Tuesday 22 March 2016

Guided Winter Mountaineering Days in Scotland. A traverse of the famous Aonach Eagach. March 5th 2016.

Well, we might as well be honest about it, we've missed out on this awesome Winter Season almost completely this year. Iain has been unable to consider going to Scotland - until early March at least!

You all might have seen some reports about our forays into the Lake District Mountains in January and February. Conditions were thin and only good at higher levels. However in Scotland things have been good - certainly since early February.

Photo one sees returning client Darren Willis as we approached the summit of Am Bodach in our quest to traverse the mighty Aonach Eagach Ridge which forms the northern boundary of Glen Coe - an equally as famous valley in the western highlands.

Darren  has done  a lot of stuff with us since he first met Iain at the Kendal Mountain Festival in 2014. We started with scrambling Skills Training in The Lake District and then last year Darren came to Glen Coe in February and performed really well in the winter environment on both Mountaineering and Winter Climbing terrain. Darren also joined us on our Cuillin Ridge Traverse Trip in May last year and is coming back again this May. We enjoyed each others company in September during a weekend away in the western Lakes and then Darren joined us for a day out on Helvellyn in January and it was then that he indicated he'd be keen on a Winter Climbing Weekend in Scotland as soon as Iain was ready. By March 5th, Iain reckoned he was ready!

We'd set off up the eastern end of Am Bodach at 08:30 having been dropped off by one of  the people whose guest house we were staying at. After a steady climb of some two & a half hours, we were at the summit of Am Bodach (photo two) in calm, windless conditions. The summit of Ben Nevis is hidden in cloud beyond Darren to his right. Just stunning!

On  arriving at the summit, we had a clear view all the way along the Aonach Eagach. We got kitted up right away as the fun was about to start within a few hundred metres of the first summit!

And that fun is getting down off  Am Bodach on to the ridge proper. There is a steep down-climb which is better abseiled in winter and a conveniently places large block at the top around which a 60 metre rope "doubles" nicely.

As we arrived to do this first descent, we were joined by another group who offered us their 60 metre rope to set up so they could follow us down. As Iain got Darren on to the ropes ready to abseil one of this group said "Is that Mr Gallagher?" It turned out that we were only in the company of another well known Lake District based instructor on a weeks Winter Climbing in Scotland. Small world isn't it! Photo three sees Darren abseiling down this first descent towards Iain.

Photo four was taken some 45 minutes and 3/4 of a mile later as we all approached the summit of Meall Dearg - the first Munro Summit on the ridge.

After our abseil,  there was one further tricky down-climb; and then after that, it was steady away upwards towards Meall Dearg Conditions were certainly more wintry than when Iain had last been here with Alison & Matt February last year. However, this time route finding was easier as there was no cloud at all! There was more snow & neve than the previous visit, and we had to be careful of the poorly  bonded wind-slab on top of the neve which had a habit of sliding off when you stood on it!

Once beyond Meall Dearg, the crest of the ridge falls for a while before rearing up again and it is at this point that one encounters the famous "pinnacles" seen here in photo five. An initial exposed down-climb (best protected by lowering someone who then spots you down!) gets you to the start where in all honesty, you'll probably find things aren't as bad as they looked. Two 480cm Dyneema slings & karabiners are useful here with which to lasso the pinnacles so that you can  use them as running belays whilst your partner belays you across. Once up the other side, you have a choice of direct belays with which to belay your partner across to you.

A further 100 metres beyond the pinnacles finds you descending towards a drop. Descend a groove on the Glen Coe side of the ridge here and hopefully you'll find (as we did this time but not last year!) a thread containing some abseil tat and a maillon just below. Once again, our 60 metre rope doubled through the maillon was more than enough to reach the bottom of what would otherwise have been another "dodgy" down-climb. Photo six sees Darren following Iain down this abseil.

We would spend probably a further 45 minutes covering the last 500 metres  of difficulties before we reached the col at the foot of the slope leading up to Stob Coire Leith and these consisted of a number of climb ups and downs with a lot of short roping and belaying required along the way.  When we finally reached that col it was good to know that the technical difficulties of the ridge were over. The time was about 15:30 so we had around a further 3 hours of daylight left.

Photo eight is one of those "selfies"" people often take these days and this one was taken at the top of Stob Coire Leith looking back at the most technical section of the Aonach Eagach which is right above Darren & Iain's heads. The summit of Meal Dearg is the snow covered cone to the left of Darren.

The walk on from here to the summit of Sgorr Nam Fiannaidh (the highest Munro Summit on the ridge) was relatively easy - a gentle descent to the bealach followed by a gradual rise to the higher summit.
We reached the summit of Sgorr Nam Fiannaidh at 5pm (photo nine) and began a descent that would take the best part of 3 hours by the time we reached Darren's pickup truck at the Clachaig. The direct route would have been down the side of the Clachaig Gully - dangerous at the best of times so we chose to take the route off the lower western top of Sgorr Nam Fiannaidh towards the top on the right of this photo (Sgorr Na Ciche - the Pap of Glen Coe) before dropping down west to pick up the single track road between Glen Coe Village and The Clachaig.

It had been a long day - eleven hours or so, but that's what to expect on the Aonach Eagach Traverse in Winter. It is a long and technical traverse which requires time and respect. It was a brilliant "tick" for Darren who was so knackered that he refused the offer of a further climbing day the next day. Indeed - Iain was back in Kendal by 3pm on the Sunday!

We'll hopefully be back in Scotland during the Winter of 2016-17, in better shape and with a lot to offer anyone looking for Winter Skills Courses and coaching or guiding on Winter Mountaineering Routes or Winter Climbs.Watch this space - we look forward to working with you!

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