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Accidents - an extract from There's Always the Hills

A wintry Loch Avon in the Cairngorms

DURING the winter of 1979/80 I was avalanched in Coire Laogh Mor in the Cairngorms. I came down several hundred feet and thought I was drowning in the snow. The impact of the avalanche was so powerful that my hat, gloves, rucksack and even my wristwatch were all ripped from me.

When the snow stopped moving I was buried up to my chest but fortunately my head and arms were free. I managed to extricate myself and other than a few bruises and a badly damaged ego I was fine. However, it was a long time before I could cross a snow slope again without fear. I read everything I could about avalanches, soaked up every bit of information because I never wanted to experience such a thing again.

Did I think of giving up the hills? Of course not. The incident made me want to know the hills better, to understand them better, to treat them with more informed respect, just as you would with any lover you’ve had a tiff with.

The closest I’ve come to losing my life was an accident while hill-running (of all things). I’d decided to have an afternoon run to the summit of Creag Dhubh, a lovely 756m high hill that overlooks the village.

As I approached the summit on a fine and clear late September afternoon I remembered that I had to collect Gregor from rugby practice at 5.30. I checked my watch and saw it was only 4.30. I had an hour to jog down the hill and drive back to the house before meeting him, but something happened and to this day I have no idea what it was.

I may have tripped, I just can’t remember, but the next thing I recall is trying to climb over a wall at the foot of the hill and onto the Newtonmore to Laggan road. I tried to jog along the road thinking to myself that this run seemed a lot tougher than usual. Fortunately I was spotted.

One of my elderly neighbours was in her car when she saw me limping along . She stopped but (she later told me), was reluctant to give me a lift in her brand new car because of all the blood that was dripping off me. Fortunately, another neighbour, Dave Fallows, also stopped and had no hesitation in pushing me into his car and phoning for an ambulance in what was, for the time, a new-fangled mobile phone.

We got back to Cherry Glen, my house, just before the ambulance arrived and I was whipped off to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. Gina, who had been visiting relatives in Stirling, turned onto our road as the ambulance left, complete with flashing blue light. She had no idea I was inside.

Whatever happened obviously involved a long fall down steep ground. I was covered in cuts and bruises, required 40 stitches in my head, had broken my left ankle and snapped the end of the radius bone in the arm, just above my wrist. And I couldn’t recall a thing.

The consultant who operated on me told me this lapse of memory wasn’t unusual, it was the mind’s way of protecting me and to this day I’m not sure what happened. I’ve gone back to the area and looked around and can only think that perhaps I slipped while crossing a stream, before sliding down a series of short crags.

Dave Fallows picked me up at 7pm so I reckon I must have lain unconscious for an hour or perhaps 90 minutes before stumbling down the hillside to the road. I rather like the notion that a couple of angels picked me up, carried me down to the roadside and left me for my neighbours to find.

I guess I was lucky, and my consultant told me at one point that ten years earlier he wouldn’t have had the technology to save my wrist. A decade earlier my right hand would have been amputated.

Not everyone is as lucky. It’s always cruel when we hear of people dying in the mountains but while every single death is a tragedy for families and loved ones, the hysterical ranting from some sections of the media is neither helpful nor welcome.

The barrage of ill-informed comment from certain journalists who know next to nothing about our love of mountains, about mountain safety or mountain rescue, has incensed outdoor folk for years.

One journalist in particular made so many factual errors on a radio phone-in that the accident statistician from the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland phoned in to correct her. Despite that, the same journalist later went on to an evening television programme and spouted the same misinformation.

An extract from There's Always the Hills, published by Sandstone Press

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