No doubt about it, this last year in the Kentucky hills has been just plain hell.

Last winter it was so cold they couldn't mine coal - the stuff even froze on the ground and in the railroad cars. A killer flood in April left thousands homeless and closed the mines again.

Then a 10-week wildcat strike during the summer stopped United Mine Worker production in Pike County, Ky., and around the rest of the Eastern coal fields.

That was bad enough, because it ate into the nest eggs the miners had put aside for the big strike they knew would be coming Dec. 6, when their national contract expired.

The result, between the wiles of man and nature, was that the average union miner in this region didn't make much than $10,000 - about a third less than might have been expected.

Well, it's been a lousy winter again, but life goes on.

Down here by the Chessie System's big coal-loading yard, the rain and snow have churched up a sea of slime around Bill Gilbert's little yellow oilcloth shack. The scene couldn't be more depressing.

Every day now for 76 days, running on eight-hour shifts, UMW pickets have manned this outpost, pretty well stopping the flow of sporadic loads of nonunion coal into the railroad yard.

Gilbert, a mine mechanic who's about half the size of a mountain, doesn't like it a bit, but he plans to stay on the picket line until the UMW gets the contract it wants.

"We want that medical card back and we won't go back to the mines until we do," he said. "The worst thing about the contract they're negotiating is the medical card and the $20-a-day penalty they want to put on a man for a wildcat strike"

Medical cards and wildcats. Gilbert is putting is finger on the same two topics that virtually every miner raises when questioned abou the contract impasse.

The contract system by which UMW miners and the coal companies had lived since 1950 has cast both sides into a vicious, tightening struggle.

The all-expenses-paid medical program was financed by royalties the operators paid on UMW coal. When the miners struck, the royalties stopped. When medical fund reserves got dangerously low last July, the trustees cut back the benefits.

That touched off the summer-long wildcat protest. But the reserves continued to drop. By Feb. 1 pensions for miners who retired before 1975 were stopped.

Coal operators claim to be no happier with the system than are the miners. So the contract they have tried to negotiate with UMW President Arnold MIller attempts to change that - and rank-and-file members are seething over it.

The proposed contract, rejected a week ago by the UMW bargaining council, would require miners to pay part of their medical costs, allow companies to run their own medical plans, and fine miners who participate in wildcat strikes.

Wildcats must cease if the industry is to be stable, the coal operators say Wildcats will not cease until the companies join the 20th century in their labor relations, the miners say.

As striking miners here describe it, the root of the problem is a cumber some grievance procedure that prevents quick resolution - and even fair resolution - of their complaints.

Adding to their militance is the belief that the companies have attempted to use the grievance system as a tool for breaking the UMW and creating chaos among the miners.

Each time a grievance goes to arbitration it is costly to the local union. The local must pay lost wages of the complainant and witnesses at hearings, and share the fee and other expenses of the arbitrator.

If the case is forwarded on appel to a review board, it gets trapped in a backlog that has three-year-old cases still awaiting a decision.

The result: frustrated miners simply strike rather than take their chances with arbitration. One picketer is enough to close a mine, since UMW members traditionally honor any such protest.

The miners' solution to this dilemma, granting a local union the right to strike one mine over a grievance, thus precluding what they see as a need to spread their protest to other mines was rejected during the current negotiations by industry bargainers.

"We had more than 400 cases arbitrated under the 1974 contract in District 30. We won ver few," said Ed Ratliff, a district field representative in the UMW's office in nearby Pikeville.

"We can't get a final decision on some of these cases for as much as three years. That's terrible, to leave a man hanging that long. But they're leaving the procedure about the same in the new contract, and almost 100 percent of the miners feel Miller has sold them out."

Strikers such as Frank Coleman, 62, of Pikeville, who has mined coal for three decades, agree that the problem is the grievance procedure.

"If you had a good superintendent who treated you right but laid down the law on layoffs, it might help. But now you've got to arbitrate. The arbitrator goes against you, and that's the end of it.

Over at Jenkins, where the Bethelehem Steel Co. operater mines, local union officials talk about the same problem.

"In three years in our local we've never won a grievance in arbitration. We've settled hundreds of grievances, but the miners just don't feel they've getting justive as long as the arbitrator is a lawyer or professor with no knowledge of what the miner does or what his feelings are," said on UMW leader.