Sunday 23 March 2014

Not - Geal-charn

There had been a not insignificant fall of snow over the Scottish Highlands during the night, so we set off from the balmy Moray Coast with high hopes of plenty of the white stuff for us to get our crampons into...

A'Mharconaich and Geal-charn from Balsprorran Cottages

We weren't disappointed.

Just north of Drumochter pass, we parked up at the car park at Balsporran Cottages, stepping out of the car into a wintery world.

Rafe and Jim - Track into Coire Fhar and Geal-charn

The hills hereabouts have a reputation for being boring grassy lumps (according to several guide books we had been reading anyway!) - not today. Ranks of shining white mountains crowded around, seemingly bigger and mightier in the winter conditions...

Drumochter Pass from near Balsporran Cottages

We set off in bright sunshine - an excellent forecast gave us confidence that the day ahead would be one to remember.

An Torc (Boar of Badenoch), A'Mharconaich and Geal-charn

The path was good, and we headed off west, briefly into Coire Fhar, before heading off up the wide eastern slopes of Geal-charn. Rafe was trotting on ahead, flicking the snow up in the air and trying to catch it again.

Jim and Rafe on Geal-charn

The views west were wonderful - our route for today laid out ahead of us against the blue, 2 Munros, Geal-charn and A'Mharconaich. The views behind, the Pass of Dumochter with the Perthshire Hills to the south and the Cairngorms to the north and east - marvellous.

Looking east from ascent of Geal-charn over the A9

Drumochter Pass from ascent of Geal-charn

It was hard work. The further we ascended the deeper the snow became, new, soft and powdery, we were floundering up to our knees.

An Torc (Boar of Badenoch) and A'Mharconaich from the ascent of Geal-charn

We slogged on, Jim doing most of the trail breaking as I took up the rear, stopping to take photographs. Rafe was still having fun, leaping about.

Drumochter Pass and Meal Chuaich (distant) from ascent of Geal-charn

As we continued to ascend slowly, the views opened up further. Soon we could see Meal Chuaich, the Munro we had walked two weeks before - it had had considerably less snow then!

Meal Chuaich from ascent of Geal-charn

The wind was starting to get up a bit, and the snow was being blown about - Rafe thought this was great fun, but Jim seemed to be struggling.

Snow on Geal-charn

When we reached the cairns at NN606785 and the summit still looked a long way off, Jim admitted he wasn't well.

For Jim to say that he isn't feeling well, means he really isn't feeling well. Initially he had put his chest pains down to indigestion and over exertion. We started to descend immediately, but realised at about 750m that Jim wouldn't be getting off the mountain without help.

Rafe and Jim - ascent of Geal-charn

The emergency shelter was deployed and I rang 999 and gave all our details - the Search and Rescue Sea King Helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth was requested and Mountain Rescue alerted. They don't mess about when a heart attack is suspected!

Rafe looks east from descent from Geal-charn

Being old fuddy duddies we don't have a GPS - I feel confident that my map and navigation skills are pretty good, I know what to do with a compass and I've had to use one in anger on many an occasion - so we don't have a GPS!

But I had to get the paper map out of its waterproof case to give an accurate 8 figure grid reference - it was blowing at about 45mph at the time and it wasn't easy!! I managed to get the grid ref and give it to the very lovely Dougie on the other end of the 999 call, but then the map decided to answer the call of the wild and took itself off, at speed, across the snow fields...

Right about then we were joined by another walker, he had decided to descend without summiting due to the difficult conditions, and had seen that something was going on. This was the wonderful Fraser MacGillivary, who did have a GPS - how easy it was to get a 10 figure grid reference and update Dougie!

Polly and Rafe (Jim in emergency shelter) as the RAF S&R helicopter arrives at Geal-charn (photo Fraser MacGillivary)

Jim was still in the emergency shelter, really not at his best. Fraser waited with us. It's amazing how much better it feels to have someone else there...

There wasn't much we could do except wait - and make sure that Jim was as warm as he could be.

The helicopter was with us within 50 minutes of the 999 call - I don't think they had any trouble spotting us on the completely white hillside in bright sunshine. Rafe, and all the kit were secured as it flew over.

The paramedic was winched down, examined Jim and without much further ado he was whisked up into the helicopter and Jim was taken off to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.

Jim and the paramedic wait to be winched off Geal-charn

Once again, thank goodness for Fraser - I wouldn't have had any particular difficulty walking off the hill (even the escape of the map wouldn't have mattered today!), but it was so much better to have company.

Jim's rescue from Geal-charn

The view's were still glorious - the hills oblivious - it was almost as if nothing had happened.

It only took 40 minutes to lose the height that it had taken more than 2 hours to gain. We met another walker as we descended. He had completed the walk that Jim and I had intended to do - he said that it had felt like he was wading through treacle in all the new snow. I couldn't have put it better.

Back at the car park, Fraser and I traded contact details and I drove north to Inverness - half expecting Jim to be sitting at the entrance, waiting for me, looking sheepish...

A'Mharconaich and Geal-charn

He wasn't of course - it was a heart attack.

But they're pretty confident he'll be making a full recovery. He'll be back in the hills before we know it...

So - Thank you, thank you - to the RAF S&R Team for Lossiemouth, the doctors, nurses and everyone else at Raigmore and ARI, Dougie, calm and reassuring and particularly to Fraser - every one a hero.

Route:  Car park at Balsporran Cottages by A9 (NN627791), W along track, over railway line at crossing, continue W over 2 fords to NN622790, take track to right, NW then W to cairns at NN606785, return to start.

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