The Aonach Eagach
There is a mixture of emotions as I poke my head out of the door of the cabin. There is little wind. There is blue sky. All is calm in Kinlochleven. There's an underlying excitement and a restlessness to get going. Riding on top of this is just a little bit of fear. Today I will traverse the most infamous ridge on mainland Britain. Spikier than Crib Goch. Narrower than Sharp Edge. Longer than Striding Edge. Today is all about The Aonach Eagach. Lee pokes his head out of the lodge. It is the third day of our trip to the Highlands. Ben Lui had been conquered on Saturday and yesterday the inclement weather had turned us away just short of the Devil's Ridge, having climbed Sgurr an Iubhair from Kinlochleven. For today, the forecast had been uncertain and I am sure that a large slice of my apprehension is due to this. For a first traverse, I am wishing for favourable conditions on Glencoe's Notched Ridge. The Aonach Eagach comes with some reputation. From the A82, on the magical Pass of Glencoe, it appears as a fearsome, towering wall topped with jagged ramparts that pierce the clouds in spectacular fashion. The drama from the road (and drama it surely is) does not compare with the grand theatre that greets the mountaineer once sky high on the ridge. The crest is narrow. The steep slopes that fall away from the arête soon plummet down sheer cliffs into the abyss. It is said to be the most serious ridge traverse on the British mainland. It must be deadly serious, for are taking about a British mainland that includes An Teallach, Liathach and Crib Goch. Other than the peerless Cuillin on the Isle of Skye, this is the pinnacle of ridge scrambling in the United Kingdom. Hence why I am nervous. Hence why I want favourable conditions. We hit the pass of Glencoe and it emerges. That towering, malevolent wall of rock glares back at us, goading us, throwing down a daunting gauntlet. Despite this, my apprehension is evaporating. It's on! This is what I realise as I look to the sky and see a vast majority of blue. It's on! As we start the ascent to Am Bodach at the east end of the main ridge, the overriding emotion is excitement and there is also a sense of urgency to get up there and let the good times begin. Glencoe is truly stunning. It is the most grandiose mountain environment I have set foot in within the UK. (Note well, however, that I am yet to venture to Skye, Torridon, Assynt, Fisherfield, Knoydart or Kintail, so I'm sure it will have strong competition yet). The entrance to Glencoe is provided by the staggeringly beautiful pyramid of Buachaille Etive Mor, appearing like a lone sentinel, megalith still, watching over desolate Rannoch Moor. It dwarfs the cars driving past its feet, making a mockery of the silly game below. As one dives (or - more accurately - drives) into the jaws of Glencoe, the Three Sisters sweep up from ground level to provide the northern arms of the immense Bidean Massif - a complex series of ridges and corries culminating in the highest point in the old county of Argyll. Add to this the drama of The Aonach Eagach and a clutch of other fine mountains, it is no wonder that Glencoe is in unofficial home of Scottish mountaineering. It is the pure majesty of the Bidean that steals the show in the early parts of this climb. The Three Sisters look gargantuan from the road. However, as I ascend up the flanks of Am Bodach, the loftier peaks begin to rear their heads above and beyond. The three sisters have two enormous parents in Bidean Nam Bian and Stob Corie Sgreamhach, the two Munros that stand above all else on the massif. There is some serious mountain muscle on display here, entwined with which are hidden valleys, cascading falls, exciting scrambles and lofty peaks. I am told the options are endless for days out on the Bidean. Looking across from the climb, I can certainly believe that.
Somewhere short of the summit of Am Bodach, I am regaling Lee with what I know of Glencoe's bloody history, specifically the events of February 13th 1692, when one of the worst atrocities in British history took place. Glencoe was then home to clan MacDonald, a major power within the Highland clan system of the time. In London, there was a new King: William of Orange. Many of the Highland clans represented a threat to King William and many were still staunch supporters of the deposed King James VII. In an attempt to bring the clans into line, King William drew up an order stating that the clan chiefs must sign an oath of allegiance to the crown by New Years Day 1692. Through no fault of their own, the MacDonalds were late signing this agreement. Enter Secretary of State John Dalrymple, who detested the MacDonalds and everything they stood for. He used the delayed oath as justification for a royal order to slaughter the Macdonalds: “Cut off root and branch… Put all to the sword under seventy.” The order was to be carried out by three commanders but, supposedly due to bad weather, it was only Captain Robert Campbell and his men who arrived in Glencoe. At this point, only the Captain knew of their grisly orders. They arrived on February 1st and were offered shelter by the MacDonalds, who were honouring the Highland code of hospitality, despite the fact that the MacDonalds and Campbells had not always seen eye-to-eye. It was a show of kindness that would be turned upon its head in horrific fashion… A terrible blizzard howled through Glencoe on the night of February 13th, as the MacDonalds bedded down for the night. Whilst the conditions outside deteriorated to a white-out, inside the Campbells gathered and the Captain announced the orders that had been passed down by the sovereignty. Unsurprisingly, there were some Campbells who were disgusted by the brutal instructions and set about warning the MacDonalds of the coming fate. However, most set about systematically murdering their hosts as they slept or tried to flee. The MacDonald clan chief met his end in this way. Some of the MacDonalds who had been warned managed to escape into the surrounding mountains. A few made it to shelter but most were killed by the horrendous conditions, including the clan chief’s wife. The bloody events became known as The Massacre of Glencoe. Today, it has been cited that the infamous betrayal of hospitality was inspiration for George RR Martin’s Red Wedding, which featured in his book A Storm of Swords and became a somewhat iconic television moment in HBO’s Game of Thrones series. Above the door to the Clachaig Inn, at the foot of The Aonach Eagach’s Clachaig Gully, a sign reads: “No Hawkers or Campbells." But the inn and its sign are still many hours away from where we stand, on the summit of Am Bodach: a top of 943 metres. Behind us, the Buachailles Etive Mor and Etive Beag reveal their full length and behind them the tops of the Glen Etive mountains can be seen - Creise looking particularly fine. Ahead of us, snaking away to the west lies the scramblers' playground that is The Aonach Eagach. I am jubilant at the sight of it and Lee and I exchange a few expletives of awe. Off along the ridge we go.
Almost immediately I realise that this is no horizontal Striding Edge. This is The Aonach Eagach, The Notched Ridge, a grade two scramble, a ridge that goes up and down and up and down and down and up and up and down and up and up. Almost from the off, we negotiate chimneys, gullies, awkward steps and rock towers. A stark reminder of our situation occurs during the descent of a natural rocky staircase when I slip forward whilst lowering myself down. I bounce off a step. And then another, before coming to a standing rest on the third one. “I’m fine. I’m fine,” I announce. And I am. If anything I am glad of the reminder to be cautious. I am composed and ready to continue. Lee, ever the effervescent adventures sort, is nonetheless new to these kind of scrambles. He is affected by my stumble more than I am and is rightly concerned. I reaffirm that I am feeling good and we continue. Though a seed of doubt had undoubtedly been sown in Lee’s psyche. The next awkward rock step is the final barrier before the glistening prize of a Munro summit: Meall Dearg. Airy and precipitous but not overtly technical, I negotiate it with care. When I turn back, I see that Lee is unsure. We pause to let two other scramblers past and exchange a few words with them. We see that they are carrying a wealth of climbing gear. In some ways, this is a further nail in the coffin of Lee’s motivation to continue and I do not blame him. He knows I have not done a grade two scramble before and this is his first scramble of any grade in the British mountains. Seeing two obviously experienced mountaineering types go by with ropes and helmets, mixed with the aftermath of my miss-step and the uncertainty of what lies ahead on the ridge, Lee decides that he has had a superb morning of it already and that he is quite satisfied with his life being intact. I accept his decision and am ready to descend to the car. However, Lee is adamant that I continue the traverse. After all, the sun is still shining and it is there, ripe for the taking. Four or five times I check that he is sure, before I hand him the car keys and we arrange to meet at the very-same Clachaig Inn. Lee will be fine: he likes whisky and he’s not a Campbell. We shake hands before departing in opposite directions. Doing The Aonach Eagach alone could be quite a daunting prospect so I decide to pick up some pace to catch the two men who had passed us on the tricky step. With deliberate long strides I traverse along the more horizontal parts of the ridge and I launch myself into the few more scrambles that need negotiated, before I find myself standing on the summit of Meall Dearg at 953 metres. The peak has a unique claim to fame amongst the 282 Munros of Scotland. In 1901, Reverend AE Robertson became the first person to successfully ascend all the Munros and Meall Dearg was his last one. For such a milestone, it was only fitting that his wife should join him to celebrate. Legend has it that he first kissed the cairn and then his wife, which is the less hygienic way around I suppose. Anyway, back to the present day and what about the view! The complex ridges of the Mamores form the foreground to the north. Behind them, and out of the cloud for the first time today, is the Daddy. Bulky, bold and beautiful, it’s snow-capped Ben Nevis and the curving slope of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. This is the first time I have really laid eyes on it close at hand and there is a certain satisfaction in gazing upon it. So, you’re The Ben. I’ll be back for you another time. Mountains I have only read about jump out of the vista. Ah! That must be the great mass of Ben Alder to the east. That pointy fellow in the distance over there? Must be Schiehallion. Closer at hand are the now familiar Buachailles and the ever impressive Bidean Massif, still flexing it’s muscle in my general direction. But the show is stolen by The Aonach Eagach once again, for ahead is the crux of the ridge. It’s a sinewy, pinnacled aerial tightrope that runs between here and Stob Corie Leith. Tiny against this backdrop, I can make out the two men I am following atop one of the many pinnacles, dwarfed by the drops on either side. I hasten forward to join them.
A word on navigation. In fine conditions there are absolutely no issues with finding the correct path on The Aonach Eagach. It is as simple an east-west traverse as you are likely to find. Once you are on the ridge, you can not really get lost. This happy fact comes with a sting in the tail. There is no way off The Aonach Eagach. It is either back the way you came or on until the end. I am now committed. In Winter, it is not unheard of for mountaineers to spend the night on the ridge, forced into an emergency bivouac by changing conditions and the shorter daylight hours. Today, I glance to the sky and it does not escape me that clouds are gathering, lowering, darkening. After reaching the crux of Crib Goch as the heavens opened the previous year, I was in no mood for a similar experience on The Aonach Eagach.
Rock towers like little puzzles line the route, each one an absolute treat in dramatic surroundings. As I crest one such tower, I catch up with the men from earlier. Their names are Matt and John (though John I mistakenly called Richard on the video of this climb - apologies John!) and one of them hails from my home city of Carlisle. As we traverse the incredible rockscapes in our path, we find ourselves talking about strangely ordinary things: secondary schools and gastro-pubs that we have in common. Ridge walkers all three of us, we also discuss some of our best mountain days. The pair have climbed on the mercurial Cuillin of Skye and I can not stifle a pang of jealousy. "It's addictive this ridge bagging game," one of them admits.
The most famous features on the ridge are The Crazy Pinnacles. Three daggers of rock the width of the crest that project into the air, blocking the way ahead. Over the top or around? In the end, it is often a mixture of the two. Although not overly technical, the exposure is daunting as I hang over the abyss. It really focusses the mind. Every step is carefully calculated, every foothold and handhold tested. This is not a place for arrogance or recklessness. I never feel quite so alive as in moments like this. Just like two months earlier, on a wintry Striding Edge, I am revelling in the frisson. I am comfortable with the risk. I am enjoying the precarious situation. A few years ago, when I first discovered this attraction to these sorts of places and my reaction to them, it scared me a little. Understand well, it was not the places that scared me but the fact that I enjoyed them so much, that I could feel an addiction brewing. Kenton Cool calls it The Rat. Now, unlike when he first arrived, I am perfectly at ease with my pet rodent. He is a welcome guest at the dinner table of my psyche.
The scrambling is sustained. This is what really separates The Aonach Eagach from some of it's contemporaries. There is no let up for a couple of hours. Up and down and up and up and down and down. Chimney, rock step, gully, arête, tower, pinnacle, arête, chimney. On and on for some time. It is one long and winding natural assault course suspended high in the sky. Once one puzzle is unlocked, another presents itself. There is the occasional boss level, where things get really interesting and then there is the bonus levels: the summits and the tops of the pinnacles. At these moments, it is well worth stopping and just looking around, taking in the incredible surroundings. If you are lucky, figures will be seen behind, traversing along the crest that you have just come along, looking immeasurably tiny.
And then it starts snowing. Fickle is a word that is often used to describe the weather in the Highlands. I guess today is one of those days. After ascending through the sunshine, the last section of the traverse is done through driving snow. Fortunately for us, the majority of the difficulties are behind. We are now on the atmospheric climb to Stob Corie Leith at 940 metres. The snow laden clouds are hanging low as we hit the summit. There is not much to see but for the highest point of the ridge (a second Munro) Sgorr Nam Fiannaidh ahead of us. Connecting these two peaks together is a ridge that is less complex than what has come before.
Matt and John suggest I go ahead and I bid them a farewell and set off into a jog. I am now eager to get a shift on, as Lee will be waiting at the inn and we have a long drive back to Carlisle ahead of us. After all the scrambling, it feels great to stretch the legs and move at speed. Before long, I am back in the clouds at the Munro summit of Sgurr Nam Fiannaidh at 967 metres. There is no view to be had and the temperature is dropping so I press on. When I emerge from the mist, I am taken aback by the vista that opens out in front of me - so much so that I almost lose my footing. The village of Glencoe and Ballachulish sit on the shores of a sparkling, blue Loch Leven. To the south of this scene rises the mightily impressive Beinn a' Bheithir - The Hill of the Thunderbolt. It is a twin summit monster of a horseshoe that offers a classic winter traverse. I am quickly realising that there is a lifetime of mountain days to be had in Scotland. Beyond this, Loch Leven joins a giant sea loch: Loch Linnie. Hazy on the far shore of Linnie are yet more spiky looking mountains. Not Munros these, but as The Cobbler taught me last year, size is not everything. Let us remind ourselves that if Great Gable and Blencathra - arguably England's finest mountains - were in Scotland, they would be Corbetts (Scottish mountains between 2500 and 3000 feet) and not Munros. Even less lofty than the Corbetts are the Grahams and close at hand is one of the more famous Grahams: The Pap of Glencoe. From here it is not as shapely as it appears from Kinlochleven, where it assumes a classic, pointed mountain form. As I descend, I aim for the col just before the climb to the Pap. For a moment it is tempting to divert to it's pointed summit but practicality wins out and I continue my speedy descent towards Glencoe village.
It is not long before I am on the phone to Lee and he drives out to meet me. We are on the road, but not for long. It is virtually impossible to drive under the staggeringly beautiful Buachaille Etive Mor and not pull into the lay by for a moment spent gazing upwards at it's towering ramparts. This is my way of saying farewell to the Scottish Highlands for a few months.
I plan to return in August and the Buachaille via the Curved Ridge is first on my hit list. For now, the Rat has been temporarily sated by The Aonach Eagach. It has been a thoroughly momentous day. As ridge traverses go, it will be hard to beat. In terms of my mountain experiences, for sustained scrambling quality only Tryfan is in the same ball park. The Aonach Eagach is a slice of Highland magic. I get back into the car, sigh, and set off on the long drive back to Carlisle.