Winter Mountaineering on Bidean nam Bian, Glen Coe
Porridge for breakfast with berries, peanut butter and three cups of coffee. That’s the routine, and almost always followed by checking into the Mountain Weather Information Service forecast. It’s invaluable for us, projecting three days ahead and updated late afternoon every day. https://www.mwis.org.uk
So much about being in the mountains in winter is accurate planning prior to the trip. Weather conditions, wind speed, cloud base, precipitation, temperature, avalanche forecast, location and route planning, equipment and clothing.
Thorough preparation and understanding leads to accurate decision making, before the trip and on the day. Rucksack contents [in a dry bag]; waterproof jacket and trousers, two woollen hats, two pairs of insulated waterproof gloves, spare fleece and base layer, [extremely] light weight synthetic puff jacket, group shelter, first aid kit, map and compass, whistle, ice axe and crampons, helmet, liquid and snacks, camera, head torch.
And wearing to start the day; [assuming its cold and dry – otherwise waterproofs], Scarpa boots, long woollen socks, synthetic mountaineering trousers, thin base layer, lightweight synthetic insulated jacket, GPS watch.
Be bold – start cold. Getting out of that cozy warm car at 9am in an icy Glen Coe is always a bit of a shock! And of course you want to throw all your kit on and set of as a super insulated Michelin man or woman. That’s why we always take a short break 20 or so minutes in – to allow people to take off a few layers and cool down!
And so it is we do get out of the vehicle at 9am in a wonderfully chilly Glen Coe. The Mountain Weather Information Service had been looking poor but did a dramatic U turn. Snowy peaks set against a dark cobalt sky surround us. Stars are still lingering, and a crescent moon just traces the arc of the horizon. Happy chitter chatter. This is exciting. We distribute ice axes, adjust crampon sizes and pack helmets.
It’s a classic route for us today. Bidean nam Bian at 1150m is the highest top in Glen Coe. Our route takes us up Coire nan Lochan and via Stob Coire nan lochan at 1115m.
We drop dawn to the river and stop on the bridge. The freezing water below is impossibly clear. Mesmerizing really. Thoughts jump back to many a summer dip. And now the ascent starts, the cliff faces to either side of us block the sun. Coire nan Lochan is breathtaking. It’s also steep and sustained. The white peak of Stob Coire nan Lochan towers over us, shimmering in the sunshine.
Slow and steady in steep terrain. Its still, we are hidden from the sun and its around minus 3 degrees. It will be a lot colder soon, even with the sun on our faces.
Its steep going. We stop by a waterfall briefly to chat. It may be sub zero but most of the group are now too warm, and drop a layer. Wise. The map comes out and we talk about our route, establishing fixed and visible landmarks, and compass bearings. The visibility today is fantastic. Still, its good practice to develop an understanding of safe navigation for when the lovely Scottish weather decides to be brutal. And brutal it often is; we are in Scotland. Conditions can deteriorate fast. We were on this mountain last season on a crisp winter day. Freezing and clear. Close to the summit we watched an isolated storm approach from the west. And then quickly we were in blizzard conditions with little visibility. Good practice and safe navigation. All was well.
We make our way upwards via bubbling waterfalls and crystal clear pools. We are gradually starting to break out of the cascading cliffs and buttresses that flank us on both sides. The sun is still out of reach. Piercing blue-sky overhead. We feel very small.
We are aiming for a plateau that sits beneath the shear walls and rock towers of Stob Coire nan Lochan. Its steep and we slowly move into the snow line. Patches of thin ice smother the rocks. It’s a short scramble at the head of Coire nan Lochan and we are onto the plateau.
What an arena this truly is. It’s breathtaking. We are standing in an armchair of cascading scree slopes reaching up into vertical towers of rock, ice and snow far above us. The vertical peak is intensely white. Shimmering against an unbroken horizon of blue.
Coffee and a snack by one of the lochans. We’ve been focused on the peak in front of us. Perhaps neglecting what’s behind us. And there is is; the jagged teeth, buttresses and drop offs of the Aonach Eagach Ridge. Snow and ice. The wind ripping spindrift of its towers. We can feel adventure.
We demonstrate how to properly hold and use an ice axe. Fall arrest technique. Crampons not yet required. We break left towards the ridgeline, which will lead us to the top on Stob Coire nan Lochan. Our first summit. Lets not forget, Bidean nam Bian remains distant and hidden.
We are about to hit the ridgeline. Everything will change. We pause and layer up. Two things happen. We are suddenly bathed in piercing sunshine, and the wind hits us full on. 40mph gusts. Minus 10 with wind-chill.
Hoods are up, gloves on, goggles or sun glasses. Ice axes clink off rock and ice. Still no need for crampons. It’s hard to hear each other talk. So we don’t.
We make our way upwards along the ridge. Distant mountains start to appear in every direction. This is simply spectacular. The Lost Valley yawns below us like a black chasm. We look across to the Beinn Fhada ridge. Memories of a few weeks ago before the snow arrived. It’s a different game now.
There’s a more complex scramble before the summit. No rush. Ice axes in the correct hand. There’s more exposure as we pick our way through broken rocks and snow. The group is moving well. We arrive at the summit.
Laughter and a few high fives. And why not. For most, this is their first winter mountaineering experience. Cameras out. We point out Ben Nevis. A white dome. On the horizon we see the silhouette of the Skye Cullins in the distant west. Mountains are everywhere. We all know why we are here.
Bidean nam Bian sits opposite us, down and up a broken ridgeline. Massive black cliffs fall away to its north edge. The highest mountain in Glen Coe sits 35m above us. Onwards. We drop down the ridgeline through the snow. We had considered the Lost Valley and a return option. Deep snow hangs at its head. We wont be going that way today.
The final ascent is broken with snow and rocks. It’s exposed. It’s higher and colder and there’s more ice. Crampon time. The crampons were sized and tested earlier on the plateau. We help and check. Make sure the group is happy. We gradually ascend to the half waypoint.That’s right; the top is half way.
These are magnificent winter conditions. Up and up, slow and steady, planting ice axe, kicking in crampons. Snow, ice rock. And we are on the summit. 1150m.
We are at one of the highest points in the UK and there’s a 360-degree view. The winter sun is low. There’s silence for a while. A few moments of personal time. Being here gives perspective and reflection. What’s important, and what isn’t seems far easier to grasp. And then happy chitter chatter and more photos.
We talk about the jigsaw of peaks around us. Loch Etive and the ocean beyond. Distant west coast islands. Blackwater Reservoir. The wilderness of Rannoch Moor. We can’t join it all up. We don’t know what it all is. That’s the way it should be. The unknown beckons. Adventure beckons. How very privileged we are to be here.
We carefully descend.
"First time with an ice axe and crampons! What a day in the Glen Coe mountains with Ocean Vertical. It was absolutely breath taking with amazing views and lots of snow! Feeling a lot more confident after this trip and cant wait to get out again..... brilliant!"
Sally | Glasgow