On the 19 Dec 1954 over 65 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 Women’s 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 their steps back down to the Carn Mor Dearg Arete.
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.
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.
From the RAF Kinloss Archives
The Tragedy of The Royal Naval Party 19th December 1954 on Ben Nevis
A party of 11 Naval Personnel from HMS Fulmar set out at 0800 from the Allt a Mhuilinn to climb Carn Mhor Dearg to Summit of Ben Nevis. The weather conditions were very poor, wind a strong wind and heavy snow. The party left the summit at 1315 to return by same route. Six members of the party kicked steps down the snow slope for 200 yards from the summit – they thought to be the slope leading to the Arete, which they had just ascended. This actually proved to be 30 yards to the North East and lead straight to the cliffs between NE Buttress and the Arête. One member of the group behind started Glissading and passed the first party, he lost control, lost his ice axe and disappeared over the edge, another party member followed running down the slope, kicking steps, he also lost control and disappeared over the edge, 3 other members followed also out of control, over the edge. One member of the survivors roped up to the edge but could not see anything.
The remainder of the party slit into 2, one went back via the tourist route to raise the alarm. The other descended the Carn MOR Dearg Arête, roped up and found their friends all together – dead. (Location of Casualties 41/171713) The Fort William Police requested the RAF Kinloss Team to assist in the accident and the team was alerted from a training Exercise at Glenmore Lodge at 1530 hours. Due to the weather conditions a large party set of at 0600 to recover the casualties.
Twenty three members of The Kinloss Team and RAF Team Leaders Course assisted by 8 Policemen from Fort William and 20 Royal Naval personnel from Royal Naval Air Station Lossiemouth in the recovery of the casualties on the 20 th Dec 2005. The recovery was lead by one of the survivors of the Tragedy who took the team to the location of the casualties in very poor weather conditions, driving snow and high winds. It took 8 hours to get the casualties down to the British Aluminium Company’s Railway which was used to transport the casualties to Fort William; an awful task
Comments made by the Kinloss Team Leader “Due to several accidents in this area Doctor Duff, of Fort William has under taken to erect a barrier and a danger notice at the site of the accident” The late John Hinde and the Kinloss team put up the Abseil Posts on Carn Mor Dearg in 1955? (Photo attached)
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 and Hamish MacInnes on the descent into Coire Leis and in Coire Leis a small shelter was put in. These were removed recently June 2012 they were in a poor state of repair and are no longer there!
There is a Cairn marking the descent now.
How many know of this sad tale?
Navigation is a key skill especially in winter. You wonder how this tragedy would be shown by today’s media?