Over 47 Years ago I first climbed Tower Ridge for the first time it was Sept 1972.
I was a young lad in the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team in Morayshire I was a very young 19 year old. 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 a briefing .
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 a Ariel on the Ben.
|RAF Kinloss Stats 01/09/72||Ben Nevis Tower Ridge||3 Royal Navy climbers, fell from Tower ridge – 3 fatal. John Hinde, Heavy, Bugsy climbed the ridge after call out.|
They were found below the ridge by the Lochaber Team if I remember rightly in the basin near Gardh Gully and we all helped to evacuate them to the CIC Hut below the North Face. There were no helicopters these days and even though its a short carry it was hard work. Unfortunately all were killed and still roped together after a fall from the ridge, lying in the scree. It was a hard introduction to the world of mountain Rescue for a young lad. As always it is 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. Lochaber MRT as now was full of incredible characters and a few were ex RAF who had settled in the area mainly due to falling for a local lassie. They were a hard bunch but looked after you as did many of our team.
It was on one of my first tragedy’s on the Ben a place I was to see on many more occasions. Once we had handed the stretchers 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 (no one else fancied it) if I would climb Tower Ridge with John and Michael Rabbit’s (Bugs) both were 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 to the famous Tower ridge. It was wet and greasy and always in my young mind was that 3 climbers had been killed on this climb.
Tower Ridge 2000 feet Difficult climb first ascent 1892 in descent! This is the classic route on the cliff unique for its time as it was first descended. These days it is still the most popular climb on the mountain. It has cruxes in the Great Tower and Tower Gap in the wind and rain it can be exciting. Never to be underestimated in my view?
As W.H.Murray states ” Tower Ridge is the pre -eminent example of a mainly moderate route that must be classic by virtue of its big cliff environment, its own great length, its clean sound rock and the grand scale of its architecture. Whatever more ambitious plans one has on Ben Nevis, Tower Ridge is the first essential climb for the man or women) who wants to know the mountain”
We scrambled up unroped the gully 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 was greasy and wet 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 had seen that 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.
On every bit even the easy parts I took my time and was a bit in awe a the famous Tower gap as the mist came down. Lots of the climb we moved together most of the time along the ridge John showing the key belays and guarding me on the tricky bits. The Eastern Traverse just a path in summer and the Chock stone then up onto the Great Tower and how tricky it could be here in winter. 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 only after we had climbed to the summit.
”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 to our land rover.
The rope and lagged behind a bit in my own world after a difficult day. There was no food just a 3 hour drive back my gear basic in these days was wet but I was soon asleep in the back of the vehicle. We arrived back at Kinloss late in the evening, really tired and when we arrived back at work next day. It had been some day and there was little chat about what had happend these were the days when few spoke about these things,they were buried in the mind. That is how we dealt with trauma then unlike know. After that call -out I developed Psoriasis which was to be with me all my life. I am sure the trauma of these early call – outs had something to do with this awful skin disease.
On my return next day at work 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?
Despite this tragic event for many years I was to climb Tower Ridge with new Team Members enjoying giving many an introduction to this incredible mountain. I have climbed it over 20 times in summer yet still manage to wandered off route on a lovely summers day! Follow the crampon marks is the tip. I have managed the classic 4 ridges in summer in a long day and about 10 winter ascents of Tower Ridge and that is a different proposition. I have waited near the gap for many of the young troops on there first mountain lead and as the wind howls through the gap its imposing. Its as they say only a diff but on a bad day looks horrific. On a few rescues in the past we have climbed down to the gap from the summit ridge. I have so many memories of this climb.
Yet what a climb what joy you have what views and what a place to be. Another great climb to savour but never take it for granted or those you climb with.
References – Classic Rock Ken Wilson
Ben Nevis Rock and ice climbs. SMC Publications
Classic Mountain Scrambles in Scotland – Andrew Dempster.
In the Shadow of Ben Nevis – Ian Sykes an insight into the Ben and this era.
Ben Nevis “Britain’s Highest Mountain”. Ken Crocket/ Simon Richardson all you need to know about this wonderful mountain.