Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Buchaille Etive Mor: a winter hillwalk

Come and climb the 'Big Herdsman' with us

My wife and I have recently returned from a visit to our favourite highland town, FORT WILLIAM (known as The Gateway to the Highlands ), the biggest town on the west coast of Scotland. On the trip there - about 4 hours from our home in the ancient Kingdom of Fife - we passed through a lot of spectacular scenery, most of which is familiar to us from long acquaintance over the years both from the road and from the tops of the many hills I have climbed with our son (my Wingman) over the years.
Buachaille Etive Mor covered in snow
One such hill is probably the most photographed hill in Scotland, appearing on many postcards and calendars. It is BUACHAILLE ETIVE MOR, one of Scotland's 282 Munros (mountains over 3000 feet). It lies at the eastern end of Glencoe and is a prominent landmark visible for many miles and is often called the ''Big Herdsman of Etive'' a reference to the herds of goats which highlanders kept before they were replaced by sheep.

We stopped (as we often do when we pass this way) to admire its rugged beauty and take a few photos. With my binoculars I spotted a faint black spot slowly crawling up the mountain - and then another, and another! As it often is the hill was busy, with several parties numbering from one to several members attempting its difficult 'hillwalker's route' up Coire na Tulaich .
The corrie (the English spelling of a Gaelic word for a narrow valley surrounded on three sides by steep hillsides) was wearing its habitual shroud of mist higher up, as were many of the surrounding hills and from experience I knew the struggle the climbers were engaged in for Coire na Tulaich is notorious for its steepness and the friable nature of the rock found within it.
The scene started me reminiscing about the last time Wingman and I had climbed the Buachaille - in winter conditions rather different to those the climbers I was watching were facing. I began to describe the finer points of the climb to my wife but she is not interested in such (and indeed thinks we are a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic for doing such a silly thing!) so I let her read her magazine in peace and followed the progress of the groups on the hill for a few more minutes until time demanded we continue our journey.
The author in the snow (photo by my wingman)
I have often been faced with well, almost hostility, when the subject comes up and I try to describe to friends and colleagues what it is I get out of roaming my native hills in all weathers. Comments such as ' That's a damned stupid thing to do, getting cold, wet and uncomfortable for no good reason ' or ' Don't see the point; you climb a hill and then all you can do is come back down again ' and in truth it is hard to describe to one who has no interest why we do it. They either instinctively understand or they never do at all!
Nowadays I usually fend off such criticism by mentioning things like 'exercise' and 'fresh air' and 'great views' but I can still see the doubt in their eyes. Like my wife they also think I'm a 'couple of sandwiches short of a picnic'!
So I thought 'Perhaps if I set it down in words. Perhaps if I take them through a personal experience of what it's like to get cold, wet and uncomfortable for 'no good reason', perhaps then some of the naysayers will understand'. I reckon it's worth a try, so here goes - come with us as Wingman and I climb Buachaille Etive Mor, the 'Big Herdsman of Etive' - in winter!
Man climbing a snow-covered hillside with an ice axe
CC0 image from Pixabay
Sunday morning and from Wingman's flat in Glasgow it's a 3½ hour drive to Glencoe so it's up at 5am (thank goodness we didn't overdo it the previous evening) to snatch a quick round of toast and a cup of tea. Stuff sandwiches, flasks of coffee and soup into our rucksacks and hit the road. It's early February and the weather forecast is mixed - bright spells with possible snow showers later in the afternoon. We need this early start. At this time of year it doesn't even start to get light until about 9am and starts to get dark again about 3.30pm.

This is the Buachaille we are climbing and it has a fearsome reputation. We need to be at the base of the mountain before daybreak or we run the risk of being caught out by darkness whilst still high up on the hill - not good, not good at all. People have died on this hill for the sake of an extra hour in bed.

Rushing through the deserted towns and lonely roads we mentally rehearse the day. Did we pack our ice axes and crampons? We will surely need them. It will be cold up there with water ice lower down and hard-frozen snow (névé) up high. Crampons and axes will be well used today. Map and compass? Although the route is obvious you can never be too careful and we always take both for all it would take is a sudden closing in of mist or (God forbid) a blizzard leading to whiteout conditions where you cannot tell the difference between the ground and the sky. With no point of reference people have walked over cliffs in such conditions after straying off the route.

Map showing the location of Glen Coe
Map by Eric Gabba (Sting)/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 4.0 International
We reach the glen and find a parking place. We are not the first. Several cars are already here but then it is almost 9am and the eastern sky is growing light. Got to get a move on. Sudden thought! Did I bring my winter gloves? Yes, they are in the pocket of my Keela winter jacket (sign of relief!). Ten minutes preparation putting on our winter boots ('proper' leather ones, not the lightweight boots we wear the rest of the year) and our waterproof overtrousers (it isn't raining but they help keep us warm).

What we are wearing today is far different from what we wear during summer. Winter in the Scottish hills is harsh and climbing a MUNRO (for such is the Buachaille) in winter is not to be taken lightly. We are both wearing a moisture-wicking base layer (conducts sweat away from our skin) and a fleece jacket as a mid-layer. I favour a heavy winter jacket as an outer layer but Wingman prefers a lighter one which he wears all year round but in winter he also carries a lightweight outer jacket of the type known as a smock which he can wear on top of his outer layer if need be. Winter trousers and waterproof overtrousers complete our outfits.

We are hillwalkers, not climbers but in the depths of a Scottish winter there is no such thing as 'winter hillwalking' - it is mountaineering pure and simple and must be treated a such. We do not use ropes but we do use crampons and ice axes for without them we would be mere 'summer walkers' and we are harder than that (at least we like to think so).
The climb
A quick banana for energy, an 'OK to go?' and we are off across the muir, following the path past the climber's hut at Lagangarbh, heading for the base of the hill. The predawn air is freezing and our hands, ears and noses begin to nip - a portent of what lies above - so it's on with the alpine hat (at £35 for a suitable hat winter walking is an expensive business) and gloves (£25) and keep plodding along the frozen path until we reach the base of Coire na Tulaich - the only feasible walking route up the Buachaille in winter.
Picture of mountain with red line showing the way up
We are at the bottom of the red line. When we reach the bealach (a mountain pass) at the top of the route we turn left and will still have about 500 metres to go to reach the peak of Stob Dearg, which is what the summit of the Buachaille is called.

We start climbing in earnest now. It is full daylight but the lower part of the corrie remains in shadow, cold and unwelcoming. We will not feel the warmth of the sun until we are about half way up. We reach the first significant snow and stop to affix our crampons to our boots, a process which requires that we remove our gloves. Although it takes only a few minutes our fingers are numb by the time we are ready to resume our climb. Numb fingers make it difficult to put our gloves back on but with the help of a few well-chosen expletives the job is done and we begin to climb again.

High above us we see a lonely figure. A solo climber is almost at the head of the corrie. He must have had an early start for he is a good hour ahead of us. Voices echo from somewhere and we pause to look around. A group of three emerge from the gloom below and quickly reach our position. They are all youngsters, fit and going well and will summit before we do (damnit!). Wingman is handicapped by his loyalty to his father and cannot give them chase!
A climber on a steep snow-covered mountainside
This is the steepest, most awkward part of the climb and we must be careful. Crampons are not perfect and one slip could see us slide all the way back down to the bottom - an experience we would not enjoy! This corrie is well-known for the presence of a cornice of snow at its top lip, forming an awkward barrier to progress, but none is present today and we top out at the bealach without incident.

We turn left, tramp up a windswept almost snow-free ridge and we are on the summit! The view is magnificent. To the east lies Rannoch Moor with its many lochans sparkling like diamonds in the bright sunlight. South-east is the Blackmount, a range of hills running south-east for several miles and a well-known high-level walking route all the way to Victoria Bridge. North-west is the Aonach Eagach ridge, that classic three-mile ridge walk which forms the north wall of Glencoe. It is easy enough in summer but is beyond the average walker in full winter conditions, as it is now. The glen lies below, stretching west to Loch Linnhe which runs northwards up to Fort William.

Mountaineers joined together by a rope
CC0 image from Pixabay
We find a spot out of the wind and stop for a much-needed break. Out comes the chicken soup and corned beef sandwiches and the coffee and chocolate biscuits. So far we have been very lucky with the weather. Cloud cover has been about 50% but there has been no snow and the wind isn't particularly strong despite our height (Stob Dearg is 3350 ft) but it is very cold. We stare at the views. All around us are hills, hills and more hills, all of them with a covering of snow on their top third. There are 282 Munros in Scotland and we reckon we can see fully half of them.

We reflect on the day so far. The climb up the corrie, although strenuous, was quite straightforward and we had no real trouble but there is an ominous darkening of the sky as the weather threatens to change. It was now just after noon and we debate what to do next. With the time available it would not be wise to complete the classic round of the Buachaille which involves another three miles of walking and two more Munros. We would be overtaken by darkness while we were still up high - a situation we would rather avoid. We decide to call it a day and descend by the same route we ascended. If we go now we should just about make it back to our car by last light and be home in time for a late tea.
The descent
This is probably the most dangerous part of any climb. After the euphoria of reaching the summit it is easy for an attitude of 'that's the mountain conquered - we can go home now' to set in. But no mountain is truly conquered. We can climb it, yes, but Mother Nature can still turn round and bite us in the backside and, in fact, most accidents happen during the descent when tired legs (and minds) can fail and a simple slip can lead to a slide down a snow-covered mountainside sometimes with fatal results.

No trip to the hills is truly over until we are sitting back in our warm, comfortable home, feet up in front of the fire and a beverage of our choice in one hand!
One last photo which will give you a better sense of the scale of the climb up Coire na Tulaich:

The mountain covered in snow
So why do we do this? For the views, the exercise and the fresh air, of course! Yes, I know, these are my excuses, those reasons I give those who don't understand. They are all true but there is more to it than that. There is the challenge, the sense of adventure, the knowledge that every time we go to the hills and wild places (of anywhere, not just Scotland) we take our lives in our own hands and go head-to-head with nature. I do it for the satisfaction of trying (and so far succeeding) to live entirely on my own wits, my own skills, my own resources. I do it for the sense of being in a wild place, for the experience of getting as close to the natural world as modern man can. I go to stretch myself.

And yet I realise that I am, to a certain extent, simply playing at it. I do not go naked, I do not go unprepared, I do not face the storm with nothing. I take full advantage of what the modern world can offer me in the way of equipment which will ease my time with nature. Nor do I go to those places I know I cannot survive but then again, I am only human and nature could (possibly one day will) squash me like a bug but until that day comes I will still go to the wild places.

All photos by the author unless otherwise stated


  1. I learn so much from your writings! They are so interesting to read and I love all the photos!

  2. Wow, that mountain is beautiful. I always wanted to climb a mountain. Just something I placed on my bucket list.

    1. The Buachaille and Glencoe are the first 'real' Scottish mountains many tourists following the west coast tourist route see and it always makes an impression.

  3. Scotland has always seemed a wild and beautiful place to me and even though I've only encountered it in stories and movies- it attracts me. i love your stories.

    1. Although it is a small country there are many parts of Scotland were it is possible to have a real wilderness experience - often only a handful of miles from a main road!

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    1. Thank you. I have many more ideas in the pipeline!

  5. A number of frends and relatives are into bagging the Munroes. I am not but I recognise the need to find a challenge that is bi but that with hard work, you believe you can do. It doesn't always have to be a mountain but the same lessons and persistence are required. Many of us have our own mountains to climb and we can all learn from our fellow travellers. Great story.

    1. I have heard it said that mountain climbing is the perfect metaphor for success in life. The struggle to pull yourself up, the effort to overcome obstacles and the persistence needed to achieve success. The only snag there is that once you have reached the top the only way is down!