Three days in the valley – a return to Glencoe

Winter hasn’t really managed to assert itself in the Lake District yet. As I sit and write this floods and high winds are once again doing their thing, and the freezing level is rather hyperactive without ever being low enough.

So, let’s rewind a few weeks to when I headed north with meteorological promises of something a bit more exciting ringing in my ears. It was back to renew my torrid relationship with Glencoe and its weather.

Upon arrival late afternoon I was a little disappointed with winter’s pitiful attempt at a welcome party for me – a little white powder above 800m was all that was on offer. But the forecast suggested more promising things for the next couple of days.

The plan for the next morning was to ease myself into the trip by (hopefully) catching some light on Buachaille Etive Mor from a low level wander along the River Etive near the ski centre.

Not exactly an original plan, but you’ve got to start a trip somewhere. Also, due to the angle of the dawn light, my preferred view from Beinn a Chrulaiste wouldn’t work.

After a quick ‘refreshment’ stop at the Kingshouse, I made my way toward Glen Etive where I’d planned a low level camp. A low level camp that ended up being not quite as far down the glen as envisaged, as heavy snow quickly began to fall. Though there are many, many worse places to get stuck down a single track road, it would rather have interfered with my morning plans.

As it turned out the snow, although heavy, only fell fitfully during the night. I awoke around 3am, and squeezed my head out of the tent, gulping greedily at the icy air and breathing in the intense quiet and a landscape transformed.

In just a few hours the reticent cloudy glen had opened up into a radiant moonlit winter night, a star pricked overhead pool of black dammed in by towering peaks of white.

After shaking the excess snow weight off the tent, I hunkered back down into the sleeping bag, giddy with optimism at the morning’s photographic possibilities.

I waited until night had shifted a little before making a start for the day, realising I had an extra task to undertake: boiling some water to help me get into the large iceberg outside the tent that the previous evening was the car.

It still left me with a good hour to work with before sunrise. Shooting possibilities start before then, particularly if you want to capture those lovely pre-dawn blues and purples, and I hadn’t chosen a particular spot to shoot from, so needed time to do a recce.

I wandered back and forth along the bank without trying to trample too much of the pristine snow, before coming back to these few rocks and jumping in. The creeping pink soon began to kiss the top of Stob Dearg and these next ten or fifteen minutes of intensifying and then weakening light are typically when I do the majority of my landscape work.

A short time later, when the elation had begun to fade along with the light and I’d realised that my feet were quite cold, it was time to head back and plan the rest of the day.

Walk up something, obviously, but there are a lot of tempting ups in this region. Eventually I decided on Buachaille Etive Beag, as it’s a fairly short, direct ascent suitable for these days of limited daylight.

Once you reach the bealach there’s a choice of summits, left for Stob Coire Raineach, or right for the ridge to Stob Dubh. Ridges are more fun of course, so that’s the way I headed, stopping briefly to don the crampons and dig out the axe for the last steep section of old hard compacted snow.

The clear skies of earlier in the day had clouded over now, but the cloud was still above the summits. I made my way to the far end of Stob Dubh before heading back the way I came. You can drop off the far end, but it means an extended trek back along either the Lairig Eilde or Lairig Gartain.

I’d already done enough to make it a successful first day, but there was just time for a late afternoon drive down Glen Etive. A few sheltered sections of road were still a little bit interesting, but most of the snow and ice had softened during the day.

You can’t drive all the way down the glen as the road ends where the loch begins. I’d had hopes of catching some late afternoon light looking back from here to hills earlier climbed, but it was soon obvious there would be no further break in the cloud.

I stood on the loch shore for a brief while, blustery and bleak conditions and the slight scent and sight of industry here jarring with the rest of the day.

Returning back up the glen I couldn’t resist stopping to practice my largely unsubtle wildlife stalking skills with a small group of deer close to the roadside. They seemed to decide I posted no immediate threat and posed for a while, though I’m sure I detected some derisive eye rolling from at least one of them.

Day two dawned on a more familiar Glencoe scene to me. Milder, rainier, the hills denuded of snow to about 600m and the summits obscured by cloud.

Higher level mountain photography is my passion, but unfortunately unlike other aspects of landscape photography it’s rarely worth practicing in ‘poor’ weather.

I decided therefore to give the summits a miss and have a wander up into Coire Gabhail, the Lost Valley. It’s a pleasant ascent up the right hand side of the gorge past the rolling and tumbling Allt Coire Gabhail, which you need to wade across at one point.

Once on the left bank it’s only a short climb before you then descend into the surprisingly open plain of the Lost Valley. Sleety drizzle was still falling, but I wasn’t getting too wet so decided to carry on out of the far end of the valley and up into the proper snow.

You can use this route as an ascent of Bidean nam Bian, but the cloud was still persistent higher up in the snowier reaches, so I stuck with the original plan of not heading too high, and just waded steeply through the snow to the bealach then returned back the same way.

On day three it was time for me to head home, but with the weather doing another volte face and unbroken blue sky overhead, there’d be a decent walk first. I decided to tackle one of Bidean’s summits, opting for Stob Coire nan Lochan, with a brief diversion to the summit of Aonach Dubh (the third of the Three Sisters as you look down Glencoe).

The Three Sisters are all the majority of Glencoe’s hop off, hop back on bus tourists see of Bidean nam Bian, and as impressive as they are, they are merely lower buttresses of the mountain, blocking the view of its complex range of higher summits.

This is a mountain to be explored at a higher level over several days via its numerous routes of ascent. My outing on its higher slopes was Christmas day last year, when high up in Coire nam Beitheach being hammered by wind and snow, and in poor visibility, I decided the sensible thing was to retreat back to my little cabin for a dram or two.

Today would be rather less dramatic, but an utterly beautiful day to be in the hills. A piercing winter light raked through the landscape, views limited only by endless mountains.

A good path takes you up into Coire nan Lochan, the only tricky part today being a rocky section where the path veers close to one of many waterfalls, and ice was in all the places where a hand or foot needed to grip.

Eventually negotiated, the path petered out under deeper snow higher up, but I veered north west steeply up and out if the corrie under the imposing crags of Stob Coire nan Lochan. Not a breeze stirred, and the quiet was only broken by the echoey chink of metal on rock, alerting me to a climber on the rock face high above me.

Progress was a little slow, a brittle crème brulee crust on the surface of the snow frequently giving way to the softness underneath, but I eventually reached the bealach between Aonach Dubh and the north ridge of Stob Coire nan Lochan.

I wandered out onto the rocky plateau of Aonach Dubh, the Aonach Eagach ridge seemingly within touching distance on the other side of the glen, albeit with a 3000ft chasm of empty air to reach out over.

I doubled back and began to clamber the rocky ridge towards Stob Coire nan Lochan, views splendid over Beinn Fhada towards the Buachailles on the left, and over Beinn a Bheithir and Loch Leven to the hills of Ardnamurchan on the right.

An icy wind managed to lift itself up here, as it should in the hills. When the air is lifeless in winter it feels too quiet, like the mountains are pensive and watchful rather than expressing themselves.

Finally perched on the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan, I considered carrying on, dropping down that ridge and up the final steep pull to the true summit of Bidean, but time was against me by now. It could wait for another day.

Again I’d have to return by the same route. Descent is so much speedier than ascent when the snow is deep, as there’s the freedom to cut loose and lollop down, footfalls anchored and any falls cushioned.

Soon back down in the shelter of the upper reaches of the corrie I tumbled to a halt and sat for a while. As exhilarating as the wild air of the mountains can be, their sudden quiet can be more overwhelming and contemplative thoughts flourish.

The quiet was broken by a ratchety croak coming from somewhere nearby. I struggled to spot it at first, winter plumage obviously having developed already, but eventually spied the source of the disruptive voice – a lone ptarmigan craghopping around presumably foraging for food. Or maybe just enjoying hopping about in the snow, who knows.

I always find it a thrill to spot wildlife up here, something that ekes its existence from this altitude, minimal as it may be compared to other mountains around the world.

I waited until it had hopped out of sight, then set off down again. It could carry on about its business in the hills, but sadly I had to think about heading home.

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8 Responses to Three days in the valley – a return to Glencoe

  1. Mart says:

    Excellent photos with a great write up. I’d be in my guest house bed when you are at work in the hills. Worth it though:-)

  2. Suzie Grogan says:

    I do hate to sound like a nag (it is not something even my kids accuse me of very often) but if you do not, some day very soon, get a publishing deal and write a book I will begin to sound like a broken record. Fabulous, lyrical write up, great photos and the ability to make us all feel we would consider such an adventure (even though, as Mart says, there is only one place I would be at that hour of the morning.) 🙂

  3. James Grant says:

    Nice write up Stuart! I miss Scotland and I’m missing the snow!

  4. Paul says:

    I fully agree with what Suzie Grigan says. Excellent, Stewart as usual. Thanks for taking me back to a superb part of the world 🙂

  5. Paul says:

    I agree with Suzie Grogan – excellent blog/photos. Thanks for taking me back to a lovely part of the world 🙂

  6. mark littlejohn says:

    Excellent write up allied to superb photographs – I would certainly agree that there is a very readable book that could come out of your various wanders.

    • Stewart says:

      Thanks Mark, appreciate it. Though at the rate it takes me to write the average blog post, you may not see that book for a while yet!

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