The legendary Aonach Eagach

Posted by Sam Harrison on December 3, 2013 at 19:17.

 Mountaineering and climbing

aonach eagach ballachulish glencoe scrambling snow west highlands

The words "Aonach Eagach" are enough to send shivers down the spine of many a hillwalker, conjuring up images up knife-edge pinnacles with stupendous exposure extending mile after mile after mile, finished off with all the complexities and challenges that the Scottish weather has to offer. Oft-described as "Crib Goch on steroids" and widely heralded as the "best ridge on mainland Britain" (it is presumably the Cuillin ridge on Skye that wins the overall "best ridge in Britain" title), the (in)famous Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe is a grade 2/3 scramble running between the summits of Am Bodach and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, the highlight of which is a kilometre-long exposed section of "crazy pinnacles" from Meall Dearg to Stob Coire Leith. It is this section that gives the ridge its reputation and under a covering of snow makes the route a real mountaineering challenge, with a winter grade of II/III in the hardest of conditions. The name "Aonach Eagach" translates to "notched ridge", which is an apt if not somewhat underwhelming description.

Lorna, Imogen and myself decided that last weekend's Lancaster University Hiking Club trip to Glencoe would be a perfect opportunity to do the ridge, and so with the sentiments of the previous paragraph running through my head, I found myself on the slog up Am Bodach at 8.30am last Saturday morning, after arriving in Glencoe at 11.30pm the evening before. Lorna and Imogen had done the ridge before, in some deep and wet snow back in 2010, whereas it was my first time. On paper, the ridge shouldn't have posed any problems for the three of us - in fact I'd read that it gets its grade more due to exposure and commitment, rather than technicality, and we're all comfortable with exposure and used to commitment (the Alps is good training for that!) - but somehow the legacy and aura of the ridge still made me a little tentative.

Imogen tackling the first of the difficulties
Imogen tackling the first of the difficulties after Meall Dearg


We'd packed climbing gear, comprising a half-rope, a few nuts and hexes, lots of slings and the usual harness, helmet and so on. In the summer, the ridge is a sole-able scramble, however in the winter it is more common to move together on a rope and even pitch certain parts. We weren't entirely sure how much snow was up there, but had imagined it would be a lot icier than it was.  Crampons were donned before the first tricky steps down at the start of the ridge, but we decided to leave the harnesses off for the moment.

The hardest parts of the ridge were probably the down climbs (as demonstrated nicely by Lorna here!).
The hardest parts of the ridge were probably the down climbs (as demonstrated nicely by Lorna here!)


The ridge looking rather ominous ahead
The ridge looking rather ominous ahead


The snow wasn't too deep, and there wasn't too much ice, making it easier going than we'd imagined. We soon found ourselves overtaking a roped party on the summit of Meall Dearg, before tackling the pinnacled section that, by that time, I was very-much-so looking forward to. It didn't disappoint. The exposure was a-plenty (bar the clouds obscuring the view) and the scrambling challenging but extremely fun and long-lasting. I'll spare the details, save to say that it lived up to its reputation as the best ridge in mainland Britain. We ended up taking our climbing gear for walkies, though others on the ridge were roped up and we noticed some newly-placed ab tat along the way.

Lorna and Imogen on the
Lorna and Imogen on the "crazy pinnacles"


The early start was worth it, as we were back down at the campsite whilst it was still light, at just after 4pm. We bumped into the guys that we overtook in the Clachaig later on, and they hadn't got down until 7pm, after descending Clachaig Gully. The ridge itself took us 3.5 hours from summit to summit.

Looking back on the ridge
Looking back on the ridge

Sgorr Dhearg's NE ridge


The scrambling fun didn't stop after the Aonach Eagach! Lorna had suggested doing Sgorr Dhear's NE ridge, and coincidently a few others had independently been thinking the same thing, so a fairly big group of around ten of us set off early on the Sunday morning. The ridge, which gets a winter grade of I, was exposed and not altogether straightforward in places, and to steal a phrase from the guidebook we were using, had "a real mountaineering ambience". Other rather apt phrases from said guidebook describe it as an "easy but invigorating scramble" with "exposed aerial passages". This all made the slog up to the ridge from sea level seem worth it in the end.

Ascending Sgorr Dhearg's NE ridge en masse
Ascending Sgorr Dhearg's NE ridge en masse


The impressive head wall of Sgorr Dhearg
The impressive head wall of Sgorr Dhearg


The morning was overcast, but the sun did make an afternoon appearance as we were making our descent. By the time we were setting off back to Lancaster, the sky was clear! All-in-all, another brilliant weekend in Glencoe. Bring on next year!
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