Willie Mac – Local boy retires a big thanks from RAF MR and your old mates.

I met Willie Mac as a young lad from Harris who joined the RAF Leuchars MRT, he was enticed to join by Stampy a tiger in his day. He worked in Workshops and had not long joined the RAF. In these days he had a cheeky smile, smoked and spoke the native tongue Gaelic. He immediately hit it off with the troops even though he had never made a cup of coffee before. He soon got fit as he was always working in his croft with the sheep before he left his home. In these early days I introduced him to Ben Nevis via Castle Ridge where one of the troops slipped as we were unroped at the time but I held him. Willie and I was amazed that I held him and after the ridge we went on the the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. That was the only time I ever saw Willie struggle on the hill. He had hat perfect lanky gait like a keeper and became a sound all rounder in the hills. After that he became one of our best mountaineers in RAF Mountain Rescue. Always dependable in any situation and on the big Mountains he was superb at Altitude. He was on the second summit attempt on Everest when one of the boys took ill from the high camp at over 8000 metres.

Willie in action as always there for a mate above the North Col on Everest with his ill mate who he brought down from the High camp at 8000 metres.

They had no Sherpa support but Willie got him down to the North Col alone and that was his summit attempt gone. He was always like this and looked after his friends so well and that was the difference between our trip and others.

Willie has written a great piece on RAF Mountain Rescue during his time where he has just retired as Warrant Officer Mountain Rescue at Valley in North Wales. He has plans to go back up North home to Lewis. He is one of the best people persons I have ever met and looked after his team mates so well over the years. Its not easy in the Military but the troops came first and he stuck up for them at all levels.

Typical Willie he did not want a party or any big send off when he left, he just wanted to drift away but they had to let that happen. I cannot thank you enough for what you have achieved from that young lad at Leuchars in 1984 . Poor Willie shared my tent on many adventures throughout the World, he drew the straw! The week we spent in Kathmandu ahead of our trip to Tibet in 2001 will remain with me forever. The “meeting” with the Russians that nearly killed me, Willie was there. He looked after me on many occasions on our first trip to the Himalayas in 1990 and was always there for me and others despite nearly killing me with a fixed rope that we were moving. He nearly did not make our trip to Everest as he had a big Avalanche on the Annapurna trip a few weeks before that he walked away from.

Willie walked away from this !

I hope you enjoy your retirement not being at everyone’s beck and call 24/7 but hopefully you will stay in touch ( please) Its incredible to see what you achieved over the years but how great a companion you are on the hills and in life. He never liked getting his photo taken but I managed to get a few!

The Early days Big boots climbing.

Take care Willie

Now and Then: 1984 to 2018 Have things really

changed

Willie MacRitchie: 1984 – trialist at RAF Leuchars MRT 2018 –

WO MRS

So, there I was beavering away in my wee office trying desperately to project the

image of someone who might actually know what they were doing when a

cheeky face pops around the corner and states that ‘they’ had all agreed that

because I was of a certain age and MRS experience I would write a Now and Then

article for the On The Hill 75th Anniversary edition.

Well, having got over the shock of realising I was now officially seen as an ‘old

git’ and the fact that the PS still attracts a wonderful bunch of rouges and

mavericks I smiled to myself and said why not!

A little background: I followed the path that many others walked looking for

that wee something different that mainstream RAF life could not provide. I got

posted to RAF Leuchars in Jan 84 and never had gave the MRT a moment’s

thought until a certain Graham ‘Stampy’ Stamp turned up a few months later.

Stampy, a gifted mountaineer and all round good guy as a fellow GEF ‘newbie’

got chatting about what I did on a weekend, lager and crisps was the answer.

Stampy then regals me with tales of adventure, camaraderie (didn’t even know

what that even meant then), socialising beyond my dreams, and most

importantly it would put me on the good side of our Chf Tech!! Why should that

matter you say… the previous week I had a bollocking to end all bollocking from

my Chief a certain mad Irishman by the name of Alister Haveron. Even now,

many years later I still vividly remember my knees shaking uncontrollably as a

verbal wall of what is now affectionally called ‘mentoring’ was delivered with a

fair bit of venom with every third word being ‘feck’ or something sounding very

similar! Of course, Alister was already a MR legend then and would go on to even

greater exploits with the MRS.

So off we go to the MRT Section to see the TL Don Shanks and chat about the

possibility of doing a trial. I haven’t even got to the door when this ruddy great

Alsatian comes running out all teeth and barking only to be swiftly followed by a

small fellow who is even louder than the dog! So that was the day I happened on

Dave ‘Heavy’ Whalley and Teallach; little did I know how much this big wee man

would influence my MR career. My adventures with Heavy are a story to be told

on another day.

I went out on my first weekend with Leuchars MRT in May 84 and as I sit here in

May 18 I am still a member of the RAF MRS and have seen a fair bit of now and

then!

Where to start: Might as well begin with ‘trialists’. That first weekend the team

deployed to Fort William, staying at Achintee. I turned up at the MR Section full

of apprehension and not really having a clue about I was letting myself in for to

be met with a total indifference from the ‘troops’ I was a quiet lad anyway but

watching the banter and warm fellowship whist getting the cold shoulder was

pretty intimidating. As the deployment brief finished Don revealed his master

plan, Joe Wiggins was from Islay and as I was from Lewis Joe was tasked with

looking after me! We climbed into the back of the LWB Ambulance and off we

went, I don’t think we had even passed Hendies pub in Leuchars village before

Joe pulled out a hip flask and took a good slug before passing it over and

‘advising’ I have a swig to help me along. Myself and Joe have shared a fair few

memorable ‘swigs’ and adventures since that fateful day! In those days there

was over 100,000 people in the RAF, the MRS was probably at its highpoint, 6

MRTs fully manned with waiting lists, gods walking the earth in the guise of RAF

MR troops, still at the forefront of MR across the UK. Trialists were nothing, ten-apenny,

unproven fodder needing to reach the standards expected without any

real guidance, not to be spoken to, no sympathy to be given. Passing your trial

was a massive event and you gained immediate respect from the ‘troops’; they

had all travelled the same path and knew the pain you had endured Present day

is so different, less than 30,000 people in the RAF, 3 MRTs who face severe

manning issues daily, trialists few and far between. Potential trialists are

proactively engaged with from the moment any interest is shown, ‘troops’

embrace them and impart knowledge and enthusiasm from the start, trialists are

now a very valuable commodity. The standards expected from a trialist has not

been lowered but there is a level of pragmatism applied that some would find

different. If a trialists passes then they pass and crack on but if a trialist is a bit

short on fitness, determination could be better, needs to be a better team player

etc. in the ‘old’ days they would have failed but we do not have the luxury of

waiting lists and we must decide if we are willing to invest in recovering/improve

any weakness, a catch 22 question as we are constantly in stretch meeting

training targets. What we will not forfeit is the fact that we are a team and

anyone who is not a team player fails.

Bothies: That first weekend we went to Achintee and stayed in the ATC / Scouts

huts. These were old wooden huts not in the best of conditions but deemed

more than suitable for RAF MR troops! No showers, probably 1 or 2 toilets

between 20-25 troops with military issue toilet paper that spread more than

wiped, heating probably not, sleeping on bare wooden / concrete floors, the old

Mk5 cooker and ‘bomb’ to cook on. My last weekend out we stayed at the

Boulder Adventure Centre in Llanberis, a fantastic venue, carpets and central

heating, bunkbeds with linen and duvets provided, showers for all, modern clean

toilets with soft toilet paper and a fitted kitchen to die for. The modern MR troop

now benefits from all the work put in by their predecessors to ensure they

deservedly get equal treatment when deployed. Many a time I would look on

disbelievingly as organisations like JARTS would turn up and book themselves

into a swanky hotel while the MRT was in a pokey village hall or staying in tents!

Onich Village Hall – horrible cold dank place Boulder Llanberis – all the

mod cons

Vehicles: SWB and LWB Landrovers, RL or was it RJ / MK 4 Tonners, that was

state of the art transport when I first joined. As I think back I cringe slightly as I

remember getting Police escorts (3 litre Rovers) for the convoy and then

hammering along at nearly 42 mph (downhill) in the trucks with a pathetic single

blue light whirling away on the roof and a siren that sort off did a ‘nee-naw’ but

mostly just a ‘nee’, I can’t help but smile reminiscing about those middle of the

night trips! Today we have uber modern Isuzu 4×4 pickups and Mercedes

Sprinters as load carriers and the C3 (Control). The blue light suite on these

things is unbelievable and sirens that regress you to become a child all over

again. The communications package in the C3 is fantastic, VHF/UHF/HF, mobile

and satellite phones, Airwave, laptops with Wi-Fi, the old PRC 320 Clansman has

long gone. But, all these modern gizmos come with a price and the vehicles are

constantly in and out of the garages trying to find the elusive ‘gremlins’ that stop

them dead in their tracks. Each team still has a L/R for towing as the Isuzu’s

don’t have a tow hitch and the consensus is that the L/R is still the best option

for any serious off-roading.

L/R Control Mercedes C3 (Control)

Communications: Oh, the memories of the VHF ‘brick’! A FM VHF radio encased

in a heavy bulky waterproof casing that nobody wanted to carry. Parties could go

out into the hills and the next time you heard from them was as they walked

back into the bothy; many a restless hour was spent by a TL waiting to hear what

had become of their troops! If you wanted to speak to the civilian teams you had

to carry an AM VHF variant, so 2 ‘bricks’. On some jobs you were sent off to do a

‘link’ carrying a VHF ‘brick’, a big box of an AM VHF and the Clansman plus all

the ‘link kit’… nobody readily volunteered to be ‘link’. Today we have compact

VHF radios that are preloaded with all the MRT frequencies and have a scanning

facility. Mobile phones which when you have a signal are priceless and Airwave.

In the old days HF was the most reliable form of comms we had (we still use it)

but today it is Airwave that we rely on the most. You can rely on having Airwave

comms in all but the most remote parts of the UK, it is used by all the emergency

services and disaster co-ordination organisations. It is rare now for a TL not to

be able to contact all MRT parties, not unheard off but there are far fewer

restless hours.

Clothing Equipment: A massive subject and this is where things have really

changed and I will only cover a few things. In the eighties we got issued a pair of

‘Dollies’ which you used all year round. Today you get boots for summer, boots

for winter, rock climbing boots, boots with gaiters fitted, gortex boots pretty

much any type of boot on the market! I remember us all getting a fad for KSB’s

and saving our pennies and buying them ourselves. ¾ length hairy and Rohan

breeches, long red socks, white thermal tops that stretched to twice their size, a

blue cotton type shirt, green issue Army style jumper and council worker type

waterproofs. It didn’t take you long to invest in Ron Hill tracksters and a Helly

Hansen short zip top, this became the default ‘uniform’ of the MR troop for any

time of the year!!! I can remember the buzz at Leuchars when we got issued this

fancy new thing called gortex. It was from Snowdon Mouldings and wonderful,

Slioch remained a mainstay for many years and we now use Mountain Equipment

gortex. The development with mountain clothing and equipment has been

phenomenal and is ever evolving. Simple things like the range of base layers to

suit your activity is baffling, GPS watches, centralised maps, gloves that the

manufacturers nearly guarantee will do any climb for you! High profile

equipment failures and shortfalls highlighted in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts

has made the MOD very aware of their responsibility to provide sufficient

equipment ‘fit-for-purpose’ and the MRS has access to whatever on the market

we think best suits our needs. A long way from the days when troops had to put

up with old kit that had been bulk bought and would not be replaced until the

depots had been emptied!

Modern gortex, boots and gloves. ¾ trousers, green jumpers, ‘dollies’

Women: Remember the days when the thought of women on the team was

considered sacrilege? A battle was fought in the eighties to see if women should

be allowed to join the MRS, was it won or lost! Viewpoints differed, feelings ran

high, open letters were printed, warring parties postured and delivered

prophecies of doom and triumph. The reviewing team, a doughty female Wg

Cdr, a cute female Sqn Ldr and there was another but my memory fails me,

would spend the weekend with Leu MRT at Corpach. The Corpach Village Hall

was not the best of bothies and the Wg Cdr took one look and promptly took her

team off stay in a hotel in Fort William! They returned early on Sat morning to

see the team have breakfast and depart for the hill, there were a few comments

on communal living arrangements and facilities having to improve. I was away

up on a wet Tower Ridge when we got a call to say a Sea King had crashed on

Creag Meagaidh, with it being our 202 sqn mates we flew off the hill and back to

the bothy. The usual organised mayhem was happening with troops streaming in

stripping off wet clothing and put on dry kit, there was plenty of flesh to be seen

all over the place. The Wg Cdr was mortified and stormed off, the Sqn Ldr was

later heard to say that she thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle but also understood

that it was not for show but necessary. Funny how they seen things so

differently, whatever they thought the decision was made that women could join

the MRS. A bit more pandemonium followed, threats of resignation,

exclamations of the imminent demise of the MRS! Well we are still here, nobody

questions the notion of a woman wanting to join the MRS. I personally don’t

recall having any strong views either way about women on the team but I do

know that the early pioneers were determined and talented ladies. They

challenged a male dominated environment and succeeded, often against some

open hostility. I find it amusing to reflect on all the commotion that went on

when we see how much women have and continue to add to the MRS.

Helicopters: The relationship with the RAF SAR helicopters (affectionally know

as our yellow taxi’s) was special and endured until they day they flew their last

sortie. For me it all started at Leuchars where 22 Sqn was also based with the

Wessex helicopter. The crossover of banter, knowledge, training and socialising

was wonderful. The OIC MRT was generally from 22 Sqn to we always had strong

ties which only improved with having the fabulous MACR Mick Anderson on the

team. I like to think we complemented each other, MRS with its loveable rouges

and eccentricities and the SAR gang also slightly ‘different’ from the usual flying

crowd. It was a sad day to see the ‘yellow budgie’ grounded but not all is lost as

great relationships have been formed with the MCA crews, some who can boast

of very strong links to previous lives flying around in ‘yellow taxi’s’.

SAR Wessex in action. With our Sea King ‘yellow

taxi’ mates

Corporate image: This always makes me smile as I regularly get moaned at

about having to wear the ‘corporate image’ gear. These days it is all about

promoting the MRS/RAF/MOD, the days of sitting back happy in the knowledge

the MRS will never be cut is long gone. We must fight for our existence. I come

from an era of modesty, we did not openly flaunt our successes, he did blow our

own trumpet, we simply knew we did a good job and that was enough for us. We

now have a duty to ensure that we are seen to be doing a good job and the

higher management are fully aware. Simply having an RAF MRS badge on your

gortex jacket is a powerful advert when pictures of MRT Ops appear on national

or local news. They are an excellent reminder that we are still here and still

doing it on behalf of the RAF/MOD. As I look back I can’t help but smile, people

moan about the fact we never used to have to do this but is this true? The MRS

has a colour code for its ‘jumper’ and each MRT had its own colour code,

Leuchars had a black jumper with a single light blue band. When you look back

at old team photos these jumpers were always on display, was this a form of

corporate image? Even wearing the old green Army style jumpers could fall into

this bracket. But I also fondly reminisce about the array of colours and garments

that the troops would adorn themselves with. At times you would have thought

it was an ensemble from a circus but that’s what happens when you collect all

the waifs and strays nobody else wants!

Modern day corporate image. Jacobs coat of many colours.

Now and Then

I could go on and on about changes that have happened, every memory brings a smile. I think that is the important part, the MRS has allowed

me to enjoy a wonderful life with memories scattered with gold dust. Of course

the present day MRS is very different to the one I joined in 1984 but importantly,

“The kit on the outside and the equipment may

have changed but underneath the heart and soul

of the troops remains the same”

Building the Shed on Everest – Tibet!

Willie MacRitchie

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 and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Bothies, Enviroment, Equipment, Expeditions - Alaska - Himalayas etc, Friends, Gear, Himalayas/ Everest, History, Lockerbie, Mountain rescue, Mountaineering, Munros, People, Rock Climbing, Views Mountaineering, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Willie Mac – Local boy retires a big thanks from RAF MR and your old mates.

  1. Donald Shanks says:

    Thanks for your dedication over the years Willie, always a pleasure to have your company on the hill or in the pub. Enjoy your return to the Islands

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Danny Daniel says:

    Hi Willie.
    Congratulations on your retirement, it’s been a long journey. You can now hopefully relax and take to the hills at leisure. Make the best of it Willie.

    Cheers

    Danny Daniel

    Liked by 1 person

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