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We had spent an epic day on the Beinn Fhada ridge back in October; swirling mist piling into the Lost Valley far below us and the final ascent to Stob Coire Sgreamhach a scramble up into the heavens. Wilde and atmospheric Glen Coe, with massive views opening and closing in seconds. These days stay with you.

November saw much of the tops in snow. We had a clutch of freezing blue bird days where we could see far out to the Skye Cullins and beyond. It’s December now and we are back.

A warm front has taken much of the snow, but the chill is back. The Mountain Weather Information Service www.mwis.org.uk tells us a few things; its going to be very cold, there’s going to be very little wind, there’s a 90% chance of cloud free Munros. Perfect. We also checked into the Glen Coe Mountain Resort www.glencoemountain.co.uk webcam for an accurate visual take on the conditions. Webcams across the Scottish mountain resorts are a great way to help build a picture of conditions as part of a wider strategy for planning a mountain day.

The drive up is silent. Meall nan Tarmachan and Ben Lawers silvery grey and locked in frost. Ben More and Stob Binnein the same, against a cobalt blue dawn sky.

We cross Rannoch Moor. Whispers of dawn mist are still hanging. The lochans are utterly still and perfectly reflect the mountains of Black Mount. It’s an eerie scene.

We approach Glen Coe, and there it is, as its always been; Buachaille Etive Mor. The Herdsman of Etive looks down on us. Beautiful, breathtaking or perhaps intimidating. Of course mountains are neutral, they are neither our friend nor enemy. It’s how we conduct ourselves when we enter their world that makes for safe and spectacular experiences that can change lives, or conversely dangerous experiences that can also change lives. Accurate planning and preparation is everything.

We arrive and park up. Its 9am. Its absolutely still and freezing cold. There are still stars in the west and a crescent moon is floating above the Aonach Eagach Ridge. Gear on and equipment check. Crampons and ice axes in the bags. It’s unlikely we will need crampons, but if we do they will be of little use 3000 feet below us in the van.

No clients with us today. We are here to plan and test a particular route. The Beinn Fhada ridge with clients in the autumn was a spectacular and challenging day. We are here to test it in winter conditions. More specifically we are here to test a particular part of it.

The ridge leads to Stob Coire Sgreamhach at 1072m. This rather ominously translates to “Peak of the dreadful corrie”. At the base of the final ascent is a scramble, often referred to as the “bad step”. We need to explore and test just how “bad” this is in winter conditions before bringing clients with us.

We head up into the Lairig Eilde and break right down the path to the stream; burn or river depending how much water is in it. Icicles form by the small pools. Bubbling with life it’s the only noise we hear in the vast silence. Carefully does it. Today is no time for an unplanned swim.

BeinnFhada Glen Coe Scotland
Bidean nam Bian Glen Coe mountaineering
winter mountaineering Stob Coire Sgreamhach Glen Coe Scotland

Stob Coire Sgreamhach from Beinn Fhada, Glen Coe.

We follow the stream for a few hundred more meters. We now make our ascent up towards the ridge. There’s no path here and we pick our way carefully amongst the crags and steep terrain. Upward into the silence.

We don’t talk much. Happy to be alone with our thoughts until we hit the ridge. When we do the scene is ethereal. Can we ever remember a time in the mountains surrounded by such ghostly silence? We literally whisper to each other. An acute counterpoint to the usual attempts to communicate through powerful gusts battering us from the west.

The world around us is locked in ice and frost. Not a sound. No signs of life. We traverse southwest along the ridge. As we gain height the views open up and they are spectacular; to the west Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire nan Lochan tower above us. The low winter sun picking out every gully, cliff and scree slope. Far below us the Lost Valley sits in total shade. This dark chasm will see no sunlight today.

The ground is frozen with a dusting of snow. Ice axes out. We reach the summit of Beinn Fhada at 931m. Coffee and a few squares of dark chocolate. This morning’s porridge and peanut butter seems a long time ago. We talk for a while in the sun. What an extraordinary privilege it is to be here, right now, at this precise moment, there really is nothing else.

Finally the silence is broken; a raven croaks in the cliffs below us and its time to move on. We are now scrambling down a narrow section of the ridge and at its base we will be presented with the “bad step”. An enjoyable scramble in the warmer months. We need to understand it in winter, both ascending and descending.

There’s a reasonable path along the ridge, lost at times in scree and rocks. Without ice and snow the scramble in front of us manageable, the route defined by a 100 years of climbers boots, ice axes and crampons. Today, it’s not so apparent. Light snow makes the scramble less obvious, the route less clear.

We climb with some exposure. Perceived and real risk on our minds. We then descend, always the trickier proposition. At the base we look up again and pick a line with less exposure. We ascend slowly, taking in everything around us, carefully assessing and planning. We descend once more to explore a potential route bypassing the scramble altogether. At first this seems positive, but in fact leads to more untested scrambling.

There’s a clear decision for us. We understand the correct route and how to identify it visually; the ascent in light snow is acceptable. The decent is not acceptable. It’s simply too difficult to identify the downward route and what condition it’s in from above. There are too many wrong options, even under light snow.

We have now built a clearer picture of the Beinne Fhada ridge and the ascent to Stob Coire Sgreamhach in winter; in light snow it’s a challenging and inspiring route to ascend with clients. [But not descend]. In full winter conditions its off limits in either direction with clients. We can now build this knowledge into future trips and adventures.

We make our way back up the ridge towards Stob Coire Sgreamhach. We arrive and have company. Half a dozen chirpy folk, pointing, laughing and taking photos of the magnificence that surrounds us. Their maps are out and they ask us if it’s OK to descend down towards Beinne Fhada. Friendly and helpful chat advises them not to, not under snow, not today. It’s the Lost Valley exit route for them.

We sit for a while and take it in. Glen Etive and Loch Etive disappear into the west. The Paps of Jura just break the horizon. The mass of Buachaille Etive Mor sits frozen in the low sun. Mountains in every direction. It’s impossibly beautiful. So many memories and a lifetime of adventures still to come. How very lucky we are.

We break southeast and make our descent towards Lairig Eilde.

Ocean Vertical  www.oceanvertical.com

 

We sit for a while and take it in. Glen Etive and Loch Etive disappear into the west. The Paps of Jura just break the horizon. The mass of Buachaille Etive Mor sits frozen in the low sun. Mountains in every direction. It’s impossibly beautiful. So many memories and a lifetime of adventures still to come. How very lucky we are.

Ocean Vertical | Scotland

 

Beinn Fhada ridge Glen Coe
winter mountaineering Sotb Coire Sgreamhach Glen Coe Scotland

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