The great improvements in weather/ Avalanche/ forecasting.

In my early days in the RAF Mountain Rescue we got a weather forecast from the local RAF MET office. It was handy but mainly designed mainly for aircraft flying. It came in at weekends by our High Frequency radios at times a very unpredictable service. It was a job we all had to do and get a weather forecast for the weekend or call out. Often it said visibility poor in hill fog. The Rescue co ordination centres had the forecasts and their call signs Edinburgh Rescue and later Kinloss Rescue were a familiar alarm clock for many of our teams.

Sometimes the forecast was way out as in 1978 “ the great blizzards “ a huge storm came in unexpected. I was a young party leader in the team. We were on the Mamores when the blizzard struck. Instead of coming straight of the hill we went to the summit and crawled back along the ridge. There was no other way off but onto the corrie where we were again lucky as the whole slope avalanched we were chest deep.

We had to put chains on to get down Glen Nevis and arrived back to Fort William finding some of the others had epics to on Aonach Mor. By now Ray Sefton who was the team Leader was at the Police station and cars and people were stuck all over Scotland. Once he had collected his team and we were all accounted for.We were sent to the Rannoch Moor with Glencoe MRT and rescued over 50 motorists many children and old people with no kit. Cars were buried and we had to dig them out using the big 4 tonners as refuges to transport the people to the land-rovers and safety. We had stoves on in the wagons trying to heat up the people. This was in the days before the roads had gates on them to stop motorists driving into danger. It could and should have been a disaster but for the efforts of the Police and teams. Next day we nearly lost a helicopter near Tulloch the Rescue Control Centre had lost communications with the aircraft. This caused incredible worry as all the helicopters were very busy on rescues all over Scotland and the weather was still wild. It was very worrying as we were set off to find it and help the crew. We managed to drive past Roybridge and then set off in waist deep snow in places We had permission to use any houses for shelter if needed as there were a few holiday homes just passed Tulloch. It was crazy we kept swapping leads due to the depth of snow and after 2 hours we heard the noise of the helicopter and it had a wee snag and was sorted and gave us a lift back. We were so glad to see them. Six people died. This was the worst blizzard in the area since 1955. At Glasgow 17 cm of snow was the heaviest fall there since 1947; near Aviemore the level snow depth was around 66 cm.

1978 Blizzards

This is an extract by Squadron Leader Bill Campbell, AFC who I was later to work with at Lockerbie. Bill was part of a huge helicopter force that saved so many lives over this period. What great people, to land in Aviemore High Street and the A9 is a thing I will never forget. What a bunch of guys.

Library Reference Number: 202

The Blizzards Of 1978  Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

We had had a couple of met warnings of the imminent arrival of North-Easterly Severe Gale Force 9 increasing to Storm Force 10, which meant winds of 35-40 knots gusting to 50-60 continuing till at least midday Sunday. We got a taste of the weather to come when we were scrambled, late in the afternoon, to an exhausted member of an RAF Regiment training expedition who had collapsed at Faindouran Lodge in Glen Avon in the Cairngorms, a most inaccessible place in the conditions with knee-deep powdery snow being blown by a strong north-easterly wind at 2500 feet. We got back to base after dark, put the aircraft to bed and noted in the log ‘Rotten Weather’. In our absence another met warning had arrived – ‘snow and sleet overnight with moderate to heavy falls with drifting’. We kept ourselves briefed throughout the evening as weather forecasts became more ominous. Finally at 23:30, just before going to bed, I phoned the Rescue Co-ordination Centre (RCC) at RAF Pitreavie Castle to check if there was anything in the wind for tomorrow. They replied that they had just been called by Northern Constabulary at Inverness asking for a helicopter to be at their landing site as soon as possible after first light, and warning that it could be used all day on a number of incidents.

These incidents lasted several days and tested the crews to the full.

Operation Whiteout’, as it became known in the RAF, was not stood down till Friday 3rd February, when Northern Constabulary issued statistics for the operation:

  1. 372 people evacuated from hostile situations
  2. 85 searches
  3. 390 checks on isolated homes
  4. 215 food deliveries
  5. 12 fuel supply missions
  6. 10 medical supplies drops
  7. 10 priority animal fodder drops
  8. 682 messages logged by the police
  9. 305 hours of helicopter flying (the RAF made it 329)
  10. Continuous daylight flying by Shackletons over 3 day

It was after this Snow gates were put on the A9 and A82. Over the years things got better but yet a few times the forecast caught us out. Nowadays it’s hard to believe that we can get hourly weather updates and forecasts for each hills. We really are spoiled for choice.

The Scottish Avalanche information Service (SAIS) The Scottish Avalanche Project began in 1988 as an avalanche forecasting service funded by the Scottish Sports Council and operating in 2 areas, Glencoe and the North Cairngorms. This ran for 2 winters, with the addition in 1989-90 of Lochaber and a weekend pilot scheme on Lochnagar. Nowadays it runs to 5 areas and is Government funded. Many of us worked hard to get funding for the Avalanche information Service never take it for granted.

Avalanches can happen wherever there is snow… 

The growing popularity of winter climbing and hill-walking, along with the growth of interest in ski touring and off-piste skiing, means that more people than ever are at risk and sadly each year people are injured or die as a result of avalanche in the Scottish mountains.

Many of these accidents would have been avoidable, given greater awareness of the hazards.

Nowadays we have Apps on our phones and so much information available please use them.

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, Enviroment, Equipment, Media, mountain safety, Mountaineering, People, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Weather, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

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