Cairngorm Plateau disaster: 50 years since Ainslie Park School students and their young instructor died while on a mountain climbing trip

Fifty years ago, 14 Edinburgh students and their three leaders set off on a school climbing expedition in the Cairngorms.

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But it was to be a trip steeped in tragedy. It came to be known as the ‘Cairngorm Plateau disaster’, Britain’s worst mountaineering accident, which left six dead, two fighting for their lives, and many more scared, scarred and heartbroken.

The group of 14 teenagers set off from Ainslie Park School in East Pilton with the school’s outdoor instructor Ben Beattie, who at just 23 was the oldest of the group, and his 21-year-old girlfriend Catherine Davidson in sole charge.

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They were headed for Lagganlia Outdoor Centre in Kincraig, Aviemore, where they met eighteen-year-old Sheila Sutherland, who had just started as a volunteer trainee instructor.

On Saturday, November 20, 1971, the party set off on a navigational exercise, which was meant to see them all return home to their families in two days’ time.

Together, the 17 set off at 11am - the first mistake which meant they had less than five hours of daylight in which to find the bothy in which they planned to spend the night - and took a chairlift to the plateau.

But another fateful decision taken at the top saw the group split in two - Mr Beattie having taken the eight strongest and fittest students, leaving the other six in the care of Miss Davidson and Miss Sutherland.

The plan was for both groups to meet and spend the night in an unlocked shelter on the hillside before making their separate ways back down the mountain the following day. Mr Beattie’s more experienced group, made up of mostly boys, would take a slightly harder route back to base, while those led by Miss Davidson would go back the way they came.

It became clear just a short time later that the original plan would not come to fruition and, after having waved goodbye to their friends, the latter group found themselves in trouble.

Bad weather - which the leaders had known was forecasted - set in quickly and Mr Beattie’s group abandoned their intended route, instead heading to the Curran shelter, where the party had agreed to go in case of emergency. The first group shovelled snow from the door and settled in safety waiting on news of their young comrades.

But no good news was to come.

Miss Davidson, worried that the emergency shelter would be engulfed in snow and impossible to find, made the decision to settle for the night in a snow hole, with no tents or cover, and wait.

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Despite efforts to keep spirits high, which are said to have included singing songs and sharing stories, the area in which the group lay was known for accumulating snow and by morning, all eight of them were covered in a frozen layer which was impossible to escape.

Freezing and frightened, the group were forced to remain where they were until, hopefully, someone came to their rescue.

The alarm was raised by Mr Beattie’s group who, after dark on Sunday afternoon, had been able to make it back to Lagganlia and inform police and mountain rescue teams that the others were missing.

Unable to act before it was light, fifty brave men set off first thing on Monday morning hoping to find the group and bring them home safely.

Miss Davidson was spotted by a helicopter at around 10.30am. She had managed to travel half a mile on her hands and knees, trying to get help. Although she was suffering with severe exposure and frostbite, with her legs icily locked in the kneeling position, she was able to tell her rescuers where they could find the rest of her group.

Nearby, the frozen bodies of Susan Byrne, Lorraine Dick, Diane Dudgeon, William Kerr, all 15, and 16-year-old Carol Bertram, were discovered buried beneath snow beside that of their young instructor Miss Sutherland.

The last person to be recovered from the snow hole was 15-year-old Raymond Leslie, who miraculously was still breathing.

Both he and Miss Davidson were airlifted to Raigmore Hospital, where the pair eventually recovered.

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Back in Edinburgh, huddled together at the school from which the teenagers had excitedly set off on an adventure just days before, the children’s parents were told of their deaths.

Speaking in 2011, Bill Dudgeon, Diane’s father, described how the pain of that day had never left him.

He said: “It’s always just there. Just under the surface of your skin, it never ever really goes away.”

Fifty years have now passed and many reminders of the suffering these families went through have disappeared. The school at which the teenagers were pupils before their untimely deaths is now closed and many of those who knew the victims best will themselves be dead and gone.

Each of those five decades saw families miss out on things they would otherwise have had, had their loved ones not been lost on the mountain that day; weddings they never got to go to, nieces, nephews and grandchildren they never got to meet, and their children’s hopes and dreams they never got to see come true.

And the tragedy has left other stones unturned. A fatal accident inquiry was held at Banff Sheriff Court in February of the following year and resulted in several recommendations made to prevent more lives being lost on future expeditions. But no one was ever held responsible for the events which unfolded in 1971.

Mr Dudgeon, who spoke out about daughter’s death on the 40th anniversary, said it left families forced to accept that the children’s deaths had been caused by nothing more than a tragic accident.

His thoughts echoed those of Sheila Sunderland’s mother 15 years before, in 1996, who said: “You never forget it. It was such a dreadful waste of young people. The decision to split the parties up should never have been taken.”

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