A survivor of Britain’s worst mountain disaster has recalled the tragedy for the first time ahead of special 50th anniversary memorial services.
Patricia Cameron lost five teenage school friends and their teacher when they froze to death in an unprecedented November storm in the Cairngorms in 1971 during a trip designed to improve their navigation skills.
At 4000 feet on Saturday, November 20, climbing club members from Edinburgh’s Ainslie Park School split into two groups amid deteriorating weather.
A more experienced party, led by 23-year-old Ben Beattie and including Patricia, headed to the sanctuary of the high-level Curran bothy, where they remained overnight before heading back down the mountain the following day.
But when they reached the safety of Rothiemurchus at 5.30pm on the Sunday, they realised the other group was missing and alerted police in Aviemore.
Mrs Cameron remembers the fierce weather conditions on the way down and recalls the desperation of the children to get back to safety.
“The conditions were appalling, it was a complete white-out,” she said, speaking about the disaster for the first time from her home in Edinburgh.
“It was fine when we left. We got up the chairlift, stopped at the Ptarmigan café, then we left there and got so far up the mountain when it changed.
“Even the following day, coming down was probably more traumatic than going up.”
Led by 21-year-old Catherine Davidson, the less-experienced climbers had attempted to dig a snow hole in freezing, 100mph winds on the Cairngorm Plateau, but were soon engulfed just a few hundred yards short of the shelter.
By the Sunday evening, a major search and rescue operation was underway for the missing climbers and, from the air, a helicopter crew spotted a severely frostbitten Ms Davidson’s bright red jacket as she crawled on her hands and knees.
That sighting led them to discover the bodies of five children and instructor Sheelagh Sunderland, but miraculously, the other survivor from the less experienced group, 15-year-old pupil Raymond Leslie, was pulled free from four feet of snow by an RAF rescuer using an avalanche pole for the first time.
Marty Rowe, who was part of the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team, recalled: “We started to dig away the layers of snow and the young lad was lying in a slight ditch, which probably saved his life.
“The snow had closed over him and insulated him a wee bit. As we were digging, we saw slight movement of his limbs and thought ‘this guy’s alive’.”
‘Until it was over, it was fun’
The disaster led to considerable debate about the value of mountain bothies. While experienced climbers credited the huts with saving lives, others claimed they had tempted the less well prepared onto the hills.
A fatal accident inquiry found no one was to blame, but led to the demolition of two high-level bothies and sparked an overhaul into the training and safety of children taking part in outdoor pursuits.
Looking back now, Mrs Cameron doesn’t know if the trip was poorly planned.
“It’s hard to say because when you’re 15-years-old it’s such fun, it was exciting,” she said. “The journey up to Aviemore, we were all in the Transit van having fun, looking forward to what was ahead, never thinking this would happen.
“One of the girls celebrated her 16th birthday the day we arrived and all the girls in the dormitory had a little party to wish her a happy birthday.
“Until it was all over, it was fun.”
‘I’ve had a life’
A new memorial to honour Ms Sunderland pupils William Kerr, Lorraine Dick, Susan Byrne, Carol Bertram and Diane Dudgeon has just been installed at Lagganlia Outdoor Centre in Kincraig – where the school party was based – while memorial services will be held this weekend.
Patricia Cameron will be among those paying tribute, not that she needs the anniversary to remind her of that fateful weekend in 1971.
“I think about it a lot, not just on the anniversary,” she said. “When I got married, when I had children, grandchildren…
“I think about how blessed I am to have made it back safe, because I’ve had a life.”