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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Winter Ascents


Ben Vorlich (3,224 feet) and Stuc-a-Chroin (3,189 fret) on the 1st January 1891.
By A. ERNEST MAYLARD.

THERE are comparatively few who know what is to be seen on or from the top of a mountain in midwinter. Rambles at this particular period possess features totally unlike any experienced either in the summer or the autumn. Let us suppose, for example, that a certain mountain is ascended on the 1st of January, and again on the 1st of July, the same route to the summit being taken on each occasion. From the point of view of physical exertion, the ascent at the former season may be encumbered with difficulties only capable of being overcome by the moderately experienced mountaineer; while at the latter period difficulties may hardly be said to exist, and the most hackneyed tourist will succeed in leaving his orange peel and egg shells, and in inscribing his initials, with the date of his accomplishment, on the cairn post.

It is not, however, a pure and simple matter of difficulty alone, for these winter ascents are at times by no means entirely free of danger; and indeed it may be said they are frequently of sufficient moment to make it inexpedient for a man to go alone. So rarely does one meet fellow-creature, or even see the footprints on the snow of previous passer-by, that to meet with an accident, perhaps only slight in itself, but sufficient to totally disable, would engender possibly the gravest results. The cold is no mean item of consideration, and even a short enforced sojourn would soon tell deleteriously on a crippled or disabled climber. It must further be remembered that at this particular season of the year our days are very short, daylight extending from about half-past eight to half-past four, and when there is no moon, the darkness at night is extreme. Hence a disabled climber would soon be benighted, and his position rendered more hopeless and trying still. The mists, too, which so frequently cap the mountains and linger on their slopes, both impede vision and deaden sound, and so minimise the chance of help to him who may have become incapable of helping himself. For all these reasons, then, I feel fully justified in expressing the opinion that no man should venture on a winter ascent alone, Our Club has not had an accident to relate, and long may it boast of such a clean record; but as one of its primary objects is to encourage winter ascents, and as doubtless they will grow in favour as each winter comes round, a timely warning may not be out of place.

While, however, many of these features in connection with winter climbing constitute dangers and drawbacks to be encountered by those who may have rashly ventured on an expedition alone, and perchance met with an accident, they must also be looked upon as some of the genuine delights of a winter scramble. What so bracing to the mountaineer as a keen, fresh, frosty breeze! What so inspiriting as a rock face coated with snow and ice, that must be conquered somehow! Where such fun as when you see your companion struggling to extricate himself from a snowdrift into which he has sunk up to his waist! What views e4ual those which the eyes rest upon from time to time as they travel from one point to another! If the day be a clear one, with the wind in the north, even Switzerland, with all its majestic grandeur, would not disdain to own Scotland as a very near relative. Truly at such times might we speak of our Scottish Alps. It is impossible to gaze on such a scene without recalling your Swiss experiences. Peak after peak soars upward, its clear white outline bold against the bright blue background of the sky; while in striking contrast are the dark glens below,—so dark sometimes that they might be bottomless abysses for all that it is possible to detect shape or form of any kind. Those lovely tints, too, that tinge the snow and the sky as the sun goes down! Could you possibly watch the fading of the golden peaks into their dead whiteness, or the rose-purple hues of the heavens into their cold nocturnal grey, without thinking of that evening in Switzerland when you stood and gazed on the very same effects? Truly, I say again, may we not speak of our Scottish Alps, —Alps indeed all but in height?

While then there is much to recall one's Swiss experiences, there is also much that is essentially peculiar to these Scottish ascents themselves. I have no knowledge of what the Alps are like in winter, but in summer I have never seen the rocks coated so completely with frozen snow of the most fantastic shapes as I have seen them here in Scotland. The lowness of the sun in the horizon at this time of the year, and the frequency with which the bills are enshrouded in mist, are both important factors in the production of these conditions. The mist freezing on the rocks coats them entirely with minute ice crystals, which the sun has no power to melt. Again, we owe to these mists a peculiar charm in the varied effects they frequently give us. It may read -a little strange to some of my brother members, but I would almost as soon climb a mountain in a mist as without one, such wonderful effects have I seen produced. Shifting or stationary mists may give to an ascent something so novel, so entirely unexperienced, that though you might have climbed the mountain a dozen times before, it would still be like a new ascent. It is difficult almost to say whfch of the two gives the most pleasing and mysterious effects. It is perhaps wrong to speak of a stationary mist, as a mist is almost always changing in some way; if not actually moving, it may be vanishing or re-forming; but some are so slow and imperceptible in their progress, they might be called practically motionless. A mountain which appears to be capped by a dense stationary mist may be encircled only by a belt, some two or three hundred feet of its summit projecting into clear space above. To emerge suddenly under such circumstances into a clear atmosphere: from a contracted view into a vast expanse of scenery, is indeed one of nature's grand transformation scenes, and needs only once to be seen to be for ever remembered and longed for again. These distant views, however, are often strangely modified. The same mist which encircles the climbers' mountain may be only a part of an immense stratum, which similarly girds all the neighbouring heights; and then is produced that strangest of all effects, the appearance of innumerable peaks projecting through, or rather appearing to rest upon, a perfect sea of white cloud. It sometimes happens that, besides the mist below, the sky above is clouded, and then cloud above meets cloud below, and earth seems continuous with heaven. Such a peculiar effect we had the opportunity of observing on the 1st of January on the top of Stuc-a-Chroin.

The shifting mists produce the most varied effects. At one time cutting off the view in one direction, and as rapidly opening it up in another; arising in one spot out of nothing, and vanishing at another into nothing; sometimes so dense as to obscure all distinct vision, at other times so thin as to form a sort of white gauzy veil through which objects seem almost to have a fairy aspect. So numberless and so beautiful are the changes produced by these shifting vapours, that but for the cold so freq4uently associated with them the climber would often gladl' prolong his sojourn in order to watch their constantly varying effects. They are as much beyond the power of the artist to depict as they are beyond the power of the writer to describe. It is only he, who will climb and see, can know.

There is a distinct pleasure peculiar to being in a mist. You are cut off for a time from all nature around; there is nothing but ice and snow below your feet and before your eyes; there is not a sound to be heard,—the stillness is absolute. You are aiming for a certain point; obstacles, you know not what, may lie in your course; you must constantly consult your map, and you must as constantly, if not more so, consult your compass. Your aneroid, too, needs an occasional glance. All this entails an amount of excitement and enjoyment which adds special zest to the climb, and introduces novelty where, under other circumstances, there might be none.

It is in the conquering of difficulties that the true climber most frequently finds his greatest pleasure; and however much he may delight in the glories of scenic effects, he will often love most to look back upon that bit where he had to hang on to a slippery rock by his fingers, stick the tip of his toes on to a narrow ledge, hitch up his other knee, and sprawl to safety on his stomach.

I have now run over very briefly some of the delights connected with winter ascents, than which, to my mind, there are none more enjoyable. Alas that our climate is so fickle, and our winter thereby made so variable. The first of January may show us hardly a mountain capped with snow. In place of a keen frosty atmosphere, we may have a warm, muggy, stuffy day. Instead of snow and ice to lightly and rapidly tread upon, we may find ourselves sinking into, and heavily toiling over, miry bogs, and a deluge of rain may replace the more seasonable snowstorm. But to the real climber, whose love centres primarily on the pleasures connected with physical exercise, these inclemencies will not detain him, and he will not miss reward. I might add still further, that the climber who makes love of scenery the chief reason for his rambles, will not be disappoizted by these inclement conditions. The wild grandeur of the hills, when storm-beaten by rain and wind, contrasts so strongly with their appearance under calmer and more peaceful conditions, that they may be said to possess a special charm and interest at these times. However, in speaking of winter ascents, I have really meant to imply only such as a typical wintry day, with ice, snow, frost, and a clear or misty atmosphere would afford. Such days may be had usually from the 30th of November to well into April. I have made what might be termed winter ascents towards the end of November and the end of April, but that perhaps is a little outside the usual period. It often happens with us that when the months of December and January are mild, March and April bring some good sharp, clear, wintry weather. The early green beginning then to show itself about the glens and loch sides lends a fresh bright colouring to the scene, and with the hills covered with snow a general effect is produced, perhaps as beautiful as can be seen at any time of the year.

As I have ventured to enter somewhat into the delights, difficulties, and dangers of winter ascents, I might perhaps give, for the benefit of those uninitiated members of our Club who have not yet tried a good hard day on our Scottish Alps, some few directions regarding equipment and preparations for such desirable exploits. In starting this Club its founders had as one of their strongest incentives to the project the encouragement of winter ascents; and I am one of those who would make the accomplishment of such ascents the most crucial test for the admission of new members. I most ardently hope the time will come when, under the new scheme devised by the Club of periodical Club meets, such meets may be frequent all over Scotland in winter, and that one may hear of our members scaling the craggy tops of the Cuchullins, or perched on the many peaks of our" 3,000's" throughout the mainland. Those who look further ahead than the humble pretensions of our Club, who seek higher flights and more meritorious achievements, cannot better prepare themselves for such accomplishments than by frequently testing their power and skill on the slopes and summits of our own mountains in winter. To one who knows not the* Alps, such ascents must create a keen and healthy desire to try his mettle on finer game; and our Club will do well if it becomes the means of importing new blood into the Alpine Club.

I hope I may be pardoned this brief digression. I will now return to the subject of equipments. The mountaineer's first consideration must be his clothing. He should above all things be warmly clad, with plenty of woollen underclothing. The cold is sometimes intense and piercing to a degree; and while cold of itself does not seem to be actually dangerous, so long as we are actively engaged, it is desperately uncomfortable; and to feel oneself half perished with cold is to banish more than half one's pleasure. You do not want heavy overclothing, but you do want plenty of light warm underclothing. Beside the clothes worn, a complete change should always be taken, and had in readiness at the place where the day's expedition is to be concluded. It goes without saying that the climber must be well -shod, and that his soles and heels must be well sprinkled with the proper-shaped hobnails. He will be miserable on ice without good nails, and he will be absolutely useless on rock. He should always wear gaiters, made either of leather or cloth. The snow is thus kept from getting into his boots, which it otherwise certainly will do, and give him cold feet for the rest of his expedition. A good thick pair of worsted gloves will be of the greatest service, as they will be of the greatest comfort. On the matter of food and drink, he should have a sufficiency in his pockets,—too much rather than too little. No man feels the cold so bitterly as he who has to endure it with an empty stomach, and no man feels exhaustion more rapidly than he who has ill provided himself for his day's work. It is usually advisable to take a little whisky or brandy. It is not often actually needed, and the kind of necessity which as a rule calls for it is not that which is usually ascribed as a reason for its conveyance! It is often a matter of hours before the climber can get a draught of water; but if he feels really very dry and parched, an occasional icicle will be sufficient to moisten his mouth; and, in my humble opinion, he is wiser under such conditions not to touch the contents of his flask.

As regards other requirements, an ice axe is perhaps the most helpful implement of its kind; it is not always needed, but occasions do occur when it is all but indispensable. Twenty feet of good hempen rope should also be carried for every two men; it is not often needed, but may prove at some time invaluable, and allow of being safely accomplished that which might otherwise have been impracticable or dangerous. A compass and a good map of the district are indispensable to every mountaineer. The map should be well studied before any ascent is begun, and distances and directions carefully noted. A man might as well be in the moon as in a mist without a compass for all that he would know of his whereabouts. It is one of the most difficult things possible to keep only a hundred yards in a straight line when enveloped in a dense mist. In reading the compass, it should always be carefully noted that your axes are well away from you, and there is no other cause in or near to you to deflect the needle. In the ascent which I shall conclude the paper by describing, the effects on the needle by the nearness of our axes was most marked; and to make certain at all times of the "points," we usually compared two compasses, held at some little distance from each other. By the aid of a compass and a reliable map it is possible to arrive at the required spot, in the densest of mists, with the greatest exactness. The aneroid, although not an essential, is at least an interesting adjunct. In a mist it allows of judgment upon the possible height yet to be traversed before reaching the summit; and at all times it serves to instruct on the general matter of altitudes. An aneroid which registers up to 5,000 feet is of course quite sufficient for Scotland. I think I have completed my list when I say don't leave your watch behind you. Yet three other homely articles I must add,— a pocket-knife, a piece of stout string, and a box of wax matches. They are almost too simple and insignificant to think of when preparations are being made, but it is wonderful what little useful ends they sometimes serve, and how sadly we feel their absence when really needed.

I daresay some of my readers will accuse me of forgetting one, they say, most important adjunct; but I am bound to confess that with tobacco, like whisky, the less I believe it is indulged in during work the better. When in front of your fire, with your heels on your mantelpiece, talking over your day's exploits, then is the time to enjoy such pleasures; but tobacco before or during exertion has, I am quite sure, a somewhat enervating effect, and rather lethargises a man than braces him up for his labours. In starting for these winter ascents, you never know what difficulties and delays lie between you and your bed; and the greater the store of energy you start with, the surer will be your success, and the more pleasurable your victories.

I shall now conclude by narrating what I would term a typical winter ascent. It is the best, I think, I have ever made, and not the least reason for its being so was owing to the exceptional enjoyment I derived from the delightful companionship of four Club members. I had casually heard of the projected trip, and to the originator I am indebted for kindly accepting my proffered company.

We were, then, a party of five,—Messrs Fraser Campbell, Lester, Wm. Naismith, Gilbert Thomson, and myself. Our arrangements were to meet at the Lochearnhead Hotel on the eve of the last night of the year. Accordingly, on the afternoon of that day I left my quarters at Callan- der, where I was spending a few days, and trudged over that lovely stretch of road which runs through the Pass of Leny and along Loch Lubnaig side to the hotel at the western extremity of Loch Earn. I arrived at five o'clock, when quite dark. However, the worthy host had already completed his preparations for us. His house was all aglow with brightly burning lamps, and his rooms snugly warmed by blazing fires. Two weary hours had I to wait before my looked-for companions arrived. What with the railway strike and the extra traffic on this particular day, they were delayed exactly two hours on their journey from Glasgow. We sat down to dinner at 8.45, and that good repast, and the pleasure which followed, I pass over without further comment.

At 6.30 next morning we were called, and at 8.30 we left the hotel. For the moment our enthusiasm was somewhat damped, by finding that the wind had veered from the NE. to the S.W., blowing up dark heavy clouds, and changing the keen frosty atmosphere of the night before to a moister and milder temperature. However, I think it would have taken something very bad to have banished our good hopes for better things later, or depressed our exuberant spirits; so off we started with a will, through any weather, to do a good day's work. In about twenty- five minutes we reached the spot where we desired to commence our ascent. Nothing more than the base of Ben Vorlich could be seen, all the higher ground being enshrouded in dense mist. As we knew that much of our course would have to be by compass, Messrs Naismith and Thomson undertook to be our pioneers, and little fault could we find with their good steering. Lester kept the time, myself the aneroid, and Campbell devoted his attention to a gigantic ice axe lent him by Mr Stott. It was at the very commencement that we noticed what a serious effect the proximity of the axes had on the compass needles, and good care was always subsequently taken to cast them aside before taking a reading. At about i,000 feet we entered the mist and got well on to the snow. The wind had shifted back to the east, and the temperature was much lowered thereby. The first object aimed at—the cairn on Ben Our—was most accurately hit by our guides. From here our course for about a quarter of a mile was due south, and then more or less due south-east for the summit. As a physical climb there is little to record. An occasional partial submergence by some unwary walker over a drift gave him a little extra exertion to extricate himself, and the others some amusement in watching his endeavours, but the snow was fairly hard, and easily traversed. As the summit was neared, several steep snow declivities were seen, forming apparently the northern and southern faces of the mountain. It is in such places that the mist adds so much to the otherwise contracted view. Nature, like a great artist, leaves in her picture free scope for the imagination to exercise itself; and as you gaze on these steep snow gullies, you might imagine they lead away to bottomless abysses for all that the eye can undeceive you. However, they often do sheer away almost perpendicularly, and a slip might be as fatal in its results as if it were thousands of feet instead of hundreds. Any prolonged stay by the cairn was as useless as it was almost impossible. A radius of twenty feet might have been the limit of our field of vision, and the cold was intense. It was impossible, however, not to remark the beauty of the snow and ice conformations around us. Running over the summit was a wire fence, and it was interesting to see what silent destruction was being carried on by the winter's snow and frost. The stout iron wires were lying about, buried beneath the snow, coiled and twisted in all directions, and those that were standing showed how this havoc had been wrought. Around each wire was a solid coil of frozen snow, forming a con- tinuous band of some ten to twelve inches in diameter. A few feet of this solid heavy band would weigh near upon a hundredweight, and no wire of this calibre could possibly stand a prolonged strain of this magnitude without sooner or later snapping. The coils were very picturesque in appearance, but more so perhaps were the upright iron supports which carried them. These were very oddly fringed with ice. The east sides of the standards had, from summit to base, a complete fringe of icicles, some six to eight inches long, as sharp as needles at their points, and disposed directly at right angles to the perpendicular. Probably this odd fringe of icy stalagmites owed its origin to the constant blowing on and freezing of the minute particles of moisture carried in the mists. By whatever means produced, the effect was extremely beautiful. Another curious effect—and I am almost tempted to say more beautiful—was the remarkable aspect presented by the rocks. A bare rock we never once saw,—all were coated with pure snow or ice. But those I particularly refer to were coated with fine particles of ice and snow. Over the flat smooth surface the film was thin, but towards the edges it thickened, and here we had the most perfect representation of leaves laid one upon another, so as to produce a sort of frozen garland around the rock. I had never seen anything like it before. Where perchance a small space or cavern was formed by the apposition of the sides or edges of two or more masses of rock, an ice grotto of the most fanciful description would be seen.

For some slight distance from the top of Ben Vorlich we retraced our old steps. Our next object of attainment was the top of Stuc-a-Chroin, and to reach this a dip of almost a thousand feet had to be made. For once our worthy guides got out of their bearings, and we somehow found ourselves groping about in some rough ground. A steep scramble of two or three hundred feet placed us on our searched-for col, which we should not have missed had we kept the wire fence ; and after crossing it we reached the base of the steep rocky eastern face of Stuc-a-Chroin. We soon found we had our work before us, but it was what we had all most looked forward to. So the greater our difficulties the more we should enjoy them. About a thousand feet of real stiff rock climbing lay before us,—not mere big boulders, big good wholesome snow-covered slippery rocks. With the exception of your teeth, all other parts of your body would be needed for prehensile purposes. We had not climbed far before we felt it advisable to rope. We carried with us two ropes—twenty and thirty feet ones. Naismith and Thomson used the former; Campbell, Lester, and myself the latter. We proceeded cautiously, each making quite sure of the security of his position before the other moved. In this way we did some capital work; and although we had a few breech-splitting strides and stomach-scrubbing heaves, I don't know that any of us materially suffered. [The above very forcible and Carlylean sentence is retained at the special request of the author.—ED.]

Only a few feet lay between us and the top, when one of those wonderful mountain effects suddenly burst upon us. For six hours exactly we had been completely enveloped in mist, seeing at no time more than twenty yards distant. Every yard of our path almost had previously been made out by map and compass, but now we quite suddenly got above it, and were breathing a clear dry atmosphere, and gazing over miles and miles of hill and vale. These effects upon one are indescribable. They come often when least expected, and when they do come they reveal sights entirely beyond previous conception. It was not a blue sky above our heads. There were dark clouds high up, and the only bit of light was a long rift seen far away in the west, stretching almost across the horizon. It was a wonderful streak of tinted colour, for the sun was already sinking. The clouded sky above, touching, as it did in places, the dense mists below, gave the peculiar appearance of the heavens almost being continuous with the earth. Our distant vision really extended only north and west, and we fancied we made out Ben More, Stob Binnian, and a few others; but the mist hung. about many of these mountains, making them difficult to distinguish. To the west and south we could at first see nothing; but all in the course of a minute a sudden change took place,—the upper mist passed away, and apparently only a stone's throw from us towered the peak of Ben Vorlich, like a white island in a dense sea of cloud. Another few seconds, and it had vanished from our vision, obliterated by a volume of mist. This rapid appearance and disappearance, happened several times within the course of a few minutes. It was strange to look upon this dissolving view. But if anything would have tempted us to linger, it was the more distant scenery in the west, where the light and shade were becoming more beautiful as the sun went down. One of our party said the scene recalled to him the passage in Milton's "Paradise Lost" where Satan stands gazing into the abyss below. The dark glens might have suggested the abysses, but whom he had in his mind's eye that might have completed the analogy of the passage he graciously kept to himself, as did the rest of us our own surmises!

There is now little further to relate regarding the rest of our expedition. Our original intention had been to take the ridge along to the top of Ben Each, and descend to Loch Lubnaig. The light, however, began to fail, and it would have been far from pleasant to have been benighted anywhere above a thousand feet up. The burns were all hard frozen, and in many places had overflowed in such a way as to form convex masses of ice. Such ice slopes are particularly nasty to cross, and a large number of them lay in our path. It was a sense of relief to one's legs, as also to one's feelings, to be well off them before dusk. For these reasons, therefore, we did not make the final ascent of Ben Each, but dropped down just short of it into Glen Ample, reached the Loch Lubnaig road, and then, after six miles of level walking, arrived at Callander at 6.20 P.M., just ten hours after our start.


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