Walking from valley to valley has featured largely in both my walking and my blog posts for the last couple of weeks, but to keep a balanced view (and to keep the mountain men/women happy) here’s a look at the Aonach Eagach in Glencoe, widely regarded as being the finest ridge walk on the UK mainland. For many, only the Cuillin Ridge on Skye can beat it.
Most people start with Am Bodach, and do the ridge east to west. This means that you start and finish at different places, so if you don’t have the use of two cars there is also a long road walk included , making a total of 16 kilometres (10 miles) walking distance with a height gain of 1314 metres. (Almost 4300 ft). The ridge itself is very committing – after leaving Am Bodach there are no safe descents to the valley until you reach the other end at Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.
On top of all this, the route is a graded scramble (grade 2). The technical difficulty is not great, but there are some long drops down to the glen. Experienced rock climbers or scramblers would not find this a difficult route, but there are better places to start if you are a total scrambling novice. As a minimum requirement you need to be a fit walker with a head for heights. You also need to be with someone with route finding ability on steep rock.
The route starts with a well defined path that climbs the south-east shoulder of Am Bodach. The path is steep and climbs 760 metres in 1.8 kilometres, so steady progress rather than rushing at it is the best approach. The top of Am Bodach is rounded and not particularly interesting, apart from the views. The path sets off losing height gradually to the north-west, but in less than 200 metres the fun starts with the descent of a 20 metre rock buttress. Holds are plentiful, but a fall would be very serious.
This section can be slippery when wet, and is probably the most difficult section in winter conditions. After this early challenge the path settles down for a bit, ascending more easily to the summit of Meall Dearg, beyond which lie The Pinnacles of the Aonach Eagach.
The Pinnacles are the most interesting or scary section of the ridge, depending on your confidence and ability. The route heads west, following a narrow path, where a detailed description isn’t much help – more useful is the ability to select a safe route over difficult rock. The route doesn’t always follow the true crest of the ridge, but is never far from it, the best clues being found in the obvious worn sections. In some places the route isn’t immediately clear, but something always turns up. Eventually the drama ends with a steady but easy walk up to the summit of Stob Coire Leith.
The descent from Stob Coire Leith is straightforward, heading west down a line of rusty fence posts, and then turning to the south-west to a col on the approach to the highest top of the day at Sgorr nam Fiannaidh (967m), the summit of which can be recognised by a low circular shelter. Then, after all the fun you still have to get down. The safest descent is to carry on a little further west, then to follow a path northwest towards the Pap of Glencoe. (Sgorr na Ciche)
With a car at each end of the ridge this is no problem, otherwise there is a long road walk ahead. There are two other possible descents. One is to follow a line due south from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh to Loch Achtriochan, first down scree then grass. There is a path of sorts, but it’s difficult to find. It’s also very steep, and if you are tempted down here because of fatigue, forget it – this is no place for tired legs. The other descent is the west bank of Clachaig Gully. This is so eroded now that it doesn’t deserve the name of a path, and should be avoided – fatal accidents have occurred here
This is all sounding a bit serious, and so it is. It’s a long day out, with plenty to keep you occupied, mentally and physically. In winter it’s usually a major expedition, requiring full winter equipment, an early start and fast progress on the ridge – many parties (usually English!) are benighted in winter, having underestimated the time needed. Whatever time of year you choose, it’s a challenging route – it’s also one of the finest mountain days in the UK, and one to remember.
p.s. I’ve done the Aonach Eagach four times, the last time being 2008 when most of these images were taken. If all works out I might be doing the ridge in winter conditions over the next few months – watch this space!
p.p.s. If you have enjoyed this post, why not share it in Facebook, twitter, etc. Back with a new post in a weeks time on Monday morning.