On Friday, March 8, Tracey Bowden phoned her husband so he could say goodnight to their daughter, Isla, three. “It went straight to voicemail,” Tracey recalls. “I thought that was strange.”
As she put Isla and seven-month-old Callum to bed, she thought she could hear someone at the door. “They said, ‘Mrs Bowden, it’s the police. We need to talk to you.’ And then I knew what had happened.”
When she opened the door, she kept saying, “No, no, no”, because she did not want to hear what they had to say. Her husband Shaun, a seasoned hill walker, had died on a walking trip with friends in Glencoe in the Highlands.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I was aware that other people had died there, earlier in the year, and I’d mentioned it to Shaun, and he always said, you don’t need to worry about me because we have had the right training, and we’ve got all the equipment,” says Tracey.
Shaun, 39, had been on many similar trips. Two of the close friends he went with, Mark Earley and Richard Schilling, have come to sit with Tracey and comfort her in the dining room of her home in Ware, Hertfordshire, as she tearfully goes over what happened.
The morning after Shaun died, Isla took one look at her mother and knew something was wrong.
“‘Mummy’s upset’, she said. I’ve told her that Daddy is dead, but she’s only three. She mentions him every day. She might say, ‘Daddy's coming’, or ‘Daddy is taking me swimming’, and I have to say, ‘Do you remember what Mummy said?’ She says, ‘Yes, and Mummy is upset’. It doesn’t get easier. I feel a pain in my throat and I well up and start crying.”
Shaun was born and brought up in Australia. As a young man, he was a professional mountain bike racer, then apprentice to an electrician before deciding he could better himself and go to university.
He got a job at a hospital in Adelaide doing ultrasound alongside heart experts, and amid a shortage of people with those skills, he was encouraged to come to the UK. At Barts hospital in London, he met many of the friends he went walking with, and the cardiac nurse who would become his wife.
“I thought he was exceptionally handsome,” says Tracey. “He was warm, and friendly and positive. He sees the best in everybody.”
The couple married in 2008. After working in the hospital, Shaun felt he would be better off handling sales and marketing for the companies that manufactured the high-tech machines he used. He proved extremely good at it. “He ended up earning more money than me, the bastard!” says Richard, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
Shaun loved the outdoors and sport generally. He tackled Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, which did not interest Tracey (“I just walked in an alpine meadow.”) Indeed, it was Shaun’s friendly nature that caused the “gentleman’s winter walk” to get bigger each year — he kept inviting new people. Usually planned jointly by Shaun and Mark, the trips would start on Thursday evenings and last until Sunday night, with curries and beer every evening.
This year was the third time the group had been to Glencoe. Arriving on Thursday night, they spent time drinking in the hotel bar then went to Shaun’s room for more. “The next morning I had a really bad hangover,” says Richard. “I felt liverish. But Shaun looked fine. He was on fire.”
There were 11 of them altogether. Shaun had hoped to do a relatively ambitious walk, but the weather was not great so they decided to do something they had done before. They split into two groups and took slightly different directions. For extra safety in the snow, they wore crampons. As they got higher it became windier and mistier. People became a little nervous, remembers Mark. “Everybody goes quiet, and you walk in single file, along the easiest path.”
Shaun’s group fell behind and, at about 2pm, Mark’s group started to head back down. “We were having fun, glissading down, looking forward to the beers and chatting about our adventure,” he recalls.
By 3.30pm they had got below the snowline, when Mark received a call from Shaun’s group. “Shaun has fallen”, he was told, “and we don’t know where he is.
One of the men in Mark’s group was trained in mountain rescue, and organised the rest to search. They were soon joined by the local rescue team. But after a while, Mark concluded that he was not equipped to help. Heading back down the hill, he received another call. “I couldn’t really hear what he was saying, but the gist of it was that Shaun had died.”
He was distraught. “I just couldn’t believe it. It just couldn’t be true.” I ask if he blames himself in any way. He thinks for a moment. “I don’t blame myself. I don’t think it’s my fault. But you always think about how it might have been different.”
Richard continues: “Shaun’s group was walking along the same ridge we’d been on, looking for a way down in poor visibility, checking the map and probing the gullies to find the right one to descend. But they couldn’t see very far because of the mist.”
Richard’s brother, Bill, went to look down one gully, with Shaun 30ft directly above him. Then something, perhaps a gust of wind, caused Shaun to start sliding. He would have known to use his ice axe as a brake, but he rolled away from Bill before trying to do so — and then slid out of sight. Bill climbed down to look for him, saw the slope got steeper — and that there was no sign of their friend.
The way Shaun died exemplifies his best qualities. “People might think that we are talking about him through rose-tinted spectacles,” says Richard, “but you can’t deny that he rolled away from my brother. He didn’t try to grab him [which could have pulled him to his death too], which most people would have done, and that’s what sums Shaun up best.”
Some people will think the men were mad to have gone walking in Glencoe. Several others had died there during the winter. “The other people who have been killed there recently were doing much riskier things than us, going up ice slopes — not something we would have felt comfortable doing.”
In the hotel that evening, the survivors sat drinking tea in disbelief. After explaining what had happened at a police station, they had phoned Shaun’s friends to pass on the news. The next day, several went home early. A few stayed because Shaun was still on the mountain — the rescue team had not been able to bring his body down in the bad weather. Eventually, Richard identified him at a funeral home in Fort William.
In the days after Shaun’s death, Tracey was kept company by Mark’s wife and another friend. Tracey has been plagued with awful thoughts. “Like, why couldn’t it have been someone else?” she says. “And what if I had said I don’t want you to go?
“But I’ve realised I’ve got to stop thinking like that. I’d never have asked him not to do something like that. He just loved it. And he would have gone anyway.
“I have to get up each day and I have to be strong for the children. When I listen to these boys talking about Shaun, I can hear him very clearly. I can hear him myself, saying, ‘Pull yourself together, woman!’ So I have to go on . . .”
1287 words. First published 2 June 2013. © Times Newspapers Ltd.