Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal Buchaille Etive
By J. G. STOTT.
IMAGINE the darkness of night falling on a lonely
Highland glen; the mountains—white with snow—towering overhead till lost in
the rolling mist; the swollen river, sweeping along its wide stony channel.
Not a house in sight, not a sound of man nor beast, not the twinkle of a
star to illumine the dark breast of the night; everything solitary, cold,
and cheerless; mist and drizzling rain distilling over all nature. Such was
Glenorchy as we invaded it one night in the merrie (!) month of May four
years ago. A few days of warm weather had given promise of springtime; but
ere nature had fully awakened, winter had once more resumed his sway, and
buried hills and glens under a heavy load of snow. All the way up the line
to Tyndrum, _where we shouldered our knapsacks for the march in gathering
darkness to Inveroran, the mountains wore their hoods and cloaks of ermine,
promising us some hard work.
Most tourists in Scotland know Loch Tulla—the blue
sheet of water, the reedy shore, the dark girdle of pinewood, the huge
surrounding mountains, the cosy hotel nestling amid the wood on one side,
the gables of the shooting-lodge peeping out on the other. A comfortable
hotel is it too, and one that shares with Kingshouse, at the head of
Glencoe, the distinction of being the best starting- point for more than a
score of the finest mountains in the Highlands.
On the present occasion our attack was to be directed
at Buchaille Etive,—the "shepherd," as his name implies, of all the
mountains in the deer forests of Blackmount and Dalness that cluster round
Glencoe and Glen Etive. Some of us had surveyed him in former years from a
distance, but never climbed him; indeed we had failed to find anyone who had
stood on his summit; and now the foresters assured us that the attempt was
very rarely made, and that in this snowy weather it was almost bound to be
attended by defeat. Nevertheless we would attempt it; and soon after eight
o'clock on a fine sunny morning our party of four—all now members of the
Club—took the road to Kingshouse. Across the river, round the bend of the
loch, through the thick plantations, we strode on our way, and in a mile or
two emerged on the open moorlax?d. For seven miles from Inveroran the road
climbs steadily uphill to a height of nearly 1,500 feet above sea-level, and
for the last half of that distance we trudged ankle-deep through snow and
ice. From the summit we opened out the dreary wastes of the moor of
Rannoch,—all bogs and lochans,—dominated from afar by the white cone of
Schiehallion; while close on the left opened the white slopes and rough
black rocks of Corrie Ba, the peaks and ridges of Clach Leathad (3,602 feet)
and Stob Ghabar (3,565 feet) frowning down over them. In the north, the
whole horizon was filled by the masses of the mountains of Mamore; and as we
wheeled westward, and went downhill for yet three miles to Kingshouse, we
scanned the entrances to gloomy Glencoe and Glen Etive, and marked the
Buchaille towering in the van of all the rugged bens that lie between them.
Its spire soars 3,345 feet aloft into the sky. On the east, it plunges sheer
in crag and precipice, defying the snow to find lodgment; westward, it dips
for a few hundred feet, to rise steeply to a twin peak of slightly lesser
elevation. Both its flanks are steep and rugged; and while it is quite
possible to make a high pass between Stob Dearg and Stob Dhu,—the twin peaks
already mentioned— there is a lower col, called the Lairig Gartain,
necessitating a walk of about four miles from Dalness in Glen Etive to
Altnafeadh in Glencoe, at the foot of the Devil's Staircase.
From Kingshouse we scanned every yard of the
weatherbeaten eastern face through our glasses, and soon came to the
conclusion that, if practicable at all, it was mighty stiff, and beyond us
under present circumstances. So we resolved to attack from the south.
Less than a mile from the inn the Etive road leaves
Glencoe, and closely circling the base of the crags of the Buchaille follows
the wild river down the glen. High overhead towered the black beetling
crags, springing aloft to a sharp summit clean-cut against the sky. Down
from the snowy ravines poured the river, plunging through a deep cleft
beneath the road, and roaring adown the glen in swirling foam-wreaths and
turbulent masses of green water. Just across it rose the steep white walls
of another mountain, and down the glen the eye wandered on past peaks and
shoulders innumerable till lost in misty distance.
For two and a half miles we followed the road from the
junction of the glens, and then, being just about abreast of the pass
between the two peaks of the Buchaille, we turned to the right and began to
rise. The turf was soft and wet —at every step we went over the ankle; but
soon we left the marshy ground, and went to work on a huge steep that soared
high overhead into the snowline. So steep and narrow was the glen beneath,
that even as we gained considerable elevation we failed to enlarge the view
to any extent; and although the river was now some hundreds of feet below,
it seemed as though a stone could easily have pitched into it.
Steadily we worked our way upwards. Long furrows of
soft green moss marked the course of unseen waters; trains of loose-lying
shingle slipped away from under us and made progress arduous; the
fresh-fallen snow was soft and slippery. Presently we got among the big
boulders and rocky ledges, and here the snow deepened to a foot or more. The
slope was much steeper too, and where seen in profile on both sides of us
the angle looked enormous. High above the point where we first struck the
old snow, in a hollow among boulders surrounded by a bank of drift, we found
a large primrose plant in full blossom. A good omen.
Hitherto the weather had been all that could be
wished, but now there was a blackness gathering over Rannoch, and soon a
sharp stinging rattle of hail drove us to some rocks for shelter. It soon
passed, and blue sky again looked down on us ; but over in the east the
blackness was increasing, and heavy mists were rolling round some of the
hills lower down the glen. The wind too was shifty, puffs striking us from
all sides; and someone ventured the remark that we should have a bad time
yet. All the more reason then for getting over the ten or twelve hundred
feet that still loomed above us. But progress was slow now. We were in a
high-pitched slope of deep snow, from which big blocks and crags rose in
every direction. Each step let us into it to the knee, often to mid-thigh.
We had worked our way across the corrie towards the peak; and now our
leader—waist deep in drift—was endeavouring to reach the rampart of rocks
that bounded it. We noticed a feature in the snow up here that we had never
before seen in Scotland. In the deep holes made by our feet, and indeed
wherever the snow curled over a rock and was thrown into shadow, it assumed
a most beautiful blue tint, quite like that of glacier ice. This must have
been owing to its highly crystalline character.
So occupied were we with our hard work, that we had
very nearly won the summit-line of the mountain before the weather again
attracted our attention. But now the glen below was filled with a seething
sea of mist that hid everything from view. Very soon we ourselves were
enveloped in its cold embrace, and in a few minutes more down swished the
hail and snow in dense blinding volumes. Once more we took shelter under the
rocks; but soon a change in the wind brought the storm right in on us; while
over our heads the drift blown off the ridge went swirling past in opaque
clouds, soon covering our prostrate forms with a snow blanket, which,
however, was far from being a warm one.
Things went on thus for perhaps half-an-hour, with no
prospect of improvement, so one of us got up to reconnoitre. In five minutes
he climbed down to us, a veritable snow man. His news was that we were just
under the crest, that its line seemed fairly level, and that he was sure we
could not be more than a couple of hundred yards from the cairn on the
summit. So we got on our feet, drew caps lower and collars higher, and
mounted to the crest. Whew! what a reception we got,—a blinding blast of
hail and drift, that choked, blinded, and almost drove us back again. We
could hardly see; all we knew was, that the narrow ridge rose easily in
front of us, and that there was an unknown depth close on either hand.
Bending low, we stumbled upwards with something like a cheer, each man at
the coat-tails of his predecessor, a whirling maze of snow all round us.
Within five minutes came the "Hurrah" from our leader; we were conscious of
a void in front of us, and we tumbled in a heap into the small basin in the
snow where the cairn, fast-bound in ice, rose a few feet above the summit.
Usually one feels inclined to yell and dance after
conquering a good hill ; but it was not so to-day. Hastily gloves were torn
off and cards got out; hastily the latter were crammed into a bottle and
buried in the snow of the cairn; and then hastily we plunged through the
storm back along the ridge to the neighbourhood of the spot whence we had
made our rush. Arrived in comparative shelter we had time to look at
ourselves. We were plastered with snow from head to foot; it filled our
ears, our hair, our pockets; it had penetrated everywhere; our eyebrows and
moustaches were icicles; we were living statues of winter.
Our one wish was now to get out of it; but this at
first was no easy matter. The moment we left our rocks, we were again
exposed to the full fury of the storm. It was hard to say how deep the snow
was. For the most part we were into it up to the hip; but the drift flew in
such dense and blinding volumes, that our heads and arms were nearly as much
cumbered as our legs. However, we had struck an easy line, and we tumbled
and sprawled along anyhow, till presently we left the worst of the storm
above us, and raced along the steep course of a torrent whose waters were
almost hidden by the snowdrift filling its bed. Soon we heard the unseen
Etive thundering below us; and the wild corrie we were in opened out, and
through its steep rocky sides, and beyond the maze of falling flakes, we saw
the dark flank of the opposite mountain. We were by no means at the bottom
though, and we had yet to get much lower before it became possible to
approach the torrent, produce the flasks, and indulge in the dram that had
been denied us on the peak.
Wilder surroundings it would be difficult to imagine.
You looked upwards into a huge amphitheatre, and saw the twin peaks—for now
the storm was clearing—Stob Dhu on the left, our vanquished enemy Stob Dearg
on the right soaring high above it, the sharp cone of the former showing an
overhanging cornice standing many feet out from the rock. The sides of the
cirque were whitest snow, with here and there a jagged black crag uprearing
through it; and adown the steep pitched floor, leaping and raving through
boulders and snow wreaths, came the fierce torrent hurling on its way to the
Etive. The rest of the descent was devoid of incident; and just as we got
back to the road the snow ceased falling, the sun struck through the clouds,
and the mountains one and all came forth radiant and rejoicing.
As we left Kingshouse the clouds had rolled far to
westward, the sky was blue, the setting sun poured a flood of golden glory
along desolate Glencoe and over all the white mountains around it. Once more
we trudged over the heights of the Blackmount road, and wild Corrie Ba was
plunged in shadow as we passed it; the cold mountain breeze played around
us, and the last gleam of sunset faded on the white scalp of Ben Achallader
as we came down into the pinewoods of Loch Tulla. High up in the deepening
blue the silver sickle of the moon hung above the hills, the placid lake
spread like glass, and mirrored wood and mountain and cold sky. But down
there—beyond the bridge— there is a cheerful object, the light streaming
from the windows of the hotel. There stands our kindly host to welcome us
after eleven hours absence, changes of raiment are at the fire, and through
the house there is an odour of mutton and coffee. And, after the pleasures
of the table, come the pleasures of the pipe, the toddy tumbler, and the
general retrospect. The big sofa is hauled round to face the fire, the blaze
is stirred up, chairs and footstools are arranged more conveniently, and
then—oh, the recollection of it!—who is there in the world with whom we
would change places?
It only remains to add, that although ours was a
comparatively easy ascent, the Buchaille is a mountain well able to offer
hard work on some of its faces to any crags- man who cares to attempt them.
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