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On the Bidean ridge heading towards Stob Coire Sgreamhach

AS a youngster I remember spotting a couple of climbers arriving at the roadside in Glen Coe. They were sun-tanned and lean, both wore tartan plaid shirts and breeches and one of them had a rope draped over his shoulder. They had come down from the ‘high tops’, to my young eyes a distant and unattainable region that was suffused with magic and mystery. I remember thinking the two climbers were like Gods come down from Parnassus and as I watched them I had an overwhelming desire to be just like them.

Their air of physical prowess, health and vitality was only part of the attraction. I gazed beyond them to a world that was alien to me at the time; a high place where rock and air and water dominated all else, a mysterious world of crag and corrie that formed a distant horizon beyond which lay other worlds. As I contemplated that mystery and romance I experienced the first pull of the hills, a sensation that was to grow in me as I worked my way through teenage years.

When I eventually decided that hills and mountains were to be a bedrock of my life I quickly realised the two climbers weren’t gods at all, but the heaven from which they had descended most certainly was a land of magic and mystery, a land to which I returned weekend after weekend, mostly in the company of various members of the Lomond Mountaineering Club. Glen Coe became our playground.

Few hillgoers would argue that Glen Coe is a special place. Glistening crags fall down from high corries on one side of the road while the notched, jagged wall of the Aonach Eagach rises sheer on the other and we explored it all. We regularly used a little stone howff, a rock shelter beneath a large overhang, and it was from there I was first introduced to rock-climbing on the easy routes of the East Face of Aonach Dubh.

This great cliff had long offered long, if modest climbing routes like Long Crack, Spider and Archer Ridge. Even on bad weather days the combination of Bowstring on the Barn Wall and Quiver Rib, two straightforward routes, offered immensely fulfilling outings. I often wonder if my love of hills and mountains would have been so fulfilling had I learned to climb on an indoor climbing wall? I suspect not.

Not very far away from our shelter in Coire nan Lochan lay another howff, built years ago by the lads from the Squirrels, a climbing-club from Edinburgh. A few memorial plaques are still scattered around – one reads: ‘These are my mountains, and I have come home.”

How often have I climbed up into the dark recesses of Coire nan Lochan and the Coire Ghabhail? How often have I slithered down muddy paths after a great day on the crags of Aonach Dubh, or from winter routes on Argyll’s highest peak, Bidean nam Bian? And what of all those friends and climbing partners who shared these mountain days, some still here, but many gone? The nostalgia that’s produced by such wonderful memories is a sweet one and it’s warm embrace is never far away when I climb these hills of Glen Coe. And that’s partly why I have never associated this marvellous glen with it’s nickname of the Glen O’ Weeping.

I accept that in certain weather conditions the glen can most certainly be a dark place, but I’ve realised that commercial tourism had done a disservice to Glen Coe, bestowing the fanciful title on it in memory of the 1692 massacre when Hanoverian forces murdered their MacDonald hosts. As massacres go it wasn’t the worst in Scottish history, but it was certainly bad enough. Thirty-two men, women and children died at the hands of their guests, government soldiers, who rose quietly and murdered them during the hours of darkness. This ‘murder under trust’ as it became known became indelibly etched in the pages of history as the Massacre of Glen Coe and even today, over 300-years later, there are those who want to preserve the site of the infamy as a memorial to those who perished.

Life was comparatively cheap in those days and while we should never forget the ‘murder under trust’ element of that event I’ve always felt it was a little unfortunate that such a deliberately emotion-charged nickname as the Glen o’ Weeping should have been coined. It paints a grim picture of what is one of Scotland’s finest natural landscapes and as I sat close to that old Squirrels’ howff recently, with the memorials to other mountaineers around me, climbers who, like me, loved this place, I couldn’t help think of the generations who have been thrilled and inspired by the mountains of Glen Coe, those who never ever saw it as a ‘dark place’ but as a place of undiminished light.

Great views of the other Glen Coe tops from the Bidean ridge

Three great craggy prows dominate the glen– Beinn Fhada, Gear Aonach and Aonach Dubh, collectively known as the Three Sisters of Glen Coe – their cliffs tumbling down into the narrow glen where the river and the road squeeze through the mountains, both heading to the glorious west. And if such a view was not enough to whet a mountain lover’s appetite beyond the Three Sisters, above archtypal mountain corries , you might just catch a tantalising view of the peaks that make up Glen Coe’s most classic round - Stob Coire nan Lochan, Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire Sgreamhach.

Bidean nam Bian, 1150m, the centrepiece of this round of Glen Coe peaks, is not only the highest mountain in the old county of Argyll but it’s the name of an entire massif, and a complex one at that with several pointed tops and deep-cut corries. There are a variety of routes to the 3773ft summit and in winter conditions most of these routes can be considerably challenging. Great rock crags – the Diamond and Church Door Buttresses add drama, and a sense of history, to the scene. The first climbs there were put up by some of the great pioneers of rock-climbing in Scotland – Norman Collie, Harold Raeburn and JH Bell at the end of the nineteenth century.

Bidean, the Peak of the Mountains, couldn’t be better named for its summit is the culmination of four great ridges which give way to no less than nine separate summits and cradle three deep and distinctive corries. It even has a secondary Munro - Stob Coire Sgreamhach was promoted to Munro status in the 1997 revisions.

A number of alternative routes ascend Bidean nam Bian. The linking of Stob Coire Beith offers a pretty good route from Achnambeithach at the western end of Loch Achtriochtan, and there’s a whole glorious ridge waiting your attentions to the south west, a ridge with wonderful views to the south down the length of Etive to the fabled lands of Deirdre of the Sorrows and the peaks of Cruachan, a ridge which skirts the head of the steep sided Coire Gabhail before climbing the boulders and screes of the newest Glen Coe Munro, Stob Coire Sgreamhach.

This is another great spot to sit and while the time away. Gaze across at the twin ridges of the two Buachailles, or pick out the tops of the Blackmount Deer Forest, a wonderfully wild quarter with a clutch of fine Munros culminating in the square topped peak of mighty Ben Starav.

From the summit cairn you can descend to the north-east, down the two mile length of Beinn Fhada, but it can be awkward and difficult, especially in snowy conditions. An escape from the Fhada ridge can be made by dropping down steep slopes into Coire Gabhail, but you have to backtrack quite a distance to avoid a deep chasm that lines the upper corrie floor. Better to return down the north west ridge of Stob Coire Sgreamhach towards Bidean and then carefully descend the loose scree filled gully in the steep headwall of Coire Gabhail, then down scree slopes to where the corrie begins to fan out.

A footpath then offers easier going down the length of the corrie, over the incredibly flat pastures that may once have fed stolen cattle (an old tale suggests the MacDonalds of Glen Coe once hid cattle up here, hence the tourist nickname of The Lost Valley) and through the great jumble of boulders that fill the woodlands at its mouth. Follow the track to the right and avoid the mass of boulders, cross the stream and follow the footpath down to the footbridge over the River Coe.

As you follow the well used track back up towards the roadside car park brace yourself for the sudden madness of the A82. You might hear a piper playing a lament and likely as not the car park will be filled with tour buses, its passengers photographing the peaks and crags of the Glen O’ Weeping. The smile and contentment on your face may well cause them to question that nickname too.

The old howff in Stob Coire nan Lochan

I usually climb Bidean via an ascent of Stob Coire nan Lochan, 1115m, a fine peak in its own right, even if it is only classified as a ‘top’ of Bidean, with a traverse of the high-level interlinking ridge that connects it to the main Bidean ridge. All going well you can then wander along the main ridge to the hill’s other Munro, Stob Coire Sgreamhach, 1072m, finishing off with a descent into the marvellously atmospheric Coire Gabhail.

Some years ago I brought my son and daughter-in-law up into Coire an Lochan in what should have been an early summer/late spring day. As we reached the corrie lochans visibility was reduced to about thirty metres and we could just discern the north-east ridge of Stob Coire nan Lochan rising to our left. As we climbed higher the ridge becomes narrower and rockier and soon some mild scrambling made us use our hands as well as our feet. There was much more snow about than I had anticipated too, and since we hadn’t brought any ice axes with us I became pretty convinced the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan would be as far as we could go.

However, the ridge that connects with Bidean was clear of cloud and looked fairly clear of snow as far as we could see so we set off optimistically, enjoying the romp despite the damp conditions. There were a number of patches of wet slushy snow around but as we climbed the steep ridge onto Bidean the snow cover increased dramatically. It was decision time. The ridge was steep and narrow and a simple slip, without an ice axe to arrest the fall, would have meant a long slide into the blackness of the corrie depths where vertiginous crags lurked. The summit of Bidean nam Bian would still be there for another day, so we backtracked to Stob Coire nan Lochan and followed the hill’s north ridge round to Aonach Dubh before sliding down wet snow patches back into Coire nan Lochan.

By this time we were pretty wet through but despite the dampness the drifting mists on the black crags and the raging waterfalls held our attention and made it a pleasant descent. We stopped for a final brew in the old Lomond MC howff and I suspect I bored Sarah and Gregor with my reminiscences.

Even after forty-odd years the floor was still hard-packed and firm below its rock-overhang roof. Across the corrie, beyond the roar of the burn, the East Face of Aonach Dubh rears up steeply, vertically, a crag I once knew as intimately as any portion of stone in this rocky land. As ever, it felt good to be back.

First published in the Scots Magazine where I write a monthly column called Cameron's Country

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