Friday, 4 March 2016

The Chasm of Buachaille Etive Mor

ON THE SOUTH-EAST side of Stob Dearg of Buachaille Etive Mor broken rocks and scree descend for about 500 feet beneath the summit in a sort of wide funnel, below which the mountain face is cleft by a great, vertical rift between precipitous cliffs for about 1,500 feet or more, ending on the gently sloping moorland not very far above the road in Glen Etive, about a mile and a half below its junction with the main road west of Kingshouse. The early age of British rock climbing specialized in the ascent of gullies, and its most exciting problems were encountered where the gullies were bridged by huge boulders with caves underneath them. Such difficulties were usually accentuated by a stream of water coming over the chockstone and clothing the rocky walls with spongy, green moss, circumstances in which the older pioneers appeared to put forth their best efforts and find keen enjoyment.

The Chasm of the Buachaille was bound to attract attention in the early days of Scottish rock climbing, and its history is, in fact, a long one. In July 1898 J. H. Bell (a past president of the S.M.C.not related to the author) and J. Maclay were forced to retreat after a hard struggle, from below a 100-foot waterfall pouring down over a seemingly impregnable, vertical cliff. This point is now recognized to be less than half-way up the Chasm. In June 1903 the ablest Scottish climber of his time, Harold Raeburn, accompanied by Dr and Mrs Inglis Clark, entered the Chasm above this difficulty. They found a good deal of old snow and, at one place, traversed about fifty feet through a snow tunnel. Time was against them, for Raeburn had to catch an evening train at Tyndrum. They escaped on to the south wall at a point where two severe pitches still remained to be tackled, above which was the culminating difficulty, now known as the Devil's Cauldron. Their climb ended on the Lady's Pinnacle, about 200 feet high, situated on the south wall. Dr Clark considered that this was the most prolonged piece of difficult climbing in his British experience. Raeburn, however, returned to the assault in April 1906, accompanied by W. N. Ling.

Although it should have been obvious that the Chasm would be most likely to yield its last secrets as a pure rock climb, uncomplicated by snow or water, and preferably after a long, dry period, the pioneers of those days were in the habit of doing their Scottish climbing in the early part of the year and spending their summer vacations in the Alps. Climbing the Chasm was thus rendered much more difficult by the presence of masses of old snow which had partly melted away from the side walls of the gully, the rocks of which were often exceedingly smooth and water-worn. If the weather was fine and the sun was hot, copious streams of descending water added to the difficulties. Raeburn and Ling put up a very good show. At certain places stocking-sole technique was necessary. At others the snow was of some assistance, as it piled up against the walls and lessened the effective height of the pitches. Raeburn reported that this applied to most of the pitches which were climbed in 1903. Finally, they too were driven out on to the south wall at a point where the last pitch- "a black, slimy slit of smooth rock, down which gurgled enough water in gallons per minute, to furnish an ample supply to a fair sized town"- loomed high above them. The next attempt resulted in a successful ascent of all but the direct route up the back of the Devil's Cauldron. A reconnais-sance on the previous day solved the problem of the 100 foot pitch which had frustrated the party of 1898, and a fixed rope was left hanging down the pitch.

The ascent was started at six-fifteen a.m. (from the foot of the first pitch) on 13 April 1920 by R. F. Stobart and Mr and Mrs N. E. Odell. There was plenty of snow and running water. The mist closed down on the party after second breakfast at half-past ten. Combined tactics were necessary at a pitch where smooth, waterworn, vertical walls converged at middle height and permitted the necessary bridg-ing tactics. At the back of the Devil's Cauldron the waterfall hung suspended as a 100 foot curtain of great icicles, but the party was able, by a second use of combined tactics, to climb a vertical chimney on the south wall. So ended the Chasm and its difficulties at five-twenty p.m. The first direct ascent of the back of the Devil's Cauldron was effected on 30 August 1931 by J. G. Robinson and I. G. Jack. They took four hours to reach its floor and another three to climb the pitch. This triumph was the climax to a number of attempts by a small band of enthusiasts. Colin Allan and I had no part in the exploration of the Chasm. Our first visit, entirely unplanned, was in May 1932. It was not a complete success, as we were defeated by a considerable flow of water at the middle section of the Cauldron, but we returned to the Chasm, year after year, as a sort of standard climb which never failed to yield a grand day of strenuous rock work in magnificent surroundings. If we could climb Buachaille by the Chasm, run down to the Etive and enjoy a swim in its long pool and feel no fatigue, we concluded that we were in reasonably good training.

We spent a pleasant evening at Kingshouse, but left our friends after eleven p.m. in order to pass the night in our own way. About midnight we were seated on the pier at Lochetivehead, watching the full moon rise over the shoulder of Ben Staray. We sat for so long, absorbing the peace and beauty of that perfect night, that a half-formed impulse to climb the mountain died away of itself. About four miles back on the way to Dalness we found a little wood where we spread our sleeping sacks on a carpet of pine needles and went to sleep. There is nothing more delightful than such a bivouac in a cool, spring night. A few midges awoke us between four and five a.m., but they were only a handful of skirmishers, and not the hordes of summer-time. Our day commenced with a swim in a cold, deep pool of the river Etive. Then came plenty of breakfast—kippers toasted over a wood fire, boiled eggs, pork pies, bread, cheese, marmalade and tea. We paid tribute to dietetics and vitamins with a final course of oranges. Nowadays, even were it possible, I should doubt the value of such a preparation for a day's climbing.

Then, the procedure was normal, and most enjoyable too. A few introductory pitches loosened our muscles before the walls of the gully closed in about us. A triple pitch loomed ahead, with three huge chockstones in succession, each surmounting a cave. The ascent was effected on the right wall. This is almost the only vegetatious pitch in the Chasm, but even here there are good rock holds where required. We made one pitch of it and traversed back on to the floor of the gully above the waterfall. The next long pitch was up a slabby wall of red rock, on the left, with an awkward traverse to the right at the top of the difficulty, where the holds were not in-cut. The leader should have adequate length of rope for this pitch. In wet conditions it can be very wet at the bottom. Little need be said of the successive difficulties which we encountered below the 100 foot waterfall pitch which had defeated the earliest explorers. They are all interesting and varied, but Colin Allan and I, in successive visits, became so familiar with them that we did not use the rope at all on this lower section. This is a confession rather than an example to be followed.

Some of the pitches are exposed and difficult. If we took guests with us we always roped them up. The reputed. sixth pitch is a test of the dryness of the Chasm. It is a straight-forward staircase with the usual waterfall pouring down. In wet weather it means a certain drenching on the stair on the left. We discovered an alternative through-route by a cave on the right, but this is mossy, slimy and difficult and unlikely to be drier. If the sixth pitch is dry one has a reasonable expectation of being able to climb the rest of the Chasm. The last pitch below the Cross Roads is a delightful, airy problem on a nearly vertical rib on the left, followed by a lofty traverse back to the bed of the gully above a waterfall. Now we arrived at the Cross Roads, where a transverse, eroded dyke forms two gullies, to left and right. It was a good place for lunch. Any party that has had enough difficulty or enough climbing for the day can escape here on either side, the more interesting being the right or north side, with a pleasant descent from the crest of the north wall, involving some good practice scrambling. Allan and I contemplated the waterfall. The only possible route was obvious enough, by a near-vertical, shallow cleft on the right-hand buttress of the fall. The first thirty feet to a little pinnacle, with stance and belay, were easy. Then the holds became small and more widely spaced.

At a return visit in 1945 I found some loose rock in this upper section, but there are still sufficient sound holds. It is an exposed pitch with small but adequate holds, technically excellent if one goes about it with care and deliberation. At the top there is a perfect stance and belay. Although it is possible to continue up this wall, the better way is to make a short, difficult traverse into the gully bed, cross this and go up the other wall for a few feet to a narrow ledge which goes almost as far as the lip of the next waterfall. The handholds are few and wide apart. The ledge peters out towards the finish and the rock is very smooth and rounded. Delicate balance and a long arm span are necessary if one is to be successful in negotiating the Piano Pitch, as it has been named.

Careful selection of holds and study of the direction of stresses are essential to make each movement safe, especially for a short man. Brute force and rush tactics may land one in the pool beneath the waterfall. I have seen two seconds who have slipped in at the last move. It is only eight or ten feet down to the water. Those who slipped were, of course, lowered into the pool! After some inclined, water-worn slabs, which are not too easy, we came to a narrow rift with smooth walls, about sixty feet high. About twenty feet up on the left was a rounded bulge projecting from the wall, and just above this point the walls converged to their narrowest aperture, about three feet or so.

The stream came down in a fall at the innermost part of the rift. This pitch may, unfortunately, be avoided by climbing out of the gully on the left. The back of the rift is somewhat undercut, which would make it altogether impossible to climb up there by orthodox chimney tactics. I have never tried, as it must be a very wet proceeding. It is not a cave pitch, and the neat solution of the problem makes use of the bulge of rock on the wall. Combined tactics were used by the Stobart-Odell party in 1920. I think that Colin Allan was the first man to climb the pitch unaided by the direct method. He climbed it in boots, which makes the performance all the more creditable on smooth, rounded, waterworn rock, taking into consideration the corresponding qualities of Allan's boots, which seldom had many nails at all! I led up to the bulge by bridging movements with feet on one wall and hands on the other. There is a good stance at the bulge, hardly enough room for two people, but no belay. Colin pushed up past me, wedged between the walls, reached across to a handhold on the opposite (north) wall and pulled himself over and up with both arms. He was strong enough to do it in that way and I respected his performance.

Somehow, I failed to get the knack, so that I had to accept a good pull on the rope. This failure made me think on ways and means of making up for my relative lack of stature and arm strength. The solution is applicable to many other, difficult, cross-stepping traverses on severe rock climbs. The guiding rule is to spare no effort in order to get high enough, and somewhat above the holds which one is aiming for. One should also study the holds for one or two moves ahead. Accurate co-ordination of eye and limb replaces brute force and hard pulling. In 1933, when climbing the Chasm with G. C. Williams, I led the Converging Walls Pitch and found that I had a good reserve of energy. The landing on the north wall is still on rounded rock ledges, but is perfectly secure. If you lead the pitch and have doubts of the ability of your second it is a good idea to make him take off his boots and proceed in stocking-soles. There is a belay on the north wall some distance above. On one occasion Colin was taking a lady climber up to the first bulge, when the latter had the misfortune to slip. Colin was obviously enjoying himself as the lady executed a few pendulum swings below him on the rope.

Then he simply took in the rope, pulling her up as if he were landing a fish. He was a good man to climb with. As in first-class drama, there is now a breathing space. The Chasm is walled in on both sides to a height of over 100 feet. Numerous pitches succeed one another, all in the line of the watercourse where there should now be only a trickle of water. At one point there is an easy exit on to the south wall. A somewhat difficult, short cave pitch lies below the great hall of the Devil's Cauldron. There is an undercut handhold near the top on the right wall of the cave and a good hold above.

The Devil's Cauldron is a savage and magnificent place, the north wall of 200 feet being vertical and unclimbable. The impressive wall on the south side is cleft by a narrow vertical chimney. At first sight the wet repulsive slit at the back of this narrow enclosure appears to be utterly unclimbable, so that it is small wonder that the earlier parties never attempted to do so. Unless after dry weather in summer, and preferably no earlier than June, as there is often snow in the Chasm till well on into May, one should not attempt the direct route up the back of the Cauldron. The weather had deteriorated when Allan and I got thus far. I was deputed to lead the first fifty or sixty feet to a small platform underneath a narrow undercut chimney which was the crux of the climb. Although reasonably dry at the start, the last ten feet below the platform sprayed me fairly effectively.

Colin joined me on the stance and I belayed him for his attempt on the crucial chimney. Conditions were altogether against him. Like all strong men he delighted in forcing himself up and pulling with both hands, keeping far too close inside the chimney and so becoming the butt for a vigorous stream of water from above, which poured over his head, down his neck and down his sleeves. He failed to gain a foothold on the north wall, but was wise enough to retreat in good order. I was so overawed by the sight of my friend in the guise of a mermaid that I called out for a complete withdrawal while we were still not too chilled to grasp the rocks. On the floor of the Cauldron I took off all my clothes, wrung them out and put them on again. It was worth doing. We traversed out of the Chasm by the south wall, but we had enjoyed a good day's climbing. The next time I visited the Chasm was in the company of G. C. Williams on 9 July 1933. There was only a trickle of water at the back of the Cauldron. I had a hard struggle with the crucial chimney, and retained a wholesome respect for the place. Above it I found a little rock arch where Williams belayed me for the final, straight section of the pitch. From below, this appears to be far worse than what goes before. The side walls are vertical and the water comes trickling down over mossy slabs which seem to be almost as steep. The reality is much more comforting.

The technique is orthodox backing-up, such as is used for most chimneys, and the exposure, with a sensational drop to the rocky floor of the Cauldron, need not worry any confident expert. With feet pressed against the wall in front and palms of the hands at my hips pressed against the wall behind, I progressed upwards, a few inches at a time, with very little effort and almost as much comfort as if I had been seated in an armchair with my feet against the sides of the fireplace. At intervals I could rest across the gap and take a bird's-eye-view of the countenance of my second. Fortunately, the holds improve below the upper overhanging chockstone, which is the last difficulty. In the first edition of the Central Highlands Guide the exit pitch from the Cauldron is given as 175 feet high. The earlier explorers thought it must be 200 feet at least. Debunking is a sordid occupation, but I have measured the height with a reliable surveying aneroid with a 4-inch dial, and the result was between 105 and 110 feet. Climbers are but human: they would not indulge in such an irrational sport without a lively imagination, singularly sensitive to the impress of difficulty and the self-satisfaction of victory. Even the crux is not so difficult and strenuous as I have suggested. In August 1945 I led an English climbing friend up the Chasm.

The Converging Walls Pitch pleased him, but it was only at the Cauldron that he became visibly impressed. Then it dawned upon me that, after a lapse of twelve years, which had taken my own age very close to the half-century, I might not be able to lead the crux at all. I discounted the effect of those years in better co-ordinated movements and economy of effort. By keeping as far out of the chimney as possible and resting frequently I was able to gain the critical foothold on the north wall without any undue effort. It is true that the other wall shrinks away to nothing at a certain height and that the position feels and appears to be highly precarious, but exposure is not the same thing as danger. August 1945 was, however, a dry month in the West Highlands. It is seldom that conditions are good enough for a comfortably dry ascent of the back of the Cauldron. On all other occasions but the two already mentioned Allan and I were obliged to climb out of the Cauldron by the chimney on the south wall. In 1920 the Stobart-Odell party used combined tactics for climbing this severe chimney.

About 1938 or so, E. R. Zenthon climbed it alone, and W. H. Murray has also climbed it. Our problem was to find a safe way up the south wall for more ordinary climbers in conditions when the back of the Cauldron was too wet. We found the best solution at our second attempt, using the chimney only for the first twenty feet or so. The second can then safeguard the leader over a severe traverse out of the chimney, by an exposed corner and along a smooth, narrow ledge on the south wall. The movement is as difficult as anything on the direct route, but it is safe and dry. The leader can then climb straight up to an excellent stance and belay, from which he can safeguard his second. The final ascent to the top of the wall is by a moderate, upper chimney.

The climb finishes on the top of the Lady's Pinnacle, which was first reached by Harold Raeburn, Dr and Mrs Inglis Clark in 1903. So history tends to repeat itself, but there is no easy ascent of the Devil's Cauldron and the Chasm keeps its best pitches for the end. 

JHB Bell: First published in 'Bell's Scottish Climbs'