I interviewed David “Heavy'”Whalley, one of the UK’s most experienced mountain rescue experts, for The Scots Magazine. If you enjoyed this article why not buy a copy of the magazine or take up a subscription.
Hero of the hills: David ‘Heavy’ Whalley
David Whalley, one of the UK’s most experienced mountain rescue experts, is chatty, cheerful and engaging. He hardly seems to draw breath as he recalls his life and work over seven decades, including 37 years with the RAF Mountain Rescue Service.
Numerous stories of ”great adventures” worldwide – including 30 trips to the Alps, climbing in the Falklands, Canada, Alaska and the Himalaya, as well as being a key member of the successful 2001 Everest North Ridge Expedition – are peppered with tales of Scottish mountain incidents, rescues and tragedies.
David, known to friends by his nickname “Heavy”, was involved in more than 1000 mountain call outs and 80 aircraft incidents in mountainous areas.
This included being senior team leader at the Lockerbie Disaster in December 1988 when 270 victims lost their lives during the terrorist attack. He was also involved in the hunt for survivors when a Chinook helicopter crashed on Mull of Kintyre in 1994 and the four RAF crew and 25 terrorism experts were killed.
He was team leader of RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss and deputy team leader at RAF Valley in North Wales. Latterly, he worked in the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre at RAF Kinloss.
After leaving the RAF, he served the Torridon and Kinlochewe Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) for three years until he retired. He is also president of the Search and Rescue Dog Association Scotland.
David’s courage, dedication and sacrifices have been recognised with several honours, including a BEM, an MBE and a Distinguished Service Award for Service to Mountain Rescue.
Earlier this year, he was named as the 2023 winner of the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture at the Fort William Mountain Festival. The 16th recipient of the annual accolade, which celebrates achievement, accomplishment and the spirit of adventure in the outdoors, David joins previous esteemed winners including the late Hamish MacInnes, an international mountaineer and a founder of Glencoe MRT; celebrated mountaineer and writer Dr Hamish Brown; writer and presenter Cameron McNeish; adventurer Karen Darke and photographer Colin Prior.
While clearly proud of his career, David is modest and self-deprecating. He says he is “not really into awards”, although, he quickly adds: “Of all of them, the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture is lovely to have. I am humbled and honoured be named in the same group as the past winners.”
Rather, he reveals the rewards of his work have come in other ways. He says: “I loved my job and gained a lot of satisfaction from being in mountain rescue. It was a career I was drawn to from a young age, although at first I was told I was too wee and skinny to join the RAF.”
He laughs at this memory, then says: “I didn’t want to work in an office and from childhood as the youngest child of parents who liked to walk in Scotland, I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors.
“It could be thrilling being involved in mountain incidents, too, and it is always heartening to be able to help other people. Being in charge of a team also gave me confidence in myself and made me a better leader.
“And I’ve been able to use my skills as a good communicator. I learned a lot of these from my dad who was a church minister in Ayr. He was very good at talking to people.
“My work also took me to many incredible places, including while training and on expeditions.”
In addition, David has enjoyed being in demand as a guest speaker and lecturer on topics close this heart and he has kept a popular blog since 2011.
However, he does agree that the rescue work could be challenging. He says: “Being involved in mountain incidents and tragedies was all part of the role but it was hard – very hard – at times.”
Suddenly, his voice softens and he continues: “Not every incident is a rescue. No one survived the Lockerbie tragedy, for example.
“As a rescue team, we had to face the trauma of death. Back then, people didn’t talk of post-traumatic stress disorder. I can remember the men in my team telling me of nightmares and not being able to sleep. They didn’t want to tell their wives about this.
“The Lockerbie crash affected me badly, too. I was quite ill and suffered depression, anger and insomnia. I turned to drink for a while.
“What got me through was being able to escape on my own to the mountains. This is where I could find peace to deal with the aftermath and where I found happiness again.”
Now 70, David’s happy place is still in the mountains. With boyish joy, he talks of his quest to finish his eighth round of Scotland’s tallest mountains, the 282 Munros – “although I’ll be using my e-bike for access,” he confesses – and his new passion for exploring Scotland’’s corries.
David says: “I’ve got into the the big corries recently. When I was working in mountain rescue, I spent time in these corries, checking them out for potential descent routes so we could take out a casualty during a call out.
“Now I can take my time to explore further. I like building stories of the history of the landscape and geology.”
David, who lives in Burghead, Moray, also reveals he has time to enjoy other aspects of life these days.
He says: “I have slowed down a bit – I guess that is natural as I’ve got older and I have had some health problems – but I appreciate the opportunity to take things a bit easier. This is not just in the outdoors but in other areas of my life, too.
“For so long, I was too selfish to be a good partner in my various relationships. I don’t blame my girlfriends for getting fed up with my life and all the time I spent working or away on adventures. But now I can enjoy spending time with my friend Kalie at her home on the west coast and walking with her.”
Touchingly, David sees the daughter of a previous partner, and her children, as his step-daughter and grandchildren. “They are such a wonderful addition to my life,” he says, warmly. “They don’t live too far away from me and I really like spending time with them.
“One of the best things about receiving my award at the Fort William Mountain Festival was having them there with me. It really meant a great deal to me.”