team. When he came back he was wild about climbing ice and I had some long cold days as he chased classic ice routes especially in the North West. We also had a lot of call outs and I met a few lucky climbers who literally fell at our feet as we walked into a climb. One fell at our feet on Ben Nevis from the climb Cresta. He survived but did not next year when he went missing in Glen Feshie solo walking and was found weeks after a big search and thaw.

I also had another big aircraft crash at Balbeggie near Dundee a group of 6 Curlers from Switzerland crashed near Balbeggie in November 1983. It was an all-night search in heavy mist with the Tayside, Leuchars and Kinloss Teams and the SARDA dogs.  The aircraft had 6 on board when it went missing. We found it in the morning with   4 alive and two unfortunately dead, we found one of them away from the crash site. I was amazed that we found them alive it was a real shocker for me. It was only small hills but the thick mist meant that the helicopter was of little use, it was a long search and again a huge learning curb for me. I am sure I heard them that night but was told it was a sheep Heavy kept telling the controller that but we continued on the search ? At least we got folk out alive and I kept out of the way.

Balbeggie Crash we got folk out of this alive.

The Cairngorms, Ben Nevis, Glencoe and the other areas continued to catch many out and we had some long hard call – outs, searching Strath Nethy was never a favourite. I also got my paws speared by crampons on a big search on the Plateau and a big cut meant there was a bit of blood before Heavy noticed. We were half way down Coire Dohmain at the time; I learnt to keep my distance when the crampons were on.  The new team members were the worst and he stood on my paw in a white out and no one heard my barking! In these days you would meet many of the Glenmore Lodge “names” and many became friends of mine. I was definitely moving in the right crowd, we would bump into them on a Mountaineering Assessment a very serious affair in bad weather navigating along the plateau and at times they would have a chat and those getting assessed would see the human side! Then we would bumble of into the weather with me in front picking a route. I was always glad to see familiar things like spot height 1141 a big cairn on the end of the plateau but even here you can have a problem getting home, big Cornices.  I knew the familiar places where we thought we could relax after a wild day out, where we thought we were safe. The team went out in these conditions to give the new Team member’s experience of the wildest of weather and it took a lot of looking after each other to get safely off the hill. I was often by now moving up and down the hill party when it got spread out but when the weather got bad we were very close and looked after each other. I got to know the Cairngorms well as even during the week after work we would go and maybe does a winter climb in the dark when the crowds had left. I now had a light stick on me for the dark it was not for me but for Heavy to see where I was. I would meet them coming off. I knew the Goat Track descent well and could pick a line up the rocks even when the snow was rock hard. Climbers would be amazed to see me as they picked their way down this steep ground.

The Fannichs

I loved the Cairngorms but one weekend was to be the one that shocked me forever. This was a terrible time as the big winds not forecasted hit us in January 1984. I was heading with Heavy for a couple of days at Hell’s Lum a winter cliff in the Cairngorms with a young troop. Heavy had the Friday off the weather was magic, the forecast said so and we were going to make the most of it. Heavy’s mate Pam had just finished a night shift at RAF Kinloss and he was too tired to walk in so at the car park we changed our mind after I had a huge meal. This would normally mean we would be staying out all night.

We went to climb at Newtonmore on Creag Dubh a small ice fall called “Oui Oui” would be there. It was a fairly short and easy day but a big storm came in and we had some fun as the wind blasted us on the way off. It snowed like mad and I met them at the top of the climb and we had a real struggle in big winds and snow back to the car and then off to the Village Hall at Newtonmore, where the team were staying. I had never seen so much snow fall and headed to the top of the cliff to meet them coming off. We just got into the Hall and the roads were blocking with snow the RAF Kinloss Team took hours to get there with tales of a wild drive. It was a quiet night in the Braeraich Pub as we expected to have problems getting out on Saturday.  If we had walked in to the heart of the Cairngorms we would have had a serious night at Hell’s Lum, I was so glad we had not gone. Were we lucky or was it fate?

This was to be a terrible weekend.  One of the worst I would ever experience!

On the Saturday the weather was that bad we were stuck at Glenmore the road was blocked and ended up hiding in the Squirrel café and we walked from there due to the weather and the road being blocked. We managed the summit of the local Castle Hill but we had to crawl to the summit. I already was doing that but to see Heavy as well was unusual. We could see nothing all day and though it was an easy hill and we were exhausted, the wind and the snow were full on.   The spindrift was incredible on the hill and even from the road you could not see the hill. It was a wall of spindrift. The main road and the railway line was closed and on that Saturday night we heard that there were over 30 missing on the hill.  Next day were told to get up to the Cairngorm Car park as a party from Heriot Watt University had a problem and one survivor had got down to the Car Park saying his friends were in big trouble. They were planning an overnight camp at Coire An Lochan and the weather caught them out. We never expected what we came across. We got up to the Cairngorm Car Park as we were asked to help and we met with some of Glenmore Lodge and Cairngorm Team. It was light hearted at first we never expected what we found and so near safety of the road.  The tragedy we came across Heavy has written about before in his Blog it was awful to experience. 15 minutes from the Car Park, three young lives were lost. They were so near safety but the weather had got them. There would have been little chance in the winds and the weather of that weekend.  I was kept away by the troops, Cairngorm and Glenmore lodge as they put them on the stretchers and it was a solemn carry back to the car park.  The short stretcher carry was very hard work and everyone was very upset.

Where they had died I had walked down many times and it was so hard to believe that in such a beautiful place nature can kill. Then we went to Glenmore Lodge and told that we would be needed tomorrow. It was a very subdued night in Newtonmore unlike after a sad incident the team unwinds with a drink. Heavy was very upset unlike him and one of the Glenmore boys had a word with him, even these hard men had felt the sadness of the day. I am sure he felt that could have been us! How would we have coped with the big Storm at Hell’s Lum and we would have made our way off the plateau to the same Corrie where the students died?    Would we have made it we were invincible then or so we thought. To see those young folks just lying therein the open is a side of Mountain Rescue that few speak about. They had nearly got to safety it makes even a dog think.

There was little time to mourn as we found out that one of Heavy’s friends was missing, the mountains then were a small place and most who worked in them knew each other. Paul Rodgers was an Army Instructor based in Glencoe who was out with an experienced student Bill on the same weekend. He was on a two day expedition that included a snow hole and they had not returned. Heavy knew Paul well and he had stayed with us when he gave a lecture to the team at Kinloss.   He had always met us climbing in Glencoe and the Ben and on sunny days at Polldubh in Glen Nevis. What followed was a huge search Heavy has covered it in his Blog and John Allen in his book “Cairngorm John”. It was a huge search of about 100 people, many teams and lots of search dogs and so many of Scotland’s top mountaineers came and helped. The weather at times was awful and even Rocky Jimmy Simpson’s amazing dog was blown over a Cornice and spent the night under a Cornice and survived. He was covered in ice when he was found but so hard like his owner, it was another lesson to me about the mountains in winter. We were searching the gullies at times and got avalanched several times until Heavy pulled us out and back onto the plateau. The snow and the wind was incredible and all the teams said it was very serious conditions. I had never seen such wild conditions early on in the search. Every day we were battered by the wind and it takes it out of you even a dog and the teams were pretty exhausted.

One day of good weather yet we never found them.

We had one day of good weather when we were flown onto the snow hole sites on the plateau, Paul had planned to snow hole and we dug down over 25 feet to find old snow holes. It was a hard day digging but I hate to say I enjoyed it especially when Heavy as the smallest was put in a deep hole over 20 feet down by Paul Moore’s a Guide as he was the smallest. He was pulled out as the roof collapsed on him deep underground at times you had to laugh a bit. Most of the team slid down the Ski area on shovels it sounds strange but we needed that break after such hard times. I ran along beside and it was so strange after such a week? There was no sign at all of Paul or Bill. After several days the search was called off Heavy was heartbroken, he pleaded for the search to continue. Pete Cliff the Leader of Cairngorm Team who was to be a great friend as did Ray Sefton one of the RAF Team Leaders explained the rational. The Teams were exhausted and we had few places left to search we had done our best but this is the hardest decision ever to be made by the Police and the Teams, we had no sign of them. He went off to speak to his Military friends who were going back out next day. It was fitting that they found Paul and Bill just above the Goat Track; we had walked by this area often in the search but the weather was impossible. At times we were fighting for our own lives. The wind had changed some snow moved and a shovel was found below. Paul was found by his friends and a few MRT assisted in a sad recovery. We heard the news on the way home, we were exhausted it had been a terrible 6 days with in the Cairngorm’s alone 5 mountain fatalities.

Paul’s Grave at Kingussie – I still visit it

Heavy always went straight into work when he arrived back as we had been away for several days; he was working in the Catering Office at the time. The butcher gave me a huge bone as a well done. Heavy got “ did you enjoy your skive” from a  Boss and he was very lucky that statement was still in the air when Heavy walked away saying it was a good friend we were looking for and he would speak tomorrow about his stupid comment! In the military this is not what you say to a Boss but so deserved, Heavy’s career was over again? It is amazing some people’s lack of thought at times. 

Skye McRaes Barn

There was so much to take in but to get home to the fire and comfort of the house was great to be out of the wind and away from the snow. Heavy told me we were still going out on the hill next weekend! He was so upset and we helped each other, these can be lonely times. That was the worst of weather we had coped with, many will never understand that it does have an effect on you. All these young lives gone when Nature tells you its in charge no matter how hard you think you are its a constant battle in the mountains. These were punishing days for us all and we learned from every incident. Yet the fire still burned we loved the mountains despite at times the costs.

Around this time Heavy was promoted to Sgt and posted to our rivals at RAF Leuchars in Fife. It was in these days a heavy rivalry like Celtic and Rangers but we knew many of the team from call – outs. He would still be doing his job as a Caterer but would be a member of the Mountain Rescue Team. It was great for me as I had so many Munros to do in there area, Heavy told me we better stay fit as we would be tested! We were on the move again.

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 Aircraft incidents, Articles, Family, Friends, Ice climbing Canada, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Rock Climbing, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Weather, Well being, Wildlife. Bookmark the permalink.

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