Published: 09/12/2013 15:47 - Updated: 09/12/2013 16:53

A winter wilder than most

Written byPeter Evans

Among the contributors to the programme is Mark Diggins, senior forecaster at the Sport Scotland Avalanche information service, takes part in the programme.
Among the contributors to the programme is Mark Diggins, senior forecaster at the Sport Scotland Avalanche information service, takes part in the programme.

IT'S one of the longest, coldest and snowiest winters in Scotland and the weather is closing in on the Cairngorms. The ski runs on Cairn Gorm are being shut down early on February 10 when Iain Cornfoot, head of the ski patrol and a mountain rescue team member, is made aware of a call to the police.

A group of seven walkers returning to the ski centre to escape the developing storm see one of their party fall through a cornice and out of sight. The remaining six call the rescue services.

The drama, and tragedy, that unfolded over the next 48 hours is told in a BBC documentary due to be broadcast on Wednesday. One Wild Winter in the Scottish Mountains focuses on the winter of 2012-13, when the hills were in the grip of an icy blast for months that refused to abate due to unusual atmospheric conditions.

The programme explores the passion, pain and science of winter in the Scottish mountains, delving into the causes of avalanches and how to avoid them, with some amazing footage from an avalanche survivor.

But above all it is the human stories of those who lost their lives last winter that stand out in this revealing documentary.

The Cairngorms walker who fell through the cornice survived unharmed, but his friends were left on the mountain and not faring so well.

"If you're up there in gales of over 100 mph you're crawling. It feels like the air is being sucked out of you. Everything becomes much harder – your hands are freezing up, you can't work a compass properly and the weather is just getting worse and worse. It's scary, and a really quite belittling place to be when it's like that," explains Cairngorm rescue team member Simon Steer.

Led by Al Gilmour, a rescue party set off to look for the walkers in the thick of what, by now, is a blizzard, with fierce winds making progress difficult and a windchill factor of minus 30.

After hours of searching Gilmour reluctantly decides it's time for his party to head back, concerned for their own safety.

"It was difficult going home at 5 o'clock in the morning and trying to get a couple of hours' sleep, knowing that you were the last person who spoke to them," says Cornfoot.

Next morning the search was intensified with support from other mountain rescue teams, bringing the number of people on the ground to around 150, along with two helicopters.

As midday approached an RAF helicopter crew received a crucial lead. Members of the Braemar rescue team spotted footprints leading to an area that had not been searched.

The pilot flew to the location and found the missing walkers, who were taken back to the Cairn Gorm rescue base. Emotionally and physically drained, they had covered a huge distance during the night and somehow survived.

Says Steer: "They thought they were having a wee chat with the Grim Reaper, then all of a sudden they're in a warm base, realising they've got quite a bit more of a future than they thought they had. They're very happy teddies, and it's nice for us to be able to do that."

Gilmour, who admits he was surprised the walkers were still alive, says: "It was a huge battle with a very small amount of food.

"They must have been cold, they must have been wet. It's amazing what we can put up with if our brains let us and if we're determined enough." But it wasn't an entirely happy ending. Graham Connell, ironically the most experienced mountaineer in the party, was killed when he slipped and fell in Coire an t-Sneachda.

In a moving tribute to him his friend Richard Holowka, close to tears, says: "He had a brilliant sense of humour. He seemed to have an inordinate ability to put up with suffering.

"If it had been a long day and his feet were hurting, he was wet and soaking cold, he still had a grin on his face. I'm really going to miss that – he was such a likeable chap."

This film is unmissable for anyone who loves the Scottish mountains. It should go some way to making us all that little bit safer when we venture out this winter.

One Wild Winter in the Scottish Mountains will be screened on BBC 1 Scotland at 9pm on Dec 11.

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Inspiring stories behind the numbers

In the summer I took part in the Highland Cross for the first time, running 20 miles and cycling 30 miles in a coast-to-coast duathlon about to enter its 32nd year, writes John Davidson.

Over that time the Cross has raised £3.6 million for charities across the north of Scotland which help social and medical causes. In the last three years, 250 teams of three people have raised more than £225,000 each year to support a range of worthwhile organisations.

Last week I was privileged to be invited to the handover of funds – all £226,086 of them – to this year's charities. Among the donations was a minibus and trailer for the Cantraybridge College and you can see from the emotions of the people representing the charity what a huge difference they will make to the work it does.

It was an inspiring evening listening to the hard work and commitment of so many people whose dedication helps many others across the region.

John Fraser, the event's treasurer, said: "Since the start of the Cross in 1983 the philosophy has been to ensure that every penny of sponsorship raised goes to Highland charities. We believe that sponsors, helpers, competitors and everyone associated with the event appreciates this when fundraising for the Highland Cross."

Calum Munro, organising secretary and co-founder of the Cross, said: "With the 31st staging of the Highland Cross brought to this wonderful conclusion we are now planning for the 32nd anniversary event on June 21st 2014.

"The Cross exists to raise money for medical and social causes in the north of Scotland and, with the continued efforts of the fantastic community of sponsors, volunteers and supportive organisation that creates the Highland Cross, we look forward to supporting yet more hard-working causes next year."

The charities to receive donations at last week's handover event, held at VW Hawco in Inverness, were:

• The Cantraybridge College: Minibus and trailer to support community projects and social enterprise network.

• The Calman Trust: Refrigerated catering support vehicle for use in work to train young people towards employment opportunities.

• CCAST: People carrier to extend housing support and community work in Ross-shire and Sutherland.

• Dingwall Puffin Pool: £40,000 towards wood-burning heating system to improve sustainability and help keep user costs low.

• Lucky2BHere: £35,000 for equipment and training to enable more communities to have defibrillators and know how to use them in an emergency.

• Seaforth House, Maryburgh: £40,000 towards wood-burning heating system for respite centre.

It was wonderful to see first-hand the difference the Highland Cross is making every year across the north of Scotland. Next year's event is already oversubscribed and is likely to bring in another huge amount to help more charities like these which are doing so much good work in our communities.

I hope I am able to participate again in 2014 and play my tiny part in this amazing Highland success story.

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