1978 Boxing Day /Christmas Day Avalanche on Braeriach.

Like many Agencies the Mountain Rescue Teams & SARDA are always available 24 hours a day 365 days of the year. Holidays are the same often we assisted the local Teams if they got a big Call – out. Christmas & New year are at times busy and can be a sad period when dealing with a big accident. Often if we needed extra assistance many of those off for the holiday period would tur

I located a photo the other day of a wild call out on the Cairngorms in the Christmas period in the Braeriach area in 1978. I was out with the RAF Kinloss Team at Tyndrum we were staying in the staff quarters for the Christmas period as normal. We had to have a team available over the festive period. By now I was a fairly experienced party leader. We had a small team out about 12 – 14 of us. We arrived late on the 23 December this was a big winter and we were looking forward to great days. I took a few troops up Central Gully on Ben Lui and then the 4 Munros a hard physical day even then. Another party went climbing in Glencoe and the rest to the Etive Hills Ben Starav was the plan. We always left a troop to cook as our contact with the Rescue Centre then at Pitreavie and the Police. These were simple days as we had no mobile phones, GPS a basic weather forecast based mainly for aircraft and no avalanche service. Kit was simple and always wet for any Call Outs but we were young and loved it. I had a long day but such fun and the cook was a bit worse for wear ( he had a drink) We had an unwritten rule that no one drunk till we were all off the hill. I was not impressed we were hungry and little had been done. The other party arrived back from Glencoe they had a great day doing some great climbing. The cook was very lippy and when our party from the Etive hills had not come back by 1800 I went with another party to see if we could get communications. As I said the communication were poor and we drove down Glen Etive to try and get contact. Later on we got a garbled message that one of the party was tired snow conditions were poor and they were bivying. It is dark by 1600 in mid December and they were okay we would see them in the morning. We had stopped at the last house in the Glen in these days they had I am sure no electricity even then. I have forgotten their names but they were good friends of the team and had given us lots of tea. We left the kids with all our chocolate and would be back at first light. It was snowing heavy again when we got back to our Base by midnight. The cook was in another world nothing was done and I hate to say we had an argument and he ended up with a black eye. Something I was not proud off. Any trouble within the team like that you were in serious trouble with the Team Leader who was not out but would here about it. Anyway we headed to bed for a few hours then headed back to Glen Etive there was even more snow. We were heading up to the hill to help if needed but we saw them at first light . When they arrived we were glad to see them they were cold and hungry but all fine. We stopped in the wee bothy said thanks again and took some treats for their help. In the party was the man in charge and after a brew I updated him on my cook incident. I feared for the worst. Then I was saved by the bell as we got called for a call – out in the Cairngorms.

1978 Callout in Braeriach wild conditions.

It was a first light search the drive to Aviemore was not easy. Cairngorm MRT. It had been a wild search in poor conditions. They had located the casualties the night before but it was to late to recover them and we were asked to help. It sounds simple but the weather was wild. We drove into Glen Ennich and set off the weather got worse as you can see from the photo. I was more worried that our Team leader was there and I thought after my problem at Christmas my days with the team were numbered. He just said we will talk later. He and a few troops had been out with Cairngorm the day before the weather was not good. Communications in these days were awful it was a hard winter.

We had a lot of troops and headed for the location carrying two stetchers. RAF Leuchars were there as were our other team member’s who were at home for Christmas, SARDA and the new Sea King helicopters. The casualties were in the gully and we lowered a volunteer ( the Team Leader down) and then we lowered two stretchers down. Looking back the conditions were wild and there was a big chance of Avalanche to us all. There was no Avalanche forecast then .We did the long carry off to our vehicle’s in the Glen it was a somber group that arrived at the land-rovers. It was hard to believe at the time it was the festive season and two families had lost there loved ones. We were soaked, cold and hungry but glad to get off the hill. The drive out the Glen was long we had the two casualties with us never an easy journey.

We got back to our Base and after things were sorted out with the Team leader I was told to behave or else my days in Mountain Rescue were over . Thanks Ray .

1978 Call – out A poor photo but sums out the weather and basic gear, simple rope work man power to get stretcher up. Basic gear and the trusty Dachstein mitts and Karrimor gaiters.

Another lesson learned by me. Over the years I was to do many sad incidents over the festive season they were never easy. Always in my thoughts were the families they left behind we also located a lot of injured climbers as this period was a busy one on the hills. I had been to a few avalanches earlier but this was the shape of things to come sadly.

Looking back the descent in poor weather from Braeriach to Glen Feshie in the wrong weather is tricky and can be avalanche prone. I went back several times with Team members and up onto the hill this was in summer and winter. It was surprising how benign this slope can feel but add dumps of snow you can see how easy it is to go off route. Add in darkness and deteriorating conditions its a tricky place as these hills are. Even nowadays with GPS better mapping the Scottish Avalanche Information Service which now gives a good guide in 5 area forecasts along with a lot the more accurate weather forecasts these are tools we must use. Never take all these additions for granted. You still need to make decisions on your route dependant on the conditions you meet. There are rarely no paths in winter!

Comments welcome

“I remember it. I was navigating for a SARDA handler an dog. We bivvied on the back of Braeriach when we ran out of daylight. I think Sunshine the (team leader ) was a bit worried as we had no comms.”

Bill Batson RAF MR Team leader.

Nick Sharpe Now a Mountain Guide in Canada

“Quite the job, and my first real experience of climbers succumbing to the white death of an avalanche.”

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 Avalanche info, Gear, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Weather, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

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