Skiers were 'ill-equipped' for trip across deadly plateau

Key quote

"It was just a coincidence the team was in the area and found them. There are very few people in this area at this time of year, so, if it wasn't for this team going past, I think all three would have died." - ANNIE NEILSON, NORWEGIAN RED CROSS

Story in full A HOWLING gale was picking up around them, with a windchill that sent the temperature plummeting to 20 degrees below zero. Yet on they trudged, with the biggest rucksack fellow cross-country skiers had ever seen.

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The pleasant 26km downhill journey from Kjeldebu to Finse had already become a battle against the weather for Rupert Wilson, his son, Peter, and old army friend Jim Ross. It would soon become a terrible fight for survival.

Another group that had passed them hours before turned back and warned of worsening conditions. But the Scots felt confident that they could carry on. It was Friday afternoon.

Matt Robinson, a former Royal Marine from Barnsley who was in the skiing party that turned back, said: "We got to the Scots lads and spoke to the lead man, Mr Ross. They seemed to have the biggest rucksack I've ever seen but were struggling in the deep snow.

"The wind was blowing across and it was difficult to keep your balance. The visibility got worse and was down to about 30 yards at one point.

"They had no intention of turning back, I don't think. They said they only had 10km to go and wanted to get there and seemed fairly confident. The two guys in front seemed strong skiers and they had loads of kit with them.

"It was only when we got back and realised from the news that these were the guys we were talking to."

Under normal conditions, the Scots would have been only about two hours from their destination, but sometime between Friday and Sunday the horrendous conditions finally took their toll.

Mr Wilson saw his son and Mr Ross perish, victims of the wind and cold. He was not far from death when, at noon on Sunday, a five-man Red Cross team, heading for a mountain-safety exercise in Finse, by chance, came across what initially they thought were three bodies, lying beside a large rock close to the ski track. All were on the surface of the snow, apparently having been unable to dig a hole in which to seek shelter.

But the team saw there was movement from one of them.

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Mr Wilson was found to be alive and conscious. Two of the team stayed with the bodies while the other three took the survivor on a ski scooter to the nearest road - about a one-hour journey - and on to a Red Cross hut. From there, a rescue helicopter from Bergen flew Mr Wilson to hospital.

Annie Neilsen, of the Norwegian Red Cross, said: "It was just a coincidence the team was in the area and found them. There are very few people in this area at this time of year, so, if it wasn't for this team going past, I think all three would have died."

It was revealed yesterday that the men had been warned not to undertake their expedition and were not adequately equipped for the weather.

The Norwegian Trekking Association (NTA) said it warned the men on Thursday not to risk the ten-hour journey.

Meret Habberstad, of the NTA, said: "The three men came to our office in Bergen, but they were warned not to go on this route because of the harsh weather that was coming.

"They also had information that a tour we were planning to run from the same area on Friday morning had been cancelled because of the bad weather and they still went ahead.

"They also weren't properly equipped - they lacked the proper clothing and I think they didn't have a spade to dig a snowhole. This is a tragedy."

That tragedy was poignantly summed up yesterday by Kirstie Wilson, Peter's mother and Rupert's wife. She said simply: "My husband and son only went on holiday on Thursday, and now my son won't be coming back."

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Hardangervidda is Europe's largest mountain plateau, some 150 miles across, and is home to thousands of reindeer and a large national park. It is a popular tourist attraction and a skiing area for both Norwegians and visitors. Cheap flights have made it more accessible from Scotland than ever before.

The trio intended to trek largely downhill from Kjeldebu, at 1,222 metres, to Finse, at 1,060 metres, a trip of more than 26km that can take from seven to ten hours depending on the weather. Ski routes are marked with birch sticks, placed about every 15 metres, to help guide skiers either on circular routes or point-to-point courses.

There are no forests or habitation and the journey has been likened to crossing the top of the Cairngorm plateau for 26km.

When the three set off, the weather was said to be quite mild, with clear skies and good visibility. They met up with two Norwegian skiers, Aslak Bratveit and Kristian Arsland, and the group walked together for about two hours. The Norwegians went on ahead and the Scots said they would turn back if the weather deteriorated.

Mo Beange, an instructor with the Inverness Nordic Ski Club, said it was crucial for skiers to be well equipped. "Safety is very important. Groups should have the correct equipment, including survival bags, in case they are caught out," he said.

Sandy Thorn, who runs the Huntly Nordic Outdoor Centre, said: "It is essential to have your group survival bags and to carry extra clothing in case you get stuck out overnight. In any mountainous area, there is always a danger of getting caught out by the weather."

Ms Thorn added that these were the first deaths of any cross-country skiers from Scotland that she was aware of.


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THE devastated mother of a teenager who froze to death on a Norwegian ski holiday yesterday thanked rescuers who saved her husband's life.

Rupert Wilson's wife, Kirstie, a former midwife, who remained at home in Drumnadrochit with her daughter Laura, 16, spoke of her "utter shock" at the news.

She was told of the tragedy on Sunday night, only four days into the skiing holiday. "I was in total shock and am still in shock now," she said. "It is hard to comprehend that my husband and son only went on holiday on Thursday, were due back on Friday, and now my son won't be coming back. He was a wonderful boy."

She added: "I don't know when my husband will return. But I have spoken to him on the phone in the hospital and I am told he will make a full recovery. He didn't say much about what happened.

"All I know is that they were cross-country skiing, going from hut to hut. I understand that no-one knew they were missing and some people who were in the area found them by accident.

"If it wasn't for them, Rupert might not have been alive today. I can't thank them enough."

Friends of Jim Ross in the rural community of Swordale, near Evanton in Ross-shire, were also trying to come to terms with his death.

Brigid Sharratt , 67, said: "We talked to Jim a lot about Norway as we have been there ourselves and were hoping to do a trek in the Hardangervidda region, where this awful thing happened.

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"This has all come as a shock. We are wondering how something like this could have happened to someone like Jim, who would have been well prepared for bad weather."

Mr Ross's wife, Wendy, who, like her husband was retired from the army, was being comforted by family and friends yesterday and was too upset to talk.

It is understood Mr Ross had a son by a previous marriage who is also in the army.

Another neighbour, Bobby Donaldson, said: "Jim was a great guy. What's happened is such a shock. Jim was in the army for years so I am sure he would have been quite prepared for the skiing trip. Even if you are well prepared, the weather can still catch you out. He will be sorely missed."

A spokeswoman for diabetes monitoring machine producer LifeScan, the company where Mr Ross and Mr Wilson worked, said the entire staff was shocked and saddened by the news of the tragedy in Norway.

"Jim Ross and Rupert Wilson met up while they were in the army - both men have been with LifeScan for a few years, working at our packaging plant in Inverness," she said. "Well-respected by colleagues and very hard working, both of them loved the outdoor life.

"Our thoughts are with the families of the men and with Rupert, who not only has to cope with his injuries, but also with the loss of his son."