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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Adventure on Sgor-Na-H-Ullaidh


IN the early part of April 1887, I was staying at PortAppin, and had made several expeditions to the neighbouring hills about Loch Creran. The year before I had, at the cost of great physical exertion, dragged a heavy ice-axe about with me, and scarcely ever cut a step, so I foolishly, as it turned out, determined to do without one, and procured one of Hill's "Oberland Picks," advertised as useful to the climber to "cut an occasional step." A friend joined me with a view of doing some of the hills near Glencoe. After a turn on the Fraochaidh (2,883 feet), and Beinn Fionnlaidh (3,139 feet), we turned our attention to Sgor-nah-Ullaidh (3,258 feet), and Stob an Fhiurain (3,160), at the head of Glen Creran, dividing that valley from Glen Teuc na Muidhe, which joins Glencoe near the Clachaig Inn. What snow we had encountered on our first walks had always been on southern slopes, and was more or less soft, and did not prepare us for the state of things we found on Sgorna-h-Ullaidh.

We laid out our route to first cross Stob an Fhiurain, which lies to the north of Sgor-na-h-Ullaidh, then up that mountain's north face, and so down its southern slope back to Glen Creran. The two hills are divided by a comparatively small dip—the saddle which separates them is broadish, and Sgor-na-h-Ullaidh descends on to it by a steep slope between two deep and precipitous corries—the western one showing grand cliffs, with fine snow couloirs, and capped by a splendid cornice. The dividing slope was altogether about 370 feet or so, and being a northern face, was, like the corries, snow-clad, excepting where long strips of rock protruded from the white covering.

We reached the summit of Stob an Fhiurain without difficulty, the snow we encountered being soft; and after admiring the magnificent appearance of the south side of Bidean nam Bian, we descended to the col, and commenced the attack of Sgor-na-h-Ullaidh. I remarked that the slope looked steep, but my friend, an expert mountaineer, who led all the way, said he thought that if the snow was right, that it would go easily. The night before it had rained and then frozen; but as the sun had great power, we thought that it would have softened the snow sufficiently. The first fifty feet or so were all right, when we suddenly encountered hard ice. My friend tried to cut "the occasional step" with the pick, but he found it not nearly heavy enough, not the right shape, and altogether such a poor instrument for the work, that he gave up cutting, or trying to cut, and began prodding the ice with the pointed end of the pick, and then kicking with his feet, till he got sufficient hold for the toe, but no more. Now, this was all very well for a short distance, but it did not leave enough for one to return by, as a heel requires more room than a toe, not to mention the difference between going down and up hill. First one step then another was made in the same way, till we got up some thirty feet more, when it dawned on us that it was, of course, still freezing on the shaded northern face, and that the remainder of the slope would prove to be in the same condition. We first thought of returning, as the pick had proved so delusive as a step-cutter, but we decided it was weak to be done out of our hill, and that it would be more difficult to return to the col than to advance under the circumstances, as the slope we were on trended into the corrie on the west, and a slip would have sent either of us, first by a rapid glissade and then by a terrible fall, over the cliffs below.

We then made for the first of the rocky ribs, some twenty feet above us, and found when we got there that it was rock certainly, but entirely covered by black ice. So we could get no help from them, and nothing remained but to proceed straight up the slope to the top by the same means. As we had upwards of 200 feet still to do, it was rather a heavy piece of work to face, but there was no help for it. The slope was much steeper after this, till within a few feet of the top, when it rounded off.

After an hour and a half of as nasty an experience as I have met with on hills, we topped the steep part and scrambled over the remainder, thankful to be out of so bad a place. We had no further trouble. If we had had a good axe with us, we could have got up the slope in a quarter the time with perfect ease and safety; as it was, it was both difficult and dangerous.

The next year I took an axe with me over the hills for a fortnight, and hardly cut a dozen steps the whole time. I was on the Arisaig hills and Glen Finnan hills, and the shepherds, keepers, and others thought my party was surveying for the railway! They were very polite in consequence, so the axes were not entirely useless. I shall never go without an axe again, it is impossible to tell in our climate when it may be wanted, and the sense of security it affords is quite worth the trouble of transporting it about.

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