Tragedy on Ben Nevis – the sad tale of the Royal Naval Disaster 60 years ago 19 December 1954.

On the 19 Dec 1954  exactly 60 years ago Eleven Royal Naval personnel from Royal Naval Air Station Fulmar (Lossiemouth) left to climb Ben Nevis  via Coire Leis. They had stayed overnight and left the CIC hut where they were staying below the great cliffs off  Nevis, the party was made up of 8 men and three girls  from the Womens Royal Naval  Service.They left the hut finding the weather poor and ascended from Coire Leis at 0900 and reached the summit of Ben Nevis at 1300. They left the summit after a 15 minute break; the conditions were very hard snow (neve’ and poor visibility.) The summit plateau is a tricky place to navigate and in winter 1954 the path would be covered with snow. They had intended to retrace there steps back down to the Carn Mor Dearg Arete.

 

Ben Nevis

On the descent they had a navigation error about 200 yards from the summit. This error lead them  to the cliffs between North East Buttress and the Arete (Brenva Face) They were not together there was now a party of six ahead  and the leader he led them away from the cliffs the others tried to catch up. One of the party behind the leader started glissading, lost control, lost his axe and fell; another member ran after him kicking steps and he lost control and also fell followed by 3 others from the party. In total 5 vanished over the huge cliff and out of sight.

 

Glissading

Glissading

Glissading is the act of descending a steep snow or scree covered slopes via a controlled slide on one’s feet or buttocks. . Glissading involves higher risks of injuries than other forms of descending.

The Party Leader roped to edge and could see nothing, they then they descended to the Corrie Leis and found all 5 dead below the huge  Brenva Face.  They had fallen over 1000 feet, what a tragedy and an awful sight.  They went for help and it would be a long walk there were no mobile phones in these days. They went to Fort William and raised the alarm with the local Police. The Police called RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team and the team arrived. At first light 23 members of RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team, 8 Local Police/ mountaineering Club and 20 naval personnel assisted in recovery.  It must have been a long recovery and it took 10 hours in very poor weather, drifting snow, gales to recover casualties.

This was a terrible tragedy and one that shocked the whole of the Mountaineering world. Few have nowadays ever heard of this disaster and the terrible consequences of this navigation error and the mistake to glissade on such steep ground. After this tragedy a line of marker poles were erected to show the line of descent to the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. Abseil posts were put up by RAF Kinloss team on the descent into Coire Leis  and in Coire Leis a small shelter was put in. These were removed recently!

The Old abseil posts now gone

The Old abseil posts now gone. The late John Hinde puts in the new abseil posts.

Look well to each step

The Cardinal Rules of Glissading 

  1. Never glissade with crampons on.If you’re wearing crampons it means that you’re probably on hard snow or ice. This means that should you glissade, you will slide really fast. If you slide really fast and you catch a crampon spike, your leg will snap like a dry twig. As such one should never glissade with crampons on.
  2. Never glissade on a rope team.If one person loses control on a rope team, then others may do so as well.
  3. Never glissade on a glacier.It’s likely that you’ll be roped up if you’re on a glacier so if you do glissade, you will be breaking two rules at once. We don’t glissade on glaciers because of the possibility of hidden crevasses.
  4. Always make sure that you can see where you’re going. This should make sense. If you can’t see, then you could end up sliding into a talus field or off a cliff.
  5. Make sure that there is a good run-out.A good run-out is imperative. One should certainly avoid glissading above dangerous edges, boulders or trees.

These rules are quite black and white. There are few grey areas in glissading. If there is some question of the run out, then the best thing to do is to err on the side of caution. Though you might be tired, sometimes walking down the mountain is the safer alternative.

How many even knew of this tragedy?

About heavywhalley.MBE

Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist
This entry was posted in Equipment, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Weather. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Tragedy on Ben Nevis – the sad tale of the Royal Naval Disaster 60 years ago 19 December 1954.

  1. A very sad incident Heavy. The dangers of a lack of practice in the art of glissading cannot be overstated. Many years ago one of my mates was with group of Scouts who sadly lost a party over Cloggy. Again a navigation mistake led to the loss of life.

    Liked by 1 person

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