Winter Mountaineering on Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glen Coe
6am and its pouring down in East Lothian. It really is grim. There seems a remarkable amount of chattering and laughter as we load the vehicle with equipment for the day. Someone gets out a flask of coffee, someone else a bag of croissants. The radio goes on, it’s the Rolling Stones. We point the vehicle towards Glen Coe and Drive.
The weather improves as we drive north. We’ve been following the Mountain Weather Information Service https://www.mwis.org.uk closely. There has been significant snowfall and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service doesn’t kick in for a couple of days.
We have made our own assessment with the information available and will discuss this in detail with the group before we set out.
Winding down the A84 and the Tarmachan Ridge and Ben Lawers loom up out of the dusk. Through the half-light we can see their massive forms loaded with snow. Next we pass Ben Moor and Stob Binnein. White against a sky that’s still threatening and uncertain. There is no higher point in the UK south of these mountains.
We pull in at Tyndrum and head into the rather excellent Real Food Café. A quick pee, more coffee and a few vegan cherry energy balls. We gather round the fire and discuss the avalanche hazard compass rose we have sketched out. There’s potential for unstable windslab on northwest – northeast aspects above 700m. This will inform the day.
We are aiming for Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glen Coe and will assess the conditions throughout the day. Our preparation and planning started days ago. Following the MWIS forecasts. Checking in on the Glen Coe Mountain resort webcams for a visual take on the conditions. Sending a clothing and equipment list to our group.
Providing winter mountaineering boots, along with ice axes and crampons. Checking our own equipment. Planning and preparation is everything in the mountains. If your doing it on the day your too late.
We cross Rannoch Moor lost in 130 sq km of wilderness. Such a beautiful and desolate place. Strange to think it has travelled the world through Outlander and Harry Potter. Fantasy in stark contrast to this honest and raw environment.
Buachaille Etive Mor greets us. Its mass impossibly huge with broken cloud gripping its upper ramparts. As we get closer a vertical world of snow, rock and cliffs contrast to accentuate every detail; the Rannoch Wall, Agags Groove and January Jigsaw.
We see the line of the Curved Ridge with the Crowberry Tower silhouetted against the winter dawn sky. The site of many a precarious lunch stop.
We wind and twist down into Glen Coe. There’s a lot of chitter chatter and excitement. We are almost there. We pull into the lower lay-by opposite the Three Sisters. It’s Friday and there’s one other car. Out of the warm vehicle and into zero degrees. Equipment sorting, crampon fitting, ice axe distribution, clothing on.
Map out and we discuss the route to Stob Coire nan Lochan via the steep ascent of Coire nan Lochan. We discuss the need to assess the snow and avalanche conditions before the final ascent, and make it clear that is there is any doubt there is no doubt and we will turn back; these aspects are northwest through to east.
We will also turn back at 2pm irrespective of where we are. Winter daylight hours are seriously compromised.
Our group now looks like Michelin Men, having thrown on every item of clothing. We discuss the concept of “be bold – start cold”, and they drop a layer. They won't regret it. We very rarely if ever have clients who become too cold.
We do however have clients who become too hot, even in sub zero temperatures. This is actually an issue, as the amount of calories it takes to try and cool down is overwhelming. Overheating = exhausted very quickly.
The snow covered peak of Stob Coire nan Lochan towers above us as we set of. We drop down and cross the River Coe, the pool beneath us freezing and crystal clear. Memories of many a summer dip.
It’s all upwards now, slow and steady. We are now in the icy world of an ancient super volcano surrounded by vast cliffs and white ridges. We make our way up past waterfalls and rocky pools, and gradually we hit the snow line. We stop briefly. The group drops a layer and ditches their hats. Too warm.
As we gain height the snow depth increases and the pace slows. We are now kicking steps at the lead and our ice axes are out. Broken cloud opens and closes spectacular views. Behind us the Aonach Eagach Ridge briefly shows its white teeth and then vanishes again.
Decision time. There’s a particularly steep ascent to the plateau basin and lochans below the summit. We talk this through with the group; take on some liquid and snacks. Jelly babies seem to be the order of the day. That and nuts. Lots of them.
We break right to avoid the steepest section and carefully cross the lively stream. No place for a slip today. The going is now strenuous and the pace slow as we move up over steep ground and break trail through fresh snow. There’s little wind and the cloud base is being kind to us, with arcs of blue coming and going.
We gradually hit the plateau below Stob Coire nan Lochan. It’s a breathtaking amphitheater of cliffs, buttresses and vertical gullies. Its remarkably calm and we have a few more jelly babies. Smiles and happy faces. The cameras are out as we absorb the enormity of where we are.
Here we are alone in the wilderness. Not another soul. Surrounded by these raw and beautiful mountains clad in snow and ice. It brings a perspective and clarity, not just on the present moment and where we are but also on life.
This is authentic and real, where so much else is simply baggage and ego. Our western desire and perpetual hunger for “more” has no place up here.
Its 1.30pm and we move up the north ridge. No summit for us today but spirits are high. We all recognize how privileged we are to be here. The cloud completely breaks and it's 2pm. Massive views in every direction. Cloud inversions in the valley below us.
Hugs and high fives. And why not, the group has never experienced anything like this before. Here they are at 3000 feet far from the madding crowd alone in the wilderness. For today this is their Everest. And tomorrow? Well, the spirit of adventure has now been set free.
We bring the focus back to the winter mountain environment we are in. We are in fact only half way there. The vehicle is our end point. We begin to descend carefully.
What a adventure climbing with Ocean Vertical. Not being a experienced climber the guides led us to the top of a very snowy mountain in Glen Coe, with knowledge experience and skill. Mesmerised by the views I am already looking to book my next trip. There is a whole other world in those mountains. Unbelievable.
Sarah | North Berwick