FUNNY the tricks time can play on the mind.
There are mountains I climb regularly and yet feel like years have passed since my last visit, and there are ones I feel I visited only yesterday which have seen a decade pass.
I was surprised to realise recently that Bidean nam Bian had fallen into the second category. I’ve explored its corries on numerous occasions, walked its ridges and stood on its summits many times, and every outing seems fresh in the memory.
Yet when I decided to revisit it recently, I realised it had actually been 11 years since my last ascent. September 10, 2004, to be precise.
There’s a good reason the date stands out so starkly - it was the day we handed over a cheque to Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team for their efforts in recovering our friend Trevor’s body from Buachaille Etive Mor after his tragic accident two months earlier.
It was a fittingly beautiful day; clear skies, blinding light that had even the sun reaching for its Raybans, not a breath of wind. There seemed to be a collective feeling of relief within us, a realisation that we were exorcising the pain we had held for weeks since the accident.
But it was the beginning of the end for the group in that form. Some even retreated from the hills for good, the memories so raw. It was, I suppose, an inevitable conclusion to such an event as painful as this.
It’s no mystery to see how a day like that breaches time spans, every step imprinting itself clearly as if it were yesterday.
I recently recalled that during a recent climb of another old friend, Buachaille Etive Beag, I was shocked to realise 12 years had passed since my last ascent. But it’s easy to see why the mountains of Glen Coe have that effect.
For novice hill walkers, this is a place of myth and legend, the birthplace of rugged mountain men and rugged mountain peaks. It’s a natural progression from grassy, rolling slopes to what we see as “real“ mountains when we are starting out.
The hills are simply unforgettable - they stay with you long after the actual climb. We spent so many of our early years on the mountains of Glen Coe and the Nevis range that it‘s no surprise we knew the ground so well.
Glen Coe is also the gateway to Fort William and the far-flung Munros of the west. Even if you are just passing through you can’t help but be aware of Bidean’s presence, the Three Sisters guarding the entrances to its corries and the hidden delights beyond. So when I set off from the viewpoint car park in the early morning light with a chilly wind scouring the glen, it felt like I was going home.
I crossed the bridge over the River Coe and headed into the confines of Coire Gabhail, better known as the Hidden or Lost Valley. This is where the MacDonalds were said to take cattle appropriated through various means, a hiding place which would be invisible to searching eyes far below.
The rocky path leads into a tight ravine with some steep drops on the left, then it twists upwards through a mix of moss-smothered rocks, water-laden ferns, dark little caves and hollows and trees which dip and bend in all directions like disciples of Quasimodo.
And there’s always the sight and sound of water, from little waterfalls suddenly dropping between dense green cover to the stream which cascades down and around the rock staircase.
Then there’s the final reveal; the moment when you drop over the lip at the top of this section and the terrain opens out into a calm, flat Himalayan floor surrounded by soaring rock faces, a lost valley indeed, while ahead on the skyline there is the high ridge which separates the relatively new Munro peak of Stob Coire Sgreamhach from the main summit of Bidean.
Once seen, it’s an image that will lock itself into your memory banks. I suppose that’s why every visit seems just like yesterday.