12. Heavy Whalley on a Lifetime in Search and Rescue
David "Heavy" Whalley is something of a legend in search and rescue circles. A member of RAF Mountain Rescue for 37 years, he's attended more than a thousand call-outs; and saved the lives of so many people in the hills that he's routinely been approached by rescuees during his lecture tours in the years afterwards. He's managed rescue teams across the UK's mountain ranges, ice climbed in Canada, helped orchestrate a successful expedition (and incidentally saved multiple members of less fortunate teams) on Everest's north ridge, and been awarded numerous honours from an MBE to a Distinguished Service Award.
We didn't know about PTSD back then. Avalanches weren't well understood. Our gear was basic. But even today mountain rescue is a dangerous game
But there's been a darker side to his career too. Amongst the impressive statistics of his time on the hill there are nearly 70 aircraft crashes which he's attended in person. He was senior team leader during the recovery efforts following the Lockerbie bombing. He's been part of teams attending tragic mountain-related fatalities throughout the hills across multiple decades. He's no stranger to post-traumatic stress, a term which only came into common use once his career was underway.
And yet, hear Heavy speak about this lifetime of service in the mountains, and he's as effusive now as he was as a "wee, skinny laddie" who joined the RAF in 1971 (aged just 17 years old). He's close to completing his ninth circuit of the Munros, and though he may be retired from RAF Mountain Rescue, nothing gives him greater pleasure than seeing the younger generations of rescuers find the same joy in the job that he did for all those years.
Hear all of this, and enjoy an inspirational hour of a life lived to its fullest, in Mountain Air, Episode 12:
We were in plastic bivvies freezing all night. The Americans couldn't believe what we did!
00:00 - Introduction
02:50 - Welcome, Heavy: "I was told to go away and put some weight on", 5'4" but still able to handle himself.
05:35 - A lifetime in RAF search and rescue as an air crash expert. Losing aircraft crews training in the mountains. Handling nearly 70 aircraft crashes.
09:54 - "You can have the best team in the world, but if you're searching in the wrong place you're wasting your time".
10:20 - "We're working in conditions when other people don't go out"... and avalanche warnings only started in the late 1980s. The benefits and challenges of technology.
14:20 - Working on the Lockerbie bombing, no knowledge of post-traumatic stress disorder and at the time, "It took me 25 years… and I've never got over it".
18:37 - Mountain rescue "is an amazing system, that we should all be proud of. But it's a dangerous game".
19:03 - Plenty of individual awards, but "unfortunately I don't believe in these things. In the military you don't have an option. They should be team awards". Losing friends.
21:15 - Why did you turn to this career? The son of a Scottish Minister, but "I was a wild child… and it was join the air force or get into trouble".
22:44 - "There's no greater feeling than finding people alive in the mountains. It's unique and it's wonderful. The joy of it is phenomenal".
24:40 - Celebrating the rise of women in the outdoors.
26:10 - "Sandals, shorts and t-shirts on the top of Goat Fell".
28:27 - Joining the RAF at 17: "I was a wee, skinny laddie, but I was very fit".
31:17 - "Thrown in at the deep end" with mountain rescues, three climbing deaths on Ben Nevis.
35:20 - "People would always ask me how I've stayed in the military so long, because I would always question everything… which a lot of people didn't like".
36:15 - Mountain kit. Working with military issue, and slowly improving it, "we were in plastic bivvies freezing all night… the Americans couldn't believe what we did… nothing fitted a wee boy, my trousers were huge!".
40:37 - Using the Munros for training: "the best way to get the guys fit is to blast them around these hills"
41:50 - Being one of the first groups to go ice-climbing in Canada, "it was phenomenal, you've never seen ice like this… ice screws that worked!".
44:07 - The 2001 Everest North Ridge expedition… with a garden shed. Put two on the summit and were involved in three rescues…. "You can get yaks to 21,000ft, that's the height of McKinley", "on any big mountain the objective dangers are huge, a serac can fall".
49:10 - Greatest Mountain Memory: advanced base camp on Everest, filling 50 bags of rubbish with the Sherpa team, and paying for it themselves. Plus, back in Fort William, seeing the younger generation find as much joy in rescue.
54:25 - "Mountaineering is very selfish, so all we can do is make it as safe as we can… you can't explain it to people that don't do it". Recovering from trauma and the loss of friends in the hills. Plans for writing a book, and meeting rescued walkers and climbers at lectures.
58:05 - All the time, money, freedom… where do you go and what do you do? "I'd like to go and trek through the Himalays with my granddaughters, to show them the mountains I've been on. That would be wonderful. It would give me a big buzz. We're very lucky with what we've got, we've just got to fight to keep it".
- Find out more about Heavy here
- Read Heavy's blog here
- See Heavy's recent award for "excellence in mountain culture" at the Fort William Mountain Festival
- Follow him on Twitter
Interview recorded 23/03/23
Mountain Air podcast is made, recorded, hosted, edited, released and occasionally sworn at by Dan Aspel (he didn't, however, do the theme tune). This is the third series Dan has produced, and the second to be made in partnership with UKHillwalking. We'll be publishing regular episodes over the next few months.