Monday, 20 July 2015

Glencoe Mountain Transceiver Training Park Success

Avalanche Avoidance and Companion Rescue
The most up to date training system in use at Glencoe Scotland

Eight independent beacons that transmit a signal at the international standard for avalanche transceivers of 457kHz are permanently buried in up to 4m of snow at Glencoe Mountain ski resort. They are looked after by Glencoe Mountain staff, Ski Patrol and Davy Gunn who runs avalanche education training on Glencoe Mountain

Hamish at the 2011 opening
In collaboration with Anatom who supplied a wired starter training system to get things going in 2011. Glencoe Mountain Resort provided a piece of snow sure land, help from the staff and some financial help to start the training park 4 years ago.  The original park was opened by Hamish MacInnes the famous mountaineer and rescuer. Last winter money raised by Clachaig Inn on their annual winter series of mountain safety lectures at the hotel provided funding for the new wireless avalanche search training system in place this winter. The hotels owner is a member of Glencoe Mountain Rescue and a friend of both his and Davy Gunn’s (Chris Bell) was lost in an avalanche in Glencoe in 2013 where 4 people lost their lives in one avalanche. The original wired system is now in use at a training park at Glenshee ski centre and it’s hoped to raise funds to get a similar and more effective wireless system in place there. As at Glencoe, the one at Glenshee provides an accessible training venue for local mountain rescue teams, mountaineering groups and off piste and touring skiers.

Practising digging effectively, a crucial
and often overlooked part of avalanche rescue
The general public has free access to use the training systems which stays out all winter. All they have to do is check in with the Glencoe Mountain staff or  ski patrol to see if it’s already in use that day. Demonstration hand held transceivers to search for the buried beacons are supplied for use on training courses by Ortovox UK (Noble Custom), Anatom (Back Country Access) and Rosker (ARVA Nic Impex) or folk can bring their own to practice with. Each of the eight buried beacons also has a RECCO reflector inside so that mountain rescue and ski patrol can practise using this alternative search system as well as transceivers. Organised rescue teams use RECCO which is harmonic radar that can also be used from a helicopter. RECCO is a standard search tool by mountain rescue in Europe but as yet only two Scottish mountain rescue teams, and one ski patrol use it. No search and rescue helicopters have adopted it in the UK for avalanche rescue to date but the hand held can be used from a helicopter with an adapter sytem from a 3rd party manufacturer.  I have one here in Glencoe as I am also the UK trainer for Recco.

The training park beacons are buried deeply in the snow so that searching for them proves difficult, simulating searching a real avalanche for a victim. As it’s wireless there are no wires to degrade or get cut by shovels as folk dig, and different avalanche burial scenarios can be created from single to multiple victim burials by alternating which buried beacons are transmitting from a control box. When a victim/beacon is found by a searcher, contact with the buried beacon by a snow probe sends a signal back to the control box confirming a success.
Ortovox 3+ a modern fast avalanche transceiverr

Every skier going off piste or touring in the mountains should carry three essential items. A transceiver to be located or locate a buried companion, a collapsible snow probe to confirm the victim’s location and a strong aluminium shovel to dig them out quickly.

Glencoe ski patrol practising in the park
Recovery of buried companions in an avalanche is time critical with a 90% survival if victims are located and dug out within less than 15 minutes. After this time survival is very poor, therefore practise in locating and digging is critical. One of the training beacons is inside a resuscitation mannequin so that digging it out is like excavating a real victim and some care is required. The park importantly provides an opportunity for ski patrol to talk to those practising and emphasise the importance of avoiding avalanche terrain by interpreting the area avalanche forecast and local weather effects and therefore make wise and safe choices avoiding avalanche terrain for the day.

Without the support of Clachaig Inn, its staff and the public donating at the winter lectures this mountain safety initiative just would not have been possible. The enthusiasm and support by Glencoe Mountain owner Andy Meldrum and his staff by providing snow sure land, tending to the park and investing in its upkeep is tremendous. A particular mention of thanks to Glencoe Ski Patrollers Christine and Keith Hill who are always on hand to give sound advice to skiers and boarders and who maintain the park.
Killin Mountain Rescue and a group of Freeride skiers using the training park

Friday, 3 July 2015

Recreation versus Conservation

As a keen angler brought up in an area where at one time game fish were very abundant, it's a constant topic among other older anglers about the lack of fish nowadays and taking fish home to eat versus conservation.  Brown Trout are a resilient species who's main predator is man. Certainly abundance varies, but unless they are in a nutrient poor loch and river system where they are forced to migrate to sea making the physiological adaptions to live there (some don't) for better feeding, they are a more sustainable catch by and large than salmon and sea trout with less threats and predation along a migration route which for salmon can be 3,000 miles.

Migrated Brown trout or "Sea Trout" where they become a coastal fish feeding in the sea and open to more predation from seals, cormorants and even sea otters. Uncontrolled blooms of the natural parasite "sea lice" coming from fish farms almost obliterated Sea Trout on the Scottish West coast as the blooms occurred in the sheltered inland lochs and the sea trout couldn't escape. Stocks are still very poor in comparison with 30 years ago.
Too many lice parasites and the sea trout dies
I am not against modern salmon farming as in some ways they have taken the pressure off the Atlantic Salmon from poaching. Also its become a criminal offence to sell or buy wild salmon even if its just a part of one (hotels and restaurants beware, as fisheries bailiffs have the right to enter and check your premises).  Fish farm lice controls are now much better and more natural by using Wrasse a little fish that eats the lice off the salmon in the cages. In the past attempts to control the lice was with "SLICE" a pesticide,  pretty horrible stuff to the environment.

Because juvenile salmon have to migrate through these sea lochs and the blooms they were killed by lice infestations and the west coast salmon stocks collapsed through the 1990's onwards.  In fact in some rivers the native salmon are now extinct or on the brink. Initiatives like that by Lochaber Fisheries Trust with the river Strontian Anglers are trying to bring them back by a conservation and a restocking programme. You can only stock with native fish as it just doesn't work importing fish from one river to another, and research has shown that each river no matter how small has its own genetic stock different from one even a mile away.

This year for the first time there is a glimmer of hope and signs that early spring fish have been coming back. These bigger mainly hen fish carry many more eggs than the Grilse who more often are male and the smaller late summer salmon, and these "springer's are rarely killed especially by knowledgeable anglers, as they are the fish equivalent of the White Rhino. Don't get me wrong taking home a salmon to feed youre family from a sustainable stock is ok, but most anglers these days whether trout or salmon only take what they need for a meal.  Who needs to kill more than that?  Farm Salmon is so cheap and of such a quality in the shops that its much more affordable, so if friends other than immediate family like salmon they can get it there and help conserve the rare wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout. 

Anglers should enjoy their fishing but know that they are also conservationists.  A recent chat with a local angler reminded me that there is still work to do getting that message across as the fisher moaned about not being allowed to fish with a worm and releasing fish.  I pointed out that they were not anglers in the true sense then, as none I know have a problem as they care as much about the fish as they do the fishing.
A Spring fish of about 15lbs held briefly in the water and released full of energy
The joy of angling and conserving.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Glencoe Bike Hire

At £20 a day from the great base in Glencoe village why go anywhere else.  We have safe easy family cycle routes starting from our door or you can have a blast along the flat, velvet smooth and safe Route 78 cycle track to Appin.  If pushed for time we can do you a half day of 4 hours for only £15.

You get helmets, locks and puncture kit with spare inner tube as well as local maps of film sets, OS sheet 41or off road trails.  We have a family so have been there when looking for things to do on a bike and also we have been competative road and XC cyclists so can point you to the right place if its an adrenaline burts you need.  Slicks or knobblies, "V" or disc brakes we have all types.

Fiona Gunn from Glencoe Bike Hire and Shop
enjoying a nice cruise around the "Signal Rock" trails

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Strath of Glencoe

It's been quite some time since my last blog post.  It's been reasonably busy with bike hire and repairs despite the awful weather and late spring.  We have also had family commitments not least of which was attending my sons graduation from Aberdeen University.

I am having a year off the bike racing as I need to re balance my time and health.  I am however re kindling my lifelong affair with fishing.  I have fished since I was maybe about six years old and remember my mother having to put a worm on a hook for me as I didn't like them, and epic frustrations from my dad with tangled line at the tidal pool. Those who knew his patience level can imagine the expletives!
Blackbirds nest next to a place I fish.  We meet every day. She flew back in and was obviously not bothered
Pink Hawthorn or "Mayflower" which is where the saying "nere cast a cloot till may is oot" comes from.  Only this year your cloot shouldnt have been cast even in June!
Early trips up to Loch Ba with Jock MacDonald and his boat, and many future boys own expeditions wandering over Rannoch moor, losing wellies in bottomless bogs and using the sound of the train at Rannoch so we knew we had walked 180deg in the wrong direction and would miss Andrew the local bus driver waiting for us on the A82 if we didnt run were all character forming, especially when still only 10 years old. My mother was worried sick. 

Later trips to Bealach and even out to exotic locations like over the hill to Lundavra and a shot of the good boat if it wasn't out.  My early rod was a split cane 9ft with a level taper line and small flies bought from rare trips on the bus over the ferry to the excellent Rod and Gun shop next to the bus station in Fort William.  There was always good advice and help form the two older gents who ran the shop, and later when I had a few quid saved from working the "Grotto" petrol pumps they set me up with a nice hollow glass 9'6 fly rod and reel which I still have.  It was a very soft action rod and later nearly broke at the lower brass ferrule with a small grilse from the "Doctors Pool" on the Duror. There wasn't a puddle with fish in it that I didn't explore, and some rock climbing was required on occasion to reach hidden pools  I revisited one last year and the pool which would have given me a half dozen big sea trout  up to 3lbs and maybe a grilse, was absent of fish including the many small brownies that would come to the fly.  Banks of Sitka spruce have probably made the water too acidic.
Lower Coe falls and its water worn rocks.  There are intials from the ealy 19th century chipped into the rock from when Strathcona removed the arch that spanned the river to improve Salmon access.  You need to know where to look .....

It's fair to say in some ways that these explorations were among and a part of the mountains. As a teen when introduced to the heady mix of mountaineering, climbing, alcohol, women, and exotic places (but not many exotic women sadly) to pursue the mountain addiction. I suppose I became quite good at climbing, and climbed many of the classic hard routes and test pieces.  I was also lucky to be a very young member of the local rescue team at only 16, having already been going on rescues with a neighbour since I was younger.  These were the days of shepherds, stalkers and forestry workers with only a few climbers.  Money was scarce, politics of rescue non existent, and only the needs of the victims was at the forefront.  The reward was good craic, a plate of soup and a few free drams and maybe a "lock in" at Clachaig or Kingshouse.  A once a year issue of socks and thermal underwear was a bonus, but no one was without a good "Cag" and boots, the essentials.  There was no parading about like a shops dummy with overpriced Arcterxc.

Lucky for me I met Fiona who was to be my wife and climbing partner and who kicked me from manual labour as a wood cutter (my excuse - it kept me strong for climbing) to using a brain neglected from being kicked out of school.  She liked the bad boy rebel bit in me which was really nothing more than being pissed at a crap secondary school with dysfunctional teachers.Without her I would never have achieved professional level medical and mountain qualifications.
The Hump Bridge and still waters below
The thread throughout all my life in one way or another has been fishing and in particular the River Coe, who's flow has served as a metaphor for much of my life. Steady, placid, reflective, angry, raging, unclear.  I always liked Neil Gunn's book "Highland River" but only in later life when reading it again did I truly understand it as a "Quest" and how much it resembled my own life.  
Looking up "The Strath"
I had a truly lovely walk up the river today following a salmon which has a very distinguishing mark on it's nebb (nose).  Having watched it from the sea pool weeks ago, it was good to see it again having moved upriver again to another pool.  It was sitting quietly in a spot where an old local poacher "Willie the Bridge" would show me fish.  Willie is gone and so is his Rabbit snare and the need to take a fish, so it was safe lying there just waiting.  It will wait until the next fish comes to that spot then will move upriver again to another lay up. Up river there are places where a fish might lay for two months conserving its precious fat and red carotenoid energy supply until the next and final urge to reach home kicks in.  Marvellous resilient creatures that we should respect and take from only with care.
The Celtic symbol of knowledge and inheritor of Solomons wisdom lays waiting
If I might borrow again from Neil Gunn, who by the way is no relation, just imagine a nice day ambling up the river with a camera thinking of "The Atom of Delight".
House Martins? or Swifts?  have made burrows for nesting in the fallen river bank

The ever changing river course
Click the images for a larger size

Saturday, 23 May 2015

RECCO Rescues 2015

RECCO Rescues 2015

The following are some rescues where RECCO technology made a difference, or could have. The first two rescues mentioned below occurred in Spain’s Pyrenees and deserve attention as they highlight the importance of being searchable. At Baqueira, RECCO technology quickly located and saved a buried off-piste skier, which then helped rescuers find the second buried skier who was also found alive. In the other accident at Candanchú, the search operation and outcome were very different as the skier was not searchable. Rescuers found the skier dead the next day. 

Baqueira-Beret, Val d'Aran, Spain, 2 February 2015
Located in the Pyrenees, Baqueira-Beret is the largest and busiest ski resort in Spain. On Monday, February 2, a group of 4 off-piste skiers were caught, and 2 with no rescue gear were completely buried in a soft slab avalanche. The ski patrol responded immediately. The RECCO detector operator found the first skier buried 1.4 meters after a 6-minute search. The skier’s cell phone (facing the surface) likely reflected the RECCO signal. Once found, rescuers had the indication where to focus their effort and located the second skier, buried 1.5 meters, about 20 minutes later by probing. Both skiers survived. Mountain rescuers from the Bombers de la Generalitat with their helicopter joined seventeen ski patrollers to rescue the pair. It is not easy (and sometimes it’s impossible) to find a cell phone or other electronic device because of weak signals and short ranges, but this rescue highlights the importance of searching with the RECCO even when the person does not have reflectors.

Special thank you to Francesc Rocher, ski patrol director, for sharing details.

Candanchú, Huesca, Spain, 31 January 2015
At the end of January the Candanchú ski resort was hit by heavy snows and strong winds, which closed parts of the resort. On the 31st, two backcountry skiers triggered an avalanche in the Rinconada area, an area that was closed at that time because of the severe weather. Neither skier carried any rescue equipment. One was not buried and called 112 (equivalent of 911). Ski patrollers found him suffering from hypothermia. The other skier was buried, and rescuers from the ski patrol and the Guardia Civil searched RECCO, dogs, and probes into the evening before suspending the search because of bad weather and increasing avalanche danger. The search resumed early Sunday morning. As the skier was not searchable he was eventually located – deceased – by probe line some 20 hours after the avalanche.

Special thank you to RECCO Techs (and Bomber instructors) Bernat and Francois Carola for additional information.

Polar Circus, Banff, Canada, 2 February 2015
Late Thursday afternoon in Banff National Park a Canadian Forces search and rescue technician was swept over a cliff while he and his partner descended Polar Circus (700+ m ice climb) on an official military training. The pair had just rappelled the upper portion of the route to a steep, snow-covered bench. The victim triggered an avalanche after moving ahead to set up the next anchor while his partner coiled the ropes. His partner searched the area, but neither had transceivers. Late that night the Parks Canada mountain rescue team received word of the accident. An incoming storm dropped up to 1 m of new snow by Saturday, which prevented any searching on the ground. Extensive mitigation work with explosives on Sunday triggered many big avalanches that spilled down the route. On Monday park rescuers were short hauled by helicopter onto the debris and searched for a few hours with 2 dogs and RECCO. Because the terrain is a technical ice climb, all searching was done while roped. Since it was known the climber was not equipped with a reflector, the RECCO search was done slowly with a tight grid pattern. As the dogs were equipped with reflectors, the operator had to wait for the dogs to move out of a sector before searching with the detector. On Wednesday a detector operator picked up a RECCO signal that was being reflected back by a Mammut headlamp the victim carried in his backpack. He was located under 2.7m of debris. This search is a good reminder to use the detector’s earbud headphones especially when searching for incidental electronic devices. Weak signals can be better heard when using earbuds. 
Zakopane, Poland, 21 February 2015
On Saturday, as strong winds caused heavy blowing snow, two tourists set out for a hut in the Valley of Five Polish Ponds. When they failed to reach the hut by 0100 the hut master called rescuers. Early Sunday morning TOPR rescuers, assisted by rescuers from Slovakia, spotted and started searching several recent avalanches with probes, dogs and RECCO without success. The search continued on Monday. An appeal for information over local television and radio resulted in several photographs showing the pair. While searching a small avalanche (80 x 5 meters) on Tuesday afternoon a RECCO detector operator detected a signal. A probe confirmed the signal. A second signal was detected nearby. The first victim was buried one meter deep, the other 2.5 meters. The pair had followed the summer trail, which is threatened by significant avalanche danger rather than taking the safer and longer winter trail. The first victim was buried one meter deep, the other 2.5 meters. The pair had followed the summer trail, which is threatened by significant avalanche danger rather than taking the safer and longer winter trail. The victims likely triggered the avalanche, and apparently were traveling together when caught. Neither victim had a transceiver. Both victims were found because of their cell phones.
Special thank you to Andrzej Górka of TOPR for sharing details of the SAR operation. 

Orelle, Savoire, France, 3 March 2015
Four skiers were caught in a small slab avalanche that swept 3 skiers over a 15m cliff and buried 1 skier. The alarm was sounded immediately and 2 ski patrollers arrived quickly with transceivers and a RECCO detector. The search area was relatively small (25 x 20m) and one rescuer quickly got a signal with the RECCO detector. This victim was uncovered from a 40cm burial after only a 12-minute burial. The victim was unconscious, but breathing, and had suffered a significant head injury. The mountain rescue team and emergency doctors arrived and treated the patient before he was flown to a Grenoble hospital. The patient was not equipped with a reflector, but was found by a weak signal that likely came from a cell phone. When the RECCO operator did not detect a signal during the first pass, he started to search in microstrips (few meters wide) with the detector just above the snow surface.

Reported by Frederic Gros, Orelle Ski Patrol and Recco operator