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Starting small on the Little Shepherd

As we approach the end of what has been a fabulous spell of warm, dry and sunny weather on the mountains, I am reminded that just 2 weeks ago I was contemplating postponing my first days guiding due to adverse conditions.

During the first week of April, bitterly cold air, with its origins in the Arctic, brought fresh snow and freezing conditions to Glencoe and other mountain areas.

During this spell, and on a short reconnaissance trip up Stob Dubh (one of Buachaille Etive Beag’s two Munro summits), I was blasted with wind-blown snow and ice which stung the face. The wind was so strong that once higher than the bealach, any movement was timed to coincide with the lull between strong gusts.

Thankfully conditions relented, and on the 9th April I guided Steve and Campbell up Stob Coire Raineach and Stob Dubh, taking in both summits of Buachaille Etive Beag.

A partial thaw and refreeze had made for slippery, icy conditions on the steep climb up but the superbly clear arctic air made the views from the top that extra bit special. A great tangle of snow-capped peaks, too many to count. I think this was the first time I’ve ever been able to clearly make out the individual peaks of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye from so far away.

Since then and my first guiding day of 2021, I’ve been overwhelmed with the interest I’ve received in my other guided walks and I’m delighted to see my diary steadily starting to fill up. I think it’s important to take the time to respond to people’s questions and enquiries fully, providing them with all the information they need to help them to decide whether a particular walk might be suitable or, if not, an alternative that might be. It’s a big responsibility to take a group of individuals up into the mountains, often in adverse weather conditions, where their safety is wholly in your hands, and I strongly believe that this responsibility starts long before pulling up in the car park.

Friday the 23rd April and I’m back at the foot of Buachaille Etive Beag in Glencoe ready to guide Helen, Linda, Robert and Donna up the mountain in conditions that are more akin to the Tropics than the Highlands in early Spring.

Since retiring, Robert has been walking in the hills regularly; steadily building on his fitness, but this would be his first Munro.

I remember many years ago being stood at the foot of the very same mountain contemplating climbing my first Munro, on an equally warm and sunny day in May. Nervous and excited in equal measure and woefully ill-equipped, I will never forget that feeling of utter euphoria when I arrived at the summit. It’s a feeling I still get now every time I’m in the mountains and it’s addictive.

Thankfully, our group of 4 had all the kit they needed for a day in the mountains and perhaps a little bit more.

It wasn’t very long before some were tearing off layers of clothing quicker than the wrappings from one of Willy Wonkers golden bars!

The pace was purposefully steady. It was very warm and sticky and in the strong sunshine, sunburn and dehydration were factors that couldn’t be ignored.

Stopping regularly to take on food and water, the flowing conversation and ever-improving views back across the Lairig Eilde towards Bidean nam Bian provided a welcome distraction from the exertions of the climb.

A longer pause was welcomed once at the bealach and there was an audible gasp from everyone as all eyes were fixed east, staring across the Lairig Gartain towards Buachaille Etive Mor and its mightily impressive, long, snaking ridge.

The ‘Wee Bookil’, as it’s often affectionately called, is always a popular hill, particularly for those that are relatively new to hill-walking, or perhaps who are visiting Glencoe for the first time, and today was no exception.

We climbed the 170metres to the rock-pile summit of Stob Coire Raineach first and were promptly joined by a ‘gaggle’ of 5, semi-naked young men, some looking slightly worse for wear after their efforts. In turn this prompted a discussion about collective nouns for groups of animals.

Who else knew that a group of deer could be a bevy, a brace, a bunch, a gang, a leash, a mob, a rangale or even a parcel of deer?

After taking in our fill of the views, and a round or two of playing ‘name that mountain’, we pushed on towards the slightly loftier summit of Stob Dubh, which promised even better views.

A narrow band of old snow on the steepest section prompted a short deviation from the well-travelled path and, a short distance on from this, the best part of the walk lies ahead.

Beyond a cairned rise at 902metres the ridge levels off and narrows and this delightful ridge walk, on close cropped grass, among rocks is a real highlight. Flanked on both sides by two of Glencoe’s giants; Bidean nam Bian and Buachaille Etive Mor, you really feel like you’re at the heart of Scotland’s finest mountain landscape.

The ridge narrows yet further on the final short rise to the summit, but all apprehensions about the exposure, were, on closer inspection, short lived.

The first cairn you come to is the summit at 958metres, but by continuing along the ridge for another 100 metres you arrive at a second, tumble-down cairn and from here, the views are nothing short of spectacular.

At first there was nothing but silence from everyone as the brain struggles to process the beauty of all that the eye captures. And then came all the “WOW’s”.

Loch Etive shimmering in the bright sunlight and the bulk of Ben Starav dominates the views to the south. To the north, Ben Nevis, the Aonachs, the Mamores, Grey Corries all demand attention.

I think it was Helen who said;

“This is a day that I will remember forever”

We lounged on the summit, bathed in glorious sunshine for half an hour or more before slowly gathering ourselves to start our descent back down to the Lairig Eilde.

Jelly legs and cramped toes were only a minor encumbrance felt by some, but even these niggles were soon forgotten at the prospect of cooling off in one of the few remaining snow patches.

Is anyone ever too old to make snow angels?

Whether Buachaille Etive Beag; The Little Shepherd of Etive, is your first ever Munro, your 100th, or even if you’ve climbed to its twin summits a dozen times, it never fails to impress.

Come sunshine or snow, it’s accessibility, rugged character, and central location in the very heart of Glencoe’s beautiful mountain landscape, make this truly a mountain day to remember and one I hope that Helen, Linda, Donna and Robert won’t forget for a very long time.

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