he Glencoe Round was conceived by Bobby Shields in 1980 and included all eight Munro’s surrounding Glencoe. Commencing from the Clachaig Inn and travelling anti-clockwise, it heads over Bidean nam Bain, Stob Coire Sgreamhach then over Buachaille Etive Beag and Bauchaille Etive Mor, crosses the A82 and then onto the Aonach Eagach ridge before descending back to the Clachaig Inn. Pete Duggan extended this to include all the Munro Tops as well, a total of eight and extends Aonach Eagach from the Devil’s Staircase. It was this the extended version I was interested in.
Back in 2011 I set off to Glencoe to do a recee of the peaks that lie south of the A82 in the Pass of Glencoe. The plan was to get an understanding of how difficult it would be to do the full traverse of all the peaks following the Pete Duggan route. A couple of months later I traversed the Aonach Eagach ridge, celebrating my 100th Munro on the summit of Meall Dearg. I had covered three-quarters of the route and was confident I would be capable of completing the round in one go.
Time passed and every year as summer approached and the snow melted, I would commit to attempting the round. Four years passed and I still had not completed the round. 2013 and 2014 had been pretty lean years from a Munro point of view. Ultra running had taken hold of me and most of my training runs were along trails and over mountain passes rather than mountains themselves. Fast forward to this year and whilst putting together a training plan for the Lakeland 100 I decided to focus my long runs on ascent rather than distance. The plan was to work towards a peak week where I would climb the ascent of the race (about 6500 metres) in a series of runs over that one week period. On the Tuesday I knocked off a run covering all the 4000 foot peaks in the Cairngorms. That was 2500 metres. The following Friday, Emma and went up and down Ben Lomond. Another 1000 metres. I now needed a mega run that would give me at least 3000 metres of ascent. It is was an easy choice. The Glencoe Round…
This was a one shot attempt, Sunday or nothing. I was already eating into my taper so if the weather was mince that it was game over. I monitored the forecast over the preceding days. Friday had been an epic day but Saturday was not great. The forecast for Sunday was rain clearing overnight, clear skies in the morning and then rain moving in from the south in the afternoon. 40% chance of cloud free Munro’s. Not a convincing forecast. If I could have waited a week I probably would have done. The chances were that I would be hit by the rain on Aonach Eagach. Not ideal. The problem was that I did not have another week. Should I or should I not? I took the plunge. Let’s go for it! It was game on.
I decided to utilise the early morning good weather. Drive down to Glencoe Saturday evening, grab a few hours’ sleep then wake up at about 3am and set off. Hit the first peak as daylight broke. Sounded a good plan so I set off from Dunfermline at 8pm and it was a great drive to Glencoe. The roads were quiet and the remaining mist was clearing from the mountain tops, leaving a spectacular sunset. By 10.30pm I was parked up in the car park just west of Loch Achtriochtan. I was only going to sleeping for a few hours so I did not bother pitching a tent and instead just dropped the back seats and set up my bed there. At 2:30am I was awoken by the sound of a massive downpour. The sound of the rain hitting the car roof probably made it sound worse than what it was but it did not exactly fill me with enthusiasm to get up out of bed. I dozed for another 45 minutes or so then looked out of the car window. The rain had stopped and although it was still dark you could see the clouds were clearing and there was huge patches of clear sky. Let’s get going!
I grabbed a quick bite to eat and got my kit together. It was still dark but you could see that the clouds that had caused the huge downpour earlier had all but gone away. If I could get high quick enough, there could be the opportunity to catch the sun rising from the east. With this carrot firmly dangled in front of me I set off. In this first section I would be climbing the two Munro’s, Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire Sgreamhach. Additionally I would also be knocking off four Munro Tops; Stob Coire nam Beith, Stob Coire nan Lochan, Beinn Fhada East Top and Beinn Fhada North East Top. Pete Duggan had approached Stob Coire nam Beith via the An t-Sron ridge but I decided to make my approach via the renovated path that leads up via Coire nam Beith. Couple of reasons for this choice; I was setting off in the dark and I did not want to be humping across tussocks and rough terrain. Also, I was parked directly at the bottom of the path and not at the Clachaig Inn so it just made sense.
I crossed the bridge over the River Coe and picked up the path that lead steeply up the hillside. I made fast progress up the path and headed up past a great looking waterfall to below the craggy west face of Aonach Dubh. Here the path disappeared and I found that I had to cross back and forth across the stream. Unfortunately my determined attempt to keep my feet dry was scuppered pretty much straight away when I slipped on a rock and only just saving myself from a total immersion by some nifty hand work. Thirty six minutes into my run and both feet were totally soaked. Not ideal but at least I did not have to waste any more time looking for the best place to cross the stream anymore and the good thing about wearing fell shoes is that your feet dry pretty quick.
The route up was pretty well defined and as I gained height via the zig-zag path the panoramic views back across Glen Coe to Aonach Eagach were amazing.I eventually emerged onto the skyline at the col between An t-Sron and Stob Coire nam Beith. The world opened up all around me. The sun was beginning to rise above the mountains and with chunks of mist low in the glens and hugging some of the tops it made for a truly impressive sight. I hurtled off up towards Stob Coire nam Beith at full pelt. Talk about a severe case of summit fever. All I could think about was the watching the sun rise from the summit top. After about fifty metres of elevation gain at a pace that Usain Bolt would be proud of I got a grip of myself. Steady on here, that kind of pace early on into a big day out is probably not the wisest thing I could do. The sunrise will still be there so calm down.
I reduced my effort to a more sedate (and sensible) pace and followed the loose, stoney path up Bidean’s north-west ridge to the summit of Stob Coire nam Beith. I stopped and took pause for a few moments. Was I really experiencing this? I have been fortunate to experience some amazing sunrises and sunsets from mountains tops but nothing came close to what I was seeing now. I could have stayed for hours in that one location but the good news was that it was only a short climb to the summit of Bidean nam Bian with Stob Coire nan Lochan a mere kilometre away there would be good opportunities to view things from a different angle. I climbed up to the summit of Bidean nam Bian, took more photographs and then headed down to the col that seperates Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire nan Lochan. Back in 2011 when I did my first recce of this route I had descended from Stob Coire nan Lochan and had become unnerved where the snow had formed an arête in the col. As I descended today (this time coming from Bidean), I was surprised as to how wide the col was. I was expecting it to be really narrow. Had I turned back then unnecessarily? Had the snow made it look worse than what it actually was? Below is a picture of the col at the time. Be the judge yourself.
Stob Coire nan Lochan is a stunning mountain. The pointy summit forms the apex of three ridges and offers great views in all directions. I wonder how many people miss this peak entirely because it is ‘just’ a Munro Top and not in fact a Munro. Every time I summit a mountain of this calibre it reaffirms my belief that if you climb just the Munro’s then you are missing out on an awful lot. I looked back up to Bidean nam Bian and along the ridge to Stob Coire Sgreamhach. There was no shortcut. I would have to re-ascend Bidean to get back on the ridge. No big deal really. Cloud was hugging the summit top of Stob Coire Sgreamhach but I was hopeful that maybe by the time I got there it would have disappeared. It took just a mere fifteen minutes to run down to the col then hike back up to Bidean. From here I picked up the ridge path and headed over a subsidiary top called Aonach Dubh then up 150 metres to the summit of Stob Coire Sgreamhach. It was still a little misty on the summit and as I was working out the best way to get onto the ridge towards the two Beinn Fhada tops, the clouds broke up. Luck certainly seemed to be on my side today. With the view now clear, I was easily able to pick the path and scramble down onto the ridge.
I followed the ridge along towards Beinn Fhada east top. No problems here and just a quick descent and climb up to Beinn Fhada north-east top where there was a great view back over to Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire nan Lochan. To the east I could see my next conquest, Buachaille Etive Beag and beyond that Buachaille Etive Mor. Phew! There was going to be some serious ascent in the next couple of hours. I had been travelling for just over three hours and had knocked off two Munro’s and two Munro Tops in near perfect conditions but now I was up against the ‘crux’ of my route, the descent into the Lairig Eilde. There was no path down and it was steep. Pete Duggan had written that he descended into the Lairig Eilde via a ‘rotten stone shoot not far past the NE top’ and I was not looking forward to this. Fortunately I had a clear view down into the glen so I was able to pick a reasonable looking path down. I will not deny that descents are not my strongest points and there was a couple of dicey moments as I slid down the steep scree slope. But I somehow managed to get into the glen in one piece and breathe a sigh of relief that I had got it out of the way.
I paused on the path and took off my shoes to remove the bits of stone and gravel that had accumulated on my descent. The heel of my right foot had gone completely through my sock. Now we are not talking of a small hole here but the entire foot section from the midsole up to my Achilles. Holy smoke, how the hell did that happen and more importantly when? My foot was fine though, no hot spots or anything. Why did I not pack a spare pair of socks? I considered making some sort of temporary sock with my Buff but decided against it. Oh well, what is meant to be is meant to be and if my foot rubs then so be it. Shoes back on I looked up to the two peaks that make up Buachaille Etive Beag. Stob Dubh at 958 metres and Stob Coire Raineach at 925 metres are about two kilometres apart with the col at 748 metres.
I had a choice to make here. I seemed to remember that Pete Duggan had climbed up into the bealach, headed up and down Stob Coire Raineach then along the ridge to Stob Dubh. I am not sure if he then retraced his steps to the col and then over the other side or took a line directly off the summit of Stob Dubh when descendin the other side though. Climbing up to the col made sense. The path I was at was at 400 metres and with the col at 748 it would only mean about 350 metres up the steep looking slope. The drop off Beinn Fhada had put me directly underneath Stob Dubh though. I could climb pretty much directly up the side and hit the summit top. To climb to the col would mean I would have to either take a diagonal line avoiding a deep looking gully or head along the path for a kilometre then up to avoid the gully. In fact Pete had had said he took a risky looking line to the col climbing across the gully. Advantages of the direct approach was that I would not have to retrace my steps to the col twice and I would also miss the gully. There was the extra two hundred metres of ascent though. Decisions, decisions!
Sod it! Just go for the direct approach, straight up to the summit. It was steep but in times like this it was just a case of one foot in front of the other. To be fair the incline meant that I quickly gained elevation and forty five minutes later I was on the summit top. Stob Dubh is an interesting peak in the aspect I am not actually sure where the ‘actual’ summit top is. There are two cairns, a couple of hundred metres apart so I ran over to both just to make sure! From here it is about two kilometres across the ridge to Stob Coire Raineach and for the first time of the day I was able to actually run properly. I dropped down to the col and met a guy (the first person I had seen all day) who had climbed up to take pictures of moths! Yes I know. Only in Scotland! We chatted briefly whist I took a look at my proposed descent route into the Lairig Gartain. Not as steep as my previous descent into the Lairig Eilde which was good news but first I had to climb Stob Coire Raineach. No issues here, the path was good and I made short work of the climb and in less than twenty minutes I was back down at the col. Another two Munro’s down, that is four Munro’s and four Munro Tops completed. Half way there!
I looked over to Buacahille Etive Mor. The tops were shrouded in mist. Maybe the rain was coming in a little bit earlier than expected? I had climbed Stob Dearg back in 2002 whilst walking the West Highland Way and the weather was mince then. In all honesty, I am not sure why I bothered especially as I humped a 75kg pack full of gear up to the top only with the view described at best as ‘pea-soup’. It was looking like I was going to be cursed again but one good bit of good news was that Aonach Eagach was still cloud free. Oh well, cannot complain. The morning had been epic so far and whilst postcard views off the top of every summit would be amazing I still had the opportunity to get a good training session under my belt and I hardly could complain after the morning I had experienced. I dropped from the col, down into the Lairig Gartain. There seemed to be a very faint path that I managed to pick up and whilst this would disappear occasionally the descent was nothing like as treacherous as the descent off Beinn Fhada and I managed to get into the glen pretty quickly.
The path up onto Buachaille Etibe Mor I was looking for headed straight up through the Coire Altrum and would plonk my at the col between two Munro Top’s; Stob Coire Altruim and Stob na Doire. Once at the col the plan was to run over Stob Coire Altruim to the Munro Stob na Broige. Back over Stob Coire Altruim and to the col again then over Stob na Foire and finally up to the iconic Stob Dearg. From here I would drop down the main tourist path through Core nam Tulaich. There was a half kilometre run through the path in the glen first but the path up through Coire Altruim was clear to see. In fact since I had descended off Buachaille Etive Beag the mist that was hugging the summit of Buchaille Etive Mor had all but disappeared. Wow, the cloud gods were really looking after me today. It was a four hundred metre climb up to the col on Buachaille Etive Mor. As before, I just took my time and focused on keeping my heart rate low. Once at the col I headed west and up to the Munro Top Stob Coire Altruim. From here there was stunning views both west to Stob na Broige and east to Stob Dearg. Although rocky, the top was totally runnable and I could have made up some good time if I pushed it. But I was quite enjoying the sedate pace I had maintained all day so I kept to walking the uphills and slow running the flat and downhills. The summit of Stob na Broige offered a different perspective of my earlier peak, Stob Coire Sgreamhach and also great views south all the way to Ben Starav.
I headed back to Sob Coire Altruim and then down to the col. From here it was a two hundred and fifty metre push to the summit of Stob na Doire. Apart from my encounter with the ‘Moth Man’ I had not seen another person all day. Just how I like it! This was about to change though. I stopped to chat to a group of guys near the summit and they seemed quite amazed at how far I had come.
“You must be into ultra then?” one of them said.
That obvious? They were a decent set of guys and we chatted for a while. By the time I set off there was a steady stream of people heading up to the top. I guess they had been to Stob Dearg and were heading west to also tick off Stob na Broige. It was a great run to Stob Dearg although my ankles were beginning to feel the effort of running the rocky terrain. I pushed on up to the summit of Stob Dearg. As expected it was really busy on the summit top. There must have been about twenty people there. I picked a quiet spot and settled down to take in the views and enjoy something to eat. I had covered close to 28km in seven and a half hours and knocked off six Munro’s and six Munro Tops.
The big question was do I complete the full round and take in the four peaks over Aonach Eagach or just head down to the glen? I had been so fortunate with the weather all day having had clear views from all the tops. Wet weather was forecasted for the afternoon but at the current moment everything looked tip top. In fact it was clear blue skies over Aonach Eagach. Not that this meant anything. Things can change quickly. I suppose my only concern was that once I committed to the ridge there is no escape route so if the weather changed I would have to just deal with it.
Fully re-charged I set off down from the summit, down to the col and then onto the tourist path that descends through Coire na Tulaich. It was good to leave the crowds behind although I cannot say I enjoyed the descent down. Although defined, the path was rocky and difficult to gain momentum. I took my time. The thought of twisting my ankle and screwing up my race two weeks before the big day filled me with fear. At the bottom the path smoothed out and I was able to get some steady running in to the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase.
My last encounter on the Devil’s Staircase had been on the West Highland Way Race the previous year and back then it had felt like a bit of a slog. Compared to some of the steep ascents today this was pretty gentle and although I had climbed in excess of three thousand metres I was still feeling strong on the climbs which was good news. The Devil’s Staircase zig-zags from side to side and I just power hiked upwards. I was slowly catching up to a female runner in front who was alternating between walking and running. It was interesting comparing our approaches. I was hiking pretty hard but at a consistent speed. When she ran she was faster than I was hiking but when she walked she was much slower. It got me thinking about my upcoming race, the Lakeland 100. If I can remain consistent on the uphill climbs and preserve my quads so that I can run the downhills later on in the race then I think I should be able to get a reasonable time. One thing is for sure, I will not be running uphill. Consistency throughout will be the key.
I caught up to the runner and got chatting. She asked if I was training for the Devil O’ the Highlands race this coming August. A reasonable assumption considering I was actually at that time on the race route. I explained that I was training for the Lakeland 100 and she told me that her daughter was also running that race. We chatted all things ‘Ultra’ for a few minutes then said our goodbyes and I continued upwards. Once at the col I headed west towards Aonach Eagach. I had taken this route before on a previous recce so there was no issues from a navigation point of view. The plan was head for the Munro Top, Am Bodach via the east ridge. This would mean taking in two smaller tops, A’Chailleach and Sron Garbh. The climb up the Devil’s Staircase has already taken me to 550 metres so it was just another couple of hundred metres to the ridge. Once on the ridge it was about five kilometres to Am Bodach. It took about an hour to make my way over the two tops to the summit of Am Bodach. I actually managed to skirt around the edge of Sron Gharbh and miss out some of the ascent but it was so rocky when I was contouring around it would have probably been better just to stick to the path and go over the summit. In the space of an hour the weather went from blue skies and red hot on the summit of A’Chailleach, to cloudy and getting a little chilly on Sron Garbh to raining on Am Bodach. Interestingly, although there was a decent downpour the clouds remaining high above the summit tops. It looked highly likely that I would get cloud free views on every summit.
By the time I summited the top of Am Bodach it was not raining anymore. It was just a kind of damp drizzle. Unfortunately the rocks were now wet and slippy. This was going to be fun and games. Heading west along the skyline there is an easy downward scramble followed by a much harder twenty metre downward scramble. Exposed and steep and tackled on descent where it is difficult to see the holds, I think this is the hairiest section of the whole route. Add to the fact all the rocks were wet and my Salomon fells shoes were pretty crap in such conditions then it all added to a somewhat nervy experience. I climbed slowly, often turning inwards for some of the more tricky manoeuvres and eventually arrived on the narrow ridge. Phew!
There was another short scramble and then a climb up a rough path to the summit of Meall Dearg. When I climbed this peak back in 2011 it was my hundredth Munro and I took a little time to reflect on the achievement. No time for such reflection now. I was getting tired and just wanted to finish. It is from the top of Meall Dearg that you get to see up close the notched ridge that blocks the way to Stob Coire Leith. It is this collection of jumbled rock crests that is the true ‘Aonach Eagach’. What lies ahead is an assortment of rock features, chimneys, gullies, walls, slabs, towers. The full experience. They come at you fast and furious with the best coming to the last with some particularly sensational scrambling on two imaginatively named Crazy Pinnacles. Once this is out of the way there is an abrupt five metre wall that can be tackled head on or via an easier descent to the right hand side. With this all done there is one last sloping, slabby descent to the gap below Stob Coire Leith. It took me one hour and ten minutes to cover the one kilometre across the Aonach Eagach. I would like to say it was fun but it was not. The rocks, already polished smooth were like ice when wet. It was a nightmare. Maybe I was just knackered and struggling to concentrate but the ridge just did not seem to end. Thankfully, I eventually emerged unscathed and when I summited my penultimate top, Stob Coire Leith, I knew the end was in sight.
I love the section from Stob Coire Leith to Sgorr naam Fiannaidh. The reward for the vigour on Aonach Eagach is a gentle stroll across a great path to the summit. Although there are a couple of sections where ‘hand to rock’ is required this is a walk in the park compared to the previous section. Twenty minutes after leaving Stob Coire Leith, I was on the summit of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh. It was job done. All sixteen Glencoe peaks over 3000 feet nailed in one round. There was still the small matter of an 850 metre descent to contend with so celebrations would have to wait. Unfortunately there is no equally wonderful descent to the glen and the quickest route is a steep 45 degree route south off the top. The descent started on loose quartzite and a combination of sliding and running got me down to a section that eased off slightly. From here a path eased the final section to the roadside, to the relief of my knees!
I had completed the Glencoe round in about thirteen hours. Pretty good considering the easy pace I had maintained throughout and the delays on wet rocks across Aonach Eagach. More importantly I had got 4500 metres of ascent under my belt which meant for the week I had climbed in excess of 8000 metres. Perfect training for the Lakeland 100. Time will tell if the approach to focus on elevation rather than distance was the correct approach. But it will be fun finding out!