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Walking in Skye & Kintail: mountain rescue, helicopter winches, and avoiding death & PTSD

It's really early, and paradoxically I should be sleeping beautifully because I'm in a comfortable room at the Sligachan Hotel on the Isle of Skye.  However I'm not too fussed - acute sleep deprivation may well affect memory consolidation and reduce the risk of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following trauma.  And why the possible PTSD?  Well coming down the mountain, yesterday's walk went quite badly wrong.  I'd taken over four hours to climb Bruach na Frithe when the Scottish Mountaineering Club's book "The Munros" estimates it's likely to take a little over three hours.  I usually walk as fast or faster than their estimates, so it had been a tough climb.  Highish wind, snow & ice.  Maybe the strain of the climb, maybe not stopping to eat or drink before trying to get back down below the snow line, maybe not having been hill walking much over the last eighteen months ... anyway I made a bad decision on my way down. 

Getting down the mountain was pretty slippy-slidey.  Iced rocks and snow.  Biggish falls threatening.  I bum-shuffled a fair amount, slipping down on my backside and using both hands & both boots to keep myself safe.  It was going fine and I was feeling quietly exhilarated.  On the way up, I'd detoured down off the East of the crest on a series of occasions to avoid the iced up ridge in the high wind.  It had gone fine.  Coming down I repeated this manoeuvre a few times.  Trying to stay close to the crest but taking what looked like tracks to either side when they seemed sensible.  I came to an option of going down a snowed up route on the West of the crest.  It looked OK and I was making good progress with my bum-shuffle and kicking steps into the snow with the heels of my boots.  I came to a drop down over a steeper section of rock as the gully narrowed & deepened.  I managed to negotiate it and then repeated the process a couple more times.  Bad mistake.  Coming down was difficult, but going back up would be next to impossible for me.  I wasn't thinking clearly enough and then my gut turned as I realised the snow chute disappeared ahead of me over a cliff.  I dislodged a piece of snow.  It bounced down the steep slope over the edge and was immediately blown back vertically upwards in the wind.  Damn ... I was in serious trouble.  I knew it would be very hard indeed to climb back up the gully and I didn't have any leeway for making a mistake.  If I slipped I would be likely to toboggan down the steep snow and out over the cliff.  From what I could see, and I didn't fancy going down too close to the edge, I had very little chance of going forward.  I can feel my body tightening & going cold with the memory.  The exit down at the end of the snow chute looked pretty terrifying and I was resting with my back against the snow slope and my heels kicked in making a small ledge.  Damn ... not at all good and I could feel myself chilling in the wind.

Maybe I'd been a little unlucky, but mostly I'd just been plain stupid.  Bad decisions in these conditions can certainly kill you and I felt I was looking down the barrel myself.  Now, thank heavens, I got lucky and I started to make some better decisions.  The first one was that I didn't wait.  It was quarter past two with plenty of daylight left.  Pulling stuff out of the haversack was a little tricky as losing my footing wasn't really an option, but I dug out my mobile phone.  Now here was luck.  I had reception and happily I'd prepared properly and had a full battery too.  A lot of the time in the Scottish hills, I go out of mobile reception.  Quite probably being able to call saved my life or at least saved me from pretty serious damage.  "999" ... that's the way to mountain rescue ... but Jeeze, dealing with the "Fire, police or ambulance?" rigmarole tried my patience when I was getting colder by the minute and already beginning to work out just how many hours I might have to try to stay with my heels dug into the steep snow slope.  The exit over the cliff looked pretty vicious, a bit like a mouth waiting for me down below. 

Eventually I was put through to the Inverness police and it seemed like mountain rescue was going to be alerted.  Managing the phone, gloves & glasses with my head encased in a woolen hat & hood, holding onto my haversack and balancing, it felt scary.  I'm not sure how much it was at my end, but throughout all this time on the hillside I kept losing reception.  And here's another lesson of the several I take away from this.  I work from home and only occasionally use my mobile.  I don't remember the number.  Fairly tough when, for some reason, they couldn't pick up what number I was and I was trying to juggle my phone to work it out.  Learn it or put it on a label in big numbers on the back.  The Dutch researchers Garnefski & Kraaij talk about the importance of learning from difficult experiences, however they also talk about the importance of avoiding rumination/worry, catastrophising, and self-blame.  Well I could save the self-blame till later.  It was hard not to catastrophise.  By the time the mountain rescue was alerted and got up the hillside to my level, it would take what ... three hours?  I wouldn't be at all easy to locate either.  Maybe close to four hours before they found me?  Not good.  I was chilling.  My legs started to get bouts of intermittent strong shivering.  Probably fear & a bit of shock as well as cold, but I wasn't sure how well I'd manage waiting four hours perched a bit precariously, legs going into shakes, and my hands were numbing too.

Problem solve.  When in the sh*t, don't ruminate & worry, bloody well problem solve.  I was carrying a personal location beacon (PLB) and I'd activated it early in this whole process.  It was sitting in a little snow ledge I'd gouged out, bleeping up to the satellites, broadcasting my position.  The problem was (and I found out later that this was exactly the case) the steep sides of the gully I was in (and possibly too Skye's famous magnetic rock) meant that the PLB wasn't able to transmit accurate information.  If anything it possibly sent my rescuers off on a bit of a wild goose chase.  I hauled some food out of my sack, drank a bit too.  It could be a long wait.  I pulled out a bit of extra clothing and worked it in under my bum so I wasn't so snow exposed.  I even had an extra pair of gloves.  Could I hang on?  I'm an inveterate optimist.  Mostly I did believe I had a good chance of coming through, but there was a real risk I wouldn't or that I would end up badly injured.  Weirdly my dear son rang me.  The PLB goes to the coastguards who then contact a couple of emergency numbers you leave with them when you register the radio beacon.  I didn't want to stay on the line to him as the rescue people had said they would be trying to contact me and that I should try to preserve the phone battery.  I was able to say to Kieran that I was uninjured and that mountain rescue had been alerted and ... knowing the PLB people & the police might also have got through to my wife ... he said he would ring her to say I was still OK.  I hadn't wanted to contact her, as there was nothing further she could do and I thought it would be a serious nightmare knowing your husband was perched on a snow chute above a cliff with absolutely nothing you could do to help.  I did have a dictaphone with me though (as one does!).  I reckoned that if I slipped over the cliff, there was a pretty good chance the dictaphone might come through better than I did.  I recorded a message to her describing my situation and saying "Hopefully I will be able to play it back to you and we can laugh together about it, and if by chance that doesn't happen, what do I want to say to you?"  And I told her how much I loved her and how good our life together had been.  I talked a little about the kids and her life if I didn't make it.  I tear up listening to it.  A kind of a privilege to hear what you end up saying when you think maybe you could die within the next few hours.  Actually listening to this recording, with the wind buffeting in the background, is what churns me up most when I remember the whole experience.

And now I got lucky again.  Maybe I wouldn't have to wait nearly four hours.  I thought I heard the sound of a helicopter.  Then it faded again.  I listened carefully, but maybe it was all just the wind?  And then after a while the noise became unmistakable.  A large red helicopter.  Oh, how good that felt.  But not for very long.  It circled and hovered.  Deep in my gully, I waved and waved ... and then it flew away.  Later I found out that the location beacon was transmitting confusing information and they were distracted by other possible places the beacon suggested I might be ... apparently the messed up transmission indicated two widely divergent options, neither of which were correct.  Sinking feeling.  Maybe no helicopter after all.  Then the blessing of the mobile again.  Contact from Mountain Rescue base down at Sligachan.  I could tell them the helicopter had come and gone.  A confusion of phone calls, even talking to someone on the 'copter.  Reception coming and going.  They got me to put on my head torch.  Again, something I did right, the batteries were fresh, strong and changed at the start of this trip.  They asked me to turn the torch to flashing mode.  Eventually after several fruitless passes, the helicopter slid back over the West of the ridge and saw me.  Phone contact with someone on the 'copter.  Blessings.  I wasn't sure what would happen next.  I knew I'd been seen, but then the helicopter flew back out of sight.  I managed to phone the Mountain Rescue Sligachan base again and heard that three men had been winched down onto the ridge.  Wait.  Shout occasionally.  Quite a while before they found me. 

Then two hours after getting trapped, a lump of snow came tumbling down the slope to hit me in the back.  Then another.  Keep my footing, look back, a man on a rope coming down the snow chute.  I shouted my thanks and my apologies.  "You'll need to come higher up the slope" he yelled.  "The rope's not long enough."  I didn't fancy it.  I was numb, shaky and acutely aware of where I'd end up if I lost my footing.  Not a lot of choice though.  Start back up the snow slope.  Kick in toehold by toehold.  Slice into the snow to get some purchase with my hands.  I made it.  He could throw down a sling to put over my head and under my arms.  Shouted instructions about tying on.  I'm no mountaineer, but we cobbled something together with a knot and a carabineer.  Then it was back up the snow chute.  God I'm glad I didn't try it without a rope.  It was damn hard and if I'd tried to climb out on my own, I think it's a hundred to one that I would either have had to give up or that I would have slipped with all that was likely to imply.  It's impressive what you can do with the help of a rope though.  At the worst point I could get no purchase at all with my feet on the icy vertical rock.  Thank heavens I keep my arms strong.  Fist in a crack, fingers onto a ledge, haul up.  When we got to the top, my kind mountaineering rescuer complimented me on my climbing as a hill walker!  He commented to his colleague something like "That was bloody hard.  Definitely a grade four climb."  To which his mate replied "You're not going to claim it as a new route are you?"  Then down.  Slipping , sliding, helped by these three supportive, expert rescuers.  Blessings.  And the helicopter came in.  A slightly flatter place was chosen where we could stand.  Down came the looped harness.  Well!  Is there no end to this adventure?  "Shove it over your head and under your arms."  I was told.  "When they haul you up, keep your arms by your sides even if it's painful.  If you lift them up you could just slide out of the loop and fall."  Mm ... a good incentive to keep my arms very firmly by my sides.  And up.  In a strange way it reminded me of bungee jumping, but in reverse.  Hauled into the coastguard helicopter.  Joined by the three guys from mountain rescue and then down the hill a whole lot more easily than with the long trudge up about seven hours earlier.

We landed on a flat patch of land close to the Sligachan Mountain Rescue headquarters.  They must have helicoptered in a lot of damaged or dead people in their time.  These hills are serious.  Gratitude for how expert the whole operation had been.  Probably because the Cuillin are the most challenging hills in the UK, the mountain rescue service are very experienced.  Kind too.  "Getting caught in a snow gully happens all the time." they said.  "Don't blame yourself."  Of course I blame myself.  I made a stupid decision.  I don't think I'm going to develop much of a posttraumatic stress reaction, but I certainly intend to learn some important lessons.  "Really pay attention and don't go up or down a route with no clear exit, unless you know you can retrace your steps" seems pretty good for starters.  "Even if you don't use your mobile much, either memorise the number and/or write it on a label stuck to the back of the phone" is worth noting too.  "Find out how to contact and thank the mountain rescue people ... and whether it's possible to make a donation towards their work."  I believe that, in the UK, having your life saved like this is a free service!  "Listen to the recording I left my dearest wife, when I thought I might die.  Profoundly appreciate the precious, precious life I have" makes damn good sense too. 

And as far as PTSD is concerned, both the fact that I have great social support and also that I feel OK about how I managed the crisis once I was in it probably make it less likely that I'm vulnerable to posttraumatic effects.  Panic-associated derealization and disorganized memory of the worst moments of the trauma can be potent paths into later PTSD, so fascinatingly writing this blog post is also likely to help.  There's a nice research study - "Intensive care diaries reduce new onset post traumatic stress disorder following critical illness" - where giving patients a staff-kept diary of what happened to them during their time in intensive care reduced development of subsequent PTSD from 13% to 5%. 

For more on processing trauma & reducing risk of PTSD, see the next post "Walking in Skye & Kintail: lessons, self-compassion & posttraumatic growth".

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Death on the mountain

Thank you Anne ... plenty of lessons for me to learn!  James