A Winter’s Walk on Buachaille Etive Mor
With winter upon us I thought I’d dust down a previous trip report to whet the appetite for climbing Scotland’s munros in snow.
Some days, the right ingredients for a memorable walk just come together. This report describes one of Scotland’s best-loved hills, magical scenery and light, and rare glimpses of majestic wildlife.
I had ‘saved’ Buachaille Etive Mor for many years for a fine winter’s day and today didn’t disappoint. I left home at 7am on a dark, cold and frosty morning with the sun just rising by the time I reached Tyndrum. Passing a stag calmly overlooking the A82 just north of Bridge of Orchy, and the high clouds turning salmon-pink, I realised this would be a special morning.
Normally I would be watching the clock to get to the start of my walk at the allotted time, particularly when daylight hours were scarce. For today, however, the schedule could flex. By the time I’d reached the high point of the A82 overlooking Loch Tulla and the road had flattened out to cross Rannoch Moor I was just in awe of the fantastic colours lighting up the wispy high clouds in the sky. Stopping the car beside Loch Ba I soaked up the experience: silence; the bright moon still high in the sky and the Black Mount hills bathed in soft, orange light. Another couple of photo opps, finishing with a detour down the lane to the Kingshouse Hotel, provided some classic views of the Buachaille as the sun was beginning to rise. (Mental note: next time, pack the tripod for low-light exposures …).
Both the MWIS and BBC weather forecasts had suggested there could be a strong chance of a temperature inversion today, with cloud expected in a band between 300 – 900m. Fortunately, they’d got it wrong for the sky was relatively clear bar the occasional wispy cloud at around 800m blowing up the steep sides of Buachaille Etive Mor from Glen Etive.
Leaving the car in the Altnafeadh layby I followed the well-made path up Coire na Tulaich making quick progress. Many rocks were icy, though, and any lying water had turned to thick ice, so good footwork was essential. Another stag watched my progress for several minutes at the bottom of the gully. I was the first to hit the mountain that morning, shattering the silence of the pristine, crisp morning. I needed my crampons for the final 100m of ascent up steep snowy slopes (my kind of snow – compacted and icy – great for kicking into and determinedly ‘stepping’ up the hill). Topping out on to the ridge, the snow was patchy and hard enough to walk on without crampons, so they stayed back in my rucsac for the rest of the day.
- A short 20 min walk and I was at the summit of Stob Deag where the views were just stunning. While others were coming up the gully behind me, at least for a short while I felt I had the whole mountain top to myself. Space to breathe. To survey the awe-inspiring panorama of Scotland’s mountains. To sustain the spirit and feel alive.
All of the Glencoe hills, Mamores, Ben Nevis and the Grey Corries ridge, and Ben Cruachan were in full view in their snowy splendour. Schiehallion poked out of the early morning mist across the flatness of Rannoch Moor. Only out to the west coast did banks of cloud obscure the view.
As a largely solo walker I treasure the freedom and time to think that comes with being alone in the hills. I’m not (usually!) anti-social but it’s definitely a very different kind of experience to being out with others. That precious time passed once two other groups of walkers caught up with me – including a work colleague and friends from my home town (despite the vastness of the landscape, Scotland is a small world after all !).
In spite of the patchy snow, route finding was straightforward along the curved ridge over the two intermediate peaks – Stob na Doire and Stob Coire Altrium – before reaching the second munro, Stob na Broige. The only difficulty was caused by having to scramble over icy rocks in a couple of places. Light winds made for a fairly leisurely lunch stop overlooking the Buachaille’s little brother, Buachaille Etive Beag – and memories of a relenting pull up from Glen Etive with my other half in the late ‘90s and, an unsuccessful ascent with my Dad in deep snow one Easter in the mid ‘80s.
Frozen grasses, adorned with wind-blown ice, provided interest along the ridge. By now, high cloud created slightly hazier conditions and started to dull the light. But on the return from Stob na Broige on the narrow part of the ridge I had a real treat. A large brown/black bird of prey – I think a golden eagle – just hovered in the up-draft about 20 feet above my head. It slowed to inspect me, moving gracefully in the light winds for around 10 seconds, then flew away from the ridge down towards Glen Etive. At this point the other walkers were some distance from me and I felt really privileged to have shared – if briefly – a rare experience with such a majestic creature.
Now for the descent. The first section from the bealach between Stob na Broige and Stob Coire Altrium crossed a firm, frosty snowfield. Next up (beyond the snow line), frozen, tussocky grass. So far, so good – I could now see another well-constructed path below me. However, in order to reach the main path I needed to cross several large slabs of ice-covered rock. Fine, I thought, I can do this. I nervously picked my way between the patches of ice to find clear rock giving firm footholds. But it soon become clear this wasn’t going to be straightforward. The ice-free rock was getting trickier to find; meltwater had clearly been flowing freely over some of these slabs and patches of thick ice were commonplace. At one point I had to retrace my steps – to find an alternative route down. But here also the rocks were covered with ice. I only needed to cross about 4 ft of icy rock to get down to the next grassy stretch. I had a choice: go back up and look for another way round or somehow find a way to cross the ice. I chose the second option and gingerly stuck my ice axe into the nearest tussock of frozen grass. I slowly lowered myself over the thick ice and down to safety. Relief !
My relief was short-lived, however, since down in Lairig Gartain the stepping stones over the stream had grown thick layers of ice with the constant splashing of water. Only the biggest rocks were free of ice – and slippy at the best of times. There are times for graceful technique and other times when you just want to get from A to B without getting wet – and I’m fortunate that no one else was around to see me awkwardly crawling crab-like across the stepping stones to prevent myself from getting an early bath !
So, all in all, a highly successful winter’s day walk: dry feet, a memorable hill, an unforgettable sunrise and close encounters with some majestic wildlife. What more can you ask for ?