1957 letter reference breakage of ice axes – that led to huge changes! Zero Gully accident 1958

Early axes

Early axes

I have just come across and old  letter dated 8 April 1957

From the Air Ministry – Whitehall Gardens London

To RAF Mountain Rescue Teams Kinloss, Valley, Leuchars, St. Athan, Topcliffe, Nicosia. Harpur Hill.

Subject – Ice Axes.

An ice axe broken through normal use at RAF Valley has recently been the subject of an investigation. This has shown that the moisture content of the broken shaft  was appreciably below the normal( 7% as compared with the normal 12 – 16 % )

It is possible that this is due to incorrect storage at the Maintenance Unit and this will be investigated.  All ice axes held by Mountain Rescue Teams however are to be inspected and tested before further use.  They should not, in future be kept in a heated store  but should be kept out of doors , under cover, or indoors with adequate ventilation and no heating.

The shafts in future are to be dressed with raw linseed oil  and not boiled linseed oil as at present. AP3172 will be amended in due course.

Hamish answer

Hamish answer a few answer a few years later. Made in Glencoe

This tragic call -out on Ben Nevis in 1958  a year later was to highlight the wooden axes failures if used as a belay on Zero Gully on the 10 Th April 1958  where 3 top climbers were killed on Ben Nevis.

Call out 86-5/58 10/04/58 Ben Nevis


RAF Kinloss Mrt – 3 missing climbers found at the foot of Zero Gully.  Fatal.  (Tech). Belay failed, broken wooden ice axe, recovery party included Hamish Mc Inness and Tom Patey and locals from Lochaber.


The early axe made for RAF MR & NATO

The early axe made for RAF MR & NATO By Hamish MacInnes!

So when you run up these gullys with all the modern gear spare a though for the old and bold, try a grade 3 with a straight pick and cutting steps, you will be amazed how bold they were. How would you do?

The Terror

The Terror

Great tales of a different era but how incredible were these climbers?

Great book about an incredible climber Robin Smith!

Great CD about an incredible climber Robin Smith and Jimmy Marshal on the Ben in these early days.

So when your out and about this winter with all the magic gear spare a thought ” that was a soft touch climb” think what they the pioneers were using cunning, craft and great skill?





About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 36 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 4 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Gear, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Scottish winter climbing., SMC/SMT, Views Mountaineering. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 1957 letter reference breakage of ice axes – that led to huge changes! Zero Gully accident 1958

  1. Sunshine says:

    In the 1950s the RAF had an thousands of wooden ice axes. Our method of testing at RAF Kinloss was to put them across a curbstone and stand and spring on them. We would sometimes break up to 5 axes before we got an axe that didn’t break.

    Liked by 1 person

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