Forty-seven years ago today a remarkable story of avalanche survival occurred in Scotland’s Cairngorm mountains. Though the story did not end well for two hikers, one man survived a 22-hour burial. Yes, 22 hours under the snow.
On paper, whether seen on a map or photograph, the low elevations (~1200 to 1300 meters), rounded summits and broad shoulders of the Cairngorms don’t look all that mighty when compared to other great ranges of the world. The hardy Scots, in their understated ways, refer to the summits as “hills” and visiting climbers are “hill-walkers.” But the gentle appearance of these “hills” belies their true nature as one of the nastiest mountain ranges in the world. Tucked away on their flanks are deep and steep-cut corries (aka cirques) that hold snow, some places year round. To the north and east of the Cairngorms is the mighty North Sea that blows tempests across the exposed summits with as nasty weather as can be experienced anywhere in the world. Weather in the Cairgorms according to renowned Scottish mountain rescue expert Hammish MacInnes is the most dangerous factor for hill walkers, but the combination of steep slopes, snow, weak layers, and walkers sometimes unleashes the avalanche dragon.
The summits of the Cairngorm are as remote as summits can be in Scotland. Access is usually from the north or south. The south side approach is often via Braemar.
Just days after Christmas (1964) four young men walked followed the Lui Water to the Derry Lodge, a hunting lodge and home to the head keeper for the Mar Estate. The men were offered use of a brothy (small hut) if they kept it picked up. They readily agreed to the terms. Fresh snow had blanketed the summits on the 27th, but temperatures had stayed mild. By the 29th the weather was improving but it was still mild and muggy in the valleys. Likely skies were overcast as there had been no freeze overnight. After a quick conversation with the head-keeper, who warned them to watch out for the gullies, the four set out to “take a walk up Beinn a’Bhuird.” Their last words, “…we’ll be all right, it’s an easy climb.” Beinn a’Bhuird is the 11th highest of 277 Munro summits in Scotland. (Munro mountains are a list of hills/mountains over 3,000 feet in elevation and named after Sir Hugh Thomas Munro (1856–1919), who published a list of all such summits in the Journal of the Scottish Mountaineering Club for 1891.)
The Derry Lodge is a drainage removed from Beinn a’Bhuird, so the group would have had to climb over Beinn Bhreac or retraced their steps back to Mar Lodge. The later seems unlikely but that’s just my guess. Either way they eventually made good time and were starting up the slopes of Beinn a’Bhuird. But instead of avoiding a gully they climbed right up or across a gully as they aimed toward the South Top of Beinn a’Bhuird. At about 1430 hours they triggered a wet slab avalanche. One man dodged the moving snow, but his three friends were swept down and buried. The debris covered several hundred yards of the gully and he estimated it to be 10-11 feet deep. He searched and shouted for his friends but eventually had to give up, probably because the sun was setting fast. He took careful note of landmarks and left to get help at the Mar Lodge. He reached the lodge at 1750 hours, about two hours after dark. There he called the police station in nearby Braemar.
Back in the mid 1960s there was no formal rescue team in these parts, so the constable contacted his other colleague, and the pair rounded up a few locals who were always willing to help. Fortunately, one man, a farmer had a Land Rover so with six rescuers piled into a Land Rover they sped off into the night. Well, as much as they intended to, in those days a “speedy Land Rover” (especially a heavily loaded one) was an oxymoron. The men were lucky as they were able to drive very close to the bottom of the gully. MacInnes wrote this to be a “most unusual occurrence for Cairngorm rescues” compared to most rescues in the range.
Though having no training in avalanche rescue (or mountain rescue in general) the men thought to bring long bamboo poles to probe the snow. Surrounded by darkness but in the inky glow of their flashlights they started to randomly probe the debris. About 100 yards up from the toe, they found the first man buried under 3 feet of snow. He was dead. By now the stars had disappeared as clouds increased and their fading flashlights only offered a faint glow before going dark, also their frequent calls into the still and dark night went unanswered, they agreed there was no hope of finding anyone else that night. They made a plan to return at first light.
On their way back to the Land Rover they met the local doctor and told him of their effort. He confirmed the death of the one man. It was 0300 when the rescuers arrived back to the Land Rover.
After a late night the men returned along with a few more helpers, but it was closer to noon than first light. They likely felt no urgency as they anticipated the day’s grim challenge. The cut of the avalanche looked small on the mountain’s flank. The avalanche spilled into the narrow gully along the Alltan na Beinne, a stream that flows into the Quoich Water. From the cramped Land Rover (even if it was a Station Wagon model) the men slowly and stiff-legged climbed out of the rugged and rough riding off-road vehicle. As they puttered and bantered a temporary moment of quietness startled the men. They heard a yell, a yell for help. Stunned but recovering fast they quickly grabbed their equipment and raced to the debris. They passed the hole of the deceased man found the night before and followed the yells further up the slope. They passed the area where the reporting person had said the victims would have to be. They followed the sound to the top of a small iced-over waterfall. Just above they saw a white hand sticking out of the snow. It was moving!
Buried 22 hours under the snow they found 28-year-old Robert Burnett alive. The avalanche had pulled Burnett’s shirt and jacket up. Snow had melted and refrozen on his chest and back. His hands were bare, shredded and badly frostbitten. He had apparently been picking at the snow with his fingers for many, many hours. Carefully, his rescuers dug him free, loaded him onto a stretcher and carried him back to the Land Rover. He was driven to the Mar Lodge where they met an ambulance. From his hospital bed he criticized his rescuers for abandoning the search even though their flashlights died. Burnett eventually made a full recovery.
A few hours after Burnett was found the last man was located by random probe, 3 to 4 feet under the snow. Again he was detected with a bamboo probe. Sadly, lady luck was not on his side. Buried face down he likely died very soon after the avalanche.
The rescuers told MacInnes that they figured Burnett had been unconscious while they searched that night. That’s possible but I suspect another turn of events occurred based on interviews with some other long-time avalanche survivors. Burnett was likely totally buried, but shallowly as he was able to eventually get a hand out. He also likely heard the yells of the rescuers, but I don’t know this for sure. If he did, I am sure he yelled back, a lot. But if he could hear them, why couldn’t they hear Burnett?
The acoustic properties of snow are not unidirectional. What you can hear is all about how much ambient noise there is around the listener. Anyone who has spent time in a snow cave knows how easy it is to hear sounds from the outside. There is very little noise on the inside of a snow cave to mask outside sounds. However, for those on the outside where there are plenty of ambient noises to mask the quiet sounds emanating from under the snow, it can be very difficult and sometimes impossible to hear someone yelling from inside the snow cave unless you’re practically right on top of the snow cave. Also, avalanche survivors buried for any length of time lose track and sense of time. I suspect Burnett struggled and worked for many hours before he was able to get a hand to the surface. Unfortunately this likely occurred after his rescuers had left. By morning, however, he had enlarged his hole to where he could make himself easily heard. Of course he and the rescuers were lucky because the air was still and his voice carried.
No matter how or why Burnett was not heard or missed that night (I agree with MacInnes assessment that the rescue party made the right decision.), a simple but powerful fact remains: Burnett survived! And he survived for 22 hours. Such cases are rare but they do occur. Ten years ago in the US two avalanche victims survived burials of 23 and 24 hours. Two winters ago in Switzerland a solo skier survived a 17-hour burial. From this accident and others like it — no matter if 47 years ago or two years ago — a compelling conclusion can be drawn: no rescue should be abandoned prematurely on the assumption that the victim could not possibly be alive. For even after hours, some victims have been found alive, and no avalanche victim should ever be denied this small chance at life.
By the way, you can read more about this accident in The Mammoth Book of Mountain Disasters (2003), edited by Hamish MacInnes.
Thanks for reading.