Gasping Thin Air (Part 3)

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Apr 16, 2021

Professor Jo Bradwell, one of the founding members of the Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES), has recently written a fascinating book about the group's many adventures. Further details can be found here. Jo has very kindly allowed us to reproduce a series of extracts. Here's the second and shows just how important a day in the mountains can be...

"After our walk around Glencoe, we wondered about the Cairngorms. Why not try the peaks over 4,000 feet in the Grampians – the four biggest peaks in the country after Ben Nevis: Braeriach, Cairn Toul, Ben Macdui and Cairn Gorm? For good measure we added Beinn Mheadhoin (surprisingly pronounced ‘Ben Vain’) – less than 4,000 feet but still a Munro. The peaks lie on the huge Cairngorm plateau but are straddled by a deep gully called the Lairig Ghru. The total distance was around 30 miles with 12,000 feet of ascent. An easy day out for an old lady.

The summit of Beinn Mheadhoin

We had the usual start from the Medical School by bus, at 6 pm on the Friday night, but we had an unexpected friend in the form of Mike Winterborn. He usually climbed with us but on this occasion, he was an escapee from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital isolation ward. Three years earlier he had developed chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. I had been in the unenviable position of personally informing him of his diagnosis. At the time I was in charge of the leukaemia diagnosis service at the Medical School and his abnormal blood results had been bought to my attention. With some anxiety I visited him in the hospital, where he had been admitted for other reasons, to give him the bad news. In retrospect, his diagnosis should not have been such a surprise. While at Testa Grigia in April 1988, three years earlier, we had noticed that his blood contained a large white layer when centrifuged. We had joked about it among ourselves, assuming it was due to lipids from a fatty breakfast of eggs and bacon. In retrospect it was not – it was the pre-symptomatic stage of leukaemia. In fact, no treatment was necessary at that stage, but there were no marks for diagnostic acumen among the 14 doctors on that trip. Unfortunately, the disease had later progressed unusually rapidly, with transformation to a Richter’s lymphoma that required urgent treatment in the form of bone marrow ablation with chemotherapy and an autologous (self) bone marrow transplantation. There followed six weeks in an isolation ward which would finish after our trip to the Cairngorms. I visited him a few days before our planned adventure. Talking through the small glass hatch separating us in his isolation room, he expressed his extreme disappointment at not coming. His blood results had demonstrated a good recovery from the intense treatment, and he had only a week left before discharge. He was bored and miserable. Perhaps, I wondered, it would be possible to get him out early. I knew his consultant well, so we met to discuss the possibility. His residual low white-blood-cell counts would certainly make him vulnerable to cross-infections but he was recovering well. I suggested giving him a white-cell-promoting hormone. This would increase his white cell count towards normal for a day or two which would cover the weekend. He would still be at risk of infections so we would have to keep him socially distanced but, otherwise, open countryside and being with friends should do him good. The consultant agreed to my suggestions with my promise to take special care of him.

Dr Mike Winterborn (1939-1992)

At 5.30 pm, on the Friday evening, I went over to the hospital; Mike signed a discharge form and out we marched, him in his pyjamas and me carrying his clothes bag. Everyone cheered as he came down the Medical School steps to the bus, marvelling at his courage and determination. He beamed back in pure pleasure and gratitude for being included. We isolated him in the back of the bus, gave him some beers and off we drove. It was an 11 hour journey to the base of Cairn Toul on the south side of the Lairig Ghru. Dawn crept into a clear sky at 4 am as we drove up the A9, turned off at Aviemore, past our hotel at Coylumbridge and through the forest to the end of the road. The Cairngorms were resplendent in the early morning sun, with flecks of snow on their upper gullies.As the bus neared the start of our walk, we ate our breakfasts of sandwiches, biscuits and cold drinks, packed our day sacks with the least amount of weight, and waited eagerly.

Ben Macdui

As the bus stopped, there was a rush for the door and we hurtled up a steep path through the bracken. No discussions, no farewells, no “see you later”: it was only, “let’s go”. It was the first big walk for my brother Martin, who was nine years younger than me. He had been training for some weeks in order to beat me, as he could on a 5 mile run, but he was not prepared for the start. It took him ten frantic minutes to organise his gear by which time the leaders were half a mile up the hill. He never caught up and had to be content with walking in the middle of the pack. Mike Winterborn was last off to avoid any personal contact and had to spend his day alone. Looking back, he was just visible walking in the direction of Cairn Gorm, our last peak of the day.

It was a steep climb to Braeriach, then a jog with Neville, Alex Wright, John Delamere and Nigel Hillman to the peaks of Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul. From the summit, a long descent led to the Corrour Bothy, where we arrived at 8 am. Some of its occupants were just getting up and were amazed to see us, especially as we had already summited two of the four big peaks. Across the Lairig Ghru, the steep ascent to the neighbouring plateau and Ben Macdui beckoned. Neville and I had been faster on the descent so, just as the others arrived panting, we set off in order to keep our lead. We climbed up the steep east side of the Lairig Ghru to Ben Macdui, its upper flanks and northern gullies still covered by large amounts of winter snow. The 2,500 foot climb was tiring; pausing to look back, we could see some of our group descending to the Corrour Bothy on the opposite side of the valley.

Corrour Bothy

After Ben Macdui, with its summit cairn (see walk 2 above), we headed north-east to Beinn Mheadhoin at 3,878 ft. Our route through heather and bushes was tiring since it is rarely climbed in the round of the Four Thousanders. There followed a long descent and then the final summit of Cairn Gorm itself. As we looked up, we could see the triangulation point and a lone figure on top. Had we been beaten? Had we taken a slow route off Beinn Mheadhoin, allowing others to get ahead? As we approached, the individual looked most strange. He was small, had a fez on his head and was leaning on a walking stick and staring towards the western hills as if in a dream. It was Mike Winterborn! And all alone. I felt guilty. Had we done the right thing? We had brought him all this way to spend a day in self-imposed exile.

“Hi Mike, great to see you. How’s it going?” I dared to ask.

“The best day of my life,” was his enthusiastic reply. “I’ve never been so happy.” We reflected on how precious life becomes when faced with death. How the pleasures we take so much for granted become moments of magic. It had been a wonderful decision to bring him with us. We bade farewell and jogged down the mountain, past the ski lifts with all their paraphernalia, to the woods below. There followed a rather tedious 10 mile slog along forest tracks to Coylumbridge Hotel. We arrived around 7.30 pm, quite exhausted. There to greet us were several of the group but none had climbed all the peaks. Worryingly, there were many still missing, including three students, Helen, Jim and Seamus. By 10 o’clock, with dusk approaching and dinner eaten, they had still not appeared. Some volunteered to go looking for them. Not me; I was too worn out. Eventually they were found several miles back along the trail but resolutely refused any help. They were keen to come on our trip to Everest but feared they would be rejected if they failed to complete the walk. We were most impressed. This was clearly a good way to select students.


The Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES) and the British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) have joined forces to organise the 2021 Altitude Research Conference. The face-to-face event will take place in Birmingham on the 11th September. Speakers will include Peter Bartsch, Jo Bradwell and Chris Imray. There will also be presentations from members of the UK's leading research groups as well as ample opportunity for researchers, young and old, to present posters and short talks about their work.

Further details can be found here.

If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.

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