Take A Hike Series: The Hill Walkers

February 25 – March 2
Glen Coe & the Western Highlands, Scotland

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”  So wrote John Muir, the Scotsman who will forever remain dearest to my heart.  Despite his renown as the patron saint to our Sierra Nevadas and western forests back at home in California, this man cut his teeth and nursed his wild spirit on the hills and headlands of his native country for a short while before emigrating to the United States.  So it goes without saying that we embraced the Western Highlands with gusto the moment Loch Leven and its attending peaks came into view.  It was time to see just how much torque our hiking boots could manage.

Highlands Hike #1: Glencoe – Stob Coire nan Lochan

This walk began auspiciously with a visit to the helpful folk at the Ballachulish visitor’s center.  Considering the two young children we were planning to pack in with us, it was recommended that we stick to more moderate hikes, and thus, the trail to the Lost Valley was suggested.  It was here that the MacDonalds of Glen Coe hid their rustled cattle prior to their untimely demise at the hands of the Campbell mercenaries in 1692. From the little car park halfway up the glen, we anticipated a five-mile return walk that would cut us right between two of the Three Sisters, Beinn Fhada and Gear Aonach.  It was a clear day and the heads of the mountains were all visible, Oliver was topped up and ready to scramble the path and Kendley was already soundly sleeping in the carrier on Ryan’s back.  We crossed the footbridge over the river Coe and immediately made a wrong turn.

The path we followed up the south side of the glen seemed to be of sound construction with its improved boulders that had been fashioned into rough steps by centuries of hill-walkers.  From the beginning, we were ascending and before long, the path arched up a steep scree-covered slope that dropped precipitously into a gorge below. I held Oliver tightly by the wrist and kept him to the slope-side of the path as we crossed a gravelly waterfall/mountain stream that appeared to have grown more voluminous with the warm day’s thaw. An hour of upward assault became two, and Oliver’s pauses for breathers became more and more frequent.  I had neither a map nor a compass, and neither of us was carrying enough water for the demands of this hike; all unforgivable sins in the Highlands. Despite the crisp winter sunshine, these mountains were infamous for erratic shifts in weather, especially given that it was still only March. I turned to the north and looked down the way we had come up from the valley floor.  The road back to Loch Leven had grown dark, having slid behind the rising shadow the Three Sisters cast on the north side of the glen.  Above it, the serrated ridge of Aonach Eagach smoldered in the winter light.

“We have to be close to 2,500 feet, I’d imagine.  Remember Poon Hill? We’ve been climbing twice as long as we did that morning from Ghorepani.” That hike, during our circuit of Nepal’s Annapurna Sanctuary, had evolved into a benchmark of sorts, and the 1,350 feet we had ascended in the 90 minutes before sunrise back in 2009 was my best attempt at an altitude gauge.  Despite his prowess as hill walker, having Oliver on foot made for our significantly slower progress.

“Where the heck is this valley?” Ryan was tired; all thirty-five pounds of still-sleeping Kendley and her pack were clearly taking their toll.  Just then, a threesome of mountaineers met us in their return down to the trailhead.

“Why, it’s hidden, of course!” one of them chirruped, overhearing our conversation.  Another chimed in, more helpfully.

“Ah, see, I’m afraid you’re making your way along the wrong path.”  His Highland brogue was charming, only not right at that particular moment. “You’re on the route up to Stob Coire nan Lochan; it’s how climbers get to that massive peak you see up there, Bidean nam Bian. If you were trying to get to the Lost Valley, you picked the wrong two of the Three Sisters to go between.”

Sure enough, we were standing in the seam running between Sisters One and Two: Gearr Aonach and Aonach Dubh, to where they converged at a jagged and snow-covered ridge on the far side of the corrie.   At the top, a transverse ridgeline led further up to one of the region’s Munros (mountains > 3,000 feet).  At 3,658 feet, the summit was far more than we had bargained for on a sunny afternoon that was quickly trending toward the pale hues of evening.

I looked at both mountaineer’s feet, clad in stiff alpine boots.  A pair of ice axes was lashed firmly to both of their packs alongside their helmets. “Where exactly did you guys take off your crampons?” I asked, moving my gaze up the steep hollow that a glacier had bitten out of the face of the mountainside long ago.

“About fifteen minutes further up the path turns to ice. You can’t miss it.” One of the mountaineers gave Oliver a consternating stare, paying particular attention to the welly boots he had pulled on that morning without giving a thought the day’s mountaineering aspirations.   I thought of the four people who had been killed in an avalanche on the ridge above us about a month earlier.  Experienced climbers, all of them; they were struck suddenly by the terrible misfortune of an unsteady slab of ice at the Church Door Buttress.  It was time to turn back; technical hikes were not for us…yet.

As Ryan ambled back down ahead of me, his long legs carrying him faster than the careful pace I maintained with Oliver, one of the mountaineers clapped Ollie on the shoulder and smiled. “Good to start him young, right mum?” I noticed as he spoke that his faced was creased all over by his passion for the hills.  “Show him how it all works and he’ll love this land forever.”


  1. Well, lessons learned…or maybe not! It’s always refreshing to meet such understanding and guidance on the trail. Folks on foot seem to be a bit more pleasant than many that cross your path in the everyday exchanges at home.

    Looks like a great walk anyway. Safe travels kids.

    1. Too true, Tim! I think the second folks see us with kids on the trail, they tend to go out of their way to be helpful. Lord knows we need all the help we can get! On another note, we sure are looking forward to hitting the trail with your little crew of hikers one of these days…

  2. Lovely. Lovely. And the Muir quote is very cherished as well.
    Safe travels always.
    Global Love, ACelia

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.