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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Bidean and The Buchailles


IN a previous number of the Journal, some notes were given of a short holiday (by Mr Naismith and the writer) among the Glencoe Hills, and at the request of the editor the following more detailed account of the biggest day—that spent on Bidean-nam-Bian and the two Buchaille Etiveshas been prepared. These mountains form the southern wall of Glencoe. Bidean-nam-Bian ("the highest of the hills"—true so far as Argyleshire is concerned) bounds a great part of the western end of the glen, the ridge line sweeping south-eastward in deep majestic curves, while the Buchailles Bheag and Mor (the little and great shepherds of Etive) stand more nearly end on to the glen, their ridge lines running north-east and south-west. From the ridge of Bidean, however, three or four massive spurs are thrown out north-eastward to, the glen, and these are almost parallel with the ridge lines of the Buchailles. The Buchailles, in fact, would be practically a part of the Bidean range were it not for the fact that the main ridge which connects together the western spurs drops to the valley before connecting with the Buchailles; the three ridges, Bidean and the two Buchailles, ending close together at the junction of the Lairig Eilde and the Lairig Gartain passes with Glen EtivÁ at Dalness. The highest point of the Bidean ridge is, about due south of Loch Triochatan, nearer the west than the east end of, the mountain, and is 3,766 feet in height; Stob Dubh, the summit of the Bheag, is at the south-west end of that hill, and is 3,129 feet, while Stob Dearg, the highest point of the Mor, 3,345 feet, is at the north-east extremity. The two passes which divide them are each about i,600 feet at the highest points.

Our start was made on Saturday, the 5th April, from the little Clachaig Inn, which lies in the heart of the glen. We had reached it on the Friday night, walking from Ballachulish via the Pap of Glencoe (not Pass as previously misprinted), and had laid our plans for the day as follows: —Get on to the ridge of Bidean, follow it over the peak till we came near the Buchailles, dodging any subsidiary peaks if practicable, then, if time was plentiful and no signs of " bellows to mend," cross the near end of the Bheag over Stob Dubh; but in any case, get over Stob Dearg and so to Kingshouse. Bidean and Stob Dearg were considered the essentials, Stob Dubh to be done if possible, the rest to be taken as it came.

The weather in the morning was simply perfect, clear but cold; and the only drawback was that every scheme for forwarding our knapsacks to Kingshouse had proved impossible, and as they weighed probably about 10 lbs. apiece, they rather hindered our progress. Our climbing gear was made up of a dozen yards of light rope (window sashcord in fact, which was calculated to be sufficiently strong for a party of two), an ice axe carried by Naismith, and an alpenstock carried by the writer. The latter had its spike broken off the day before, and rejoiced now in a large nail with the head filed off. We got under way about 7.40, and after splashing through a few hundred yards of marshy ground, struck up the hill right behind the inn, where the ridge towered nearly 3,000 feet above us. An easier slope would have been got by going westward to the toe of the ridge, but the flank presented no great difficulty, although seamed and scarred to such an extent that the climbing was soon all over scree, except where the rock cropped out, or where, as we neared the top, an odd patch of snow lent variety to the surface. We gained the ridge in an hour and a half, losing at the same time the shade afforded by the hill, and finding an immediate necessity for our goggles. The flatter south slope was covered with snow for a considerable distance, and glittered in the sunshine with a dazzling brightness. From this point we had the beginning of the view which, now extending and now contracting as we rose at a peak or sunk into a hollow, feasted our eyes throughout the day with its infinite variety of detail. In front of us, as we turned to the eastward, our ridge rose white towards the central peak; northward there was a sharp drop to Glencoe, and beyond it a great sea of mountain tops, Ben Nevis and his companion heights being conspicuous. To the west, 3,000 feet below us, was the farmhouse of Gleann-teuc-na-Muidhe, built on the site where the old chief's house stood at the time of the massacre, and where (not at the clachan beside Loch Leven) most of the execrable atrocities took place; while beyond the deep valley the sharp white peaks of Beinn-aBheithir showed brilliantly against the blue sky. Southward the snow slope stretched from where we stood till it seemed to drop over a steeper slope, and farther off, beyond many nameless heights, we could easily pick out such landmarks as Ben More, Ben Lui, and Ben Cruachan. As we gradually made our way up the ridge, and got clear of the spur by which we had ascended, a grand corrie opened on our left. The ridge along which we passed was corniced over, the drop below was impressively steep, though possibly an ascent might have been made through the corrie by continued use of the axe; and the sides were boldly precipitous, the rocks standing out black from the sheet of snow with which the corrie was filled, but picked out in their crevices with the same dazzling whiteness. It was majestic even in the bright sunshine, and would only have required whirling mist to render it sublime. Still onward, we held to the ridge. Generally easy, it presented now and then a steep front of snow and rock, which we did not trouble to circumvent, but cut and climbed our way over. Passing another grand corrie, very similar to the first in general features, we had a final scramble over rock and snow, and then, rising through the white covering and heavily coated with it, the cairn was just in front. From it a long ridge struck off to the north, ending in a peak not much lower than ours (Stob Coire-an-Lochan, 3,657 feet), and flanked sharply by a corrie on either side, the ridge being marked by the black peaks which projected here and there from the uniform white of the corries. All round winter held full sway, the snow being hard and firm in spite of the sun, which now shone on it with increased brilliancy. We saw before us the two Buchailles, looking insignificant enough from our commanding elevation, but they were not peculiar in this, for one of the curious experiences of the day was the extraordinary dwarfing of all the features in the landscape. This was no doubt due to the extreme clearness of the air, which allowed details to be seen with more sharpness, and so suggested less distance than was really the case. We had reached the top at 10.20, and spent half-anhour very pleasantly in identifying many of the landmarks. Although freezing keenly, the cold was not unpleasant, the slight breeze serving merely to temper the bright rays of the sun. Resuming our journey along the ridge, which descended rapidly for a time, we would before long have come on the crest of Ben Fhada, the eastern spur of Bidean, but as there was no particular object in reaching his summit, we decided to dodge and cut across the steep slope on the south of the peak till we joined the ridge beyond. (The compositor who set up the previous note sent us to the north of the peak, which was not only out of our way, but along the face of a precipice.) The slope we did cross was bad enough, being largely composed of stones of varying size but of very uniform stability—that is, none. The ridge, however, was soon regained, and was easy walking, being now much broader, and largely spread with snow. We saw the Buchailles well, and it almost seemed as if one big jump would land us on the Bheag, and another on the Mor. The two as seen from this point were very similar in general appearance, though differing somewhat in profile, the ridge of the latter being much more deeply serrated than that of the former.

It soon became evident that if we followed the ridge much farther, we would pass too far on for the highest point of the Lairig Eilde, so, finding on our left a rare snow-filled gully, leading down almost to the summit of the pass, we entrusted ourselves to it, and though the snow was rather soft, its steepness was sufficient to take us merrily down. With such a start it did not take long to deseend the Soo feet or so (2,400 to 1,600) between us and the col, and at 12.30 we crossed the burn without much halt, and with much doubt as to the existence of the path which is said to traverse the glen. The glen, however, would be an easy one, path or no path.

How the Buchaille Etive Bheag had grown! There he towered above us, very different in appearance now that we were a couple of thousand feet down. The long steep slope of debris culminated in a rock face right above us in the line for the peak, but this was not looked upon by any means as a drawback. On the contrary, after toiling up for over a thousand feet on treacherous scree, the rocks formed an agreeable change. They were steep enough to be interesting without being in any way serious, and were topped by a considerable stretch of snow, fairly steep, and, owing to the northern exposure, hard. A staircase had to be cut diagonally across this face, on which the writer tried his 'prentice hand. The upper end was very near the peak of Stob Dubh, which we reached about 1.50. The view here was much more restricted than that from Bidean, the best point, indeed, being the ridge and corries of Bidean himself. We had climbed it more for the sake of making a clean sweep of the group, than from any great expectation of a view, but it is well worth climbing on any grounds. Buchaille Etive Mor showed better than from Bidean, although even here his size was not appreciated. We had a long raking view of one of his sides, the three main peaks being very clearly seen. Had we been able to see also the deep corrie behind the first peak, we would have escaped the heaviest, but at the same time the most interesting, part of the afternoon's work. This corrie was concealed by a bold precipitous spur on the left of the first peak, which was completely covered with snow. The middle peak, also white, was a graceful cone, while in the distance Stob Dearg, rising rather higher than either of his companions, showed a bluff red rocky mass. We decided not to climb the nearest peak, and left the middle one an open question till we should reach the valley. Leaving Stob Dubh about two o'clock, and beginning with a short snow slide or two, we reached the Lairig Gartain in about half-an-hour, and spent another half-hour in resting and discussing the situation, deciding finally to make for the col between the first and the second peak, the fine sharp cone of the latter proving a temptation too strong to be resisted. Our plan was to make for the foot of the precipices of peak number one, then work round across the corrie, so as to strike the ridge just about the col, from which point we counted on a comparatively simple scramble over the remaining peaks, and then down to Kings- house, the hope of going straight down the steep side not being altogether absent. Three or four hours we thought should be sufficient for the journey, and on that assumption —not a very creditable calculation for two would-be-experienced mountaineers—we committed the serious mistake of making a hearty meal of all our remaining provisions. At three o'clock, with the bulging pockets reduced now to normal size, we started for the big Buchaille on a slanting course up the hillside, which course—thanks to the numerous gullies—we soon found it expedient to change for one parallel with them, making our way across, when necessary, on the square. Down the glen to the north the heather burners were at work, while far up on the mountain side in front of us a few deer were visible. As we approached the cliffs, patches of snow, gradually increasing in size and number, had to be traversed, sometimes with the aid of the axe, but all went merrily until we turned the corner of the peak, a "kittle" bit of work, and looked across the corrie. The sight which greeted us was a snowfield filling the whole corrie, pitched at a steep angle, ending in rocks far below, and so protected from the sun by precipices as to be frozen hard. It was, in fact, almost ice where we tried it. It was probably not much short of a quarter of a mile to the col, and every step would require cutting, a matter not only of time but of care, as a slip could only have one result— prompt destruction. We looked out for a way of escape. The alternatives were to work down the edge of the snow, cross the foot of it, and then up the other side, or to find our way up the precipices on our right. Considerations of time favoured the latter, and retracing our steps for a short distance, we found a gully which looked feasible. It was filled with snow, mostly hard, and with a point of rock projecting here and there, but it seemed as if we would get well up to the peak by its means. The rope was brought into use, and the ascent was made with great care, one man anchoring fast while the other was moving. The rope gave about thirty feet of interval, and as this had to be used five or six times, the height would probably not be over-estimated at 150 feet. The leader had to do some heavy work in the way of step cutting; the troubles of the other (the writer) being confined to the discomfort caused by the intense cold. It was freezing hard now, and the position of clinging to an alpenstock plunged in the snow, or balancing on an icy point of rock, has no great tendency to promote circulation. After a bit the slope became easier and the snow softer, steps could be kicked, and we could both move at once. Our gully turned out to be a branch from the wide snow- field which covered not only the peak but most of the ridge. We did not trouble to consider whether we had reached the actual summit of this peak—probably we had not. What we did consider was that it was now a quarter past five, and that light might fail us. Down the ridge we rattled at our best pace, skirting the top of our old enemy the corrie, and taking care to keep clear of the dangerous slope. In little over half an hour we stood on the peak of the central cone, as near as the heavy snow cornice would allow us to go. A deer had evidently been before us in our visit, and had kept the same respectful distance. By this time we were tolerably tired, and excessively hungry, and it was only a firm resolve not to give in that kept us from making the easiest course for Kingshouse. It would never do, however, to omit Stob Dearg. The snow stretched down in front of us, just comfortably hard at the top for a glissade, but, as we discovered, getting harder and harder as we went spinning down almost out of all control. We just managed to stop short of the rocks which fringed the snow, and which would have made us suffer had we run into them. Another slope a little farther on was frozen hard, but was at that abominable angle which is too steep for walking and too flat for glissading. It was a long grind over rocks and stones, sometimes steep, always rough, before, at 6.40, we stood beside the cairn on Stob Dearg, thankful that there were no more peaks beyond. We were in no mood to stand admiring the view, over which the first indications of twilight were creeping, nor did we make any attempt to find a way down the steep side. If such a way is feasible at all, it certainly was not desired at such an hour, and by men who were tolerably well fagged. Retracing our steps then for a few hundred yards, we struck down a shoulder of the hill towards Glen Etive, making almost straight for the point where the Ailt Fionn Ghlinne joins the Etive with a sharp corner. The shoulder was steep, and the snow glissading was replaced by many an involuntary glissade with the loose shingle, the erect posture being not the rule but the exception. Night came down rapidly, and the heather fires, thus brought into prominence, marked out some of the recesses of the dark glen with their creeping lines of light. Long before we left the hill, the glen was only visible in dim outline, with the fires sparkling in the midst of the darkness. About eight o'clock we reached the Glen Etive road, a welcome change after twelve hours on the hills, and another short hour's walking—in the dark—brought us in sight of the lights of Kingshouse. There Dr Coats, whom we had arranged to meet, had arrived hours before, and was doubtful probably whether it was our tryst or our necks that we had broken; but our dilapidated and rather woe-begone appearance fully vouched for the involuntary nature of the delay, and, fortunately, vanished at much the same rate (a rapid one) as the dinner which he had ordered on his arrival, and which had waited for a few hours. In some circumstances a dinner is not spoiled by waiting.

The latter part of the day's work was no doubt something of a grind, and the unexpected lengthening was not an unmixed pleasure; but in spite of small discomforts, the whole day was heartily enjoyed, and was an admirable specimen of the interesting work one may find on the Scottish hills. A man carrying an ice axe near the sea- level on a fine April day may, to the uninitiated, suggest the ludicrous, and may call forth sarcastic comment. The laugh, however, is on his side when the snow-line is reached. Our expedition would certainly have been more or les a failure but for the axe, to which the alpenstock proved much inferior, and it is doubtful if, without the rope as well, we would have ventured on the slope which we traversed with its assistance.

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