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Mountain of mountains

Mountain of mountains

Postby Driftwood » Fri Jul 07, 2017 2:56 pm

Route description: Bidean nam Bian

Munros included on this walk: Bidean nam Bian, Stob Coire Sgreamhach

Date walked: 08/06/2017

Time taken: 8.4 hours

Distance: 12.5 km

Ascent: 1650m

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Following a day of good weather, forecasts were turning bad again. But I wanted to walk more around Glencoe, as well as held some hope of improvement by the weekend (despite doom and gloom from MWIS and the Met Office). So I came up with a plan, though possibly not all that cunning.

I booked an extra night at the Glencoe Independent Hostel (which needed to be in the "Alpine" bunkhouse, as the main hostel was busy) so that I should have a roof, not to mention the use of their drying rooms. Then made ready for a morning start, though I'm almost never away so early as I'd like.

It was a grey, cloudy morning, but I drove up the glen and parked in eastern carpark near the helipad. Trying not to be distracted by the weather, or the ominous Three Sisters ridges facing, I started out by 8:30.
Beinn Fhada and Gearr Aonach

I intended on visiting all four of the Munro Tops around Bidean nam Bian, as well as the two Munro summits, so had researched possible routes using Steven Fallon's site, the book Classic Mountain Scrambles in Scotland and whatever else I could find. This eventually led me to decide on aiming through Coire Gabhail (the Lost Valley) onto Beinn Fhada and then clockwise around the higher ridges, before descending from Stob Coire nan Lochan.
Gearr Aonach and Aonach Dubh

This route had some drawbacks (such as probably missing a lot of scrambly bits), but felt preferable to heading all the way around to, or from, Lairig Eilde. Getting up into Beinn Fhada, then Stob Coire Sgreamhach, also seemed preferable to attempting to find a way down from them, especially in limited visibility, wind, rain or such conditions.
Still, there was an easy start along paths made for folk venturing from their cars. Then things start to get more interesting, descending some steps cut from the stone to cross the river Coe by a wooden bridge. This which spans a rocky gorge which was flowing well.
Path after river Coe

The path keeps getting rougher, with ferns and small trees clinging wherever they can. One stream flows out from the Lost Valley, with a series of small cascades alongside as you climb into a narrow defile. The Eastern and Middle Sister soar almost straight up to either side, making the path (and walker) feel small and enclosed.
Allt Coire Gabhail falls

The ruggedness of this route wasn't helped by my decision to investigate a huge sloped boulderfield to the right side of (presumably) the path. I spent a while making slow progress over first a steep bank of scree and then large, or huge, rocks clad in thick, soft and slightly slippery moss and other vegetation, interspersed with trees, mostly birch so far as I can remember.
Then the boulders started to ease and the valley floor levelled off, with one vast boulder to walk around before an almost flat expanse. There were at least a couple of tents, pitched on greener areas, as well as stretches of dry stones looking like a former river-bed.
The Lost Valley

This is a strange and secluded area, I could easily see the appeal of visiting the valley, or especially experiencing it in the early morning or quiet of evening. But, at that moment, my attention was drawn from the valley floor up to the steep slopes to each side, rising to a variable ceiling of grey cloud. There were hints of drizzle and some cool breeze, though both were quite welcome after slogging over the boulders and with more uphill effort needed.
I studied the northeastern flank of Beinn Fhada, so far as I could. This isn't so gulley-ridden as maps suggest, but there are small burns finding their way down and rocky outcrops, which turn into outright crags much further up. Even so, I reckoned that my best option was a rising traverse, aiming more-or-less southwards, compared to staying on a single slope between any particular pair of burns.
Steep flanks of Beinn Fhada

I started gradually uphill from partway along the valley, something like halfway through the broad stretch with the dry stream-bed. The slopes soon became very steep even while working along them, again discouraging any thought of turning to try heading more directly uphill. I tried to keep to grassy rakes, though several times needed to pick carefully up or around stony areas, or squelch my way over a burn where there was sufficient solid and stable footing.
This felt like very slow progress, confirmed each time that I paused to consider options or look at the weather. The cloud was getting slightly lower, if anything, descending to meet me and making it hard to check my height against surrounding features. It was late enough to justify a mid-morning snack break on a more-rounded shoulder before I stowed away my walking poles at perhaps 800 metres or so.

From that point, I wasn't exactly scrambling, but had maybe 100 metres of using a hand or two for reassurance, especially heading up yet-steeper and very rocky going. My traversing had turned into turning left or right whenever or whichever offered better progress, with plenty of pauses to consider that or keep my breathing steady. But, at last, the slope eased and ground became grassier up onto the back of the ridge.
I enjoyed two bits of good luck at this point. First, there was a slight rise to my right (southwards), which led up to something of a summit. And, secondly, the cloud thinned and parted briefly. This was just about sufficient and for long enough for me to see and get a compass-bearing on a minor 778-metre top to the southeast of Stob Coire Sgreamhach, near the head of Lairig Eilde.
This was almost due south, helping to confirm that I'd reached the 931-metre outlying Munro Top. So now "all" that I had to do was continue along the ridge.
A glimpse of from Beinn Fhada

That was, indeed, easier going. And not just compared to the steep, rough ground I'd crossed. There was a good third of a mile or so of ridge walking, with some descent and ascent but nothing troublesome, to reach the next, more substantial, top. No views to speak of through the cloud, but I was happy enough to be heading the right way and making progress at it. I'd also refuelled with a bite to eat, while the cool and breeze conditions felt ideal without the need to add a jacket.
Easier along Beinn Fhada

Despite the simple walking along the ridge, I kept my walking poles stowed, ready for an expected scramble. And that's what started looming through the mist as I looked ahead from the 952-metre Top. Getting closer, not all of the loom was caused by the cloud and imagination, there was definitely an obstacle needing to be gotten over or, from even a glance at its sheer size, around.
Buttress onto Stob Coire Sgreamhach

I followed traces of a path down to the base of the impressive prow, then turning left (south-southeast) above the top of Coir Eilde. This soon reached the base of a very steep, quite loose-looking shallow gulley, which my reading had indicated was a route to and from Stob Coire Sgreamhach.
Ascent gulley

I compromised a bit on my ascent, making some of this on better rock further to the left and part by the gulley. Both felt a bit loose (and clumsy on my part) to dignify by calling a scramble, more steep and rubbly, as well as damp, than actually technical. But I was glad when things eased to a steep path working up the east side, then onto the crest of the ridge. This brought me up to the cairn of Stob Coire Sgreamhach, joining two walkers already there without much warning (owing to the persistent cloud).
Stob Coire Sgreamhach summit

I stopped at the cairn for a few oatcakes, as lunchtime had somehow arrived and now that I'd reached easier going. Comparitively easier, at least; even with the dense cloud, there was evidently a lot of rocky ground and plunging slopes in plenty of directions. That clag showed no sign of shifting, so I soon headed west along the ridge, which had much more evidence of other passing feet. There was a significant descent, though nothing that I remember as especially difficult, just generally rocky, stony and rugged.
A couple of cairns appeared to the right of the path next to a worn red gulley leading down. I recognised this as the head of the Lost Valley, which looked pretty loose and steep whether for ascent or descending into Coire Gabhail. But it wasn't to be my route, as I had one further Munro and two extra Tops to visit, if I could.
Bealach Dearg

I caught up with same 2 walkers further along the ridge, keeping them company for the next half-hour or so. We made several stops at false tops and plenty of cairns, some of which even seemed to be summits, but none had the right junction of paths and ridges to be Bidean nam Bian itself. And, every time that we pressed on, the ridge would start climbing again, with plenty of rocky terrain and boulderfield along the way.
We eventually came upon the main summit, with a fair-sized cairn that looked much better made than impostors. And this also saw the junction of three paths, including a right-turn towards Stob Coire nan Lochan where my companions were aimed. I took note of that, though my own next stage would be heading out along the west ridge (which later turns northwest) to Stob Corrie nam Beith.
With still no views, I needed to a smaller scale to take in sights, as well as checking where I stepped with so much damp stone and steep ground around.
Moss Campion on Bidean nam Bian

I headed on my way, with what felt like a lot of descent and many small rises. Just a few minutes brought me to a minor top, but that was much too close, just the 1141-metre point a couple of hundred metres from the summit. There was a more substantial loss of height beyond that, with some not-really-scrambling that occasionally benefited from a hand to steady getting up, or down, the bouldery heaps. These still held traces of a path, as well as cairns in places, though I hardly needed either with a distinct ridge and probably-dramatic crags dropping vertically close to my right side.

The ridge turned northwards, with more outcrops and then a gentle drop followed by a further rise. This could only be Stob Coire nan Beith, as the slopes now dropped away on several sides, confirmed by brief dramatic gaps appearing in the cloud. One offered a view down to the A82 and River Coe, which looked practically underfoot. I took another break, not just for a drink and snack but also to get waterproofs out from my pack. The drizzly rain didn't become heavy, but was enough in cool conditions to make me comfortable with an extra layer.
An t-Sron from Stob Coire nam Beith

I turned back southwards, retracing my route for a while. Though I was still on the western part of this section when I met two young men heading towards me. Given that this was off the beaten track of the two Munros, I asked whether they were also visiting Tops and what direction they had come up from.
They turned out to be Norwegians, one studying in Newcastle and the other visiting, who were using the diagram in a guidebook as their map. Having come up by Stob Coire nan Lochan and across Bidean nam Bian, they wanted to descend Bealach Dearg into the Lost Valley.
We were in the wrong direction for their route, so I showed that on my own Harvey Glencoe map and offered to accompany them back to the summit, then point out the right path. We made good progress back to the cairn atop Bidean nam Bian, then I described the 200 metres of descent and about 1km of ridge before two cairns should mark where to turn and head down.

Parting company from the Norwegians, I reassured myself that a couple of fit, healthy young Vikings ought to get on fine. Though I was soon distracted by the need to pay attention for my own route along the northeast ridge, where a lot of steep ground and sometimes-loose stone demanded care. I met more walkers during this stage, first of all a pair of walkers with northern-English accents, who had a GPS to assist finding their way through the cloud.
After a steep loose path, I encountered a group of four young walkers near a bealach along the ridge. In a cautious frame of mind, I again briefly explained the ground and directions ahead of them.

After the short steep descent, I had the hill to myself once more for what felt quite a long climb to Stob Coire nan Lochan. This was relatively gradual, though only by Glencoe standards, along what seemed like quite a narrow ridge. I say seemed because, of course, the damp clag was keeping me company and still limiting visibility to a few dozen paces. But, at last, there was a cairn and - from a check around - no higher ground evident in any direction.
Stob Coire nan Lochan

There was also a lack of obvious paths, giving me pause to consider my descent. Caution was the order of the day, so I needed to take the longer, more gradual, ridge northwest and around to the north, rather than shorter but very steep routes to the east that would probably have required finding a way down more challenging ground.
I found the west ridge and followed that for what seemed a very long way, at least partly due to needing to pick every step down boulderfields and rocky ground, with hints of a deep coire to my right and slopes falling away on the left. Eventually reaching a mini lochan south of Aonach Dubh, I found some shelter from the showery wind. That allowed a pause to check my time, have a bite and confirm the rest of the route out. By this stage, not even the prospect of tagging on an extra "bump" at the end of the walk could lure me up to the 892-metre point a few minutes away.
My route turned east instead, aiming east-southeast down mostly-grassy slopes from the area near the lochan. The beginnings of a burn and damp ground beside that offered a way down between a few rockier patches. That descent brought me the start of views beneath the cloud, in particular the streams and waterfalls of Coire nan Lochan and, most welcomely, a path running just beyond them.
Descent from Coire nan Lochan

I crossed the burn without incident and joined that path. That proved an easy way to shed more height, as well as whisking me in the right direction towards Glencoe and the carpark. It skirts a landslip further down the side of Gearr Aonach, then becomes much more of a built path towards the road. The weather offered more hints of improvement, with a brighter patch creeping inbetween the cloud, helping to dry off my jacket from the hour or two of drizzle.
Brightness on Am Bodach

I met a tourist group at this stage, so slowed my steps instead of trying to squeeze past the crowd. A chat with the Scottish guide revealled that they had been on Skye and also experienced some "atmospheric" weather there, then were headed around to Oban.
Nearly at the carpark, I was glad to meet the two Norwegians returning safe and well, having found and coped with the Bealach Dearg. Then I settled on a stone wall by my car, watching a pied wagtail and taking in the constant bustle of coaches and other visitors.

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Mountain Walker
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Re: Mountain of mountains

Postby Coop » Fri Jul 07, 2017 7:39 pm

Did these at the beginning of may in fantastic weather. Superb range and Bidean and it's tops are one range I wouldn't tire of going up again and again.

Well in for your route and report
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Re: Mountain of mountains

Postby Driftwood » Fri Jul 07, 2017 8:01 pm

Coop wrote:Did these at the beginning of may in fantastic weather. Superb range and Bidean and it's tops are one range I wouldn't tire of going up again and again.

Well in for your route and report

Cheers, these are definitely on my (unwritten but substantial) list of hills to visit again in better weather. Though, for me, this was at the better end of the weather that I seem to get in Glencoe. :?

But now that I've visited all of the Tops there's lots of the (easier) scrambling bits still to do. And, of course, some views would be nice. 8)
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