Published 27th July 2021, 10:28

    SATURDAY morning, and I see a picture of a friend saying hello from the summit of Ben Avon. Ten hours later he sends a second picture, this time from a hospital bed.

    What started as a beautiful day out Munro bagging in the Cairngorms came to an abrupt and painful ending that required an airlift to Raigmore, surgery and a three-day hospital stay.

    A simple slip on the path leading down to The Sneck, the narrow, high-level bealach that links Ben Avon with its neighbour Beinn a' Bhuird. A slip caused by losing his footing on those tiny granite particles that can be as lethal as marbles in dry conditions. He felt his foot slide, then heard a noise like a gunshot. 

    The pain was instantaneous, the scream he let out brought fellow walkers further down the slope rushing back up to assist. The patella tendon in his left leg had snapped – he wouldn't be moving anywhere.

    It was just after 11am when the call went to mountain rescue. Now it was just a case of waiting for assistance to arrive. But what happened over the course of the day brought into focus just how serious the repercussions of a simple slip can be.

    Our rescue teams do a remarkable job but they are only human. It inevitably takes time to alert and pull a team together: protocols have to be followed, logistics worked out. And that's if everything falls into place smoothly. Teams could already be out somewhere else on a rescue, helicopters may not be available or they may be unable to fly due to weather conditions. 

    Most people don't realise just how long you can be lying out on a hillside waiting for help. And even on the hottest days – and this was a hot day – it doesn't take take long to start to feel the cold.

    Despite being an experienced mountaineer, the casualty admitted he had never really considered the time factor involved in a rescue. He had assumed he would be off the hill within a couple of hours. It was more than four hours before the first Braemar team members reached him, an advance party which had come in on an all-terrain vehicle.

    Having judged the extent of the injury, they decided the best option was to call in a helicopter. It was busy assisting with another incident on Lochnagar – along with other members of the Braemar team – but the crew eventually agreed to swing round and take on a second casualty.

    The next snag was that the rescue team had no flares to signal the copter, so despite having the co-ordinates, the air crew couldn't locate them in time. Running low on fuel, they had to pull out and get the other casualty to hospital in Inverness.

    The Braemar team now had to try and get their injured man down using the atv, but that would be a very slow and bumpy ride. It was far from ideal. They made another call for the copter, and the now refuelled bird returned to make a successful pick-up. By now, it was 7.15pm. The casualty had been lying on the hill for more than eight hours.

    One important lesson he learned from the experience: because of the need to carry more fluid during the heatwave conditions, he had considered reducing the weight of his bag by ditching the usual spare clothes he would normally carry, such as fleece, windproof jacket, gloves and hats, as he had done on his two previous outings.

    It was fortunate he decided at the last minute against doing that this time out. Even with his survival bag, he found it a long and uncomfortable wait. Had he been in a similar situation while out alone and the weather had turned, he could have been in real trouble with a stripped-down bag. He was also lucky there were other walkers around, and that they managed to find a spot nearby with a phone signal. It could have been a very different story on a wild day in such a remote place with no one else around. 

    It's the second time recently I've heard of someone taking a bad fall on this type of terrain. A neighbour had a slip coming off Lochnagar on the stepped path, his feet sliding on that fine loose granite. He wasn't as badly hurt but still ended up unable to walk for about six weeks due to a torn muscle. Just a few months ago, I slipped in a similar manner on the path coming off Gairich and tumbled about six feet but landed on grass having managed to break the fall. 

    My friend's surgery was a success and the long recovery starts now, but it will be a while before he's back in the mountains. Only this time you can bet his rucksack will be fully loaded.