Skye Mountain Rescue leader revisits dramatic Cuillin mission

The leader of the Skye Mountain Rescue team has commended team members for going “the extra mile” during a dramatic nine-hour evacuation on the Cuillin Ridge earlier this year.

Photo: Willie Urquhart/WHFP

In a recent conversation with the Free Press, Neil Urquhart (pictured) praised the dedication of the team during that exhausting mission in August, while reflecting on what had been a strange year for the group following a record-breaking 2019.

On 14th August, following reports from climbers of a possible rockfall in the Coire Ghrunnda area, 12 members of the Skye MRT were winched onto the Cuillin Ridge by the Stornoway Coastguard helicopter to perform a thorough search of the area. 

A few hours later, one of the team members found a male casualty unconscious and with serious injuries, having suffered a significant fall near Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn. 

A further four team members were then tasked with bringing up additional equipment and were flown as close as possible to the scene. 

The man was treated on scene by the Skye MRT medical officer, casualty carers and the coastguard paramedic before being secured in a stretcher and winched to the helicopter. 

The man, who was in a critical but stable condition, was flown to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary with the Skye MRT medical officer onboard. 

The incident lasted around nine hours.

Reflecting on the dramatic rescue, Neil told the Free Press: “The lad, who is making a great recovery by the way, was severely injured.

“When we arrived we had no expectations that he would survive at all. He had been unconscious for about four hours.

“We had two of our advanced first aiders there. Whether they could have coped on their own, I don’t know, but they did a great job until our team paramedic arrived and oversaw the man’s treatment after that.”

The rescue showed the slim margins between life and death.

Skye Mountain Rescue Team leader Neil Urquhart – pictured with fellow members Helen Urquhart, Richard McGuire, Hamish Martin and Hayley Wolcott

Neil added: “We were ready to give up searching as we thought it had been a false alarm. But the lads just persevered a bit longer and came across him — that was dedication when others might have switched off.

“That was before I was on scene — they thought let’s give it another sweep and they found him. I was really pleased that day as everyone went the extra mile.”

He added: “That will go down in the annals as one of the most successful rescues.”

While each rescue operation has to adapt to variables such as the weather, location, and the condition of the people affected, the threat of coronavirus has presented Skye MRT with another substantial challenge.

“In some cases those being rescued might not get the pain relief they require or it might be a much slower evacuation — because there would not be eight people around a stretcher. There would be fewer and at a distance from each other,” said Neil.

Although donning personal protective equipment in high winds and torrential rain has been nothing short of “horrible” for the team, Neil says the group have been determined to keep everyone safe.

“When we first started doing it I was sceptical of how it would work, but everyone has really stuck with it as they didn’t want to pass on the virus.

“We have had to disinfect everything we use, then leave it out for a few days before putting it away. 

“And no one is allowed in the base apart from three team leaders at any one time. People have to get changed in the car park which takes a lot longer.”

Assessing what has been a far quieter year for the team, Neil said: “In the central Highlands, the teams have been very busy and have been rescuing people who have gotten into difficulty because they haven’t got the experience and haven’t trained properly.

“We haven’t really seen that at all, which is strange. In terms of visitors, places like the Old Man of Storr have been just as busy as other summers, and we are still seeing people in unsuitable shoes and clothes, but there haven’t been the same number of accidents — I don’t know why that is.”

Commenting on what has been a frustrating period for the team, he said: “The training has been knocked on the head this year. We have some new people in the team, and they haven’t been able to meet all the other members, which is really important.”

He added: “Four years ago we were as low in numbers as I have ever known it, and quite a few of us were getting on in years as well — so we needed to recruit a few more.

“At the moment it is great. We have a lot of young, strong climbers, who are local climbers as well — most of them have grown up on the island and know the hills really well.

“We also have two highly qualified instructors who will be joining once they finish their probationary year, so we’ll have a really strong team.”