AS the Scottish skiing season got under way over the weekend, three people directly involved in the worst mountaineering tragedy in the history of the Highlands spoke publicly about it for the first time.

Twenty five years ago this month, six youngsters froze to death in the Cairngorms after a decision to split a school party of 15 and 16-year-olds from Edinburgh into two groups.

Mrs Elizabeth Sunderland, whose 18-year-old daughter Sheila was an assistant instructor and died with the pupils, said: ``You never forget it. It was such a dreadful waste of young people.

``Sheila was about to go to university and had taken a year off working as a student helper. She'd climbed and skied but she had no experience of mountaineering or anything like that.''

Mrs Sunderland, 76, a widow, of Whitmore, Heath, Staffordshire, added: ``The decision to split the parties up should never have been taken.''

A group of 14 pupils from Ainslie Park secondary in Pilton, Edinburgh, set off from Lagganlia Activity Centre, near Kincraig, Aviemore, on Saturday morning, November 20, 1971, to climb Cairn Gorm. Their leaders were Mr Ben Beattie, 32, and his girlfriend and assistant, Miss Cathy Davidson, 21.

However, Mr Beattie separated the groups into a weak and a strong team, and he led the strong group. The alarm was raised when the weak team, under Miss Davidson, of East Lothian, failed to return.

A major search involving helicopters, troops, police, and mountain rescue teams, often working in blizzard conditions, went on for two days until Miss Davidson was found struggling alone and barely alive on the mountainside.

The bodies of Miss Sunderland and pupils Carol Bertram, Susan Byrne, Diane Dudgeon, Lorraine Dick, and William Kerr were later discovered buried in snow. Raymond Leslie, 15, was found alive and later recovered.

Miss Davidson, who also recovered from hypothermia and severe frostbite, emigrated to Canada, 18 years ago. She said yesterday her memories were still too painful for her to comment.

A fatal accident inquiry in Banff placed no blame for the deaths but recommended better organisation for parties of children in outdoor activities.

However, the jury had been urged by counsel for the dead pupils' families to find that Ben Beattie and John Paisley, principal of Lagganlia, which was run by Edinburgh Corporation's education department, had been at fault.

Mr Beattie was killed in a climbing accident in the Himalayas in the 1980s. Mr Paisley broke his 25-year silence on the tragedy yesterday to discuss aspects which have troubled him ever since.

``I was returning from an official conference in the Lake District and as principal I thought everything was all right.''

He added: ``The weather forecast was not exceptional for that time of year. Beattie was experienced and I knew nothing about Cathy Davidson. When I got to Lagganlia the party had already left.''

His 24-year-old son Thomas was killed seven years ago in a mountaineering accident in the Canadian Rockies.

Mr Paisley, 64, a qualified meteorologist, left his job in 1985 and is now a wood and silver craftsman in Kincraig, Inverness-shire.

He sympathises with the bereaved families but claims vital facts were not discussed at the inquiry, including details about uneaten packed lunches found in the children's rucksacks after he recovered the bodies.

``I unpacked them for my own satisfaction to find out whether they had the right gear, which they had, and found the food untouched,'' he said. ``At the end of the day an accident is an accident, and this was a particularly awful one. You can't enter other people's heads and see what Ben Beattie and Cathy Davidson were thinking.''

He added that the only purpose of the inquiry should have been to issue recommendations after finding out why the children died, and how to prevent it happening again.

Mr Morton Fraser, 62, deputy leader of Cairngorm mountain rescue team in 1971, recalled: ``The place was unsearchable. We spent five hours walking one mile. There was a big effort and a lot of people tried very hard, but even on skis and snow shoes, it was practically impossible.

``There were serious mistakes in the organisation of the two parties. The strong party reached the shelter and the weak ones perished.''