"August 15 Walker, (25) injured leg on steep path on south side of Ben Vrackie. Rescue by RN Sea King.Taypol S and R. Kinross MRT. 40 [man hours]
August 15 Paramedic descending from above rescue twisted knee and was aided down to a Land Rover by Kinloss MRT."
Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, 2000.
"I'm off," was all he said,not shouted, as he slid down the crumbling gully, gathering speed. Then he simply went airborne before hitting, out of view, the scree slope below. He burst into sight again in a cloud of dust and sulphur.
"Are you alright?" I shouted, partly angry, partly worried and more than partly desperate. It was a silly question.
A very pained no was the reply.
"You stay there .....[as if he was going to nip off for a cup of tea]..... And I'll get help."
I remember the waves of panic. Not only was my friend possibly very badly injured, but, as far as I knew, I was the only one to witness the accident. If I fell off, then no-one might ever know. The gully had become hellishly loose the higher we had gone. The SMC accident report mentions a steep path. There was no path. This was virgin territory, and I could see why. Fighting off the waves, I steadily went higher until, quite soon I seem to remember, there was a way off right onto heather and the open hillside. I recall being incredibly out of breath. It wasn't exertion; simply horror. I met our two girlfriends on the path on the way down, though I had been shouting towards them from a long way off. They had gone up the tourist route; we had looked for a bit of adventure, and certainly found it. I don't remember at all getting down to the lochan, but I do remember seeing with some relief two guys already attending to my friend on the scree slopes about 50 metres higher up.
"Your friend's very badly injured!" was shouted down. Somehow this is the sentence that I remember the best from the whole day; it still chills me. I mistook the concern in his voice for anger, as if the accident was my fault. Until that point, this was my own private dream with people in it that I knew. When a stranger's voice entered it, I knew it wasn't a dream.
"I'll go and get help," said one of the men. "I live in the village. I'll phone." I'd like to say it was the day before mobile phones, but it wasn't. We all had phones, but no-one thought to take them up such an innocuous hill.
When I got to him, I remember my friend looking remarkably pale. His lips were the same colour as his skin, and his eyes had a curiously distant look. We tried to move him, as he was in considerable pain lying on sharp large scree stones. He immediately passed out when we lifted him ,but thank god came-to almost as quickly. I shan't dwell on the injuries. The most serious we were not aware of. The most obvious were, well, obvious. "Injured leg," as the SMC Report mentions doesn't do it justice, and anyway, it was both legs.
I will never forget his quiet bravery and calm. Maybe there is no other way to be. I remember my only determination was that he wasn't going to sleep. We were rather slow to realise that he was getting dangerously cold. It was August, and a reasonably pleasant day, but at 2500ft and being stationery, it doesn't take long to chill. I recall being unusually preoccupied with the weather, and particularly some grumbling clouds to the west. We put as many things on top of him, underneath him and around his head as possible. There was no possibility of dressing him.
Time seems to have contracted over the years. It doesn't seem long now before we could see two police officers, one male, one female, and a rather large gentleman dressed all in green, coming round the lochan. I remember the intense frustration of how totally ill at ease they were on the terrain. They were wearing Dr Martin type shoes, with soles that are better suited not to make indentations on old ladies' shag pile carpets. The male police officer was perhaps not in his first flush of youth. The female officer stayed with the Jolly Green Giant who was taking an absolute age to get to us. It was hardly a surprise; the terrain was horrendous and very loose.
It never struck me at the time that this wasn't the rescue party. I naively thought it was. This was the party to co-ordinate the rescue, but as I assumed this was "the help" I started to get increasingly frantic. I guess because I was in a state of shock, or perhaps because I now just don't remember the detail, I don't think I ever asked the PC "Is there any back-up?" For some reason I think I became aware that the RAF Mountain Rescue Team were training nearby. This elderly police officer, his colleague below and the paramedic were all that I thought we had. I am ashamed that I felt so frustrated at the time. I now realise just how important the police and paramedic were to the situation (the radio link was presumably absolutely crucial) and I apologise for my black thoughts at the time. If memory serves me right, I didn't express my silly concerns to them!
The paramedic never seemed to get any closer. The guy who had run for help had rejoined us, and was carrying the emergency kit-bag. Just a couple of metres below us, the paramedic suddenly started to scream. The police officer went straight onto his radio.
"The paramedic is having some sort of seizure, I repeat, seizure. "
In a moment of gallows humour that my barely conscious friend seemed always to remember, I apparently said, "Christ. That's all we need. The paramedic needs a paramedic."
"I'm no havin' a f***ing seizure!" came a rather strangulated response from the not so Jolly Green Giant. " I've twisted my f***ing knee."
By this point, I'd lost almost all hope. Everything seemed against us. There were spits and spots of rain. My friend had gone a rather unpleasant grey colour, and we seemed no nearer effecting a rescue.
Then everything changed. The policeman's radio crackled with something about HMS Gannet, and then we heard the Sea King inbound. It flew around the hill, then came back much nearer. Then, it started to drift in crab-like towards us. The noise was tremendous; the downdraft very frightening. I was acutely aware of how close the helicopter's rotars were to the cliff face, and the consequences of having 10 tonnes of flying machine above us if those rotars should come into contact with the rock face. Down came a man on the winch with a stretcher,spinning like a 78 record, and the helicopter disappeared off again. His professionalism and calmness immediately put me at ease. The paramedic had bravely crawled to assist us by now, but had had no luck finding a vein. The winchman was completely focused. We were all asked to help lift my friend onto the stretcher; he immediately passed out. For reasons I still don't remember (maybe we were asked to go down by the police?) we left the winchman, my friend, his girlfriend and the male police officer at this stage, and descended towards the lochan. The helicopter came in again. From this angle, looking back up at the cliffs, it seemed even more impossibly close the the wall. I remember thinking that it was an extraordinary piece of flying. I think it was the only time I cried. The sheer selflessness of putting oneself, one's crew and the emergency services in danger in order to help an injured stranger still astonishes me today.
I wasn't party to the conversation of the winchman at that point clearly, but I was told he said, " We're losing him. Ninewells, not Perth," and he advised my friend's girlfriend that there wasn't time to take her with them in the chopper.
Up went the stretcher; I remember the winchman using his feet to push against some of the smaller outcrops. And then, it all went silent as the Sea King wheeled off eastwards. I seem to remember it was 17 minutes to Ninewells, but that might be wrong.
We walked down the hill, dazed and exhausted by the whole experience. The RAF Mountain Recue were waiting, on standby in case the helicopter had failed to gather its quarry. The ambulance was a bit lower, and had got stuck in the mud. The winch on the Rescue Truck was used to shift it, but not after quite a struggle and a distinct burning smell. The cable may even have snapped.
They didn't lose him; neither did we. But it was all thanks to the extraordinary flying of the pilots, the professionalism and bravery of the winchman, the co-ordination of Taypol, the determination of the paramedic and the fly-ability and reliability of the Sea King that resulted in us not losing him. For the emergency services, and particularly MRT and S and R, this is their everyday reality. But for my friend, it is a lifetime.
We thank them from the bottom of our hearts, and salute their bravery, brilliance and skill.
So, as the Sea Kings are retired, I raise a glass, quite literally, to them and all who flew in them.