High up on Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glencoe, and visible from the road below, is Dorsal Arete – a classic Grade II winter climb. From the car park on the A82 below the Three Sisters of Glencoe, you can see right the way up the steep sided valley to the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan. Just to the right of the summit, the top of Dorsal Arete appears as a small, but unmistakeable minor summit, like a shark’s dorsal fin.
Dorsal Arete is one of Glencoe’s most popular winter climbs so it’s probably best to think in terms of having a ‘sociable experience’ on the route. You are unlikely to have the route to yourself. However, it’s plenty wide enough to accommodate multiple parties and the presence of other climbers never detracts from the quality of the climbing. It’s popular for a good reason.
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We also run winter skills courses, winter mountaineering and climbing courses in other parts of Scotland and in the Lake District. We run them in Snowdonia too if conditions allow. You can also read our article on beginners’ tips for winter mountain walking.
Approaching Dorsal Arete in Glencoe in Winter
The route from the car park to the cliffs of Stob Coire nan Lochan is plain to see in good visibility. Even in poor visibility it’s not hard to find. Once across the bridge over the Rive Coe, the path twists and turns a few times. Then it enters the steep sided valley which really leads only on up to the lochan.
Ascent up Main Valley
At this point, there is only one tactic. Head down, and just keep placing one foot in front of the other for the next one hour and forty-five minutes or so. It’s a continuous trudge, earning the humorous nickname of the “Hurt Lochan” a few years ago, after a film of almost the same name. However, don’t forget to take a few moments to look around. Enormous cliffs surround you as you ascend, great seepage lines which will either be dripping wet or coated with ice, depending on the temperature.
Away to the right, the stream in the valley gorge below tumbles down to the main river valley. Part way up comes a ‘bad step’ section. Here the path comes close to the stream, but to follow it you have to traverse rightwards over a couple of holdless slabs. A slip from here would take you down 10 metres or so into a rocky pool below. Not a good start, or end, to the day. Either traverse the slabs with great care, or scramble up a small wall directly facing you, having moved up left from the path. This option is becoming increasingly popular.
Ascent up Final Snow Slope
The route then continues without difficulty until it crosses the stream again, just below a line of cliffs. Having crossed the stream, a broad snowy slope or wide gully leads up alongside the right side of the cliffs. Once you emerge from the gully slope, a short walk over a few humps and bumps heading rightwards brings you the floor of the coire, with the cliffs towering above you.
Broad Gully and Dorsal Arete
There are many, many routes to choose from here – from old classics to modern test pieces. To find Dorsal Arete, you first need to identify Broad Gully. This is the most obvious wide snow gully towards the left side of the main cliffs. Dorsal Arete is the broad ridge which separates Broad Gully from the next wide gully to the right. It is a broad rambling ridge lower down, narrowing to a fine arête higher up. This is where you are heading.
If you are lucky, a trail will already be broken to the foot of the gully. If not, you will have to do it yourself. This slope is always steeper than it looks and the snow is always deeper than you hoped. This part of the day can often be hard work.
Be aware though, that Broad Gully itself and the slopes leading to it, are known to avalanche frequently. Only proceed if you understand how to research avalanche conditions and make appropriate route choices. If you don’t then maybe consider one of our winter skills courses.
Having entered the mouth of Broad Gully, climb up it a few metres until there is an obvious break in the right wall which leads up and to the right onto the base of Dorsal Arete itself. Depending on the conditions, this can be a good spot for a first belay.
Dorsal Arete – Lower Section
Once established on the broad, lower part of Dorsal Arete, you can take another belay and bring up your partner. There are now plenty of choices for where to go next. You can choose to make it easy or ‘more interesting’ by seeking out small problems. Whichever way you choose, a series of snowy slopes, rocky steps and mini-gully lines will eventually bring you to where the ridge narrows below some steep pinnacles.
Dorsal Arete – Middle Section
The best route now weaves its way leftwards around the base of a pinnacle before climbing up behind it. This leads into a short steepening which ends at a flat area of the ridge, surrounded by big blocky pinnacles. Some of these can provide good anchors and others seem to precarious to trust! Take care choosing.
Off to your left (facing uphill) Broad Gully doesn’t seem too far below, down a short, steep snow slope. If for any reason you need to abandon the route, this can be a good place to do so (if Broad Gully is safe). A short abseil from one of the blocks will bring you down into Broad Gully at a point that is still walkable for most people.
Dorsal Arete – Upper Section
Above the pinnacles, there is a narrow neck connecting the mid-part of the arete with the final upper section. There are two main options here.
The true arete, with the highlight of the ‘dorsal fin’, leads up over the rocks to the right which form the obvious skyline at this point. These lead with increasing difficulty to the final tricky pull that allows you to stand on the crest. It’s quite common for parties to use a long sling to ‘lasso’ the top rocks and provide an extra foothold. Once on the top, a bold walk, or more tentative shuffling, lead you to the final headwall.
High wind, crowds, or nerves could be any of the reasons for avoiding this part of the route. The alternative is an easy traverse leftwards across the steep snow slopes below the crest of the arete. This leads to the shelter of the gully at the foot of the final headwall. It’s an easy enough traverse, but needs care to protect, not forgetting your second. The photo shows two climbers belayed at the foot of the final gully/slope. The pair of ropes behind them are on the easy traverse mentioned.
From this belay, a short climb up the little gully leads over the top. You are now at the safety of the rocky slopes of the mountainside and the walker’s path up. It’s often extremely windy here, so it’s a good idea to have some communication signals agreed with your partner. In all probability, they won’t be able to hear you shout from the top.
Winter descents from Dorsal Arete in Glencoe
Having ‘topped out’ from Dorsal Arete there are a few options for descent or what to do next. In good, safe snow conditions, the quickest and most enjoyable descent will be to descend Broad Gully. The very top of it may need to be down climbed, perhaps protected by a rope. Once in the gully, the angle eases and it becomes a simple down-climb facing in at first, and later facing out.
For those that prefer to bag summits, from the top of Dorsal Arete it’s only a few minutes to the peak of Stob Coire na Lochan. While this is a fine and notable summit of 1115 metres, it is not classed as a Munro. This is because it is a subsidiary of Bidean nam Bian (1150m), Glencoe’s highest peak.
After summiting, or perhaps instead of, the easiest walking descent from the Stob or the top of Dorsal Arete is to walk around the rim of the cliffs. First you head north-east and then gradually turn to the north. You must take care not to be too close to the cliff-edge, though. From here it can be easy to break through a cornice and fall straight down the cliffs. Eventually, the way flattens out at the low point between the ridge and the summit of Aonach Dubh (892m). From here, a relatively simple descent leads back to the floor of the coire.
Descent to the A82 in Glencoe
It just remains to retrace your steps and head back down the valley to the car. Beware, however. This valley is situated in what Dr Who or Captain Kirk may refer to as a “tear in the very fabric of the time-space continuum”. Regular climbers here know this is definitely true, because although you can see your car in the car park far below, no matter how long you walk for the car never seems to get any closer…