Highlands claim 15th life: Another climber dies on Ben Nevis as winds whip up ferocious white-outs

Peter Crookston
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:21

FIVE Finger Gully, a notorious trap for climbers on Britain's highest mountain, claimed another victim yesterday: George Gibson, 41, an Edinburgh University lecturer.

After spending a night huddled in the gully in a shrieking blizzard, his 46-year-old climbing partner, also a lecturer, staggered into Glen Nevis youth hostel at daybreak yesterday to report that Mr Gibson disappeared as they descended from the summit of Ben Nevis during a white-out. He said he heard a shout, then saw the light of his friend's torch vanishing down the gully.

Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team and an RAF helicopter from Lossiemouth were called out and Mr Gibson's body was found at mid-morning yesterday - the fifth to be brought off the mountain in eight days.

Three have died in Five Finger Gully - two in separate accidents last Tuesday. The total of deaths in the Scottish Highlands this year now stands at 15 - twice as many as in the same period last year.

What each of the Five Finger Gully accidents had in common was navigational error in white-outs caused by ferociously strong winds. No mountaineer ever ventures into the gully out of choice. They get there by mistake. And sadly, too often they end up dead.

Ironically, the accidents happened when difficult climbs had been accomplished and the men were making their descent to Fort William, the town at the mountain's base, by what is known - perhaps too cosily - as the Tourist Path.

To find the path in the nil visibility of a white-out on the almost flat plateau of the Ben's summit is the most difficult feat of navigation in British mountaineering. Climbers must walk exactly 150 metres on a grid reference of 231 degrees from the summit triangulation point, then change direction and follow another bearing of 281 degrees to clear the plateau and begin the descent on the Tourist Path.

Making that 50-degree change of course to the west- north-west at the correct point is crucial. To get it right, accurately measuring the steps for 150 metres while trying to read a plastic micro-navigation map and a compass in a blizzard, is extraordinarily difficult. Turn after too few steps and you fall over the cliffs you have just climbed; walking too many steps will put you on course for Five Finger Gully.

The former Everest expedition leader Chris Bonington, who was climbing on Ben Nevis last week, says that even the most experienced mountaineers can make mistakes with the summit turn. 'It's especially hard to get it right when you're tired after a hard climb.' One of his friends missed the path a few years ago, veered left into Five Finger Gully and almost came to grief.

Although Bonington loves to climb the north-east face of the Ben, with its awesome, soaring towers and buttresses rising sheer for more than 2,000 feet, he believes that the frequent bad visibility on the summit makes it a very dangerous mountain.

At 4,406 feet, Ben Nevis is only half the height of many mountains in the Alps or the Pyrenees. But they are much further south. Although the Ben starts at sea level, with its feet almost in the Gulf Stream, its head is in the Arctic; at 56 degrees north, it is 11 degrees nearer to the Arctic Circle than Mont Blanc. And unlike Alpine peaks, it stands directly in the path of Atlantic fronts, which make the weather change with alarming rapidity.

When it's a clear, warm day in Fort William, clouds rolling in suddenly from the Atlantic can send the temperature on the Ben's summit several degrees below zero.

This winter, ice-climbing conditions in the Highlands are the best for 10 years - 'superb' says Bonington - and have tempted many more climbers to the Ben and other difficult peaks. Hence, in proportion, there have been more accidents in the changeable weather of the past two months.

A white-out on a mountain is the most terrifying thing imaginable, says Peter Gillman, the distinguished mountaineering author. 'You just can't tell where the ground ends and the sky begins. The only way you can give yourself any orientation is to make a snowball, bowl it underarm as far ahead as you can see it - and that's your horizon.'

There lurks a feeling among some older hands in the climbing world that the new generation of ice climbers may not take mountain navigation seriously enough - that they are brilliant at conquering the ice face but neglect the essential skills of navigation that would get them safely off mountains in bad weather.

Climbers, as distinct from hill walkers, are notorious for being bad navigators, says Mr Gillman. Donald Watt, of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team, a former team leader, said after the call-outs of last week: 'There are too many good climbers and not enough good navigators. They get to the summit thinking that was great, but they're not prepared for the problems of getting back down if the weather closes in. It's happening all the time.'

Climbing is now our fastest growing sport, according to a recent Mintel survey which calculated that there are now 700,000 climbers in Britain and 4.3 million walkers. In the past 15 years, ice climbing has been revolutionised by twin ice picks - short, droop-angled implements with lightweight titanium-alloy shafts.

'It's a brilliant sport which brings more and more people out on to the mountains,' said Derek Walker, general secretary of the British Mountaineering Council. The criticism that more people equals more accidents, which leads to unnecessary expense when RAF helicopters have to be called out, was unfounded, he said. It was unwise to suggest that people should be compelled to take out insurance to cover the cost of helicopter rescue when they go into the mountains.

'We and the RAF and the mountain rescue teams see no need for a change in the present system. The helicopters are on stand-by for rescuing crashed aircrews, so looking for civilians in trouble on the mountains is not an extra expense.' At RAF Lossiemouth, the station that deals with many of the Ben Nevis call-outs, they regard mountain rescues as very good training for bad-weather flying. Flight Sergeant Chris Bodiam says: 'It helps us to be better pilots. That's the justification for our involvement.'

But climbers might pause for thought about the fine distinction between the adrenaline that fuels adventure one minute and turns to terror the next in an uncontrollable slide down Five Finger Gully.

(Map omitted)

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