Tragedy on Ben Nevis December 1956.

The 1957 SMC Journal “ 25 December 1956 – Group of 5 benighted in a blizzard on plateau after climbing South Castle Gully Ben Nevis ( Carn Dearg) Survivor got down to Fort William on 26 th December. Rescue party held up by blizzard on first day. Four others all located dead next day. Kinloss MRT , Lochaber JMCS and Police Co – operated in Rescue operations.

I found this old mountain Safety document produced in 1957 “The Price Paid” by the Chief Constable of Inverness-hire. It’s a tragic tale yet all these years later we can still learn from it. Note there were no mobile phones, GPS and Rescue was down by the Police, local climbers and clubs and the RAF Teams. There were limited weather forecast’s available non specific to mountain weather or SAR Helicopters in these early days.

Factual Police Summary of Tragedy on Ben Nevis.

“Five young men from England 19 to 21 years of age,arrived in Fort William on 22 December 1956 to climb Ben Nevis over the Christmas period. The following day the reached the head of the Allt – a – Mhuillinn where they established their base camp and remained that night.

I’ll equipped for such a task, without food and with no idea of the time- their only watch having stopped- they set out to climb Ben Nevis via the South Castle Gully.

Guide book info on crag

Due to most unfavourable weather and ground conditions, their progress was slow and the early darkness had fallen by the time they had reached the summit of the Carn Dearg Peak.

Carn Dearg

Weather conditions, in sub – zero temperatures had become appalling and in the words of the only survivor “they were completely lost” With their ice axes they dug a shallow hole in the frozen snow and without nourishment of any kind or adequate clothing, attempted to shelter on that exposed peak from the violence of the blizzard then raging.

Exposure and exhaustion had a quick and telling effect on their physical resistance and the condition of two of them became critical. With the first light of dawn one of them began to descend in a desperate bid to summon help and arrived at Fort William Police station shortly after 1100 on Christmas morning after in a state of almost complete collapse. After giving what information he could he was immediately removed and detained in Fort William hospital for treatment.

The advance Police party, under hazardous conditions made a courageous and sustained attempt to locate the four young men. The leader was only able to reach and search Carn Dearg summit.This he did in failing darkness and in a blizzard which forced him to crawl in his hand and knees. The search has to be abandoned. Next day three frozen bodies were found covered over with drifting snow in the shallow dug – out referred to previously. There is no doubt they died on Christmas morning after their companion had left for help. The fourth man died in a final and desperate effort to escape a similar fate. His body was located 500 feet below.

The cause of this accident resulting in such tragedy, such as grief to relatives and incalculable risk to rescue person leaves no room for conjecture.”

The article ends with advice.

Training – Winter mountaineering is a craft that needs constant training and fitness.

Never underestimate the weather – easier now with the good forecasts available.

Plan your trip and leave word where your going with someone you trust. This is so relevant even today.

Remember winter days are shorter for daylight.

Carry enough food and the basics whistle torch map compass.

I am sure if my memory is correct there was a very small tin bivy hut near the summit of Carn Dearg but in winter it was always hard to find covered in snow. I think it was donated by the People paper ? It’s long gone has anyone got a photo of it ?

It is worth mentioning that on my early winter climbing forays on the Ben I climbed many of the routes on this part of the mountain. On one wild day after climbing Nordwand we had a big epic getting off the mountain. It is not easy in bad weather there are crags and cornices to avoid even today. I have also searched this neglected area of Ben Nevis it’s a tricky area where a slip could be very serious. We located a young winter Walker here lost in this area and survived three nights in his bivy bag. That was one of my best outcomes on a search.

Photo below is possibly one of the earliest photos of avalanche probing on Ben Nevis by RAF Kinloss MRT using home made probs from Gas piping made by workshops. I found an old probe many years ago in the summer in that area that was similar.

1954 search for two avalanche victims located by RAF Kinloss using gas piping as probes . X marks location of casualties.

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, Avalanche info, Enviroment, Equipment, Gear, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, People, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Weather, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

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