In memoriam: Dave Fowler, West Coast mountain guide

I’m always slightly more affected by accidents that involve hillwalkers scrambling along a narrow ridge. I don’t take many risks in the mountains and these are the accidents that make me stop and think how it could have been me.

The widely reported triple fatality on Glen Coe’s Aonach Eagach ridge earlier this month had particular poignancy for me. The accident involved a guide and two clients roped together. The guide in question was Dave Fowler who had guided Edita and me up several peaks in the Skye Cuillin in 2020.

Dave was a great character, ever talkative and cheerful, flexible, well organised and extremely careful as a guide. I would gladly have climbed with him again, and had been in touch with him a couple of times about a return trip. It’s very sad that this can no longer happen.

Dave Fowler on the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean, Isle of Skye
Dave Fowler on the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean, Isle of Skye

My first conversation with Dave was by phone from Fort William after a backpacking adventure in Glen Nevis that had led to me knackering my knee. Dave gave me the good news that we had a weather window for the Cuillin Traverse the following week and I responded with the bad news about my injury. He was unfazed; his response was upbeat and cheered me up at a difficult moment. Far from dismissing the traverse and suggesting we do something a little easier, he believed we could still give it a try and made several suggestions to make it easier.

When we met him for the first time in Sligachan a few days later, his organisational skills were impressive. He went through all our equipment, making sure we had the essentials. He stripped down our packs to no more than we needed, sharing out cooking equipment and food. The following day he took us up to An Dorus, halfway along the ridge, to leave a cache of equipment for an overnight bivouac.

He was unsurprised when I decided to abandon the traverse the following day. He’d been watching me grimace in pain as I scrambled up boulders into Coire a Ghrundda. He didn’t try to persuade me to carry on, but after a brief pause he suggested a route that would still lead to a memorable day’s scrambling. This creativity and gentle encouragement continued for the rest of the week; while I prevaricated about my injury, he talked us into routes within my comfort zone (but only just) so that by the end of the week we’d had as much fun as if we’d continued with the traverse.

Dave Fowler with Edita and me on the summit of Sgurr a Ghreadaidh (Photo: Edita Horrell)
Dave Fowler with Edita and me on the summit of Sgurr a Ghreadaidh (Photo: Edita Horrell)

Dave was an entertaining character to spend time with. The endless flow of conversation kept coming. He had an interesting story for every section of the ridge, whether it was an anecdote of his own or some piece of Cuillin history. He seemed to know every guide we passed. He was frequently stopping for a chat to exchange information and banter. While we would be retreating to our B&B each evening for a quiet night after a hard day on the hills, Dave would be out socialising with friends in Portree or Broadford.

During our walk up to Coire a Ghrunnda for the start of the traverse, Dave told us about his serious accident using speed wings a year earlier. A speed wing is a small parachute that extreme sportspeople use to descend rapidly from a mountaintop. The technique is somewhere between parachuting and paragliding and usually involves a rapid descent close to the ground. Dave was descending a narrow gully when he crash landed, leading to serious injuries. He had needed several operations and was out of action for months.

It was during this period that he started an office-based job for West Coast Mountain Guides having worked for them as a guide. West Coast Mountain Guides was previously owned by Ken Applegate. Ken had invited Dave to answer emails and phone calls for the company while he was recovering. At some point between our climbing with Dave in 2020 and booking again earlier this year, Ken had sold the company to Dave who had then become its main director.

Dave Fowler on the ascent of Sgurr nan Gillean (Photo: Edita Horrell)
Dave Fowler on the ascent of Sgurr nan Gillean (Photo: Edita Horrell)

It is not unusual for mountain guides to indulge in extreme pursuits when they are not working. Dave is the fourth guide I’m aware of having climbed with who has lost his life in the mountains. He is the first one I have know who has died guiding rather than carrying out high-risk recreational climbs, and this makes it a little more shocking. While Dave was clearly willing to take risks following his own pursuits, there was no question of him endangering those he guided. Edita remembered a story he told about taking his visually impaired father out climbing and it was easy to imagine the level of care he must have extended. He was as safe as any guide I have known.

It is not yet known how the accident happened. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is carrying out a full investigation. While it’s only natural to speculate, we shouldn’t rush to any judgements out of respect for the victims and their friends and family.

Seven people have died on the Aonach Eagach ridge since 2014. Edita and I climbed the Munro on its western end last Christmas, but I have never done the full traverse. A knife-edge, pinnacled ridge, it is rated as a grade 2 scramble. Many people complete it without technical equipment, but there are exposed sections which require use of the hands where a fall is likely to be fatal. Moreover, there are no escape routes that allow you to abandon it halfway through.

Aonach Eagach has much in common with the Cuillin ridge that we explored with Dave in 2020. Scrambling is a halfway house between climbing and hiking. For a climber (and all mountain guides are very experienced climbers) it is straightforward terrain which they can cross confidently without any need for ropes; for a non-climber, however, harder scrambling can feel like proper climbing. For those without technical climbing or rope skills, it is safer to employ a guide.

Dave and me in discussion in Coire a Bhasteir with Am Bhasteir behind (Photo: Edita Horrell)
Dave and me in discussion in Coire a Bhasteir with Am Bhasteir behind (Photo: Edita Horrell)

On these harder scrambles there are essentially two types of terrain which require different techniques. On the steeper sections, a guide might use pitched rock climbing techniques. He or she will start by solo climbing the steep section unprotected. Once past it, they will set up an anchor (or belay), for example by attaching the rope to a projecting rock or boulder with a sling. Their clients can then climb up protected by the rope if they fall. As the client climbs, the guide will use a belay device to keep the rope tight so that if the client falls they are held in place. If the rope is tight enough, the client is likely to escape injury if they fall.

Pitched climbing is safe but slow. The party can only advance a rope length at a time. Clients must wait for the guide to climb and secure the belay; and the guide must wait for the clients to follow. It wouldn’t be practical (or necessary) to complete the full 3km of the Aonach Eagach ridge from Am Bodach to Sgorr nam Fiannaidh in this fashion.

Most of the time on knife-edge scrambles like Aonach Eagach and the Cuillin Ridge, the guide will use a technique called short roping. This involves guide and clients moving together while roped in a line. The guide will keep the rope between themself and the clients short and tight to react immediately if a client stumbles. In these situations, depending on the nature and steepness of the terrain it won’t always be possible for a guide to hold a fall, though they can react to prevent a fall happening. The risk is greater with two clients because if the person at the back falls the guide will not feel the rope go tight immediately.

Short roping demands great concentration by both guide and clients. The most careful I remember seeing Dave was on the descent from Sgurr a Ghreadaidh to An Dorus. The route crosses a sloping slab high above Coruisk with nothing to grab onto in the event of a fall. Edita and I were able to walk across it easily, but Dave knew that if either of us fell at that moment, then it was very likely we would drag all of us down with them. As we walked across, Dave shuffled crablike above us, deep in concentration, ready to react should either of us stumble.

Throughout our week in the Cuillin with Dave, we felt in very safe hands. It was a great shock to learn of his accident, and brought it home to me that these things can happen to any of us. Those of us who go scrambling along knife-edge ridges have all been in many situations where a fall would be fatal. Most of us have also tripped and fallen on safe terrain where we have suffered nothing more than a bruised ego. We can lessen the risk, but we can never eliminate it.

Dave was a fully qualified member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI). I have nothing but respect for qualified mountaineering professionals who spend their lives giving less talented people an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone. The experience they have needed to gain their qualifications is immense and they are among the most exceptional people I know. They need to be courageous and physically tough, able to withstand great hardship over long periods. They need to be calm under pressure, able to maintain their concentration and make good decisions when they may be exhausted. They need to be highly intelligent, mechanically inclined, able to understand the laws of physics and carry out medical diagnoses in the event of illness or accident. They also need exceptional people skills, a sense of humour and endless patience.

Dave was all of these things and more. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him. My thoughts are with them all, and those of his two clients whom I didn’t know but who could so easily have been me.

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18 thoughts on “In memoriam: Dave Fowler, West Coast mountain guide

  • August 23, 2023 at 6:20 pm

    Excellent article, Mark. Well done.

  • August 23, 2023 at 10:09 pm

    Great article Mark and highly respectful

    The sport we choose can sometimes be dangerous, even for the best, however he went out living his life as he would have wanted

    RIP Dave

  • August 23, 2023 at 11:12 pm

    Very good description of the many qualities needed to be a guide. Sadly, the sentence “we can lessen the risk, but we can never eliminate it” sums up the risks of going in the mountains, as a climber, a hiker or a even a pro guide…

  • August 23, 2023 at 11:35 pm

    Well written article Mark in memory of a really nice Gentleman, he will be sadly missed in the climbing community that’s for sure , god bless to the 3 of them

  • August 24, 2023 at 2:08 am

    Great article Mark, thanks for sharing.

  • August 24, 2023 at 2:11 pm

    I write as the 82yo who comlpleatedthe Munros last year.When l attempted the Cuillin Ridge l discovered that my confidence had l needed a guide.But who would take an 82yo along the Cuillin Ridge, l pondered? A friend said he thought he could fiix me up..And so I was introduced to Dave.We got on like a house on fire and he guided me over the Aonach Eagach, a traverse of the.Cuillin Ridge, Clach Glas & Bla Bheinn and just recently the Dubhs Ridge on to the main ridge for another traverse..
    Dave was brilliant,we had become friends. He not only enabled me to do the routes, he brought back my confidence so much that l enjoyed it. And that is PRICELESS.
    I thank you,Dave, from my heart

  • August 24, 2023 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks for posting, Nick. I heard about you. I think a friend of mine was starting her traverse on the same day as you and Dave last month and met you on the boat from Elgol. Congratulations on an amazing achievement. You’re the same age as my father; the thought of him doing what you have blows my mind. You could not have been in better hands.

  • August 24, 2023 at 3:19 pm

    What a moving and well written tribute to Dave the guide. Mr Gardner’s story confirms what a great person he was.

  • August 24, 2023 at 6:50 pm

    We met Dave and Nick on the summit of Bruich na Frithe just a few weeks ago. Both Dave and Nick were inspiring and moving quicker than we were! Such a terrible accident and our thoughts have been with the families and the guiding community.

  • August 26, 2023 at 5:16 pm

    Lovely article Mark. Dave was a good friend and it’s good to see public recognition of Dave’s many C varied positive attributes and insight into the skillful, observant and considered actions that guides take on a daily basis.

  • August 26, 2023 at 5:18 pm

    *and* varied, not ‘C’, obviously!

  • August 27, 2023 at 6:50 am

    That’s a great understanding to how professional., these mountain guides are and a great tribute to him.

  • August 27, 2023 at 8:48 pm

    Thanks for such a lovely post about Dave. He was a great friend, employer and colleague. The community of mountaineering instructors and guides who work on the Cullin and West Coast are all shocked and upset by his passing. He was a beloved friend and colleague. We’ll miss him, he was as equally encouraging to us as he was to his clients. I will miss hearing his voice or laugh through the mist and knowing that he was somewhere working on the mountain near by.

  • August 28, 2023 at 11:29 pm

    Thank you. A superb tribute and explanation of short roping, both why it’s necessary and its risks. A guide only.needs to get unlucky once in a lifetime. So very sad.

  • August 29, 2023 at 7:24 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with the sentiments. I was with Dave on the WCMG Cuillin Ridge course last year and he also organised a guide for Aonach Eagach and a day climbing in Skye around the Cuillin Ridge week. Fun guy, knew what he was doing and ran a great company. Very sad to hear of his death.

  • August 30, 2023 at 2:42 pm

    What a series of wonderful memories these climbers have shown for our Grandson David who is so sadly missed at this time. We know that he died happily doing something that he had 100% in.

    God Bless a wonderful son, brother, grandson, uncle, nephew, and everyone who knew him

  • October 28, 2023 at 4:32 pm

    I had the pleasure of being guided by Dave in August 2022 doing the Cuillin Munros with West Coast Mountain Guides. It was a superb week in mostly poor conditions. He was a first class guide and a really inspiring man. I am deeply shocked to hear of his passing and pass on my sincere condolences to his family and friends. He was a very gifted man at the peak of his profession.

  • November 19, 2023 at 10:22 am

    Dave guided me, my mate and another chap along the length of Anoch Egach just over two years ago. Despite my struggles with exposed ridges Dave was kind, understanding and managed to help me overcome my issues with gentle encouragement. I felt completely safe in his hands on the short rope and can’t believe what happened this summer. I only met him the once but will hold that day high in my achievements and it was all down to Dave.

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