The chilling knock that came twice

The avalanche deaths this week stirred painful memories of a father and brother lost in similar tragedies
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The Independent Culture
THE WAITING is the worst. Hearing of a climbing accident on the news, knowing a relative is out there. The terrible fear, the eternal waiting, the late night knock on the door, the uncontrollable panic.

I have heard that knock twice in my life. The first time was when my father died in the hills. The second when my brother, Richard, was killed in an avalanche - almost identical to the one this week.

I was with a friend when I heard four young climbers from Kent had been killed in an avalanche on Aonach Mor, near Ben Nevis, and three had survived, buried under a few feet of snow for 16 hours.

I was embarrassed when my tears started to flow. My tragedies happened almost 20 years ago. I feel I should be over them by now. But I found myself falling into old habits: listening to how far the survivors had fallen; wondering how they had managed to cheat death when so many others had perished. I thought of the Corrie Of The Soldier, a valley at the top of Cairn Toul in the Cairngorms, where a small cairn has been fashioned out of weatherbeaten stones, put there in memory of my father, Dr Claude Barry.

In July 1979 he set out to tackle Cairn Toul with three friends. Always dismissive of Munro-baggers, he referred scornfully to their efforts as "bargain basement Munros", meaning those who drive up the first 2,000ft and only walk the remainder. Cairn Toul, he reckoned, was "the real thing": over 4,000ft and accessible only through prolonged physical effort.

The group reached the summit and had started to come down when one climber noticed my father was missing. (He had a heart condition and the climb had proved too taxing.)

The friend told me afterwards he had called out: "Where's Claude?" then, minutes later, he heard a shout. "I ran back," he said. "I suddenly saw Claude seated somewhat oddly on a rock at the top, his head thrown back and one eye open. He was dead. I tried heart massage, but at that temperature a person chills very quickly. I suppose I knew then there was no hope. We put his body into a bivvy bag with a label on it indicating we had gone for help."

That was at lunchtime. I remember the cold, uncomfortable feeling I had when the mountain referred to on the news that evening was the one my father had been on. They said the climber wouldn't be named until relatives had been informed and this can take hours. The group have to get to a phone. That done, they have to decide their best course of action and each give an account to the police of what happened.

Still - it is so hard to take in when it's your door the police come to. "It's Dr Barry," they said. "He's been found on Cairn Toul. He's dead." After the police came the journalists and their interminable questions.

I have always liked climbers. They are adventurous, passionate people, rarely irresponsible, not normally the type to climb Ben Nevis in gym shoes. They know mountaineering is a balancing act between risk and caution, between courage and daring and they know their survival depends on striking the right balance.

Lightning never strikes twice they say. But there were two climbers in my family - and it did. The second was Richard, a brother I idolised - who was a year older then me, also a doctor. After we lost our father I asked him whether he would stop climbing. He smiled and said: "It won't happen to me."

I had only ever seen avalanches on television. I knew they involved a vast amount of snow - the sort that smashes heads against rocks and pins bodies relentlessly to cliff surfaces. I had also seen on television the commotion which follows one: police dogs hopefully picking up a lost climber's scent on the wind, the helicopter rescue men risking their lives in fiendish conditions, rotor blades roaring, stretchers, blankets and body bags. But the horror when it comes is far worse than any fleeting media image.

I will never forget 15 February 1982. It was, always will be, the blackest day of my life. I had such a strange feeling the night before. I knew my brother hadn't returned to his flat. A friend who phoned tried to pacify me. "He's probably stopped for a meal... honestly, the chances are one in a million."

Next morning the mountains hit the headlines - in a big way, just like this week. Four climbers dead - three on Ben Nevis - a fourth body found in a corrie in Glencoe, a death caused by an avalanche on Am Bodach. No names until relatives had been informed. It sounded so very pat.

The fourth body was my brother's, yet the police car outside my house was the last thing I expected. I hope I never again have to experience the utter anguish which descended the minute I opened the door. That life-altering heart-stopping moment, I heard the mother of one of the young climbers killed this week put it so well: "You just know what they've come about."

Two policemen uttering those same words, all the more eerie a second time around: "It's Dr Barry - he's had an accident."

It was the only time in my life I have lost control. I was aware of myself screaming but it was as if this horror were happening to somebody else. The police had not even said what was wrong, but one of them shut the door while the other took me by the arm and told me Richard was dead. When they said he had fallen to his death 400ft down an icy rockface, I was glad of the comfort of their presence.

The journalists came out in full force this time. Seven of them arrived in taxis. Father and son, two doctors, both dying in the Scottish mountains - a great story! No words can describe that kind of intrusion and at such a desolate moment.

After a mountain death the family are so cut off from the nerve centre. All they can do is guess at what might have happened. I had so many questions but no answers: questions which went round and round in my head: had he felt any pain?

The police advised us against going to see Richard. His face was unrecognisable, they said. Yet I needed to say goodbye and will always regret my decision not to go. He was so special, my brother. Such an influence for good in my life. The truth is I miss him more now, not less, and, all the cliches are true. It is so hard to accept a death when you haven't had a chance to say goodbye. I go back to Glencoe sometimes, to pay my respects. It is an awesome place, of breathtaking beauty, desolate and wild. Not difficult to see why "Glencoe" translates as the Vale of Weeping.