The Sunday Post (Newcastle)

An Everest climb, 1,000mountai­n call-outs and the hunt for air crash survivors: Honour hails courage of intrepid rescuer

Adventurer reveals the trauma and tragedy of rescues in the Scots mountains where he now finds peace

- By Fiona Russell

David Whalley, one of the UK’s most experience­d mountain rescue experts, is chatty and engaging. He hardly seems to draw breath as he recalls his life and work over seven decades, including 37 years with the RAF Mountain Rescue Service.

Numerous stories of “great adventures” worldwide – including 30 trips to the Alps, climbing in the Falklands, Canada, Alaska and the Himalaya, as well as being a key member of the successful 2001 Everest North Ridge Expedition – are peppered with tales of Scottish mountain incidents, rescues and tragedies.

David, known to friends by his nickname “Heavy”, was involved in more than 1,000 mountain call-outs and 80 aircraft incidents in mountainou­s areas.

This included being senior team leader at the Lockerbie Disaster in December 1988 as 270 victims lost their lives when Pan Am flight 103 crashed in the town in the terrorist attack. He was also involved in the hunt for survivors when a Chinook helicopter crashed on Mull of Kintyre in 1994 and the four RAF crew and 25 terrorism experts were killed.

He was team leader at RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss and deputy team leader at RAF Valley in North Wales. Latterly, he worked in the Aeronautic­al

Rescue Co-ordination Centre at RAF Kinloss.

After leaving the RAF, David served with the Torridon and Kinlochewe Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) for three years until he retired. He is also president of the Search and Rescue Dog Associatio­n Scotland.

His courage and sacrifices have been recognised with honours, including a BEM, an MBE and a Distinguis­hed Service Award for Service to Mountain Rescue.

Earlier this year, he was named 2023 winner of the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture at the Fort William Mountain Festival. The 16th recipient of the accolade that celebrates achievemen­t, accomplish­ment and the spirit of adventure in the outdoors, David joins previous esteemed winners including the late climber Hamish MacInnes, founder of Glencoe MRT; celebrated mountainee­r and writer Dr Hamish Brown; writer, presenter and Scots Magazine columnist Cameron McNeish; adventurer Karen Darke; and photograph­er Colin Prior.

While clearly proud of his career, David is modest and selfdeprec­ating. He says he is “not really into awards”, although he quickly adds: “Of all of them, the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture is lovely to have. I am humbled and honoured to be named in the same group as the past winners.”

He continues: “I loved my job and gained a lot of satisfacti­on from being in mountain rescue. It was a career I was drawn to from a

It was hard – very hard – at times. Not every incident is a rescue. As a rescue team, we had to face the trauma of death

David Whalley on Sgor an Lochain Uaine in the Cairngorms and, left, enjoying peace in the mountains.

young age, although at first I was told I was too wee and skinny to join the RAF.”

He laughs at this memory, then says: “I didn’t want to work in an office. From childhood, as the youngest child of parents who liked to walk in Scotland, I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors.

“It could be thrilling being involved in mountain incidents, too, and it is always heartening to be able to help other people. Being in charge of a team also gave me confidence in myself and made me a better leader.

“And I’ve been able to use my skills as a good communicat­or. I learned from my dad who was a church minister in Ayr. He was very good at talking to people.

“My work also took me to many incredible places, including while training and on expedition­s.”

In addition, David has enjoyed being in demand as a guest speaker and lecturer on topics close this heart and he has kept a popular blog since 2011.

However, rescue work can be challengin­g. “Being involved in mountain incidents and tragedies was all part of the role, but it was hard – very hard – at times. Not every incident is a rescue. No one survived the Lockerbie tragedy, for example.

“As a rescue team, we had to face the trauma of death. Back then, people didn’t talk of post-traumatic stress disorder. The men in my team told me of nightmares and not being able to sleep. They didn’t want to tell their wives. The Lockerbie crash affected me badly, too. I was quite ill and suffered depression, anger and insomnia. I turned to drink for a while.

“What got me through was being able to escape on my own to the mountains. This is where I could find peace

to deal with the aftermath, and where I found happiness again.”

Now 70, David’s happy place is still in the mountains. With boyish joy, he talks of his quest to finish his eighth round of Scotland’s tallest mountains, the 282 Munros – “although I’ll be using my ebike for access,” he confesses – and his new passion for exploring corries.

“I’ve got into the big corries recently. When I was working in mountain rescue, I spent time in these corries, checking them out for potential descent routes so we could take out a casualty during a call-out. Now I can take my time to explore further. I like building stories of the history of the landscape and geology.”

David, who lives in Burghead, Moray, also reveals he has time to enjoy other aspects of life these days. He says: “I have slowed down a bit – I guess that is natural as I’ve got older and I have had some health problems – but I appreciate the opportunit­y to take things a bit easier – not just in the outdoors but in other areas of my life.

“Now I can enjoy spending time with my friend Kalie at her home on the west coast and walking with her.”

David sees the daughter of a previous partner, and her children, as his stepdaught­er and grandchild­ren.

“They are such a wonderful addition to my life,” he says, warmly. “They don’t live too far away from me and I really like spending time with them.

“One of the best things about receiving my award at the Fort William Mountain Festival was having them there with me. It really meant a great deal to me.”

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