A sad event “Tragedy on Ben Nevis – 19 th December 1954 .”

“On the 19 Dec 1954 exactly 67 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 Womens Royal Naval Service.” KMRT archives.

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 there steps back down to the Carn Mor Dearg Arete.

Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg

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 Brenva Face from a Sea King

Glissading is the act of descending a steep snow or scree covered slopes via a controlled slide on one’s feet or buttocks. . Glissading involves higher risks of injuries than other forms of descending.

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. Imagine having to carry 5 young folk from this tragedy off the hill. These were the days long before helicopters. The trauma they must have dealt with would be terrible.

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.

Now gone replaced by a cairn in 2012 the descent to the Corrie can be very icy.

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 on the descent into Coire Leis and in Coire Leis a small shelter was put in. These were removed a few years ago. Kinloss archives : 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!

Look well to each step

The Cardinal Rules of Glissading or Bum sliding.

1. Never glissade with crampons on.If you’re wearing crampons it means that you’re probably on hard snow or ice. This means that should you glissade, you will slide really fast. If you slide really fast and you catch a crampon spike, your leg will snap like a dry twig. As such one should never glissade with crampons on.

2. Never glissade on a rope team.If one person loses control on a rope team, then others may do so as well.

3. Never glissade on a glacier.It’s likely that you’ll be roped up if you’re on a glacier so if you do glissade, you will be breaking two rules at once. We don’t glissade on glaciers because of the possibility of hidden crevasses.

4. Always make sure that you can see where you’re going. This should make sense. If you can’t see, then you could end up sliding into a talus field or off a cliff.

5. Make sure that there is a good run-out.A good run-out is imperative. One should certainly avoid glissading above dangerous edges, boulders or trees.

These rules are quite black and white. There are few grey areas in glissading. If there is some question of the run out, then the best thing to do is to err on the side of caution. Though you might be tired, sometimes walking down the mountain is the safer alternative.

So todays tip we can always learn from the past: On the Ben the snow on the ridge to the Carn Mor Dearg Artete gets the sun and with a freeze can become lethal with rock hard neve ( hard snow) I was always aware of this and the navigation needed to get to the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. Crampons in winter and an ice axe and knowledge of its use are essential. Also the key skill of navigating.

How many even knew of this tragedy?

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer when body slows, loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Articles, Enviroment, Equipment, Friends, Gear, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Scottish winter climbing., SMC/SMT, Views Mountaineering, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A sad event “Tragedy on Ben Nevis – 19 th December 1954 .”

  1. Fiona says:

    A very interesting article and a insight in to history I didn’t know about. However I would encourage and respectfully request that in future to refer to women as women rather than a girls, especially given that you did not refer to the men in this article as “boys”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.