Sad day on Ben Nevis

It was as normal an early morning callout, a party of four had got lost on the descent of the Ben in very poor conditions on the 10th of March 1974. It was the usual 3 hour drive to Fort William arriving at 0230 and then a few hours’ sleep for a search at first light on the Ben. On arriving at the Police Station we were told to grab some sleep most slept in the wagons I was lucky and a few of us kipped in the cells.

The walkers had been trying to walk of the Ben and had got the bearing wrong and headed for Coire Eoghainn a very steep Coire on the Glen Nevis side of the mountain. One of the climbers had fallen and the other had tried to help and fallen as well, the other two members of the party had managed to make their way of the hill and raise the alarm. Lochaber Mrt had been out most of the night bringing of  one of the climbers off and it is a long way down in poor weather. I remember we found the casualty fairly easily as there was a trail of kit in the corrie. He was in a very difficult location, on a small ledge, very icy with lots of loose rock and ice, unfortunately he had been killed in the fall.

A few of us climbed up to him, I remember this well as the crampons many of us wore were causing problems. These were not the new adjustable ones but ones that had to be heat treated to the boots, which were okay on flat ice or snow but very poor on steep ground as this was. I managed to get up to assist and we lowered the team Leader Steve Reeves on a single 500 foot rope with the casualty not an easy job, that picture stayed in my mind for a long time. The belays were not that good but the job had to be done. Then we abseiled down to the rest of the team, this was my first big serious abseil. We met the team with the stretcher and casualty bag and then there was still a long and difficult descent down to the Waterside a descent to Glen Nevis with a loaded stretcher, this took most of the day.

Everyone took there turn carrying the stretcher on the rough ground whenever possible we used the skis attached to the base of the stretcher to make it a bit easy. It was incredibly hard work and as a 9 stone weakling I was given no quarter when my turn to carry came.  Many of the team crampons failed and after that we were issued with adjustable crampons after this incident. It was incredible to think at times how poor our kit was and I  decided to buy as much of my own equipment to make my life easier on the hill after this incident. After handing over the casualty to the Police in Fort William. Some of the family had gathered in the Police station and then a few of us gave statements to the Police. We then drove straight back to Kinloss after a quick meal with the Police, I was freezing as my kit started thawing out on the way back. Hard days but so much to learn, I slept that night, little did I know that 4 days later I would be back on the Ben to another fatality.


On the 15 March 1974  we were called out again in the middle of the night. It takes a lot out of you to be out all night and the Team were still recovering from the last incident. We had a party at Kinloss that night as one of the team was leaving when we were called out at 0200. Four walkers had wandered into 5 finger gully on the descent from Ben Nevis. One had fallen and two of the others went after her and ended up falling over 1000 feet into the gully. Kinloss went straight on to the hill and I was given a Tilly Lamp to use in the gully as that was one form of lighting we used. I met up with the Lochaber team who were with the casualties and Wullie Anderson one of Lochaber MRT threw the Lamp away as it was a waste of time and in the way. It was a tragic callout as it was the wife of  one of the survivors who  was in a bad way asking how his wife was. Lochaber were trying to resuscitate and I was helping treat him, he was asking how she was. Unfortunately she passed away soon after we got there. It was an awful experience for me and even though we managed to get the other two off the hill safely it was a sad time for both teams. Five Finger Gully is a terrible place to be in you have to watch all the time, it is loose and dangerous place and I vowed to get to know it this gully as well as I could.

I was sure to be back helping our friends in Lochaber Mrt regularly. It was amazing how Lochaber coped, they had done several more callouts that week and were always up to the task, many of them with sad results. They were a team of experienced rescuers who had so much experience of this incredible mountain, I was now recognised by many of them and would try to learn from them when working with them.    Weekend Exercise were incredible a different area every weekend, chosen by the Team Leader to get as much Area knowledge as possible. This was wonderful as a budding mountaineer and it allowed you to get lots of new Munros and climbs in, weekdays were spent planning hill and climbs. The weekend started on a Friday night straight after work, we would leave at 1800, usually a 2-3 hour drive to a base camp which in these days would be a village hall, if lucky or in tents even in winter, hardy stuff. The halls were great with the basics, no showers but kitchen and toilets.  We all slept on the floor on mats and each took a turn at cooking an awful job.  It also let you meet a lot of the local characters as the dances were held in the halls and we had many a great night at Ceildhs all over Scotland. Village halls would get a small income from the RAF which was very handy for the halls upkeep, we also had the use of them on callouts. The driving was not with events and as we had been working all day we were usually very tired on the way out. The best place to be was in the back of the Three Ton Lorry, in a sleeping bag and get a few hours’ sleep on the way to base and even better on the way home, there could be as many as 8 in the back and what a great way to travel. One time I woke up with the roof tilt gone and cover in wood when we had a near miss with a wood lorry, it was a great starry night so the view was special, it only snowed in the last few miles to camp. This was the first of many near misses.

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, Books, Friends, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sad day on Ben Nevis

  1. John MacFadyen says:

    A very poignant reminder of the dangers of the Scottish mountains Heavy, & the selfless service of the RAF & Civilian Mountain Rescue Teams. Beautifully written as is your normal way. I really hope to see you at Ra Doo in Nov. Yours aye, John of Colonsay.

    Liked by 1 person

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