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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Ben Nevis in 1880 and 1889


FROM a climber's point of view Ben Nevis has one serious drawback, namely, that a pony can now be ridden to the top in summer. But it has been represented to me that many smaller peaks have already received attention in the pages of the Journal, and that the monardi of British mountains will naturally feel aggrieved if his legitimate claims are any longer ignored, so I have undertaken to supply a few notes of two ascents separated by a period of nearly ten years.

The culminating point of Great Britain is built of porphyry. The mountain has evidently been a volcano at one time. The older quartz-rocks and schists, that occupy the greater part of the highlands of Scotland, have here been burst through by an eruption of granite, and that in turn would appear to have been pierced by porphyry.

Along with two clerical friends, the writer arrived at Fort-William on a lovely evening,.—Ist May 188o,—after a tedious though charming voyage of fourteen hours down the Caledonian Canal, in the ancient steam-tub "Plover," which I sincerely hope in the interests of future travellers has now been laid past as a curiosity. She had taken longer than even her ordinary generous allowance of time, owing to a large fleet of west-bound herring skiffs, with their warm brown sails, that filled the canal and chain. of lochs.
We had in that way ample opportunity of enjoying the exquisite scenery of the Long Glen, with which the Rhine itself can hardly compete; and as we approached our destination, we gazed longingly at the dark northern wall and the snowcovered dome of the mighty Ben, the latter irradiated by the setting sun.

At Fort-William we learned that the giant had not been scaled since the previous autumn, and forthwith we decided to try its ascent next day. During the night the weather changed, and on looking across Loch Eil in the morning, alas, the upper half of the hills was shrouded in mist; but nothing daunted, we set off after nine, scouting the proposal to take a guide, and provided instead with only an indifferent map and a compass.

The main north road was followed for half a mile beyond the Bridge of Nevis, and the party then struck across a wet moor for the foot of a steep gully in the ridge stretching northward from Meall an t' Suidhe (2,322 feet). Keeping the line of the gully, the ridge was soon surmounted, and the little loch (about 1,800 feet) sighted. There the old bridle-track from Banavie was joined, at the spot where in the old days ponies used to be tethered while their riders proceeded to the summit on foot. At the loch winter met us. The dark waters of the tarn were still partly covered with ice, and snow was almost continuous above this level. After a few more hundred feet had been ascended, we got into the clouds, and resolved to wait for a while on the chance of the weather clearing at midday. We had reached about the point where the new path from Glen Nevis falls in with the old route, and where the slope becomes suddenly steep—perhaps thirty-five or forty degrees—and continues so for a thousand feet or more.

To occupy the time we amused ourselves glissading in various postures. One of us had been reading Mr Whymper's "Scrambles amongst the Alps," and had a slight inkling of the theory of how to glissade, but no one had any practical acquaintance with the art. Very quickly, however, we got into the spirit of the thing; and the fun was growing fast and furious, when one of the party, incautiously venturing on a couloir the snow in which was all but ice, went through some involuntary evolutions at a great pace, that might have had a tragic conclusion had he not been pulled up by a projecting boulder.
Two hours had now slipped past, but the clouds gave no signs of breaking; so a council of war was held, with the result that we decided to try to find the summit by the aid of the compass.

For some distance we were guided by an occasional post or the top of a cairn sticking out of the snow, but as we rose the white carpet lay to such a thickness that all landmarks were obliterated. To add to our difficulties, the surface of the snow—at first hard enough to require steps to be kicked—became softer and softer as the angle lessened, until on the broad summit plateau we floundered along up to the knees.
None of the three had been on the mountain before, but we were aware in a general way that its whole north side for two miles was guarded by a rampart of tremendous precipices, and it need scarcely be said that in such thick weather we meant to give the said precipices a wide berth. After mounting to about 4,000 feet, we ought to have altered our course more to the south than we did, for with appalling suddenness we found ourselves upon the brink of a yawning gulf, walking straight for it. The black rocks were capped by heavy folds of snow many feet thick, which overhung the abyss in a grand cornice festooned with colossal icicles. This episode enabled us to rectify our bearings, and thence to the top no difficulty was experienced.

The (then) lonely cairn on the summit was almost entirely covered, with only a stone or two and a pole projecting; and it was only by discovering a bottle with names inside that we felt sure that we had reached the actual summit, and realised that there was nothing above us nearer than Norway.

Sitting down in the snow, we attacked our lunch with hearty goodwill, in spite of being peppered by a smart shower of sleet. The weather was as thick as ever, objects being hidden a few yards off, so there was no temptation to wait long at the cairn. After leaving a record of our visit, we accordingly began to descend, following our old track without deviation, and finding the snow so soft in places that we often plunged thigh deep in our former steps. On getting down to about 3,000 feet the clouds parted, and, lo, at our feet lay Loch Eu, with the sun shining on it: while beyond, and on either side, were the mountains of Morven and Knoidart, of Mull and Skye, "unto the utmost sea." Our view was of course confined to the westward, but we reflected that even had we got a view in the opposite direction, it would have consisted of a monotonous wilderness of Silurian hill-tops, rising tier above tier, destititute of variety. We were thus able to arrive at the satisfactory conclusion that "the grapes were sour"

When the glissading ground was reached, the party could not resist the temptation of another good slide or two. We then hurried down by the loch, and so back to Fort-William by six o'clock.

There we discovered, to our no small astonishment, that we were regarded as having done a daring feat. We were interviewed, at the instigation no doubt of our landlord of the "Alexandra," by the local newspaper reporter, with the result that the "First Ascent of Ben Nevis—without guides" was duly chronicled throughout the kingdom. It is to be remembered that this was prior to the days of observatories and hotels. It was even a year or more before the redoubtable Mr Wragg and his big dog began their periodical visits to the Ben for scientific purposes.

Towards the end of September 1889 the writer found himself at Fort-William, with the greater part of a day to spare while waiting for a steamer.

The day was bad, alternately thick Scots mist and pouring rain; very much the sort of weather depicted in a well-known cartoon, "I wouldna' wonner if we had a shoor afore nicht." In short, about as unfavourable a day for mountain climbing as could well be imagined.

Being desirous nevertheless of seeing Ben Nevis under its altered conditions, I thought I could not occupy the time better than by paying a visit to the far-famed Observatory, especially as a friend had furnished me with an introduction to the superintendent.

Donning the lightest attire available, in the expectation that exercise would keep up the circulation, and leaving behind watch and everything else that would spoil, I set out for the recently made path.

I ought to have crossed the Water of Nevis at the bridge, but, misled by the telegraph poles, took the road up the near side of the river, and only discovered the mistake when half a mile on. Instead of going back to the bridge, as it was evident I should soon be wet through at any rate, I forded the Nevis, then somewhat in spate, to the amazement of a bovine native, who probably thought the stranger was "daft." The road, which was found on the other side of the stream, follows its course for a couple of miles,—as far as the farm of Achintee,—and then strikes obliquely up the hill to the left, and eventually joins the old route above the Lochan Meall an t' Suidhe before referred to.

To make a long story short, the path was kept the whole way to the summit, excepting a few short cuts to avoid zigzags. The distance from the new distillery to the top was accomplished in two hours and five minutes. During the last two thousand feet the ground was covered with a few inches of soft slushy snow, and the rain which still fell here changed to sleet.

On reaching the Observatory, and presenting my credentials, I was courteously welcomed to the warm interior by the assistant-superintendent, who kindly explained the uses of the various instruments, and afterwards allowed me to accompany him while making one of his hourly visits to the thermometer stations and wind and rain gauges.

The appearance and arrangements of this curious high- level station have been often described, and need not be alluded to here; but one or two particulars about snowfall and temperature may not be uninteresting to winter mountaineers.

As regards the quantity of snow on the top of Ben Nevis, there is comparatively little at New Year's Day, the heavy snowfalls generally speaking occurring during the months of February and March. The accumulation indeed goes on until May, when as a rule the general thaw sets in; although that has sometimes arrived as early as April, and one year it did not come till June. The greatest depth registered at the snow-gauge hitherto has been about 14 feet; and the average maximum is from 8 to 10 feet. The winters of 1888-89 and 1889-90 were open, and gave a maximum of some 7 feet only; while the present season, although much more severe than its two predecessors, has not up to the time of writing been specially snowy.

The mean winter temperature is very low, the mercury frequently standing below freezing-point for many weeks continuously; but the minimum temperature is not so arctic as one might expect. During the eight years since the Observatory was erected, the mercury has never fallen to zero, the lowest reading yet recorded having been 4 degrees on that exceptionally cold Sunday, the 8th March last. This experience corresponds with the results shown by 'self-registering thermometers that have been left out all winter on the summits of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, the lowest readings of which, if I mistake not, were not very far below zero (Fahr.), although more extreme degrees of cold are believed to have been met with at lower altitudes.

Having a wish to descend the Ben by the eastern ridge, which curves towards the summit of Cam Mor Dearg, [Every prominent knoll in the neighbourhood of Ben Nevis seems to rejoice in the name of "The Red Cairn," probably as a compliment to the ruddy hue of the granite. There are no fewer than five "Cam Deargs" within as many miles.] I was shown a large-scale map of that part of the mountain, and afterwards conducted by one of the staff some distance on the way to the col, which would otherwise have been difficult, if not impossible, to hit in the prevailing dense fog.

At the place where the ridge abuts against the main peak, the junction of the porphyry and granite is very apparent, the colour of the debris which covers the slope changing abruptly from dark grey to pink. The eastern ridge is graphically described in Dr Geikie's interesting work on the scenery of Scotland:-

"This narrow mountain ridge is seen to rise between two profound glens. The glen that lies far below on the south-west is overhung on its further side by the vast, rugged precipice of Ben Nevis, rising some fifteen hundred or two thousand feet above the stream that wanders through the gloom at its base. That dark wall of porphyry can now be seen from bottom to top, with its huge masses of rifted rock standing up like ample buttresses into the light, and its deep recesses and clefts into which the summer sun never reaches, and where the winter snow never melts. The eye, travelling over cliff and crag, can mark everywhere the seams and scars dealt out in that long warfare with the elements, of which the whole mountain is so noble a memorial. From a somewhat rounded and flattened ridge, it narrows into a mere knife-edged crest, shelving steeply into the glens on either side. It is sometimes less than a yard broad, and as it is formed of broken crags and piles of loose granite blocks, it affords by no means an easy pathway. The process of waste may be seen in all its stages. The narrow ridge is a mass of ruin, like the shattered foundations of an ancient rampart."

In its winter garb the ridge must present all the features of an Alpine arÍte, and would then give a-climber some good fun. Even as I saw it, with little or no snow, it was by no means commonplace. After picking my way along its crest until it began to bend to the north, I retraced my steps to the col, and thence descended obliquely across the slope of the eastern shoulder of Ben Nevis, steering in a direction generally south for the upper part of the invisible Glen Nevis.

In due time I got below the clouds, and reached the Water of Nevis at a knoll called Meall Cumhann, eight or nine miles from Fort-William. Thereabout are to be seen two fine waterfalls on tributaries of the Nevis (rarely visited, and not mentioned in Baddeley), also a wild ravine where the river has cut its way through a dyke of black igneous rock, and some grand examples of ice- markings. At the time I speak of there was only a rough track through this upper part of Glen Nevis, but a cart road is now being made there, which may eventually be carried as far as Loch Treig.

The lower and better known part of the glen is softer and more lowland in character than its higher reaches. Taking it altogether, Glen Nevis well deserves to be ranked as one of the finest of the many fine glens of Inverness- shire.

Before taking leave of Ben Nevis, I may state, on the authority of one of the men at the Observatory, that the great northern precipice is cleft at one place by a gully, by means of which it is possible to scale that side of the mountain.

As regards the side facing Glen Nevis, I cannot speak definitely; but, so far as the mist allowed me to judge, there appeared to be a line of more or less precipitous buttresses, not unlikely to provide good rock-climbing to anybody with an ambition in that direction.

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