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Slingsby. W.C. (1901) An Easter Holiday In The Scottish Highlands. Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 1 Number 3: pp173-187. Leeds: YRC

An Easter Holiday In The Scottish Highlands.

BY Wm. Cecil Slingsby.

 (Read before Yorkshire Ramblers Club on April 14th, 1896.)

I have chosen Scottish mountaineering as the subject for my paper for several reasons. First, because I have just returned from the Highlands, and the memory of some grand climbs in which I had the good fortune to take a part is very fresh in my memory, and secondly, because I wish to keep alive and to stimulate the interest in Scotland which already exists in the minds of the "Yorkshire Ramblers," and to induce, if possible, at the first favourable opportunity, some members to mountaineering Scotland in earnest, and in snow time by preference.

This is the golden age for climbing on the mainland in Scotland. It is the equivalent of what was the case a dozen years ago in Skye and in Cumberland. The sport of mountaineering is now well established in the country, though the work is only just begun. Victory awaits the bold mountaineer in scores of gruesome gullies, on hundreds of rugged frost-rent ridges and faces, and on dozens of sky-piercing pinnacles. Mountaineering fame can now be .won more easily in Scotland than in any other country. Much of the work to be done is well known, much more will be discovered without having to seek long or far for it. The West Highland line now brings Ben Nevis within twelve hours distance from Leeds. Why should not a party of "Ramblers" take a run up to the Highlands at Whitsuntide and have a real merry time there? and why should they not make three or four first-rate new expeditions?

On February 11th, 1884, the late famous Italian guide, Emile Rey, whose untimely death on the Dent du Géant last year all mountaineers so deeply deplore,  led a party through the snows to the summit of Ben Nevis, and, though other Scotch mountain ascents had been previously made in winter, this ascent of the highest mountain in Great Britain (which was duly recorded in the Alpine journal) may truly be said to have given a great stimulus to the sport of snow climbing in Scotland, if it did not actually give birth to the sport itself.

During the last few years this sport has become exceedingly popular, and, as a necessary result, the leaders, principally men living in Edinburgh and Glasgow, founded the "Scottish Mountaineering Club," a most thriving body whose members, generally speaking, put into their play the same energy, dogged determination, and perseverance, which we invariably associate with the work done by the canny Scot.

This Easter-tide over 30 members of the S.M.C. met at Fort William, each armed with an ice-axe. There were also I2 members of the Alpine Club there too, several of whom are members of both clubs. All were at one time or other engaged in climbing the buttresses and narrow rock ridges, or in forcing their way up the steep snow gullies on the north face of Ben Nevis, and, though the weather was damp, foggy, and rainy, each one considered that he had enjoyed a rare good time, and those who have had the good fortune to mountaineer in the Alps, readily acknowledged that the climbing they had met with on Ben Nevis and neighbouring mountains was first-rate from a Swiss as well as from a Scotch point of view.

As I cannot, from want of knowledge, chronicle the valiant deeds of the climbers generally, I will briefly give an account of what I did and saw myself during my holiday.

Three or four weeks ago, so far as I could understand it, I was pledged to join three different parties in the Western Highlands. First, I was to join Hastings and Haskett Smith under canvas at the head of Loch Etive, and was told to provide, amongst other things, a round of corned beef. This I did, but as the notion of camping was abandoned, the beef was left at home. Secondly, I was to join Dr. Collie and Dr. Collier in Glencoe. Thirdly, I was to meet Messrs. Solly and Bowen at Fort William.

Eventually, Hastings and I left home on " All Fools' Day," and after travelling by slightly different routes, I we met at Callander station, and turned out again at Loch Awe at 7.49 p.m., intending to take the train next morning at 10.48 for Oban. "Let us climb Ben Cruachan before breakfast to-morrow," said Hastings.

"Oh I you'll never get up in time," said I.

"Won't I? You'll see. Waiter, tell Boots to call us at four, and if he does, we'll give him a good tip."

A few minutes after four that horrid Boots (so I thought at the time) came in and lighted my candle. I crossed the passage to see whether Hastings was up or not, and rather to my surprise, and possibly disappointment, I found him partly dressed. We I drank a little milk, ate some biscuits, and, at 4.45, stole down the staircase like burglars, boots in hand, and were soon outside in the darkness and the cold. After following, for half an hour, an old road and the path which leads to Coire Cruachan, the usual line taken on , an ascent of the Ben, we turned sharp to the right, now lighted by the moon, and in due time gained the ridge I immediately above Loch Awe Hotel. About 5.45 we saw the sun rise and warm with its gladdening rays the pale, cold, snowy summits of many a big Ben north, east, and west of us.

Our route led us over Stoh Diamh (pronounced daff), 3,272 feet. Here our axes proved to be very useful. Then we descended some 500 feet to a little gap, over which the wind blew furiously. Our route now took-us in turn over Sron an Isean, 3,163 feet, and Drochaid Ghlas (the grey bridge). From here we had a glorious view of Loch Etive almost under our feet, and of scores of snowy mountains of most lovely shapes and subtle curves surrounding Glencoe. Our peaks were connected by more or less narrow ridges, with large snow cornices on the north side. At 8.38 we gained the top of Cruachan, 3,689 feet, and were obliged to hurry off again at once.

We set off at a run down the hard snow on the southern ridge, and descended by long snow slopes to the Cruachan burn .in Coire Cruachan. This route is all plain sailing. At the mouth of the corrie, about 1,000 feet above the romantic pass of Branda, the path follows at the edge of precipitous slopes a natural mountain terrace which leads gently and naturally down to the lake and the hotel, and affords one of the most ' beautiful two-mile walks that I have ever taken. At 10.20 we gained the hotel, then changed, packed, with the help of Boots, ate an excellent and as we thought a well-earned breakfast, and caught our train at 10.48. At about 3.30 the same day we entered the Chevalier Hotel at Fort William, and sooner or later found the other six members of what we now looked upon as our party.

On the morning of Good Friday, most of us had a lazy fit, and we did not set out from the hotel until 11 o'clock. Naturally enough we bent our steps towards the mysterious recesses on the north face of Ben Nevis. The route, now almost universally followed, was discovered by Dr. Collie. It lies over a ridge about 1,600 feet in height, from the top of which an almost level walk ,of one-and-a-half to two miles brings one full in view of what is probably the finest mountain face in Great Britain. If the crags of Scafell were continued past Scafell Pike to the summit of Ling Mell, the height increased by 1,000 feet, and a sharp and steep buttress projected from the middle down to the top of the Brown Tongue, then Ben Nevis would have a rival, but would still be the grander mountain.[1]

Our party divided when we reached the foot of Carn Dearg, whose precipices form the western end of the grand horse-shoe of Ben Nevis. Collie led one party by a new and very fine route up this mountain. Collier, Hastings, and I meanwhile strode up the glen and on to the slopes of the opposite mountain, bent on photography. Up to a year ago when walking with Hastings I used to find that the only way in which it was possible for me to keep him even in sight, was by surreptitiously loading his capacious pockets with heavy and carefully selected geological specimens. Now that he has taken to photography, and derives an especial pleasure in carrying a very light camera weighing, when charged, only I4 pounds, it is no longer necessary for me to weight him down. On this day, as on the others when I was with him this Eastertide, either the weather did not suit our photographer, or else he was too exacting; certainly no Alpine views were taken.

The Tower Ridge, which cuts the great horse shoe into two unequal parts, and the north-east ridge of Ben Nevis, as well as the buttresses of Carn Dearg, were literally bristling with icicles, and the snowfields, with their many steep gullies and fantastic crags at their head, formed a scene of the very honest Alpine character.

At last, when the weather was evidently growing worse, Collier and I got the photographer to go towards the great snowfields lying between Carn Dearg and the Tower Ridge. We passed a snow-white hare and some ptarmigan which were so tame that they would hardly move away.

We saw two parties making new expeditions far away above us, and this naturally stimulated the martial element in our nature, and though it was after 3.30 p.m., horribly late, Hastings calmly suggested that we should attack a steep and narrow snow gully which led up to the top of Ben Nevis itself, at least 1,500 feet above us and have a new expedition of our own. Collier, like a gentle lamb, was soon ensnared. As for me, I wasn't going to set off on such a wild goose chase at that hour, not I, indeed. Besides, I thought that most likely it wouldn't go. No, l would glissade down to the main éerrle again. "Come on, old man," said one. "Come along, Slingsby, we can glissade back if the gully won't go," said the other. Well! willy or nilly, of course I went. One has to sacrifice oneself now and then, you know.

The snow-field up which we were then climbing was headed by a wall of mighty and almost perpendicular cliffs, and bounded on the left or east side by the Tower Ridge, and on the right by a huge buttress. In the corner, between this buttress and the cliffs, was a narrow, steep and square-walled snow gully, the top of which was invisible to us. This gully was to form our highway. As I grumbled and growled, Hastings and Collier did between them all the arduous work of breaking the steps in the soft snow on the big snowfield, and then very kindly turned me on when the fun began. At a corner of the buttress, close to the bottom of the gully, there was a grand frozen waterfall full of weirdly-shaped blue and White icicles. Before entering the gully we put the rope on. The gully was uniformly about 12 feet wide, the sides invariably perpendicular, like the Scafell Pinnacle side of Deep Ghyll. The snow had an avalanche groove down the centre, indeed, small lumps of snow and ice hurried away past us several times. The snow was in admirable, nay, in perfect order, and we went along merrily. The crust had generally to be cut through with the axe, but occasionally steps could be kicked with the feet. It was never necessary to take a zigzag course in order to avoid breaking through from 'one step to another, as they all held splendidly. We started on the left-hand side, crossed to the right, then to the left, and finally ended on the right. As we advanced, the angle grew steeper and steeper, as is the way with British snow gullies. We began, probably, at about 40°, but ended, without speaking of the cornice, at something approaching 60°. As we expected, we saw from far below, a cornice, but it did not look at all vicious, and when making a traverse about 20 feet below the natural summit of the snow slope we thought that we could see an oblique groove offering a delightful exit on to the summit. A thin mist partly veiled the top of the gully and made it difficult to appreciate the heights and distances of our surroundings.

The head of the gully, like those on Great End and other Cumbrian mountains in winter, opened out semi-circularly or like a half funnel, and as is very commonly the case with cornices on the edges of flat-topped mountains, where there is a snow slope below, there was, at the natural top of the slope, a hollow or small crevasse behind a little wave of snow. This only applied to the centre of the rim of the funnel. I turned to the right and then crawled into the end of the crevasse, which was wide enough for a man to sit down perfectly comfortably with his axe well anchored in the snow.

To my great dismay I found that the oblique groove did not exist at all, that wherever the cornice did not overhang, it was a perpendicular wall 10 or 12 feet in height, with no crevasse or platform to stand in, but springing directly out of the 50° steep snow slope. Where there was the crevasse, a length of about 40 feet, , the cornice overhung, in some places as much as 12 feet, the lower half being ice, the upper snow.

The two other men came up to the crevasse and were as much astonished as I had been, and were as glad to get to a place of rest. We discussed the question of driving an oblique tunnel up to the surface, but agreed that we had no time to do so before night, should come on, and that it was much too cold, as well as too dangerous, an undertaking even if we had the time.[2]

It was then 5.30, and our fingers and toes were partly frost-bitten. We must get up the 10 or 12 feet which yet remained, but how was it to be done? Hastings cut a few steps in the wall in two places, but found the ice to be as hard as iron (adamant is, I believe, the more correct simile), and though a way could possibly have been forced up, it would have taken nearly a whole day to have done so, and there was the danger of the cornice itself coming down.

We had come out on the right hand or western side, and had avoided the other because the strata of the rock which cropped out 50 or 60 feet below the foot of the cornice on that side dipped downwards, and, for mountaineering purposes, was as bad as it could possibly be, and we feared that the snow above the rocks might prove to be very shallow and might, in consequence, peel off. We now, however, looked in that direction, so I crawled along nearly to the end of the' crevasse, when two alternative schemes were suggested. First, near the end of the crevasse there was a place where the wall did not absolutely overhang, but rose, above a little platform, about 10 feet vertically. In this place the leader could be backed up by, and eventually stand on the shoulders of, the second man, who could himself be supported by the third man. With one and a half hours of daylight this plan would have been successful. As it was, darkness was approaching, and the cold was intense.

The second alternative was that one man should skirt the base of the cornice to the east, with the whole length of the rope out, to where a snow ridge abutted against a comparatively low wall, whilst the two others should make good anchorage at the far end of the crevasse. In the thin mist which had troubled us for some time we could not tell for certain whether our 80 foot rope would be sufficiently long or no.

Collier volunteered to make the experiment, alleging that besides being the tallest he was the lightest member of the party. I was certainly not keen to go myself, and was very tired; besides this, the fun had gone, and it would have been a pity not to have given the best and hardest work to the best workman.

I untied, and Collier advanced to the end of the crevasse, which narrowed off to a few inches in width. He there found a splendid hitch behind a cone of hard, frozen snow. Then he cut steps just below the rim of the funnel and found the snow hard. By going down it a couple of steps he found deeper and better snow, and then got along merrily. When he reached the little it snow ridge he cut up to the foot of the cornice, there only about 4 feet high, and looked a very uncanny being through the mist. Four feet are not much, are they? No, but let them start at the top of a steep ridge, half ice, half frozen snow, and then tell me what you think of it.

Collier hacked away a step or two and then finding that it might take an hour to get up alone, he asked me to come to him. As a doubled rope could not reach to him I was obliged to make the traverse without being tied on, just holding the rope with my hands. However, I was soon over, as the steps had been admirably made. I then tied on, and with a little backing up, Collier reached the top. After I got on this terra firma of 20-foot deep snow, Hastings came along, carrying his camera and two rucksacks. It was then 6.40; in other words, we had occupied 1 hour and 10 minutes in climbing the last 10 or 12 feet on this the highest mountain in Great Britain.

Whilst we were solving the problem proposed to us by the cornice, we repeatedly heard shouts at no great distance, to which we responded, and it turned out afterwards that a party of climbers were then coping with the difficulties on the neighbouring Tower Ridge, which, difficult at any time, was rendered especially so at this time on account of the ice and snow which encased the rocks. This party was on the ridge for nine hours.

As Collier and I were getting up the cornice we heard other voices close to us. "Which is the way?" "Are we near the top yet?" "Where are you?" To which we responded "Don't come here; keep to your right, and away from the cliffs." "Why?" When we reached them and explained matters, we found two men in kilts and tartans, not climbers, one of whom said, "I'm dying for want of food. I've drunk all my flask of whisky and half of my friend's, but am dying for want of food." Hastings set off down straight to Fort William, but Collier and I proceeded to the Observatory, which was buried in snow except the chimneys and the tower, and had to be approached by deep trenches cut through the snow, a most Arctic scene. We soon revelled in hot coffee, and after seeing two other Alpine parties arrive, we set off for Fort William by the ordinary route, which then included a sitting glissade of several hundred feet, and soon after were enjoying a capital dinner.

On the Saturday a party of eight of us started at eight o'clock in a wagonette and drove some six miles up Glen Nevis, probably the most beautiful as well as the wildest glen in Scotland, and I was constantly reminded of similar scenes in Norway. Bright green grassy glades, dark Scotch firs standing on the tops, edges, and sides of isolated crags, a narrow gorge and furious river which here and there was almost lost amongst the fallen crags which had tumbled down into it, a grand waterfall, snowy mountains half veiled with clouds, black porphyritic rocks, and a wild mountain path above the gorge all combined to make a most wondrous picture, which for my part I enjoyed all the more for having seen it the previous year. Three or four miles after leaving our wagonette we reached a shepherd's house, where we arranged to have tea in the afternoon.

Our object was to cross a gap a little over 2,000 feet in height, and to reach the east face of Aonach Beag, Where there is a fine rock ridge-the north-east ridge which affords 1,500 feet of good climbing. Dr. Collie discovered the ridge, but as he had no opportunity of climbing it before now, he recommended it last year to Messrs. Gilbert Thomson, Naismith, and Maclay, who wisely took his advice, and consequently had a capital climb, and wrote an excellent paper on the expedition. At Whitsuntide, last year, Hastings, Priestman, and I climbed up the face, but never actually saw the ridge, owing to a horrid mist which obscured everything a dozen. yards off from view. We, as well as other parties, had gone by train to Spean Bridge, and had a long walk over the moors and up a comparatively uninteresting glen to our work.

This time we followed the advice of the artist, Mr. Colin Phillip, who is a walking encyclopaedia on all matters concerning nearly all mountains in all countries in this planet. Possibly also in the planet Mars, but of this I am not absolutely certain.

We lunched in the gap, sheltered from the wind, more or less, but especially the latter.

Collie led us to the ridge by an admirable route across numerous deep snowfields and little corries, where an ice-axe was now and then invaluable. The weather was, well, it was Scotch, and the ridge looked like a ghost until we actually ran our noses against

it. Here we roped. The great feature is a bold and narrow tower, at the base of which are two deeply-cut embrasures, with wild turrets above them.

Mr. Thomson's paper gives a very accurate description of the ascent of the finest portion of the ridge in its average spring condition. In our case we found it in probably a more interesting state, as, undoubtedly, we had more ice to deal with; possibly, also, we found the grass slopes to be less troublesome than was the case last year, as all the grass was covered with hard snow. We divided into two parties; I had the good luck to lead the first, whilst Hastings led the second. In fine, dry weather I think that the interest of the climb could be much increased by keeping faithfully up to the ridge, and climbing up and over each pinnacle in turn. I believe this to be possible, but it would be decidedly a most sporting route. At any rate, we had a magnificent rock climb, of great variety too. Our ridge, fortunately for us, abutted directly upon the table land which forms the summit of the mountain, 4,060 feet in height, and, as a necessary consequence, we had no difficult cornice to deal with, though both to left and right of us the cornices were enormous. After a quarter of an hour's trudge on the top we had a splendid sitting glissade for many hundred feet in the cold clammy mist, and, in one place, we shot, feet up in the air in the most approved fashion, over a pretty wide crevasse. Then we hurried down a wild corrie to the shepherd's house at the head of Glen Nevis, which we reached at 4.45. Here we had tea-oatcake and butter-then we descended the wild glen, regained our wagonette, and were soon at Fort William again. In the evening we paid a visit to the Scottish Mountaineering Club at the Alexandra Hotel, and had a most jolly and festive evening, with songs, recitations, and goodness knows what else.

On Easter Day many of us went to the Episcopal Church, a most beautiful building, a sight of which will gladden the eyes of our Secretary when he visits it. There was a goodly display of kilts and killybegs, and it was delightful to see that grand old Highland chieftain Cameron of Loch Eil, in his national costume, and to hear him read with impressive voice the lessons for the day.

The afternoon was very wet, and though the energetic men defied the weather, a good many others warmed their toes at the fireside.

On the Monday we were called at seven, and were determined to do valiant deeds and to attempt a certain ridge or buttress on Ben Nevis, some 1,600 feet in height, which had not yet been scratched by the hobnails of an Alpine boot. I looked upon this as peculiarly my own pet expedition. I had examined the ridge from the bottom, from the top, and also in profile, and I believed that it would go, but that it might be a very stiff climb. Well! The clouds hung like a pall over the mountains, and showed a straight clearly-defined line about 1,700 feet above sea level. In due course we found ourselves in the great corrie about 2,000 feet below the top of the Ben. Collie halted behind some fallen blocks of rock to get what he called shelter. It might possibly do in the Himalayas, but I should not call it "bield" in Yorkshire. What a superb luncheon was turned out here to be sure? There were .  .  .  and .  .  . and .  .  .  and .  .  . You know all about it.

Shiveringly we made our way over the snow to the foot of the "meat tin gully," down which the Observers throw their empty tins, cinders, &c., and gazed upward in the gloom. The foot of my intended ridge loomed dismally through the mist, huge icicles hung from its crags, and, strange to say it, when in dismal tones was suggested an immediate attack, not a voice responded to the invitation.

No, we could trudge up the steep snow and prospect for the future. Could we, though? Haskett Smith and Collier, the wits of our party-were in fine form, and, in consequence, the grim corrie into which we had entered resounded with peals of laughter.

Presently Collie shouted out, "Change here for the Tower Ridge; who says the Tower Ridge? " The only respondents were Haskett Smith and Professor Dixon, who had not traversed this remarkable ridge before. Eventually I joined them, and we had two hours of most excellent climbing. The porphyritic rock of Ben Nevis affords most delightful angular holds, and in many places which look absolutely impracticable one can climb with comparative ease and perfect safety. Throughout, this ridge is most sensational and thoroughly Alpine in character. Dixon compared it with the traverse of the Aiguille des Charmoz, but this is rather too favourable a comparison to my notion.

As the name implies, there is a grand tower on the ridge. A short way below this we joined four members of the S.M.C., who had climbed up to the ridge over a pinnacle which we had shirked.

Though I believe that, under most favourable conditions, the very end of the tower itself might be climbed, it has not yet been accomplished, and it is customary, when ascending, to turn to the west or right hand. Here are two routes, the direct climb up to the top of the tower, a very steep climb, the route by which Hastings and I descended last year. This route our Scotch friends now followed. The other, and, to my mind, infinitely finer and more sensational route is to make a level traverse of some 60 or 70 feet in length along the face of a slightly overhanging precipice. The holds are excellent, ample hitches can be obtained, but! well!!  go and see it, and tell me how you felt when, with outstretched arms, and hands holding on like limpets, with feet tucked inwards as far as possible, and with arched back, overhanging the crags and snows hundreds of feet below, you carefully got one side of , your coat round that wicked projecting rock and had to wriggle back because your waistcoat buttons or the knot of the rope caught on the corner. Ah! a place like this gives much real joy to the climber. Of danger there is none, I believe, if proper precautions are taken. At the end of the traverse a narrow gully has to be crossed to a little spur, which, though ice-clad, we found to be easy. Then round a corner we were confronted by a steep and narrow ice gully 30 or 40 feet high. As here there was little hold, We did not like it, so another, gully was suggested which led rather back and to a ledge directly over the traverse. Collie, who hitherto led, fell in with this suggestion, so the order of the caravan was changed. After half-a-dozen steps in the ' ice had been cut, good holes appeared, and we quickly mounted a steep rib of rock, which brought us directly up to the cairn which early explorers have erected on the top of the tower. A long narrow snow-ridge then led up to a strange gap in the ridge. This gap is eight or nine feet deep and about five or six wide, and as the ridge at this place is only about two feet six inches wide, with nearly vertical walls below, it is a very sensational place. Across the gap the ridge broadens out, but is very steep, and here usually all difficulty is at an end. On this occasion, however, an ice slope of a couple of hundred feet, where, fortunately for us, we found the steps cut by the S.M.C. party, well sustained the interest to the very end.

Mr. Bruce, the Chief Observer, gave us a very warm welcome at the Observatory, and told us many most interesting facts in connection with the life which he and his fellows pass at this elevated station, and we spent nearly an hour in his company.

Next day, Tuesday, the weather was no better, and though I had arranged to remain another day, I took the boat for Oban and arrived at home the same evening.

I trust that this plain and unvarnished tale will induce some of our Yorkshire friends to pay an early visit to the Highlands and that they will, whatever be the state of the weather, enjoy themselves as much as I did during my little Easter campaign.

[1] Since I wrote the above paragraph I have had several other little campaigns in the Highlands, and have spent three days upon that most remarkable mountain Ben Eighe in the Torridons. The Crags of Coire Mhic Fearchair on this mountain are steeper, and in some respects wilder, than those of Ben Nevis (see the S.M.C. Journal of September, 1898, page 100), but there is a massive grandeur about Ben Nevis, which none of its rivals possesses, and which is in every way worthy of the mountain in Great Britain.

[2] A year or two later Collie and Hastings on another mountain did actually have recourse to this expedient and with great success