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Smeagol sighted on the Aonach Eagach

Smeagol sighted on the Aonach Eagach

Postby ecstasist » Mon Sep 12, 2016 3:23 pm

Route description: Aonach Eagach

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

Date walked: 04/09/2016

Time taken: 10.5 hours

Distance: 9.5 km

Ascent: 1100m

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That moment, late in the day, when the clouds have closed in and the rock is wet and slippy. No way forward and no way back. Unable to find a foothold on the vertical descent. Feeling for it. Knowing the sheer drop. Aware of the approaching night. Feeling for the foothold but just not finding it…

It could be Sam and Frodo on the Pass of Cirith Ungol, but it’s not. It the Aonach Eagach, the famous, fatal ridge above Glencoe. Glencoe gets under your skin. It’s such an abrupt valley, so sheer on both sides, and so dark at night. As though it were infinitely high.

On the road, we missed the start and found ourselves asking at the Clachaig Inn. The receptionist printed us a map with the admission that she couldn’t tell us where we were, she couldn’t read a map and no, she had never been up.

At the Youth Hostel a Polish girl gave us directions: there was a sign to the Pap of Glencoe that we could use as a start, but no, she had never been up. By the time we found it – as hand-painted and casual as you could hope for – it was nearly 1pm.

That lack of guidance to the summits: is it Scottish meanness that doesn’t want to spend the money, or Scottish wisdom that demands self-reliance? I’ve climbed in the Alps which are virtually a health spa, extolling the ease of a bracing mountain stroll… but there’s no invitation to attempt the Aonach Eagach: there there are no signs, no via ferrata, no refuges with hot soup and duvets, and the rescue won't come for hours. But this is not a criticism. When a friend explained to me afterwards that the total absence of help is ‘policy’, I agreed with him. Make it easy and all kind of numpties with go off to get themselves stranded. This is Scotland. It’s as though hillwalking were the last refuge of protestant spirituality. There’s no one and nothing to help you, nothing to stand in between you and the raw mountain, and that’s the way we like it.

To walk from the west was a pleasure. The afternoon was warm and the clouds played hide and seek with the panorama: now you see it, now you don’t…

The first people we met coming down had been to the ridge and returned. Too difficult with a dog, they said.

By the time we made Stob Coire Leith we were in high spirits: you get high and you stay high on this ridge, and you are immediately in the presence of the brutal mountain-range around. It rises straight up from the sea in knuckled lumps that punch through to Munro status, as though through glass. A smash-and-grab raid on Scotland’s skies. The tragic mass of Ben Nevis to the left. The cheeky point of Schiehallion ahead. And beyond, Rannoch Moor, flat and rumpled as a sodden carpet.

As we descended from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh we met the first of the elect - those who had come across - with a weird exhilaration in their eyes. A woman, my age, poured out in a jumble of words that this had been the greatest walk of her life. Her husband admonished us that we were late in the day to attempt the ridge. Two guys in matching shirts with a mute wildness in their eyes. And everyone with the advice that it would take six hours from here, and that we would have to do the pinnacles which might take any amount of time…

But the path was an open invitation: the crest is well trodden, and now we were up it looked easy and exhilarating.

The point of the walk was to take my son and daughter over some serious bits of pure Scotland. They are at college now and it felt like a last moment to do it together. Chance had thrown a Norwegian girl into our midst, the daughter of a distant friend from long ago, and it was fun to be one team together, to sing Norwegian songs and lark about.

larking about.jpg
Larking about

The forecast said rain at 5pm (and it was spot on) and by then we’d done enough not to turn back, although the serious scrambling was still ahead.

But it’s not the views that are pure Scotland. It’s the brutal edge, the closeness to peril, the inescapable task. The once-you’re-on-the-ridge-there’s-no-way-off. Tall rocks with sheer drops. You could see them as the points of a crown, but the Aonach Eagach felt more like tough teeth in an ancient mouth. One by one they loom up, and reminded me of Herzog’s film ‘Aguirre’ where a crocodile of lost conquistadors must make their tortured way across the Andes: guys in armour with a black clad priest in slow progress through the clouds. And the sense that this was virgin territory was delicately signified by the abundance of wild blueberries that floss the highest edges of the vertical rocks. Their unexpected sweetness made us feel that we were indeed the first to gather what was properly reserved for the birds alone.


It was at this point that the clouds closed in and Smeagol showed up in the last photo we took before the urge to take photos gave up altogether.

I don’t think you’ve walked the Aonach Eagach until you’ve felt real fear, and the fear is part of the experience. I can’t find the place on the map where the fear took hold, and I’ve watched films on YouTube of people climbing the same path on sunnier days than ours, but I couldn’t identify it, and in any case the camera doesn’t do it justice. The camera belittles the vastness. The only place to record an impression of something so primitive, and so unforgiving, is with your own body.

We made the gingerly descent of one pinnacle only to find another ahead, smooth as an incisor and wet with dank saliva. We didn’t fancy it at all, so we examined the wet gum for a path. We thought we found one, but all it did was lead to a vertical fissure. We had edged around, hanging onto soggy roots, and by then it was less tempting to retrace our steps than to attempt this rock, that bellied out above the vertical drop. This was where the sheer isolation of the place and the sheer difficulty of it struck us all. No choice but up, out and around a jutting rock, and at the top where you feel you deserve sanctuary there was just yet more slippery grass and yet another vertical climb.

It was like a nightmare. The achievement of an impossible climb wasn’t rewarded with safety, but just the cheeky reappearance of a few yards of path and yet more climbs of increasing height, and yet more descents onto narrow diagonal ledges. It was good, and perhaps essential to be a team of four, helping one another, and (whatever we felt inside) preserving the outward appearance of calm.

Ahead, Meall Dearg hid behind a cloud. Indeterminate and shadowy, it looked like rain before un-shrouding itself to stare contemptuously down. We had started out very cautious but you learn and by now we had come to recognise that the best – and only – way was up, and up and up, and over.

We made Am Bodach around 8pm. It had been seven and a half hours from start to final peak, with the Devil’s Staircase still ahead. There was no time to waste. In the gloom we were running out of light, and Glencoe was running out of cars, and we still needed a hitch to avoid two hours of extra footslog back down the road. The relief at leaving the ridge meant that we could make a tactical decision: we separated into a fast party and a slow party, and made the descent as best we could.

For all its bad reputation, it’s a great descent. At the eastern end the two sides of the valley are so close and so symmetrical that you can measure your progress by the other side. Although it seems that the road never gets closer, you can see that you’ve done a third of the distance, then a half and then more. You can measure your progress down that forbidding rock with your own eyes, your own body, and your own fatigue. You put the human scale back into the glen, and, at the same time, you watch the light evaporate. This is some kind of purely local phenomenon: Glencoe attracts the dark. If that staircase is the devil’s then it’s because the devil is black.

It took five cars before we got a ride from the locals, and no, they had never been up. I refilled the water-bottles at the Youth Hostel where the Polish girl and I recognised each another. I thought you were starting late, she said. We made it, I replied. See? We made it! But I spoke too soon. The slow party were still on the hill, the phones were playing up: wrong numbers, no credit, failing batteries…

Waiting for them on the road, and attempting to manage my panic, the clouds disappeared and between the black knuckles of the glen the sky filled with stars, hard and bright. Very explicit constellations, all-knowing, and inscrutable, and extremely aloof.

When I asked our Norwegian friend what she had been doing for the three hours it took them to make the road she said that after the ridge she had been absolutely fine. She no longer thought that she might die. It had been such a relief to leave the ridge, to be alive, and to be coming down. In the car, the kids tried to keep up the talk but quickly they were sleeping like the rest of central Scotland on a Sunday night. A beautiful night-drive home. Weirdly, the only red light I encountered was in Callander, and was utterly pointless. I hit the brakes, and the kids rocked forwards; I accelerated and they subsided back.

Images don’t do justice to this walk, and neither do words. But it was OK. We got across, we got down, and we arrived safely back to Edinburgh, that strangely small town in the east that encloses itself with walls.
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Re: Smeagol sighted on the Aonach Eagach

Postby arjh » Mon Sep 12, 2016 8:31 pm

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Location: Sussex

Re: Smeagol sighted on the Aonach Eagach

Postby ecstasist » Tue Sep 13, 2016 10:49 am

thanks! 1st post on walkhighlands... so Im glad for the encouragement!
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Re: Smeagol sighted on the Aonach Eagach

Postby IanEzzi » Tue Sep 13, 2016 11:04 am

Loved the writing, your words get very close to doing it justice, hope to see more write ups!
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Re: Smeagol sighted on the Aonach Eagach

Postby dogplodder » Wed Sep 14, 2016 3:15 pm

Who needs photos with an evocative account like that! :clap:
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Re: Smeagol sighted on the Aonach Eagach

Postby mrssanta » Wed Sep 14, 2016 5:27 pm

brilliant, very poetic!
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Re: Smeagol sighted on the Aonach Eagach

Postby Huff_n_Puff » Wed Sep 14, 2016 7:45 pm

Wonderful read!
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