Buachaille Etive Beag

Munros since diagnosis #139 and #140

12:00 – Stob Coire Raineach (M263), 3035ft, 925m

13:15 – Stob Dubh (M201), 3153ft, 958m

This little mountain is considered to be one of the easiest of the Munros. Last summer, bagging it seemed like a good way of rounding off a campervan holiday to the Uists and Barra, but circumstances got in the way, so I climbed the big peaks behind the Glencoe Ski Centre instead and was given the impetus to rant about being a tourist in my own country. Now, in the midst of this Beast from the East, circumstances have made bagging it just that little bit more challenging and interesting.

It has been frustrating knowing that there is old hardening snow crusting nicely over Glencoe and Lochaber under relatively quiet skies, while in the east, weather more at home in high mountains closes down major cities, crippling communications and logistical infrastructures and turning even a short walk to the shops into a ploughter through knee-deep snow and bitter blizzards.


My mountain buddy Martyn declared in a message that Monday would be “not too bad” (he put the quotation marks round it too) and I agreed that if we were going to choose any day in the near future to satisfy our itch to put on crampons and crunch along a ridge, this would be the least likely to be completely irresponsible. The Beast from the East was showing little sign of abating and was predicted to penetrate further west than hitherto, but without the Siberian temperatures, initially bringing snow flurries and then later in the week a gradual thaw to higher ground, thereby increasing avalanche risks. So Monday really was the only option.

I left Fife in horrible lumpy rain falling through thick mist. Just beyond Comrie, the rain eased and I began to see the sides of the mountains, thick with snow, emerging from under layers of cloud. We met as arranged at Lochearnhead. The rain stopped at Crianlarich, offering splendid views of the mountains ahead, their summits shrouded in cloud. We passed over from Tyndrum into Orchy, where the snow line had risen, and there was little sign of new snowfall, with the remnants to be seen frozen into lumps. Loch Ba and Rannoch Moor, partially frozen, were at their most photogenic. Coming over the hill past the Ski Centre, the buttresses of Bidean nam Bian, were bathed in diffuse morning light, the Aonach Eagach‘s pinnacles and the top of Buachaille Etive Mor were obscured by white clouds blown on a stiff easterly. Down in Ballachulish, sunlight could be seen. Much more promising than we had feared.


As we parked, there were already four other parties of intrepid adventurers preparing to leave or already underway. The path to the mountain runs diagonally uphill for less than a mile before turning steeply along the crest of a gully in which a continuous run of snow led upwards for as far as we could see. We toed our way forward, checking the quality of the snow, getting used to the effort required to walk this way. We put on our crampons at about 500m then stopped for elevenses at about 700m in the lee of some boulders. Snow was now falling steadily and blowing down through the bealach above, quickly covering us, our kit and Coll the dog with a fine layer of white.

We climbed on to the left of the bealach and reached the first summit at midday, deciding to forego lunch until we could find a suitably sheltered spot further down towards the bealach, or on the ridge to the second summit. The wind was now slightly at our backs and coming at us from the left, bringing with it a steady pile of tiny hard snowflakes. The return to the bealach was straightforward but the climb up onto the main ridge was hard work. The snow pack was firm beneath, but had a layer of dry new snow on top that built up between the prongs of our crampons and had to be knocked off at every second step or so. On the ridge we were rewarded for our hard work with a most enjoyable traverse to the second summit over firm old snow piled up on the eastern side, in the lee of prevailing westerlies, with new snow from the east beginning to create a new pile on the west. From time to time the cloud even thinned enough to get a view of where we were and of the sides of the mountains all around us.


At what appeared to be the summit, we saw what looked to be a higher point up ahead. When we got there, we saw that there were definitely no higher points ahead, only glimpses of Glen Etive far below, and that the summit we first reached appeared from here to be higher, so we returned, discovering on the way that our walk back along the ridge would be against a stiff wind from the front and right, carrying microscopic balls of ice.


We did not tarry long before retracing our path, discovering quickly that our tracks had already almost been obliterated by spindrift and new snow. Beyond the sharpest section of the ridge we ate lunch in the lee of some rocks, as again we all became quickly covered in a thin layer of white. It was only at this point I realised how dangerous this place is, how quickly the wind covers everything with snow, how bitterly cold it is, how vulnerable we would be without the benefits of windstopper, down and fleece. It was a tough slog back to the bealach against the wind, even after a hearty home made soup from my flask. Coll the dog led the way enthusiastically.


Thereafter, the descent was sheltered and straightforward until we realised at about 500m that our crampons had nothing more to hold on to. So we removed them and continued down the path, now less covered by snow than in the morning. Walking back towards the car we were offered awe inspiring views down into the jaws of Glencoe, through its dark ravines, past imposing buttresses, under massive peaks shrouded in snow cloud. The waters in the burns were trickling again under layers of ice. There was a bitter wind and it felt wetter. We were back at the car five and a half hours after we had left. On the way south we stopped for tea and cake at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, on my way back east, the rain began again at Comrie. By the time I got home, it was clear that the thaw was well under way.

“Not too bad” turned out to be quite excellent!

Thanks to Martyn for good company and hardcore attitude and to Coll the dog for never-ending enthusiasm. A wonderful winter climb!


Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

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