The Mountain Weather Information Service forecast is looking good. Tomorrow we leave for Glen Coe.
Group equipment check: Ice axes, crampons, winter boots, group shelter, emergency blankets, head torches, first aid kit, map and compass, spare rucksacks with waterproof liners, spare waterproof insulated jacket, energy snacks.
Personal equipment check: Ice axe, crampons [both Black Diamond], winter boots [Scarpa], waterproof shell and trousers, long johns, base layer, mid layer fleece, spare fleece, rucksack [all Patagonia], primaloft insulated jacket [Norrona], waterproof hat and gloves plus spares, wool socks, head torch, snacks and liquid.
Does a brand matter? Only if the planet matters: Buy once and buy well. Good quality fit for purpose equipment from responsible brands will last many seasons in harsh mountain conditions. Ethical brands such as Patagonia create some of the most lightweight and durable clothing available, and it’s guaranteed for life. You may pay a premium, but then there’s a simple pay back having one jacket for twenty years rather than say six cheaper ones that gradually fall apart. And lets not forget that next to oil and gas, the fashion industry in the world’s second biggest polluter. If you want to be sustainable [and you bloody well should], try and make the choice to buy once and buy well from a brand that puts purpose before profit.
6.30am; It’s cold and dark in East Lothian as we load the equipment into the van. Our sleepy clients sip coffee and amusingly start to compare the [extensive] contents of their pack lunches. That primitive fear of scarcity over abundance. From experience most of the lunch will make its way back south in around 9 hours. We point the van at Glen Coe, flick the radio on and drive.
First stop the excellent Real Food Café in Tyndrum. Time for a pee, coffee, cherry and coconut balls, and second breakfast if required. We sit by the fire, map out and discuss the plan for the day. We run through the latest Mountain Weather Information Service forecast and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service. This will inform the route for the day.
We had originally intended to climb Stob Coire nan Lochan via Coire nan Lochan, but have now revised this to Buachaille Etive Beag. The reasons; there has been significant new snow fall and the avalanche hazard is “moderate”, with poorly bonded windslab on north through east to south east aspects above 800m. Within the last two days there have been two reported avalanches in the area. [Writing this several days after the trip, there was a 300m avalanche on Stob Coire nan Lochan the day of our trip. Good planning is everything].
We can expect good visibility with occasional snow showers and wind speeds of 30 - 40mph. Freezing level is around 400m. With wind-chill we can expect it to feel more like minus 15. This all makes for an exciting winter mountaineering day.
We pass over Rannoch moor, our vehicle an anonymous blip in a frozen wilderness. Sometimes its good to feel small. We’ve a human habit of trying to categories, name, group and organize everything we see and experience. Perhaps driven by fear of the unknown. Not being in control. The realization that nature is far greater than we will ever be. The 21st centaury western ego often finds this difficult to accept.
Buachaille Etive Mor comes into view. Every time is like seeing it for the first time. Welcome to the wilderness. Being here, now, at this moment is everything. Snow clings to the Crowberry Tower and the Rannoch wall looks as beautiful as ever, catching low rays from the east.
Silence is often better than words. We were in the mountains a few weeks ago in demanding winter conditions. One of our clients, Cara, was some way out of her comfort zone. The following day she wrote this: “Every once in a while take a step back from everything and take in the silence. No words can describe the feeling of overcoming a challenge and getting to the top. What a awesome day- thank you Ocean Vertical for another incredible experience”. Nature, the mountains, the wilderness: If you allow it to be, the experience is transformational.
We wind down into Glen Coe and park up. Out of the cosy van and into a winter’s morning. Snow seems to flutter out of a blue sky and in the distance high up we can see spindrift ripped from the snowy summits. Our other clients come bounding over full of smiles and excitement. They’ve spent the night in Glen Coe village and are fresh and chirpy. No 5.30am start for them!
We distribute ice axes, size crampons and double check everybody has the right kit, are happy and good to go. We also, as we do every time, advise not to throw on every item of clothing. It’s the default thing to do after clambering from the warm cocoon of the van to the reality of a winter morning in Glen Coe.
Ice axes clinking we set off up the Lairig Eilde, dwarfed by Buachaille Etive Beag to the east, and the giant undulating ridge of Beinn Fhada to the west. 20 minutes in, like clockwork, the group stop to drop a layer. Be bold – start cold.
We break left and head towards the bealach between Stob Coire Raineach at 925m, and Stob Dubh at 958m. Both Munros. We quickly hit the snowline. The ascent is steep with areas of deep snow and broken ice. We are aware of darkening clouds behind us, and almost in slow motion watch a snow storm arrive and envelope us. Shells on, ice axes out. Impossibly large snowflakes rage in every direction. The atmosphere is intense: From admiring the summits to less than 10 meters of visibility in a few minutes. This is winter mountaineering in Scotland, and we are prepared. The storm eventually passes, the summits reappear. Upwards slow and steady.
As we make our way closer to the bealach at 750m, the wind increases. As gusts come in wild spirals of spindrift race across the slopes above us. It’s hard going, exciting and exhilarating. We know this bealach well, we also know it acts as a wind tunnel between the surrounding peaks and glens. Snow is blowing in every direction, the wind raging, and overhead the sky is a frozen cobalt blue. The snowpack is now frozen and its time for crampons before we ascend further. We distribute the crampons and goggles, shouting over the wind [well, trying]. In a second the wind grabs an empty crampon bag and spits it away at 50mph down into Lairig Gartain, 400m below us. The process is slow, methodical and careful. Had that been a waterproof shell it would have been an expensive mistake, and if we didn’t carry a spare [we do], it would be home time.
We are now all in full winter kit, with ice axes, crampons and goggles. We begin the ascent of the southwest ridge of Buachaille Etive Beag, which leads to our summit, Stob Dubh. We are still in the grips of the “wind tunnel” and its tough going, without goggles it would be almost impossible. The slope above us is loaded with snow to its southeast aspect. This is an avalanche hazard. We dig a “Hasty Pit” to get quick bottom line information on weak layers and slabs. Sure enough windslab breaks away. We move our line of ascent further to the wind scoured side of the ridge. Dynamic risk assessment is critical in changing winter conditions.
As we reach the high point above us at 902m the wind drops slightly and the world opens up, and it’s spectacular. The teeth of the Beinn Fhada ridge rise up to the white point of Stob Coire Sgreamhach, with Stob Coire nan Lochan and Bidean nam Bian on the skyline beyond. Massive snow cornices grip the ridges, with plumes of spindrift shooting into a changing sky. The 8km icy backbone of Buachaille Etive Mor shimmers in the sun while the Aonach Eagach ridge remains locked in snow clouds. This is epic. This is why we are here.
And so onwards to the summit of Stob Dubh. Wind and spinning snow batter us, yet inside our winter kit, hoods up and goggles on, all is warm and well. We are all grinning, conversation in these conditions isn’t much of an option. We make the gradual ascent up the final ridge in single file on the windward side of a massive cornice. And then, slowly, we are all standing on the top.
These are the days that stay with you. We are all laughing and smiling. Friends are made. Its authentic and its real. We are on top of the world, and right now the world is a beautiful place. It’s a transformational experience. Tomorrow, next week, month or year things will never be the same. There’s a new perspective up here that, if you allow it, will stay with you for life.
Photos, hugs, and a quick snack. We are half way there. We re focus, and gradually make our way back down the snowy ridge into the spindrift.
Push yourself. Then push yourself further💫... everything you’ve ever wanted is one step outside your comfort zone❤️
A truly magical day in the mountains of the stunning Scottish Highlands💫never climbed in the winter before 😳
Thank you so much to Adrian & Stevie at OceanVertical who made this happen
If you’ve never done it... OMG get it on your bucket list 🙌❤️
Exhilarating, breathtaking, fun, scary, stunning, beautiful...then just when I thought the views couldn’t get any better.. just look at all those deer 😍
My cup is so full 🙏
Thank you Scotland...you really are the best country in the whole wide world.
Woody | Melrose