Beinn a'Chrulaiste - Is that you?
Updated: May 11
With the impact of Coronavirus and many countries including Scotland in ‘lockdown’, I thought I would post a blog about one of my favourite mountains, Beinn a’Chrulaiste at the head of Glen Coe.
So firstly, its Glen Coe, not Glencoe. Glencoe is the village, whereas Glen Coe is the Glen. Confused already? Just wait. So Beinn a’Chrulaiste is pronounced ‘Ben a Kru Layst’ or simply Chrulaiste to hill walkers. Ben and Beinn are interchangeable in the Scots Gaidhlig (Gaelic) language, both sounding as Ben, meaning mountain.
Beinn a'Chrulaiste on the left - a 'selfie' taken from Buachaille Etive Beag.
So, after the above distractions are ignored, we return to Beinn a’Chrulaiste, Glen Coe. What is it about this mountain that fascinates and inspire photographers? Quite simply, it is probably the best location for photography in Glen Coe as it looks onto the Boochles (Boo-kils), primarily the mountains of Buachaille Etive Mor (Boo-kill Etif More), but also Buachaille Etive Beag (Boo-kill Etif Beg), Creise (Cree - shuh), and Bidean nam Bian (Bidee-an), Glen Coe. If you are high enough up, you can see the Mamore mountains to the north, Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in the British Isles) and the Nevis range. It is one of the UK’s finest viewpoints (by the way, the United Kingdom’s highest mountain is not Ben Nevis, it is Mount Hope in British Antarctic Territory - always remember the last vestiges of the British Empire).
The Mamores from Chrulaiste.
There are three main ways up Beinn a’Chrulaiste: No.1 the King’s House Hotel route (gradual ascent), No.2 straight on from the A82 (very steep), or No.3 from Altnafeadh (the car park for the Big Boochle) which is boggy in places, slightly pathless, steep in places and involves a small rock climb (it also involves some tricky navigation in the dark – explained later). I normally take Route 3. It can also involve tearing your trousers on a barbed wire fence and falling ungracefully onto the ground – been there, done that.
The shoulder of Chrulaiste on the left with the Big Boochle on the right.
In winter, Beinn a’Chrulaiste can be in ‘full on’ winter mode with pockets of snow thigh deep, blizzard conditions, freezing temperatures, requiring ‘proper’ clothing, ice axe and crampons. But it’s Scotland, not particularly hard – some say. The United Kingdom generally has a mild temperate climate. But, there is always a but, the Highlands of Scotland are on the same latitude as Alaska and Siberia and, when it turns bad, it can be very very bad. Some years more people are killed on the Scottish mountains than in the Alps. Shout out to Scottish Mountain Rescue teams – the true heroes of the hills. Volunteers who put their lives at risk to save lives or tragically, recover the dead. I give a monthly donation through ‘Just Giving’ to Glencoe Mountain Rescue. You may spend more on petrol/diesel costs just getting there, than giving to Mountain Rescue. Think about it.
Blizzard on Chrulaiste.
Returning to the subject, in case you lost track (which is easy on Chrulaiste). I normally climb Chrulaiste in the dark for dawn, to catch the light of sunrise striking Buachaille Etive Mor or, in the other direction, the Mamores and the Nevis range. Leave your car at the lay-by on the A82 at Altnafeadh (alt-na-fey). Walk back along the path, ignoring the signpost for the Devil’s Staircase (a story for another day), past the small house and pocket of trees. Decisions are then faced – walk further and face a steeper longer climb or climb over the waist high barbed wire fence for a direct approach (my favoured option). Strike diagonally uphill across boggy ground until you reach a fence. Either follow the fence line up and right crossing over when it turns left, or cross lower down and go directly uphill. In either option you will eventually pick up a faint path leading uphill (you need to know what a faint path looks like – look for the footprints of those who have went before – easier in the snow).
Buachaille Etive Beag from Chrulaiste.
Having picked up the path (look for big boulders on the horizon – I always navigate by such familiar landmarks), climb very steeply uphill on the shoulder of the mountain until you are faced by a rock wall. Go left and climb the wall, only about 50 feet high with lots of handholds, etc. and as you emerge walk to the right to reach Stob Beinn a’Chrulaiste (an outcrop of the mountain). This is the ‘photographer’s viewpoint’, giving the best views. There is little point in going further, as Beinn a’Chrulaiste becomes a boring trudge to the summit, where views are not improved. It is worth going further along for some alternative shots.
Settle down, break out the Coffee and Jaffa Cakes, have a rest and await the sunrise (or sunset). I much prefer sunrise to sunset at this location, although I have camped there a few times for both.
I have climbed Chrulaiste over 50 times at all times of the year. I even slept rough in the heather one night – nearly froze to death – not to be repeated. It is one of the best locations for photography in Scotland, the views are spectacular, the photo opportunities immense, the feeling of satisfaction when you capture a great shot from this mountain are great, after the hard slog to get there. One part of the mountain is even nicknamed after me by a fellow photographer – McSporran’s V – an inversion framing the Big Boochle with a perfect V shaped cleft in the mountain (see photo below). It was used as publicity material in the film the Outlaw King – telling the Story of King Robert the Bruce. I didn’t even get paid for the photo.
Is that you John?
I arrived in Glen Coe about 6am in mid-winter. Sunrise was about 8am. I took my normal path (no.3) up the mountain. Below I could see a torch weaving back and forth. That ‘guy’ looks lost I thought. I descended and met Marcel Dutu, a Romanian living in Scotland. He had heard of Chrulaiste and decided to climb it but got lost in the dark. Follow me. We then climbed the mountain together. Got some good photos.
Two weeks later, I climbed the mountain in the dark in a blizzard. Arriving a Stob Beinn a’Chrulasite an hour before sunrise, I sheltered from the wind on the eastern side of the Stob, got my Coffee and Jaffa Cakes out and sat in a snow hole awaiting dawn. I then heard a voice say, “Is that you John?”. Goodness me (polite version). What are the chances – you’re sitting in the pitch black on top of a mountain in mid winter in a blizzard and a voice asks ‘is that you?’.
“Marcel, really nice to see you again”. It was Marcel obviously (coz you’re reading this). The weather conditions did not improve until well after dawn, but we got some great shots of sunrise over the Mamore mountains. Marcel then climbed higher up the mountain and I suddenly realised a storm front carrying a lot of snow was approaching. I waved to him and he waved back. No, I’m not being friendly (I’m a crabbit git at the best of times) – look north. Oops. Time to get off the mountain. On the way down we got caught in a blasting blizzard, could hardly see where we were going for the snow battering our faces. By the time we arrived back at our cars, it was bright sunshine. Scotland – if you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes, it will change.
On another occasion, I climbed the mountain in mid-winter in deep fog and mist when the weather forecast said there was going to be a temperature inversion. On the way up I met two photographers who decided to stay at the halfway point, thinking there was no point going further as the mist and fog was too deep to give hope of good shots. I stuck to my plan and as I reached the Stob I emerged out of the mist and low cloud to see the Big Boochle rising like an island from a sea of cloud.
Mountains like Islands
I felt sorry for the two photographers who decided not to climb further. This is a very obvious lie. I was going to capture unique shots that no one else was going to. Very selfish of me. On the way down I met the two photographers again. “Did you get anything” they asked. “Yeah, it was OK”, I said. “Pretty crap morning”, they said, “we’re going to wait and see if it gets better”. I headed down (smiling inside).
One of my best days in the hills was when I combined an early morning photo shoot from Chrulaiste with a later climb of the Big Boochle and a walk along it’s length. Left home at 2am in May, arrived at Glen Coe about 3.30am and began the hike up to Stob Beinn a’Chrulaiste. On the way the sky was developing into a fantastic sight. I wasn’t going to make it in time, stopped and fired off a few shots, then raced to get to the Stob. A magnificent sight awaited. Two hours of constant photography, interspersed with coffee (and Jaffa cakes).
By 6.30am the light was becoming too harsh and white for great photos, time to head down. Back at the car for 7.15am, lightened my load of gear, then headed up the Coire na Tulaich ravine on Buachaille Etive Mor as the clouds began to blow off the peak. Arrived at the top for 9am, then turned left for Stob Dearg (Stob Jerreg) to reach that famous peak for 9.30am. I had the peak all to myself. More coffee.
Onwards, retracing my steps, then up to the Munro top of Stob na Doire. Now here’s the thing. Buachaille Etive Mor has three peaks, but only two of them are Munros (classed as mountains over 3000 feet in height). Stob Dearg is a Munro at 3,353 feet and Stob na Broige at the far end is a Munro at 3,136 feet, but the peak in the middle, Stob na Doire (the second highest of the three peaks) in not a Munro, but a ‘Munro top’ at 3,316 feet.
It is possible to climb Stob na Doire separately from the other two peaks, but you will not have climbed a Munro. Go figure.
Anyway, I walked down and along to Stob na Broige, then returned and walked down the very steep Coire Altruim ravine to the River Coupall which flows down the Lairig Gartain pass and followed the path back to the car. 20 yards from the car I tripped over a boulder while not paying attention and tore my achilles. I’m an idiot. 2pm, began the drive home, tired but happy. 4pm lay soaking in a hot bath with a glass of red wine.
In conclusion, Beinn a’Chrulaiste is one of the best viewpoints in Scotland. Well worth the effort. Often overlooked in favour of the Big Boochle and other mountains. But you need to experience dawn and sunrise from this viewpoint to truly experience and realise its majesty.