28-Nov-2022 Source: Bristow
At 1431hrs on 08 March 2022, the Inverness SAR crew, Rescue 151 (R151), were requested by Police Scotland for a tasking to a 28-year-old male who had fallen on Ben Nevis, at 3600ft, CPR ongoing.
R151 arrived on scene at 1510hrs. Despite progressive attempts, wind speeds above 60 knots with severe turbulence meant a safe winching position or low hover was impossible. R151 landed at Halfway Lochan (1870ft) although significant aircraft power variations during the approach and landing made it extremely difficult to descend and keep the aircraft on the ground. After a thorough crew brief, the Winchman, with crampons, ice axe and First Response Bag, began his ascent whilst R151 deployed Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) personnel; each serial requiring the utmost skill and concentration to land the aircraft without endangering it, the crew or MRT.
The Winchman saw a flashing torch up in Red Burn Gulley. With a direct route looking precarious he continued up the zig-zag path and soon met 4 people descending on all fours. They confirmed one deceased and 2 injured, one with a broken leg, and another group of 8, higher up, were struggling. It was 1630hrs and conditions were treacherous. Faced with multiple casualties with unknown injuries, a Major Incident was declared and additional MRT and another SAR helicopter was requested. R151 remained airborne as on-scene commander, providing the essential communications link between the Winchman (in cloud), MRT, the MRT base and UK Rescue.
The larger group were found exhausted and barely moving. Only one, a British Army Sgt, had an ice axe and crampons. He confirmed there were 2 crag fast walkers at the top of Red Burn Gulley; the companions of the deceased.
The Winchman, through a chance cloud break, saw MRT approaching the fallen casualty and could now focus on the crag fast walkers. With conditions deteriorating and, anticipating a night extraction, the Winchman asked the Sgt to assist.
R199 arrived on scene at 1730hrs. By now, 22 MRT had been deployed in extremely challenging flying conditions. After establishing an airborne deconfliction plan, the 2 crews deployed another 10 MRT as night fell before R199 returned to Prestwick.
Despite high winds and visibility below 20m, the Winchman eventually heard shouting and saw someone waving. The casualties were in a desperate state. Traumatised from their friend’s fall, they were cold, exhausted, and difficult to motivate. Somehow, they had to cross a 20m, >20deg ice-covered slope. A technically challenging traverse without crampons was extremely dangerous. Each step cut into the snow/ice filled in quickly. The casualties were escorted in turn; the Winchman standing downslope to support their feet. With no margin for error, an ill-placed foot or fall would be catastrophic.
Already in white-out conditions, it had become dark and uncertain of his position, the Winchman updated R151. The Sgt obtained a fix from his phone and together they located the path; normally 2m wide, but now a 30cm snow-covered ledge. On one occasion the Winchman was blown off his feet and accelerated down the mountain before arresting his slide with an axe.
Multiple casualties, exhausted and barely standing, were descending the mountain. R151 exploited a short weather window to extract 2 groups, including the stretcher casualty with a broken leg. A 3rd extraction was aborted; night light levels were extremely poor and wintry showers significantly reduced visibility just after take-off. A lightning strike then lit the sky overhead and despite further attempts Halfway Lochan was back in cloud.
The remaining casualties were walked off the mountain; the deceased and the Winchman were recovered using the MRT’s soft track vehicle. After 6 hours apart, the crew of R151 finally reunited at Torlundy before returning to Inverness at 2220hrs, 8 hours after the initial tasking. In total, 32 MRT were deployed to Ben Nevis; 24 casualties were rescued.
This highly demanding rescue was completed in the most extreme weather conditions. The winchman’s actions on the mountain side demonstrated self-less tenacity and bravery in the face of the most demanding situation. However, the entire crew, faced with a developing multiple casualty scenario, displayed the highest standard of crew-cooperation, judgement and handling skills to ensure a safe outcome for those in danger. Accordingly, the crew of R151 are joint recipients of the Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award.