When Glen Coe resembled the Himalaya

The perfection of winter in a collection of images from ten years ago

It’s easy to forget, when away from the mountains, just how good winter mountaineering can be at its best. There is nothing in the world like it. The anticipation, the planning, the failures, the gradual accumulation of experience, the obsessive checking of MWIS, the warring pessimism and optimism — and then, when it all comes together, the unsurpassable perfection. Cold air burning in the back of the throat. Clumps of ice hanging from your Dachstein mitts and rattling with every step. Sunrises beyond all powers of human description as layers of colour float upwards and spread over an ethereal landscape that seems to be made of light. The shapes, the textures: drooping cornices, delicate flutings, fractal feathers of rime, hissing tornadoes of graupel. Blue and white, sound and silence. Then reaching the summit and feeling like a god.

All of it.

But we get older and more cynical, and maybe the novelty wears off. We move away. We get into other stuff, such as long-distance walking or big bike rides. Our horizons broaden. Then ten years later maybe we’re looking through a folder of old photos and it all comes back like a punch to the gut.

The winter of 2009-10 was one of the best in recent years, with an unusually long run of cold and snowy weather over the Scottish Highlands. I was lucky enough to be living in Glen Coe at the time, working as a barman in the Clachaig Inn, and I took full advantage of the conditions whenever I could by heading into the mountains with my ice axe and crampons. In those days I was into graded winter routes — usually no harder than III, and in good conditions soloing Grade II was my comfort zone.

On 19 February 2010 I decided to climb the Sron na Lairig Ridge. This is a classic low-grade winter route at Grade II in the Bidean nam Bian massif, and one of the best routes of its kind in Glen Coe.

These images have mostly languished on the hard drives of various computers for years. Most of them were blurry, poorly exposed and poorly composed, because I took them using a camera with a broken LCD. The best I could manage was to point the camera in the general direction of the scenery and press the shutter release. However, today I decided to put them through Lightroom and see what I could make out of them.

They are still technically poor images, grainy and with limited dynamic range, but now at least they communicate the emotion of that technicolour Himalayan day in the Glen Coe hills. Conditions were the best I had ever seen, and I’ve rarely seen anything comparable since. It was the pinnacle of my Glen Coe years.

As we face the likelihood of another winter with few opportunities to travel north to the mountains of Scotland, it’s more important than ever to appreciate the good times we’ve experienced in the past.

All images (C) Alex Roddie. All rights reserved. Please don’t reproduce these images without permission.

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