Thursday, 20 February 2014


There is a memorial bench in the Altnafeadh car park…

Despite many years as a member of my climbing club, I had never been to a Lagangarbh meet.  There have been many meets there over the years but circumstances conspired to keep me away but this year, the planets must have aligned and I found myself in the legendary SMC hut for a weekend.

Coire na Tulaich is probably one of the most notorious accident blackspots in Scotland, with a number of fatalities in recent years due to avalanche.  It is also the voie normale to the summit of Buachaille Etive Mor, that great bastion of rock that stands guard over the entrance to Glen Coe.  Recent SAIS reports had rated the avalanche risk as “High” but it had been downgraded to “Considerable” only a few days earlier, particularly for north-facing slopes of which the route up is.

Lagangarbh and Buachaille Etive Mor
I was very keen to avoid the coire and decided on a route to the right, following the broad ridge leading up to Stob Coire na Tulaich (point 902).  Although the ground at Lagangarbh wasn’t frozen despite a dusting of overnight snow, nine of us  set off up the untracked snow which was knee-deep in many places, with an occasional thigh-deep plunge catching us out by surprise.  On one short but steep pitch, I led but got caught out by the almost waist-deep snow, providing much amusement for the others as they bypassed me through shallower snow on the left !  As we moved up the snow started to harden with some hard névé needing steps kicking to reach a small plateau where we put on our crampons and goggles.  From here we moved out of the protection of the ridge and into the gusting wind as we headed towards the minor summit of Stob Coire na Tulaich.

towards Stob Coire na Tulaich
Conditions worsened as we crossed the col with 60+mph gusts of wind causing us to drop to our knees, with occasional whiteout conditions making progress even more arduous.  We got together to make a decision about what to do next in the harsh conditions and I made it clear that I was determined to get to the summit.  The others agreed to come and I stayed at the back of the group to encourage one or two of the others, for whom conditions were tiring them quicker than the main body of the group.  At the top we rested for a short while, had a bite to eat and took some traditional summit photos amongst the poor visibility.

We started back down the ridge in poor visibility and what felt like worsening winds, forcing us to our knees again.  The gusts were now taking longer to ease and keeping us on the ground, at which point I was becoming concerned that we were staying still for too long.  I was about to give the group a serious gee-up about getting down, even if it meant crawling to the col, but the winds lessened and visibility improved allowing us to progress to the col.

It became obvious that the wind was blowing snow into Coire na Tulaich over a big cornice, justifying the day’s route choice.  One of us spotted about five other walkers heading up to Stob na Doire, these being the only other people any of us saw all day.  The conditions were obviously keeping many others off the hills !

We followed our ascent route back down and enjoyed a few bumslides on the way giving some of us the chance to practice our ice axe braking !

Although the day’s conditions were challenging, I enjoyed them a lot and bad as they were, I could imagine myself still enjoying even greater windspeeds.  The day’s mileage and ascent weren’t the most I’d ever done and dropping through the freezing level resulted in a lot of wet gear but bagging a TRAIL 100 mountain and a Munro in full winter conditions was greatly satisfying.

It had rained overnight on Saturday and continued to do so sporadically as I decided whether or not to walk up Beinn a’ Chrulaiste with the group.  I had made up my mind that I didn’t want another soaking as a prelude to a long damp journey home.  But the rain stopped so I changed my mind !

Most of yesterday’s group with a couple of others saw nine of us set off across boggy ground to reach the broad west ridge, soon reaching the snowline before the minor summit of Stob Beinn a’ Chrulaiste.  Walking poles were proving very useful on when crossing the hollows to where snow had drifted.  The windspeed increased and visibility decreased as we made our way up and a correction to the bearing soon had us heading for the summit.

Although visibility was poor, we managed to get some good views of the snow-plastered Buachaille Etive Mor.  Beinn a’ Chrulaiste isn’t the most exciting mountain but the view across the valley is unsurpassed.

Buachaille Etive Mor
We could just make out the trig point from a foresummit and soon the summit photos of my first Corbett were taken after goggles were quickly donned in the cutting wind.  A quick decision was made to reverse the route rather than traverse the mountain which gave us a more leisurely opportunity to enjoy the view over to Buachaille Etive Mor and Coire na Tulaich.

Crowberry Tower on the upper left skyline 
Walking back to Lagangarbh via the Altnafeadh car park, I passed a bench with a memorial plaque to Allan Lang, Richard Lang and Paul Bower.  On 21st February 1995 they were caught in an avalanche in Coire na Tulaich.  Such were the continued high avalanche risk at the time rescue teams abandoned the search – their bodies were recovered 6 weeks later.  The bench looks towards the coire and serves as a poignant reminder for us all to understand the power of the mountains and how lucky we are to be able to enjoy our days amongst them.