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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Ben Lui


By T. FRASER S. CAMPBELL.

To many climbers it may be unnecessary to describe the locale of the mountain which I have made the subject of this paper, but to others it is, I believe, less known than it deserves to be. Although readily accessible from three distinct points, it is somewhat removed from the beaten track, and does not attract large numbers of summer tourists,—a merciful dispensation, sufficiently vouched for by the comparative absence from its summit of such emblems of civilisation as beer corks and broken bottles, whereof many of the more "popular" hills bear so rich a harvest.

Ben Laoigh or Lui lies about equidistant from Tyndrum and Dalmally, at both of which points there are good hotels. The ascent may also be made from Ardlui, at the head of Loch Lomond, but as a climb this is less interesting, while the distance to be traversed is greater. I have made the ascent once from this side, and from Tyndrum twice, and it is upon these two latter occasions that I would now ask my reader to accompany me in spirit.' It was, I think, in the spring of 1882—when my mountain knowledge was much less than it now is—that I made, or rather attempted, my first ascent. The occasion was the Queen's Birthday, and, in spite of most unpromising weather, six of us left Edinburgh by the night train to Oban, intending to climb Ben Lui, walk to the head of Loch Lomond, and by getting the early steamer down to Inversnaid be in time to do Ben Lomond, and so home by Balloch, but—

"The best laid schemes of mice and men
Gang aft a-gee!"

It was indeed a miserable night, or, to use a word coined by an old servant of the family, a most "drizzleable" one; and as the train dragged its slow length along through the Pass of Leny, by the lonely shores of Lubnaig, and under the shadow of Ben More, until we reached Tyndrum, there was nothing to be seen from the windows but mist, and wet, and darkness. On reaching Tyndrum we were fortunate in finding a roaring fire in the porter's room, to which we were made welcome; the gentleman in charge evidently regarding us as a set of wild lunatics when we announced our intention of proceeding forthwith to ascend the "hulls." However, we had not travelled all this distance to be laughed out of our enterprise by a railway-porter; and having partaken of a good breakfast of eggs and biscuits, washed down by a bottle of excellent Médoc, we shouldered our knapsacks, and saying farewell to our host we set out upon our work.

It was now four o'clock, and the dawn was well advanced,—sufficiently so to show us how ugly it was possible for a Highland glen to be. The scene was dreary in the extreme, the grey mists hanging low upon the marshy grounds, and entirely obscuring the hills from our view; but it was not actually raining at the time, and as the light increased we had hopes that we might have a fine morning after all. It did eventually clear by about ten o'clock, but the intervening hours had served to reduce us mentally and physically to a state of pulp.

About five o'clock we reached the farm-house of Coninish; the mists had gathered again, and had now indeed developed into a steady soaking rain, so we took refuge for a time in a barn, sharing with some callous- looking sheep the doubtful shelter of its dilapidated roof. An old woman came out of her door to rinse her porridge- pot, and we gave her good-morrow; but the dame displayed no interest in our existence; and once more we went out into the rain. When we reached the lead mines, we had absorbed about as much moisture as it was possible for our clothes to contain; but being possessed of a Mark Tapleyish determination to enjoy ourselves, we proceeded to do so in our own way, so we crossed the river and began the ascent.

Forcing our way through a narrow gorge where the waters of the infant Tay [The River Tay has its first source in the great corrie of Ben Lui.] plashed unheeded upon us, we soon struck a belt of snow, which lay in patches on the heather and among the rocks, and as we mounted higher the mist grew denser and the cold more intense, while the rain swept down upon us with remorseless persistency. Objects were invisible at a distance of more than a few yards, except when some gust of wind rolled back the vapours, and revealed to each for a brief space the forms of those in front, or beside him, toiling up the steep ascent, only to be obscured again a moment after. By constantly shouting, however, we kept pretty well together; and when a ringing cheer from our Pleader announced that the top was reached, it was not long before we were all gathered on a point which seemed to be the highest attainable, and around which the mists boiled and eddied on every side. It was too cold to remain long in this position, but before turning to descend we unearthed from the recesses of our knapsack a bottle of wine which we had provided in honour of the day, and having drunk to the health of Her Majesty, and to our own further success, we continued our journey.

We had not descended, however, more than a few feet when the mist lifted slightly, and we became aware that we were still very far from the real top. To the right of the great corrie rises the hill of Stob Garbh; this is simply a buttress of Ben Lui, with which it is connected by a long saddle, and subsequent visits to the mountain have made me certain that it was upon the higher part of this saddle that we now were.

As we began to descend, in the belief that we were now across the mountain, we were soon confronted by the real summit, which rose some goo feet above us, but which we could only see dimly and at intervals through the mist. We also became aware that a precipice of unknown depth was to our left, while on the right was a steep snow slope, descending rapidly we knew not whither. Utterly unacquainted as we were with what might be below, the increasing difficulties soon compelled us to abandon reluctantly any attempt to reach the top, and to retrace our steps. It was some time before we gained again the level of the plain, and chilled as we were with wind and rain, and humbled in spirit by the failure of our plans, the walk down the valley to Tyndruni was not a pleasant one; but a good breakfast and dry clothing, with which our host provided us, soon brought solace to our souls, and we returned to Edinburgh that evening, resolved that our enemy should not for long remain unconquered.

Accordingly one lovely evening in the following month we took up our quarters at Inverarnan, whence we made the ascent next morning. Even at this time the north corrie was well filled with snow, testifying to the severity of the preceding winter and spring; but the mountain was free from mist, and we could see far below us the spot where we had formerly been obliged to sound the retreat. The slope to the right of the ridge which had looked so formidable was now robbed to a certain extent of its dangers, but I believe that under the circumstances we had shown a wise discretion in abandoning our first attempt.

Years elapsed before circumstances again drew my steps to Ben Lui, but at the very close of December I 889 a small party of Club members met at Tyndrum, where I joined them late on the evening of the 28th. There was no snow in the valley, but a keen frost had prevailed for some days; and the rest of the party, who had made the ascent of Ben Anea in the morning, reported considerable quantities of hard snow on the upper slopes of the hills. It was upon this occasion that Messrs R. A. Robertson and W. R. Lester made their first attempt to ascend the 'Black Shoot," recorded in the May (1890) number of the Journal. I trust that the account of a successful attempt may still appear in some future issue!

The following morning we started about ten o'clock, and following the route mentioned at the beginning of this paper, we called a halt at the lead mines about half-past eleven. Here counsels were divided as to our further movements. Although there was no rain, the clouds hung low upon the hills, and threatened ominously; so some of the party elected to keep the road and go on to Dalmally, while Lester and I resolved to take to the hill,—and verily we had our reward.

Once more we shaped our course up through the gorge before alluded to, and it afforded some very interesting work, for the stream was entirely frozen, and the rocks at the side required careful negotiation. A particularly beautiful effect was produced by the freezing of a little waterfall at the top of the gorge, the waters of which had been turned to ice as they fell, forming a complete cascade of crystal eight or ten feet high. Clambering up this fall, we found ourselves at the foot of the great corrie; and as we ascended the side of Stob Garbh the mist lifted for a little, and the sun shone out, showing us the summit away up to our left. So far there were only occasional patches of snow, but as we ascended the rocks and grass became coated with frost, and displayed the beautiful flower forms familiar to all who have made ascents in winter or spring. A stiff pull soon brought us to the saddle, on topping which we found the corrie on the other side filled with a great snowfield, up which the wind swept with considerable severity. As we were debating whether we should go up the rocks on the edge of the precipice, or whether, by obliquely crossing the snow slope referred to, we should take the mountain in flank, our attention was attracted by a shout from below, and looking down we found that Robertson was making for us, having been tempted by the improvement in the weather to forsake the valley for the hill.

Running and glissading down the slope I joined him, and keeping to the right we steered our course so as to strike the shoulder as near the top as possible, Lester in the meanwhile making his way across the snowfield and joining us some three or four hundred feet below its upper limit. The ascent from a little above the spot where I met Robertson was sufficiently arduous, the angle of the slope being very steep, and the snow extremely hard as we mounted higher. We should have been greatly assisted by an ice axe, but this we had unfortunately not provided. So we had to cut all our steps with our boots; and although when Lester joined us we endeavoured to minimise the labour, by going in Indian file, and taking turns at the cutting, the strain on our legs was still considerable. To me personally, it was a new experience, as I had never before ascended a snowfield of anything like the dimensions or condition of this one; and as I looked upwards at the steep slope, fringed here with a line of black rocks picked out sharply against the wintry sky, and melting there into the mists which circled round the summit, or downwards where for hundreds of feet below spread a field of dazzling white, one false step on which might have sent any one of us whirling down to the rocks, I felt that I could appreciate to a great extent the feelings which may possibly occupy the mind of a young and inexperienced bluebottle on first essaying the ascent of a window-pane.

For the last twenty feet the slope was very steep indeed, and as at the very top we had to get over what was almost a "cornice," it was with a certain feeling of relief that we at length won the ridge, whence a short climb brought us to the cairn. The ascent of the snow had occupied over an hour, and we must have done about eight hundred feet of step-kicking.

Until the last few steps of the climb the summit had been still more or less obscured, but just as we approached the cairn the mist rolled away, the wind fell entirely, and there was revealed to our wondering eyes the most superb sight I have ever looked upon. All around the air was beautifully clear, and above us the cold green sky was almost cloudless; but away down below to the south-westward a sea of dense white cloud rolled for leagues and leagues, until it merged in the vapours which overhung the distant waters of the western lochs. The mists were furled closely round the sides of Ben Lui and the adjacent hills, and they stood out from its billows like rocky islands,—some just showing their very tops, others towering up for hundreds of feet, presenting here a snow-white cone, and there, like Cruachan, a face of naked rock.. Vast and impenetrable this sea of cloud lay stretched before us, not a motion disturbing the serenity of its level surface, no sound or sign of life breaking its utter stillness. To the north the scene was quite different, and we could look down into the valley below. Upon the summit of Ben Chuirn lay a light cloud, on which we could see reflected the point where we stood, surrounded by a beautiful fog- bow. We hoped that our own shadows might become visible also, but in this we were disappointed.

The cairn and all the rocks around were covered with thick hoar frost, but very little snow, and as there was no wind the cold was hardly appreciable; indeed, as we sat smoking our pipes, and gazing on the marvellous beauty of the scene, it was difficult to realise that we were nearly four thousand feet above the sea, and that the day was at the very close of the dying year.

All too soon we became aware of the first tokens of approaching night The air grew clearer, and above our heads a few pale stars twinkled in the frosty sky. The sun was hidden by banks of dull clouds, which lay along the horizon to the west; but as we turned to descend, a hundred peaks around us caught the reflection of his beams, their snowy tops bathed in rose and purple and gold. Away to the west and north soared the summits of the Cruachan range, the Black Mount hills and the giants of Glencoe—Ben Doirean, Ben Achallader, Ben Heasgairnich, and others—filling the middle distance; to the northeast were the Tarmachans and Ben Lawers; and further north the snow-white cone of Schiehallion; while closer to us, beyond the shoulder of Ben Dubh-Craige, rose the beautiful shapes of Ben More and the Binian. We were loth to leave, but as the light died from the hills, and the shadows began to creep upon us, we knew that we must go. So we took again to the snow, and used for some little distance the steps we had cut coming up. For the first few feet this was somewhat difficult work, as we had to descend with our faces to the slope, the angle being too steep to admit of our going down otherwise. This, however, was soon past, and striking across the snowfield, and following Lester's previous steps, we reached the col above the great corrie. Here we found a slope of snow in good condition for a glissade, with safe landing at the bottom ; and placing our feet firmly together, and leaning well back on our alpenstocks, down we went five hundred feet in a few seconds. Racing fast over the intervening slopes we reached the road just as darkness was beginning to settle.

As we tramped along the ice-bound road, we often turned a backward look on glorious Ben Lui; and both then and later in the evening, when over our steaming tumblers we discussed our various experiences, we rejoiced that, undeterred by the mists and cold of the morning, we had added another to many previous ascents whose memory will be surely with us in after-years when the mountains and the mists shall know us no more.

P.S.—The other day (13th April) Messrs Naismith, Lester, and the writer, made another ascent of Ben Lui. Leaving Tyndrum at 7.30 A.M., we reached the lead mines about nine. Keeping to the right of the gully mentioned in our first ascent, we took to a steep couloir, which was overcome with some difficulty. We then ascended the N.E. face of Stob Garbh, striking its ridge some two hundred feet from the summit, and immediately to the left of a great cleft which cuts the cliff from top to bottom and renders further passage in that direction practically impossible. The crest was followed from Stob Garbh to the top of Ben Lui. The descent was made from a point a few yards west of the summit, by cutting steps down a snow slope—in places certainly fifty degrees—into a twisted couloir running up the very centre of of the great corrie. After about two hours of arduous work, a glissade of six hundred or eight hundred feet - accomplished in two minutes—brought us to the foot of the corrie. I am inclined to look upon this as quite a new route. It would have been quite impracticable without both rope and ice axe. In places the snow was all that could be desired, but sometimes it was very thin, resting either upon ice, or upon a frozen former snowfall, when the footing was very precarious. T. F. S. C.


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