Wild Words: The Grasshopper

Written in 1894, this record of an adventurous climb up Ben Nevis also describes a tour of the observatory and a meet with its observers

Nevis blair detail

This handwritten essay was uncovered and transcribed by Alison Austin, the Trust's land manger at Ben Nevis.

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The Grasshopper: Ben Nevis in April

by

Mary (Marianna) Loy 

 June 1894

It was early in the year to attempt the ascent of Ben Nevis we knew, but that only made us the more eager for it. Anyone can go up in July or August but there might be some honour to be gained in reaching the top in April.

It was a little difficult to fix on a day that suited everyone but finally we said it would be the next Wednesday, unless the weather were too bad. Our party consisted of three girls, Dora, Agnes and myself - and Dora’s brother Charlie and W. Cameron, a neighbour, who had undertaken to be our guide as he had been up five times before. I may mention that the elders were away from home at the time, or I do not think we should have been allowed to start.

On Wednesday morning we were called at 6.30 and after consulting the barometer and studying the sky, decided that, though the wind was blustering, and the showers frequent, it was not too bad to make the attempt.

Accordingly we rose and breakfasted and drove from Invergloy on Loch Lochy where we were staying to Spean Bridge, where we met our friend W. Cameron and insisted on going on – not in the least daunted by the facts that we had to crouch for the most part under umbrellas and that W. Cameron looked just a little surprised at seeing us turn up on such a day. However he said if we were willing to try it he was too. I suppose he secretly thought it a pity to turn us back when we had come so far and that to try it could do us no harm – though that we should ever reach the top he told us later on he had not the slightest hope. We drove on gaily to the top of Glen Nevis whiling the way by writing most affectionate and heart rending letters of farewell to our dearest friends supposing we should be overwhelmed in the snow – though as the pocket books in which they were written accompanied us to the top I do not quite see how they could be supposed ever to get to the people to whom they were addressed!

We did not reach Glen Nevis till10.30am as it was a long drive and we then at once began the ascent. For the first half of the way the path is very steep and stony and the wind, being in our faces and growing stronger as we got higher, made it very hard work. Dora and I soon began to show signs of exhaustion and called for halts rather frequently. W. Cameron was much surprised at our getting out of breath while only walking and assured us that it was impossible to do so – it was only running that took away one’s breath. But I think we soon convinced him that this was the case. During one of our halts he was afraid I was going to faint and wished to plunge down 200 or 300 ft to a burn for water but we all scorned the idea of fainting and in a few minutes I was ready to go on again. W. Cameron cheering me by telling me how the last time he went up a man of the party fainted just about there but was as fresh as any of them at the top.

We reached the half-way bothie about 12 o’clock and had lunch sheltering behind the bothie for the cold was pretty bad by this time and the storms of hail and sleet very frequent. In spite of these storms it was a good day for views – the neighbouring hills looked grand with the clouds rolling over them and alternate light and shadows playing about them and the lochs and moors below. During our short lunch there were two or three rainbows right below us and just above the little tarn which lies in the centre of the mountain and more than 200ft above sea level.

We had been told that the first half of the ascent was the worst so we ate our lunch feeling very cheerful and pleased at having accomplished so much – and expecting a fairly easy climb for the rest of the way. But alas! As soon as we started again and crossed a wreath of snow which lay over the path we found it quite as difficult as ever more so than the first part.

The stones in the path were loose and more slippery and the wind much stronger so that at the corners where the path turned as in any particularly exposed place it was as much as we could do to stand against it – and once or twice narrowly missed being blown over the edge.

W. Cameron made me put the handle of my stick through the strap by which he carried some field glasses and in this way he helped me a good deal all the rest of the way. Dora and Agnes disdained help and got up entirely by their own exertions.

After toiling away for perhaps half an hour we came to what we took to be a second wreath of snow across the path and boldly plunged into it expecting every minute to see the path again. But it stretched on and on and I noticed W. Cameron beginning to look uneasy and at last in answer to our questions when this horrid snow would be passed and we be on firm ground again he was obliged to confess that he felt sure the snow stretched from there right to the top and we had lost all traces of the path. He left us standing disconsolately while he ran backwards and forwards looking eagerly from some signs of the road – but the deep snow covered everything and lay in front of us like a white wall blocking the way.

For a few minutes we felt utterly discouraged and I am sure W. Cameron would have felt he ought to make us turn back had we not fortunately caught sight in the distance of the posts which mark the line of the underground telegraph wires. These run in a straight line to the observatory at the top and so formed as sure and safe a guide as we could have had.

But now our difficulties really began – the ascent became steeper and steeper, and, as much snow had fallen the night before and was still falling, the surface was not hard enough to bear us but let us sink in about six inches at each step. Enough to make it very tiring especially when joined to the hurricane of snow and wind by which we were so blinded that we often had to wait some minutes at one post till we could see as far as the next – though these posts are only from 20 – 30 ft apart.

It was a hard struggle of which I do not remember realising much except that I must try and do one or two more steps before I was obliged to give up and ask for a halt – and that both my feet got badly cramped just in the steepest part and Charlie who had tried to help me to straighten them was horrified to find no toe in the place where the toe should have been!

One of our halts though we all remember very clearly. The storm had got thicker and fiercer and we thought we had seen the post we were making for just ahead of us a minute before now it was completely lost and W. Cameron said we must wait – If we went on we might go over a precipice or at any rate loose the posts entirely. He stood facing the storm and affording a shelter for us who crouched behind him aching with cold nose, ears and faces tingling and smarting with the force of the ice sleet. Poor Charlie stood at first a little above us looking the picture of misery and saying at intervals “Oh let us go on – Oh let us go on” and feeling I am sure that even a fall over a precipice would be preferable to being slowly frozen.

However we called to him to burrow in amongst us and made him a little warmer and at last we could see the posts right away to our left when we had thought we were going straight to it.

So on we battled our spirits never failing and we would one and all have scorned the idea of turning back – though we now hear that our guide, who understood better than we did the dangers we were in, seriously thought he ought to give it up and was only persuaded by our repeated determination to get right up.

At last the top was reached and W. Cameron pointing out a little bit of chimney sticking up, remarked that it belonged to the hotel over the roof of which we were walking. I had been picturing us all seated in the hotel parlour sipping hot tea and being warmed and comforted and this announcement came as rather a shock. In my ignorance I had fancied that the hotel was open over winter and summer just as the observatory is – we had none of us taken the deep snow into account in the least and had rashly promised to bring back pieces of granite from the top for the children at home!

The observatory was not much further on but this too was completely buried with the exception of a turret standing high out of the snow. We knew there were men in the building below us, but the difficulty was to make them hear.

We three grls were left standing in a snow drift where we had been blown by the wind and felt too exhausted to scramble out of and never shall I forget our feelings of miserable suspense fast changing to acute despair as W. Cameron and Charlie searched about whistling, calling and banging at everything they could reach and even scratching their way through the snow to try and get at the blocked up windows – but all to no purpose.

It was too trying to feel that only ten or twelve feet below us were men wiling and able to help us and yet we must turn back and struggle down without the slightest sort of refreshment and all because the stupid snow deadened every sound and blocked every entrance.

It seemed an age while we stood waiting, but I suppose it was only a few minutes, then Charlie caught sight of an iron chimney sticking up through the snow and in desperation struck it again and again. The next moment our sufferings were at an end for we had heard a whistle from the turret and a man stood in the doorway.

Cameron and Charlie happened to be round the other side of the turret so he could only see us there and when we flew at him brandishing our sticks and uttering cries of joy he looked gloomy not to say alarmed – doubtless thinking we were escaped lunatics. However he knew W. Cameron who greeted him as W. Omond the chief of the observers and we were admitted into the turret where we waited a few minutes to thaw and recover our senses before beginning the decent into the inhabited parts of the building.

This was accomplished by means of two ladders the first one straight against the wall like those one sees in stables leading to hay lofts and the second merely steps in the wall with no hold for the hands except notches in the step above. They are so arranged because the turret had to be strengthened by great beams across in every direction and the spaces between them only gave room for ladders of this kind. Dora was the first to descend and we heard a great deal of talking between her and W. Omond asking her to “have faith”.

My turn came next and when I got down the first ladder I could not find the second nor how to get on to it. Agnes called directions from below, being anxious that I should find the notches for my hands, and W. Omond told me quite (differently) from above. At last he lost his patience and called to Agnes: “Will you please be quiet – you’re muddling her”, whereupon Agnes retired feeling quite small and I got down in safety.

At the bottom we went along a passage and found ourselves in a fairly large room looking very much like the cabin of a ship – the walls and ceiling of wood, a big stove in the centre and all dimly lighted by a window entirely covered with snow. Leading from this room was the kitchen – a cheery little room lighted by a powerful lamp and warmed by a roaring fire.

There the cooks spread out tea for us after we had dried our steaming locks and removed such of our wet hats and wraps as we could dispense with. When we first went in, the assistant observer was telegraphing to the observatory below. After seeing us, I think described our personal appearance for in the reply there came two or three little clicks from the machine and he explained to W. Cameron that that had signified a laugh! We must have looked absurd for we were caked with snow and ice and our hats and hair….. (easily) torn of by the wind.

There are always three men in the observatory to observe and a cook. W. Omond is the head observer and was chiefly instrumental in starting the observatory being heavily interested in all scientific researches. He and his assistant take it in turns to go out and take observations every hour of the day and night 

We were afterwards told that W. Omond is a women hater and hardly ever cares to speak to anyone at all so no wonder he looked a little taken aback when he saw us outside. He became very friendly afterwards and ate with us while we had tea. He evidently found our high spirits infectious, but scolded us for being so silly as to come up on such a day. How we did enjoy that tea! It was made from snow water and perhaps that gave it a delicious flavour.

The cook struck us as being almost melancholy mad and no wonder as he is up there eleven months out of the twelve  and says he never goes out except on very fine days (there are not many of them) when he walks up and down a little terrace for exercise.

After tea we were shown the sleeping rooms which were just like those on board a ship. We also saw the store rooms which were well stocked with tinned goods of every description as they are only replenished once a year.

We then went back to the sitting room sent off telegrams to various friends and wrote our names in the visitors book – noting with much satisfaction that we were the first ladies up that year and that only two had been up before

W. Omond was a little doubtful whether we should be able to get down that night as the wind had increased almost to a gale – but it subsided again and all too soon he announces that we must dash. We clambered up the turret steps the door was opened and one by one we ventured out into the white rough world again.

The wind was very strong and, but for a rope which W. Omond put into our hands, we should have been blown away over the precipices. Agnes was blown for some distance and W. Cameron starting to the rescue was rolled over in the snow, but finally caught her. We all waited till the wind dropped a little and then began the decent. W. Omond took Dora by the hand and marched us off I could not help thinking of Caldecott picture of the wicked uncle striding along dragging the poor little babes behind him and did wonder that the others there who were in front and happened to catch sight of us merely rolled over with laughter. W. Omond and his assistant went with us for some way till they could point out the way clearly to us and then returned to their dreary habitation.

The weather had cleared a little now we had a grand view right over the mountains to the Atlantic and to the mountains of Skye in the far distance. The clouds and broken bits of sunshine made it look very beautiful and W. Cameron said it was a better view than he had had in any of his five other ascents.

Going down was a very easy affair. We all joined hands and slid more than walked through the snow – only occasionally having to halt when someone slipped too far or too deep, as when I went in up to my waist and had to be hauled out again.

We kept to the snow till just above the half-way bothie and then had to take the path. After this walking was rather a painful business because our boots were so soaked with snow that they were as soft as wet paper and the sharp stones cut right through them. However we got down without further adventure and not feeling at all tired. We were extremely cheerful and elated on our homeward drive even enjoying a walk up a hill a mile long which came in our way.

We did think it was rather unfair though to be told by W. Cameron that we English were “soft” because we put on extra wraps for driving! We found that the observers were more appreciative of our powers for, about a fortnight later, when two ladies asked at the lower observatory if they could go up they were told: “No – no ordinary ladies go up so easily”

We reached home about nine o’clock and were not sorry to get supper and go off to bed

We expected to get up the next morning so stiff as to be hardly able to move, but Agnes was the only one who felt it in the least either that day or afterwards and this was curious as she was the freshest of us all during our adventurous climb up Ben Nevis.

Mariana Loy

Note:  We had heard since our ascent that some people imagine Ben Nevis to be a town in Scotland! We therefore think it as well to mention that it is a mountain and the highest in the British Isles being 4408 ft high – also that the ascent begins at sea-level.

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Image credit: Blair Fyfe