Updated: Jun 26
I've just returned from three days in the Cuillin Mountain, accompanied by David ' Heavy' Whalley ex RAF Search And Rescue, Mountain Rescue Team Leader, who lead the rescue / recovery mission back in '82 when the American F111 fighter jet crashed into Sgùrr na Strì, and Adrian Trendall from All Things Cuillin, a superb mountaineer and mountain guide.
Adrian invited me along to a three-day expedition where we would walk in to the JMC of Scotland hut at Loch Coruisk, with two objectives, the first would be to lay two crosses at the aircraft crash site and pay our respects. This proved to be a treacherous route up, the conditions were the same as they were if not worse than that of 40 years ago, according to Heavy. The second objective was to make a portrait of Heavy in-situ using the Victorian wet plate collodion process, invented in 1851.
We were successful on all fronts, which when considering the weather, was nearly unbelievable.
This was the first time I had met Heavy, and it was clear that we connected on a deep level, I only understood that connection more when I read the exclusive article published today in the Sunday Post. Heavy had seen it, and done it all, that was obvious, but this particular incident seemed always to be fresh in his mind and that is no surprise.
The pilot in the left-hand seat of the aircraft was Major (Lt Col. Selectee) Burnley L. (“Bob”) Rudiger Jr., aged 37, from Norfolk, Virginia. Major Rudiger was survived by a wife and two children who were then resident at Risby, Suffolk. R.I.P.
The weapons system operator in the right seat was 1st Lt. Steven J. Pitt, 28, from East Aurora, New York. Lt. Pitt was survived by a wife and two children, then resident at Icklingham, Suffolk. R.I.P.
Photograph supplied by Sara M. Zak.
This is an incredibly sad incident, I really didn't care about making a plate up there at this point if it didn't come off, I said to Adrian and Heavy that there were bigger and more important things to take care of, that being, to pay our respects, and to ensure the families of the aircraft crew felt supported. A tradition both guys had always secured in previous years. Obviously, if I could make a plate that would be meaningful, I would be 100% committed, after all I had walked in with a colossal pack containing all the alchemy, equipment and supplies for three days, a weight that Heavy estimated at 45kg.
Owing to Adrian's expertise and ability to adapt to the conditions in the Cuillin, he was able to steer me to set up at the bay of Loch Coruisk, it was very windy, snow and ice were all around, but thankfully Adrian's plan paid off and I started to set the Victorian alchemy up in a small window of calmer weather. The cloud cover started to dissipate from the ridge, and I shot my first plate, which ended up being terrible. My heart sank as I saw the plate come to in the developer, a huge light leak had wrecked it all. The postal strikes had rendered my new equipment that I had ordered weeks ago undelivered. I made a few adjustments to the existing set up, gritted my teeth and Heavy walked around the corner, raring to go.
I set the portrait shot up on the 5x7 inch Intrepid Camera, I wanted Heavy to be supported by a boulder, looking up to the crash site, the exposure was around the 6 second mark at f16. I was gauging this using previous experience; the sun had literally just risen (Adrian and I had walked in the dark from 0600hrs to get set up). Temperature was around freezing. I had a lot to deal with and I went with my instinct.
Heavy was great to work with, no messing about, just operational and sharp. Exactly what I needed. I went through the 1851 process and exposed the plate with a solemn air about Heavy. I strapped myself into the dark developing tent and was overjoyed when I saw a decent image coming up in the pyrogallic acid. I washed the dev off and walked over to show Heavy and Adrian the unfixed plate, gleaming in vibrant blue.
I poured the sodium thiosulphate on, to see Heavy's steeled expression emerge. We had nailed it. I was ecstatic, this was objective number two in the bag. I said a few words to the collodion and weather gods and hurried to get packed up.
The next and primary objective presented itself. The sun shed its light on Sgùrr na Strì, revealing a route up to the crash site.
We needed to offload gear back at the hut, and rally back to the Loch to commence our ascent. Adrian and I decided to go for it and hit best progress, I was glad to make a start and with the relief of being released from my heavy pack I felt confident we would get a fair way up.
We placed the two crosses, given to us by Heavy as close as we could get to the crash site. By this time the wind had picked up and the wind-chill had become pretty brutal. We remembered the crew, their families, and the SAR team, Lest We Forget. Then, we started our descent and hoped to return to the hut before we lost light.
I was elated to get back to the hut and to wash the plates properly. The stress and pressure wasn't finished though, I still had to get the plates safely off the mountain before I could scan and finally varnish them.
I dried them over a gas hob and carefully packed them away as best I could. I spent the next few hours stowing my gear and packing my bag for the return journey out of the mountain.
The previous night I only got one hour of sleep, after a really bad and negative dream. I spent a lot of time spiralling into thoughts of self-doubt and endless questioning of my ability against the tasks that I had set myself, I was completely exhausted and just wanted to get up and get going. Now, on my return to the JMC hut I had been released from the previous night of negativity, I had gained control of myself and accomplished everything that I had set out to do. Would I sleep? I got four hours and felt refreshed and re-energised.
The alarm triggered at 0600hrs, Adrian and I were off on our way in the darkness. My objective now was to get off the mountain with the plates undamaged as quickly as possible. Adrian took some amazing stills and I shot some pretty epic footage on the GoPro during our exfil.
I'm glad to say that the plates have been varnished and Heavy's portrait featured as the main image in an exclusive article today in the Sunday Post...
This was no easy task. A massive thank you to all who have supported Peak Perseverance thus far, we have another exped in the planning stages, we will venture higher... STANDBY
Photographs kindly supplied by Adrian Trendall.
This was a team effort: David 'Heavy' Whalley, Adrian Trendall, Simon Riddell.
We Will Remember Them.