Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Top to Bottom on Central Grooves

Sometime mid 1980’s. Fiona and I had recently moved back into the village from Achindarroch Duror. Fiona is away at the wedding of some folk I don’t really know and most of the climbing stars of GMRT are away in the alps with Hamish, working on a big film project. Ian Nicholson and Dave Bathgate have recently bought over the Kingshouse Hotel and LMRT stalwart Willie Anderson is painting at the hotel.

The phone rings at about 2pm on a nice August day. “Doris here Davy, theirs a call out on Stob Coire nan Lochan for a fallen climber. I can’t get anyone as a lot of folk are away”. I ask her to keep trying and get some gear together.  A Police Rangerover pulls up outside and toots and its Stewart Obree one of the local constables to offer me a lift to the pipers lay bye. He’s already asked for a helicopter and SAR 134 - a Wessex from Leuchars is on its way and 55 mins out. 

We arrive at the pipers lay bye and I get info from the reporting walker that someone is hanging free half way up the cliff and the woman holding the rope is screaming.  I get news that the rescue van has been picked up and Richard Greive and Hughie MacNicoll are on the way and Ian Nicholson isn’t at the Kingshouse but Willie Anderson is coming down to help. So, we have enough to do the job, but only just.  A 250-metre rope and technical kit is sorted out and a recently landed SAR 134 crew agrees to take 3 of us up to fly over the scene.

We fly slowly gaining height over Aonach Dubh, and circle the Corrie and see the climber is hanging via a single rope from a running belay some 25 metres above him in Central Grooves, and is hanging just below his belayer about 2 metres out free hanging in space. So at least a 50-metre lead fall and judging by the invertion of the harness (Pat LittleJohn Harness) and that he’s upside down and not moving it doesn’t look good for him, or easy for us. The woman belaying appears to be held by a single point to a very big single block of rock which looks precarious even from the air.

The SAR crew and I talk over the comms and hatch a plan. Drop Richard, Willie and I on the top of the buttress and I will get lowered down and make the belayer safe and taken out of the rope system for them to winch up off the face, and we will get the climber lowered to the bottom and while we are doing rope tricks they will pick up any extra GMRT and land them in the Corrie to come up to the foot off the climb with a stretcher and take the fallen climber down to a good pick up point.

Good belays are sorted and with the difficult task of managing a thick unwieldy rope Willie and Richard lower me down the shitty broken ground to the top of the corner line and lower me down the 100 or so meters to the incident. Loose rock and a few climbs up and down to get the rope directional and stop pulling rocks onto me are needed, so it’s not a quick job or safe. On the way down I see a watch caught by its strap on a relatively good hold in the vertical corner and see that the single running belay is an old rock peg and pretty manky, but its held. The climbers rope is a single 9mm stretched so tight it looks like a 6mm bit of cord. Eventually I arrive at the belay and a very upset woman with a belay rope at its end in the Stich plate. She’s held by a single large wire nut which she is holding in place by pushing the block back as its so loose. I have to spend a lot of time searching out and clearing cracks for rock pegs to both hold her at a single releasable point to get her into the helo strop easily and safely for winching and also separately take the active rope going to the fallen climber and anchor it.
Top to Bottom Lower

As it turns out I know the fallen climber Ray Hall who runs an ad hoc climbing instruction and guiding business and she’s a client on a course. He’s dead, its messy but that has to be isolated and revisited later. I get her safe and rigged for easy release. I have his rope isolated so move down to him and make another belay for me to clip into with an adjustable sling. I come off the lowering rope, lean out and hook his rope and pull him in, put a sling on him at the chest and to the harness to level him off and attach the long static lowering rope I was lowered down on, onto him. Then holding his rope against the rock face I bash it with my peg hammer. One hard blow is all it takes. He gets lowered about 60 metres to the foot of the corner where Hughie, Ronnie and a couple of co-opted climbers have come to help. They get him off and bagged, and I get the rope pulled back up to me and then get lowered down to the bottom and clear of the corner. Sounds easy. None of it was. Rockfall, upset belayer who is at risk, and the victims trauma and hard physical work.

SAR 134 then comes in at a hover and ever so slowly gets closer to the corner dropping the winchman slowly down and inching into the cliff. They get to her, put her in the strop, knife cut my sling and take her up. Very impressive mountain flying and crag rescue. She gets flown down and SAR 134 comes back up and takes us all down to our base at the Pipers Lay bye in a couple of lifts. Its surreal as there are cars and tourists blocking the A82 and hundreds of folks, some with binoculars have been watching the whole rescue.

Statements are taken. He’s being paid so an FAI is likely. Chats and a brew then down to Hamish’s to sort out kit then home for the usual ponder at another person you know killed in the mountains, thinking over many WTF moments of rope work, skills and what you might do different both as a guide as well as any lessons from the rescue. It takes days to come down and get stuff like that out of your head.  Often the best thing is to go climbing next day. So that’s what I did. With a hangover though!

As post script. Dennis Barclay the team’s treasurer gave me a roasting for buying seven new pegs and half a dozen slings from the recently opened “Glencoe Guides and Gear” to replace what I  had used on the rescue as the team didn’t have much money. How things have changed in MR. I often ponder that even then MR was about climbers helping climbers and even had these items not been replaced (and sometimes they couldn’t be) the job would get done regardless. There was an FAI, and someone put me up for a bravery award which I respectfully declined. The local constable being quick off the mark, good rope handling from above, the skill level of the SAR 134 aircrew (never bettered IMHO) and climbers abandoning their days climbing to lend assistance made it all work. Climbing is about the community of the mountains and MR is just another part of looking after your own. I hope that never changes.
Dennis the treasurer on right. Hughie kneeling by the woman. The pair either side of Hamish were lost skiers on Sron a Creise and Wull (arms akimbo) and I saw them get Avalanched into Cam Glen. Picture circa 1980

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