Thursday 6 April 2017

A Mountain Rescue Lesson

Coire an t-Sneachda

This piece first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Mountain Rescue magazine.

A typical cold January day in the Cairngorms. An icy wind, sub-zero temperatures, cloudy sky, snow on the ground. In Coire an t-Sneachda the great cliffs reared up beyond the half-frozen lochans, the dark rocks streaked with snow and ice. High above the corrie floor climbers were making their way up gullies and buttresses. 
I was with a group of employees from a major outdoor company who were there to experience the conditions their products were used in and to learn some basic skills. As a local outdoor writer I’d been invited along to take part and see how involved the company was with the actual outdoors (not all are!). 

The cliffs of Coire an t-Sneachda

Several local guides and instructors accompanied the group and one of these was giving basic lessons to those who’d never been out in snowy mountains before. Initially he was getting them to slide down a very gentle slope without ice axes. 

I had my back turned when the accident happened. I heard the loud yelp of pain though and turned to see one of the party lying awkwardly on the slope, one leg bent under him. Somehow he’d jammed one heel into the snow as he slid down and had then turned over, twisting his knee in the process. A quick examination showed that his knee was already massively swollen. There was no way he was walking anywhere now.

Coire an t-Sneachda isn’t that far from the Cairngorm Mountain ski area but suddenly it felt very remote. The cold seemed colder, the wind more bitter, the mountains bigger. If you’re going to have a disabling accident doing so in a large party with several experienced mountain guides is the time to do so however. There’s also a rescue box in the corrie. Very quickly we extracted a thick sleeping bag with a waterproof cover from this and slid the victim inside, very carefully as his knee was very painful. One of the guides produce a bothy bag and pulled this over the victim and a companion. The rest of us donned warm clothing and had hot drinks and snacks. I noticed that the guides were quietly checking that no-one was getting cold, as could easily have happened.

The rescue box also held a stretcher which was quickly assembled. Were we going to carry the victim out to the ski resort I wondered? No, we weren’t. One of the guides had a mobile phone and soon found a spot with a signal. He phoned mountain rescue and told them he thought a helicopter was needed. One’ll be on the way soon came the reply.

The victim was lying on a broken rocky slope. We’ll need to move him for the helicopter, said the guide. So, again using great care, we lifted him onto the stretcher and eight of us grabbed the attached slings and starting carrying him the hundred metres or so to a flat area suitable for the helicopter. Trying to keep the stretcher level and off the rocks whilst stumbling into holes in the snow and banging legs against stones proved very difficult and it was a chastening experience just going that short distance. The ski resort might not be far away but it would have been a long gruelling journey carrying a stretcher.

Soon after we reached the edge of the flat area we heard the whirr of the helicopter and saw the big yellow Sea King entering the mouth of the corrie. A big cloud of spindrift blew over us and I had to keep firm hold of my rucksack to stop it being blown away as the helicopter landed. A winchman ran towards us. In this weather we don’t want to linger he said and with a few others quickly carried the stretcher to the helicopter. Within minutes of arriving it was in the air and the injured man was enroute to hospital in Inverness.

Cairn Gorm & Stob Coire an t-Sneachda

The drama over instruction continued, the day finishing with a climb onto the Cairngorm Plateau. My thoughts though were on the rescue, the only one I’ve been involved in, and the lessons I’d learned. The first was just how serious an accident was in winter even in a place not that far from a road and people. The second was the value of a mobile phone. Back when this happened I was very much a purist, feeling that carrying a phone was against the spirit of the hills. This incident taught me that carrying one was not just for myself but for others too. If no-one had had a phone someone would have had to go out to the ski resort for help, adding much more time for the victim to suffer. In this case the injury was not life-threatening. If it had been the time saved by being able to phone for help might have been crucial. Yes, phones don’t work everywhere but even if there’s no reception at the site of an incident the chances are there will be somewhere not too far away. Since that day I’ve always carried a fully charged mobile phone plus a spare battery or external power pack. 

I also learnt just how arduous and hazardous carrying a stretcher over rough ground can be and why helicopters play such a vital role. This was a relatively straightforward and easy rescue of someone without a life-threatening injury. No ropes or technical climbing skills were required. Transporting the victim over steeper, rougher ground and a longer distance would have been far more challenging. We also had the equipment to keep the injured person warm and as comfortable as possible.

This short and easy rescue also vastly increased my admiration for mountain rescuers. Up until then my appreciation of them hadn’t been based on actual experience. Now I knew just how difficult and committing mountain rescue could be.

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