The Rockall Club recognises the named individuals below as having landed on Rockall
1982 – B Tucker & L Turner (Dept of Trade), John Coull, Derek Scott, Steve Ross, Dave Whalley
Last night I had a drink for the first time since Arran a few weeks ago, I was with a great pal Lyle Brotherton and Al Swadel. We had a few drams and as always the tales started. We were speaking about Islands and some adventures and I told them the tale about our “Mission to Rockall” in July 1982. I have written about it before but when I look back it gets better and better as a unique experience. It was with 3 other great people 2 who are now sadly gone, these years were special in my life and I feel they are so worth re telling?
Rockall is a very small island lying approximately 300 km (186 miles) west of St Kilda. St Kilda is 66 km (41 miles) west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, and 430km (267 miles) from the nearest point on the Irish mainland. The outcrop measures circa 25m (82ft) on its north-south axis and 22m (72ft) on its east-west axis; the summit is circa 18 m (59ft) above sea level, having been officially 19.2m (63ft) ASL prior to the summit being removed in 1971. It is situated on the Rockall Bank, an Atlantic ridge separated from the European continental shelf by the Rockall Trough. The island is the core of an eroded volcano that erupted around 55 million years ago. The location was confirmed in 1967 as at 57°35′50″N, 13°41′13″W (Ordnance Survey, British Grid MD 96390 16624).
The occupiable area of Rockall, named in 1955 as Hall’s Ledge after the first recorded person to land there, is just 3.5 metres by 1.3 metres (11 foot by 4 foot), and is 4 metres (13 foot) below the summit. There are no trees or bushes on the rock – just algae, seaweeds and one black lichen. Just over 20 species of sea bird and only 6 species of animal have been recorded on or near Rockall. Greenpeace placed a solar powered beacon over the frame of the existing navigation aid in 1997, and returned to upgrade this light in 1998. This was the only permanent mark of human occupation on Rockall until it too succumbed to the ravages of an Atlantic storm two years later.
In 1982 I was a young guy living the dream and back at RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team in Morayshire Scotland from an awful two years in England. I was climbing a lot at this time with the Mountain Rescue Team and was amazed when I got the call and the offer of a week of work. It was ” an offer” my work could refuse we were told to go by a higher authority, that is the military way and my boss was not happy. I was back in my trade as a Catering Clerk and a part -time member of the RAF Kinloss Team. Looking back I am sure our visit had huge military and political support as this was as this was at the time of a troubled war of oil and fishing rights that were and still are disputed in this area. It was also right in the middle of the cold war and the UK was worried about the Russians monitoring our rocket launching from the Hebrides. As young guys we were completely oblivious to all this it was another adventure for us. It would be a costly trip with two Civilian 234 Chinooks used at £3000 an hour in 1982 prices?
Anyway back to the tale on our first day we were off we went Aberdeen airfield for some winching training, now that was strange as we thought “were veterans” at this so I was amazed when we saw what the plan was.
The huge civilian helicopter we were told “was not often ever winched from “and the down draft would be maybe unacceptable? In the end it was awful and they only winched us a few feet from the ground such were the safety implications of it all going wrong, no helmets in those days. The four of us were John Coull a very experienced team member, arctic veteran, sailor. Derek Scott early vegetarian superb climber and lovely guy. Steve Ross all round mountaineer, SARDA man and good looking guy and little old me.
The down-wash was incredible and we had a vague idea but really no clue what we were to be doing up to but it looked like it would be very interesting. The next day we were picked up by the helicopter from Kinloss it was full of fuel tanks as we were going along way out to Rockall. We were to be based in Stornoway and in a hotel for two days to see what the weather would bring. A hotel accommodation that was unusual for us at the time.
On arriving we were told the plan:
Rockall is a long way out from the Hebrides and we were asked to safeguard a group of Board of Trade technicians to assist in putting a “light on the rock”. We flew out by our Bristow Chinook helicopter from Stornoway; to Rockall it was a long way out. If anything went wrong as we were getting winched down and could not cope with the down wash, life may get hard. The group was John Coull, Derek Scott, Steve Ross and me, we had all survived the training.
The weather held and we were away early to make the best of the weather.As we approached the rock it was tiny dot on the horizon and what was to be a wild winch, as this was 1982 and it was early days in winching with this type of helicopter and pretty terrifying, I will never forget the fear of how we would cope with the down draft and that was our responsibility. The tiny dot of Rockall was intimidating. We were expendable I think at the time. We were to land set up a belay and then bring the gear and out two very quite “Board of Trade men down” The top of the stack is covered in wet slippy rock and a scary place to be, the downdrafts was as expected incredible, it made for interesting times. We managed to set up a belay and then safeguarded the rest down it was an imposing place a very small slippy rock in the middle of the Atlantic. We had been briefed about the weather and were told it was not uncommon for waves to cover the rock in bad weather. The weather held for us thank goodness. We felt so vulnerable to the weather and the situation.
We were on Rockall for about 8 hours as the helicopter went back to refuel, we felt very alone. A destroyer was nearby and a Nimrod gave us top cover, these were the days. I note from the photos we are not wearing wet suits or life jackets or helmets at times.
After we had done our bit we helped out two new mates ( Board of Trade) then we climbed all over the Stack worrying the Board of trade people. We must have done several new routes! I must get them in the SMC Journal! Derek Scott was getting bolder and bolder with the routes and I think poor John Coull was getting worried about our adventures but in the end we climbed all over and I doubt if any will be repeated?
The Stack had a plaque on it
“By authority of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, etc, etc,etc. And in accordance with Her Majesty’s instructions dated the 14.9.55. a landing was effected this day upon this island of Rockall from H.M.S. Vidal. The Union flag was hoisted and possession of the island was taken in the name of Her Majesty.
[Signed] R H Connell, Captain, H.M.S. Vidal, 18 September 1955.”
By now the helicopter was back after a refuel it only had a short time and we had to get off the rock as quick as possible. Again it was pretty wild as we were last off all the time stripping the belays and then the big winch up. It was then an exciting winch back up, we were last up taking everything with us and back for an overnight stop again in Stornaway. It was a great night in the Hotel “where have you been some, locals asked? Rockall was the answer and few believed us Looking back it was a great adventure and we had 2 superb nights in Stornoway and were celebrities for a day.
We were told to keep it quiet on our return but the papers were full of it early spin tactics? Now what were we really up to? One of my Bosses was not impressed but we had an interesting trip that few will ever get the chance to repeat.It was worth being told that my career was going no where by the catering officer and this Mountain Rescue was a waste of time. I left him with a copy of the papers and I often wonder what happend to him?
I must write a book some time?.
Sadly both Derek Scott and John Coull are no longer with us but my memories of these few days still hold good. RIP John and Scotty.
The photos tell the tale.