I had written this a few years ago and it was tidied up by a pal for the RAF MRT newsletter, its worth a look?
Forty- eight years ago, I climbed Tower Ridge for the first time. It was September 1972. I was a young lad in the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team in Morayshire, Scotland, a very young nineteen-year old. We had driven through the night and were up at the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis to search for three missing Royal Navy climbers who had not returned from a day out on one of Scotland’s finest ridges.
The RAF Mountain Rescue Service have a particular remit for the search and rescue of military personnel. In any case, for any big searches in these days, Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team called in the assistance of the RAF teams – as at times they still do even today. This was in the days before mobile phones and lightweight VHF communications. I had only been in the Kinloss Team for under a year at the time and the drive down the Great Glen through the night to assist was exciting. I was to have many epics on this road in the years to come. We arrived at the police station in the early hours and were given a brew and a briefing.
The Police and Lochaber MRT had access to a snow-track vehicle in those days. The path to the CIC Hut could be swampy, but with the aid of the snow cat we managed to get fifty searchers to the hut at first light. The three climbers, from HMS Cochrane (Rosyth) had left the CIC hut where they were staying to climb Tower Ridge via the Douglas Boulder. I later found out they were also doing some work on an antenna on the Ben. They were found below the ridge in the basin near Gardh Gully, by the Lochaber Team if I remember rightly. Unfortunately, all were killed, found still roped together after a fall from the ridge, lying in the scree. We all helped to evacuate them to the CIC Hut below the North Face. It took all of us to move them. There were few helicopters those days, and, even though it’s a short carry, it was hard work.
It was a real tragedy, a hard introduction to the world of mountain rescue for a young lad. In those days young members were expected to assist with everything. 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, usually due to falling for a local lassie. They were a hard bunch but looked after you, as did many of our team.
It was one of my first tragedies on the Ben – a place I was to see on many more occasions. Once we had handed the stretchers over to the snow-cat 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. I was asked (no one else fancied it) if I would climb Tower Ridge with John and Michael Rabbit (AKA “Bugs”), both of whom were very experienced mountaineers.
It’s hard to remember everything but it was a wet day, I’d never climbed Tower Ridge before. We more or less climbed up West Gully – not the usual way up the famous ridge. It was wet and greasy and always in my young mind was that three climbers had just been killed on this climb.
Tower Ridge, rated a 2000-foot “Difficult” climb, was first climbed in 1892. It was first descended, not ascended! The first down-climbers were J. E. and B. Hopkins on 3 September 1892. They had ascended as far as the Great Tower the previous day. The first actual ascent was by Norman Collie, Godfrey Solly and J. Collier on 29 March 1894. This is the classic route on the North East face of the Ben, a true alpine day in summer or winter. It remains the most popular climb on the mountain. It has two cruxes: the Great Tower and Tower Gap. It can be excitingin the wind and rain. 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. I had just climbed Savage Slit in the Cairngorms the week before and felt I was ready for such a long climb. John was wandering all over, 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, yet the rock was greasy and wet, so you needed to take care.
John was a leading light in Mountain Rescue at the time,and very interested in mountain safety. He always analysed the accidents that he went to. He worked very closely with Ben Humble, the SMC Mountain Rescue Statistician at the time, and later became the SMC statistician himself, after Ben passed away. John had noticed that two of the casualties were wearing normal military boots and this may have not helped. They can be slippery on damp rock.
We will never know what exactly happened, but I was a very careful young lad moving along the ridge. It was a long day.
On every bit, even the easy parts, I took my time. I was certainly a bit in awe of the famous Tower Gap, especially as the mist came down. We moved together most of the time along the ridge, John showing the key belays, guarding me on the tricky bits. The Eastern Traverse, just a path in summer, and the Chock stone – then up onto the Great Tower. How tricky it can be there in winter! I learnt a lot that day from two incredible mentors, particularly 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 taken no sleep the night before, and it was a long day for a young lad, yet I kept going, and was even given the rope to carry off – but only after we had climbed to the summit. “Look well to each step” is a great quote, so apt even today.
We were many hours behind the team, which had left to return to camp straight after the casualties were handed over to the police. There was little chat as we headed back to Torlundy to our Land Rover. That is how we dealt with trauma then.Those were the days when few spoke about these things, but, unknown to us, they were buried in the mind. After that call out I developed psoriasis, which was to be with me all my life. I am sure the trauma of these early callouts had something to do with this awful skin disease.
As the day ended, I lagged behind a bit, in my own world after a difficult experience. There was no food, not even a cup of tea, just a three-hour drive back to the base. Gear was very basic in these days and mine was wet, but I was soon asleep in the back of the vehicle. We arrived back at Kinloss late in the evening, very tired. It had been some day.
On my return to work the next day, I was asked by my boss if I had enjoyed my day off. He said that I would be working the next weekend to make up my “time off”!
I have many memories of this climb. Despite this tragic event, for many years I was to climb Tower Ridge with new team members, giving many an introduction to this incredible mountain. I have climbed it over twenty times in summer, yet still always seem to manage to wander off route, even on the most lovely summers day. “Follow the crampon marks” is the best tip. I have managed the classic four Ben ridges in summer in a long day. I’ve also done about ten winter ascents of Tower Ridge. That is a very different proposition. I have waited near the gap for many of the young Troops on their first mountain lead. As the wind howls through the gap it’s imposing. It is, 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. Yet what a climb, what joy you have climbing it, what views, and what a place to be. Another great climb to savour, but never take it for granted, or those you climb with.
I have climbed Tower Ridge on many occasions yet that first time will forever be on my memory .