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Aonach Eagach: forty years on and so much more

Aonach Eagach: forty years on and so much more

Postby old danensian » Fri Sep 02, 2016 3:16 pm

Route description: Aonach Eagach

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

Date walked: 27/08/2016

Time taken: 6 hours

Distance: 12 km

Ascent: 1100m

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Youthful bravado and a sense of adventure fuelled the escapade.

We were off on the annual university mountaineering club trip to Skye. On the way, a couple of days in Glencoe had become an obligatory tradition: a fresh taste of exposure before tackling the precipitous Cuillins seemed a good idea. The previous year we'd dangled off ropes on the cliffs of Aonach Dubh and friction climbed some classics on the Etive Slabs. The latter seemed a tad benign in comparison with the gabbro giants to come so The Ridge was first on the agenda when we arrived.

To add spice we stuffed sleeping bags into rucksacks and headed off for Sron Gharbh and Am Bodach in the evening: a mountain top bivvie and an early morning sunrise traverse would be just the thing - and save a night's campsite fee in the process. We were students after all.

But all that was forty years ago.

Decades on, recollections fade and surviving tangible evidence of the experience is limited to a grainy photograph of The Chancellor taken with an ancient Instamatic. Maybe it was time to revisit the lofty pinnacles and embed a fresher memory to savour as age advances. In addition, it was a long way north to some of my unclimbed Munros and there was a better chance of a dry day closer to home.

Clouds begin to clear from above the glen with promise of a good day ahead ...

So, I arrived in Glencoe as the clouds began to drift from the tops, locked my bike to a fence close to the Youth Hostel, and headed back up to the car parks before they became clogged with tourist buses.

I knew I was being optimistic hoping that the energy from the 1970s was going to come surging back. I'd already acknowledged that a detailed image of the route ahead had been lost in the mists of time. At least I'd only driven the car from Ayrshire and not a minibus from Leicestershire so, on this occasion, I was reasonably fresh.

... and the glen starts to fall away below

Forty years ago we headed up the gentler slopes of the Old Military Road and the Devil's Staircase before heading west for Aonach Eagach over the ridge to Sron Gharbh. However, the route from Alt na Ruigh is a no-nonsense start; unrelenting and a gradient that's only a degree or two from brutal that begins feet from the car park.

OK, it helpfully brings you out directly to the top of Am Bodach, but the gently sweeping skyline you see stretching from Sron Gharbh makes you wonder if a start further from the east might not have been a better idea.

From Am Bodach, the ridge stretches away

Once at the cairn on Am Bodach however, all such issues are secondary to the prospect stretching ahead. Swirling clouds banking up in the corries to the north added mood and atmosphere while the succession of pinnacles promised an intriguing hour or so to come.

The Chancellor stands proud above the glen - and fails to tempt me out there

The slopes to Meall Dearg before the interesting stuff begins

There's little point in trying to describe the intricacies of the route. Up, down, in, out, round, over and across: except in the worst of winters, the way is marked by crampon scratches, clear tracks and rocks polished by a myriad boots and slithering bums, few of which were in evidence forty years ago. Route-finding then may have been more of a challenge: now, the options are fewer and the focus is on the exhilarating scramble itself.

An atmospheric wall ...

... and moody mists

... hide and reveal

"Get off your knees; you're climbing it, not making love to it."

The geography teacher who introduced me to climbing yelled this instruction while I was sprawled across a Snowdonian crag. Climbing at home or abroad, this sentiment has haunted me ever since and even on Scottish scrambles today I feel obliged to obey his command. Guilt of Catholic proportions strikes as soon as a knee gets close to bearing any weight and pricked my conscience frequently on my renewed acquaintance with Aonach Eagach.

"Three points of contact" was another commandment we learned to live by. At times last weekend I often counted five as both rear cheeks applied the necessary friction as I slithered down a greasy chimney or straddled a saddle between another pair of pinnacles.

And so, after an hour's delectable scrambling, the cairn on Stob Coire Leith was reached it was over. Finis. Terminado. Finito.

Looking back on the excitement from Stob Coire Leith

Should I turn round and do it again? Tempting. No: I simply sat close to the edge of the south facing crags and enjoyed the up-draught keeping the midges at bay. They were calculating little beasts. They seemed to know exactly where these passing mobile blood banks would slow down or stop. At each point where a little thought had to be given to our onward progress they would gather and land. I guess in their eyes we are like ice cream vans: breath announcing our presence like a jingle.

Suddenly the legs felt tired, calves and thighs began to ache. Handholds, footholds, and occasionally having to try to put a foot somewhere near my ear, were no longer effective distractions from impending weariness. Fortunately the walk across to the second Munro of the day, Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, wasn't taxing.

After a belated lunch in its shelter I was now able to enjoy the wider views as the clouds on both sides of the ridge had finally dissipated. Folks on The Ben would have been frustrated as a cap of cloud clung persistently across its top. Apart from that, the expanse of the western highlands appeared clear.

But descent now beckoned. The route down to the bealach beneath the Pap of Glencoe was largely a stony drudge, passing those slowly plodding upward. Seeing an even slower plod and foreheads full of perspiration triggered the classic: "glad I didn't have to come up this way."

Leaving it all behind - the Pap of Glencoe and beyond to Loch Linnhe

The only hiccup in the day emerged on realising that I'd misjudged where the descent path came out on the back road between the village and the Clachaig. I'd left my bike too soon on the road and unwittingly added an extra kilometre to the walk before I was able to begin the cycle back to the car: an experience in itself. With Lochs & Glens coaches thundering past my right shoulder and receiving dog's abuse from one motorist for causing a blockage, the A82 is quite a contrast from a silently sedate cycle up a remote estate track. Still, it saved a hour on the tarmac and the pain that can inflict on the feet.

Just short of seven hours after leaving the car, I hurled the bike and my bag into the back of the car to escape quickly from both the midges and two bus-loads of camera-clad visitors to the glen. Once up on Rannoch Moor I could pull into a layby to change, drink and generally sort myself out without being an insect's tea.

The decision had been the right one: forego the lure of the far north and ticks that would signify progress towards my Compleation. There are plenty of places worthy of a revisit, especially after so many years. Then, as now, the Munros visited were barely relevant: bookends and mere by-products to something far more significant in between. In fact, if asked, how many people could name them? But even my other half has heard of the Aonach Eagach Ridge and she wouldn't set foot on a hill if I paid her.

Memories of the route itself may have been scant and sketchy, but the recollections about characters from my past, and the early days in the hills, were the welcome and surprising icing on the tasty cake. It was not one of the most photogenic of days, but that didn’t matter. There are some things that a tangible image just can’t capture. Every now and again you simply need to go back and refresh those memories: but don’t wait forty years.

And with an equally surprising quirk of fate, I'm now posting this trip report while listening to a Radio 4 drama entitled "Lost in Glencoe." You just can't get away from the place.


But why would you want to?
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old danensian
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Re: Aonach Eagach: forty years on and so much more

Postby Huff_n_Puff » Fri Sep 02, 2016 4:06 pm

Brilliant read, wonderful photos and congratulations for doing the AE a second time :clap: :clap: :clap:

You've left me in a quandary ...

... will I?
... won't I??
... will I ???? :lol: :lol: :lol:
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Re: Aonach Eagach: forty years on and so much more

Postby dav2930 » Fri Sep 02, 2016 5:11 pm

A sparkling report, really good to read. :clap:

old danensian wrote:[The midges] were calculating little beasts. They seemed to know exactly where these passing mobile blood banks would slow down or stop...I guess in their eyes we are like ice cream vans: breath announcing our presence like a jingle.

I completely identify with your view that compleation is an incidental by-product of enjoying the best of the Scottish mountains - and the Aonach Eagach, being among the very best, deserves more than one visit.

I've also done the traverse twice (both times in winter) but that's still not enough. I'll be looking to do it again if conditions and circumstances come together this coming winter - and I do like the idea of starting from the Devil's Staircase.

Great stuff :clap:
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Re: Aonach Eagach: forty years on and so much more

Postby simon-b » Fri Sep 02, 2016 9:39 pm

A nice report, Nigel. This was one of my absolute favourite routes when doing the Munros.
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Re: Aonach Eagach: forty years on and so much more

Postby hopper68 » Fri Sep 02, 2016 10:16 pm

We done the ridge on the same day we took in the Pap as well...Nice pics and good report cheers
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