1975 Sept – A big lower in Skye on Sgurr MhicConnich

In the RAF Kinloss MRT wE had practiced for big stretcher lowers during our training crag day. Yet apart from a lower with Lochaber MRT in Zero gully on Ben Nevis my knowledge was pretty scant. On the Ben even in the 70’s there were ropes under the summit shelter so you did not have to carry them to far.

It’s a lot different on other cliffs if no helicopter is available you have to get all the gear up the hill. If you think a climbing bag with two of you carrying basic rock gear for a big route is heavy ? Then things are a lot harder if your doing a lower on a remote cliff on Skye is a lot worse.

What do you take with you ? It would be an all night rescue it was raining. You have to carry a stretcher casualty bag and 500 ft ropes plus crag gear and your own personal gear for a long job. Lighting was basic in the 70’s basic head torches and we still relied on pyrotechnics. We had about 15 troops out on Skye and the same for Skye it was a long trudge back up to the cliff. Our base At Glenbrittle more or less is sea level. There were no mobile phones then but we had spoken to one of the climbers friends who said his mate was in a bad way. He had fallen from the climb above roughly Collies ledge. This is what mountain rescue is about and you have to put your tiredness and fears behind you and mind in neutral and go.

We got the call as we were back at McRaes barn in Glenbrittle having dinner. The police said a climber had fallen on a route West Buttress of Sgurr Mhicconich its a 300 metres climb just off the Great Stone Shoot. I had climbed it before and we had a fun day on the route. It’s not hard but a long route involving some loose rock.

Skye is never easy ground to lower someone the rock can be loose, add in wet rock and darkness it’s easy for things to go wrong. Belays have to be good with the weight of a stretcher patient and guide. Most lowers were done in that era single 500 ft ropes. They were so heavy to carry up the hill. As was the split stretcher it was tricky to climb with big and awkward. Add in darkness and a big cliff with an injured casualty above. You get to the casualty treat them as kindly aehs possible as the situation slows check, check and safety is paramount. Everything is double checked belays and ropes uncoiled and sure there running safely. Then load the stretcher all in the dark and rain. It’s teamwork at its best and can so easily go wrong.

It was a tricky lower down to the screes rocks fell as we took the stretcher down.There was a smell of cordite as the rocks went down the cliff. It was about 700 feet so we must have added a rope to get to the screes. The casualty had been on the cliff for over 6 hours immobile and we still had to carry him off. Head torches as I said and battery life were pretty poor in those days as was communications. I am sure we used flares to illuminate the cliff.

West Buttress

I was so glad to get of the cliff and get the casualty of the hill. You learn so much from each Rescue a few I was to use again in Skye and other places over the next 25 years. I was so pleased we had got the casualty of the hill and sitting in the tent having that first cup of tea your on a high and despite being exhausted sleep never came easy to me.

It’s important that you send a fast party up to the casualty to give first aid. Then the rest follow keeping everyone together: it’s pointless to get up to the casualty with only half a stretcher. ( The stretchers were split so that the weight could be shared by two team members.) The casualty bag ( a big sleeping bag with zips) must be with it as it is so important. Most casualties are suffering from exposure and their injuries.

The lower was very scary we only need a few to lower and got the rest out of the team out of the way. Loose rocks were coming down no matter how careful you are a stretcher on a big cliff with a guide and casualty is a huge responsibility. Pete MacGowan our Team leader was in his element he had done many lowers in Wales and his experience was invaluable that night . Getting the casualty off the hill is only part of the journey we had a long carry off. Exhausting work even finding the path out is not a simple task.

Seeing day break after a long night on the go is incredible you feel alive , yet few know what you were up to that night. There was little media interest in what was going on unlike today.

In the end you worked with other teams got to trust each other and learn from each incident. Money was tight for the civilian teams and a big rescue would damage stretchers and mean ropes would have to be scrapped after such an incident. Much of our own personal gear could be battered after such a job. Kit could be lost in the dark but you have to ensure your ready for the next incident. Every day is a learning day on the mountains.

Top tip: would you be able to cope with waiting with an injured mate for help after an accident? It even today can be a long wait. Always carry some spare kit.

Top tip: after this call out I always carried a spare torch it made life so much easier, especially today when torches are so much lighter. 

Top tip: we had big group shelters in the mid 70’s they were invaluable on that night. Bothy bags are back in vogue and in my mind worth there weight in gold.

Bothy bag

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, Gear, Mountain rescue, Mountaineering, Rock Climbing, Views Mountaineering, Weather. Bookmark the permalink.

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