A Winter Traverse of Buachaille Etive Mor, near Glencoe

From my Diaries; 9th April 1982: Buachaille Etive Mor

Stob Dearg (pronounced Jerrack) at 1022m high is the huge pyramid of rock dominating the landscape as you drive north over Rannoch Moor heading toward Glencoe, it’s the northwest buttress of Buachaille Etive Mor and is one of the most iconic scenes in the Scottish Highlands. Every time I see it my heart flutters, for it is dramatic, I will never tire of this bastion, for this is truly a mountain. Commanding and intricate, its rocky face guards the entrance into Glencoe, formidable yet friendly and daunting whenever nature decides. As progress is made along the road, I anticipate various features revealing themselves, Crowberry Tower always a highlight. Buchaille Etive Mor refers to all of the ridge, from Stob Dearg the ridge runs southwest to Glen Etive and has a number of distinct summits including Stob na Doire 1011m, Stob Coire Altruim 941m and Stob na Bridge 956m. The lowest part of the ridge is the beallach above Coire Altruim at 860m, all four summits mentioned are Munro’s.

I had arrived at Glencoe camp site on Thursday hoping to meet up with a couple of climbing pals, unfortunately they had not arrived so I made my plans to climb Buachaille Etive Mor. A short drive through Glencoe, I reached the small car park on the A82, just on the bend near the Lagangarbh hut, from here, there is a popular route giving access into Coire na Tulaich before a final steep climb onto the plateau, a short distance from the summit of Stob Dearg. In winter conditions, the climb out of the coire requires a serious effort up the steep back face, there may be a cornice, an overhanging section of snow and ice guarding the final pull onto safer ground. Whilst putting my boots on, my climbing mate Pete arrived somewhat flustered with car trouble coupled with an overnight journey. I don’t know what it is but Pete seems to attract difficulties and problems and today was no exception.

My stay in Glencoe was for just over a week and I wanted to get as much climbing done so I told Pete of my plans to do the ridge and I would return by dropping into the Glen to the north running between Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag, there was a good track marked on the map. I left him to decide what he wanted to do, leaving the car park crossing the beck, I kept an easy steady pace just in case Pete decided to come along. I slowly ascended into the Coire and onto a huge snowfield, crampons now strapped firmly to my boots and ice axe to hand, I continued to plod at an easy pace, I suspected Pete may join me, once he sorted out his mind this was a great opportunity for a great day climbing. Light snow began to fall which was no more than a nuisance, I stopped for a breather scanning my vast and dramatic surroundings, looking back over my route I could see a lone climber, I suspected it was Pete. I put on my winter jacket and made very easy progress up the back of the coire, this gave Pete an easy walk to catch up before we tackled the final snowfield onto the plateau. I was about 100 feet below the col, the ground steepened here and obvious footsteps in the snow led directly to the plateau. The light snow still falling, I decided to find a sheltered stance before hitting the ridge, moving off the route to the left I nestled beneath a towering rocky buttress, stamping out a snowy platform for the two of us. I made a brew. The snowfall had stopped as Pete arrived. I stood up and made room for him and gave him a brew.

We chatted about his troubles with his car and about the chance meeting at the car park, had he been ten minutes later, we wouldn’t have met until the evening so he felt lucky and was looking forward to a great day on the tops. As we chatted I watched a couple of guys starting to descend from the col, it’s always the steepest part of the climb and coming down is a little more difficult than going up. I surveyed the obvious footsteps leading up the final snowfield, the two guys were perfectly positioned for their descent. I could even see the holes where many ice axe shafts had been plunged into the deep snow alongside every foothold.

The younger guy started his descent stepping down onto the steep face, he placed his ice axe into an existing deep hole then stepped down again. It all happened in a heartbeat, as he tried to extract his ice axe from the deep hole, he obviously had difficulty. I watched as he yanked even harder, his ice axe came shooting out and the upward force knocked him off-balance and he tumbled backwards. In a second or two, he was hurtling past us down the snowfield, I heard his groans as he bounced over some exposed rock, his hat and gloves strewn across the mountain.

I called out to him “get your axe in”! To arrest a fall, we learn to use our ice axe as a brake, firmly gripped with one hand on the shaft and the other over the adze, you roll onto your front and put all your weight onto the pick which should dig in and slow you down. I realised my call was futile as he rushed passed us.

Pete stirred at the commotion, I urged him to get ready and suggested we may be going down to offer some assistance. The lad came to a halt, then started to gather himself. I shouted to the guy asking if he was alright, he stirred a little and composed himself, he must have fallen four or five hundred feet, sliding and bouncing over the rough snow-covered terrain. His older companion had watched in horror, seeing his climbing partner slide several hundred feet down the mountain-side, he was quickly descending towards his mate recovering his belongings as he went. The younger guy was now getting to his feet, he was hurt after hitting the exposed rocks but appeared alright. I packed my kit into my rucksack and got ready to descend, by now the two guys were together and looked like they were both okay, I called down to offer our help but they declined, they seemed able to continue their journey so we got ready to resume our plans for Buachaille Etive Mor.

The incident caused some apprehension, it wasn't a regular thing to see climbers fall. We stirred ourselves into our moment and quickly focussed our minds, for this was serious. We prepared for the final push up the steep climb, we climbed side by side following steps cut in by previous climbers, the useful holes for our ice axe shafts made the climb straightforward as we ascended the snow-face in excellent conditions. We pulled over the steepest section onto the col into a cold blast of icy wind. Although not ideal, the freshening wind was keeping the snow clouds away as we walked to the summit of Stob Dearg. It stayed with us all the time we were on the ridge. On Stob Dearg summit, a wry smile turned into a grin, I had desired a visit here for a long time and to be here in winter conditions was a huge privilege, today I'm lucky because this place was special, it was everything I had imagined. A great place to be.

Buachaille Etive Mor continued

The north facing flanks were thick in snow, crampons and ice axe were a must up here. The wind blew in our faces as we traversed the ridge. Buachaille Etive Mor is a series of cones, almost all the ridge remains above 3000 feet, we made our way along the highest ground, first over Stob na Doire soon followed by Stob Coire Altruim and finished on the final summit of Stob na Broige. The scene before us unfolded as we continued along the high ridge revealing glimpses of Glen Etive. It always seemed miles away from Rannoch Moor but our winter trek transported us to this new landscape and a different corner of the Highlands. With four Munro's bagged, our attention turned to the safety of the valley below. As we descended we gained some shelter from the wind and picking our way across the mountainside we were rewarded with a couple of close encounters with herds of wild deer. Soon below the snowline, our crampons and ice axe fixed onto our rucksacks as we reached Lairg Gartain and the good track leading back to the A82 and the car park.


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