Sunday, 9 September 2012

Buchaille Etive Mor 1896

Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal Volume 4 Number 3

Buchaille Etive Mor - The Crowberry Ridge

by W. W. Naismith
ALTHOUGH Buchaille Etive Mòr has figured considerably in the Journal, climbers who know it will agree with me that it well deserves all the attention yet bestowed on it, and a great deal more. An English climber lately offered to negotiate for a transfer of this mountain to Wastdale-head in exchange for Great Gable. Perhaps we might have "a waur offer, waur offer," for the Gable is no mean mountain; "but where's the Scot" who would entertain any such proposal? I have therefore no compunction in asking permission, encore une fois, to say something about a section of this glorious cone that has not been described. I refer to that part of the east face between Dr Collie's and Mr Tough's routes (see Sketch, Vol. IV., p. 100). The accompanying view, which is reproduced from a photograph taken at Easter 1893, by Mr Rennie, from the Glencoe road, two miles west of Kingshouse, shows this aspect of the mountain in greater detail. On the extreme right is the big gully, often ascended in snow. Next comes the huge rounded ridge climbed by Messrs Brown and Tough. Then a long gully, narrower than the other. It has probably not yet been done; but judging from the glimpses we had of it, and the fairly continuous snow in the photograph, it may be expected to offer no serious difficulties. Bounding this gully on the left is a prominent ridge, shown in the view as almost directly under the top of the mountain. This was our climb. Then comes a shallow gully, evidently quite simple, and, I fancy, the quickest route to Buchaille Etive from Kingshouse, though no ascent is yet recorded. Further to the left is a curved ridge, ascended by Mr G. B. Gibbs in July 1896, and described by him as not difficult. Then a straight little couloir, with snow in it, and a short ridge beside it, guarded by tremendous cliffs on the left. Neither of these possible routes is believed to have been tried. Dr Collie's route - the earliest ascent of the east face - is still more to the left.
North-east face of Buchaille Etive Mor
North-east face of Buchaille Etive Mor -The arrow indicates route described

On the 3rd August 1896, Mr Douglas and I met at the Bridge of Orchy, the Editor having bicycled all the way from Edinburgh in two stages of about sixty miles each. We rode to Kingshouse in an hour and a half, leading our machines for less than a mile out of the thirteen. At Kingshouse we were welcomed noisily by a Skye terrier and two young collies, who in doubt whether we were friends or foes, and divided between the conflicting claims of duty and natural affability, compromised matters by barking vigorously and at the same time wagging their tails. On explaining the object of our visit the barking subsided, and we invited them all to dinner at nine P.M., though only two doggies were able to accept. After making some change in our garb, we proceeded on foot to the junction of the roads, waylaid Her Majesty's mail coach, seized the mails, and abstracted a rope and a pair of climbing boots. That highway robbery accomplished, we made a bee-line for "the Shepherd," the river Coupal being low and allowing us to cross dry-shod.
The ridge we were aiming for looks appallingly steep from the road, but we had been deceived once before by the inaccessible appearance of those Buchaille Etive crags, and were not to be "done" again. This particular portion of the mountain is certainly steep. The contour lines on the 1-inch map indicate that the upper 2,000 feet are inclined at an average angle of 45º, and the last 1,100 feet rise at an average rate of 11 in 9 - that is about 50º. We reached the foot of our ridge in rather more than an hour from the road, including the ascent of some easy broken rocks. The writer's chief difficulty so far had been to get his companion past the clumps of ripe crowberries growing everywhere, and this circumstance has suggested a name for our climb. The forbidding aspect of the ridge was now somewhat mollified, though its ascent still promised to be stiff enough without looking for difficulties. Both sides of the ridge, as far as we could make out, were sheer walls, so that there would be no escape into either of the gullies in the event of our being "pounded." At its lower end also, the rocks which formed the crest of the ridge are hopelessly steep, and nearly unbroken for some 300 feet.

The photograph shows that no snow lies on them. I will not prophesy that that cliff will never be scaled in a direct line, but before then I think mountaineering science will have to advance to a higher stage of development. It is conceivable that a line might be chosen up those rocks, any part of which could be climbed if it were, say on a "boulder," or even if there were a reasonable number of platforms or anchorages. But in the absence of these, a continuous steep climb of 300 feet is at present generally regarded as "impossible," because it would make too great demands on nerve and muscular endurance. In this connection I cannot help thinking that what may be termed the psychological influence of platforms receives inadequate acknowledgment in most descriptions of rock-climbs. A brick wall ten feet high, with all the joints between the bricks open, is an easy climb. If twenty feet high, it becomes a difficult climb; if twice that height, a desperate feat; while a chimney stalk, 100 feet high, in similar condition, would be "impossible" without a steeple-Jack's apparatus.

But I am wandering from the "Crowberry Ridge," at the bottom of which Douglas and I are putting on the rope, while we scan with eager anticipation the mighty rocks above us, hitherto untrodden by either man or beast. To the right of the high cliff the rocks sloped upwards more gently, abutting against the loftier portion of the ridge like a lean-to shed against a higher building. The two sections of the ridge appeared to unite above, and a shallow gully or groove, that ran up the middle of the lower rocks, evidently offered the best prospect of success. After proceeding gaily for a short distance we came to an overhanging part, where we were forced to leave the friendly groove, and go up ten or fifteen feet of a vertical rock ladder, with a horrible drop below into the chasm on our right. The highest step of the ladder was several feet short of the top of the pitch, and the only obvious handhold within reach was a big block, which swayed ominously at the first touch. Seeing that we were both directly underneath this gentleman at the time, we begged him earnestly not to disturb himself on our account - until we got past - when Douglas, in the interests of future climbers, tipped him over into the gully, with a clatter that woke all the echoes of the surrounding crags.

Above that difficulty we passed two minor obstacles, and got to a tolerably level place, where we thought we could, by turning to the left, reach the crest of the ridge. In any case there seemed to be no alternative route, for the moderate slope we had been following ended abruptly, a short distance ahead, at the foot of an impossible precipice, with a huge spike of porphyry projecting from it. Starting with a climb up a wall ten feet high, where we both found it difficult to keep our balance owing to a slight overhang, we had to mount a rather troublesome slope of slabby rock. There were few good grips, and no anchorage for the leader till he reached the crest. The whole of our sixty feet rope was needed at this place, and it would not be particularly delightful to go down. From this point onwards we followed the crest of the ridge, which is fairly narrow, and allows one to look down into the abyss on either side - always a pleasurable sensation. It is quite an easy scramble, and we rose rapidly, although we encountered one or two steep bits, and some more crowberries. On approaching the top we saw that our ridge terminated in a pinnacle, detached from the mountain, the gully on our right (N.) side running up to the gap behind the pinnacle. As our side of the gully appeared to be still very precipitous, we were in happy uncertainty whether, when we got to the top of the pinnacle, we should not find ourselves, as an Irishman might say, in a hole. However, on getting to where we could look into the gully, we saw that we could readily reach a little grass ridge connecting the pinnacle with the rest of the mountain. The pinnacle rises about forty feet above the saddle, and on the top of it we found the first sign of visitors we had observed - namely, the cairn built by Dr Collie's party, who had ascended it from the saddle in snow.

The ridge was vanquished! It had given us a thousand feet of interesting climbing, and had occupied just two hours. On the way up we had left one or two stone marks along our track. The porphyry of Buchaille Etive is an honest, downright sort of material, nice to climb. If a fragment is loose, it tells you so at once; and if in situ, you can usually trust your whole weight to the tiniest flake - not like some rocks, which seem to be firm to the hand until a strain is put on them, when they suddenly fail you.

Ten minutes more took us to the summit of the mountain. There we sat down and feasted our eyes on the wide panorama on one of the loveliest evenings it has ever been our fortune to spend on a hill top. All the giants round about were clear, except Ben Nevis, which alone had a cap of cloud. To the west Loch Linnhe was crossed by a broad belt of gold; while down below, on the other side, we saw the conical shadow of our mountain mapped out on the level moor.

We left the cairn at six o'clock, to descend the big gully beyond Tough's ridge. In such weather one would suppose it to be an easy matter to find this gully, but in some inexplicable way we followed the wrong ridge, and only pulled up on the brow of the Tulachan Corrie, a quarter of a mile away! Several other climbers have, strangely enough, been baffled in their efforts to hit the big gully, and one is almost forced to explain the phenomenon by concluding that this place is the "sanctuary" of the mountain elves and fairies, who, to prevent the impious invasion of its solitudes, are wont to employ all their harmless arts to lure the unwary stranger into other gullies, which are, so to speak, open to the public. Their usual dodge is to conceal their ravine under a veil of mist, but on this summer night they tried a different plan, and made the atmosphere so unnaturally transparent, that objects a mile off looked close at hand. We at last discovered the gully despite its witchery. It follows the line of a dyke of reddish igneous rock, less durable than the porphyry. Its descent is by no means a simple walk, as it contains several steep pitches. One place, about half-way between the top and the waterfall, took up a good deal of time. We had there to descend a hundred feet of wet rock, garnished with water cresses and other aquatic plants, among which it was not easy to find and test the footholds. There would be no such difficulty when ascending.

It was quite a revelation to us to compare the August condition of the gorge with its appearance at the snowy Easter of 1893. Then it presented a broad, smooth, and, except at one point, an unbroken slope of snow, rising at an almost uniform angle. Now that the snow was gone, we noticed that it had hidden a perfect chaos of rocks, caves, trenches, cascades, and what not. The depth of the snow at one or two points must have been as much as forty or fifty feet.

As we were enjoying ourselves we did not hurry down, and by the time we reached the road the stars were twinkling in the southern sky.

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