When its brutal in the Cairngorms, it can kill you

When its brutal in the Cairngorms, it can kill you

Just over 40 years ago, a teacher from Drumchapel in Glasgow joined a mountain rescue team frequently faced with some of the toughest terrain and weather conditions in Scotland.

Willie Anderson is brutally honest about his lack of abilities when he volunteered to join Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team.

He had been drawn to the Highlands by the beauty of its mountains, hills and glens and, though a keen hillwalker, he had no experience of the arctic-like conditions of a full Scottish winter high in the Cairngorms.

“I wasn’t a mountaineer,” he said. “I didn’t have the greatest of gear, it was old boots and old mitts. I think I was the worst mountaineer in the team at the time. I might have even been the worst in Scotland.”

But following hard training, Willie went on to be involved in more than 1,600 rescues and was team leader for 13 years, until standing down from the role this summer.

Willie, now 64, moved from Glasgow to the Highlands in 1978 to take up a technical studies teaching post at Kingussie High School.

He had been offered jobs at city schools but turned them down to work and live in the Cairngorms.

“I had been going to the hills with a mate of mine who worked as a shepherd,” said Willie.

“That was when I first saw the beauty of the Highlands, and thought I really wanted to live there.

“When the job came up at Kingussie in ’78 I moved up and have been here ever since. I joined the rescue team the following winter.”

Willie was inspired to volunteer after hearing stories told in the local pub by John Allan, Cairngorm’s leader for many years.

“It sounded exciting, the blizzards, the snow and the difficulty of carrying a stretcher,” said Willie.

John put Willie’s name forward to the team and he was accepted.

“At the time the hills were getting quite busy and rescue teams needed more members to keep up with demand,” Willie said.

Scottish mountain rescue was also undergoing changes at the time, with moves towards more formal training and set-ups.

“When I joined rescues were being done by gamekeepers and shepherds, anyone the police could get off the streets and muster,” Willie said.

“But the authorities were becoming aware that people were pushing the limits, going further into the hills and climbing harder, and there were more and more accidents. It was acknowledged rescue teams had to be more professional.”

While Willie did not lack any enthusiasm for mountain rescue, he admitted he did fall short in skills when he first volunteered.

He did not take part in a rescue until he had served an “apprenticeship” – training in navigation and the use of crampons and an ice axe. He also spent time with experienced climbers in winter conditions in the hills.

He can still vividly recall his first call-out following his probation.

It involved a military officer who had been night-time skiing on Braeriach, Britain’s third highest mountain, and had fallen after skiing off the edge of a mountain pass, the Lairig Ghru.

Willie said: “We went out the next day to look for him.

“It was a beautiful day and there were two aircraft involved, which was unusual but was due to him being in the military.

“We eventually found him. It was the first time I had seen a dead person.”

He said the hardest call-outs have involved the deaths of children and young students. A father himself, he said: “They’ve not done anything wrong. They are just trying to experience the great outdoors and improve their own personal life skills and then they have an accident.”

The reward for the team is the look of relief in the faces of those they manage to help from difficult situations.

Willie said: “They have looked the Grim Reaper in the eye and then the cavalry arrives. It’s a great feeling.”

But the Cairngorms can be unforgiving terrain – especially in winter when winds can reach gusts of 120mph – challenging even the most experienced mountaineers.

“At times it be can truly arctic,” said Willie. “People come here to train for arctic expeditions and for climbing the Himalayas.

“The wind is the thing. That really is the killer. It saps all your energy. It will blow you off your feet, and there have been times we have been on our hands and knees trying to get to people who are injured.

“When it is brutal it’s absolutely brutal and unfortunately it can kill you.”

Still, there are other times in the Cairngorms when Willie is reminded of why he moved to the Highlands.

“Some of the nights up there when it’s calm and crystal clear and the moon and the stars are out and you’ve got beautiful snow, it’s a winter wonderland.”

An interview with Willie Anderson can be heard on Sunday’s edition of Good Morning Scotland.

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