Early Callouts in 1972 – The harsh reality of Mountain Rescues.

At this time the call outs were fairly simple including a search for missing boy near Kinloss at Randolph’s Leap a popular walk near a steep gorge. We found him safe and well after a night search. The other was for a local 15 year old near Bonar Bridge who turned up safe as we arrived to search. This was my first time I saw the joy of the parents when we found him, they feared the worse, it was magic to be able to help. The euphoria was soon crushed. My boss was not happy that I had gone on these searches and informed me to call him first before going out on any searches. This was not always practical as most searches were out of work hours.

 I had to agree and just hope I could contact him. Searches in these days for local people were quite unusual as most of our incidents were for mountaineers. It was great to be able to help in the local area and I was amazed how well the team were treated by the local police and people. This was all part of the training and many great contacts were made on call outs with the locals. These were to be invaluable in later years as my career developed.

September 1972 Tower Ridge – 3 fatalities.

Lochaber & RAF Kinloss MRT Team recovered 5 casualties. RAF Kinloss members climbed the ridge after incident.

In September of 1972 we were called out to search for three missing Naval climbers on Ben Nevis. All mountain Rescue call outs are controlled by the Police and the local Lochaber Team who covered the area asked for the Kinloss Teams assistance. My boss was not happy when I phoned him at 0300 in the morning to ask to go but as RAF teams have a responsibility for military personnel as well as aircraft he had no option.

When he reused me George my team Leader phoned him and told him I was needed.   We arrived at Fort William and were all taken up to the CIC Hut a mountaineer’s hut which is situated about 2000 Feet on near the North Face we got a lift  in the Police snow track wagon. There were over 40 rescuers out on the search. The climbers had set out to climb the classic Tower Ridge and not returned. They had been staying at the hut working on the radio that was used for rescued.

As we were splitting into search parties at the hut we were told that they had been spotted below Tower Ridge on the East side. As a new member you were given the stretcher to carry and we went up to below the base of Douglas boulder where the climbers sadly were. I had already been to a fatality at Kintail a hillwalker a few months before but this was different.

The three climbers were all roped together and had fallen from the ridge and they must have died instantly. The teams sorted out the casualties and again part of a new team member’s job was dealing with them and getting them on the stretchers not an easy task for a young lad. One of the climbers had a small dog which was also killed in the fall, I was pretty upset. We took them back to the hut where the Police transported them back down the hill. Most of the two teams knew each other as several of the local Lochaber team were retired RAF team members who had married and settled in the area. I was amazed how all the guys just got on with the task in hand and treated them carefully and respectfully as the situation allowed.

The casualty I helped deal with was only a young lad and I thought how difficult it must be for the family to identify him at the Police station. I never called my family and told them what was going on like many I think they had no clue of what was occurring. There was no talking about dealing with trauma and a bit of we never speak about these things.

CIC Hut Summer

Everything seemed abnormally normal as we walked off; black humour was evident as these unfortunately were a thing you had to deal with in Mountain Rescue. These mountains can be very cruel if you make a mistake.

Most of the team went back to Fort William but John Hinde wanted to investigate what happened and asked if anyone would come with him up Tower Ridge. John was very interested in accident prevention and became the Scottish Mountain Rescue Statistician when he retired.

As all the casualties were military John felt he had to have a look and see what happened. This may seem very morbid to the layman, but he was interested if there had been a failure of equipment higher up that could have resulted in such a tragedy.

Tower Ridge

For some reason I went with him and two other team members.  It was a surreal day as here I was one hour after 3 people had fallen climbing the same route. Tower ridge is one of the longest ridges in the UK even in summer it can be an interesting day. John took me up the East gully and on to ridge and found roughly where they had fallen from; we belayed him down the ridge while he looked about for clues. It looked to John as a simple slip whilst moving together on the initial easy part of the ridge.

I remembered John’s words from Skye and took my time, making sure that every foothold and handhold was secure. The rock was greasy, wet and very cold and I found it a real challenge, the concentrating all day and trying to keep the rope work good. It took us four hours to climb the ridge, most of it with the mists coming and going. We climbed the famous Tower Gap and this involves a down climb with huge drops on all sides, I found it imposing but managed it. I was told that this was where many epics occur in the winter, in the wind, snow and dark, it scared the daylights out of me. I never believed that I would climb this route in winter on many occasions’ years later.

After this it was a simple scramble to the summit, John an expert in mountain accidents explained that there had been many epics on this last bit of the ridge and told us to take care. He was explaining where to belay and lower ropes on previous rescues. He was a fountain of knowledge and I tried to take it all in, from the top we then on to the summit. Even there the information kept flowing as he showed landmarks on the summit plateau, where he explained the difficulty of navigating in this featureless area.

What a day, that was all the time I was concentrating and taking as much care as possible. It was a long descent from the tourist path each with their own thoughts back to the team wagon and then back to Kinloss a 3 hour trip still in our wet clothes.

It had been a long day and we did not get back to Kinloss till late and back to work next day. This was my first big Rescue on Ben Nevis a mountain I was to grow to love over the next forty years.

The next day my boss at work was not happy or interested what had happened or what I had been involved in. There was no thought of me or my well-being. I was told that I had better not go on any other call outs in future even though he had agreed that I could. There was no point in arguing I was only a lowly airman in the RAF I had to keep my head down and get on with it, many of the team members had the same problems. I had not long to wait till my next brush with authority!


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, Equipment, Family, Friends, medical, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, People, PTSD, Rock Climbing, SMC/SMT, Views Mountaineering, Weather, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Early Callouts in 1972 – The harsh reality of Mountain Rescues.

  1. bob hankinson says:

    What rank did your boss reach before retiring? Did being a prat reward or penalise them?

    Liked by 1 person

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