Oooh it’s Aonach Eagach – the notched ridge
20th September 2009
Map: Landranger 41
Weather: Jimmy Saville and the four seasons
Up to Am Bodach, along the ridge to Meall Dearg, across the pinnacles of Aonach Eagach, up to Stob Coire Leith, along the ridge to Sgorr nam Fiannaidh before dropping down the hillside to return to the Clachaig Inn: 6 miles by Satmap Active 10 gps in 7 hours - ouch
My walk yesterday up the lost valley prepared the legs for today’s walk/scramble/climb up and along the Aonach Eagach. The route took in 3 Munroes along the way, not that I’m counting as I would have to spend many years to collect all 283 odd hills. I’ve been eager to do this walk for the last few years, and this was the first weekend opportunity to get to grips with my fears and reservations, and to seek some adventure.
A gent by the name of Mad Mike had originally offered to escort me across, and several others had tried to reassure me with an assessment of the route, grading it from easy to tough. I’ve watched a few you-tube clips as well, but really didn’t reassure myself either – but like all things in life you can choose to live or not. I had contacted Mike the week before and arranged to meet up for the weekend, then plumped for Sunday as Saturday looked too wet – he advised the rock became too ‘soapy’ and a bit slick in these conditions. So I awoke with much anticipation and a quick heads up outside showed some sunshine, but many of the tops were still misty - however anticipation is all. Another walker from the walkingforum site – Mike (Peakbagger) was also walking up here today but he was doing some rope work, and was part of a signed up group. He left earlier in the day to get ready, and I’d arranged a 9am meet up near the Clachaig Inn with Mad Mike. So I drove over to the lay by and waited – it was nice and fresh with a touch of wind – well I was a bit nervous. I had a good view up to the Aonach Eagach and the mist swirling around the pinnacles.
Then I had a text from Mike saying he couldn’t make it, and that left me with mixed emotions. I sat and pondered my options – shall I go on my own or go elsewhere? It would have been very easy to sit in the car and say ‘not today thanks’. But like I said earlier, you make a choice in life, so I did and decided to at least walk up to Am Bodach and see what all the fuss was about. That turned out to be the best decision I have made for a while, so I drove up to a little spot near Jimmy Savilles house and wished him good morning, filled my bag with snacks (forgot the red bull...doh) and set out on a steep well defined path up to the first summit. I had seen two sets of lads on their way up – the first three had ropes, hats etc, and the next three looked happy and were discussing the Three Sisters and the way up the buttress. So I already knew that ahead of me would be people familiar with their surrounds.
I decided a steady plod upwards would suffice today and reckoned on 1 to 1 ½ hours to the top of Am Bodach – based on how long it took me up to Y Garn on the Nantlle ridge walk. I stopped frequently on the way up for views over to the Three Sisters and up and down Glencoe. Sir Jimmy’s house was shrinking away below me, as I gained height quickly, so the worst of the sweat and toil is over by the time I got to the top. I could hear the voices of the youngsters up ahead of me (late twenties, thirties), and surprisingly for me, I caught with them about ¾ way up Am Bodach. Now I’m no racing snake so I think they were taking it easy, and encouraging me up. So I said my hellos and explained the situation with regard to Mike, and how I would handle the Aonach Eagach exposure. But the three of them assured me that it was ‘a piece of pish man’ and would easily cope. They said they didn’t mind if I tagged along, and I was much relieved to have someone who could say ‘watch this bit’, or ‘go that way’ etc – that includes Barmpot amongst other local sayings.
More than that though, they were very good company as well, and we had a laugh or two on the way across. Neil the ‘mountain monkey’ looked after John for most of the way across, giving him rope whenever he felt the need and obviously encouragement. While Garry kindly checked my state of mind periodically, this is always good for reassurance. As we approached the summit we walked up into the cloud cover, and promptly donned waterproofs, gloves and a change of hat – this was definitely a 2 hat trip. The temperature dropped about 5 to 10 degrees and the wind came and went, a little bit gusty, but at least it was blowing us back onto the mountain.
The clouds cleared long enough to gaze down on The Chancellor – a rock promontory that juts out into Glencoe with huge steep drops left and right, and the background of the valley floor way below. The River Coe meandering with the occasional glint of sunshine – the height below was very impressive, but thankfully not too intimidating yet. At this point I felt calm and had girded my loins for the journey ahead – it felt like standing up to the mark to be counted. The first challenge was the rock step down from the summit of Am Bodach, which was around a 40ft drop down.
Maybe it would have been a bit more intimidating had the views below not been obscured by the mist. It didn’t present too much difficulty and I made my way down forwards using 4 points of contact for most of the way down. But there are good handholds all the way and the only awkward spot was at the bottom as the bedding of the rocks tilts slightly down towards the precipice and there was less to hang on to. The first hurdle cleared and we made our way along the ridge towards Meall Dhearg the first Munro of the day.
But before we got there, the second challenge appeared – the chimney. It looks very steep on first approach, and although there are one or two stretches, it had plenty of good handholds, footholds, fingernail holds – whatever you could grip really. The first 10 to 12ft is steep but the rest is easy – my heartbeat pulled me up and along. As I passed over the top I was beginning to wonder what the pinnacles were to bring. We meandered along to Meall Dearg, on a generally good path with a few lumpy bits along the way, but with no great degree of scrambly bits and I managed to drop down off all the pitches facing forward. We made the summit and had a refreshment stop as progress was slow with the 4 in front of us roped up together and having no real passing places – you can hardly start to shove past up here – and one of them would have recognised me anyway!
There were a fair few people up here today, and I counted out 3 couples, 2 lots of 4 and 1 lot of five – all with big grins generally. Suitable refreshed we were off again and the start of the pinnacles loomed ahead. As we climbed up and over and down, I was concentrating a good deal, so I didn’t really notice the height gained and lost. Occasionally I looked behind for a peek and was quite impressed by the scenery, but generally I was too intent on keeping a firm grip on mother earth. It was cold as well; with the mist closing in and out I found that gloves were needed as the hands went quickly numb, but personally I preferred the feel of skin on rock, and to know I have a good grip – definitely more reassuring – a recurring theme it seems.
I found I handled most of the early pinnacles well and there were only a couple of spots that were awkward – one of them I had to drop off my perch about 4-5ft, as there were no holds for my feet – smoothed by many rumps going the same way. But the landing was on a level surface and there wasn’t any real threat of catapulting over the edge, unless you’re unlucky Alf from the Fast Show ....oh bugger. The next awkward pitch had me using my knees to shuffle up, as I can’t get my leg over like I used too – story of my life really! But it all counts – hands, knees, elbows, whatever it takes, and some of the footholds were a tad tiny, so you had to have a good grip before committing to press on upwards with the feet. I guess that was the reason my arms and shoulders were so sore the next day – I used a lot of muscle I hadn’t used for some time up here.
As the walk progressed I was enjoying the company, and as the pinnacles became more challenging, our pace slowed as the roped up 4 took their time. To be honest it was probably more difficult all roped up together as they had to wait for each individual to move on. All this served to do for me was to have more time to chat, and more time to contemplate the next pinnacles ahead. The last two were probably the worst visually, as we were waiting for at least 5 to 10 minutes perched above a 500 to 600ft drop, with the rain starting again, and the wind starting to gust a little stronger.
This may have been a spot where I would have gone a little awry if I was on my own, as there is a route that has been created that by-passes the big pinnacles and it looked ok. But Garry said it was ok ahead and we would have a lot of ground to recover if dropping down. So after a bit of an undignified scramble up, I was facing the last pinnacle and it looked pretty tilted to me with a vertical bedding plane. Not only that, but the drop down to it from where I stood was out of sight and looked a bit formidable as well.
All I could see was one rope disappearing, and Neil feeding his out for John. They say anticipation is all and I suppose that is true. The mist blew over the edge clearing the way ahead momentarily, so I just waited and watched as the ropey 4 made it down and up and over the next pinnacle. When it came to my turn I was OK and made it down to the small path in between pinnacles. I watched monkey man leap up the pinnacle without a second thought, so I did the same up the left hand side and before I knew it, that was that. All that remained was the haul up to Stob Coire Leith for another food stop, passing by the ropey 4 on the way.
It was here that John produced a masterstroke in the form of a Topic bar – never has chocolate tasted so good since the last time I ate some. The ridge widened out with not much rise and fall along to the last peak of the day at Sgorr nam Fiannaidh. The summit shelter was busy with happy ridge walkers and we passed by to continue the walk along rubble strewn ground, an easy stroll with the clouds parting ahead and behind us – enough to get a glimpse of the Pap of Glencoe and the village far, far below us. I posed for a shot with a big stupid grin on my face, and was very happy with myself and the company I had kept along the Aonach Eagach.
I wasn’t sure about the Clachaig Gully descent as it is full of loose scree with some steep drops, but Mike told me afterwards that it was fine. Neil told us it was ok a little further around, and said it was an extra 1 ½ hrs to go via the Pap of Glencoe. Whichever way you choose to come down off here it is very steep and is a hard test on the thigh muscles, knees and shins. But down we went with Neil and Garry leading the way, followed by self and John. Another couple tagged along so we became six, but by now I was feeling the exertions of yesterday catch up with me and my legs started to wilt. John hurtled past me at one stage, going down the slope on his bum, which is ok as long as you don’t hit a boulder, and is certainly quicker. His pants were a dirty streaked brown at the back by the time we got down, and I’m not entirely convinced it was all down to the slide.
I seemed to take forever going down and the ground was still very steep. We didn’t have a path down, just a romp through the heather, reeds, grass and bracken. But eventually we did make easier ground, with me bringing up the rear of a ragged line. The route cut through bracken towards a small copse of pine trees, before dropping down to the road, never has tarmac been so welcome, and as I reached terra firma I finally caught up with the others, striding purposefully on to the Clachaig Inn.
We burst through the doors of the boot bar and made a dash for the bar, and joy of joys, never has a pint tasted so good – well actually that’s not true, my first pint of Guiness in Ireland has to be the best pint I ever tasted, apart from the one I had when my first daughter was born. Funny how you remember events isn’t it? Eventually we had a lift back to the start of the walk to pick up the cars. I stood by mine for a little bit to look back up to the Aonach Eagach, the best ridge I’ve ever done. Thanks especially to Neil, Garry and John for your company – Scotland – it’s brilliant for walking.
Welcome to my day walks
The dates listing these walks are the dates I uploaded the stories. They are in no particular order, and it doesn't matter because you were directed here from elsewhere!! I hope you enjoy the journey..