Its mid December and office party frenzy dominates; booze, turkey, over boiled vegetables and cremated spuds. Fun or just grim? Not for this team who have decided to dump the chaos of office party’s in Edinburgh and instead embrace the frozen wilderness of Glen Coe for their annual Christmas outing. Respect.
They are the coaching team from CrossFit Haddington and made this decision early in October. We had a call from the owner who wanted to invest in her team; to experience something completely new that would push them physically, take them out of their comfort zone and bring them closer as a team.
We’ve been following the Mountain Weather Information Service closely https://www.mwis.org.uk There’s going to be snow, lots of it, and with this the potential for avalanches. This is winter mountaineering in Scotland, and here’s an outline of the conditions we can expect – and we have planed our day in response to this:
“West to southwesterly, 30 to 40mph, at times 50mph; sudden powerful squalls. Conditions remain arduous, sometimes difficult across the mountains. Severe wind chill. Frequent snow or hail spreading from the west, often heavy, and falling to lower slopes. Sustained whiteout higher areas.
Cloud bases changing rapidly: sometimes shafts of cloud below 600m, and often covering hills above 800m, with fleeting breaks to higher summits, mostly well inland.”
The Scottish Avalanche Information Service provides key information for planning and preparation https://www.sais.gov.uk The hazard compass rose is telling us “Unstable wndslab northwest – northeast aspects above 700m.” This will again inform our choice of area and specific route.
We have also been checking into the webcams at Glen Coe Mountain Resort to get a visual picture on snow conditions https://www.glencoemountain.co.uk/webcams
The planning started weeks ago with a comprehensive equipment list distributed to the team https://www.oceanvertical.com/adventures/glencoe-winter-ascent : base layers, mid layers, fleece, insulated jacket, waterproof jacket and trousers, two pairs of gloves [insulated and waterproof], two warm hats, liquid and snacks.
Ocean Vertical provides; winter mountaineering boots [if clients own boots are not suitable], ice axe, crampons, rucksack and helmet if required. We also provide transport to and from the mountains as well as a qualified professional guide. Additional equipment we carry; group shelter, first aid kit, spare emergency clothing, maps, compass, GPS, emergency blankets and head torches.
We pick the team up in a dark and cold East Lothian at 6.30am. Everyone seems remarkably chirpy as we point the vehicle towards Glen Coe and set off. An amusing conversation kicks of on the serious topic of who had exactly what for breakfast; lots of porridge, various egg options, a few protein shakes, berries, bananas, endless coffee, yoghurts, seeds and nuts, honey, and perhaps to take first prize beetroot juice mixed in with spirulina. Ouch!
We pass Stirling, Doune and Calendar in the dark. There’s always anticipation as we drop down to the Killin turn off and look across to the snowy mass of the Tarmachan Ridge and Ben Lawers in the gloom.
Many memories of winter days high up on their remote ridges and corries. The white peaks of Ben moor and Stob Binnein are just visible through a remarkable cloud inversion, as the first rays from the east hit their summits.
We pull into the excellent Real Food Café in Tyndrum for a pee, second breakfast if required and a briefing for the day. It seem the CrossFit team are all more than ready for breakfast number two plus coffee.
We gather round the fire and run through todays plan and weather conditions. We were initially aiming for Stob Coire nan Lochan at 1115m in Glen Coe. Taking into account the MWIF and SAIS forecasts combined with recent heavy snowfall, we adjust our plans and will now focus on Buachaille Etive Beag and its two Munros; Stob Dubh at 958m and Stob Coire Raineach at 925m.
Buachaille Etive Beag [The little shepherd of Etive] is considered one of the more accessible and less technical mountains in Glen Coe. Today the higher surrounding summits will offer some protection from the wind and the terrain is less avalanche prone. Make no mistake, in these winter conditions it will still represent a serious challenge.
We make our way across Rannoch Moor; 130 sq km of frozen wilderness. To the west the snow covered peaks of Black Mount are turning pink, and to the east a cobweb like mist hangs over a 1000 lochans. Sometimes its good to feel so small.
Buachaille Etive More rises up in front of us; the big brother of Buachaille Etive Beag. We follow the vertical line of the Curved Ridge reaching up to the black silhouette of Crowberry Tower. Snow and ice fill the gullies. It’s raw, beautiful and real.
In contrast we pass the turn off to Glen Etive; immortalized in Skyfall as a moody James Bond whisks M away from villain Raoul Silva. Watched by 100 million world wide and then forgotten. Not that it will bother The Buachaille, it’s seen millennia come and go with only ravens for company.
We drop down into Glen Coe and pull into the car park. There are three other cars and its 9.30am. Out of a cozy vehicle and into sub zero. There’s lots of exciting chitter chatter as the group gradually throw on every item of clothing they have brought including spares. Why wouldn’t they, it's bloody cold.
We explain the theory of “be bold – start cold”. It's simple really; it may be a bit of a shock getting out of a warm vehicle, half asleep and straight into – 5 degrees, but be assured you will soon warm up fast as we ascend. Too much gear and not only will you be burning calories to climb up through the snow, you will also be burning additional calories to try and cool down. And if this continues you will quickly be totally exhausted. Our advice usually falls on deaf ears. The initial cold shock wins.
We unload equipment, size crampons and attach ice axes to rucksacks. Smiles all round and we are off. Ten minutes later the group stops to take a few layers off.
We head up Lairig Eilde, branch left and quickly hit the snow line. There’s a decent path that leads to the bealach at 750m, but today all is lost under deep snow. As the ascent steepens, so does the depth of the snow. Its been drifting and soon its waist deep in places. This is winter mountaineering and its tough going.
The ascent is now steep and gradual. We break away from the direct route to the lower slopes of Stob Coire Raineach, where wind has scoured some of the snow away. The pace is steady and slow; this is a fit group but this world is new to them, and it shows.
One of them is really struggling and we are perhaps an hour into the day. This is a fit young man and a Crossfit coach, but he simply has too much gear on.
We politely insist he takes a couple of layers off and we stop for a break and take on some liquid. When we start again the difference is remarkable. Its tough for him, but he now looks like he actually wants to be here!
We reach the bealach that separates Stob Dubh and Stob Coire Raineach. Time for a quick snack and some fluid. We are now more exposed; gusts are buffeting us along with stinging hail. Now its time for more layers and a shell, along with crampons and ice axe.
The 8km profile of Buachaille Etive Mor drifts in and out of the snow showers. Far below the Lairig Gartain seems lost in darkness. It’s wild and atmospheric; the conditions just keep changing, white out followed by a shaft of sunlight. Spindrift and hail. Views open up and disappear. This is why we are here. Right now nothing else matters.
Fitted with crampons and ice axes we start our way up the 2km ridge to the summit of Stob Dubh. The initial ascent is steep and above us the slope is loaded with snow. This is a potential hazard and needs to be investigated before we go any further.
One instructor stays with the group, one ascends a little further to dig a Hasty Pit. This is a quick hole dug into the snow to expose the vertical stratigraphy. Weak layers and slabs can be identified; it gives bottom line information on instability and potential slab structures. The all clear is shouted down from above and we advance.
We take the opportunity to spend a little time talking about effective and safe placement and use of crampons. We also run through best practice with an ice axe and perform a few fall arrest drills. Key winter skills in the Scottish mountains.
We gradually ascend the steep slope further. As we reach the top everything changes; the wind is furious and horizontal hail and snow batters us from every direction. We hunker down in a tight circle and distribute goggles to protect our eyes. Visibility comes and goes. We take a bearing for the summit and move on.
These are tough conditions but the group is still grinning and in high spirits. Spindrift is everywhere and we have to shout to communicate. With the right layering systems on, waterproof shells, gloves, hat, hoods up and goggles on, we are all surprisingly cozy as the storm rages outside.
Outwards is all white. Time to look inwards. Precious moments of solitude and absolute authenticity. Everything is acutely real up here. Senses are on fire focusing on the moment.
We reach the final ascent to Stob Dubh; a steep ridge of snow with a spectacular cornice vanishing into the Lairig Eilde far below us. And then the weather decides to change again; the wind rips clouds away and spectacular views appear to the west.
The full Beinn Fhada ridge appears out of the storm, and far above it Stob Coire Sgreamhach sits pure white against a moment of blue sky. It’s simply spectacular.
And then we are on the summit. Laughing and a few high fives in this beautiful frozen wilderness, alone and at peace. There’s clarity up here, it strips everything back to what’s important and what isn’t. It brings focus, energy and renewed purpose.
We give a friendly reminder to the group that we are at the half waypoint. The spindrift and snow are back. We gradually make our way back down the ridge as the storm closes around us.
Yesterday was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life! Thank you so much to the guys at @ocean_vertical for looking after us, especially me since I was flagging the entire way up 😅😂 @ Glencoe, Highland, Scotland. A massif experience - I will be back!
Jordan | Haddington