The Uig Hills seen from Ardroil
The Uig Hills seen from Ardroil

Helicopter Rescue in the Hebrides

A routine walk on the Isle of Lewis turned into a terrifying experience for Peter Edwards and some visiting friends when one of them fell 200ft off a cliff. It could have been a fatal accident, but for the commitment and bravery of the emergency services.

Four years ago my wife Fiona and I bought a house on the Isle of Harris, which we've been steadily 'doing-up' during the autumn and winter months. The Outer Hebrides have become an increasingly popular destination for visitors from all over the UK, Europe and further afield; unsurprisingly, a fair few of our friends have been repeat guests since we've been here. Many are also keen walkers and we love taking them to explore our favourite places. One of our most frequently visited areas is Uig in south-west Lewis; a region of austerely beautiful rocky hill country and rugged coastline, garlanded with several of Earth's most beautiful beaches.

A favourite walk of ours is to head south along the coast from the road end beyond Brèinis; the last settlement on the west coast until you reach Huisinish on Harris, which would require several very demanding days to reach on foot. The terrain is rough with only vague stretches of trodden path, but the land and seascapes are sublime with views across to Eilean Mhealasta, Scarp and, eventually, the mountains and coastline of west Harris. Inland the boulder-strewn summits of the Uig Hills rise above treeless glens that tumble down to the sea.

The sea cliffs resemble a mouthful of broken teeth; angular slabs of Lewisian gneiss and jagged sea-girt stacks.

On a cold, clear morning in March we came to walk along the coast here with Andy and Giulia, old friends who've been regular visitors in recent years. The plan was to wander along the coast for a few miles, have a packed lunch and wander back before hitting one of the beaches or perhaps visiting the clifftop bothy at Screaming Geo near Mangersta.

Brèinis is a 75-minute drive from where we stay on Harris so in order to have enough daylight we'd jammed people, rucksacks, boots, dogs, walking poles, binoculars etc into the cars in some haste. Only when we'd arrived at the road end did we discover we'd forgotten the dogs' leashes. We knew from experience that there was little chance there would still be sheep out on the hill at this time of year, but we erred on the side of caution and used the dogs' seat belts as short leads until we were certain there was no stock around. As we sorted ourselves out with boots, gaiters and rucksacks a couple with a small boy emerged from their campervan parked just off the road near the small parking area at road end and also set about kitting up for an excursion.

It really was a beautiful morning with sharp, clear light and the softest of breezes. Team spirit was good as we set off, following the vague trodden paths. The dogs' seatbelt 'leads' were pretty uncomfortable and it was a relief to let them off once we were sure there were no sheep anywhere. There are a few wee ups-and-downs, but the biggest challenge with the walking here is the calf-length heather, which makes for tough going if there's no path to follow. A short distance along the route there are a couple of places where the path runs very close to sheer drops. Having walked this way many times these places are very familiar to us so we warned our companions to stay back from the edge as necessary.

The north side of a sheer-sided inlet named Staca Geodha (so-called for the twin stacks harboured in its depths) is formed by a slab of rock, which appears to be an igneous dike. The path follows this slab to the very narrow head of the geo (a long, narrow, steep-sided cleft formed by erosion in coastal cliffs) at which point it is easy to step down from it and carry on above the geo safely. Previously I'd always waited on the slab to point out to our company that they should continue to the end of the slab before stepping down, but on this occasion I was distracted by one of our dogs who was too close to the far edge of the geo for my liking. I strode on and issued Dougal with terse orders to get away from the edge. Fiona was a few paces behind me.

Time slows down

The particular pitch and depth of Giulia's scream made me swing round. I turned quickly enough to witness the blur of Andy tumbling backwards into Staca Geodha. Time slowed down then sped up and a sick feeling that l'll never forget took hold of me. I tore off my pack as I ran, Fiona on my heels.

I knew Andy was dead; the alternative was equally bleak. What these moments must have been like for Giulia I can only guess.

From the head of the geo Andy's motionless form was visible some 200 feet below. His head and back visible between large boulders. A curious lull seemed to have settled on us as we stood looking down until the silence was broken by a low moaning from the depths of the geo that offered no reassurance whatsoever about Andy's condition. We needed to act and suddenly it seemed there was too little time. We fumbled with phones: no signal 'How about you?'. 'No signal'. We quickly decided that Fiona should run back to the car, taking the dogs, and if she still had no signal she'd drive to the nearest house to phone the emergency services; it was clear that the only way Andy was getting out of the geo was by helicopter. I moved uphill trying again and again for a signal. Nothing. It seemed unlikely there would be any signal until I cleared the ridge above us, which was not an option as Fiona would be at the car in 15 minutes.

I rejoined Giulia at the head of the geo; there was a quietness and economy of movement about her that if I'd not been so preoccupied I might have recognised as shock. I began shouting down the geo 'Andy!'. After the second or third time there came a rueful reply as if he were abashed at having been so inconsiderate as to have fallen 200 feet off a cliff. I can no longer remember if there was any surprise or indeed relief to know that Andy was, miraculously – and I do not say this lightly – still alive. I could see that his habitual forage cap was gone and that the back and side of his face were slick with blood. Reflexively, with no consideration as to how we'd all process the information if his answer was in the negative, I called down to Andy again: 'Andy, can you feel your legs'. This may well have been the wrong thing to do, but the relief was visceral when in a dazed voice Andy replied, 'Yes! Yes, I can feel my legs'. I still feel emotional writing this now.

A need to act

I didn't want Andy to be down there on his own. We didn't know how badly he was injured. Was he at risk from internal injuries, haemorrhaging – might he bleed to death while we were waiting for help? I had an overpowering need to act, at least in part because I was judging myself. 'Are you doing all you can? What are you doing to try to help your friend?'.

I looked into the geo: from the head of the gully it seemed it might just about be possible to scramble down to Andy. A few tentative moves down and it was clear that the likelier outcome was that I would become a further casualty. There was also a serious risk of dislodging rocks down on to Andy below.

Not being able to do anything was unbearable. Fiona would have got back to the car by now. When would the rescue helicopter arrive? I gave Giulia my red waterproof jacket and told her to wave it vigorously should a helicopter approach, then set off back towards the road end to see if I could find out what was happening.

I was half way back when I saw a tall, slim man striding towards me; this was Rob, who had been about to set off for a walk with his partner and wee boy when a distressed Fiona had arrived back at road end. In a stroke of good fortune both Rob and Imogen are first aiders with mountain rescue experience. Rob, it also transpired, is a rock climber. Identifying the grid reference for Staca Geodha on the OS map they were able to give the emergency services phone operator a good account of the location from Fiona's description as well as an estimate of wind speed and direction. Rob had then headed out to find us, equipped with a small first aid kit.

Once back at Staca Geodha I was amazed and alarmed when Rob looked into the geo and said he thought there'd be a way down: it seemed clear to me that Andy had taken the only available route down.

Having offered Giulia some reassurance, Rob strode over to the north side of the geo and just like that located another gully running down to the bottom from behind a rocky bluff. In my disoriented state, I'd failed to even think of looking there. Though steep and rocky, this gully looked manageable. Rob descended first, and once there was no danger of dislodging rocks onto him, I followed.

It was okay, although not somewhere I'd choose to climb down for fun. At the bottom we had to negotiate some large, slippery boulders and climb up a little way to reach Andy. I was scared of what we'd find. How badly hurt was Andy? It has to be said that he wasn't looking his absolute best; he'd lost his glasses and what you could see of his face was a yellowy-grey colour, although this was largely obscured by dried and congealing blood from a large gash across his scalp. He was obviously in some pain but glad to see us. I was struggling to keep it together. Rob, by contrast, was brilliant. He chatted away to Andy and I could see that he was assessing his lucidity and coherence. We applied a compression dressing to the head wound with a bandage and held it in place with a beanie hat. Rob chatted on to Andy companionably, putting him at his ease to some extent.

Sense of responsibility

Time passed and still no sign of a helicopter. When thinking rationally, anyone appreciates how long it takes for a helicopter crew to be scrambled, kitted up, briefed, mechanical, equipment and safety checks, but my capacity for rational thought was compromised by a strong sense of responsibility for Andy's predicament. I couldn't bear standing around so after a while I asked if Rob was happy staying with Andy and I climbed back out and jogged back to the road end.

As I approached, I could see a police car and as I got closer I could see that Fiona was agitated and distressed by my appearance. It wasn't until I reached her that I realised she had had no way of knowing that Andy was still alive and not catastrophically injured. Poor Fiona was mightily relieved. The police officers said that the Stornoway Coastguard Search and Rescue helicopter was on the way. Sure enough, as I headed back to Staca Geodha once again, there came the steady thudding beat of rotors echoing off the steep rocky flank of Griomabhal as the helicopter came into view, making a beeline for Staca Geodha.

As I drew closer, I could see that the helicopter was hovering just above the top of the geo.

The noise and downdraft from the rotors was almost as impressive as the sight of this enormous red and white beast making delicate, kestrel-like adjustments to hang seemingly weightless in the air.

By the time I got to the top of the geo I could see that one of the crew had already been winched down and was with Andy and Rob. The helicopter had backed off so I shouted down and asked if they could use further hands. The answer was a yes and I climbed back down.

Winchman paramedic, Norman 'Nam' Macleod, is one of those people who exude calm and professional competence, which is just what you need when you're 200 feet down a geo with a badly hurt casualty. By the time I arrived, Nam had made an assessment of Andy's condition and also fitted a neck brace. As well as the head wound, it seemed that he'd sustained some broken ribs, his right shoulder was painful, although it appeared not to be broken. All things considered it seemed Andy had got off incredibly lightly, although it was apparent that he might have further injuries. Under Nam's guidance, as steadily and gently as we could, the three of us manoeuvred Andy into a compression bag on the titanium stretcher that had been winched down with Nam. A belay rope was attached to the stretcher to stop it swinging about too much because of the downdraft from the rotors in the narrow, steep-sided geo when it was winched up. Nam signalled to the pilot, the helicopter took up position above us and the winch line was sent back down. After clipping the line to cables on the stretcher then clipping on himself, Nam signalled to be winched up as Rob belayed. Andy later recalled that this was one of the most uncomfortable parts of the whole experience as the downdraft made it difficult for him to breathe.

Having watched the helicopter fly up and away, Rob and I gathered bits and pieces of Andy's kit thrown out of his rucksack and scattered around the gully. Remarkably Rob even found his undamaged glasses. Once back up we gathered in Giulia who had endured the whole episode almost entirely alone – something I'm acutely aware of as I write this now.

Enormously fortunate

We headed back out to the road end and were met on the way by the Hebrides MRT who were coming out to collect us. Although Andy was already on his way to hospital it was heartening to see them.

Nothing says you care like giving up your evenings and weekends to help save people's lives in challenging environments.

The team had actually been out training when they received a call diverting them to Brèinis to assist. A situation like this shows exactly why the ongoing training MRT volunteers receive is indispensable. If the Coastguard Rescue helicopter had been unable to get Andy out of what was a very difficult spot it would have fallen to the Heb MRT to do so. It transpires that it was enormously fortunate that he was indeed winched out of the geo.

Back at road end, everyone was relieved to learn that Andy had been evacuated as there had been doubt as to whether it would be possible. After Giulia and I were questioned considerately by the police officers we thanked them and the MRT members and set off for the Western Isles General Hospital in Stornoway where Andy had been taken.

During the drive to Stornoway we were all a bit subdued and Giulia in particular seemed stunned by the whole ordeal. I was also anxious about other injuries Andy might have sustained.

Arriving at A&E, we sat in the waiting area for a while before one of the reception staff called us into a separate room. We were offered tea and biscuits and told that the duty doctor would be coming to talk to us. Glances were exchanged: this looked like bad news. Dr Tom Mallinson arrived and put us at our ease with his calm, reassuring manner before explaining and describing the nature of Andy's injuries as detected in a series of scans. As well as the obvious head wound and broken ribs, he had sustained a small fracture to his skull behind the left ear and he had fractured his sternum (breastbone). However, the 'significant' injury, as Dr Tom put it, was a comprehensively fractured thoracic vertebra. Even a loose general understanding of anatomy and physiology would flag this up as really bad news.

We were taken to see Andy, still in his compression bag, in the A&E ward. It was clear that Andy wasn't really up for feeling sorry for himself and that, it has to be said, was a great help for everyone around him.

The next day, we visited Andy in the morning as the decision had been made to airlift him to the spinal injuries unit at Glasgow's Southern General Hospital that afternoon. While we were there an orthopaedic surgeon, who had seen the aerial photos taken from Rescue 948, came by to put on record his amazement that Andy was still with us at all. A view repeated by the man who took those photos, James Lyne, R948's winchman that day. 'As we approached the cliffs we could see Andy at the bottom My first thought was that he would have to have been incredibly lucky to survive a fall like that', he says.

We waited to see Andy packed up and loaded onto the air ambulance before heading back to Harris. At this point the view was that Andy would be operated on to remove several bone splinters from the shattered vertebra and he would remain immobile for six weeks for the vertebrae to heal. A daunting prospect, although infinitely preferable to the alternative.

However, in Glasgow a decision was made to insert metal bars through the contiguous vertebrae to support the broken one, though there was a delay of several days before this could happen as Andy's heart muscle had been bruised when his sternum was fractured. Anxious times for everyone.

The procedure was a complete success and to our amazement Andy was helped to get up and move around in the days after his operation. Even more remarkably, within a couple of weeks, Andy was packed off home to London and placed in the care of Whipps Cross Hospital as an outpatient.

It was while attending an outpatient appointment there that Andy was told by his consultant that one of the bone fragments had been within millimetres of piercing his aorta and that another had come within millimetres of his spinal cord. With this news came the realisation that merely lifting Andy from the boulders into the stretcher could conceivably have paralysed him. Had it not been possible to winch him out of the geo, how much more vulnerable would he have been to this happening?

Andy with Fiona, Giulia and Dougal
Andy with Fiona, Giulia and Dougal

Andy was back to work a few weeks later and has recently been back with Giulia to visit us on Harris. He is moving freely and there is no apparent physical indication of what he's been through. There is however a subtle change in Andy's approach to life: he's a man very much aware of how close he came to losing his life that day and, for him, each new day is a gift he'll not be taking for granted.

What ifs

My motivation for writing this article is twofold. In part it is to make the often-repeated point about taking care and minimising risks even if you're just going for a stroll along the coast. I've been over the 'what-ifs' many times and it seems to me that had we not forgotten the dogs' leashes the whole episode would likely not have happened. I felt the dread terror of responsibility when Andy fell and this only abated as his remarkable survival and incredible recovery unfolded. If he'd died or suffered catastrophic injuries I don't think Giulia, Fiona or I would have ever got over this completely either. It would be tough to carry around.

My primary motivation, however, is to highlight the impressive professionalism, skill and care of the emergency services who rescued Andy, treated him and cared for him throughout his ordeal and his recovery. If you should slip and break an ankle out in the mountains, or become stranded in atrocious weather, or get into trouble at sea then you do have a fighting chance because of the commitment of these people to help those in distress. We also owe it to those professionals and volunteers alike not to put them in harm's way by taking unnecessary risks, by being ill-equipped and under-prepared for the environments we go out into – and I understand this very keenly. I owe them my ongoing ability to sleep soundly at night.

Scottish Mountain Rescue and Mountain Rescue England and Wales are charitable organisations and entirely voluntary services, reliant on public support. Following in the steps of Peter, Cicerone Press will be making its own charitable donation to the Hebridean Mountain Rescue team.

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