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A 1959 DIY Mountain Rescue on Ben Nevis, by Gwen Moffat Article

© Gwen Moffat

Author, writer and Britain's first female mountain guide, Gwen Moffat, shares a mountain rescue story showing 'how it was done before phones, satnav and choppers' on Ben Nevis in 1959, involving the late mountain safety pioneer Hamish MacInnes, who passed away aged 90 last month.


It was near avalanche conditions but a calculated risk: Raeburn's Easy Route with some two feet of new snow on old hard stuff that necessitated several minutes of hard work to dig a pit and cut a step for every foot of progress. It was slow and tiring – and as I came up to Lees he said he could hear a whistle. I went past him grumbling, knowing now that we were committed to work that would be infinitely harder and more dangerous than just climbing and anyway I hadn't heard the whistle. Then I heard it: thin and distant, unmistakable. It seemed to be coming from Number Two Gully in Coire na Ciste below us on our right.

photo
Gwen Moffat climbing Green Gully on Ben Nevis.
© Gwen Moffat

Trying to hurry in that snow was hell. We continued to lead through but now the leader pawed and kicked like a dog and, with no time to cut steps, all trust was in the two front points as one pawed for the next hold – always with the right leg since we were moving diagonally, always frightened because the belays were rubbish.

We came out on the plateau, saw the weather was deteriorating and hurried along the edge to the top of Number Two Gully. The cornice wasn't broken but, going out to the side, I could see a gash in its overhang as if an axe had sliced through the soft stuff without resistance. Immediately below steps had been cut, there was more broken snow and then the start of a chute made by a falling body. I could see as far as the bend in the gully and the top of the ice pitch. The chute plunged straight as an arrow for the bend. The whistle had stopped.

I said that if we descended Number Two we'd be too slow so we ran along the top and glissaded fast down Number Three Gully only to round its foot and start the long and agonising plod up several hundred feet to a body lying on the snow - lolling rather: on its side and watching me. I shouted. There was an indistinct response. Earlier in the day we'd seen three people approaching Number Two so where were the other two? I plodded on, shouting between gasps, and at last I was close enough to hear him say he'd sent the others down. So although we had no idea of their injuries, here at least we had only one to deal with.

I reached him and stopped, too spent to speak. We stared at each other. He was young, fully conscious and blue. He had lost his gloves and his hands were like dead fish. One leg was twisted from the pelvis and lying underneath him. He thought it was broken but it transpired that the hip was dislocated.

I worked my spare clothes around him and Lees came up and started to persuade him to cooperate in some kind of downhill progress. It would soon be dark and so far as we knew his companions might have collapsed on the descent. It could be hours before he was brought down by anyone other than ourselves.

It was impossible to straighten his leg so we put a sling round his ankle and neck to keep it in the position he said was least painful, clipped another sling round his waist and, picking him up by this, Lees started to slide him down the slope, secured by me on a top rope.

We went down fairly smoothly in hundred-foot run-outs until, approaching the foot of the Comb, Catherine MacInnes arrived from the hut. Now we had a doctor and the First Aid kit – and somewhere in Zero Gully there was a party including Hamish but as yet we had no contact with them. The two survivors had reached the hut. Catherine had put one to bed and sent the other down to Fort William for further assistance. She had manhandled the stretcher to the front door and left it there with a note telling all comers to bring it up into the coire. From a thousand feet above we could see it lying there: a blob of bright green canvas outside the hut - and the chimney was smoking. People had arrived but why had they stopped to stoke the fire? As Catherine attended the casualty I watched the hut like a hawk but nothing moved. Someone had to go down - and I drew the short straw.

It was easy going at first but the snow gave out at the lochan and after that it was all boulders and frozen moss between steep little drops to the lower glen. I ripped off my crampons, the salvaged rucksacks and ropes, stuck my axe in the ground and went running on praying not to sprain an ankle.

There were three people in the hut: an elderly man, a lad and a girl, all novices about to start a snow-climbing course. They had sent a fourth man up to us with blankets but we'd missed each other as I descended.

I sent the girl up the glen towards the foot of Zero to try to contact Hamish but with strict instructions not to go near the cliff, just to shout from the bottom. That left three of us for the stretcher. On that awful ground we were inexperienced and uncoordinated but Lees came down to meet us, followed by the man who'd been sent up with the blankets. Fresh hands took over the load and finally we reached the survivor now with his leg straightened and snug in a casualty bag.

The carry started down the final thousand feet. For the first section (which was the steepest and roughest) Lees – who could see where he was going – went at a gruelling pace. Those immediately behind him had a small advantage but three of us at the back were stumbling blind, with our leader continually reminding us that a man's life depended on our speed. We set our teeth and said nothing. At one point all three of the rear men, having fallen but refusing to relinquish a hold on the stretcher, were down but – like religious fanatics – grovelling our way through a boulder field on our knees. The casualty was mute: from morphine or stoicism or both.

At last I protested on behalf of the rear men and we changed positions, Lees taking the back end. As soon as we set off again he shouted that we were going too fast.

The hut was crowded. We carried right to the door: six of us, and four were novices, making a grand and bruising debut. But there were forty police and professionals to take over, and the punch line was Lees' blistering tirade directed at the cop who made the mistake of ordering him to join the real rescuers and help carry down to the Fort.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Gwen Moffat



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3 Dec, 2020

Amazing memory recall from this incident. As with all such rescues at that time you often never heard anything about the casualty. I helped to carry a chap on an improvised rope stretcher, from high on the zigzags of Snowdon down to Llyn Lyddaw in about 1971. I remember it was bloody hard work and there were only 4 of us. Everyone else seemed to melt into the gloom. Our casualty was unconscious by the time we handed him over at the causeway to the MR who had arrived in a big army truck, but he looked in a bad way. I never did find out if he lived or died.

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