Etive Capers – a historical document

In the continued absence of sufficient motivation to write the many gems of Cairngorm wisdom I keep meaning to share, here’s a revived tale from many years ago when I used to occasionally visit parts west of the ‘Gorms – and when I used to tie onto a rope and perform feats of near competence on rock.
It first appeared on the Braes o’ Fife MC website, where it can still be read, but to celebrate its republication here I’ve removed some (but not necessarily all) of the typos.

For the benefit of non-climbers, the Etive Slabs are a large area of granite slabs set at about 40 degrees or so on Beinn Trilleachan. Despite the reputation of the place, some of the routes do boast the odd hold but all the climbs rely to greater or lesser degree on friction climbing and can have long stretches of unprotectable ‘padding’ when the friction of the granite only just outweighs the force of gravity. Falls have the potential to be large and highly abrasive. Add to that the fact that the easiest route is VS and it can be seen why the place has a formidable – but curiously attractive – reputation among climbers of lesser ability (that’s me, folks!). It is, however, a superb location with great views – and the two routes there I was ever capable of doing were among the best I remember.

(Oh, and the three other climbers in this story, despite my calumnies, are actually proper climbers and very able.)

 

Some climbing trips become elevated by posterity to the status of epics. This, however, was just a debacle.

Four of us – Dave Bryson, Colin McGregor, Chris Horobin and myself – were bound for the Etive Slabs. Rain threatened, but the blood was up and, even though we could see streaks of water on most of the routes, we decided that such fine fellows as ourselves must surely be able to forge our way up something.

Spartan looked pretty wet – a pity, since it’s the easiest route there – but Hammer looked drier and we straggled over to the foot of it and geared up.

A rush of enthusiasm took us up the first pitch, despite having to climb a lay-back with hands wrist-deep in sodden slime. It did look dry further up though… really it did.

Spirits were still high when we foregathered at the stance before the infamous Scoop, which was bone dry and despite its reputation went easily (amazing what modern rubber can do), and before too long had passed Chris and I joined Colin and Dave at the next belay.

Those who have been there know that this belay offers a superbly comfortable stance – for one. Four proved to be a bit of a crowd. Dave was quickly despatched above, while Chris and I were left arranging a semi-hanging belay for ourselves on the open slab beside Colin’s comfortable seat, in what was to be the last rational action of the day.

Weeps were beginning to emerge from the corner, and because of the specific inclination and frictative properties of Etive granite they were regarded as a bad thing and could not be ignored, especially by Dave, who had to step over them with the utmost delicacy. By way of compensation, opportunities for placing protection were blossoming; but just before the crux traverse Dave was to find that there could indeed be too much of a good thing.

By the time he reached the start of the traverse he found he had used all his quickdraws, with half the pitch left to climb.

Leaving a Friend at his highpoint, he down-climbed the corner, stripping most of the gear, and returned to the traverse, all the while bearing with superb élan the helpful comments and suggestions from his companions below.

To be fair to this Greek Chorus, the two on the slab were by now having to regularly shift position to avoid the increasing volume of the weeps, at least one of which was making a serious bid to be redesignated as a stream. The third member of the group, although secure on his stance, was greatly involved in the management of two ropes which often, though not always, were going in opposite directions.

Anyway, our bold leader was concerned about the traverse, not whether the shower below were dying of hypothermia or drowning. His own position was looking worse by the minute.

The holdless traverse now had a sizable and very off-putting weep running right down the centre of it, and it required a step both fairy-like in delicacy and elephantine in stretch to get across to the security of a flake behind which a runner could be wedged. Mr Bryson managed that step.

Now most people would have been happy to have achieved such a feat, but that wasn’t enough for Dave. It was the way the ropes ran, you see. Whether for aesthetic reasons, or just because of rope drag, they just would not do.

What happened next has been called into question by many who have done this traverse – and by even more who have failed – but all three of us who watched from below are agreed on what we saw.

He reversed the traverse.

Once back in the corner he rearranged his protection again and repeated the traverse in the conventional direction, but it was all to no avail. His by now mutinous companions were more impressed by the volume of water than by the feat of rock gymnastics, and forcibly made the point that they were by now saturated with, in equal parts, drizzle, seepage and pessimism.

Even Dave had to give in (It’s hard to keep climbing when your second ties off the ropes.) and once more he did the impossible by reversing the traverse.

Defeated but unbloodied, he soon joined us on what was once more an extremely overcrowded stance.

While he was down-climbing, removing all his carefully placed, replaced and re-replaced protection, Chris and I creaked into action, untying from our own ropes to arrange an abseil. It was at this point that what, even then, could have passed into club legend as an epic, finally crossed the dividing line into debacle.

Mindful of our status as adoptive Fifers, both Chris and I were agreed that only in direst necessity should we part from any of the expensive little bits and bobs which hung from our harnesses, and providentially an old loop of damp, smelling and rather stiff mohair rope was attached (or perhaps had grown from) a rock near our stance.

An experimental tug, careful not to pull too hard, was enough for us to persuade ourselves that it would hold a bus, and it did at least bear our weight as we abbed down to the next ledge.

By the time we were down a quick-thinking Dave had untied from both his ropes and clipped into ours just in time to stop us from retrieving them. We were prepared to overlook that breach of etiquette, but Colin was not.

Now left on his own with two uncoiled 50-metre ropes, he was exceedingly vocal in his protests, and so upset that he proceeded to abseil without attending to either of them.

All went surprisingly well until he started to move.

At that point both ropes did exactly as uncoiled ropes do and started to arrange themselves in the sort of knots only otherwise encountered in the more fevered designs of our Celtic forebears. By the time he was only halfway down to us he had no choice but to sidle across to a wide, sloping heather ledge to regroup.

A bad choice. The presence of the long, straggling heather was too much for the already excited ropes and they immediately began a frenzied mating dance with the lank strands of Calluna (very) Vulgaris.

It is with some regret that I note Colin’s lack of proper appreciation for our helpful advice and rather amusing jokes about spiders, spaghetti and knitting. In addition, he seemed to take it rather less than sportingly when he threw a painstakingly coiled rope to us only to see it miss by a mile and uncoil down bare rock. His temper was frayed even further when the re-coiled rope was flung a second time, only to become intimately entangled in the upper branches of the dead tree we three were now belayed to.

All good things come to an end though, even Colin’s jolly floorshow, and we were just drying the tears from our eyes when Colin abseiled the rest of the way down to our ledge, which was still about 100 feet above the foot of the climb. He stopped just above us and leant back against the tree……which broke.

This should have been a moment of high drama – literally. A hundred feet, after all, is still a long way to bumslide down rough Etive granite. But I fear we were now all far too far gone to treat this development with the gravity it merited.

Tied to a now forlorn bit of stick on a narrow ledge, we fell about in helpless hysterics. All save Colin, who still failed to see the joke.

And of course the final joke was on us. By a fairly minor contortion we could now look across the slabs to see the rather odd spectacle of numerous climbers (who all seemed to have found dry rock to climb on), all in that classic Etive crouch but all craning their necks to see what all the noise was about.

Hammer, it appeared, was the only route too wet to climb.

Debacle? Well of course. But at the end of the day I would cite A.F. Mummery’s thoughts on what makes the true mountaineer:

“The true mountaineer is a wanderer. Equally whether he succeeds or fails, he delights in the fun and jollity of the struggle.”

Or, as a more contemporary philosopher put it: “Cracking day, Grommet.”

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14 Responses to Etive Capers – a historical document

  1. Ah memories. Colin could only have been about 12 then.

  2. Sinbad says:

    Aye Neil. the slabs can be exciting at times. Reminds me of –

    A daring young man called Sinbad,
    Who’s runners were always put in bad.
    When falling of Ba’s,
    He clattered his jaws,
    Now the lack of front teeth make his grin bad.

  3. I alway find that the best end is the one opposite the leader, saves a lot of hassle, blood, sweat and tears.

  4. Norrie Muir says:

    Nice one, sometimes retreats are more amusing than success and the Slabs are a good place for a bit of fun and I’ve had my fair share of retreats.

    I remember watch another epic on Hammer, we were climbing on the slab above and left of Hammer, I don’t remember the name of the climb, when we heard panicked voices down on Hammer, so we moved to the edge to see what was happening. Stuttering Jake was in a bit of bother and was saying “Wwwwaaaaa, wwwwaaaa, wwwwwaaaaa, f*ck it.”, we thought he meant “Watch the rope, I’m going to fall.” After a few minutes laughing, we told Stuttering Jake’s second “Hope you have a good belay as Jake is going to fall”. We took pity on the pair by flicking our ropes over to give Jake a bit of support.

  5. Sinbad says:

    Hi Norrie,
    Do you remember doing Jaywalk with Ben, the day after my debacle on Ba’s? He’s never forgiven himself for leaving me battered and bruised. His words in the morning after were, How’re you feeling? Not too bad says I through no front teeth. That’s fine, I’m off to “the slabs” with Norrie!!!

    • Norrie Muir says:

      Hi Sinbad
      I thought it was the same weekend when Ben and myself did Jaywalk, but was not sure, after all, it was in 1970, so the memory fades a bit.

  6. Heather Morning says:

    Cracking bit of writing Gromit – made me smile whilst ploughing through some tedious webpage task assigned to me by said author! 🙂

  7. andy says:

    Hi Neil,
    Not sure this belongs here, but I couldn’t think of another post where to comment. It’s a bit off topic too, but here we go. I went up the South Glen Shiel ridge yesterday from the Glen Quoich side. It had been a while since I’d last headed that way. I was reminded of how great those old deerstalking paths are in that corner of the world. There’s a brilliant one going up Creag a’ Mhaim from the East (usually by-passed by Munro-baggers). Then of course there’s the splendid one that goes up Gleouraich. I’d thought I’d be doing the whole ridge but in the event the heat was so stifling that I cut it short and came off Maol Chinn-dearg. The 1:25,000 has a track zig-zagging off it. I thought I could see the start of the path from the ridge, but it’s now heavily overgrown. With some trepidation I set about descending anyway (that side of the mountain is seriously steep, looks like a 75º gradient!). It was strangely moving to follow the old zig-zags, now being reclaimed by the mountain. Clearly it has been a long time since stalkers have used ponies on that estate. And Munro-baggers always go up from the Cluanie side. But apart from one short section where I lost it, most of the path is still there, cutting an improbable line across a very, very steep hillside.
    So, here’s the question for you, Neil. Although, to my knowledge at least, there are only a few spectacular stalker’s paths in the Cairngorm, the Knoydart area has some fantastic feats of engineering. It’s likely the guy who designed the Maol Chinn-dearg path was the same who did the one on Gleouraich. And I got wondering whether you knew of any books that tell the story of the old path builders. It’s a great culture that would be worth knowing more about, isn’t it. I mean, these guys must have been exploring all those hills, looking for lines of least resistance, doing a lot of spade work to widen ledges and cut zig-zags. I’ve no idea how long it would take to cut these paths. It looks as if they followed natural lines as much as possible, but they must have done a lot of digging too. D’ya know anything at all about who they were, are any names preserved, is anyone still alive who can remember stories about them? I’d really love to know more about the path building culture. There are few things that give me greater joy than going up one of those paths. You feel the mountain was being treated with respect, as opposed to the modern bee-line Munro bagging tracks that scar many a hillside. I know you’re a bothy man and bothy folks and deer folks have not always mixed well. But those guys who built those paths must have loved the hills as much as we do. Cheers for any info!

    • Talk about off topic! 🙂
      The short answer is No. I don’t know anything about how, when and who by these paths were built other than to assume it would have been in the late 1800s when the stalking culture was at its height. It’s an interesting question though, and I do often wonder how any path gets started: how many people had to decide to walk that line before it became a recognisable path? The stalkers’ paths, though, are in a league of their own: in the Cairngorms alone I can think of the long, perfectly level path (now remade) along Glen Quoich from Slugain to the Sneck; and there’s the Duke’s Path up onto Braeriach from the east, and the Coire Dhondail path from the west, both taking raking traverses through implausibly steep ground while never being at an unreasonable gradient. And they last, too! Maybe individual estate records would have some information on path-building, but I don’t think I’ve read anything myself – not even in Seton Gordon, who was a font of obscure knowledge. It was something, though, that the stalkers had in common with the deer: finding a good way through rought ground. There are some long-established deer tracks I’ve followed which take marvellously easy and logical ways around hills (though never to the tops!), finding good crossings of gullies and streams and avoiding unnecessary steep gradients.
      You’re right: there’s a lot to discover about paths of all kinds.

      • andy says:

        Thanks, Neil, I was really hoping you’d know something about it (you and your readers are surely the most knowledgeable hill folks around!). And yes, I was thinking precisely of Duke’s Path and the Coir Dhondail paths as the only two examples that spring to mind (I haven’t been up Ross Path so I’m not sure what that’s like). The only thing I seem to remember is a delightful passage in ‘Isolation Shepherd’ where Iain Thomson throws a liver from a fresh gralloched stag into the frying pan of this path mender that was spending the summer in his tent fixing paths on the estate. So maybe they were seasonal workers moving from one estate to the other building and fixing paths, it’s just a shame that we don’t know names and stories, quite some skills they had. Or maybe, as you say, they were simply following established deer tracks! Even though sometimes those tracks trick you into impossible situations!
        And yes, they do last an awful long time and surely the gradient and zig-zags are the reason why they do, even in the most torrential rain the paths never get damaged like the Munroists ones! Och well, I’ll keep an eye on a future post on path builders!

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