Character building on the Bidean

Bidean nam Bian (1150m)

  • Pronunciation:              Beed-yan nam Ee-yann
  • Translation:                   Chief of the Hills
  • Total distance:              12km
  • Total time:                     7hrs 30mins
  • Total ascent:                  1100m
  • Weather:                        Sunny and clear to begin with. Deteriorated with cloud and snow later in the day. Snowline at 550m
  • Start / end location:    Large car park on A82 near top of Pass of Glen Coe. [Grid Ref: NN 172 568]
  • Map:                                A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window.

The aim for today was to climb Stob Corrie nan Lochan (1115m – but not a Munro because the drop surrounding it isn’t great enough), then cross a ridge to reach Bidean nam Bian (1150) before finally crossing another ridge to summit Stob Corrie Sgreamhach (1072).

The weather and the climbing started out promising enough. The weather as you can see from the previous blog was ideal: it was quite cold and clear, with very little wind. As we looked across the glen from the car park we were confronted by The Three Sisters: formed by three huge buttresses extending from and obscuring the mountain massif behind.

High up in Corrie nan Lochan

We initially dropped down 100m to cross the River Coe (footbridge) and then back up the other side of the glen, heading towards Corrie nan Lochan (situated between two of the “Sisters”). Although from the roadside it doesn’t look as though a suitable path exists, there actually is an excellent climbers path all the way up to the corrie headwall. Corrie nan Lochan is an excellent example of a glacial hanging valley, and so it was steep to get to the mouth of the glen, where it then eased off a bit until we came to the headwall at the back of the corrie. To the right of us as we ascended, the steep east walls of Aonach Dubh looked particularly impressive. Behind us, and back across Glen Coe, Aonach Eagach ridge looked resplendent draped in snow and catching the morning sun.

Cameron toiling to break trail in deep snow

All the way up the path the fresh water run-off had frozen requiring us to be fully alert and use careful footwork to avoid simple slips. At around 550m the ice gave way to snow: a little bit firmer than on previous outings, but far from consolidated.

As we started up the corrie headwall to reach the start of the left hand ridge coming down from Stob Corrie nan Lochan the real fun began! For over 40mins I did battle with the thigh deep snow. It is hard to describe the physical effort of lifting yourself and a heavy rucksack out of each 20” deep foothold, whilst ascending a steep slope. Nevertheless, a lot of bad language later (only on my part) and we were on the ridgeline. At this stage the weather began to “close in a bit”. Clouds had formed over the peaks and were dropping down to our level (around 750m). The wind was also picking up. We decided to dig a bit of a seat in the snow and huddled down for some lunch.

The smile belies the difficulty of the thigh deep snow

After our short break we once again did battle with the snow: this time on the crest of the ridge. The wind had really picked up and the visibility deteriorated considerably. As well as the physical effort of climbing up through the deep soft snow, we had to tackle a few spots of easy to moderate scrambling. The scrambling parts really taxed Elaine: she was not at all happy with the wind, icy rocks, the lack of visibility and perceived exposure. However, we did finally make it to the top of Stob Corrie nan Lochan and from here it was an 800m journey to the summit of Bidean nan Bian (1150m or 3,773’).

The problem was that the conditions had meant that we were well behind schedule. It was 14:00 when we reached the summit of Bidean, with only 2.5 hours of useful daylight left. However, as our descent route was actually in the direction of the second Munro (Stob Corrie Sgreamhach) we could make the decision of whether to try to climb this one as well until a bit later on.

On the summit in deteriorating weather

A ridge with several cols connects the two Munros together.  Our guidebook suggests that you could descend down into the Lost Valley (another hanging valley running parallel to the glen that we climbed up earlier in the day but separated by the middle “Sister” buttress). It also suggested that of the several cols on the connecting ridge, only really one of them was suitable as a descent route.

On the way to the appropriate col we met a party of three coming in the other direction. Given the conditions we swapped intelligence about the routes ahead. I talked them “down” from Bidean (the way we came up) and questioned them about the challenges lying ahead in the descent from the col. They suggested that it was suitable way off, but that there was a bit of a cornice. [A cornice is wind blown snow that builds up and overhangs on the leeward side of a ridge or cliff. Cornices can cause real problems as they sometimes break away (hence never walk too close to the edge) and you generally have to cut through them to ascend or descend.] I felt a bit more confident having spoken to these guys.

When we reached the col we were only 300m horizontally and no more than 150m vertically from the summit of Stob Corrie Sgreamhach. Only about 30mins away – there and back to the col! However, I had to decide if we had the time. But first I decided to investigate the descent from the col – and it looked tricky. The poor visibility and flat light meant that I struggled to differentiate the snow layers. The slope down was very steep and a bit of a cornice had formed. Ice axe in hand I took a few tentative steps down. Thankfully, it looked ok as a descent route: if a bit steep. However, given our slow speed on the ascent of the previous two mountains earlier and the fact that it would be 15:00 by the time we would get back to this col if we tried to summit the second Munro, I decided that Stob Corrie Sgreamhach would be there for us to climb another day. With hindsight this was absolutely the right decision.

Elaine struggled quite a bit with the steep descent. It took us quite a while to lose just 250m of height. But we eventually made it to easier ground that took us eventually into the Hidden Valley – where it began to snow. What an amazing place – I’ll post more on this when we come back to do Sgreamhach later in the year.

The end of the Hidden Valley (towards Glen Coe and the A82 road) is blocked by huge glacial erratics, but a path weaves through them and follows a river back down to join the River Coe in the glen below. The decent from the Hidden Valley was done in rapidly fading light: although we reached the ‘van at 17:00 and didn’t quite need to use our head-torches. The snow falling higher up had turned to rain lower down the route and so we were pretty soaked by the time we reached the comfort and safety of the ‘van. Looking back up in the direction of Corrie nan Lochan we could make out three head-torches high up in the glen: probably belonging to the three we had met earlier – at least they were safely on the excellent path that would take them safely back to their car parked beside our ‘van.

So what did I learn from today? Actually that Elaine and I have very differing levels of mountaineering experience and confidence: especially in winter conditions. I’ve spent time in the Alps, climbing the likes of the Matterhorn, and climbed quite a bit in Scotland in winter (in lots of mixed conditions). Elaine, on the other hand has a lot of summer mountaineering experience, but very little in real winter conditions, where confident footwork is essential and experience with ice axe and crampons important. Until Elaine’s experience and confidence has grown a little, I’ll need to moderate our route and expectations to comply.

I said from the outset that we weren’t going to take unnecessary risks during our year out: and today showed that the right decision was made – only 30mins or so from bagging another Munro, but the right decision, given all the circumstances, was to beat a retreat as we did.

About Cameron Speirs

Born and brought up in the Scottish Highlands, Cameron, has been interested in outdoor pursuits since he was a wee lad. Over the last few decades he has climbed extensively in the Italian Dolomites as well as summiting the Matterhorn and several other 4000m alpine peaks. Closer to home he has spent many wonderful weekends mountaineering and biking in Snowdonia, Cairngorms, Glen Coe, Skye and Lochaber.
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2 Responses to Character building on the Bidean

  1. Neil Fairbairn says:

    Sounds like a bit of an epic, stay safe!

  2. David Comins says:

    Well done on Bidean – and your decision to leave Stob Coire Sgreamhach for another day. Thanks for the accounts.

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