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Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.


Postby SteveeMac » Tue Dec 07, 2021 2:49 am

Route description: Aonach Eagach

Munros included on this walk: Meall Dearg (Aonach Eagach), Sgòrr nam Fiannaidh (Aonach Eagach)

Date walked: 29/09/2021

Time taken: 10 hours

Distance: 12 km

Ascent: 1300m

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I am a 48 year old man who's passion for the hills only started during the 2nd lockdown of 2020. 

I consider myself reasonably fit and after about 10 months of hillwalking with my 20 year old son we ended up bagging over 20 munros, making a good few mistakes along the way, wrong paths,  upside down maps and poor distance judgement to name a few.

After doing Buachaille Etive Mòr in Glencoe and getting a good taste of scrambling we were eyeing up the nearby ridge for our next adventure, the Aonach Eagach.

We watched YouTube videos of it, read reports, studied maps, even heard the horror stories of how many times Mountain Rescue are called out to this ridge and the surrounding area. 

We watched people climb it without a rope, ok so you dont need a rope, it must be pretty easy then. We'll be fine... right? 

Potentially yes. 

But there was the first mistake right there. 

The mindset, we'll be fine. 

We didn't plan for what if we're not fine. 

Or safe. 

Or what if...

We parked in the 3 Sisters Car Park nice and early on a fairly cold September morning. 

The day looked promising, it had rained the day before but there was a hint of blue sky and the excitement of what lay ahead drove us on. 

Today was going to be the day we would conquer the mighty Aonach Eagach! 
Bragging rights to our fellow hillwalkers and family forever more!

20210929_094501.jpg


Looking up there would be a few low clouds threatening the high tops, dark grey, moving along quickly enough to allow the blue sky to keep the mood positive, its all good.

Ascending the scree paths and reaching the first small scramble of the day gave us a taste of what lay ahead. 

Cold.. greasy.. rock.

Feeling uninspired with confidence on the quality of the rock after our first section we stopped for a break and time to make a huge decision here.
20210929_121235.jpg

Now...
Before we go any further and knowing what's up ahead. 
(Looking over to the 3 Sisters) should we go back down and just enjoy an easier route across the road? or march on? 

*Thoughts* There is still a hint of blue sky through the grey clouds... it might brighten up?

Being the Dad and not wanting to ruin my sons day in the hills and the experience of this magical place, of course, we marched on.

(In hindsight, the better lesson would have been to know when to turn back or plan for a change of plan!)

The first drop down after the first Munro Meall Dearg was a bit hairy but ok. 
20210929_130443.jpg

By this point we knew what we were in for, the challenge was set. The rocks were real greasy and you can feel your boot can lose its grip at any time.

The real Ridge climb began, taking it slowly, deciding on every move, anticipating a slip and staying clear of the real exposed areas where possible. 

Up the small chute, this took a couple of tries with not much grip underfoot and the handholds just as bad it was difficult to pull up onto the ledge but we made it.
20210929_160042.jpg

Up to this point I think adrenaline was driving me on, each section had its own challenge which we overcame but then everything changed at the crucial point of the traverse. 

The weather turned bad.

The wind picked up, the clag came in thick we could barely see the next section. 
20210929_132623.jpg

It started snowing, hail blowing into our faces. Those greasy rocks just got even more slippy and the last ridge climb before the pinnacles drained the energy right out of me to the point my legs were cramping trying to cling on to the rock face. 

I started to panic, not just for me but for my son. He didn't seem too phased, he's younger and fitter than me.
From here on the last thing I was thinking about was taking photographs 😄

We reached the base of the Crazy Pinnacles and 4 people in front of us who were making good time all the way through had suddenly stopped, struggling to make this final climb in these conditions. 

The Crazy Pinnacles are the most exposed parts of the whole ridge, they looked like evil fingers sticking up from a claggy monster ready to grab anyone failing their 3 points of contact rule and pull them into a never-ending drop to Hell. Or worse.
crazy-pinnacles-on-aonach.jpg
This photo from trip advisor shows it all on a nice day

2 people had just come up from below the Pinnacles trying to get off the hill saying "there's no way off we have to move on". 

I took 1 look at the worried faces of those coming up and those climbing the pinnacles and thought, "no". 

Just no. 
I'm sure I heard myself say it out loud but didn't mean to.

I can't do this. 

This is mad. 

Its too dangerous, the winds too strong, the rocks are too slippy. 

I would rather take my chances going down than go up again and fall off.

I wasn't thinking straight. Everything seemed blurry.
Turning back didn't seem like an option, my legs are crampy. 

We tried to decend. We could see some steep drops every way we turned but we eventually reached a steep drop, it was about 8ft.
We dropped down onto a ledge, ever hopeful that we would find a way round to the other side or down, anything other than up and over those towering snowy rocky fingers of doom. 

Once on the ledge it became clear quickly we'd reached a dead end.
The ledge was was barely 3ft wide and only 2ft of it was safe. We were sheltered, safe, but now stuck. 

At this point I was so tired, exhausted, scared. I was contemplating picking up the phone and calling for help. 

I desperately needed to get us off this hill now, I was scared for my sons life, blaming myself and how I could live with myself if anything happened to him. 

After 5 minutes rest and gathering of thoughts we started looking up again to see if we could climb a 6ft section to get around some more but everytime I tried my leg cramp wouldn't let me.

My son managed to climb it, he went on a bit further and had a look for a way out. There was a way, he said, and it leads on to the path ahead of the Pinnacles. If we can climb this we're through!

After a few more attempts I had to just grit my teeth and ignore the cramp pain and get up that last bit rock which I did and hobbled on to find the path about 10 minutes later, beyond the Pinnacles, thank God.


Of course being Scotland, the weather had improved but for those of you who have done this walk before you'll know it isn't over at the end of the ridge. 

You've still got another Munro to climb, easy enough if you haven't half killed yourself trying to climb off a mountain, been battered with wind, snow and clag and suffering from a bad cramp.

The final stupid move of the day came next. We thought we could see a way down before the last climb so we could drop off the hill this time and save going up the way with an injury. 

Wrong again.

Steeply down the scree slope we went for about 100 metres until we were stopped in our tracks by another sheer 50ft drop. 

By now I was considering the consequences of throwing myself off the edge and my survival rate.

Maybe if I was alone I would have, thankfully my sons here to keep me sane.

There was nothing else for it. 

Back up to the path.

Do the final Munro, then off the hill on the other side as planned.

Which we did, painfully. 

One final look back at the Pap of Glencoe as we phoned a Taxi to take us back to our car.

"Lets call that a lucky day" ?!?

Stupid.

Not my favourite day out but one to definitely learn from. 
The Aonach Eagach ridge knocked my confidence for a good few weeks but confidence comes with knowledge and experience so since then..

We've taken up Bouldering and Top roping working up to Lead Climbing to learn basic rope techniques for the hills. An extra safety measure if we ever need to change plans plus the strength and fitness benefits for more technical scrambles that we enjoy.
Navigation Courses and Mountain Skills Courses with Mountaineering Scotland with a Winter Skills course coming in January and will also take the Scrambling Course next Summer.

The plan is to do the Cuillins of Skye for my 50th.

Happy Walking, stay safe ✌
SteveeMac
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby naefearjustbeer » Tue Dec 07, 2021 11:59 am

Sounds like a tough day for you, well done for making it back safe, Sounds as if you have learned from your day out and will be better prepared and planned for future trips. If in doubt hunker down in a sheltered spot and have a warm drink before making any important decisions.
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby matt_outandabout » Tue Dec 07, 2021 12:26 pm

An honest and engaging account.
It is indeed a big old day out, with some really tough moves at a couple of points.
It was shorter than we expected - but the final up and over and descent moves it into the 'epic' category quite easily.

Glad you two made it - and good that the response is prepare better!
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby SteveeMac » Tue Dec 07, 2021 3:26 pm

naefearjustbeer wrote:If in doubt hunker down in a sheltered spot and have a warm drink before making any important decisions.

Good advice thank you. I'll definitely keep this in mind for the future 👍
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby SteveeMac » Tue Dec 07, 2021 3:28 pm

matt_outandabout wrote:An honest and engaging account.
It is indeed a big old day out, with some really tough moves at a couple of points.
It was shorter than we expected - but the final up and over and descent moves it into the 'epic' category quite easily.

Glad you two made it - and good that the response is prepare better!


Thanks Matt, for your kind words. It was definitely Epic and memorable :lol:

Atb, Steve.
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby Verylatestarter » Tue Dec 07, 2021 6:30 pm

Steve

Thanks for such an honest account of a difficult situation. Most guides state there is no safe way off the middle section of the ridge. I appreciate it's not always possible to remember everything relevant when tired and stressed; after completing the ridge we ended up descending the Clacaig gully not the WH route, a horrible experience and definitely not recommended.

Stick with it there is plenty out there to enjoy.

regards

John
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby rockhopper » Tue Dec 07, 2021 10:09 pm

Well done - that sounded very challenging, especially given the conditions, but good on you for managing it and being so honest in your write up. Have to admit to taking the slightly easier option as I accompanied another Walkhighlander who had been over the ridge previously and was able to provide advice when needed - cheers :)
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby SteveeMac » Tue Dec 07, 2021 11:53 pm

Verylatestarter wrote: I appreciate it's not always possible to remember everything relevant when tired and stressed; after completing the ridge we ended up descending the Clacaig gully not the WH route, a horrible experience


Hi John, I started getting vertigo and I'd always been fine with heights before! Must of just been the fear of the whole situation kicking in. Horrible feeling and only recently getting over it by doing some climbing again.
As for your decent I watched some young guys on YouTube making that same route and they hated it also!
Cheers, Steve.
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby SteveeMac » Wed Dec 08, 2021 12:00 am

rockhopper wrote:I accompanied another Walkhighlander who had been over the ridge previously and was able to provide advice when needed


Thanks Rockhopper, we could have done with that guidance! They probably would have guided us from the car to a different walk :lol: :lol:
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby matt_outandabout » Wed Dec 08, 2021 11:45 am

SteveeMac wrote:
rockhopper wrote:I accompanied another Walkhighlander who had been over the ridge previously and was able to provide advice when needed


Thanks Rockhopper, we could have done with that guidance! They probably would have guided us from the car to a different walk :lol: :lol:



TBF, it doesn't always help. The day we did it we had a car-park expert who tried to put the fear of God into all of us to ever go in the hills, let alone the sure fire death that was the ridge above....


Our report: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=98030
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby weaselmaster » Wed Dec 08, 2021 5:57 pm

Thanks for posting your cautionary account. You make a lot of good points in hindsight. There were a couple of things that I thought about after reading your report.
One is the variability of what is “easy” or “hard” to other people. I think the Aonach is quite hard, and mostly that’s because -as you found out - once you start it there’s no real option but to continue whatever has happened to the weather or your physical state. The first time we went over it the rain started about halfway, which freaked me out a little. I have it to do again for my third round and am not especially looking forward to it. But other people will find it an easy romp - I used to work with a guy who loved to climb it on winter nights under a full moon. I agree with your comments about getting more experience- I thought the MS scrambling course was good and we did it (on Skye) before doing the Aonach. Not sure about bouldering etc- I guess it may improve your physical strength for scrambling and give you options of moves on rock, but just getting experience in a graded way out on the hills is probably the best. As for Skye for your 50th - if you’re using a guide, there will be no problem.
The second matter was the fact that you were out with your son. That - for me at any rate- would make the whole thing much more anxiety provoking as it’s not only your own life at risk, but that of someone extremely precious. I haven’t done anything particularly challenging with my own son - Bla Bheinn has been about the most “extreme” and I would have hated to be in your predicament on the Aonach with my own boy.
Again, thanks for putting it out there
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby dogplodder » Wed Dec 08, 2021 6:13 pm

My stomach was in knots reading that and only reassured by knowing if you were writing a report on it you must have survived! I came to these hills quite late in life so decided rather than terrify myself I would do the Munros at either end on separate days. That way I got a wee taste of the ridge by looking along it but didn't have to do anything I might not manage. 8)
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby naefearjustbeer » Wed Dec 08, 2021 8:03 pm

SteveeMac wrote:
naefearjustbeer wrote:If in doubt hunker down in a sheltered spot and have a warm drink before making any important decisions.

Good advice thank you. I'll definitely keep this in mind for the future 👍


It was an army lad that gave me that bit of advice, stop, think, relax make a considered plan dont just charge ahead regardless. Maybe for him it was more important if the danger was enemies with guns...
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby Mal Grey » Wed Dec 08, 2021 8:35 pm

This is such a great post, almost everybody has had some experience in the hills where they made a poor decision or two and we don't always talk about it as often as we should.

The fact you've thought about your mistakes in detail is a great start.

The "being responsible for somebody else" thing is very real. I've occasionally taken other people's kids into the hills, including mild scrambles, and it makes me quite nervous about my own physical ability for some reason, whereas they're always fine! Once I realised that I should either be "just group leader/navigator" or "person walking with the kid(s)" and we shared it out amongst a couple of adults, I was much happier.

The cramp thing I've had on days when we've pushed on a bit too long in tough conditions, and consequently not eaten and drank enough either.

It takes quite a bit to turn around when you think there's still a good chance of making it to the top. As I get older, I find I'm less driven to achieve, and more just happy to be out, so the decision to turn back is a bit easier. And maybe even happens TOO often when I just can't be bothered with clag!
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Re: Poor Planning on Aonach Eagach.

Postby SteveeMac » Thu Dec 09, 2021 12:02 am

matt_outandabout wrote:
SteveeMac wrote:
rockhopper wrote:I accompanied another Walkhighlander who had been over the ridge previously and was able to provide advice when needed


Thanks Rockhopper, we could have done with that guidance! They probably would have guided us from the car to a different walk :lol: :lol:



TBF, it doesn't always help. The day we did it we had a car-park expert who tried to put the fear of God into all of us to ever go in the hills, let alone the sure fire death that was the ridge above....


Our report: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=98030


Some great photos Matt, very atmospheric. Thanks for sharing 👍
SteveeMac
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