Mixing it up in Glen Coe - Scottish Winter Climbing
- Wednesday 1st January 2020
Words and photography by Mike Pescod.
Glen Coe has a long tradition of hard mixed climbing. Think of Hamish MacInnes and Chris Bonington in 1953 climbing Agag's Groove (VI,7), Raven's Gully (V,6) and Crowberry Ridge Direct (VII,6) before front point crampons and leashless technical ice-axes had even been thought of. These climbs have lost none of their respect since their first ascents over 50 years ago. Currently on Stob Coire nan Lochan, there are four routes graded IX,9 (Satyr, Scansor, Year of the Horse and Eggäschpili) and one of X,9 (The Tempest). Glen Coe remains a destination of choice for mixed climbing.
For those of us who can only dream of reaching these grades, there is also the full range of grades of mixed climbs in Glen Coe. They all involve a long mountaineering day; this is not winter cragging. Approaches are usually steep, reflecting the steep-sided nature of the glen. The rock is predominantly rhyolite with nice positive edges and spikes and it is worth reading up on the geology so you have something to wonder at when standing on belay ledges. The topography of Glen Coe crags is particularly complex too and it will take a few trips to learn your way around. Avalanche hazard can be difficult to assess due to cross loading for the same reason. So here is some help on where to start and how to progress into classic Glen Coe mixed climbs from local British Mountain Guide, Mike Pescod.
Aonach Eagach Ridge (II/III)
My first winter route in Glen Coe was the Aonach Eagach Ridge and it blew me away. It is a mountain route of undeniable quality and is of an Alpine-esque nature. I had no idea what to expect so it was all a brilliant surprise for me. It is at its best when it has been buried in snow by a recent storm and its grade can vary between about II and III. Make sure you do it on a clear day; the views in all directions, including downwards, are breathtaking. When it is like that it is one of the best mountain experiences in the UK. The Aonach Eagach is a mountaineering route with a big walk-in, several hours spent traversing the ridge and a good couple of hours more to descend. The best route zigzags along little ledges close to the crest all the way. It goes up and down many pinnacles so the climbing is complex and delicate with several sections of airy down-climbing. Good route-finding skills and the ability to change quickly from one rope technique to another are essential. By necessity, you will learn how to move efficiently over all sorts of mixed terrain. Do it with one ice-axe to develop precision and confidence with your cramponing on snowed-up rock.
Photo: John Richmond and Scott Flett descending Meall Dearg towards The Pinnacles of Aonach Eagach.
Buachaille Etive Mor
The sense of open space on any climb on Stob Dearg, the northern summit of Buachaille Etive Mor, is immense. The crags drop away to the huge expanse of Rannoch Moor below and wrap themselves around the sides of the mountain. The climbs are surrounded by nothing but thin air and the distant views of faraway peaks. Paradoxically, many of the climbs are very well-sheltered from the wind. Curved Ridge in particular is well-known for being a good choice in a westerly gale and an excellent introduction to Glen Coe mixed climbs. North Buttress is another well known 'banker' of a climb which is possible in any winter conditions. Descent from these routes is down Coire na Tulaich if the snow is stable. However, several major avalanche accidents have happened there and a descent down the broad ridge bounding the west side of the coire is often a much more secure descent.
Curved Ridge (III,3)
Many people fall into the trap of thinking that Curved Ridge must be easy to find because it is a very popular climb. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If you follow the path and the boot prints in the snow from Lagangarbh past The Waterslide and up the scree you will see a quite distinct ridge. This is not Curved Ridge (it is D Gully Buttress, another great climb but a whole grade harder). Curved Ridge is found by scrambling away up to the right over a wee waterfall and into Crowberry Basin, a well-known avalanche trap. Even from there, the ridge does not stand out well but after climbing the first pitch out of the top left corner of Crowberry Basin the route becomes obvious. The climb is relatively friendly with harder sections of a pitch in length, separated by sections of easier ground that should be tackled by moving together on a shorter length of rope. The rhyolite rock is particularly helpful and much of the protection comes from nice small spikes. A rack of nuts and slings is all that is required. The crux corner has very nice torques in the corner crack and a bomber thread on the left. Despite the friendly layout of the ridge, do not be too relaxed. It is a long climb with plenty of ground to cover and a finish right on the superb summit of Stob Dearg. Hopefully you will get to enjoy the panorama from the summit, it’s a wonderful place.
North Buttress (IV,4)
This is one of those routes that is nearly always possible. It is also a brilliant climb for learning hooks and torques with ice-axes and for standing on small edges on your front points. It’s been said you just need to reach up and your pick will fall into a hook or torque by itself. It might not feel like this first time but the hooks are really quite positive when you find them. In fact, it is just a brilliant climb with four very interesting pitches straight up a continuous line of weakness in the buttress. The approach is a complicated scramble and the exit to the summit is potentially time-consuming as well. Start early. The descent is the same as for Curved Ridge but if the weather or time is against you a descent by abseil is quite simple. The route goes straight up a chimney and the belay anchors are nearly all big spiky blocks.
The long ridge that forms the middle of The Three Sisters is not well-known for its winter climbing, being of low altitude. On its east flank, The Mome Wrath Face has many climbs which very rarely come into condition. The Zig Zags on the north east nose is a nice access route (for ascent or descent) and on the west flank there is a small buttress with this wee gem of a climb, 999. It is an old style chimney gully which has fallen out of fashion these days. Hamish MacInnes climbed the routes there first with students on courses at his Glen Coe School of Winter Climbing and graded it III. You will not have to queue and, in fact, you might be put off by the unhelpful approach and sometimes soggy turf on the first pitch. Choose a day with a very good, low level freeze. Once in the chimney though, the ratio of fun versus faff flips; it is fun all the way.
The easiest way to find this climb is not the easiest way to reach it. The stream that leads directly to the crag from the path finds a steep, loose, vegetated pitch that is very slow to freeze. The better approach is to follow the path to the large flat area before the stream crossing to Stob Coire nan Lochan. Double back on a gently rising traverse to the crag from there and climb a diagonal short pitch into the gully. There is a brilliant squeeze chimney at the start of the gully itself with a crucial large lump of turf. Thereafter, the bed of the gully is made of massive stacked blocks with threads, caves and great climbing. The exit to the gully is steep and technical with a combination of hooks and torques with turf and snow. Look out for the original piece of hawser laid rope in a thread at the top.
Buachaille Etive Mor
Shelf Route (IV,6)
Back on Buachaille Etive Mor, Shelf Route follows a line of chimneys up the north-west side of Crowberry Tower. Like many climbs in Glen Coe, the approach is quite tricky. Head up as for North Buttress so you get a view of the route before crossing Crowberry Gully. A short traverse leads out of Crowberry Gully round to a bay below the two chimneys of Raeburn’s Route and Shelf Route. Start up the left chimney (Raeburn’s Route) before going across to Shelf Route. Simple sections of snow link short steep sections which look quite intimidating and can prove tricky. Being a chimney though, the key is to keep looking behind you to find footholds for bridging. The entry into the last pitch involves a bold couple of steps then a well-protected tricky traverse right. Fun, sustained, mixed climbing leads to the top of the climb. Of course, this is not the top of the mountain though. Crowberry Tower is still another 100m of climbing away and the summit beyond that.
Photo: Bob Johnson emerging onto Crowberry Tower from Shelf Route.
Bidean nam Bian
The highest crag in Glen Coe, Church Door Buttress in Bidean nam Bian, faces northwest and is visible from the road. It rimes up and freezes quite quickly being exposed to the wind straight in from the sea. The best way to get there is next to the stream at the side of Achnambeithach farm and to follow the line of an old fence all the way in to the coire. It is a long pull up to the buttress but the scenery is spectacular and quite distracting. Church Door Buttress is a maze of tunnels, chockstones, chimneys and a great arch which forms the church door. It is quite possible to get lost underground, behind the buttress. Carry a torch and leave your rucksack at the bottom of the climb.
West Chimney (V,6)
This prominent line of chimneys used to have a cave and a through route requiring a bit of tunnelling. A few blocks have moved though and this is no longer possible. Simply climb the chimney around and over the chockstones in the chimney to large stances in between. It is classic, chimney climbing with rock, snow, turf and ice all mixed up together. Many climbs on this buttress reach the great arch and this route is one of them. Walk over the arch and make sure to peer down the hole behind it. If you want a quick and very exciting descent, a 60m abseil from the arch itself gets you to the foot of the crag in Central Gully. However, the climb finishes with a deceptively tricky pitch up a groove on the left, Raeburn’s Chimney. Some ice in this groove will help progress and protection can be fiddly to find.
Stob Coire nan Lochan
National Trust for Scotland owns Glen Coe and puts in a great deal of work on the footpaths, for which we should be very grateful. The walk in to Stob Coire nan Lochan is one of the tougher approaches but the continued work on the path makes it much more reasonable. Once in the neat and compact coire you are likely to have a more sociable climbing experience than on other Glen Coe crags. There is a wide variety of climbs which are clearly seen from the foot of the coire including snow and ice gullies and mixed climbs from very simple to the hardest in Glen Coe. Rucksacks can be left in the coire and a descent made to the north over the top of the crags until the slope eases near the col to Aonach Dubh. Take care with cornices over the gullies which cut into the summit ridge more deeply than you might think. A couple of people I know have taken the ride down into the coire by walking too close.
Crest Route (VI,6)
For a climb that goes directly up the crest of the buttress, there is some confusion over the exact line (and grade) of this route. However, the variations are all about the same grade so you are in for a good climb whichever way you go. The true line gives the most sustained and best climbing and looking down from the perched block is very satisfying. The groove on the second pitch is probably the technical crux and the climbing is so involved that you might well miss the step left and down to the belay on a small pinnacle. This might explain the confusion in the grade and line of the route. If you miss this belay, you are likely to run out of protection. The cracks are all quite helpful (carry large nuts and some hexes) and there is often some gear stuck in place. Get back into the groove and follow it straight up for more sustained mixed climbing which is fun in an amazing position. This is full-on scraping and seeking, torquing and hooking. It’s not a long climb but every move is hard won and it is a battle to finish the three steep pitches. Everything you’d expect from a grade VI mixed masterpiece in Glen Coe.
Photo: Looking down on Matt Heffer on the last moves of Crest Route from the block belay.
Mike Pescod (IFMGA British Mountain Guide) has been based in Fort William for 20 years. He runs Abacus Mountain Guides, a small guiding and coaching company www.abacusmountainguides.com
The Three Sisters of Beinn Fhada (left), Gearr Aonach and Aonach Dubh (right). The Lost Valley is on the left and Coire nan Lochan on the right with Stob Coire nan Lochan visible.