A Solo Winter Ascent of Forked Gully, Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe

From my Diaries; 16th April 1982: A Solo Winter Ascent of Forked Gully, Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe

“As I ambled down the track I was soon engulfed by a wonderful inner sense of contentment ...”

Today was my final day for climbing in Glencoe, the winter climbing season had been kind with still plenty of snow and ice in the gullies and covering all the tops. But how long will it last, after all it is mid-April and Spring had sprung. Several days of sunshine had marked the start of the thaw, soon only the most sheltered north facing high mountain gullies will retain deep snow, in some cases, snow will remain throughout the year but for now we can squeeze out another day of Winter Climbing before the thaw. Throughout my stay, I had been very lucky with conditions, bad weather had not curtailed my ambitions, indeed I had enjoyed several days winter climbing and with a little more luck, I may get one more excellent day.

For my finale, I had earlier in the week whilst traversing the Aonach Eagach, I had eyed the high north facing cliff of Stob Coire nan Lochan, according to the guidebook it offered some excellent Winter Climbs in a superb situation, so I was eager to get up close and personal. It’s high above the Three Sisters of Glencoe, nestling just below Bidean Nam Bian forming its northeast shoulder. The north face is around eight hundred feet high and finishes at the summit of Stob Coire Nan Lochan, over three thousand six hundred feet high, a number of buttresses are split by several gullies of varying difficulty. As I was soloing, I needed to err on the side of caution. To the left (east) side of the cliff is Boomerang Gully and Broad Gully which climbs the left side of Dorsal Arête. On the right of Dorsal Arête is Forked Gully, around five hundred feet climb that splits halfway up, my Winter Climbing guidebook describes it “The gully to the right of Dorsal Arête gives a steep but normally straightforward snow climb by the Left Fork”, this seemed to be a good outing for the day. Although I loved the excitement of climbing alone, and more so the act of trusting in your own ability and judgement, I was never one to take chances beyond my ability, I wasn’t an opportunist. Soloing on a high remote cliff in winter conditions carries increased risk, if things go wrong, you may not be found for a day or so! But I can climb a grade I/II route providing there aren’t any unforeseen difficulties.

A Solo Winter Ascent of Forked Gully continued

I parked in Glencoe upstream from the Lochan overshadowed by Aonach Dubh, by the parking spot is a footbridge over the river that gives access to the mountainside, I looked up at two of the Three Sisters, Gearr Aonach on my left and Aonach Dubh on my right and admired the start of my route today. I needed to gain height so opted to climb up Dinnertime Buttress on Aonach Dubh, it’s a good way of getting into the groove and proved to be a wonderful route in great situations. As the rock sections steepened I moved right into No 2 Gully which leads to the summit of Aonach Dubh. I reached a stale-mate, my route wasn’t an easy snow climb up the gully. I was faced with a deep vertical rocky gash that was an impasse. I retraced my steps to find a smaller gully with just a little meltwater flowing. I climbed this gully and although loose and wet, it brought me to the summit of Aonach Dubh and back into sunshine. Easy ground led me to the now obvious cliffs of Stob Coire nan Lochan, the Lochan which gives the peak its name was on my left as I trudged through wet snow, crossing a snowfield in Coire nan Lochan before traversing upwards beneath the towering cliffs, sometimes thigh deep in snow. The soft snow proved hard going, it also told me the temperature was rising and snow conditions may not be optimum, the snow was wet, less firm and the big thaw had started.

Dorsal Arête was a good marker for me, my route Forked Gully lay to the right of Dorsal Arête. At the bottom of the steepening ground I prepared for the climb, fitting my crampons. I also carried two ice axes, one for each hand. I would use my trusty and treasured Chouinard Zero axe in my right, stronger hand, I had with me my Charlet Moser Ice hammer for my left hand giving me two ice picks for the steeper ground.

I started my ascent, the route is about five hundred feet high, it should take about an hour of climbing, half way up the route forks, hence its name. My route was the Left Fork, as I looked up it appeared straightforward. I was now in the shadow of the cliff, the temperature dropped as I started kicking steps in the wet snow. At first it was easy going but as the gully steepened it became a little more precarious in sections, the snow was quite thin in places, almost sparse on the steeper sections making the route a little mixed. At one place I could see the frozen ground beneath a thin covering of snow, the picks on both axes were penetrating the thin snow covering but barely pierced into the hard ground. I was feeling a little exposed. I moved left onto deeper snow, turning the very steep sections as both axes plunged firmly into deeper compacted snow. That felt more satisfying, and safer as I made good progress. Snow conditions improved as I took the left fork, the final snowfield was steep, but the snow was in good condition.

As I reached the top, I could see the cornice had dropped, probably some days before, falling down the natural chute below me. This fall of overhanging snow left a steep, almost vertical wall about ten feet high to negotiate, as usual, the final few moves of the climb prove to be the most difficult. I sorted out my mind then moved onto the wall, committing to the climb. First, swinging my trusty Chouinard Zero axe, it placed well, I swung my ice hammer, the pick sank into the vertical wall as snow splattered down over me. Pulling on the two axes, I stepped up and standing on the front points of my crampons, the backs of my calves tightened. A jerk of my right hand loosened the Zero and I swung again reaching as high as possible into the lip of the wall. Another good placement and I repeated with the ice hammer. At full stretched I raised my body in three short steps. My eyes were level with the plateau, sunlight spilled over me as I raised my head out of the shady, wintry gully squinting into the glowing beams of light. Again, I loosened the Zero but this time reached over the lip and sank the pick as far as possible. I strenuously pulled with my left arm, carrying all the weight of my upper body and placed my other axe onto safer ground, one final effort of nifty footwork saw me pull out onto the top, I quickly moved away from the snowy edge that could suck me down into the abyss. Once on safe ground I bathed in the sunshine, warming up, panting with exertion and excitement, I removed my crampons ready for the descent before taking the short route to the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan. Bidean Nam Bian stood guard over, majestic and worthy of her name “The Queen of Argyll”. My thoughts drifted back to my last visit here, a blazing hot summer just a few years before I sat in a cool breeze, roasting under a glaring sun.

I passed the top of Boomerang Gully looking for an easy slope to descend into the coire. It was now time for some light-hearted fun in a fast exciting bivi-bag descent. I reached into my rucksack for my bivi-bag, this was going to be my flexible sledge for the descent. Securing everything onto my rucksack, except my trusty Chouinard Zero axe, my brake for the descent, I sat on the slippery plastic bag pulling the front edge and tucking it in my front, a bit like wearing a nappy. With both feet used for some sort of steering and axe pick at the ready to slow my descent I shuffled forward, quickly picking up speed, a dig of the axe kept the speed down as snow particles from my sliding boots sprayed over my face. This is the best, most exciting and fun way to descend quickly and effortlessly. There is only one important rule, don’t bivi-bag with your crampons on, the spikes on your crampons will dig in and throw you forward, somersaulting base over apex, not only is it dangerous, it doesn’t have a good look. In minutes I was near the coire floor, before me the stream was in spate and I needed to cross to reach the good track, my return route back down the valley. The mountain cast a wintry shadow over the coire, the last of the sun now behind Bidean as the temperature plummeted. Having run out of sloping mountainside, I folded my bivi-bag into my rucksack and surveyed the route across the stream. Before me a torrent rushed down a wet rocky gorge and impossible to cross, the meltwater was deep so I moved upstream to a more suitable and safer place to cross.

Successfully over the stream, I climbed over rocky snow-covered ground to reach the track and an easy descent to the footbridge and the car. As I ambled down the track I was soon engulfed by a wonderful inner sense of contentment, I always consider it a privilege to enjoy days in the mountains, so this feeling seems to be a bonus reward. It is most difficult to describe, probably impossible to share because it is so personal. I’m not even sure contentment is the right word but for me, at this moment, once I was safe with all difficulties behind me, and I am presented with this warm inner glow, it feels almost like a mutual compliment. It’s not relief, for that feeling comes as the adrenaline is pumping and the immediate difficulties have been successfully passed. It’s not a feeling of elation, again that is usually experienced immediately after completing a route. This contentment feeling is warm and controlled and calm, it is gentle and filling and seems to represents a greater sense of being, it seems to be stimulated by my inner self but only within a landscape filled with drama and excitement, and only after difficult situations have been surpassed. Whatever it is, it is a good feeling. Enjoying my private conversations with my inner self, I make steady progress back to the footbridge over the river and in turn, the car.


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