We were attempting a full traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. Accompanied by expert Skye guide Tony Hanly, my brother and I had set off from Glen Brittle with high expectations. But mountains care little for expectations, and the jagged peaks of the Cuillin are more mountainous than most.
On the summit of Sgurr nan Eag, our first Cuillin Munro, a group of six people sat enjoying tea from a thermos and laughing about their day so far while a collie scampered among them. We wished them good morning and carried on; there was little time for socialising, not if a full attempt was on the cards.
For a while we were shadowed along the ridge by a group of two or three people who were taking the same route as us. But as the day progressed and we chose different scrambling lines and slight variations in the directions we took, we saw them less and less frequently. Our last sighting of any of them was as we stopped by a hidden source of water on the upper part of Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn: a single figure disappearing into the gathering clag in the direction of Sgurr Alasdair.
We pressed on, but unfortunately by now the Highland weather had decided not to play ball. As dusk fell visibility was down to almost nothing and we were nowhere near our bivvy site. We had no choice but to make an unplanned descent via the An Stac screes back to safety.
Hours later, as we approached the dim lights of Glen Brittle, another headtorch rose to greet us. "John?" enquired a male voice behind the light. "No John here," Tony replied. "Everything all right?" The man explained. He'd been part of the group we'd seen up on Sgurr nan Eag. Three of them, including himself, had come down from there. Three had continued on along the ridge; the three we'd seen. Those three had not made it back.
Tony, part of the Skye Mountain Rescue Team himself, took control. "I'll take you to the MR Hut," he told the man, before turning to Tom and me. "You boys head back to the car. I'll see you here tomorrow morning." As my brother and I were about to leave Tony and the worried walker, they were approached by another headtorch. This light belonged to a lady who had also been part of the group that had descended from Sgurr nan Eag. We listened as, with a nervous tone, she updated Tony and her friend on the situation. Two of the absent three had returned. One was still missing. Her husband, John.
By the following morning the missing walker had still not been found. The previous night's search had been abandoned due to bad weather, but now as we scrambled up the south-west ridge of Sgurr Dearg the mountains reverberated with the rumble of rotor blades. Rescue teams had been brought in from all over Skye and the neighbouring mainland, and the coastguard helicopter ferried groups of them from the Mountain Rescue HQ hut below up onto the tops. A giant beast of a machine when seen on the helipad, the whirring chopper was dwarfed by the towering faces of the Cuillin.
Although keen to fulfil his guiding obligations to us, Tony wanted to remain involved with the search and to be able to offer help and assistance if required. He carried his Mountain Rescue radio with him and, at one point, after we'd spotted a lone walker making slow progress over the lower slopes below us, he called in to get it checked out. The individual was unrelated to the search.
With the HQ positioned almost at sea-level to the west, the Cuillin Mountains themselves block radio waves and prevent direct communication with rescue teams on the eastern slopes. Normally a relay tower allows rescuers on either side of the ridge to communicate, but it was not functioning. Therefore a single member of the team was positioned on the crest, to pass messages from the HQ in Glen Brittle to search parties on the Loch Coruisk side of the mountains.
Throughout our day the radio in Tony's pack regularly crackled into life as various members of the teams on the ridge and back at base broadcast updates and asked questions. As the description of the missing walker was repeated it became clear that he was the man we'd seen by the hidden spring. More questions were asked to help the teams in their search for John. What colour gear was he wearing? Did he have food with him? Would he have been carrying a shelter?
A lone walking pole had been found and then, later in the day, an emergency bivvy bag. On each occasion the details of the articles were given to the radio operators back at base who then checked with the missing walker's friends and family to see if the descriptions matched his gear before reporting back to the searchers on the hill.
Even given the relatively confined area in which the missing walker was believed to be, there was still a vast amount of mountain to be searched. The teams worked in separate groups, checking off the various portions of the peaks and known danger spots when they had been thoroughly searched.
As we left the hills that afternoon we dropped in to the Mountain Rescue hut so Tony could offer his assistance. Some of the team who had been out on the hills all day were taking a break before heading out again. They had been joined by a police officer who was acting as a liaison between the MRT and John's wife and friends. As they asked Tony about where and when John had last been seen it became apparent that my brother and I had been the last people to see him.
Tom and I were escorted to the back of the police car to give a statement. I'd waymarked the site of the spring on my GPS and was able to give the PC and exact location of where we'd last seen him. After providing as much information as we could recall, we wished the policeman good luck and headed back to our car. Despite having just come down from a long day in the hills, Tony had jumped into the waiting helicopter and was heading back onto the ridge for a final search before the light failed.
Much later that evening we met Tony in the bar of the Sligachan Hotel. "Any luck?" we asked. Tony shook his head and took a sip of his beer. "I'll be back out tomorrow with the dogs," he said matter-of-factly." "Do you think they'll find him?" Tony said nothing. John had been missing for over 24 hours now.
The following day, as we made the long drive from Skye back to East Anglia, I checked my mobile phone for updates. Tony called at one point to say he would let us know the outcome. Then, at about 5 o'clock that afternoon, I read the news we'd been dreading. A body had been found.
The man's name was John Hamer. John was a keen, fit and highly experienced walker, having completed the Munros and walked extensively in the UK and abroad. But the mountains don't care about CVs. They are cold and unfeeling: neither malevolent in their intentions nor benign in their behaviour. They just are what they are.
I left Skye with a mix of emotions. The island is, quite simply, magnificent. I am in love with it and there's no doubt I'll be heading back soon. This had also been my first exposure to a proper mountain rescue operation and, to be perfectly honest, there were elements of it that fascinated me. But, the overriding feeling in my belly was one of sadness. I'm lucky enough to have never lost friends or family to the mountains. Previously, casualties and their kin were just names in a news report; incidents that were undoubtedly tragic, but removed from my world. Yet here on Skye I'd shared a mountain with John, spoken to his companions, and been immersed in the rescue operation taking place around me. It all felt a little too close.
My sympathy goes out to John's family and friends, along with my respect for the Mountain Rescue teams. Sadly on this occasion, despite their herculean efforts, the outcome was not the one anybody was hoping for. It proves that no matter who you are and what you know, mountains can still be dangerous places, and all of us who spend time in them should be eternally grateful to the rescue teams that are prepared to put themselves in harm's way to help get us out of it.
You can donate to Mountain Rescue using the links below:
Mountain Rescue England and Wales: www.justgiving.com/mountainrescue
Scottish Mountain Rescue: www.justgiving.com/mountainrescue-scotland/donate