Winter on Buachaille Etive Mor, Glen Coe
The alarm goes off and its 3.30am. It’s very dark and very cold. Why on earth would anyone get up at this time? Its simple really; the Mountain Weather Information Service forecast for Glen Coe is simply magnificent. Snow, clear skies, not too much wind and sub zero. Happy days.
We usually leave the Edinburgh area around 6.30am. Today by “mutual consent” its 4.30am. Not everyone’s cup of Lapsang souchong, but the thought of watching dawn reach out over a wild and frozen landscape is just too alluring.
Coffee and porridge. The equipment was packed last night along with ice axes, crampons and helmets. In less than 3 hours we will be in the mountains.
We drive up through the dark, the radio playing quietly: John Barry, out of Africa. Stirling, Callendar, Crianlarich and Tyndrum. We often stop here at the rather excellent Real Food Café for a coffee and the occasional bacon role. Not today. There’s nothing open at 6.30am.
Its dawn as we cross Rannoch Moor. The sun is still hidden behind the mountains in the east. The sky is gradually turning an impossibly deep cobalt color. The stars are vanishing. The silhouette of Buachaille Etive Mor looms up before us. We feel very small.
We creep into Glen Coe. The Crowberry Tower pitch black against the dawn sky. Our aim is to do all the tops of Buachaille Etive Mor, via Lairig Gartain and decend via Coire na Tulaich.
We approach our lay-by and are a little surprised to see its full. Completely full and its 7am. We pull up and a friendly chap looking very cold and completely out of place asks if we are part of the film crew. We are tempted to say yes. He explains they are here to film the sunrise.
And why not, we are here to experience it too, from the top of that mountain we point out. He laughs, mostly in disbelief, and we find a space to park opposite the lay-by.
Out of the cozy vehicle and straight into minus 5. There’s no wind. It’s completely still. The stars have gone in the east but still speckle the sky in the west. Jackets, gloves and hats on.
We always advise to “be bold and start cold”. Throwing all your kit on usually results in taking it off again 20 minutes later to try and cool down. We watch the little group throw all their kit on.
We size and distribute crampons and ice axes. The correct clothing and equipment for winter mountaineering in Scotland is critical. Each of our adventures on our website oceanvertical.com has a detailed list of what clients will need and what we will provide.
Clients need: winter mountaineering boots – crampon compatible [if needed we can supply these], we advise not to use cotton clothing, base layer, lightweight fleece, fleece or soft-shell jacket, synthetic trousers that dry quickly, waterproof jacket with hood [the hood is important – without it your jacket has a big hole at the top!].
Waterproof trousers, wool socks, gloves plus spares, warm hat plus spare, spare fleece or warm top, lunch, snacks and liquid. Clients need have no previous experience but a basic level of fitness is required.
Ocean Vertical provide: experienced and qualified guide, ice axe, crampons, helmet if required, winter mountaineering boots if required, 25L rucksack if required [ours carry an ice axe], ground transportation too and from the mountains.
We are good to go and make our way past the chattering film crew with our ice axes clinking on our backs. We say hi, they say hi back and watch us set out into the snow-covered wilderness. A film crew from London, and a small team of mountaineers. Worlds apart.
We make our way up Lairig Gartain following the burn. Far above us a 747 traces the horizon. App check – it’s on its way to New York. We wonder what they see 36,000 feet above us eating breakfast, drinking coffee and perhaps a glass of fizz, looking down on a spec of snowy wilderness in the winter dawn.
We reach the crossing point of the burn to ascend to the ridge far above us. Carefully goes it. Frost and ice decorate the freezing water. This is no time to go for an accidental swim. Plenty time for that in the summer of 2020.
This is a truly massive mountain. Its 8 km ridge made up of four dramatic peaks, two of which are Munros: The most famous is Stob Dearg [1021m Munro]. This is the classic fortress of cliffs and buttresses hundreds of feet high at the mouth of Glen Coe.
There is then Stob na Doire [1011m], Stob Coire Altruim [941m], and forming the far end of the ridge Stob na Broige [956m Munro]. Together they make up Buachaille Etive Mor which rather wonderfully translates to: The Herdsman of Etive”. And we intend to climb it all.
We start our ascent. We will be in shade till we reach the ridgeline. It’s freezing, steep and icy. Overhead the sky is gradually turning a deep piercing blue. Behind us the high white tops of Buachaille Etive Beag turn a stunning pink as the first rays hit them.
We stop. Ice axes and crampons come out. We’ve rehearsed the drill. We help out and check. We move onwards and upwards slowly. Over rock, ice, frozen waterfalls and streams. It’s beautiful and completely still.
The only sound the clink of ice axes and crampons on ice and rock. We are all in good spirits, absorbed in these precious moments. Tiny figures in this winter locked wilderness.
We are approaching the ridgeline between Stob Coire Altruim and Stob na Doire. We still lie in freezing still shadow. It’s all about to change. We move away from the ice and into softer snow. Crampons off. Hard shells and extra layers come on, with good reason.
We hit the ridgeline and smash, two things happen; we are suddenly in a piercing white snowscape dazzled by the low winter sun, and we are utterly smashed by fierce freezing wind. Its simply magnificent, and we are ready for it.
We ascend the ridge to Stob Coire Altrruim. It’s all opening up now. Breathtaking views in every direction. We look across to Ben Nevis, distant islands out to the west and the mountains of Glen Coe before us; the jagged teeth of the Aonach Eagach Ridge shimmering pink in the early sun.
Spindrift rips snow from the summit of Bidean nam Bian. Our cameras are out. Freezing fingers fumbling to take these game changing shots.
We are on the high ridge now and make our way to the furthest point, Stob na Broige. We are in good time. There’s no rush. We try to take in the enormity of where we are. It brings perspective; what’s important, what isn’t.
We reach our furthest point and look out to Glen Etive, and Loch Etive beyond. The Etive slabs shimmer in the distance. Rock climbing for another time in the warmer months. Snacks come out, chitter chatter, more photos. Our early start leaves us completely alone. Not another soul. Into the wild.
We retrace our steps and arrive back at the point we hit the ridge. Two more peaks in front of us. We start to ascend Stob na Doire. It’s steep and rocky. We use our ice axes carefully. The wind drops. And then almost vanishes.
Its unexpectedly warm and we drop a layer. The chasm of Glen Etive disappears to our right. It's dark and bitterly cold down there. It will barley see the sun today.
We summit. We are now looking northeast towards the mass of Stob Dearg and the lonely wilderness of Rannoch Moor beyond. We feel as if we are on top of the world. Right now, nothing else matters. People talk about being lost in the mountains. They rarely talk about finding yourself in the mountains.
With a willing open mind, it’s a transformational experience.
We descend carefully and make our way to Stob Dearg, our final peak. The winds back. Jackets on. The group is moving well and with confidence. Breakfast seems a long time ago. More snacks and coffee on the summit. And so we stand on one of Scotland’s most iconic peaks.
Again we stare out across the vastness of Rannoch Moor, locked in frost and ice. The new Kingshouse Hotel sits alone. Its historic climbers bar gone, along with a hundred years of climbing memories and bitterly cold winter nights by the fire.
Progress; it’s a pretty decent place for sure. The turn off to Glen Etive, now etched in the memory of a 100 million bond fans; where James Bond transports M away from the villain Raoul Silva in Skyfall. But where we are is real and we are embracing every second of it. Making memories that we can take into the world for a lifetime.
Our descent is via Coire na Tulaich, famous for all the wrong reasons. It’s been the scene of too many avalanche tragedies. There’s an all too common mind set out there; “it's only Scotland”, avalanches can't happen here.
You would be very wrong indeed to assume this. Avalanche reports are a key part of our planning. Today there is no such danger. Had there been, we would neither ascend nor descend via this route.
We drop back into the “fridge” and leave the sun behind. The descent is tricky and needs focus. We are prepared and give it respect. All is well.
Finally another two climbers appear. We are no longer alone. They laugh and ask what time we must have started to be descending so early! We smile back and joke with them. Days like these never leave you. We make our way home.
I thought we were mad getting up for a 3.30am start! I now know why we did it. Watching the sun rise over Glen Coe was pretty special. Would I do it again? Im already booked in for my next trip!
Emily | Edinburgh