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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Winter Ascents


AN English officer, quartered in the Highlands in the last century, wrote to a friend in London, describing Scotland as a wild and mountainous country, inhabited by a barbarous people; and "as for the climate," he added, "there are nine months of winter, three months of spring, and there is no summer at all." That Scotland is a wild and mountainous country, is the excuse for the formation of a Scottish mountaineering club. That a portion, at least, of the inhabitants are barbarous, will hardly be denied by anyone who has seen the Wallace monument on the Abbey Craig, or the stained glass in Glasgow Cathedral, or who, not being a bona fide traveller, has in a country district after ten o'clock at night desired to sample the light wine of the country.

And while protesting against the calumny on our climate which credits us with no summer at all, we must admit that for purposes of mountaineering, "winter" often extends over a far longer period than the traditional three months assigned to that season by the calendar. Winter may be defined by the mountaineer in Scotland, as that portion of the year during which the higher ranges are more or less continuously covered with snow.

In these high latitudes snow may occasionally fall in any month of the year, even at a comparatively low elevation. It is usually, however, well on in November before the mountains permanently assume that aspect of glistening whiteness, which often does not leave them until the spring is far advanced. Our heaviest falls of snow often occur in March or April, and even in May the mountains are commonly covered to a great depth. On the 28th April 1886, I stood on the snow above the "hotel" on Ben Nevis, of which there was not as much as a corner of the roof visible.

To the mountaineer, winter ascents offer many advantages. In the first place, the interest of the walk itself is much increased. The snow is often so hard as to present all the features of the upper part of a Swiss glacier, rendering the ice-axe almost indispensable, and even the rope sometimes necessary. If the weather happens to be fine— and there is at least as good a chance of fine weather in winter as in summer—the atmosphere is generally far clearer, and the views therefore more extensive and more distinct. Even should the day prove foggy, a climb on the mountains is of far greater interest in winter than in summer. A grass slope which ordinarily is easy often becomes perilously steep when covered with hard frozen snow, and rocks which are child's play in their normal condition are frequently quite impracticable with a coating of ice over them. In fog, the climber, being unable to see ahead, cannot pick the best ground, and often has these obstacles to encounter; he has nothing but the map, the compass, and the aneroid to steer by, and very possibly a piercing wind and a blinding snowstorm to add to his difficulties.

One of the most interesting and enjoyable walks I have ever taken was under precisely the above conditions, when, on the 6th April 1889, I, with our president and three other members of the club, crossed from Loch Voil over Stobinian and Beinn Mohr to Crianlarich.

The mountains too—especially the more rugged, which depend less for their beauty on the colouring of the heather —show to far greater advantage when the upper half is covered with snow. Compared with the Alps, our Scottish hills are but small; but they have all the characteristics of mountains, and when seen in winter and early spring it is difficult to realise that the ordnance surveyors have not been mistaken by some few thousands of feet.

Then also, as a large proportion of the best climbing ground in Scotland is under forest, it is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the necessary permission to climb many of the mountains in summer and autumn. In winter and early spring, however, the deer are low down, and, as no harm is done, permission is readily granted. In the course of the last year, twice I have even been accorded leave to wander alone through the sanctuary of a forest, and at this season have never been refused the liberty to go wherever I might choose.

In the more remote districts the winter traveller has often to put up with somewhat primitive fare at the inns, but, on the other hand, he runs no risk of finding all the rooms engaged, and he is sure of a kindly welcome and attention. Moreover, the keepers or caretakers of the shooting-lodges are generally glad to give accommodation, which cannot of course be looked for in the shooting season. It cannot be denied that some few disadvantages attend winter and early spring climbing, but I am sure that all who have tried it will agree that the pleasure derived is more than ample compensation.

In this and future numbers of the Journal I propose to describe a few excursions undertaken in winter and spring.

To begin with a February walk in the Braes of Angus. On a glorious afternoon, the iith February 1888, in company with a neighbour I drove from Lindertis, in the parish of Airlie, Forfarshire, to the Kirkton of Glenisla, and thence crossed Mount Blair to the Spital of Glenshee. Mount Blair, which, except locally, is comparatively little known, commands a very beautiful view,—.-Strathmore and the Sidlaws, with Dundee Law and one huge chimney appearing through the gap by Auchterhouse, the Lomonds in Fife, and the low line of the East Lothian hills; then to the east, the sea by Montrose, the tall spire of which can be distinctly seen; to the north, the fine corries at the head of Glenisla, with Lochnagar, Glasmaol, and, farther away, the Cairngorm range. The most prominent feature in the view, however, is the fine outline of the Bein-na-Ghlo range, with Beinn Uarn and Glas Tulachan to the north, and Beinn Vuroch and Beinn Bhrackie to the south. Between the latter and Schiehallion, Buchaille Etive and the Glencoe hills are seen; while a little to the north of west, in the extreme distance, a hill is visible which is said to be Beinn Nevis, but which may be Beinn Alder. South of Schiehallion, Beinn Lawers shows to great advantage, then the twin peaks of Beinn Mohr and Stobinian; while to the south of them again, Beinn Chonzie, above Crieff, is the most prominent hill; and across the strath, the Ochills can be seen stretching away down to Stirling.

It was 5.30 when we reached the summit, and, although of course after sunset, nearly all that I have described was plainly visible, and the sunset afterglow seemed to paint every snow-capped peak a warm pink.

Two hours walk took us to the comfortable inn at the Spital.

The next morning was equally beautiful, perfectly still and clear, and a hard frost. It was 10 a.m. before we left the inn, and, in consequence of the road being blocked with hard frozen snow, it took us two hours good walking to reach the sum'mit of the Cairnwell pass, 2,200 feet above the sea, and the highest carriage-road in Britain. At the top of the pass, on the carriage-road, we saw ptarmigan. Here we struck off to the right, i.e. east, and ascended steeply, on hard frozen snow in good condition, over the summit of Maol Odhar—a subsidiary peak of 3019 feet— to the top of Glas Maol, which we reached at i p.m., one hour from the road. The summit of Glas Maol is the point where the counties of Forfar, Perth, and Aberdeen meet; it is 3,502 feet above the sea, and the view from it is very fine, but, the hill being flat-topped, it cannot all be seen at once. The Beinn Muich Duibh group is seen to great advantage. Most of the mountains visible from Mount Blair are also seen from here, while the wild range separating Aberdeenshire from Forfarshire and Perthshire—a ridge which seldom descends below 3000 feet—is viewed from its centre. From Glas Maol I should think it would almost be possible to drive a dogcart along the round summits of the intervening mountains to the top of Lochnagar without ever going lower than 3000 feet. And had we left the Spital an hour or two earlier, or even hurried a little, we could easily have combined an ascent of Lochnagar with this expedition.

Although the frost was keen, the day was so still that, without feeling the least cold, we sat on the snow and ate our luncheon on the summit of the mountain, enjoying the splendid view and the bright sun. And the air was so clear, that we could plainly see a range of hills to the south-west beyond Stirling, which must have been the Campsie Fells, seventy miles off.

About the tops we saw a great number of deer, ptarmigan, and white hares, besides an eagle.

We next proceeded along the ridge, or rather the flat plateau, to the top of Cairn-na-Glasha, only eighteen feet lower than Glas Maol, a very slight descent being necessary between the two, and thence to Tom Buidhe, 3,140 feet. Between Glas MaoI and Cairn-na-Glasha we skirted the crags overhanging the wild Caenlochan Glen at the head of Glenisla. The contrast between the round—almost level—tops of this range, and the precipitous sides of many of the glens descending from it, is curious. This peculiarity makes it a particularly difficult range to cross in fog, as I have more than once experienced.

From Tom Buidhe there is a good view to the north as far as Beinn Rinne above Duiftown. A steep but easy descent from here leads down through the beautiful, and now famous, Glen Doll—as wild a little glen as one could wish to see—to the lodge at Acharn, situated a little above the junction of the Doll with the South Esk. Some four miles lower is the excellent inn at the Milton of Clova, which we reached rather before 7 o'clock.

The next morning a fifteen mile walk down the beautiful glen of the South Esk brought us to Kirriemuir, just in time to avoid a heavy fall of snow.

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