Over 47 Years ago I first climbed Tower Ridge for the first time I was a young lad 18 years old in the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team. We had driven through the night and were up at the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis to search for 3 missing Naval Climbers who had not returned from a day out on one of Scotland’s finest ridges. The RAF mountain Rescue have a remit for the SAR of military personnel and these were days before mobile phones and great communications. Any big searches in these days Lochaber Mountain Rescue called in assistance of the RAF as at times they still do nowadays. I was only in the Kinloss Team for under a year at the time and the drive through the night to assist was exciting in these days. I was to have many epics on this road on the years to come. As we arrived at the Police station in the early hours we had a brew and waited for first light.
The Police and Lochaber in these days had access to a snow-track vehicle and the path to the CIC Hut in these days could be swamp but we managed to get 50 searchers to the hut at first light. The three climbers from HMS Cochrane (Roysth) had left the CIC hut where they were staying to climb Tower Ridge by the Douglas Boulder. I later found out they were doing some work on the radio in the hut.
They were found below the ridge by the Lochaber Team and we all helped to evacuate them to the CIC Hut. Unfortunately all were killed sadly roped together after a fall from the ridge. It was a hard introduction to the world of mountain Rescue for a young lad. A real tragedy and it took all of us to move them. In these days young members were expected to assist in everything and I helped load a young lad onto the stretcher.
It was on of my first tragedy’s on the Ben a place I was to see many more. Once we had handed them over to the snow-track at the CIC Hut John Hinde was asked by the Police to investigate what may have happened. John Hinde was even in these days a legend in mountain rescue and I was asked if I would climb Tower Ridge with John and Michael Rabbit’s both very experienced mountaineers.
It’s hard to think back but it was a wet day I had never climbed Tower Ridge before and we more or less climbed up West Gully not the usual way up the famous Tower ridge. It was wet and greasy and in my mind was that 3 climbers had been killed on this climb.
We scrambled up unroped it was loose and wet John was wandering all over to where he thought was the accident site was. He was looking for signs of the accident . This is where all three had fallen from roped together. He surmised that they were moving together when someone had slipped. The weather had been fine though yet the rock you needed to take care.
I had just climbed Savage Slit in the Cairngorms the week before and felt I was ready for such a long climb. John Hinde was a leading light in mountain Rescue at the time and very interested in mountain safety. He always analysed accidents that he went too. He worked very closely with Ben Humble the SMC Mountain Rescue Statistician of the time and later became the statistician after Ben passed away. It was a long day and John found on the day before but two of the casualties were wearing normal military boots and this may have not helped as they can be slippy on damp rock. We will never know what exactly happened but I was a very careful young lad moving along the ridge and a bit in awe a the famous gap as the mist came down . I learnt a lot that day from two incredible mentors and how easy it is to have a slip or trip. I took extra care all the way as one would expect after such an introduction to such a special place. I had no sleep and it was a long day for a young lad yet I kept going and even was given the rope to carry off,
Look well to each step” is so great a quote and so apt even today. We were many hours behind the team which left straight after the casualties were handed over to the police. There was little chat as we headed back to Torlundy.
I had the rope to carry and lagged behind a bit in my own world after a difficult day. Then we had a 2 hour journey back to Kinloss. We arrived back at Kinloss late in the evening, really tired and when we arrived back at work next day I was asked by Boss if I had enjoyed my day off?
He said that I was working the weekend to make up my time off?
That winter I was to climb Tower Ridge with the Tom MacDonald it was an incredible day with superb conditions till the weather cleared. We were with the Team Leader and Eric Hughes the officer i/c . There was a delay at the Gap and Pete pushed through we ended taking another three groups with us. By now it was dark, windy and wild. It was a long day but I learned a lot I will never forget this was my first time in winter in the Gap as the dark came along with more heavy snow and the relief of getting up on to the summit. Yet as always the Ben tested us it was a hard walk off.
Looking back the navigation off was not easy in the poor weather it was very late when we got off. Then soaked I was so glad to change and get some food. It had been a long day.
We learned two of our pals had bivied on Observatory ridge that night as the snow got heavier. We were up at crack of dawn I hardly slept.
Then it was wet gear on no sleep as such and as we reached the CIC Hut as dawn was breaking it was a wild day. Heavy snow had fallen we were worried there was no communication all night from our pals and despite no Avalanche Service in these days it was easy to see how dangerous the conditions were. I was given a heavy bag with supposed to be a 500 rope in it. Told to carry minimum gear and get up the hill.
The weather was awful we feared for our boys as we got to the CIC hut I checked the huge bad I was carrying it. I was told to put my gear on the top. I looked inside and it had the pulley gear in it, it was supposed to be a 500 ft rope. I was horrified, then the snow stopped and we saw two figures descending they were our pals. They had abseiled of as daylight came. We walked off after a brew in the hut.
I was to climb Tower ridge most winters some several times on our annual winter course. In the summer it was done with other ridges at times. Yet these first times remain with me. Tower Ridge to me is one of the best climbs in the UK is always interesting.