Tuesday 6 September 2016

The Aonach Eagach. A classic Scottish Mountaineering Traverse. Saturday September 3rd, 2016.

Three days ago (is it really that already!!), Iain was at work guiding on the Aonach Eagach Ridge in Scotland.

The Aonach Eagach (Gaelic for "notched" ridge) is a precipitous ridge running east-west and forming the south side of Glen Coe. Most people traverse the ridge from east to west as we did on Saturday. We started our route from the small layby on the A82 at the foot of the south ridge of Am Bodach.

The weather was cloudy and we had intermittent bursts of fine drizzle - you can see what it was like in photo one with Steve & Kerstine. In the background - across Glen Coe is Gearr Aonach (the middle one of the three sisters with Coire Gabhail (the lost valley) to it's left. It was there that the MacDonald Clan hid their cattle during the Glen Coe Massacre of 1692.

The Aonach Eagach is a serious undertaking and whilst the total distance distance travelled from end to end is only around seven kilometres, the ridge line between Am Bodach and Stob Coire Leith is difficult (a grade II scramble) and because of this one really should be competent at scrambling.

The route is in places, very narrow and exposed - particularly at the pinnacles and there are places where down-climbing  rock is required and where the use of a rope is advisable. There are certainly plenty of places where a slip can turn into something more serious. It is well worth considering hiring a Mountaineering Instructor for the day to guide you along this ridge as was the case when Iain had been hired to guide Steve & Kerstine along the route.

The last few times Iain has been on the Aonach Eagach have been in winter and plants such as the one seen in photo two were buried under snow then. This "plant" was in fact a tree - a Rowan or Mountain Ash way up at 3000 feet on the ridge just beyond the summit of Am Bodach and it was not the only one we saw today. In actual fact, the ridge, despite however around the 3000 foot mark throughout it's length is a pretty verdant place with lots of different vegetation thriving in the moist atmosphere. It was really nice to see!

We reached the summit of Am Bodach at the Aonach Eagach's eastern end quite quickly today. Having set off from the car park at around 08:30, we were on the summit by 11:15.Here, we had a short break then we got helmets & harnesses on - ready for what was to come very shortly afterwards!

Having marvelled at the sight of a real tree (albeit a very small one) growing on the ridge, we descended slightly further on to a point where the ridge drops steeply before levelling off again about 25 metres below us. This is the first difficulty on this east-west traverse and one can either down-climb in two stages or abseil the whole lot in one go. To Iain, abseiling made more sense as the rocks were wet and slippery and there is a convenient boulder at the top of this "pitch" around which a 60 metre rope can be doubled; and with both ends dropped down the pitch it easily reaches the foot.

Steve & Kerstine were attached to both sides the the rope by means of a sling and a belay device each using a method known as a stacked abseil (photo three) Using this method allowed Iain to descend first and then protect each person as they followed him down this first pitch.

Photo four sees Kerstine (who was next in the queue for abseiling after Iain) holding the rope ends for Steve who was the last to descend this first "pitch" on the Aonach Eagach traverse.

The idea with a "stacked abseil" is that everyone is attached to the ropes before the instructor leaves the stance and everyone remains secured until the abseil has been completed - each person down then holds the ropes for the person descending behind them with the intention that if the abseiling person lets go the trailing ropes the person below then pulls the ropes tight acting as a "safety back-up". The instructor will often do this job for everyone descending if it is necessary.

Steve can be seen abseiling (in the centre of the photo) and once he was down, we had another short scrambling section to descend to get down to the low point point on the ridge between Am Bodach and Meall Dearg. Here, the rope was packed away again so that we could "crack on" with our traverse of the Aonach Eagach Ridge.

Photo five was taken a short while after we had descended the first "step" off Am Bodach. Beyond here, the ridge broadens as we begin our ascent to Meall Dearg - the first "Munro Summit" on the Aonach Eagach Traverse at 953 metres. The route gradually ascends to a minor top along the way then a short decent followed by a slightly longer re-ascent brings one to the top of Meall Dearg.

As can be seen in photo five, the weather at this point was still cloudy although the cloud was beginning to break up. Furthermore, there was none of the forecast 25 - 35mph wind indicated by MWIS and it was no longer drizzling. If it remained like this then that would be fine, but in actual fact, the weather got much better!

Photo six was a snap of Kerstine & Steve taken at the summit of Meall Dearg.

Meall Dearg is one of only two "classified" Munro summits on the Aonach Eagach. A Munro is a mountain of over 3000 feet (914 metres) in height and there are 284 Munro Summits in Scotland. One might well ask why all four major tops on the ridge are not classed as Munros as Am Bodach is 943 metres, and Stob Coire Leith is 940 metres in addition to Meal Dearg at 543 metres and Sgorr Nam Fiannaidh at 967 metres. We are afraid that a definitive answer eludes us at the current time!

Anyway, we arrived here at mid-day which Iain felt was good going but he pressed us to continue on towards the famous pinnacles further along the ridge to the west before we stopped for lunch. It seemed like a good plan!

By the time photo seven was taken, we had a view!

Shortly after leaving the top of Meall Dearg, the cloud started to clear and on occasion, we had blue sky and sunshine. Certainly, the day had improved from it's damp start and the conditions we now found ourselves in were very pleasant indeed!

There is nothing much less inspiring than a mountain expedition where there are no views due to cloud, so it's great to go out and see things actually improve! In photo seven, Steve, followed by Iain are making good progress along the ridge towards the tricky section way in the distance. Glen Coe and Loch Atriochtan are visible way down below on the left. It was just stunning!

An hour later, the weather had "clagged back in" slightly but only briefly! We had stopped for lunch and enjoyed it in bright sunny conditions, with great views down in to Glen Coe and across to the summits surrounding Bidean Nam Bian on the opposite side of the valley. Now, it was definitely time to rope up for the next section!

A short scramble down and climb back up brought us to another short descent on to the narrowest part of the ridge where two rock pinnacles have to be traversed. Whilst to do this is not particularly difficult, the exposure overlooking steep drops on either side is fairly challenging to someone who is not a "scrambler" and certainly to slip here would have serious consequences. In photo eight, Steve is just passing the first pinnacle as Kerstine starts past the second. The good thing is that with a couple of 16 foot Dyneema slings one can "lasso" each pinnacle using them as running belays for anyone making the traverse roped up and that was what Iain did here today.

Photo nine was taken shortly after our traverse of the pinnacles and is looking back east along the Aonach Eagach.

The summit of Meall Dearg (just right of centre) is almost completely hidden by cloud whilst Am Bodach - a kilometre beyond, is largely clear of cloud at this point.

Here, on the last summit before we reached the bealach (col) leading up to Stob Coire Leith, we were not "out of the woods" yet! There remained some down-climbing on slabby rock (often abseiled in winter conditions) and then a bit ascent & descent before we reached the bealach where we could remove the rope knowing that we had now passed all difficulties that the Aonach Eagach has to offer. We reached there at 3pm, still good going!

Photo ten was snapped by Kerstine as we descended to the bealach in question and shows the contrast between the lush grasses growing in the foreground and Glen Coe/Loch Atriochtan in the distance.

Indeed, the vegetation throughout the traverse was lush away from the crest of the ridge and we saw several tiny Rowan trees growing and also some Hogweed as well. Obviously, the ridge's altitude and precipitous nature accounts for the lack of sheep which would have a devastating effect on all of this growth and Feral Goats could undoubtedly get here, but there are reportedly none in the area. However, we did see a Mountain Hare on the ridge shortly after our first abseil which was amazing!

Photo eleven was taken  at around 3:45 pm as we were en route for the summit of Stob Coire Leith.

Here, Steve & Kerstine look back to the last section of ridge which appears to be smoking ominously as if it were the edge of some active volcanic crater. The section of ridge in view here is the most difficult part of the Aonach Eagach Traverse - starting with the pinnacles just beyond the visible summit and then the descent down a steep rocky slab followed by a number of short climbs up and more descent. It's always a good feeling to reach that bealach before heading up this way.

After we had unroped and packed all of our climbing equipment away, we decided to continue on to the summit of Stob Coire Leith before having a drink and a bite to eat. As far as time was concerned, we were still going well and we had plenty of light left.
Photo twelve sees Kerstine & Steve just beyond the summit of Sgorr Nam Fiannaidh - at 967 metres, the highest summit (and Munro) on the Aonach Eagach Traverse; and also the easiest one to get to the top of.

From here, there a three ways off - down the slope to the left of the photo, steeply through scree to reach the A82 next to Loch Atriochtan in Glen Coe, over the end of the ridge and down the side of Clachaig (the most hazardous route for masochists only!) and the more common descent route from the subsidiary summit in the background down to the right in the direction of Sgorr Na Ciche (The Pap of Glen Coe) actually visible just to the right of Steve.

We had already decided on the latter route before starting out for the day and Steve & Kerstine had left their car parked at the foot of the path which ends at the bottom of the slope in this photo (where the white dot is just left of centre beyond the scree slope in the foreground). In the distance can be seen Glen Coe Village, Loch Leven, the Ballachulish Bridge and Loch Linnhe.

The path is good at first amongst the scree but then becomes more difficult once one reaches the grass where it degenerates into a rubble filled trench alternating with muddy sections. However, it is preferable to the alternative descent routes for definite! It took us an hour & a half to get back to the car and we were quite pooped by the time we got there - but what a day out it had been.

Kendal Mountaineering Services (despite the name) offer Guided Scrambling Courses throughout the UK, so if you are interested in booking one of our Mountaineering Instructors for a great day out in the mountains then do contact us here. We look forward to working with you!

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