Published: 06/06/2007 00:00 - Updated: 30/11/2011 14:20

Blizzard claims six in mountain trgedy

PROBABLY the most tragic news story covered in the 'Strathy occurred on November 21, 1971, when five children froze to death in the Cairngorms. The incident made national headlines, with the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald leading the way. The following extract was taken from the Friday, November 26, 1971 edition: FIVE Edinburgh schoolchildren and a young girl instructress lost their lives in the blizzard-swept Cairngorms on Monday and but for the courage of the ground and helicopter rescue teams the two survivors of the party would almost without doubt have perished, too. It was Scotlands worst ever mountain tragedy, and news of it was received with horror and heart-felt sympathy for the bereaved. A 14-strong party from Ainslie Park School, Edinburgh, on an outdoor expedition from the City of Edinburgh Outdoor Centre of Lagganlia, near Kincraig, arrived at the Coire Cas car park, 2,500 feet up Cairn Gorm, about midday on Saturday, and split into two groups. The weather was not too good and the far-from-favourable forecast was proved correct, for two hours later conditions worsened and a severe blizzard lashed the mountains. One of the groups a master, a woman teacher and four pupils returned to base on schedule on Sunday afternoon, and when the other party failed to appear the alarm was raised. That evening three instructors from Glenmore Lodge carried out a fruitless search in Arctic-like conditions, and at dawn the following day an intensive search involving three helicopters, 60 mountain rescuers and four dogs was launched. At 10.30am, the leader of the school party, student teacher Miss Catherine Davidson (21), was spotted beside the March Burn, near Lochan Buidhe, by the crew of one of the helicopters. After being airlifted to Aviemore, she was transferred by ambulance to Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, where she was treated for severe exposure, shock and frostbite. The search was then concentrated on the area in which Miss Davidson had been found, and shortly before midday the seven other members of the party were discovered in deep snowdrifts at the side of Feith Buidhe 3,000ft up in the mountains. On examination, Dr Tom Stewart, Aboyne, who was with the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team, found that only Raymond Leslie (15) was still alive, although in a critical condition. As helicopter crews battled to penetrate low cloud before darkness fell, the rescuers began a grim vigil. Extensive outcrops of rock made it difficult for the rescuers to carry Raymond further down the mountain, but they finally succeeded in taking him to a spot accessible to the helicopter, and he was flown direct to Raigmore Hospital. With darkness fast approaching, the rescue party were unable to take the bodies of the victims down the mountainside, and they were transferred to a nearby bothy, from which they were removed by helicopter on Tuesday. The operations were led by Police Inspector J. Clark, Kingussie; Mr F. Harper, principal of Glenmore Lodge; and Flight Sergeant George Bruce, leader of the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team. Insp Clark said later that the tragedy was the worst in his 25 years experience with the police, and Dr Stewart, who flew to Raigmore with Raymond Leslie, said there was no indication of exactly how disaster overtook the party. The helicopter which picked up Raymond was a radar-equipped Sea King from Prestwick. The three-man crew were within 300 feet of the ground on their first attempt to reach them, but were beaten back by cloud and freezing conditions. After trying to find a break in the cloud, they landed, dropped off a rescue team they were carrying and set off again with Flt Sgt Bruce aboard. Later, the crew, who had never flown in worse conditions, praised the Flt Sgt as the man who had probably saved Raymonds life. Said the second pilot: We found a small ledge 3,000 feet up, after being more or less talked up the face of the Cairngorms by the mountain rescue man. He seemed to know the place like the back of his hand. The crew then watched in disbelief as their passenger started to climb further up the mountain, firing alternate red and green flares as he went. Then, with Raymond strapped onto a stretcher, still in his sleeping bag and heaped with blankets, a rescue team appeared, and the crew took the aircraft to another precarious spot to pick up the boy. The men who did the real job were the mountain rescue lads, said the pilot. They were quite fantastic. Most of them had been up all the previous night and we left them perched there, not knowing when or how they would get down.

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