Bidean nam Bian, Glencoe: Snow, sunshine and glorious views
I walked the double Munro route of Bidean nam Bian in Glencoe some five or six years ago. It was back when I tended to follow G around the mountains and before I felt capable of safely navigating myself. This weekend I returned with an enthusiastic walking friend, Christine C. I was in charge of the navigating!
Bidean nam Bian
Bidean nam Bian is the title of the range of mountains on the south side of Glencoe valley. You see many of the summits high above from the A82, the road that snakes through the bottom of the glen.
Its most northern ridges are known as the Three Sisters. The higher summits including the two Munros, Stob Coire Sgreamhach (1072m) and Bidean nam Bian (1150m), as well as Stob Coire nan Lochan (1115m) are set back, behind the Three Sisters.
Note: Stob Coire nan Lochan is above Munro height but it is too close to Bidean to be deemed a Munro in its own right.
Walk Highlands describes the route of seven-mile Bidean nam Bian in an anticlockwise direction, starting from a car park on the side of the A82. The ascent is through Coire nan Lochan to reach Stob Coire nan Lochan.
The route then heads on to Bidean nam Bian summit and along the ridge to Stob Coire Sgreamhach before a slight retracing of steps to descend a steep slope into the Lost Valley and then down a tourist style path back to the car park.
However, at this time of year in early summer there is still snow lying in the north face gullies high up on the ridge. By all accounts, the usual descent route to the Lost Valley was very steep indeed. Snow had banked up to create an almost vertical wall on he higher slopes.
I can recall this descent without snow and that was steep enough but with snow it looked even more precipitous.
First look of the head of the Lost valley
I climbed up into the Lost Valley on the Friday for an overnight camp with friends. It was a perfect evening of warmth and a slight breeze (as well as no midges). We counted about 10 tents including our three.
I could see the head of the valley from afar and it looked steep. Very steep indeed.
I chatted to a few people who were descending the Lost Valley path as we climbed up and all of them reported that the slope was too steep to descend. Even those with crampons and an ice axe had decided to find an alternative way back down from the ridge.
This made me think twice about my route direction. I had planned to meet a friend Christine the next day and I imagined we would follow the anti-clockwise route of Walk Highlands.
Time for a change of plan
I felt anxious overnight, trying to decide if we should even attempt the Bidean walk. Would it be better to find another way up or down? Would it be better to do another Munro route entirely?
But Christine was keen on the Bidean walk and we decided to head up the Lost Valley and see what we could do. I was prepared to abort the walk if the slope looked too difficult.
In fact, we saw another walker ahead who did turn back. I don’t think he had crampons with him. Interestingly, few people we met on this walk were carrying crampons and ice axes.
The climb up the Lost Valley was beautiful. The sun was shining and each time we looked over our shoulders we could see expanding views of the valley below and further afield to numerous mountain peaks. Many mountain tops could be just seen peeking out of a layer of sunny haze. The views were picture-postcard stunning.
It seemed to take us much longer than we had hoped but then, all of a sudden, we were at the base of the snowfield. We looked up and discussed how we were feeling.
The start of the snow was a gentle incline before the slope began to steepen and steepen. I could see that the top was near vertical but it looked like this would be a short final push.
We decided to give it a try and if it became too steep or scary we would back-climb.
A steep climb on a snow wall
Fixing crampons to our boots and taking an ice axe in our hands, we began the climb. I didn’t feel any nerves at this point because I have traversed and climbed many snow slopes before. I felt secure thanks to my new lightweight but grippy Petzl Leopard crampons.
I checked every so often that Christine felt comfortable. She was following my steps upwards. She said she was fine.
We continued like this for about 20 minutes. I kicked in every step and made sure my feet were secure before making another step up. I could hear Christine behind me, close but not too close.
I looked back a few times. I wanted to make sure Christine really was okay. As the slope became steeper I focused more on the up. I am not a fan of heights or steep slopes and looking down would have freaked me out (so I didn’t look down!).
The slope got suddenly steeper – and then steeper still. I could see the top edge by this point at the top of a snow wall and still a fair way above my head.
But I reckoned it would take only another few minutes of steady steps to top out and I was determined to continue. The thought of back climbing at this stage turned my stomach.
All seemed to be going well and then, suddenly, one of my feet slipped downwards in the spring snow. It wasn’t a big slip but it was enough to make me feel immediately scared.
I tried to calm myself and made my feet secure again. I kicked in another step higher up and I felt my heart racing.
“Just keep going,” I said over and over in my head. “Nearly there.” It would have been too easy to try to go too fast, in a bit of a panic. But I knew I needed to be safe and slow down.
Finally, I reached over the top of the snow bank and climbed on to solid ground. My legs felt like jelly and I was breathing hard. But I had done it.
I peered over the top to see Christine not far behind. Her face said “absolute focus”. And then she was smiling as she climbed over the top, too.
We rested for a while, eating a few snacks, removing the crampons and discussing how amazing it felt to have made it to the top. We could see the rocky slopes of the first Munro, Stob Coire Sgreamhach, to our east and before long we were happily walking up on solid ground.
Munro one to two
Having topped out at close to 900m vertical, the summit of Stob Coire Sgreamhach did not take long to reach. We took a few photos and then retraced our steps down the same slope. We passed the top of our snow climb again.
We could see the slope dropping steeply below and we decided emphatically that we would not be returning this way.
There was an option to do the two Munros as a sort of T-walk but that would mean we would need to descend the snowy slope. No thanks! Instead, our plan was to follow the Walk Highlands route in reverse.
Looking up to the west, the long sloping ridge of Bidean nam Bian stretched ahead. It didn’t look too tricky and with the sun warming us nicely, we thoroughly enjoyed this section of the route.
It was great to be out on a calm and sunny day, chatting to a lovely friend and taking in the superb views. Hubby G had said before we left that this is one of his favourite Munro routes because of the views. He is absolutely right.
Bidean nam Bian summit seemed to arrive very quickly. We stopped again for a bite to eat and then started the descent to the north-east. This wasn’t easy because it is rocky and steep. There were snow patches everywhere and walking over these without crampons felt precarious.
Spring snow can be slushy and slippery and if the snow fields had been larger we might have put on crampons again.
The slopes on either side of the descent are also steep and I think we both felt rather exposed.
We chatted to a few walkers coming up and stopped to watch a couple of skiers heading off down the easterly slope. I am not sure I could be bothered climbing all the way up with skis on my pack for such a short-ish section of snow but I admired their resolve. (Maybe I have been spoilt by the recent ski touring trip to Norway.)
Most walkers told us they planned to find an alternative descent to the snowy slope we had climbed up, or else they were doing an out-and-back hike. The latter seemed like a long way to go…
Christine and I continued our slow descent towards the bealach between Bidean and Stob Coire nan Lochan.
The third summit
Although it is not listed as an official Munro, Stob Coire nan Lochan is still well over the qualifying height. Christine and I agreed that we prefer climbing up the ridges, rather than descending them, and again we enjoyed the walk up.
The third summit also arrived quickly. As I turned around to see where the descent route would be, I spotted a friend from Bearsden climbing up. Chuck was in Glencoe for the weekend to do some hill running and we laughed at the coincidence of meeting each other on a random summit.
Heading back to the start
I confess I found the route hard to fathom from this point. We took the right descent path and stayed high on the slopes but I couldn’t find the route off the Pinnacle Buttress. In every direction it was a mass of rocks and it looked like there were steep drop offs on all sides.
In retrospect we should have stayed higher up this slope and aimed for a descent path further north. But we had ended up a little way down the slope and neither of us could face climbing up again.
So, I looked at the map and reassessed the route. I decided we could descend to the west and meet a path that headed out through Coire nam Beitheach. It wasn’t an ideal route because we ended up on the A82 some way from the car park where Christine had left her car but it was mostly easy going on a well-trodden and well-laid path.
We also enjoyed views of some magnificent waterfalls and had the corrie entirely to ourselves.
I was disappointed not to find the route proper over and around the buttresses of Coire nan Lochan but we needed to descend anyway and it turned out to be a fine route.
I have chatted to others about this and they have told me it is far easier to find the right route when ascending Stob Coire nan Lochan. Finding a descent route amid a boulder field is often tricky.
Thanks for the lift
Walking back along a path at the side of the A82 quickly lost its appeal. Christine had sore feet and we felt like it would take forever. At a layby we spotted a campervan. I asked the driver if he might be heading east and he said yes. He happened to be an outdoors instructor, Neil Kerr of Dubh Mor, and was happy to give two tired walkers a lift back to a car park.
This is a truly glorious Munro route and I learned a lot walking it for the second time. I am proud of myself – and Christine – for overcoming some of our fears on steep slopes and for my ability to reassess a route and work out how to get back to the valley base. It had gone perfectly to plan in some places and not so perfectly in others, but we still enjoyed a thoroughly brilliant day out in Glencoe.