I’m recently back from a trip up to Scotland, a place I’d love to spend more time but with time constraints (takes up a good part of a day to get there!) and the rising price of fuel it’s somewhere I have to usually book a week in to go. Never the less, I try and get up at least once a year and this year it’s going to be at least twice.
This visit was for dual purposes, I wanted to do a winter skills course to allow me to be more proficient in the mountains in winter as well doing a bit of photography. I spent quite a bit of time deciding where to go but was able to secure a course in Fort William which placed me well for photography in the iconic Glen Coe and other surrounding areas.
One thing to note on the off really, is that all the images below were taken on my new Sony NEX-7 which since purchasing has been causing a bit of a stir among fellow photographers at the unbelievable quality in such a small package. I will probably do a review of it once I’ve used it a little more, but so far I’m very impressed and I never planned to do it initially but I decided to end up using it solely all week to see if I could really rely on it. I’ve got it set up with the Sony 10-18mm f/4 lens and a Tamron 18-200mm lens which makes it a killer 2 lens set up. Currently, I’m using 2 sets of filters but for the most part I can use the Cokin system with the 84.5mm pro-line filters (more on that later).
I booked my course with Dave Anderson of Lochaber Guides and the plan was to travel up on the Sunday with a two days course on Monday and Tuesday. I have to say, I initially thought I might not make it with lots of snow forecast that day and two of my main routes had snow gates on them so I knew these may shut. Fortunately, it was good old Britain as usual hyping it up and I only hit a bit of snow on the a66 which I had to take time over. Apart from that it was a very clear run and I made it to Glen Coe in record time without even speeding.
It was snowing a little up in Glen Coe, but with low cloud obscuring most landmarks it meant I didn’t manage to get any usable pictures, though I tried.
Monday had me meet up with Dave in Fort William at 08:30, so there was no chance to catch a sunrise beforehand. We fetched some boots for me to hire and headed off to Aanoch Mor to try and catch the gondolas to reach the snowline fairly easily but due to high winds they were not running.
Plan B it was then and we headed to the corrie below the Ben Nevis North Face, after a steep but not too exhausting walk in we reached the CIC hut and spent time around here.
While it was windy the weather wasn’t actually too bad, with clear views out of the corrie and some of the ben’s top being free from cloud it was a nice place to be and it could have been a lot worse and more miserable.
It was my first time under the North Face, a place I had heard many stories about but never managed to get up close and personal with it. It was very impressive, made even more so by the winter conditions. High cliffs, towering ridges and snow filled gullies all made me stand in awe. Dave had a very good knowledge of the area, pointing out routes and gullies by name and giving me a good background. While Ben Nevis isn’t particularly well known for its beauty or indeed for being inspiring via the tourist track you can certainly see the appeal from here. Though you probably wouldn’t catch me going up this way, maybe only via the CMD in summer.
We found a steep, but safe patch of snow to practice ice axe arrests on. While walking to the slope Dave explained some of the basics like kicking steps etc and also going through kit lists etc etc.
Once up on the slope we started off by sliding down it a couple of times to compact some of the fresh snow to make the run a bit faster and more suitable for an arrest. I then learnt the three different techniques and found I was using muscles I didn’t usually use especially while sliding down the hill head first on my back! It was quite exhausting and being 1 on 1 training I was reaching the bottom of the slope and running back up straight away.
Once I had got the hang of that, Dave shown me a bit on avalanche awareness and we then donned our crampons on and did some work with crampons trying to find some ground to work with. After all that work and a pretty full on day it was time to walk back to the car feeling I had learnt a lot. I didn’t do much in terms of photography, just a couple of snapshots for my own personal collection to remember the day by.
One thing I should probably state now, is while I love the mountains I am afraid of heights. It seems strange to some people but it’s a fear I’ve always had and something I try my best to overcome. The more I go out on exposed ground the more confident I become and become more comfortable with it. I’ve managed Crib Goch and some other exposed stuff and present company at the time say I don’t act afraid but it’s definitely there. That said, I always try and try and go with an attitude if other people can do it then it can’t be impossible.
So, doing a winter munro on day 2 was a big thing for me. Scottish Mountains are completely different to other places, with little in terms of paths and generally quite steep. Nevermind the snow.
The forecast for the Tuesday was the best all week and while it wasn’t quite as they forecast it, it was still a very pleasant day with high cloud and brief breaks of sun and cloud free summits and excellent visibility.
We went up the Buachaille Etive Beag aka the Wee Buckle. It is a range of mountains alligned in a wide ridge with a munro at either end and is located next to it’s more famous brother “The Buckle” or Buachaille Etive Mor. Dave had assured me it was a fairly safe winter munro with nothing to technical.
We started to head up from the car park and was immediately in the snow, however crampons were not required yet. We made steady but good progress up to the saddle, a turning point to which munro to go up to and on the way spotted a few deer etc. I have to admit, going up it looked very steep to come down and started to worry a little. However, I pushed through and made it to the saddle with Dave reassuring there would be no issue coming down.
At the saddle we had a small break to grab some food for energy and as the fresh snow was turning harder it was time to equip the ice axe and crampon. I was given a choice of going up Stob Coire Raineach or Stob Dubh. I was pre-warned that that Stob Dubh would be the harder one as there is a ridge walk and a stepper descent so I opted for the former which still looked fantastic anyway.
Off we walked and I found as always, going up not a problem even if a little tiring (crampons expend about 10% more energy). Arrival at the top and all previous thoughts about the walk down were expelled and I stood there in awe feeling right at home. I love that feeling on a summit, just feeling like you belong. For me, it would have been hard to top the day in terms of weather. Yes a little more light would have been nice etc but I was just so pleased to have clear views pretty much as far as the eye could see. It was a 360 view looking down Glen Etive, over the Three Sisters, round down Glen Coe and then over the Mamores with only Nevis being capped in cloud finally finished off with Buachaille Etive Mor.
This is one of the images I captured from the summit, which was a nice panoramic looking south towards Glen Etive, Stob Dubh and the Three Sisters (worth clicking on to see larger):