“It could happen to any of us.” It was a thought that kept coming back to me as I listened to the terrifying story of my friend David, who fell while descending a remote Munro.
David’s day in the Strathfarrar mountains had been going very well. In remarkably warm and clear conditions on October 30, the experienced and fit Munro bagger had progressed easily – and enjoyably – over four summits of more than 3000ft.
But as he started to descend from his final peak, Sgùrr Fhuar-thuill, on the 15.5-mile route, David suddenly found himself in a very bad place.
Around 80 metres below the 1049m summit, he slipped on grass on a steep slope. This can happen at any time if you are walking or running in the mountains and usually you are able to recover traction underfoot. I have no doubt all hill walkers and runners have experienced similar.
This time, however, David continued to slip with no control – and then he fell and started rolling.
He said: “It was scary how quickly I gained momentum and then speed. It was so sudden and then I was heading downwards and out of control. I didn’t know when I would stop but I couldn’t slow the speed.
“I was also worried about the rocks and boulders I was heading for – and also what might be coming next. I kept trying to get some traction and find a way to slow myself. I was also very worried because I didn’t know if there would be a steeper drop beyond.”
Finally, David came to a halt some 35 metres lower down. He realised immediately he was too badly injured to get up. He knew his leg was broken and he suspected his arm was broken, too.
He is not sure what stopped his fall but he believes it was rocks and a large boulder.
What would you do after an accident?
Many of us will have thought about what we would do if an accident occurs in the mountains. All sensible walkers and runners carry plenty of warm spare kit (appropriate to the season) and an emergency blanket or bivvy bag. We know that it is vital we stay warm and dry if we find ourselves stranded in the mountains.
David’s instinct for survival kicked in. Despite his injuries – it turned out he had fractured his tibia in multiple places, broken his elbow and three ribs, fractured his shoulder and dislocated his collar bone – he managed to put on warming layers and get a bivvy bag around his body.
He said: “I knew I needed to be warm and despite the pain I made sure I got all my spare layers out of my rucksack and put them on. I also managed to get inside a bivvy bag. I am not sure how I managed it all because of my injuries, especially the broken leg, but it must have been adrenaline and the knowledge that I needed to do this to have a chance of surviving.”
Next he needed to stay alert to call for help. He had fallen into a location without phone reception. He could only hope that someone else would walk by and that they would be able to raise an alarm.
David called out and blew a whistle for help.
Lucky coincidence of two runners
The running couple who discovered David were familiar with the route. Susan and Ian Blackwood, of Inverness, have run the Strathfarrar Munros many times before and they were setting out to do the route in the reverse direction to that of David.
While Susan made her way up Sgùrr Fhuar-thuill from lower in the glen, her husband headed off to park the car. He would catch her up later.
As Susan pushed uphill, she heard a voice. At first she thought it was Ian calling to her but then she realised it was coming from above.
She said: “I stopped to listen and I could hear someone shouting help. I knew then it was someone in need and quite near to me.”
When she reached David it was obvious he was in a bad way. She said: “I could see that he had badly broken his leg and he needed emergency help. But I was also amazed at how he had made himself warm and got the bivvy bag around himself.
“I knew he must be in a lot of pain and it seemed remarkable that he had managed to think clearly enough to sort out his clothing and emergency shelter.”
Meanwhile, another walker, Peter Clinton, from Cumbernauld, happened to walk by. He was able to offer Susan use of his mobile phone, which had some reception. Susan headed higher up the mountain where the phone signal was stronger and made the call to emergency services.
Peter also gave David his emergency foil blankets to help with warmth.
Ian then arrived on the scene. As well as calling for rescue help, the trio made contact with David’s wife Alicia. While David had been on the Munros, Alicia passed the time cycling on the track in the glen below.
Peter then headed further down the mountain to meet with Alicia to update her on David’s situation, while Susan and Ian remained with David.
Peter said: “David seemed totally lucid and in control although he must have been in a great deal of pain. I thought he would be rescued quite soon after I left and I heard a helicopter overhead not long afterwards.”
In fact, it took many hours for David to be finally winched from the mountain by the Dundonnell Mountain Rescue Team. This was due to changing conditions with cloud lowering over the mountain.
David believes he fell between 1pm and 1.30pm. He was found by Susan around an hour later. A call was received by Police Scotland (on 999) just before 3.30pm. Dundonnell MRT were alerted to the accident at 3.30pm. It was 8pm when David was helicoptered to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.
A long and tricky rescue
A spokesperson from Dundonnell MRT recounts the rescue: “Our team leader Iain Nesbitt was contacted about 3.30pm on Saturday October 30 by Police Scotland, who had received a report of an injured person on the Strathfarrar ridge.
“Fifteen team members attended and the first five to arrive were landed at the site by HMCG Helicopter 151 (based at Dalcross).
“The casualty, who had sustained multiple injuries after a lengthy fall, was already being assisted by members of the public. He was given first aid by our team and was packaged for evacuation.
“After refuelling, Rescue 151 was able to uplift the casualty. It took some time due to the difficult position in which he was located.
“He was immediately flown to Raigmore Hospital and the MRT members and members of the public made their own way off the hill.”
Reflections and thanks
Although it was a lengthy and dramatic rescue, Susan reveals that David remained calm. She said: “I thought David was remarkable and stoic. He was obviously in pain and he was in a difficult position trying to stay still and not slide further down the mountain. But he never complained.
“Ian and I did what we could to make him more comfortable but we didn’t want to move him because of his injuries. We just did what anyone else would do if they found an injured walker or runner. We stayed with him, we called for emergency help and we tried to help with guiding them to David’s location.”
Talking to David afterwards, he said: “I am so grateful to Susan, Ian and Peter. They were incredible. I am very lucky that Susan found me and that she could raise the alarm. Susan and Ian then waited with me for many hours. I can’t thank them enough.
“Through it all I was buried deep in my pain cave, trying to manage my feelings. I was trying hard not to think about the what ifs and the injuries. I tried to block this out.
“I needed to know they were there – and they were. I am so thankful to them.
“I also have huge admiration for the mountain rescue teams, both on foot and in the helicopter. They did an amazing job to get me off the mountain and to hospital. We are very fortunate to have this service available to us.
“Of course, we never want to need to be rescued but accidents do happen. I never imagined it would be me that required the help but it could happen to anyone.”
After an operation to plate his elbow and to stabilise his leg, David was transported from Raigmore to Glasgow Royal Infirmary. He has since had two more operations on his leg and faces many months of recovery.
He said: “I am thankful, too, to the amazing NHS staff, who have all been wonderfully supportive and caring.
“It has been a lot to process and all I can keep thinking is that I am lucky the injuries – or the outcome – are not worse.
“It is going to be a long time before I know what the long-term effects of the accident will be but just now I am focusing on the day to day and I hope to be able to make small wins as I progress towards being back on my feet again.”
Fund-raiser for rescue teams
David and Alicia have launched a fund-raiser for the people who keep us safe in the mountains. The want to say thank to the rescue team and they are raising money for Dundonnell MRT. See Justgiving if you would like to support their fundraising.
Scottish Mountain Rescue (SMR) is a charity that represents 25 Mountain Rescue Teams (MRTs). Every member Mountain Rescue Team is an independent charity.
They provide a free and world class rescue service in Scotland’s mountains.
The teams are all volunteers, but significant levels of funding are still needed to help run Scottish Mountain Rescue and member teams. Funding is required for training, equipment, insurance and other running costs to be able to provide the life-saving service.
- 3 in 5 rescues are funded by donations from the public including gifts in wills.
- 1 in 5 rescues are funded by the volunteer team members themselves, who as well as giving their time, often provide their own equipment and pay their own petrol to attend training and rescues.
- 1 in 5 rescues are funded by the Scottish Government, thanks to their support.
- St John Scotland also provide significant funding towards major items of expenditure, such as team bases and vehicles.
It costs between £35,000 and £40,000 to fund the Dundonnell MRT annually and they depend on help via donations. The Dundonnell MRT area is vast and they run five team vehicles based in different areas. There are three bases: Dundonnell, Ullapool and Dingwall.