Just been reading a blogpost by Heavy Whalley, a retired legend from the RAF Mountain Rescue, writing a fond farewell to the Sea King helicopters which join him in retirement on December 31.
Well worth reading Heavy’s story, but it also reminded me of my one dalliance with mountain rescue many moons ago on Lochnagar, when a group of us were so glad and grateful to see a great piece of flying.
It was winter, must have been the early to mid-eighties. I was staying in the Gelder Shiel with my then regular climbing partner, Kevin, and a newcomer to winter climbing, Dave. The weekend hadn’t got off to a great start. We hadn’t been to the Gelder before and, after a long trudge through heavy snow we arrived at a bothy that didn’t seem any warmer inside than out. Things didn’t get any better when Dave forgot he had wrapped the whisky in his sleeping bag ‘for safety’, and shook the bag out, sending our sole source of alcoholic comfort crashing to the cobbled floor. It was a long and bitterly cold night.
The morning, perversely, wasn’t so cold. As we trudged slowly up the hill towards Lochnagar’s famed North-East Corrie we were aware of a rise in temperature, with the snow getting softer. Struggling under a heavy load of climbing gear, and not feeling at all fit, I was making heavy weather of it and wasn’t too disappointed when we decided to call off our climb.
We’d reached the foot of Central Buttress, a Grade II climb we thought we might manage, but were unsure whether the snow was stable enough. There was no avalanche forecast in those days, but there was an increasing awareness of the problem and we knew from the guidebook that there was some ground higher up the buttress that could be prone to avalanche in poor conditions. We hummed and heyed for a bit, but when a small snowslide came down the shallow gully above us we decided on the instant.
We might have gotten away, too, if we hadn’t looked back at the cliffs as we neared the loch. Kevin and I both saw the two guys fannying about at the foot of the cliffs, both wondered what they were doing, and both realised at the same time that maybe they weren’t just fannying about.
One was lowering the other down the snow slope above the First Aid Box – and it didn’t look like it was just for the practice.
We headed back up and by the time we reached the First Aid Box the two guys were both there, and several others were arriving from where they’d been abandoning neighbouring climbs. (It wasn’t just us who thought the snow condition wasn’t very good.)
It transpired one of the pair we’d seen had been leading up the first pitch of Shadow Buttress A. He said the snow hadn’t been very good, but he’d just got to a point where he had two good axe placements, and had his feet in pretty well… “And then I fell”. Hmm. So how good were those placements?
He’d fallen and slid down whatever height he’d climbed, catching his crampon points on the snow and ripping the ligaments in his ankles, leaving him in a good bit of pain and unable to walk.
There were about a dozen folk now, besides our casualty. While we lifted him into the casualty bag from the box (a thick sleeping bag with a full-length front zip and handles along the side and head) we discussed what to do next.
It was decided (though not unanimously) that the wind was too strong and unpredictably gusty to get a helicopter in to the cliffs, so while we sent the two fittest to hotfoot it to the nearest phone (no mobiles in those days) the rest of us started to carry the casualty down to the loch and around it, aiming to get him out of the bowl of the corrie onto the open hillside, where hopefully the wind would be more predictable and manageable.
For anyone who has never carried a man in a casualty bag before, the first surprise is how easy it is. With three handles either side, and one at the head and one at the foot, it seems hardly any effort at all.
The second surprise is how quickly you realise you were mistaken.
Within just a few paces of tripping over boulders, falling into holes, catching the feet of the guy in front or behind and getting a kink in your back from carrying a load one-sided. On a level road it might be bearable, but descending a steep slope of rocks and heather, with humps and holes hidden by soft, wet snow, it quickly became torture, not at all eased by the constant buffeting of the wind. Even our casualty could see how hard it was and expressed some embarrassment at causing everyone so much work – although he didn’t take up my suggestion that he jump out of the bag and take a turn with the rest of us!
A measure of our pace can be had by the fact we were still well within the bowl of the NE Corrie when the helicopter arrived. Sure enough, whenever it tried to come in over the shoulders of the corrie we could see it being tossed to the side, forcing a retreat.
After a few tries it managed to drop the winchman and a stretcher on the eastern shoulder of the corrie just a few hundred yards away. Energised by the prospect of an imminent end to our ‘ordeal’, myself and two others raced up to fetch the stretcher, clambering over a snow-clad boulder field at an unwisely brisk rate, and returning even faster: I recall at one point two of us clinging on to either side of the stretcher sliding about six feet down a boulder to land at an almost-run on the smaller rocks below.
Once we got the guy onto the stretcher he was a lot happier – he had a more stable ‘bed’ and a bottle of Entenox gas to suck on for long overdue pain relief – but we were not: the stretcher was added weight and the steel tubing was harder to keep a grip on than the webbing handles of the bag.
So we were even more grateful when we saw what I still remember as the most amazing sight: a Sea King helicopter rising out of the ground in front of us.
In fact it had been following the slope of the hill up below the lip of the corrie and came in over the edge where the angle lay back into the bowl, but from our perspective, nearing that lip from within the bowl, it really did look as though it was rising from the ground in front of us – huge, massive, noisy and oh so welcome.
I vaguely recollected having read something about having the area cleared before carrying out lifts, and had certainly seen training flights where smoke flares were dropped and different approaches were tried, but there was no messing here. The winchman signalled to us all to drop down flat and started signalling to the helicopter, which flew right over the top of us – and you have no idea how massive a Sea King is until you’ve lain underneath one – and lowered the winch wire.
If we needed a reminder of how difficult flying conditions were, while this was happening the whole helicopter just dropped about 10 feet; dropped and stopped, leaving scarcely a clean set of underwear between the whole company, but just continued as though nothing had happened. The wire reached the winchman, who clipped the stretcher and himself into it, and then they were away, seemingly whipped away by the wind and then fast dwindling in size and noise as it sped off to Aberdeen and a set of crisp, clean hospital sheets for the casualty, leaving us sweaty, soaked and exhausted on a gale-battered hillside which seemed suddenly so quiet and lonely.
And so ended my only close encounter with a Sea King. After a tired walk out from the Gelder in knee-deep slush, and a long drive to get home after midnight, we read on the Monday how the rescue had been carried out by the Sea King – assisted by Braemar Mountain Rescue Team. That must have been the easiest rescue they never did but, quite frankly, they’re welcome to it: that was a straightforward, relatively unserious incident and it was cold, wet, exhausting work. It certainly taught me to appreciate the work the rescue teams do – and impressed me hugely with the skills and dedication of the Forces’ Sea King crews. I’m sure Bristows will do a great job in future, but we should never forget the huge debt we owe the pilots and crews of the faithful Sea Kings, and of the Wessexes before them.