Sublime cliffs and gully-riven buttresses plummet to the floor...

Hillwalking with Frank: Stob Coire an Lochan
Hillwalking with Frank: Stob Coire an Lochan

Bidian nam Bian, the highest of the Argyll hills, lies hidden behind three fine guardian peaks. Stob Coire Sgreamhach, Stob Coire nan Lochan and Stob Coire nam Beithe, are each worthy mountains in their own right, yet these shy hills seem reluctant to reveal themselves fully from any roadside viewpoint; each appears to peak over the shoulders of their long northward thrusting spurs, better known as The Three Sisters of Glencoe.

In fact, though Bidian rules by dint of its superior height (1150 metres), and is certainly a graceful peak, she is the least attractive of the entire ring. It’s the getting there and the wander from her summit that makes for such a splendid outing.

And the variations of route are many; if you were to walk all the ridges of this mini range in a single excursion, you will have walked a good 12 miles. Today we were walking only eight or nine.

We’d timed our arrival at the car park to perfection. Even as we booted up we were treated to truly alpine vistas; as the sun rose above the eastern ramparts of Glencoe; Stob Coire nan Lochan, her graceful peak framed by her bounding ridges, took on a glow that turned her recently snow-whitened flanks golden.

For today’s romp we’d chosen to go by a long time favourite route of mine, via the so called Lost Valley, alias Coire Gabhail. A good path drops straight from the car park to an excellent wooden bridge over the River Coe. The path climbs steadily, first through trees, mostly birch, and then levels out along the brink of a precipitous gorge. Though it was not so today, this section can be ice-bound and dangerous; sadly lives have been lost here!

Higher up the stream actually disappears for a short distance, beneath a mass of huge tumbled boulders, some as big as sheds, that choke the upper gorge; the ambience is akin to subterranean.

Once out in the open again the burn threads its way through other fine and narrow trenches, always a distraction on the way to Sgreamhach. This is The Lost Valley proper and from the Glencoe road you’d never know it existed. No wonder the ancient Macdonalds found it such a good place to secrete their reived cattle.

There’s a fine path all the way to the col ahead but high up the snow came down to greet us, obliterating our man-made trod. Though we didn’t need them, all we had to guide us now were the footprints of one or two walkers who’d been here maybe yesterday.

It takes a while to reach the col, not least due to the fact that this valley is such a wonderful place wherein to linger. Cliffs on either side give this glen a truly alpine ambience. In dull weather it can be gloomy, foreboding, dramatically so in fact; today, with the sun shining in an almost cloudless sky, it was glorious.

It can be a tough climb onto the tight little col for the corrie headwall is steep. There hadn’t been frost enough to have us in our crampons though we did have our ice axes in hand; we had fun kicking steps in the none the less firm snow.

The way to Bidian was westwards. First we made the short detour up the snowbound flank of Sgreamhach, for stunning summit views across the Buachailles, the Starav Hills and, down along the shimmering Loch Etive to the Ben Cruachan range. Back the way we’d come, we stared across the tops of the Glencoe Sisters and over the Aonach Eagach, The Mamores and out across to Nevis. The early winter snow had transformed this part of Scotland into an entirely wintry scene.

We shot back down and threaded our way up the longer, boulder infested ridge of Bidian. The ridge narrows significantly at one point, not quite to a knife edge but in winter conditions thrilling none the less.

From the summit we looked over an unseen arm of Loch Linnhe and guessed the Ardgour peaks beyond. Tantalizing views these, even if partly hidden by the dull backs of Benin a’ Bheither, alias the Vair Pair. Glen Crerran-wards, Munros and Corbetts rolled away in more sedate fashion, a roll call of many favourite hills; Fraochaidh, Fhionnlaidh, Ulaidh and Sgulaird, to name a few. Another short and easy detour west soon had us at the summit of Stob Coire nam Beithe. You can also climb up from Loch Achtriochtan, a wonderful route offering scrambles galore, not to mention classic rock climbs (there is of course an easy walker’s route too). These routes allow you to do today’s route in reverse.

Back to Bidian and a lunch break. After which we dropped down Bidian’s north-east ridge, at times having to make way for others coming up from our next peak. This ridge off can lead to potential traps in misty weather; many are the walkers who, contending with poor visibility, have strayed too far left and onto the dead end tops of Church Door and Diamond buttresses. In which event you are safe only if you turn around and try again!

Amid stupendous rock scenery we crossed a broad bealach; that scenery did nothing to speed our progress, linger as we did to gawp. And at last our final peak, the more spacious summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan. We’d climbed her from her dullest side today, the beauty of this mountain lies on its northern side, where sublime cliffs and gully-riven buttresses plummet to the valley floor hundreds of feet below.

Often I have approached this summit from Coire nan Lochan, as far as the little pools that give it the name, then up the mountain’s steep and mildly scrambly eastern ridge; today we opted to descend in the opposite direction. In summer conditions it’s as safe as houses, even though this northeastern ridge will have you skirting along the brink of beetling cliffs and gaping gullies. With snow in abundance today we trod warily!

The usual way off is found below, at an obvious broad saddle. But we’d been moving well and time was on our side. We decided to wander out along Sister number two, correctly known as Aonach Dubh, for a look across the chasm of Glencoe and, from here, the foreshortened scree slopes of the Anonach Eagach. And it was worth it! Even the walking was easy, gentle, pleasant.

The view across the trench was stunning! Through our binoculars we spied brightly coloured scramblers making their tentative ways along the Eagach’s jagged ridge while hundreds of feet below, cars and buses looked like toys.

We doubled back to the col and descended easy slopes on snow covered grass. The lochans below looked up at us, brilliant eyes the colour of the sky they reflected. From these, once we’d crossed the corrie’s infant burn, all was easy going. And yet, none the less dramatic than anything we’d already passed through.

On either side of us rose the immense craggy walls of two of Glencoe’s Sisters, Aonach Dubh and Gearr Aonach. With the sun now hiding behind the immensity of the main Bidian massif, we dropped into a shadowy, cooler world. It was cold enough in fact to keep us moving quickly enough to have us arriving back at the car park, staring up at Stob Coire nan Lochan in somewhat gloomier mood than she’d greeted us this morning.