Scotch on the Rocks
Buachaille Etive Mor (1022m and 956m) and Ben Nevis 1344m
June 2004, by Debbie Bulger
"Have you ever touched a cloud?" an 8-year-old once asked me as we flew at 40,000 feet looking down on the clouds.
As one who has climbed many peaks, I answered in the affirmative. What I didn't tell the little stranger was that
touching a cloud is a soggy experience. She, I'm sure, was imagining a more fluffy encounter.
Climbing in Scotland is the ultimate cloud-touching experience. Just as there are compulsive list finishers here in
California, Scotland has its own versions. They are called "Munro baggers." Munros, named after their cataloguer,
Sir Hugh Munro, are peaks in Scotland that are over 3000 ft.
Richard Stover and I climbed four Munros while we were in Scotland. Our first climb was Buachaille Etive Mor, a
long ridge which connects the two Munros, Stob Dearg and Stob na Broige. Everything went well so long as we
didn't try to pronounce any of the names.
Buachaille Etive Mor, which means "big/great shepherd of Etive," is a beautiful rocky cone thrusting up from the impossibly
green Glen Etive. It is a favorite postcard subject. We chose it because of its beauty and accessibility since it is on
an intercity bus route. Happily our bed and breakfast host was a "hill walker" and offered to drive us to the trailhead.
For good measure he leant us his "mobile" and told us to call if we couldn't get back.
We started the climb by ascending first on a trail then on easy (but slippery) third class in the Coire na Tulaich gully
to attain the ridge between the high point, Stob Dearg and another connected top called Stob na Doire. As we climbed
we met first a solo climber, then three climbers, then two descending. Each had climbed Stob Dearg and had decided
not to do the entire ridge because of the high winds, sleet and cold.
It never really rained though, so dumb Californians as we are, we never put on our rain pants although we were wearing
our rain jackets and gaiters. My camera had its own plastic bag. We got wet, wet, wet. It kind of sneaked up on us.
Visibility was limited. That's a polite way of saying we had no view and could barely see each other much of the time.
Moisture kept fogging up my glasses so I finally took them off and missed most of the climb.
Once we attained the ridge it was a short, easy walk to the summit of Stob Dearg where we gratefully hunkered down
in a bivy shelter which blocked the fierce wind. It was there that we met four climbers who emerged out of the mist. They
had just come up the technical north face, and three planned to descend the way we had come up. The fourth, Colin,
planned to walk the entire ridge and, lucky for us, offered to drive us back to our bed and breakfast after the climb.
The walk along the ridge would have been exquisite on a clear day. It was up and down as we went over the crest of
Stob na Doire and then climbed our second Munroe, Stob na Broige. We then backtracked and descended the
Coire (Cirque) Altruim. A guidebook states, the descent "is steep but straightforward, except for a few wet, rocky steps
towards the bottom where a little care is needed."
Once down, negotiating the muddy bog was a challenge. I turned around and saw Richard cartwheeling over a granite
boulder. After Colin and I cleaned up the hole in Richard's shin, he was fine. His brand-new pants and best long johns,
however were sliced open.
Twice, I sank in up to my knees and Richard had to pull me out. Gaiters are not too effective in such cases. The
ever-present sheep looked on and laughed. The wet completely permeated our beings. Most surprisingly, Colin did not
object when we inquired if we should get into his car at the end of the climb.
As the highest peak in Great Britain, Ben Nevis has a constant stream of people walking up the trail much like our own
Mount Whitney. That's why we decided to climb via the Carn Mor Dearg Arjte. Amazingly, we saw only two other
people far ahead of us and two technical climbers returning in the valley north of the peak.
The start of the route follows the busy "Mountain Track" but soon heads north at a small Loch. The route circles behind
the peak and descends into the Coire Leis a lovely green valley through which the river, Allt a Mhuilinn crashes. The river
was "in a spate" as they say, making it difficult to cross.
Once that was accomplished, we clambered up the steep, wet, grassy ridge and actually got a view. The summit of
Ben Nevis was playing peak-a-boo in the clouds, but the view west to Fort William was terrific. The arjte curving around
to the south looked impressive.
But first we had to climb Carn Dearg Meadhonach (a "top" not a Munro) and our third Munro, Carn Mor Dearg. The
ridge and arjte consisted of a series of airy scrambles which reminded me of Virginia Peak. Whenever it got too scary, the
clouds obscured the drop-off and made it easy. Views happened intermittently.
Once we attained the eastern flank of Ben Nevis, visibility dropped to about three feet. There was supposed to be a path,
but we rarely stumbled across it. Mostly it was like a dream sequence, climbing over easy third class in the clouds. I didn't
know where the summit was, but figured we were on track so long as we kept going up for almost a thousand feet. But then,
we reached the summit plateau. We reckoned we needed to go west and soon reached the summit cairn.
The mountain shops in Fort William provide Ben Nevis climbers with laminated cards giving the compass bearings for
getting off the summit without falling over a cliff or crashing through a snow cornice. Those directions came in handy.
As we descended, it began to rain. We had had a late start for unavoidable reasons and didn't get back to our bed and
breakfast until almost 11 p.m. (We had to walk back to town from the trailhead.) Luckily, it was still light out.
There were no registers on any of the Scottish peaks we climbed.
Thanks to the excellent climbing route information and advice offered by Karen Christie and Lynne Foster. Additional
climbing descriptions from "Walking in Scotland" (Lonely Planet), as well as the Ordnance Survey maps produced by the
national mapping agency of Great Britain.