By W. W. NAISMITH.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.