Hillwalking by Frank Brooks: The immense craggy walls of Glencoe’s sisters

Stob Coire Sgreamhach
Stob Coire Sgreamhach

Bidean nam Bian, the highest of the Argyll hills, hides bashfully behind three other fine peaks.

Stob Coire Sgreamhach (pronounced: screevak), Stob Coire nan Lochan and Stob Coire nam Beith (pronounced: Bay), are each fine mountains in their own rights, yet each of these shy hills seems reluctant to show themselves in full, merely peeking over the shoulders of their long northward thrusting spurs, better known as the Three Sisters of Glencoe.

In fact, though Bidean rules by dint of height (1150 metres), and is certainly a graceful peak, she is the least attractive of the entire gang. It’s the getting there and the wander from her summit that makes for such a grand day out.

And the variations of route are many; if you were to walk all the ridges of this mini range in one outing, you will have walked a good twelve miles. Today we were only walking eight or nine.

We’d timed our arrival at the car park to perfection. Even as we booted up we were treated to a truly alpine vista: as the sun heaved itself above the eastern ridges of Glencoe, Stob Coire nan Lochan, her graceful peak framed by her bounding ridges, took on a glow that turned her snowy flanks to gold.

For today’s excursion we’d chosen to use a long time favourite route of mine, that via the so called Hidden Valley, alias Coire Gabhail. A good path drops directly from the car park to cross the River Coe, by an excellent wooden bridge. Though it wasn’t so today this path can be ice bound and treacherous; it has claimed lives!

Higher up in the ravine the river actually disappears for a short distance, hidden by the mass of huge boulders that have fallen here over the millennia; the ambience is almost subterranean.

Once out in the open again the water threads a course through other fine, narrow trenches, always a distraction on the way to Sgreamhach. Soaring cliffs on either side of the glen -like corrie give this place a truly mountainous feel. In dull weather it can be chill and gloomy here, foreboding, dramatically so in fact. Today, with the sun shining in an almost cloudless sky, it was glorious. This is The Lost Valley proper and from the road you’d never know it existed. No wonder the MacDonalds of old found it such a handy place to hide their stolen cattle!

There’s a fine path all the way to the narrow col ahead, but soon the snow came down to meet us burying any traces of it. We didn’t need the path; Bidian is a very popular hill, countless footprints doubled as a handy guide.

It takes a while to reach the col, not least because the valley is such a beautiful place to linger. The final section however, steep and choked with hardened snow, forced us into crampons and kept us very careful.

From here the way to Bidean was westwards. Though the snows of a good winter were retreating to the higher zones, there was still plenty left, the views were still entirely wintery.

We shot back down to the col and threaded our way up the longer, boulder infested eastern ridge of Bidean. The ridge narrows significantly at one point, not quite to a knife edge but in winter conditions thrilling nonetheless.

From the summit we looked across an unseen arm of Loch Linnhe and guessed the Ardgour hills and the peaks we’d enjoyed but a few short weeks ago. Tantalising views these, part hidden by the dull backs of Beinn a’ Bheither and Sgurr Dhonuill, alias ‘The Vair Pair’.

Another short and easy detour west soon had us on the peak of Stob Coire nam Beith. You can climb up from Loch Actriochtan, an absorbing route offering scrambles galore, not to mention classic rock climbs; (there’s an easier walker’s route too), to begin the traverse from the western end. Back to Bidean and a pause for an early lunch much needed.

After which we dropped down Bidean’s rocky north-east ridge, at times having to make way for others coming from our next peak. This ridge off is a potential trap in mist; many have been the walkers who, contending with poor visibility, have strayed too far left and onto the plummet inducing tops of Church Door and Diamond Buttresses, from which there is no safe descent. You are safe only if you turn around and try again!

We crossed a wide bealach with stupendous rocky scenery, especially behind us and to our left, to slow us down. And next, our final peak, the somewhat more spacious summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan. We’d climbed her from her dullest side today, the beauty of this mountain is seen only from her northern approaches. That way sublime cliffs and gully riven buttresses rise from the valley floor, yet another climber’s paradise.

Often we have approached this summit from Coire nan Lochan, as far as the little pools that provide the name, then up the mountain’s steep and mildly scrambly eastern ridge. Today we opted to descend in the opposite direction.

In summer conditions it’s as safe as houses, even though this north-west ridge will have you skirting along the very brink of beetling cliffs and gaping gullies. With snow in abundance today we trod warily!

The usual way off is to drop down to an obvious broad saddle which seems to separate the cliffs, but today we had time on our side. We decided to wander out along Sister number three, otherwise known as Aonach Dubh, for a look across the chasm of Glencoe and the foreshortened scree slopes and cliffs of Aonach Eagach. And it was worth it! The walking was gentle and pleasant, the view at the end, stupendous! We doubled back to the saddle and descended easy slopes on snow covered grass; the lochans down below, our guides, were frozen solid. From these, once we’d stepped across the corrie’s infant burn, all was easy going. And yet none the less dramatic than anything we’d passed through so far that day. On either side of us rose the immense craggy walls of two of Glencoe’s Sisters, Aonach Dubh, on our left and, on our right, Gearr Aonach. With the sun now hiding behind the immensity of the main Bidain range, we dropped into a shadowy, cooler world. It was cold enough to keep us moving briskly enough to have us back at the at park, staring back up at a Stob Coire nan Lochan, in somewhat gloomier mood than she’d greeted us...