Header image is of Ben Lui as seen from Cononish Glen.
This is a story from my days in the Killin Mountain Rescue Team, a part of my life that I remember with much affection because of the team spirit, the ‘craic’ and the black humour.
The events described in this tale took place on Ben Lui on the afternoon and evening of Saturday 20th April 1991, when a male climber fell and broke his leg high on the West side of Central Gully.
Killin MRT were called out at 1600hrs and eighteen team members collected the appropriate gear from the stores at Callander and Killin, then set up a base at Cononish Farm, moving the heavy gear up to the base of the mountain by the landrover track.
So far, this ‘shout’ was looking like a regular Saturday night out for the Team. Ben Lui was a regular winter destination and most of us had been out on the mountain in extreme weather, often to collect casualties who had been avalanched down Central Gully.
On this occasion, my job was to pair up with another team member, then to walk up to the top of the Allt an Rund burn to set up a radio relay point to facilitate VHF communications with the stretcher party.
As we walked to our specified grid reference the radio chatter kept us updated on the progress of the main party up the North side of the Northeast ridge, then radio silence until we heard that a helicopter was now available and would shortly be flying in over our heads.
Hunkered down and waiting for orders, we saw the lights of the Wessex passing over the ridge ahead of us, then heard a change in engine note as it landed high up on the Northeast ridge.
So far, so good! It began to look as if the casualty would soon be snug and safe in hospital and that we would have an easy night and more time in the pub, always a good outcome to these nocturnal outings.
We reached our grid reference and established the relay, then a few flakes of snow began to float through the beams of our head torches, and fifteen minutes later we heard that the short-term weather forecast was for a dump of snow over our position.
Meanwhile, up at the helicopter, a good news:bad news situation was developing. The good news was that the aircraft was securely established on the ridge; the crew had recovered the casualty back to the aircraft and everyone was safe. The bad news was that the engines had been shut down while all three of the crew dealt with the casualty.
The aircraft was now completely iced up, so that any attempt to take off was cancelled until the engines could be restarted, the snow stopped, and visibility reached minimum safe standards.
The big problem was that the snow continued until a substantial amount accumulated on and around the aircraft, thereby causing the Pilot to declare a mayday situation and requesting MRT help to get the crew (and the casualty) off the mountain.
Although the occupants of the helicopter were not in any immediate danger, the situation nevertheless gave the MRT controllers some major concerns. It seemed that the casualty had a suffered a simple lower leg fracture, but there had been some discussion about a back injury, something that might develop into a major problem if evacuation was delayed.
On the other hand, recovering the casualty (not to mention the crew) would certainly involve a complex technical lowering of the stretcher three or four hundred feet down into the central corrie, then an arduous carry down the tourist path and a final trip by landrover out to the ambulance waiting at Cononish Farm.
The decision was made easy by the declaration that the engines could not be restarted (flat batteries) and the helicopter could not fly again without ground engineering help, so the stretcher party were told to resume their ascent, and to prepare to recover the casualty and a total of three RAF aircrew (two of whom had smooth-soled flying boots).
As the rescue team struggled through the snow, the aircrew were comfortable and were eating their emergency rations (sausages and beans, from self-heating cans) when the Pilot radioed MRT control to ask when relief would arrive. Almost simultaneously, the stretcher party emerged out of the mist right by the aircraft and rapped on the sliding door, saying ‘We’re here’!
The decision to lower the stretcher down the gully had already been made, but a big problem was the lack of anchor points strong enough to take the combined weight of the stretcher, the casualty, and the two team members who would look after the casualty while easing the assembly over rock buttresses and icefalls on the route down.
The problem was finally solved by using the helicopter itself as the principal belay point! The weight of the machine and half-full fuel tanks was easily enough to guarantee stability, so two team members were hooked up to the stretcher and the big lower began.
Progress was slow and sure; the length of the lower meant that three ropes had to be joined end-to-end and proceedings paused while the knots were safely passed through the belaying devices. While this was going on, other MRT members helped the aircrew to secure the helicopter by putting canvas sleeves on the rotor blades, then roping the blades to the aircraft fuselage to prevent flapping and autorotation in the anticipated high winds.
The focus of activity now shifted away from the landing site and into the gully and central corrie area. Our radio relay was shut down and we retraced our steps down to the end of the landrover track, then went up the tourist path to lend a hand with the stretcher party.
Up in the gully, the Pilot, Navigator and Winchman were linked by slings and carabiners to MRT members, guys who were fully equipped with crampons and ice-axes and who followed the line of the stretcher lowering ropes, and supported the crew down the steep snowy slopes to safety and a beery midnight debrief at the Suie Lodge hotel in Glen Dochart.
A satisfactory outcome for KMRT, the rescue part of the business had progressed very well but there still remained the problem of the helicopter, now shut down and perched on a dark and snowbound mountain ridge. Members of the RAF Regiment were summoned to guard the machine, but the weather precluded any attempt by them to climb the mountain until the next day. When they reached their goal they found that the local cop had stuck a parking ticket on the windscreen!