Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Roadside Routes in Glencoe

I surfed through the UKC crag data base. Its pretty extensive and includes most of the crags around Glencoe, many of which are overlooked by their grander big brothers up the hills. I was quite surprised they were listed, but also a bit disappointed that most had seen little traffic over the years and were now getting overgrown and neglected. For an area full of climbers the local ones seem reluctant to  climb or maintain these crags. I guess there is just too much choice now or folk maybe just don't climb as much as we did. I don't think there was a weekend or evening if it was dry that we were not out or away somewhere climbing. Until kids came along and it was reduced but never stopped and then they climbed as well.
All our kids can climb. Some thought required on keeping them safe when little and "the leader must not fall" are all part of the parental equation. Fiona climbed and skied with all our kids but we always discussed and put some thought into it and as an example would never ski a busy day as the risk of accidental collision is too high. Duncan belaying me on "Flying Dutchman". Now he leads F7c and it's me who's struggling.
Some crags like "Banana Buttress" has first ascents listed on UKC. The folk doing this wouldn't have been aware that there isn't a square foot of that crag that hadn't been climbed many times over by bar staff going back to the 1960's. Even the crag above this had an aid route on it and the Quarry was full of boulder problems (and often poo from campers). One challenge was the complete traverse without stepping onto the boulder (V3).

At the end of the road where it joins the A82 a stream gully come of the Aonach Eagach. A ten minute walk up and there is a crag with a crack line full of pegs and an overhang which was used for aid practise by Glencoe Climbing school in the 60's/70's. I free climbed it at about E2/5c and there is a stiff pull over the overhang. It's a bit of fun  although short. I wouldn't trust the pegs.

Going up the Glen, at the Gorge/meeting of three waters the obvious crack up the crag just across the river is a really good fun at HVS and has very good gear. It had wooden wedges in it at one time which have rotted out. Next to it on the left is an E2 taking a thin crack which is nippy with a move across requiring a bold move right and some heather pulling to join the same route. The HVS is good and a lot better than it looks so well worth it when dry. Behind there is a dry river gorge running all the way down to the stream from the Lost Valley. Out across from this is a band of promising looking crags which are actually not that good but there is a severe on the left "Alans Arete" which is a bit of fun on clean rock in a couple of pitches and has a nice outlook.
The Drey Crag
The Drey Crag" above the road with the hut set into it. This was the Edinburgh "Squirrels" hut. They are no longer, but luminaries included Dougal Haston and Jimmy Marshall. There used to be guide to the crag on the inside of the hut door.  It's a bit scrappy but a few routes, and the best is the obvious rock dyke with a small bulge to get around, no gear though from that point and its about severe. There is a harder crack and smooth bulge to the right of this (bold at the top) and to the left of the dyke there was a VS and on the extreme left a short V Diff chimney.

Above the Drey there are "The Red Walls" and slabs with boulder problems that catch the evening sun and are a lot of fun. You can make it easy or hard as the rock is excellent and the landings ok.
Mike Hall and I playing on "The Red Walls" above the Drey
Back in the dry gorge. Halfway down on the north side there is a clean crag with a crack exiting from a small overhang with a peg which is a good HVS. Used to be called "The Squirrels Crack" I think as it was Kenny Spence who did it but it may now have another name.  Further down still is a short "leaning wall" which gets the evening sun and has about six routes by me from E15b to an E2 5c/6a (Crimp) on the right that had very small wires as pro.

Back up the gorge leading to Allt na Righ coming down from the A82 is "The Bendy" with routes from the E1b Jim l' Fix It by me on the lower left, to an E4 by Murray Hamilton and an E4 by Gary Latter and I. I did Simmering Psycho which had a peg runner at the top as the cracks were blind and micro wires wouldn't fit. E3/5c and good natural pro to that point then finishing up a groove rather  more natural than the blanker walls of the harder routes and their exploding crimpy holds and RP pro. These crags were clean and well climbed at one time, so its shame folk don't re-clean and climb them now. Its a bit like the mountain bike trails I guess, folk wait for other folk to put the work in then they get to climb/ride. 

Some advice on when to climb these routes, if you want to try them.  The Bendy is a morning crag  it gets the sun early. The leaning wall at the bottom of the dry gorge is a spring crag or early evening summer as it catches the late afternoon sun and as its got a really nice outlook and grassy bottom so its a lovely spot with a cracking pool for a swim on the way back.

It would be nice to see folk enjoying these routes and although the main loose rock work was done years ago, they will require a brush up to clean them.  Or just go for it!

Stac an Eich or Creagallan as we new it, is the granite crag reached via the road to the memorial cairn past the golf course. It had a few easier routes on its west end facing the evening sun. Slabs such as Appin groove, or the rib to its left were soloed by me and are good fun at about VS. Right of Appin groove there were a couple of stiff boulder problem slab routes, and to the right of what we used as a decent gully a steep well protected wall route of HVS with lower from a tree.

The main crag routes are all in the outcrops guide and a bit like grit routes being quite pumpy. Shuttlecock on the east (far left) up the obvious corner is a cracker with good pro, and the original finish (pitch 2) went up a leaning block and had a step across and then up. Great situation and views from that belay. The top block of pitch 2 was pretty hollow but if its still there since 1983 could be ok. An alternative is to belay at the top of the corner and then move right and up to where the central corner exits where there was some fixed gear I left 35 years ago! There is also a direct start from lower down leading into the lower pitch which is about 5b/c. We tended to ab off which was a free abseil and part of the fun. Have an auto block as back up!
George Reid gets off the ground on Shuttlecock pitch 1 1982
Left of Shuttlecock there were another two routes including "Autan" which took the big area of granite above. Probably all covered now. A team with bow saws could really open up what was a great evening crag that often had a sea breeze in the sun, and was a popular often noisy venue as folk cursed up the routes which although a bit fierce are well protected if you can hang on. A pint in the Ferry bar often followed!
Me finishing Shuttlecock about to step left from the block pitch 2 original finish
Across the the Loch at Onich the obvious white wall above the A82 to Fort William has three routes. The faint crack on the left side by Kenny Spence/Fyffe is about E1/5b and I put a direct 5b finish on if you continue straight up and over the bulge. The three star route is the obvious crack system on the right which is as good a crag route as anywhere in Lochaber. Well protected by nuts and cams it's a steady E2/5b with the techiest bit just as you get established and get some gear in. This bit is where most folk back off as it can seem damp but as this bit of crag overhangs the drips are in space. Then its steady but pumpy on good holds to the top of what feels like a long pitch. It does lean over a bit! I think this was also Spence/Fyffe route and had an aid peg although we never found one and we free climbed it many times over the years. There is an eliminate 6a between the two crack lines but its a bit contrived. The "Right Hand" route is three star and don't be put off by the start up through the trees and bushes and stepping off the ledge. The gear comes and the climbing is good. Makes a nice evening doing both routes.

Further down and obvious above Kentallen bay is a Limestone crag. Best reached from an easy walk across the hill from Duror hall or a straight bushwhack up the sheep tracks from the parking at the old pier or cycle track. All the routes have steep boulder starts and then nice slabs and grooves with gear to finish. Belays were a bit scarce at the top but maybe the birch trees have grown and will be stronger. "Prawn" was a nice VS and Ed Grindly had "up periscope" 6a. I think Gary Latter did a route and rumour had it Dave MacLeod. On the left edge there is a rock recess and there were was good route by Bob Hamilton up the corner at HVS and I had two HVS's on the right and an E4/6a on the left of it which was never topped out due to water. The evening views from this crag are stunning and due to sea breeze its usually midge free.
Kentallen Bay Crag
The Lettershuna crag in Appin is more open now and has two E1's on its right end from Steve Kennedy 15 years ago. There are a few routes in the Ballachulish Quarry also. A red slab on the tier above the first stakes, the rib left of the polished slab, and the slab tucked away further in with the diagonal traverse line and three routes up tiny quartz wrinkles that I soloed some 30 years ago. A few bolts would maybe make them safer!

There isn't much new folks, but if you take care of what there is and look around I bet there is a lot more roadside cragging to be had locally. Personally I would love to see some sports routes on a previously written off non trad crag somewhere. I dunno, maybe port Appin or near bye. Its nice to have variety and fun without the big walks. Lettershuna now its open would be a top sport venue. Any takers?

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Know Before You Go at Glencoe

Winter is a great time to be in Lochaber. We are blessed with two ski areas both of which offer vastly different views and an experience both on and away from marked trails. Mountaineers also flock to the area as Scottish winter mountaineering is legendary requiring a toughness and resilience in often adverse weather, but amply rewarded by unique rime and ice formation or snow ice if you persevere.

If you’re a skier, then its “freshies” which are the holy grail. These first few tracks down a pristine slope with six inches or more of new snow are what it’s all about. Scottish powder snow is less Champagne and a bit more Sauternes but equally nice to float the wide skis down in big carving arcs of sweetness.

Whether mountaineer or skier, when the fresh snow comes its usually got wind behind it and somewhere on a lee slope the build-up of snow will be deep.  Avalanches tend to occur on slopes of an angle of about 30 to 50 degrees where this snow lays, and are most often triggered by the additional load of the victims. Sadly, many Scottish Corries have streams and gulches/gullies at the bottom and these trap the victim and so bury them deeply.


Folk need to “Know Before You Go”  

Get the gear and carry an avalanche beacon so you can be located, and which will also search for your friends. Three essentials including the Beacon also includes: Carrying a snow probe so a victim can be precisely located, and having a good alu shovel so you can dig someone out. Also, consider adding two Recco reflectors so your more searchable. Mountaineers shun the three essentials but Recco reflectors might at least give them a chance
Get some training on how to understand how avalanches occur, common cognitive mistakes and thinking traps that make us ignore obvious danger signs, and conditions. This will include how to interpret the weather and avalanche forecast and some basic understanding of snow crystals and how strong and weak layers’ form within a snow pack, also on how to search and dig out a victim and look after them. Glencoe Mountain has a state of the art training park for folks to practice with their avalanche beacons and digging and the ski patrol are always happy to give advice. I run some avalanche training up at Glencoe so please contact me via my web site www.crankitupgear.com for more information.


Get the forecast. Never go out without reviewing the weather for the day ahead and always look at the Scottish avalanche service forecast (SAIS) and take heed of the risk level and the forecasters observations. The bulk of avalanche incidents do not happen when the risk level is high but when its lower as folk assume it’s safe. Always bear in mind there is never no risk, just a lower risk.


Get the big picture and become a good observer of the precipitation, wind loading and conditions around you and underfoot, and add that to the information from the avalanche forecast and be prepared to change your objectives. The avalanche forecast is an area forecast and a Corrie or mountain may well have very different avalanche risk from local wind and weather effects. Look for “Red Flag" signs of recent avalanches, cracking or collapsing snow, new snow and drifting snow, also rapid thaw conditions. If these are observed, then change your route to a safer one or cancel your day and retreat.

Stay out of harm’s way. With the big picture, you will be looking around you and adjusting your risk assessment constantly. If a mountaineer look above you as someone may trigger a cornice collapse which takes you out. You may commit yourself into enclosed terrain where, if an avalanche spontaneously triggers you have nowhere to run. A ski tourer might skin up into similar terrain and be trapped. Or, if dropping into a Corrie you could be taken into a terrain trap as mentioned before. If its misty or a whiteout you have no way of knowing who or what is below you and if it does avalanche your friends cannot see you from above and may be unaware.


Terrain Trap - No where to go and buried deeply!

Important Considerations Before the Point of No Return, or Dropping In

Angle. Most avalanches are triggered on slopes roughly between 30 and 50 degrees. Below 30 degrees’ victim triggered slab avalanches are less common and above this angle slopes purge more frequently. The "Sweet Spot" where most avalanches are triggered is about 40 ish degrees with over 90% of victim triggered slides occurring in a 7-degree range bracketing that sweet spot. You can conclude from this that angle is an important part of slope assessment and subtle changes of angle on a given slope can have major consequences, therefore route choice and awareness of slope angle is important. Modern phone apps make judging the angle much easier. Rule of thumb for me personally is that as the avalanche forecast risk for a given altitude and aspect goes up - then the angle and altitude of what you ski comes down.

Anchors. What is the snowpack connected to? Have you been following the weather and avalanche forecast? Are there weak layers within the snowpack? Tree's and rocks can hold a slope as your friend or can be weak spots as your enemy where sun, heat, graupel or hoar frost has gathered. Subtle angle changes create trigger points at these places. Tree's are also natures cheese grater if you get taken into them. Ask yourself what the slope you are on is linked into from the underlying snowpack. Unstable snowpacks can often propagate a collapse into nearby slopes and draw an avalanche into lower angled terrain.

Aspect. Which compass direction does the slope you want to ski or travel face. Like angle, subtle changes in aspect can take you from a safe slope onto a loaded one. Carry a compass and learn about "slope aspect" i.e. which way it faces, as both a navigation and safe travel tool.  The SAIS forecast gives you the necessary hazard warning for compass direction but you need to apply it on the ground accurately. Some phone apps can help with this and even give you the area forecast 

Altitude. You can see by looking at the SAIS forecast that the hazard risk is most often greater with altitude, even in Scotland. The rate of snow deposition is higher with height, and the wind is also stronger increasing side loading of slopes. On dodgy days stay lower as well as skiing lower angled slopes

Complexity. As mentioned above. Be aware of subtle changes in angle and aspect and that localised instabilities are hidden and like a landmine can link one triggered mine to a chain reaction and a small slide gathering surrounding instabilities into a major avalanche event. Learn to read mapping for subtleties of terrain features and how snow may be affected, and think safety by pre-imagining what could go wrong. If it's a complex route, then it’s often unsafe as there are too many unknowns. Learn to know what you don't know!

Commitment. Always have a plan "B" so that if conditions change or are not what you expected you have another safer option. Commitment to a slope can mean no bail out options, i.e. having nowhere to go.  If you look at the pros on YouTube they choose their line so they can bale out onto a spine and have good runouts, and that's where the next "C" comes into play - consequences.

Consequences. If it’s an amber light's on in your head so you’re in a go/no go process, then add consequence into the thought mix. Are there crags, hollows, stream beds, tree's or any other terrain features that could shred you or trap you if there is an avalanche.

Micro terrain can have macro consequences 
So, as a final thought. Get the gear, get the training, get the forecast, get the big picture, and stay out of harm’s way. 


Davy Gunn
Avalanche Educator and Instructor

Monday, 14 November 2016

Avalanched. Getting Located Quickly

Time to get Recco aboard the new SAR Helo's
In Scotland there is a growing trend towards ski touring or free ride off piste and adventure skiing. Its pleasing to note that avalanche education is often talked about and is having an impact. This ultimately is what saves lives.  Good decisions are worth more than a shed load of gear. That's not to say that gear is not important and airbags are now more common and with a clean run out give you a better chance of staying on the surface and therefore surviving.  If you get to pulling the trigger in anger then somewhere along the line the decision process was flawed though. Part of being human and hopefully you live to not make the same mistake again. For those of you who are not on a big salary as airbags are not cheap then apart from the cheapest form of staying alive in avalanche terrain which is education and good decisions, then the triad of probe, shovel and beacon is your best hope. The prices have dropped quite a bit on this kit and its possible to get all three items (with three antenna beacon) for under £220. That's a pretty good investment on saving your life or that of a friend. 
At "the gate" below summit gully Glencoe.  RAF searcher finds a victim with  two 3m probes joined together.  Probing is slow!
Copyright Davy Gunn - crankitupgear Glencoe
Where are the mountaineers in this? Winter mountaineering in Scotland has never had the same ethos as winter alpine off piste skiing where carrying shovel, probe and beacon is essential.  One Scottish ski patrol and some mountain rescue teams now have a Recco detector. A lot has been said about Recco being a body recovery tool.  Mostly by people who have never used the system and who are quite ignorant of its effectiveness. Sure its part of organised rescue, and we all know that in the continuum from no rescue needed to organised rescue then organised rescue has poorer survival probability. This is because "triple H syndrome" (hypoxia, hypercapnia and hypothermia) are time critical. Modern clothing prevents or reduces any protective effect of hypothermia as its often just too good an insulator.  That's not to say long term survival isn't possible or Burnett would never have survived his 22 hours. With SPOT technology, mobile phones and ski patrol being nearby, or MRT's  maybe already deployed and re routed to a critical incident, then Recco mow has its place. It does work and has saved many lives. Reflectors are cheap and its good to have a few about your person. They don't have to be sewn into your clothing.  There are adhesive ones for boots or ones that will slip into a jacket pocket the size of a wee sweetie. While no substitute for an avalanche beacon they will get you found (only if the searchers have a Recco receiver). Recco searching is even more effective from the air by helicopter (the helo needs a £200 adapter kit) and with the new guuchi SAR helicopters being satellite broadband enabled then surely for mountain SAR they should have a Recco facility?
Recco is a World wide SAR network

The two-part system consists of a RECCO® detector used by organized rescue groups and RECCO® reflectors that are integrated into outerwear, helmets, protection gear and boots from hundreds of top outdoor brands. The reflector is permanently attached, requires no training and no batteries to function. It is always “on” and ready.

RECCO® reflectors do not prevent avalanches nor do they guarantee location or survival in the event of a burial, but they enable organized rescue teams to pinpoint the person’s precise location. The RECCO® history started on December 30, 1973 with a tragic avalanche accident in Åre, Sweden. Magnus Granhed, founder of RECCO® was riding the ski lift to the Mörvikshummeln when he heard a tremendous roar. An avalanche had ripped down the very steep slopes of Svartberget.

The result was chaos. Nobody knew how many people, or who, had been swept away in its path. “We started to search with our ski poles,” recalls Magnus. Later, probes and avalanche rescue dogs arrived, but in those days that was the only help available. Magnus remembers feeling “utterly helpless poking a ski pole into the snow” in an area the size of two soccer fields. By the time they found the two buried skiers the search had gone on for hours and both skiers had died. Right then he decided there had to be a better way to find people.
The accident in Åre set him thinking about the possibility of an electronic locating device to locate buried people. Granhed had just graduated with a Master of Science degree, and turned to Professor Bengt Enander, Department of Electromagnetic Theory at the Royal Institute of Technology in StockholmAfter some testing they saw that thermal imaging did not work, and transceivers were too limited so they tried to equip the skiers with a passive reflector. It took Enander’s team another two years, but the team’s work resulted in a PhD and the basis for the RECCO® System.
The problem was solved with harmonic radar. Just as is the case today, the reflector consisted of a diode that generates a harmonic when it is hit by the radar signal from the search equipment. The return signal, however, is much weaker than the search signal, and that was the great challenge for the project.  The challenge became how to filter out the strong search signal so that the weak signal from the reflector would be noticeable. At first, the range in air was only 5 meters, but today the RECCO® System manages more than 200 meters. The research team constructed and tested the first prototype in the winter of 1980-81 and RECCO® introduced its first commercial detector in 1983. It weighed all of 16 kg while today’s model weighs less than one kilogram. The first live rescue of an avalanche victim using the RECCO® System took place in 1987 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

Despite the early success of RECCO®, it was not until the 1990s when RECCO® gained acceptance by rescuers, and the mobile telephone industry helped. By the mid to late 1990s the huge demand for cell phones resulted in smaller and cheaper components. These improvements also resulted in much smaller and lighter RECCO® detectors that were easier for rescuers to handle. 

Following the lead of the increasing number of ski areas that have acquired RECCO® detectors – at present more than 700 ski areas and rescue teams worldwide – more than 200 manufacturers of outerwear, ski and snowboard boots, protection gear and helmets incorporate reflectors in their products. And it is not only the search equipment that has been continuously developed and improved, having progressed through nine generations since the start; the reflectors have also gone through major developmental stages. Thirty years of work lie behind today’s small reflectors.

Scottish RECCO trainer Davy Gunn

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Avalanches, PTSD and Talking

First Published winter 2014. Someone read this article after seeing it mentioned on Facebook so I have taken the liberty of republishing it. Not so that it debriefs me as I am well over that and the incidents mentioned below. I have dealt ok I think with the vicissitudes life has thrown at me since, so whatever I did worked.  Since this was published John Greive has retired for MR.  He along with Hamish made a huge contribution to MR and GMRT and he is succeeded by Andy Nelson an experienced local guide and rescuer.  I am sure through TRIM PTSD will become less common.

Avalanches, PTSD and Talking

Forgive me if the dates are out for the events below. 36 years of this shit melds one event into another a bit, and I didn't keep a diary. However my memory is imprinted with the thoughts and things that happened, and what's below is a snippet of bad things and perhaps the only ones that could be written about, as others are too bloody messy. I hope it helps those who are struggling and makes them realise they are going to be ok as they are normal.  Take care your families need you whole.
Incidence of PTSD after being avalanched
I have been reading a book on trauma. Not physical trauma but the trauma of stress and anxiety from a normal person being exposed to an abnormal event and having major psychological issues often years after. Dealing with disasters such as Lockerbie the RAF has an excellent and pro active approach, and the struggle to come to that point after generations have refused to acknowledge this form of trauma is at the heart of the book. The common term these days is PTSD.

Reading this book evokes many memories for me, and in particular some not very good ones. While I no way would say that I saw or dealt with anything like a big air crash, I had my moments finding friends dead, watching friends get killed and removing pieces of what used to be someone from debris of one type or another, including helicopters. These moments were overcome with the support of friends, family and mainly my stoical and loving wife and immediate family. We the rescuers get MBE's and at least some acknowledgement, but in reflection I don't know how the partners our immediate debriefers put up with it as there is nothing there for them but hassle. They are the real heroines and heros or medicine and rescue.

In 1990's the UK medical profession was still burying its head in the sand about PTSD and certainly in civilian MR to have acknowledged a problem was not the done thing. At that time I was very much the main medical provider in the local MRT and in my first year as deputy leader. This had been the worst period I could ever recall for a series of fatal accidents and very serious injuries. I had become a full BASICS member and done their PHECS and doctors advanced trauma/medical courses and had already done the first pilot Scottish ATLS course under Ian Anderson at the Victoria Infirmary. With A/E electives, and ambulance service placements on the first Paramedic response units in Dundee and Motherwell via the Scottish Ambulance Service.  I already had 20+ years of attending accidents under my belt.  But the winter of 93 onwards were a succession of putting into practise many new skills for the first time, including the first use by an MRT of a defib. Pain was treated by IV opiates, and that winter I decompressed my first tension pneumothorax and also got a Royal Marine resuscitated who went on to live a meaningful life. His name was Simon Kapong. You remember the names of the success's. It's easy, as there sadly aren't very many!

Winter 93/94 was a difficult year for us as the team imploded which divided loyalties over leadership. It came through with a new start and new leadership, but the stress's had taken a tole and there was a cost to good folk who didn't deserve to be hurt. That summer was as busy as the winter, and as autumn came early at the end of September the mountains already had snow. October we were at a helicopter crash involving aircrew from PGM that we all new well having worked with on films for Glencoe Productions. It  had a rotor strike on the hill above Ballachulish. I will not forget finding a pair of legs sticking out of the peat in torchlight. When the snow came in depth two folk were buried in an avalanche and dead in Summit Gully. Two weeks later after four day search we find a young man dead in an icy gully after a bizzare series of events involving a "medium".  She turned out to be correct in the location! Then the traditional Xmas and New year "come up and get me" flashing lights, followed by severe winter blizzards leading to extended road closures. At this time I was working as the solo ski rescuer/patroller at Glencoe Mountain on weekdays, so was often rescuing skiers by day and climbers by night. Fiona and I had previously worked in Europe as ski instructors before deciding to settle and start a family.
Doing this stuff and going home to your family as if nothing has happened is not "normal"
John Greive was the leader of the team from 1993. John is still the Glencoe teams leader to this day. A very good mountaineer with an intimate knowledge of Glencoe, John has strong instincts and quickly these gut instincts ring alarm bells if things don't feel right. A lot of lives have been saved because he has run with these. John and I made an unlikely pair as the new leadership. I was very opinionated and a bit of a "bull in a china shop" and we didn't always see eye to eye. I can honestly say that he is an exemplary leader. Often last off the hill or last onto the SAR helo to get off the mountain until sure his troops are safe, and willing to fight any jobs worth who interfered with patient care or caused delay in someone getting help. Victims sometimes need that kind of advocacy in mountain rescue. Cut through the bullshit and bureaucracy and get them help then deal with any fall out later.
GMRT in action at an avalanche BEM. John Greive Team Leader
So, when in February 1994 John is on the radio saying a group (who were not climbers) had walked up into the entrance of  the access corrie to the Buachaille and not returned, and the wife of the missing is at the Kingshouse and it doesn't feel right to him - then believe me you stop eating your tea and take notice. A father, son and friend had gone for a look up into the Corrie and not returned. The preceding days the head wall had been loading but climbers had come down it, and as its a couple of thousand feet to the entrance then maybe, we thought, the missing folks were just stuck in the dark.

A group of us including Steve Kennedy, Pete Harrop and Malcolm Thomson were in the lead with Hughie, Wull and Kenny Lindsay and others behind. We went into the entrance gulch and were in broken wind slab avalanche debris, then worked our way up to the little re-entrant that comes down from the Dwindle wall side. I was all for getting stuck in and starting a spot probe search. Steve stopped and said he wasn't happy and I remember saying "come on lads lets just get stuck in" when Steve said "listen" and then shouted "avalanche!" I hadn't heard or seen anything, but folk were scrabbling up the rocks out of the gully and I followed suite although at first it seemed surreal, but the big roar and huge blocks from a  monster of a  slide roaring past and up the sides like the tide lapping our feet as we scrambled up soon made it seem pretty real. Steve's instincts saved the lives off about seven Glencoe MRT that night. We jogged off the hill high on adrenaline and retired to Clachaig for a dram.  We were shaken badly by how close a call it had been. A lot of wives and kids nearly lost their partners and dads, and as deputy on scene I should have been less complacent.  It was that close to tragedy its hard to believe we got away with it, and one of those things we thought best kept quiet as it was so nearly a further big tragedy to what now apparently lay beneath. Next day we were up the hill again, and the slab debris had about 40ft of hard wet frozen snow debris on top. Hard to probe, hard to dig.  The RAF MRT came and helped and put in a huge amount of work trenching. Due to being fairly near the road the TV crews could access the scene so we were under there watchful eye. Four days of hard work and we had to give up as it was too deep.
Adrain "Hands" lands an anti sub heavyweight CAB on the A82 to take us to an avalanche BEM 1992. 
Before the big ones!
A few days later truly a massive blizzard strikes, roads are closed and we get a call that three climbers are missing from Curved Ridge. Although folk will talk about the snow of winter 2014 that one in the 90's was the worst I have ever known.  We parked the yellow rescue trucks bang in the middle of the A82 at the Kingshouse junction and land SAR 177 with Adrian "Hands" as pilot.  I was first on as observer up front with Ronnie Rodger, and we fly around the mountain on what was a blue sky morning with feet deep snow covering everything.  John suggests we fly the East face "Ladys Gully" side and we see nothing, but I get "Hands" to overfly the Chasm which you could have skied down.  Devils Cauldron was filled level. Snow depth for that about 180ft (that spring it was fun to climb up the 180ft snow chimney and the back wall of the Devils Cauldron). We got winched out below CB at about "Pontoon" the rock climb, and start to zig zag the slope when Ronnie finds a glove then a few feet further down a crampon. We know we are on the right track and call up the team who included Mick Tigh who offered his climbing clients as spot probers. After a couple of hours Tony Sykes who was then in his first year in the team shouted he had found something. He was right under the rocks of CB. Blue sky's had gone and we were now in a blizzard, but in about an hour had dug out the three victims all on top of each other in a tangled mess of trauma and equipment. The following day early morning I am back up to the ski rescue and passing the Buachaille and looking across at where the other three other folk are still buried and it clicks that at any point in the next weeks/months John or I will get a call to look at something nasty in or poking out of the snow. Something happened at that moment and I still remember it. Like my happiness switch being switched off and a knot in my stomach.
Living next to the vehicles gave me the task of keeping them clear. 
Often 3 or 4 rescues each weekend in the 90's. Pre mobile phone.
The wife of the missing father and son came to stay in a Bed and Breakfast just around the corner from me, and was waiting for us do do something when the thaw came. The local vicar was very good with her, and I take my hat off "chapeu" to the local Police, in particular Sgt Kenny Lindsay who acted as her link to what was happening. Knowing she was waiting on resolution was a constant burden for her and for us. Meanwhile climbers fall off and get killed, injured and skiers break bones including the UK head of marketing for Sainsbury's who breaks his back on the Fly Paper and who I have to deal with. Thankfully he made a good recovery, but not many folk get a private ambulance to the airport for transfer to a spinal unit - no pressure on the medic!  It was a fantastic ski season, not unlike the one past but with more sun and 6 weeks of skiing back to the car at Glencoe

The RAF teams have an odd probe of the big tip over the coming weeks, but nothing is found. Then one day early April a walker phones the Police as he says he smells something.  John calls us out and though there is no smell (maybe we are used to it) we have a poke around as the level of debris has reduced by about 20 feet. We find victim one at a depth of 2 meters. An hour later and a bit away we find number two. Number two's recovery something happened inside me. I didn't get upset by physical trauma having seen plenty (and suffered some myself) and had by this time been on the recovery of well over a hundred fatal victims just in the mountains never mind the other stuff I can't share. Yet I stayed for the next hour until we found number three at the very spot we had been standing the night we all nearly got buried. This wasn't a troubling scene visualy, yet somehow it broke something in me as there was a big pocket or space around the victim. I dropped my probe, didn't speak to anyone and just walked off the hill. I crossed the bridge at Lagangarbh and the local undertaker had three grey fibreglass coffins open with the lids laid at the sides leaning against the stock fence at the side of the path. I glibly remarked that trade had been good this winter. Three weeks later I got a donation of £350 for the team in the post from him.
GMRT Stalwart Walter Elliot and the late Alan Findlay digging deep
I walked past the coffins, up onto the road and thumbed a lift to Clachaig where I got pissed on Scrumpy Jack and had to be taken home. What Fiona, Esther and Duncan made of this slobbering drunk I have no idea, but I can just recollect Fiona laying me on the couch and taking off my boots and covering me with a blanket. At some point in the night I tried to get up to bed and fell down the stairs breaking all the pictures on the way down. What patience and tolerance my family must have.

I moved on from the above (I thought) and until five years ago was still involved in MR and dealt with many more horrific events including people burning in helicopters and finding another two climbing friends (Dougie and Bish) dead. It all diminishes you, but by that time I had a better coping mechanism and new about debriefing, and the pub and team get together's and socials helped my colleagues and me.

I was fortunate that from 1994 I had many good friends in the team who were not frightened to call me an arse if I got it wrong and support me as I supported them when some events became overwhelming.  You know who you are - so thanks guys.  It wasn't until I left the rescue team which was in Jan 2009 after yet another triple fatal avalanche where I found the last victim by probe that I realised that since 1994 my happiness button had faulty wiring.  In the intervening years folk would say of me at times that I was a driven man.  I would drive myself into the ground physically running and racing my bike and seemed to cope with the extreme stress of life and death decisions, yet I would get random  anxiety attacks over very minor things. My local GP sent me to speak to someone who over a few months talked me back over things until a light went on that my head was telling me I had been feeling like undertaker in winter, not a medic. This of course wasn't the case, its just that somehow an event, an image and a period of time had imprinted that thought. With rethinking and knowledge of this  faulty thought imprint I was sorted, the light back bright and I was released from a thinking trap that winter equals death and loss and often even pre winter psyching myself up for it. Stangely it didnt affect my climbing because I was in control, so the lack of control over when a tragic event might occur was obviously subliminaly there all the time.
When it  all works and a life is saved then it's worth it
Was this PTSD?  I don't know. What I do know is that dealing with nasty things has a cost. It's all very well being in a rescue service, but you are also volunteering your family for it, and they are the foundations for you at the sharp end. Don't take that for granted, and make sure they get recognition and be sure to be aware of colleagues who might struggle. It's not a weakness. It's simply not normal to deal with abnormal disturbing events and not have a normal reaction. When youre head's sorted you can still deal with tough shit and know you are normal.

Why am I sharing this now? Winter 2013 was a nasty one for avalanches. The emotional toll on some of the rescuers dealing with the avalanche that took our cycling buddy Chris has hit some folk hard. Even as a ski patroller there was no avoiding the toll with the loss of Danny and the events both leading to this, and the toll on friends and ski patrollers after.  I had my own complacent re visit of the white room and an injured hip and spine to deal with, but had the time to be an ear to listen to folks and easilly conclude that 2013 would fuck up some folks.

2014 has been the shittest winter weather I can recall in a while although paradoxically the sheer volume of snow made everyone wary, so despite the most recorded avalanches at least no one died.  The baggage of 2013 like a rollover lottery carried over though, and I think its time we all recognised that it's human and normal to suffer after abnormal events. Help is out there and books like the one mentioned de mystify what happens to us. Maybe if "Heavy" and guys like me are more open about it then the subject gets an airing and folks who are struggling can get the support they need.

Trauma. From Lockerbie to 7/7

A newer local MR rescuer said to me this winter "all you do is run around looking for beepers - what do you know about digging up avalanche victims".  Not a lot I said, other than it requires no brains. Avalanche education and prevention gives me more satisfaction.

Post Script.
I realise this blog post makes uncomfortable reading.  It certainly wasn't comfortable to write and in no way felt like an exercise in navel gazing. It has been a work in progress from 2013 when a member of a local MRT came to see me very troubled by some events.  Then another had a tough time with depression, and in the meantime a few folk couldn't put some events behind them and every conversation was dominated by a specific avalanche event.  This winter another person has struggled to the point of needing help as a rollover from the same event.  My purpose in this blog post is to show there is nothing wrong. That asking for help is not a weakeness and that your family can only take so much and give so much.  Help is available but has to be sought. If not for your sake then the families. To not be troubled by the pain of misfortune from the loss of young lives -  now that would be abnormal!