A winters tale – Request for a Tope rope on Braeriach to Tower Ridge !

Every year the RAF Mountain Rescue would hold its Annual Winter Course which ran for two weeks in Scotland. It was based in the Cairngorms and Fort William. In these days there were 6 RAF Teams in the UK each team would send 2 instructors and 2 pupils. In all with a few extra we could have 36 – 40. It was a great but hard two weeks with one day off. Yet it was a huge privilege to chosen for the winter course there were some great instructors and we met so many of the other team members from far and wide.

I went on my first course as a pupil in the 70,s and had a great time. In these days the Northern Corrie’s in the Cairngorms were pretty quiet unlike nowadays. Of course there was no responsibility them for me, it was just getting out and climbing with many of the stars of that era. I found it very hard physically out every day no matter the weather and often getting involved in climbing accidents at the end of day.

As I progressed to a winter leader the responsibility got greater we often climbed a one two one ratio. After a few days of winter skills the new troops were put at some easy gullies for many a big change. It was worrying at times watching them find protection and belays which only come as your skills improve. After a good day out the troops would have to navigate back. Later on some would move onto Hells Lum and a long journey back across the plateau would test most folks.

If the weather or snow was limited we would look at the weather forecast and maybe go bothying. On my first winter course we had a few days into Corrour via a route Brairaich, Cairntoul and Devils Point. From a night in Corrour heading over Ben MacDui and Cairngorm carrying a lot of gear. As they say “ character building” in the early days there was no Avalanche forecasts and the weather information was basic.

After a nights snow hole which was epic at times but that’s another story. Many of the pupils had not done a winter in there area so it was full on learning, there were many eye opening days. Carrying a big bag was hard going every day add in maybe a Callout of which there were many that again opened the eyes of the young team members. At night we had lectures on Area knowledge, Avalanche awareness by The late Blyth Wright, and many other subjects. You were tired by the end of the day getting an appraisal of your efforts if you were a student and getting your gear dried and sorted out for tomorrow.

Go forward and it was the Team Leader at Kinloss that ran the course. In 1989 that was me. The responsibility I really felt as many of the instructors were pushing their grades. In the morning we would after breakfast have a brief and weather and avalanche update. I and a few others would have looked at what the plans for routes for the day would be. This was before Risk Assessments. I always had a good look what the younger leaders were up to as a few times ambition can overtake ability.

I was usually the last off the hill ensuring all were safe like a mother hen. I remember a few epics which we sorted. It would be long waits in car parks or at the top of routes to check everyone was okay. It was a lot easier to do in the Cairngorms where the car park is high. Of course we had our radios and if a wee epic was happening we could go to our military frequency.

The second week was on Ben Nevis and Glencoe and to many of the pupils and newer instructors the Ben is the classic Mountain as are the routes. Often some would stay in the CIC Hut giving a easier walk in.

On one course one of my star pupils from Kinloss who we had spent time training on the Ben was partnered with a young instructor. I had just done a route high on the Ben we watched the weather come in as was forecast. I held a couple near the summit to ensure all was okay as there was a pair of my troops going slowly on Tower Ridge. It’s cold hanging about on the summit then later on just as darkness was falling I heard a radio call.

Tower ridge

“ Any Alpine party ( our winter course call sign) we are on Tower Ridge and need a top rope. “ There was a reply before I could get them to go to our military frequency on the radio. The reply “ I would love to but on Braeraich finishing a climb” I knew Lochaber and Glencoe would be about so at least I had some time to sort things out.

Tower Ridge

I spoke to a very worried instructor he was near the famous Tower Gap and was like many before a bit gripped. His pupil was a great young troop we will call him “Stormy” he had climbed Tower Ridge in summer and winter with me. I spoke to him and asked was he okay. He said he was happy to lead the gap so I said go for it. We would descend to the Gap from the summit just in case . We had done it before and we’re glad to get going. We only had climbing ropes so we added ropes together as we sent a troop down to the gap.

Our hero Stormy was already passed the Gap bringing his Instructor up. All was good and they were both soon at the top. It was then a descent of the hill after a sort out of gear. On the way off the hill I got a call from Lochaber MRT asking if we were okay I was pleased to say yes thanks.

Waiting at the CIC hut for an overdue party

Of course there were many other epics or learning from mistakes. The odd walk out from Creag Mheaghaidh to Roy bridge and Glencoe after climbing ending up in Glen Etive. It was all part of the Mountaineering apprenticeships and valuable lessons were learned.

At the end of a days climbing we often helped the local teams with evacuation of fallen climbers never easy after a long days climbing.

I was glad my few years of running the winter course were accident free and we trained a lot of young team members who became Team Leaders of the future.

Maybe we did a lot of things right ?

Comments as always welcome.

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.
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