Suffolk soldiers rescued from avalanche

A GROUP of Wattisham-based soldiers had a miraculous escape after being swept away by an avalanche in the Scottish Highlands during a training exercise.

A GROUP of Wattisham-based soldiers had a miraculous escape after being swept away by an avalanche in the Scottish Highlands during a training exercise.

The eight members of 662 Squadron 3 Regiment Army Air Corps, based at the camp near Stowmarket, were stuck in the snow for three hours before being airlifted off the mountain yesterday.

One of the Suffolk soldiers used his mobile phone to alert emergency services just before 2pm and three mountain rescue teams and two helicopters were called in to save the party at Coire an Lochan in the Cairngorm Mountains, near the ski area of Aviemore.

The eight men, who have not been named by the Army, were taking part in a winter skills exercise which went wrong when the avalanche hit them sending them tumbling down the mountainside.

Four members of the group had to be stretchered to safety, having suffered suspected spinal injuries, while the other casualties were described as "walking wounded".

The unit's pet dog, a black spaniel also escaped from the avalanche.

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During the dramatic operation rescuers had to assess the risk that they themselves could be swept away by further snowfalls as they battled to reach the party, with the helicopter pilots wary of dislodging more snow.

Twenty members of three mountain rescue teams - Cairngorm, Glenmore Lodge and RAF Kinloss - a Sea King from RAF Lossiemouth and the air ambulance were involved in the operation.

All but one of the men was eventually taken by helicopter to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness where a spokesman last night described the men's injuries as minor and said: "Five are being kept in overnight for observation but we don't anticipate any problems."

Last night Mike Mulford, a spokesman for the RAF Search and Rescue service, claimed the rescue mission from the snow and ice-capped corrie had been far from routine.

"One always has to be incredibly careful when moving people with spinal injuries and there was a great slab of snow that could have come away at any moment," he said.

"The Air Ambulance from Inverness took out the most serious first. One by one they got them all away in about four hours.

"There were a number of factors. Being an avalanche that creates a number of problems, three of the men with spinal injuries was a major one and thirdly this slab of snow, that made a particularly significant challenge. At the end of the day it came together well."

Mr Mulford added: "The impression we have is that this is one of those things that can and does happen, a sudden spontaneous avalanche which does pose huge threats to anyone caught in its path."

Visiting climbers and walkers at nearby Glenmore watched the drama unfold in front of them yesterday, as the helicopters shuttled back and forth to the clearly-visible mountain top.

Glenmore Lodge principal, Tim Walker, said: "There was obviously some risk of further avalanche, but there were very experienced team members up there who assessed the conditions.

"The whole exercise was executed very well. The good conditions and the skill and expertise of everyone involved aided the evacuation immeasurably.

"Had the incident occurred on any of the last three days, when visibility was very limited, we would have needed more people on the hill for much longer."

It is believed the avalanche was caused by the wet snow and falling temperatures over the last few days, but avalanche accidents in the Highlands are rare at this time of year as most climbers have changed to the summer sport of rock climbing and avoid any remaining snow patches.

Blyth Wright, Sportscotland avalanche information service co-ordinator, said: "We still have some quite considerable deposits of old snow above about 900m and, in the last few days, there has also been a reasonable fall of new snow."

The incident is believed to be the first avalanche accident to happen in Scotland this late in the season since 1952 - the last being a double fatality, also in Coire an Lochan, on April 26 of that year.

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