“Skinny Bill”

I learned afterwards that the conversation went something like this: “Jim, take this young loon out and give him a good day and let’s see if he’s as good as he reckons he is.” “Right, Sunshine… we’ll sort the little bastard out!” So, off we went – to Skye. To Cioch Direct. In big boots. With rucksacks. In the rain.

Thinking that this would be ‘just another day’, I followed Cheeky and Jim up into Coire Lagan from MacRae’s barn in Glen Brittle, carrying a huge rucksack (this was the norm), with only mild apprehension to deter me from the promised adventure. Of course it turned out to be far from just another day. It was my first day on the team for starters. Previously, I’d only climbed “Severe” in sticky boots (we called them P.A.’s then) and never with a rucksack. To cap it all, I was terrified of Jim and Cheeky. F**k me, they looked and talked hard). This would be an adventure.

What I didn’t expect was for Jim to fall off. Somewhere near the top of the route, leading up a corner and making quite good progress (or so it seemed), Jim suddenly departed company with the rock and came clattering back down to where Cheeky was belaying and I was stood gawping, wondering what the hell was going on. Luckily he suffered no more than a twisted ankle and we finished the route (with Jim still doing all the leading — yes, he is ‘kin hard), arriving safely back in Glen Brittle in time for the pub run to Sconser (it was the only pub open in those days). And so began an MR career that was to continue, unchecked for the next 26 years.

Ray “Sunshine” Sefton was the Team Leader and Don Shanks his DTL. It seemed everyone had nicknames then — Smudge, Prep, Gringo, Mitch, Cheeky, et al. And so I became Hadrian (because I had climbed Hadrian’s Wall on the Ben before joining the team). Fortunately, it didn’t stick and I pretty soon became plain old “Skinny Bill.” We drove to basecamps in petrol‑driven Land Rovers (“In the back, Nov”) and fire‑breathing “RL’s.” We slept in tents (OK, not all the time…) and we learned to keep our mouths shut. We walked, we climbed, and we drank — lots. Fitness and climbing ability developed slowly, the ability to drink never quite did.

Fast forward for a couple of years and I’m married (in the finest of traditions, I met my wife‑to‑be at an MR “do” one drunken night), I’m a Kinloss Party Leader and life is good. Then my brother John took a huge 200ft lead fall while we were attempting Point Five gully one New Year’s Eve. Standing on the belay, head bowed against the spindrift, the rope suddenly landed in a pile at my feet. I didn’t get it at first. John was 10 feet out in space when he appeared, as if in slow motion, to a point where he was level with me then suddenly, he was gone. Down. Like a bullet. He hit hard, ricocheting off a rock rib before slamming into the snow apron below the route. I thought he was dead, but he wasn’t. Abseil, climb, jump, shout for help, call for helicopter. Helicopter arrives. Mick Anderson is the winchie, flash of recognition through the confusion. Helicopter lands, ambulance, hospital. Over. Phone home and tell parents that their son is in hospital, badly injured but alive. Too shattered to drink. Sleep. Happy New Year.

Pretty soon I’m DTL at Kinloss, taking over from Terry Moore — a hard act to follow. Kas Taylor is my Team Leader and I am the sorcerer’s apprentice. Climbing with the likes of “Chalky” White, Andy “Pigpen” Watkins and, of course, Al McLeod. We lived for the moment and bagged some great routes, both at home and further afield. Various trips to the Alps produced varied results, some good, some not so good. Two incredible days spent on Mont Blanc’s Brenva Face climbing Route Major with Al provided the high that we were all seeking. Witnessing four people being killed in an avalanche on Mont Maudit provided a sobering reminder of our own mortality and the risks we choose to take. Still, what better place to take those risks than in the mountains with such great friends?

So off we go to the Himalayas, to have a go at Shivling, aka Shiva’s Penis. Standing high and proud above Tapovan base camp, the Matterhorn of the Himalayas was sure pleased to see us! Andy Watkins, Al McLeod, Jim Morning, Nick Sharpe, Nev Taylor, and Skinny Bill. Five days up, two days down, by the South‑East Ridge – it’s a first British ascent. Hard Very Severe climbing at 20,000 ft, with a 21,500 foot fairy‑tale summit — a cheeky little number. Nick and Al reached the top first (having first fixed ropes for us lesser mortals), returning after dark to the bivi ledge. Watching the two tiny specks of light descending the headwall I hear a loud cry and suddenly one of the lights is plummeting into the void. Dry mouthed and head reeling with what I think I’ve just witnessed; I shout into the darkness. Finally, a reply, “It’s Nick. He’s dropped his head‑torch!” Relief. The next day the rest of us top out. Two days and twenty‑six abseils later we’re back at base camp eating freshly baked bread. Sometimes life can be finger‑licking good.

I had passed my team leader’s course the previous year, 1985, and pretty soon after was posted south to my first Team Leader (TL) post. Linton on Ouse was serving as a temporary home to Leeming MRT, while the team’s parent station was effectively being rebuilt in preparation for the arrival of the F3 Tornado. The station rebuild also included an all‑new MR section, and it was while we were celebrating the grand opening of the new section that the terrorist bomb exploded on Pan Am Flight 103 as it flew north over Lockerbie.

Memories, flash‑backs, call them what you will, a host of images from that first night remain. A fire hose lying unattended and writhing like some great serpent, casually spouting precious water into the street forming great, useless puddles, when we knew the water supply had been damaged. Sherwood Crescent, or what was left of it, burning. A 747 engine, almost intact, driven deep into a tarmac road close by the impact, only feet from a group of houses, all occupied. The fleet of yellow council transit vans, waiting patiently for the bodies to be brought in by the helicopters, moving off one at a time like some surreal taxi rank, to carry their silent passengers to the Town Hall. You need a lot of space for 250 bodies. Difficult times indeed. The Troops, as ever, were magnificent.

Compared to Lockerbie, the 737 on the M1 at Kegworth was a breeze. Once again the Troops did great. The Stafford Troops, arriving well ahead of the Leeming gang, did a tremendous job, bringing their mountain rescue skills to the very edge of suburbia, helping to save a number of lives in the process.

From Leeming to Lossiemouth, from Lossiemouth to Kathmandu. I broached the subject of my spending four months away on my second British Services Everest Expedition with my new boss during our arrival chat. He wasn’t impressed. Personally, I thought it was great. So off I went. Some pretty intense days spent finding a route through the Khumbu Ice Fall were rewarded when we finally made it through to the Western Cwm. By pure good luck, I bagged the final pitch that took us up and out of the frozen mayhem of the icefall into the awe inspiring beauty and heat of the Cwm, and for some twenty minutes I had it all to myself. Totally alone and insignificant in this valley of my childhood dreams, in the very heart of the world’s greatest mountains, I cried. Tears of relief, of sadness, of joy, tears for Al, lost on the Matterhorn, tears for my brother, disabled after the fall on the Ben, tears for my father, dead at 38, never to see his children become adults. Tears of joy also, and an overwhelming happiness at being alive. I would wish these moments on everyone.

Of course, we didn’t get to the top, but that’s another story.


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