Lochnagar's north faceLost fellwalkers who hit 999 at the first sign of a light mist may want to look to a 61-year-old retired doctor as an example of how to act in a true mountain emergency.

Lochnagar's north face
David White

Bill Church fell 200m when an avalanche swept him off a gully on the north face of Lochnagar. Despite badly injuring his leg in the incident, he managed to crawl for four hours to the relative safety of a rescue box, crawled inside and waited, while one of the winter’s worst blizzards was battering the mountainside.

He spent 11 hours in the box, wrapped in his bivvy bag, in pain from his injuries. Rescuers believe his actions probably saved his life.

When he failed to return from his trip on to the 1,156m (3,793ft) mountain, his wife Jane raised the alarm and a massive rescue operation was launched. 60 members of volunteer mountain rescue teams, along with RAF teams and the Grampian Police team headed to the area where Mr Church was known to have gone.

But conditions were so bad that rescuers were repeatedly beaten back and their searches proved ineffective in the blizzard that meant they couldn’t even see their hands in front of their faces.

It was search-and-rescue dog Midge that located the stricken climber about 4am on Thursday. The dog’s handler, PC Alison Todd, a member of the Grampian Police Mountain Rescue Team, was among four rescuers who found him.

When they lifted the lid of the box, Mr Church, a former eye surgeon, said: “I didn't think I'd expect to see you tonight; I thought it would be first thing in the morning. Thank you very much for coming.”

He was given some food and provided with extra clothing, then the lid was closed back on him while a stretcher team arrived.

Fifty rescue team members then took it in turns to carry the casualty to an all-terrain vehicle, and then to an RAF Sea King helicopter.

Inspector Andrew Todd of Grampian Police, husband of Alison, told The Scotsman newspaper: “I think he is very lucky, but you make your own luck.

“It’s just a small, desk-sized box. It certainly wasn’t designed for shelter. But if he hadn’t used it in that way, then there’s no way he would have survived. We might never have found him.

“Members of the team were driven back several times because of the weather, which tells you how bad it was up there.”

Mr Church described how he was climbing the left-hand branch of the gully about midday on Wednesday. About 12m from the top of the route, a cornice broke away and swept him off the face. He suffered a sprained ankle and an injury to his thumb. He was unable to stand, so crawled about a kilometre to where he knew the mountain-rescue box was.

He said his main concern was the worry he knew his wife would be put through, waiting at their Bridge of Don, Aberdeen, home.

The accident has not deterred the veteran climber from going back on the mountains. Once his injuries heal, he says, he will be back up on the hills.

He said: “There is no way I would want to stop climbing. You just learn from your mistakes.”