Written by: James Forrest
Photography by: Edward Fitzpatrick
I’m standing atop Scotland’s best-loved mountain. Fresh air fills my lungs and a rather wild breeze ruffles my hair. Clouds are swirling, lifting every now and then to unveil a beguiling landscape of towering mountains, plunging cliffs, scarred gullies and green valleys. A solitary raven, its jet black feathers glistening, soars over the rocky summit ominously, perhaps eyeing up my sandwiches. There is an ethereal, almost mystical, atmosphere here – and I love it. I’m feeling happy and free, my often-troubled mind calmed by the simple therapy of putting one foot in front of the other. I’ve travelled to all four corners of the globe on hiking trips, but I’m hard-pressed to think of anywhere more beautiful than the view in front of me right now.
"I have a palpable sense that I’m achieving a life goal"
This is Glen Coe, perhaps Scotland’s most spectacular valley, and a paradise for hikers, scramblers, climbers and anyone with a passion for the mountains. I’m eating lunch perched next to the summit cairn of Buachaille Etive Mòr – an iconic peak with a handsome, majestic pyramidal profile, like a child’s drawing of a perfectly triangular mountain – and I have a palpable sense that I’m achieving a life goal. Exploring Glen Coe and climbing ‘The Buachaille’, as it is often affectionately known, has always been on my bucketlist – and now it’s been ticked off. It feels like a rite of passage. I smile, a deep, content smile, and take a quiet few minutes to savour the moment. I sit, gazing over a horizon of craggy mountains, and breathe in the tranquillity. “I’m so glad we came to Glen Coe”, I say to Nic, my girlfriend, suddenly feeling a little emotional. “Me too”, she replies.
"I glance up at moody skies and begin to feel a little anxious."
Rewind 12 hours and we pull over into a somewhat potholed gravel car park off the Pass of Glen Coe, desperately attempting to avoid crocking our car’s suspension. It’s 8pm on Friday evening – and ahead lies an adventurous weekend of peak-bagging and bothying. We’re here with a specific mission: to climb four Munros, Scottish mountains over 3,000ft, across two days. We’ll walk 21km in total, ascend over 2,000m and sleep in a charming, rustic mountain hut on Friday and Saturday night. As I unload the car and tramp the short distance towards our home for the night, I glance up at moody skies and begin to feel a little anxious. I find myself whispering a little prayer to the mountain gods, respectfully asking for blue skies and clear summits for the following day.
Joined by our friend Eddie, we spend the evening sipping on cups of tea and catching up. “How’s your challenge going – you must be exhausted, right?”, asks Eddie. “Totally”, I reply. Nic and I are attempting to climb all of the Munros in a single-round this spring and summer. It has been a mentally and physically gruelling expedition so far, but an incredible, life-affirming adventure too that has given us an intimate interaction with Scotland’s wild, rugged lands. There are 282 Munros in Scotland. First listed in 1891 by Sir Hugh Munro, a member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club who gives his name to the mountain classification, Munros are Scottish mountains over 3,000ft. Originally Sir Hugh detailed 283 mountains in his works, with 255 further summits over 3,000ft considered to be only subsidiary ‘tops’ not worthy of mountain status. Over the years his list has been refined, both up and down, after certain peaks were re-measured using new technologies, but at present there are 282 Munros. It is the goal of many hillwalkers to climb them all.
"The mountain looks impenetrable and un-climbable; a domineering mass of knobbly outcrops and precipitous faces of rock, gashed dramatically by vertical gullies"
Loading up an OS map on my phone, I look over our weekend routes and show them to Nic. “Four more Munros in the bag this weekend, all being well”, I say. “Gotta keep ticking them off”, she replies, with a hint of determination in her voice. On the hit-list for Saturday are Stob Dearg (1,022m) and Stob na Broige (956m), the two Munros that, somewhat confusingly, collectively form what is known as Buachaille Etive Mòr (the Big Herdsman of Etive in Gaelic). For Sunday our sights are set on The Buachaille’s smaller brother, Buachaille Etive Beag (Little Herdsman of Etive), which includes the Munros of Stob Dubh (958m) and Stob Coire Raineach (925m). I’m giddy with anticipation.
The following morning, wrapped up in Gore-Tex layers, we shut the door on our mountain hut and pick up a good path heading south towards The Buachaille. From here the mountain looks impenetrable and un-climbable; a domineering mass of knobbly outcrops and precipitous faces of rock, gashed dramatically by vertical gullies. The upper slopes are shrouded in a ubiquitous – and somewhat uninviting – clag. But thankfully, while climbers head left for more difficult routes such as the Curved Ridge and North Buttress, we fork right aiming for Coire na Tulaich, a scree-filled gully that provides the lowly hillwalker with access to The Buachaille’s higher reaches via an obvious break in the otherwise imposing crags. Our hands grip boulders and our boots crunch on stony ground, as we slip and slide over rivers of rock and ascend through the clouds along a tumbling burn. Sweating and breathing heavily, we negotiate a few easy scrambling moves and top out onto the ridge. We turn left, climb over shattered rocks, and make it to the summit of Stob Dearg. “One down, three to go”, says Nic, chuckling, “and that was far easier than it looked the bottom”. “Epic - it really was”, I reply, buzzing off the happiness-inducing endorphins I always seem to get from exercising in the great outdoors.
"As if to reward our efforts, the clouds begin to dissipate, the skies turn blue and a golden sun lights up Glen Coe in all its glory."
After lunch on the summit, we re-trace our steps to the col and head west aiming for Munro number two. We skirt past a minor bump, ascend a steep slope to the 1,011m peak of Stob na Doire, which bizarrely isn’t a Munro despite its superior height, and descend a sharp, rocky arête before sticking to the apex of the ridge to finally summit Stob na Bròige (956m). As if to reward our efforts, the clouds begin to dissipate, the skies turn blue and a golden sun lights up Glen Coe in all its glory. We all glance at each other, smiling in recognition that we’re about to be in for a real treat – and I realise that the mountain gods were listening to my prayers after all.
We sit in silence and take in the scenery from our lofty viewing platform. Glen Coe is a long valley, running on an east-west axis from the boggy plains of Rannoch Moor to the east over to Glencoe village in the west. The noisy A82 dissects the valley, but the steady stream of HGVs and tourist campervans, somehow, don’t distract from the place’s aura. Either side of the road are a dizzying array of striking, eye-catching mountains, including eight Munros. To the north are Meall Dearg and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, two Munros connected by the knife-edge ridge of Aonach Eagach, a nerve-jangling grade two scramble over a series of soaring pinnacles and rocky chimneys; and to the south of the road are the glorious Munros of Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire Sgreamhach, which rise proudly above the much-photographed craggy domes of the Three Sisters. We are gazing over all of these wonders from our perch in the south-eastern corner of the region – and it feels like a real privilege. Everyone has a different favourite part of Glen Coe, but I start to think the Big Herdsman is mine.
"It is impossibly idyllic, like a scene out of a postcard."
After a steep descent of the Allt Coire Altrium followed by a relaxing amble along Lairig Gartain, we arrive back at our home for the night. The simple, whitewashed building is nestled, in a beautifully solitary position, underneath the grandeur of The Buachaille’s bulk. It is impossibly idyllic, like a scene out of a postcard. “So is this a bothy?”, asks Eddie, “as I’ve never stayed in one before.” “Erm, sort of”, I reply, before launching into a bothy monologue. It goes a little like this: bothies are simple, unlocked, free-to-use shelters in remote country for the benefit of whoever needs them; they often have wooden bunks for sleeping, perhaps a table and some chairs, and an open fire, but there are no toilets or running water and you have to be self-sufficient, carrying in all of your food and equipment and carrying out all of your litter; and there are about 100 across Britain, maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association charity, which has converted many old farming and mining buildings into these rudimentary shelters. I finish my speech with “I love them – we’ve had lots of magical bothy experiences during our challenge, chatting to new friends around a roaring fire and waking up in some amazing landscapes”. “So, what would you call this place again?”, replies Eddie. “It’s, well, a posh bothy”, I reply.
We’re staying at Lagangarbh, a former crofter’s cottage owned by the National Trust for Scotland and run by the Scottish Mountaineering Club. Unlike normal bothies, it costs £15 a night to stay and you have to book in advance. But that’s a small price to pay for such an iconic location, plus there aren’t any open access bothies within easy access of Glen Coe – the nearest are to the south of the Ballachulish Munros and to the north of Blackwater Reservoir. We spend a chilled evening eating spaghetti bolognese and sharing tales of our recent adventures, before snuggling into our sleeping bags on the communal bunks and settling down for some much-needed rest.
"Conversation doesn’t flow, each of us staring down, bracing against the gnarly conditions and blinkered by our waterproof hoods"
The following morning we wake early, rush through breakfast and set off for Buachaille Etive Beag, fearful of what the forecast is predicting. Heavy rain falls and gusts howl as we traverse the grassy lower slopes of Stob Coire Raineach before climbing steeply south-east to a col. Conversation doesn’t flow, each of us staring down, bracing against the gnarly conditions and blinkered by our waterproof hoods. “This is the real Scotland we’ve become accustomed to”, I joke, “and yesterday was just a blip.” “I think you might’ve spoken too soon”, replies Nic minutes later, noticing what is about to happen. The wind inexplicably dies and, for a fleeting moment, the high cloud base breaks. We find ourselves on craggy ground piercing above the billowing, whirling clouds below. I laugh aloud at the awesomeness of where I am and what I’m doing – and learn why this place holds such a special place in so many hearts. Because, even when it rains, Glen Coe has the power to be this magical.