He's fallen spectacularly, rescued many and lives to tell the tales. Coming to the rescue as a volunteer member of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team, Mike Pescod is IFMGA guide, owner of Abacus Mountain Guides, and holds the highest worldwide qualification for instruction and guiding in rock and ice climbing, mountaineering and ski touring.
But Mike knows what it's like to fall - and has done so spectacularly. He tells us about the thrills and spills of rescue work - and the best kit for when the weather is brutal. He also has advice for skiers and snowboarders. Mainly, 'remember you are human'.
Q. How did you become a member of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team?
In 2004 the Lochaber MRT came to rescue me on Aonach Mor. I had a broken back, pelvis, ankle and a couple of ribs. It was a very difficult rescue in desperate winter conditions and one of the team members was seriously injured in the rescue. I was very well looked after and I made a full recovery but the whole experience made me want to be able to help out other people who find themselves in distress in the mountains. At a time when the number in the team was lower than required, they invited a few people to training days and to become probationary members. I was one of those asked to join and I was very happy to do so.
Q. How often are you ‘on call’?
We don’t have an on call system. If there is a full team call out, the people that are available will go along and help with the job. There are about 40 people in the team and usually we get enough for every job. All team members are volunteers and give up their time willingly but there is a limit to what we can each put in to rescues. Some people have very supportive employers who are able to let them go during work time. Others work shifts or projects and might get away during the day. I am not able to turn up on as many rescues as some other team members but, if I am out guiding, I might be in the area and able to go along and help out or at least, phone in to let the team leader know what conditions are like. The dedication of these guys is amazing but it’s also good craic. There’s plenty of banter and good humour which keeps things going when all you really want to do is go home.
Q. What was the total number you rescued, last winter? Many backcountry skiers/snowboarders?
The number of call outs each year is normally about 100 for the Lochaber team, give or take a few. This year, though, we got to 100 in August with four months of the year left. There have been a few big searches in this number and we still have two people unaccounted for after they did not return from their walks. It’s been a tough year and there seems to be a rising number of rescues each year. In the winter, we usually get fewer call outs but they tend to be more technical (falls on ice climbs and avalanches) and more difficult for the team. We don’t get many skiers or snowboarders. The ski patrollers are there for most of these and there are very few back country skiers who get caught out.
We do get fatalities. The number is small and varies widely each year. A couple of years ago there were three fatal avalanche accidents in Scotland, one of which was a skier, but this is very rare. All of these avalanches involved terrain traps, a gorge or channel that catches the avalanche debris instead of letting it spread out.
Q. Do many have safety kit such as transceivers, shovels, probes, airbags?
It seems like most backcountry skiers do have transceivers, shovels and probes. Airbags are far less common in Scotland. The problem here is not so much being buried, instead avalanches are more likely to cause trauma from hitting rocks and sweeping over crags. In a group of skiers, everyone should have transceivers, shovels and probes but it is more important to know what is beneath you and what the slide path might be in the event of an avalanche. Avoiding terrain traps is crucial.
Q. Guess it can get pretty brutal weatherwise in the Scottish mountains in the winter? What’s the best gear when it’s in the minuses?
I am very impressed by the gear Jottnar produces. It’s so comfortable and easy to wear and it performs brilliantly. The guys really know what they are doing. Polartec Neoshell is great stuff but it feels more like a soft shell fabric than a proper waterproof shell. When you first try it you think it will never be properly waterproof. But I’ve come home on absolutely soaking days after constant rain and 50mph winds to find I’m still dry underneath. The Alfar mid-layer is my favourite bit of clothing though. It’s neat, warm and keeps out anything the Scottish weather throws at you. There are a few team members who live in their Alfars permanently. Jottnar just released their third range of gear and it’s really good and colourful too.
Q. One piece of advice for backcountry skiers/snowboarders?
Remember you are human and it is really hard to make a call on the conditions alone without human factors blurring the decision making. It seems like human factors contribute to most accidents. Traps such as commitment (I’ve driven 200 miles to ski this and I’m not going home until I’ve done it); familiarity (I’ve done this ten times this winter, I know it backwards); and social proof (well they just jumped in so it will be fine for me). If we could all make cold decision based just on the snow, the weather and the conditions we’re experiencing we’d all be much safer.
Read more about Heuristic Traps, here.
Q. Can you describe an extreme mountain rescue that you were involved in?
This summer, I watched a couple of guys fall off an Alpine climb above me and come to a stop not far from where I was with my client John. We were climbing the East Spur of Bietschhorn, a beautiful mountain you see straight in front of you as you drive down from Zermatt. These guys had overtaken us moving quite fast and had got just off the crest of the spur where the quality of the rock was not so good. They were moving together. Alpine style. with about 10m of rope between them which they put over blocks and clipped into protection when they could. The second stood on a rock that was loose and he fell pulling the rope tight onto the leader. He could not hold it and they did not have an anchor clipped to the rope.
'When I looked up I saw them both falling'
They shouted and I thought it was just a rock fall but when I looked up I saw them both falling. It was a horrible, bouncing fall over jagged rocks.
One of them stopped on a slight ledge but the rope went tight when the other one carried on falling so he was pulled off again. They did this a few times, stopping on a ledge then being pulled off again by the other one. Eventually, they fell either side of a blunt spur and the rope caught them both.
Even though I was only 50m below them they had called for a rescue before I got there. One guy had cuts to his shins and hands but the other guy had a foot pointing backwards and he was in a lot of pain. There was not much I could do for them apart from get them into a place to make it easier for the helicopter to pick them up. I think they appreciated having someone there to tell them it would be OK and what to do. The helicopter rescue was amazing.
'The helicopter crew did the job in 40 minutes from when the fall happened'
They use fixed cables to lift paramedics to the site and to fly casualties and paramedics down to the valley, one at a time dangling 30m underneath the helicopter all the way!
This was a relatively very easy rescue to be involved with. The helicopter crew did the job in 40 minutes from when the fall happened. The weather was perfect and there was very little to do. However, the image of the two guys falling down the face of the mountain and knowing that they could very easily have fallen all the way to the bottom was quite sobering. On the climb up afterwards, John and I checked every hand and foot hold several times, just to make sure.
Q. Have you ever been in difficulties on the mountain and had to be rescued?
I’ve been in difficulties many times and managed to get myself out in one piece, thankfully. Some of the best days are those when you are tested the most and succeed. One of the most rewarding days I ever had was skiing from a mountain called Abniflue near Grindelwald down to the Hollandia Hut. This would normally take twenty minutes but we ended up there after fresh snow and in very bad visibility, navigating down the glacier all the way for two and a half hours, trying to avoid the avalanche hazard on one side and crevasses on the other. Finally, we saw the hut when we were less than 50m away from it! Not classic skiing (we snow-ploughed all the way!) but being up to the challenge in a very serious place was brilliant.
In 2004, I made a decision to do some ice climbing under building cornices on Aonach Mor.
Of course, the cornice collapsed and triggered an avalanche above me. I had climbed about 30m and I was placing anchors for a belay when it hit me and carried me all the way back to the bottom of the climb.
I broke T12, L2 and L3 in my back, my pelvis, my ankle and some ribs. The people I was with were brilliant and called 999 straight away. There were rescue team members very close at hand working at Nevis Range ski area and two of them came down Easy Gully to find me. A third team member went back to get some more equipment but was blown off the top of the crag and fell 100m.
'By this time the weather was terrible'
He was so lucky because he landed literally at the feet of the first two guys who were able to help him straight away. It took a couple of hours to get him on a stretcher and hauled up to the ski area so it was five hours before anyone came round to me. By this time the weather was terrible and it was a really difficult job getting me out, taking something like three hours.
In the Belford Hospital that night I was in a bed next to the guy who had been blown off the crag. We looked at each other and kind of shrugged 'well that’s how it goes sometimes'.
I was in hospital in Glasgow for nearly six weeks so I had plenty of time to analyse what went wrong. To start with I put it down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I was just unlucky. If I did exactly the same again, I thought, I would not get avalanched. It was just a 1 in 100 chance. But if that was the case, for every day I go climbing whether or not I come home is just down to luck. That’s no way to live and work. I can’t have the future of my career and my family reliant on good luck.
'The clear desire of my clients to climb this bit of ice'
So, instead, I looked at all the small decisions that led me to be there at that time - and there was a list of human factors that took me all the way there. I had a good plan at the start of the day that I should have stuck to but I changed the plan because of things like; meeting at Nevis Range and only discussing the plan on the gondola ride when we were committed to going up Aonach Mor; rescheduling the second day and, therefore, wanting to get a bit more out of this day; being new to guiding and the feeling that I had to deliver something special no matter what; the clear desire of my clients to climb this bit of ice; familiarity with the climb since I had climbed it a week previously. None of these things had anything to do with the snow in front of me which was clearly telling me not to climb the route.
'Human factors that lead us to make poor decisions'
More recently, with more and more experience, I am far more comfortable making decisions based on the conditions, even if that means my clients are disappointed. Having been guiding full time in Scotland for 15 years, I think I am better able to make good decisions more of the time, but you always have to focus on what you are doing and be very aware of the human factors that lead us to make poor decisions. You have to be able to say 'no, not today' even if someone else goes right past you and does it. That person might have just survived a 50:50 chance and be completely unaware of it.
Q What’s your personal favourite piece of kit?
My ice axes. There’s a great quote that “there’s more to ice climbing than climbing ice”. There is a lot of mountaineering to learn before you go ice climbing but it is mostly about confidence. You get really attached to your ice axes especially as they are the things you dangle off a long way above your last ice screw. What ever ice axes you have, you must believe they are the best in the world. And mine are!
Q. How do you ‘turn off’ back home after a rescue call out?
The rescue team fridge is always well stocked to help the wind down! But most of the time, going on a rescue call out is good fun. Getting a ride in the helicopter is great and helping someone in distress is quite rewarding. Occasionally the outcome of a rescue call out is not so good though. For me, once I understand what happened and how to avoid it, I can just store it as valuable experience to learn from and move on. Experience is made up of what you do, what you see and what you know – the more experience you have the better mountaineer you will be.
Mike Pescod is a member of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team based in Fort William, close to the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK (1344m/4409ft). He is also a member of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations and holds the highest worldwide qualification for instruction and guiding in rock and ice climbing, mountaineering and ski touring - and is owner of Fort William-based Abacus Mountain Guides. LMRT was set up in the late 1960s by local climbers to help fellow climbers in difficulty in the mountains of Lochaber and especially on Ben Nevis. The team is staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers, currently around 40 men and women of various ages from early twenties to early sixties.
Images: Mike Pescod/Tommy Kelly