Coire an t-Sneachda Avalanche February 11, 1995 – Ian Mitchell (Mitch)

Early 1995 featured heavier than usual snowfall in the Scottish Highlands and mountain rescue teams were kept busy throughout January and February.

A video of this incident can be viewed HERE

On Saturday 11 February I was guesting as a civvy with Leuchars MRT whose leader was Bill Batson. We were based in Aviemore village hall and that weekend we had good number of troops out. I had guested with the team since around 1993 and had been introduced to LMRT by Joe Wiggins (Wiggy) who I had known since 1973 when we were both in 2414 Sqn ATC.

On that weekend we were looking forward to some climbing in the Northern Corries but with the high avalanche warning and continuing poor weather the prospects were dubious. Saturday morning saw me and Joe along with Innes Cronshaw set off in the LMRT Sigs Land Rover for Coire Cas carpark accompanied by another couple of LMRT wagons. Various parties of troops were either hillwalking or going in to look at climbs. About 6 of us set of for Coire an t-Sneachda to look at climbs there. After plodding through the snow we arrived at the foot of the coire and had a look about. It was snowing steadily. Wiggy was very keen to have a go on a route but even as we unpacked our harnesses and kit the rucsacs were covered in snow and he reluctantly agreed with us that the avalanche risk was simply too high. A collective decision was made that cocoa at the ski cafe was the order of the day. Meanwhile all around us on virtually every crag there were parties of climbers and Stu (Jessie) McBain said something along the lines of “maybe we should hang around; I reckon we are going to a get a job today”.

We trudged out and made our way to the cafe. The cocoa was good, and the place was busy, many skiers and climbers. Finishing up we got back in our Land Rovers and took off for Aviemore. Somewhere around Glenmore Lodge the radio squawked into life. It was a call out and it was in Coire an t-Sneachda. We blue lighted it back up the hill and met Davie Taylor the DTL who, I believe, was acting team leader that weekend I. All we knew at this point was that one perhaps more people had a problem and Davie chose a fast group to go in immediately using the ski centre’s tracked piste machine to get in part way. By chance that weekend we had two paramedics trained troops out with us. Steve Heaney and a second troop whose name I cannot remember. The snowfall had increased slightly and hanging onto the rail on the machine was not very easy with the machine pitching and rolling over the ground. The driver got us about half way and we assembled in line and started trekking in for the second time that day through the snowfall.

Close to the head of the coire a 202 Sqn Sea King flew over us heading out and over the radio we heard a snatch of discussion about one casualty on board with a broken limb and another casualty being walked out. I can’t remember if we were told then (by radio) to keep going in as there were more casualties or if we decided to leg it in the rest of the way to see if we could assist.

We arrived at Sneachda to a bizarre sight. There were numerous civvy climbers milling about in the coire (and some still on the crags) and several knelt over in the snow attending to injured people. We quickly realised that there were 5 casualties from two separate parties who had been avalanched down Goat Track Gully and ended up at the bottom together. Some rapid triaging determined that one climber (Ian Twaddle) was fairly seriously injured and still partially buried with a suspected broken femur, with another climber (Philip Birch) also partially buried and presenting injures which were not as life threatening but nonetheless would hospitalise him. The remaining three suffered minor injuries and I was assigned the least injured who had a sprained ankle. My casualty was an Englishman called Miles whose crampons I removed before rapidly zipping him into my Snug Pak 2 season bag I always carried, and kept him calm.

Joe Wiggins was the designated On-Scene Commander and after Steve and the other paramedic had looked over the casualties Wiggy made a rapid decision to give the On-Scene Commander tabard to (I think) Steve Heaney in order that the winchman from the hoped for helicopter would make straight for Steve and get a rapid appraisal of the situation from a medical viewpoint. That decision by Wiggy undoubtedly saved valuable time in the end which was sorely needed.

It continued to snow and I kept my casualty calm and positive. Periodically Wiggy provided updates on the progress with Ian Twaddle, now assessed as T1. At this point it was looking as though he had a broken left femur, a crushed pelvis and several broken ribs. I was told Steve Heaney was administering Entenox as troops worked as fast as possible to dig Twaddle out of the snow and stabilise the injuries. Meanwhile other troops worked on Philip Birch, himself partially buried and the remaining casualties. An LMRT troop called Drew was instrumental in organising the casualties for the stretchers. Other troops had ushered the civilian climbers away from the danger zone as we were concerned another avalanche could come down. I seem to remember hearing later that the Scottish Avalanche Service had an observer in the area who counted 14 avalanches in the area that day.

Whilst all this was going on Davie Taylor had organised the second group to go in which included LMRT’s Andy Fowler and that group was bringing more folding stretchers. I believe the second group also included Cairngorm MRT members.

Wiggy rotated around the groups working on the five casualties and with poor weather making us wonder if a helicopter could get in and the seriousness of the injuries sustained by the buried climber there was real trepidation that we would have to carry him out, perhaps taking 2 or 3 hours, and his blood pressure would drop below a critical point on the way.

As always with a rescue and the adrenaline going, time seemed to take a back seat. I think it was around 30 or 40 minutes after we arrived that a Sea King approached through the snowfall and landed around 30 yards from us. You could feel the atmosphere change to a positive mood with the arrival of the helicopter and we now felt this guy had a good chance of making it. Morale soared.

Rescue 137 (ZE368) was captained by Robert Somerville and winchman Mick Lambert jumped out and immediately made his way towards the Scene Commander tabard of Steve Heaney.

For a full 45 minutes Rescue 137 sat on the ground while the troops continued to dig out Ian Twaddle and stabilise him with Philip Birch and the other 3 casualties stabilised and prepared for loading.

Eventually Ian Twaddle was ready to move and some two hours after the incident he was raised on the stretcher and loaded onto the helicopter. I secured him on board and as I did the look in his eyes told me he knew he had a chance now.

Swiftly the other four were loaded and I jumped out clutching my Snug Pak after Miles had been secured.

Rescue 137 took off in conditions that remained marginal; the crew had done a great job getting in. The casualties were on their way to Raigmore.

We gathered our kit (and also the casualties’) and set off for Coire Cas; with the adrenalin gone we were feeling the effects of our afternoon’s return visit to Coire an t-Sneachda. Needless to say there were few takers for the pub that night. As I remember it during the afternoon Bill Batson had arrived with more Leuchars troops and with continuing bad weather on the hills RCC Pitreavie was calling out teams for more jobs. The next day LMRT were requested to join another job in Glen Coe; I can’t remember if Bill agreed to send them over immediately but I headed back to Edinburgh and several other troops and wagons took off for Leuchars. Over the next 3 weeks the troops were continually called out and I seem to remember that elements of the team stayed on the road those 3 weeks and certainly the 4 tonners were away all that time.

Interviewed in hospital the casualties defended their actions in going on the hill in high avalanche conditions and insisted they were merely caught out by the weather. They would probably never know that LMRT troops had been standing at the foot of the Northern Corries looking up wondering why folk were on the hills on such a day.

4 months later I went to Alaska with Joe Wiggins, Phil Dyer and Kevin Taylor. After the exped I was away for 8 months. On my return to Scotland a friend said “you were on the telly last year and I videoed it”. It transpired that a BBC film crew had shadowed Rescue 137 for a few weeks and had jumped out on scene and started filming. We were not even aware of their presence. The images in this article are taken from that documentary.

Ian Mitchell (Mitch), Västerbotten, Sweden, 2 July 2022.

2 thoughts on “Coire an t-Sneachda Avalanche February 11, 1995 – Ian Mitchell (Mitch)

  1. Hi Danny,

    Many thanks for that. I don’t think you’ve ever had a millilitre of skulking in your blood ……mind you I remember your impatience with some who skulked at olympic level!

    All the best, Mitch

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