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Mountain Men

A large greystone barn tucked away in a glen beneath Ben Nevis. A muddy, swollen river swirls silently alongside. Beneath the hayloft of the barn a long, narrow stable, the walls glistening with damp and condensation. A pressurised paraffin cooker roars like a jet engine on test, but emits a penetrating warmth and pleasant vapours that seduces the mind into a cosy, nostalgic mood. A rheumy-eyed carthorse watches sleepily from his manger at the end of the stable, grateful perhaps for the pleasant warmth on such a cold night.

The talk is muted, broken occasionally by bursts of laughter. Now and then a figure will fetch another bottle of beer, or fry a tasty omelette sandwich, filling the stable with delicious smells of eggs, bacon, onion and cheese.

The talk rarely varied, always of tricky arêtes, corries, abseiling, glissading, taking shufti's on 'The Ben', dangerous climbs, beautiful climbs, names like Johnny Lees, John Brown, Hamish McInnis, of equipment, grampons, pitons, tragsitz, vibrams, nails, duvets and cagoules, of haufing, belaying, traversing and, just occasionally in a lighter vein, the 'birds' in the 'Fort' (girls in Fort William).

Thus I sat, a privileged interloper, in an entirely new world where even the language was foreign, The world of mountain men, specifically the world of the RAF Kinloss mountain rescue team. There were nine RAF teams in all, six in Britain based at Kinloss, Morayshire; Leuchars, Fife; Leeming, Yorkshire; Valley, Anglesey; Stafford, Staffordshire; St Athen, Glamorganshire. Abroad there are three teams based at Aden, Hong Kong and Cyprus.

Every man is a volunteer and performs his rescue duties apart from his normal job on the station.

Although being a team member carries certain privileges and prestige the applicants are few and those who stay the course even fewer. A special breed of man is required to survive as a member. There is no pay for this job, the training courses are the toughest and most rigorous that could be devised and the members are expected to surrender every moment of their leave and spare time. Add to that the fact that the team is required to work in the filthiest weathers and that danger and death are constant companions one appreciates the smallness of the rewards.

For two weeks over the Christmas period when the men would normally be on leave and home with their families the teams are on standby duty at their respective base camps, like Cameron's barn in Glen Nevis. Here they live as they do every weekend, training, eating, sleeping and ever ready for the almost inevitable call-out.

The Christmas period seems to have a priority on accidents and fatalities. Due, it seems, mainly to two direct circumstances: University students are on holiday and are particularly prone to adopting the wildest climbing schemes. Linked with their lack of experience and lack of equipment the result is inevitably fatal. Secondly, every climb is graded from moderate to hard-severe and serious climbers must - to achieve experience and fulfillment - make those climbs in both summer and winter conditions.

Despite their experience and preparedness all too frequently they are not conversant with the special hazards of the weather on the Scottish mountains weather that can change from gentle sunshine to raging blizzard within minutes, where exposure can kill in a matter of hours if a single false step doesn't kill you first. In bad weather on a mountain the choice is not a happy one - if you stay still you will die from exposure yet frequently you cannot see the next step in front of you and death is only a step away. Finally there is the utterly stupid climber who, like all good mountain men, leaves a note in the specially positioned boxes of exactly where he is going and his starting time and date, then halfway up change his mind and goes somewhere else. Injured or lost it may take the rescue teams as long as three weeks to find his body, simply because of his own misleading directions. In the main these are the general reasons for accidents on the mountains, but there are always the odd cases like the two drunks rescued from the top of Ben Nevis by the Kinlos team on New Years Eve. Both were very happy and singing loudly unknowing and uncaring that by morning they would have been dead from exposure.

The Kinloss team, not to detract from the hazards faced by other teams, covers a particularly dangerous area reaching across the Scottish highlands from the Moray Firth to Skye and Strathy point to the North Western Cairngorms. The area includes some of the most hazardous climbs anywhere in the world, including Britain's highest peak, Ben Nevis and the snow covered slopes of the Cairngorms.

The qualifications needed to enjoy these masochistic pleasures are few but stringent. A level head, a strong physique and above all a constant gnawing need to climb. 'Because it was there' is not a joke, it is deadly serious.

Although the teams were formed as recently as 1942 they already have their legendary figures, like Sqd/Ldr Dave Dattner who led the Kinloss team. A man of tremendous charm, personality and courage. A man who insisted that every team member should be able to stitch open wounds and took a masochistic pleasure in slashing himself with a knife and making the members sew him up.

Sqd/Ldr. Dattner, Sgt. Johnny Lees, C/T John Hines, it is men like these that have made the R.A.F. MRTs the smooth, efficient and tough units they are today.

On a rescue when life is at stake the safety margin that allows for error is pushed to its very limits and the team must work as one man, their lives as well as the victims depend on their sped and skill. It is to their credit that despite the fantastic numbers of rescues that they have carried out they have only ever lost one man. Some would say that that was one too many, but they are usually the ones who have never been out with a mountain rescue team.

The men themselves are curious in the odd mixture of intellects and temperaments, ranging across the full academic and social scene, frequently they meet on only one common ground, climbing, sufficient however to depend on each other for their lives.

Their clothes and gear are always a mixture of RAF issue and any expensive personal items like duvets (quilted jackets) not issued by the RAF. The RAF equipment is sufficient - just. But when their comfort and lives depend on their equipment they prefer the best available, dipping deep into their own pockets to provide it.

Hats are prized possessions; old, dirty, battered, ranging from Andy Cap's to deerstalkers.

Local dances at Fort William or Kinlochleven are no longer surprised by the entrance of a couple of dozen men wearing heavy climbing boots, brightly coloured duvets, seaboot socks, scruffy sweaters and the hilarious hats. Local reaction is mixed with respect and gratitude from the middle and elder aged groups and resentment by the young males who too often lose girlfriends to team members.

Very rarely is the resentment placed on a physical basis - on or off the hill the team is still a team, sufficient deterrent to anyone who has seen this tough, roughly shod, unit in action.

Even as each man is different to his team mate thy are different within themselves. They work hard and with death as a constant reminder their play is that much more intense. These same men who would fight at the drop of a hat (probably for it) will tear their guts out to reach an injured man on the mountain. Conversely they will be as gentle as a lamb with a new member on the hill for the first time. Always keeping the pace down to that of the slowest without the slightest show of irritation or impatience, yet stupidity or irresponsibility on the mountain can earn you a ducking in the Loch or expulsion from the team. Expulsion is determined by the team, they simply refuse to go out with anyone they consider a liability.

One eccentricity of the teams infrequent leisure is trophy hunting, this constitutes a major pastime. If it isn't embedded in concrete the team will remove it. The prize example is a rather grand, but tatty elephant's skull outside the natural history museum at Forres. This has disappeared so frequently that a rather bored curator now simply telephones RAF Kinloss and asks "Please may we have our head back." whereupon it is duly returned until the following weekend.

The Daily Mail once ran a publicity stunt by having a man photographed selling their newspaper on top of Ben Nevis with a large Daily Mail banner in the background. They lost the banner, it adorns a wall in the Kinloss briefing hut. Their play is exuberant but harmless, their work dangerous but lifesaving.

Every February the teams gather from all over the world to meet on Ben Nevis for the annual winter training courses in snow and ice climbing. Dedicated men gaining every ounce of skill and experience to make them more efficient at saving lives.

Sitting in the warmth of Cameron's barn on Christmas night I asked the team why they preferred being here to being with their relatives and friends. The reply was unanimous - 'This is living, not sitting around sipping drinks with relatives I hardly know and playing musical chairs, besides - my mates are here.'

Frederick Covins (1964)

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