On Saturday, two climbers were found dead, still roped together, on Stob Coire nam Beith in Glen Coe.
Tragedies like this happen every year, and the Bidean massif seems to cause more than its fair share of accidents. Back in 2013 an unfortunate run of incidents caused the British press to lose its head for a while – I wrote this article in response, urging a more level-headed reaction.
The latest tragedy has not caused such mass hysteria in the press (largely, I suspect, due to these calm words from Andy Nelson: ‘They had all the relevant equipment … nothing to suggest that they were ill-equipped or inexperienced’) but, still, if you visit the Daily Mail article on the incident the comments section is pretty ugly. I won’t link to it.
I think it’s very sad that the vast bulk of the British public only hears about mountaineering in the context of death. The reaction is predictable: there should be mandatory insurance, or putting rescuers’ lives at risk, or why not just ban climbing? These knee-jerk responses come from pure ignorance.
This time I won’t get on my high horse and try to use reason to change people’s minds. I’ll just share a simple anecdote of mine from Stob Coire nam Beith, the very cliff that killed those climbers on Saturday.
The North-West Gully of Stob Coire nam Beith
I’d been living in Glen Coe for over a year, but I still had a bit of a phobia about Stob Coire nam Beith. It wasn’t that it was hard to get to – the walk-in was shorter than Bidean’s. It wasn’t that the routes were difficult – the guide book showed several easy gullies. But something about the cliff put me off. It looked huge and menacing.
I set out to climb the NW Gully one beautiful morning in February 2010, and the entire day was an absolute delight from start to finish. I stood at the bottom of the route feeling apprehensive but I soon realised I had nothing to worry about.
Hundreds of metres of easy snow, punctuated by a few friendly ice steps, led me to the broad shoulder near the summit of the mountain where views of Stob Coire nam Beith’s neighbouring mountains opened up in all their glory. It was a great morning to be alive. Nobody else was on the mountain; I had it all to myself.
When I got to the summit cairn, I planted my ice axe in the snow on a whim and took a picture that would come to symbolise the time I spent living and adventuring in Glen Coe. It’s no accident that a crop from this photo is still the profile picture for the Glencoe Mountaineer Facebook community.
That simplest of days on Stob Coire nam Beith is one of the best I have ever spent in the British hills. I had transformed my apprehension of a mountain into pure delight, pure enjoyment, and the memory of it glows brightly for me six years later. Only the best moments in life have such staying power. If you doubt why people go into the hills, this is why.
Mountaineering is dangerous, but it is also a thing of pure beauty. Everyone climbs for different reasons, but for me it isn’t about ego, or proving something to others; it’s all about the appreciation of the natural world.