Four photographers and avid wild campers head to Glen Coe for a week of photography, camping and madness. What could go wrong?
This trip has been in the planning since March but Scotland was never really on the cards until a few weeks before the trip which was planned for the first week of June. Originally we had planned to go abroad for one epic week of mountains, hiking, camping and of course photography, like most photographers and lovers of the outdoors every mountain range that was within a three hour flight was mentioned from the Alps, Tatra and Dolomites mountains were just some of the names throw up in the list.
We all agreed Tatra mountains would something different and new for all of us but with March and June being so far apart our plans and the obvious, time ran out very quickly with the beginning of May now approaching we began to panic and look at prices for flights for Poland or Slovakia to reach the mountains was now to high and our epic week away we all imagined was going to become a very expensive trip. At this point, Grant suggested something a little more local and the suggestion of Scotland came about.
Isle of Skye, Outer Hebrides and Glen Coe were the three destinations for our week. Beginning of June, hot weather and Scotland what’s the worst that could happen. Ticks and midges were the instant worry crossing our minds, then it dawned on us the some ten hour drive for us to reach Scotland. Shall we just stay “local” again and go to Snowdonia and try the Rhinogydd?
We all wanted something different and new, only Jim and Grant had previously visited the area. For myself I had only climbed Ben Nevis and for Gareth, this would be his first visit to Scotland. Surprising for a bunch of avid outdoor lovers and campers that we haven’t visited Scotland or explored the area all that much but when a drive is ten hours and flights a few hundred pounds and a logistical nightmare that you can’t just do on a weekend, is it any wonder we just stick to Wales so often.
Our trip wouldn’t be visiting the well known locations but to explore, scramble and stick high on the mountains to climbing and camping. Not that these aren’t well known but lesser photographed spots for most photographers, we would be climbing the Aonach Eagach ridge, Bidean Nam Bian, Hidden Valley and Binnein Mor to name some summits and regions we planned to explore.
Grant:“So are we taking tents?”
Gareth:“Well mate I thought we were camping?”
To put some context to Grant’s statement which left the three of us stunned at the silly remark, we were planning to use bivvy bags for the trip.
Weather up until a few days before we were due to arrive was looking good but as anyone who has been to Scotland previously will know the weather changes very quickly. If you don't like the weather , wait ten minutes. However, even this wasn't meant to be the case as we ended up with two dry afternoons and the rest. Wet!
To cut it short, we didn't wild camp. The rain and conditions on the summits meant it wasn't safe and with five days in Scotland we didn't want to be soaking wet the whole time. This was some what of a holiday for us too. As we arrived in Glencoe village, searching for breakfast we quickly learnt nothing opens until 10am. With no where to go we found where the campsite was and headed over to set up our camp for the week. On arrival the women at the desk told us we were hardy men and could go out towards the island... I distinctly remember us all saying we're going to be flooded out.
As we had set off the previous night after work, we arrived in Glencoe around 7:30am, we spent a few hours messing around at Glen Etive and numerous breaks on route. So, with us bring so early we opted to try and get our heads down for a few hours before breakfast. Did any of us sleep. Nope! Grant opted to use the hammock? Grant, it's raining? Guess what happened next, yep you guessed it.
"Jim? Can I get the keys, I need to get my tent. I'm a bit wet".
10am arrives and our bellies were growling, despite being awake for twelve odd hours now none of us were particularly tired just extremely hungry. Off we rushed to find breakfast and come up with a plan. With rain set in for the majority of the day we decided a low level day was a good idea and this would give us opportunity to recover from the ordeal of Grants karaoke, I mean long ten hour drive. Poor Jim...
For most of the Saturday we spent it exploring the numerous road side shots and popular areas to visit. This was bucket list day, Glen Etive Mor, Skyfall, climbing across a wire bridge, Three Sisters and Loch Etive, before finally finishing back in Glencoe village for venison burger and local beers. This wasn't the final stop of the day however, we headed off to the coast eager to see the sunset with the stunning mountain backdrop. What could make this better. A beer in hand with a bug net on of course.
Castle Stalker was a fantastic end to being awake for thirty six hours but we were all shattered and longing for our tents. The drive and day exploring had caught us up. Not long after the sun finally set we returned to the car and returned to camp. I think day one in Scotland was over.
Having been awake for so long it was evident we were all loosing the plot and completely lost the concept of time or day it was. Was it Friday still? Saturday, oh we don't know let's get lost up a mountain.
The following morning and you guessed it, rain, and plenty of it. So, what's the plan? Breakfast, Fort William for the morning, followed by a scramble this afternoon in the good weather.
Rather than having breakfast prior to Fort William, we waited and had a full Scottish breakfast in town. You can tell we were taking the lack of wild camping to heart - Meals out and pubs. As the rain eased we ventured around the town for a while, with Grant the bloodhound sniffing out any outdoor store in site. However, all of us walked out of each store dissatisfied and left wondering with such an expanse of mountains on your door step, the range and stock in these stores was poor to say the least. Had the numerous visits to Betws-y-coed spoilt us.
Midday and the sun was appearing and as quick as the sun was out we shot up the mountain, making the most of it. The original idea for that week was to scramble across Aonach Eagach ridge and we agreed to take this opportunity to scramble up the Clachaig gully, summit Coire an t-Sidhein and see what the epic ridge had in store for us.
(The above route is for purchase only to deter people from taking this tricky and dangerous scramble. Knowledge of grade 2 scrambling and navigating is required. This Gully isn’t easy and is known for deaths in recent years).
This is where we were silly and should had done some more research prior to the scramble. The Clachaig gully is a full grade 2 scramble and we were scrambling for the full distance, three hours in all. Fast forward to the following morning we did some research to find that BMC advise against this route as its dangerous and numerous deaths have occurred due to the conditions and difficulty. It wasn't easy but was a great deal of fun. We were all in our element and loving it!
Prior to the climb we continued to ask ourselves, our we photographers first or walkers? This scramble proved anything but we are walkers (perhaps mad) first and photographers second. The cameras didn't come out until the summit and even that was brief with rain, hail and sleet coming down. The view of the ridge, Glen Coe valley, sisters and beyond was breathtaking and we couldn't wait to be back up here again in a few days. As the weather deteriorated we needed to get off and scramble back down before dark. The climb up was challenging enough with loose scree, grease and uneven terrain for some 95% of the gully, even for Grant and myself experienced climbers we were nervous and didn't fancy this in the dark.
As we began our descent the weather changed again but for the better, as soon as we were back in the gully the sun came out and the wind dropped. This was the final push we needed and as the light dropped we could see the lights of the Clachaig inn at the bottom. On the route down it wasn't all plain sailing. Gareth was suffering from cramp and on every step down and stopping to access his legs would lock up. Every time he would be left nearly reduced to tears and screaming in pain. He knew he couldn't stop as this made it worse, once moving it was like nothing was wrong.
You would think with this and conditions going up we would be longer than the three hours it took to scramble. We flew down! In just two hours and were back down in time for a refreshing cold pint!
Monday was wet. It was the worst day of the trip and we had nothing but rain from morning to night. It was another low level day and we spent the day in Oban and driving about visiting Kilchurn, Glen Coe mountain resort and finally Clachaig inn again. It was a miserable day to put it simply but Tuesday was going to be the day for us.
Sunshine & dry all day = MOUNTAIN DAY!
With such good weather you'd think we would had been up on the Aonach Eagach ridge but if the gully was anything to go by the ridge was going to be greasy and wet and this isn't the place to be when you have a 700 metre drop either side of you. Instead we went for a safer option and up the Hidden Valley and summit Bidean nam Bian. Doing a full circuit through the three sisters.
It was great, a solid twelves hours out in the mountains and some far distance and height covered.
On the way up Grant muttered he was scared of these mountains and you can see why. In Wales, many of the car parks and points we start at are already fairly high up. A good few hundred metres in some respects and you only typically have an hours climb at most two. Here, in Scotland you don’t start high up, you’re at 0-50metres above sea level and have a hefty 1000 plus metres to climb which takes 4-5 hours with breaks and soaking up the views. Okay, perhaps scared is the wrong statement but we weren’t in the comfort of our little Welsh hills and mountains anymore. There was a reason we packed ultra light for this trip and it was for this reason alone.
Anything we didn’t need, stayed behind. Pushing it to real extremes of leaving water bottles behind and simply taking water filters to use in streams and rivers on the route up and down. As well as taking travel tripods if it was available, leaving lenses behind, no stoves and just snacks. Essentially pack weights were below 6-7kg if we could get it.
In my Atlas Athlete Pack (2kg) was: Olympus EM-5 mkII body with 12-40mm and 40-150mm pro (1.6kg), Kase Filters Circular magnetic filters (120g), Vanguard Veo 2 Go 204CB (770g), food (500g), Snugpak SJ3 jacket (560g), Rab Alpine Kinetic trousers (280g), Helly Hansen Phantom Mesh mid-layer (250g), Sawyer Water filter (130g), SealSkinz gloves and buff (200g), map, compasses and torch (200g).
Total = 6.7kg
This route takes all day so leave plenty of time to get down and DO NOT attempt in poor weather/stormy conditions).
Starting from the Three Sisters car park, we dropped down to the river and back up in to the Hidden Valley. Despite the weather being overcast and frankly not brilliant it was still incredibly warm and you couldn’t stand around for too long without being chased down by the locals… The heather midges were out in force.
The first part of the climb was busy, plenty of people were about walking up to the now empty river bed which sits in the Hidden Valley. Most from here stopped for coffee or turned back. Once we walked on after our coffee stop and water top up we were the only fools climbing up to Bidean nam Bian.
From a distance we could see the brown scar on in the mountain side, the closer we got to the gully we were getting more and more worried about this just being scree and our last push on to the summit was going to be a right pain!
Thankfully it wasn’t, it was actually steps the whole way up but giant steps. Even for us long legged freaks of 6ft2 we were struggling with each push up but, once up the view back at what we had climbed was epic.
The Instagram Man
At the top of the ridge looking back down the Hidden Valley we took a pause to catch our breath and appreciate the views. However, Grant being keen to crack on ran off up to the summit. It wasn’t long before we lost him in to the field of cloud which continued to whip up in to the bowl of the mountains around us. From here we could see all of the locations we had previously visited and the view once we reached the munro was even better. When the clouds weren’t spoiling the view.
Whilst we soaked up the views and more rain. We enjoyed a bit of frisbee with a Kase Filter.
Nope you read correctly. We were asked to do a drop test and see for ourselves how strong and indestructible these filters really are. We tried the recommended 1.5m. Not a scratch.
So a little higher - 3m with a bounce. Still not a scratch.
Okay, so throwing it 10m and nearly loosing it off the edge is sure to break this filter.
Our chins dropped, all four of us were shocked. How? What? It can’t have survived that drop!
Now we had finished messing about trying to break filters that were more like solid rock the cloud and rain crept back in so it was time to pack up and get off this munro. We had two choices, back down the same route or do the full circle and head down over Stob Coire Nan Lochan which was somewhere before us hidden in the clouds.
As we climbed down and reached our second munro of the day we got to here and became a bit stuck. The route down wasn’t immediately obvious? So, out came the maps and ViewRanger and the route looked as if it went straight over the cairn and down as you looked left of the cairn you couldn’t see a pathway but to the right was clearly a route down. The maps looked to show this being the correct way as well.
Turns out it was very wrong. Very, very wrong!
The below picture on the far right shows some patches of snow and a 200m scree drop. We ended up here.
This isn’t the view down the edge we climbed down, as we had to climb back up to the cairn to find a safer route down but this is a similar view down. So for anyone planning to summit this munro and coming from Bidean nam Bian, go left at the summit. Not down the scree and pathway to the right you will find yourself stuck.
Moving on from our stupid error, we made in on to the final stint. Sat on top of one of the Three Sisters over looking the pools and waterfall below. We were still very high up and it was a fast drop down to that 50 metres. Before pressing on down the valley and finish our circuit we opted to sit and soak in the view. The view of which had the Aonach Eagach ridge in full show and glory.
You could see it in our faces with some resentment but joy as we bathed in the sun, casually bitten by midges with a coffee and soaking up that view.
We still made the right decision not to have attempted the ridge and we will always have plenty of other opportunities to try it.
After thirty minutes and getting tired of hiding below bug nets we pressed on. From here we didn’t take any more photos. We noticed rain was on its way through so wanted to get down quick and get back to the pub. Which was the common theme for the weekend.
Mountains - Relax - Pub - Bed and repeat.
The final morning.
Wednesday had come by so quickly and it took us all by surprise. We had lost all concept of time, date and the world around us. Left to our own devices and just enjoying the great outdoors no matter the weather and despite the rain, storms and midges it had been a fantastic week and it was sad to be saying bye.
In typically fashion and keeping to the theme… It was raining (Of course).
We packed up our tents and kit, loaded them in to the cars and got ready to set off. Grant and Jim set off before myself and Gareth. We stayed a little longer and headed in to the valley to catch two last photos. Two panoramics we both wanted for personal keep-sacks. The Three Sisters with the road cutting through the middle and Buachaille Etive Mor pano with the two valleys either side.
In the Glencoe mountain resort centre is a large print of the Buachaille Etive mor pano but in sunshine but both me and Gareth agreed it looked odd. The sunshine and mountains with empty moorland looked odd, the two didn’t match. It needed mood, drama. It needed rain of all things. And these last few photos summed up the trip perfectly.
Inspired by the mountains, longing to climb up high but forever dealing with the poor weather.
FitBit stats from the week:
51 floors (155m)
2 hours sleep
247 floors (752m)
6 hours sleep
36 floors (109m)
5 hours 30 mins sleep
448 floors (1365m)
5 hours 15 mins sleep
Total for the week
782 floors (2381m)
18 hours 45 mins sleep
21 hours driving to and from Glen Coe
See the rest of Matt's blog (including all the amazing photography and kit reviews) here.