Scrambling the Aonach Eagach Ridge

I’ve driven down the Glencoe valley numerous times and looked up at the jagged line of the Aonach Eagach ridge, impressed with the shape and both desperate and terrified at the prospect of scrambling the ridge.  I’ve wanted to tackle the ridge since I first visited North West Scotland aged 18, so when I was recently rained off a trip to scramble the Cullins I decided this was a perfect substitute.

I should caveat that as entertaining as the Aonach Eagach ridge is, if you’ve not yet completed routes such as Sharp Edge or Crib Goch then consider getting some serious grade 1 scrambles under your belt before you have a go at this. Its a serious undertaking, as nowhere along the route can you escape and some of the sections of scrambling are exposed and committing.

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First things first…

The first thing to note doing this ridge is that is essential to have a plan for transport between the start and finish as the last thing you want to do is end up walking back up the busy road for your car at the end of the day.

We had planned on hitchhiking – but a summer weekend is the moment to try this with traffic being too busy to stop. After 15 minutes of trying we were not getting anywhere; then two other hikers arrived with the same idea  – 4 of us had no chance of getting a lift. Thankfully they were off to do the ridge too so we decided to car share.

The car park at the start of the route is tiny and usually filled with tourists wanting to quickly photograph the mountains as they drive through the valley so I was lucky to squeeze my car into a spot.

Serious Scrambling

We set off from the car park at a slow pace; the path up to Am Bodach might be easy to follow but it’s quite steep. Initially the path is across a broad ridge and is easy to follow, but its not long before the scrambling starts and route finding is required.
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Scrambling on the Aonach Eagach ridge is really downclimbing, which requires good foot placements and a slow pace. The first of these sections comes after just leaving Am Bodach summit.

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I was surprised to find the scrambling isn’t relentless, there are sections of the route where you resume walking. It is apparent from the views though that you really can’t escape the ridge once on it and the scrambling varies from terraced ridges, knife edge aretes, greasy gullys and towering chimneys.
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Towards the end of the ridge are the Crazy Pinnacles, which we took by heading right and down climbing a fairly greasy gully. This is definitely not a route to do in the rain!

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Once off the Crazy Pinnacles and over Stob Coire Leith the serious scrambling ends. From here make sure you continue on to the large shelter and trig point at Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.

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From here in good visibility its possible to see the path heading south west down to the Claichaig gully – do not take this as it is widely considered a dangerous descent route. Instead continue across heading north west towards the Pap of Glencoe. As you cross the broader peaty plateau you will pick up the descent path to take down to Glencoe and the valley.

We met a group of older men half way along the ridge who were definitely having trouble with the scrambling and taken 5 hours to get to the Pinnacles.  Later when we were in the pub with a whiskey they were only just off the hill (12 hours after starting) – a reminder not to under-estimate the ridge.

Ben Starav and the last adventure of the season

I’m never going to pass on an opportunity to head to the hills for an adventure so when I got the chance to gatecrash a Karabiner Mountaineering Club meet to Glen Etive I jumped on it, especially when it involved staying at the Grampian club hut and not camping.

The hut is small and hidden in the woodland by the roadside making it feel very secluded despite being right next to the forest currently being logged. And while there’s no running water, it is a still a great hut in a fabulous location, with everything you might need for a weekend (though by the weekend we were a smelly bunch!)

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On Saturday a group of us headed up to the hidden peak of Beinn nan Aighenan. Tucked away behind the Ben Starav range, its a long walk in up the stalkers path to the col to the east of Ben Starav before you can even see the munro summit.

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Having decided to slog up in winter boots and then find there was little snow on the summit of Beinn nan Aighenan I was more than grateful for there to be loads of snow still on the summit of Ben Starav and have the last outing for the crampons this winter. The scramble across the arete of Ben Starav was a relief from the endless slogging up to the summit.

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From the summit plateau the view down Loch Etive was amazing and we could also see across to the Etive slabs where the rest of the group were climbing.

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Munros of Glenshee – I need to learn to ski

Annoyingly Monday was my last day out, which was typical as the sun was shining and it was wall to wall blue sky- perfect for a long slog up to a bothy for an overnight adventure. If I had the time that is.

However time wasn’t the only problem, I’d damaged my Achilles on yesterday’s slog up Lochnagar, too much heel kicking in the snow. So I decided a shorter walk was preferable to being rescued by Braemar mountain rescue team, they’re already out searching for a man who has gone missing from a bothy in the valley. I hope they find him.

Despite wincing as I put on my boots I headed up to the Glenshee ski centre to bag three easy munros close to the road. Well I couldn’t waste the day!

I’m glad I persevered as it turned out to be a perfect day- well almost. Perfect would have been remembering to pack sun cream and sunglasses then I would have saved a sunburnt nose and squinting all day.

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Now I have to admit that I wouldn’t have been up these particular mountains had my foot not hurt so much the previous day, because lets face it, the ski centre is a bit of a blot on the landscape and the three munros of Carn Aosda, Carn a’Gheoidh and the Cairnwell, are hardly the prettiest or gnarliest in the area.

However, once past the ski area you can find this amazing landscape.

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As well as learning the importance lesson of always packing suncream (even just for Scotland) I also learnt that goretex make a fantastic way of getting down not too steep slopes when crampons are too much of a faff to put on.

I also met quite a few cross country skiers and decided, amongst all of the things I need to get good at this year, if I really intend to bag all of the Scottish munros I really need to learn to ski mountaineer to prevent the long walk ins and miles of snow becoming just a dull trudge.

Lochnagar in the snow

Lochnagar is one of those mountains that is popular to all, regular hill walkers keen to bag a Munro, mountaineers keen to climb gullies in the depths of winter, and possibly the Queen given it is a stones throw from Balmoral and Queen Victoria had a cottage at loch Muick nearby.

But even on a sunny day in March Lochnagar is a challenge, looking majestic and easy from the long wide track, easily accessible from a car park (with a visitors centre open even out of season!) it can fool the uninitiated. The mountain is impressive with three peaks – the summit, Cac Carn Beag, is on the far side from the usual route up.

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Once on the top of the ridge the wind was battering and walking across the top to the far side to reach the trig point required walking with a lean to prevent being blown away. In those conditions I’m grateful for walking poles to keep me upright. The wind was against me, throwing up spindrift into my face and pushing me back.

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Despite the conditions I wasn’t the only one up the mountain – it was a glorious sunny spring day when I left the car park, and the snow line still being around 500m there were plenty of people out making he most of the conditions. A mix of climbers, desperate to get up a line and almost running past me on the path, mountaineers heading for the summit, and of course day walkers carefully slide their way back down without crampons and axes.

I resisted the urge to tell them off – a mountain rescue incident waiting to happen, they’ll have learnt something valuable from the experience once back down and will be better kitted out in future. She looked at me embarrassed as she slides past me on her bum as I’m donning my crampons heading up. I also meet two winter climbers at the top of a gully – they’ve had an fantastic climb and I look at them in awe as we chat.

Lochnagar summit has a fantastic view of the rest of the Cairngorms and out to the sea to the south, it’s clear why the Victorians liked to head up here. I wipe snot across my gloves as I pull my buff up round my cheeks. I can see grey wet weather heading my way and head back down, avoiding the cornices over the gullies.

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An Socach – battered by wind

A weekend in the Cairngorms, how could I resist the offer of a couple of nights at the Cairngorm Mountaineering hut at Braemar? Nestled in at the end of the Linn of Dee valley where it is impossible for the outside world to contact you, surrounded by majestic cairngorm mountains and endless miles of tracks and moors – how could I resist?

The weather wasn’t looking great for me to want to trudge for a long walk in to only find I would have to beat a hasty retreat from a summit – I’ve not walked anywhere around the Southern Cairngorms so the choices were limitless. Conversations with other mountaineers indicated that the southern slopes were favourable as the northern were coated in deep soft powder snow making walking a difficult slog.

So An Socach it was. A bit random, chosen by shutting ones eyes and pointing at the map.

The walk in from Baddoch is a nice pleasant stroll along the riverside on a wide track and at the second river the route heads upwards and is a slow plod towards a plateau, where the snow wasn’t quite consolidated neve but definitely required crampons, particularly as the climb upwards gets steep.

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An Socach is a broad long ridge with the summit at the far end covered in rocks making it ankle twisting in crampons and on a windy day it is exposed and scoured of snow. Much like my face felt by the end of the day! Being away from the main summits of the Cairngorms it is also isolated and quiet, and crucially there was only us on the mountain despite it being the weekend. Perfect. DSC00865

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In praise of Sgorr Bahn and failing a Munro again

So much has happened in the past eight years since I last stood on Sgorr Bahn in Glencoe. Everything it seems has changed.
I last visited here in 2008 using my parents for transport so I could get in some quality mountain days for my log book. It was raining hard, hailing, and being a lot less fit than I am now I bailed at Sgorr Bahn worried I wouldn’t make it to the Munro summit of Sgorr Dhearg on the mountain range of Beinn a Bheithir, before the weather turned truly awful. As it happened it didn’t and as I got back to Ballachulish it brightened and I was left disappointed at not being braver and bolder.

That year marked a watershed for me, as I bought my own home and eventually changed jobs to a new city. Both things ultimately changing me gradually into who I am today.
Now I am no longer bothered that my academic career didn’t lead me to a PhD as I’d wanted initially. Now I am lucky enough to have a well paid job working for an organisation that changes people’s lives (even if my own job is a mind numbing array of spreadsheets and contract negotiations). Now I’m a home owner and single.
Everything has changed.

This wednesday I set off from Ballachulish to tackle Beinn a Bheithir in winter, making the most of the fabulous weather and appropriate avalanche report to allow me to do Schoolhouse arête.

From the village this looks like a scary route and last time I was here I wasn’t convinced it was walkable at least not wise to try alone, but I wasn’t the confident person I am today.
Schoolhouse arête is actually mostly walking even in winter, but there are two sections with a few snowy rock steps which depending on the snow can make it a grade 1 or 2 scramble. The fact I managed it despite the deep powder snow suggests today it’s probably a grade 1.

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As I got to the top of the ridge and onto Sgorr Dhearg the wind picked up and despite goggles and loads of layers, carrying on do both Munros didn’t seem wise – it was also getting late. In summer this would no longer bother me, my confidence is now only impeded by my speed in winter and lack of daylight. And it was a strong wind.

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So for a second time I failed to summit Sgorr Dhonuill the second Munro in the range, and headed down the ridge that eight years ago I’d wanted to reach but instead retreated in the rain. But this time I’m not disappointed.

Perhaps because I’m having a truly amazing week in Scotland in winter and managing to get some epic days walking in. I feel confident about my abilities, about route choices and weather and navigation. And perhaps because I’d managed a route that I’d previously been worried about in summer and yet I’ve done it in deep fresh snow.

Over the last 12 months I’ve been edging towards doing more and more adventures and now it feels like something which shouldn’t be just a couple of big trips a year and a few weeks camping. It feels like ‘tinkadventures’ is actually who I am and not just a means of depicting myself. Social media allows people the ability to portray themselves as cool and adventurous without actually doing very much. I don’t want that.

When I passed my summer ML six years ago I flirted with the idea of jacking in my job and living the student life all over again, but forever, as an outdoor instructor. At the time life got in the way and I settled for suburbia. Whilst I’m not sure I want to commit to that lifestyle now as I want the big trips overseas that my current job affords me, I do want to push myself further. Being single I now have the freedom of time and this has allowed me to push myself further than I ever thought possible. And in doing so it has made me a more confident person and more daring. So much so I’m not sure I’ve tried anything properly outside my comfort zone this week – although its been fun.

I might not want to jack in the life I have completely but now the freedom of time allows me to flirt with the old dream again. Last year I embarked on much more outdoor freelance work. This year, stood in a crosswind with spin drift blowing in my eyes, snot trailing from my nose and yet smiling, I decided I want to have a go at working towards my winter ML. I know it’s going to take me ages, and I deep down I know I’ll probably never do the assessment – I live in the wrong part of the country to make it worth my while and I’ll probably never give up my day job that allows me to travel overseas for one that I can only afford to house share. But then I do work for a charity thats always teetering on the brink, so it’s probably wise to have a plan B to fall back on! So in that moment I decided to register for the award. And feeling so confident in my abilities now I might also have to add winter climbing to the bucket list!

Sgorr Bahn might not be a Munro but it reflects how much I’ve changed and where I want to go next. I’ve also decided I’m now saving Sgorr Dhonuill as my last munro since I feel it means something more to me than another one on the ticklist.

Monday’s don’t have to be awful

Last monday I woke to gorgeous sunshine and blue skies which is almost unheard of in Scotland. Having looked at the avalanche report and knowing there was still a lot of unstable windslab around on the northern slopes, I headed to the Mamores to bag a Munro.

There’s a very long walk in along the road up to the now derelict Mamores lodge before reaching the hillside track into the coire. It was certainly squelchy underfoot as I headed up the track, showing just how mild it had become, making it important to choose the right place to head to avoid avalanching the soft snowpack.

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In the end it was a glorious day to head up Na Gruagaichean, the Munro on the edge of the Mamores range. One of those unpronounceable munros but it had an amazing view across all of Scotland, just about.

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Ben Nevis and the CMD arête.The grey corries. Stob coire an Lochan. Even out to Schehallion.

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The route was fantastic and while the windslab was soft it was stable enough to be safe. I’ve never had a day in Scotland with such good views and where I’ve only had to wear a tshirt and a small jacket too!

Unfortunately the descent back to the road was long and tortuous at the end of the day.

An easy winter munro in Glencoe

I’ve had a couple of winters off from winter mountaineering so I chose an easy munro as my first day in Glencoe – I headed up Buachaille Etive Beag as its close to the road, has an easy to navigate path even in the snow and is jokingly referred to as ‘The People’s Munro’ as its so easy to bag. Frankly on Valentine’s Day in school half term it was bound to be crawling with either couple keen to do something adventurous, or school teachers desperate to get away from it all.

I heard someone say that school teachers constituted 90% of a mountain rescue calls this time last year. Is it because they’re so desperate to get away from a classroom of kids that the forget to pay attention, or just so many of them are flocking to the hills for that reason that the odds were never going to be in their favour?

I don’t know the answer but I met 5 teachers today, so the chances were looking good that it wasn’t going to be me sliding down the windslab.

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I can joke, but I’ve made all the mistakes before and suffered the war wounds – twisted knee from not axe arresting when I slipped on concrete hard ice in the Cairngorms 5 years ago. That’s a war wound that makes an appearance every so often, usually when I’m belting it along the fell tops, or worse happily bouncing my way down the windslab in deep snow. But today it’s been fine.

Which was good, as today was a great first day back in Scottish winter.

The walk up Buachaille Etive Beag isn’t hard, just a slog. Even in the snow it’s not too challenging. Though as you reach the main summit of Stob Dubh there’s a narrow bit in the ridge where the wind whips over the top and as it dumps the snow it does so in a graceful curl, which from a distance looks beautiful. From the centre of it, it feels like I’m having my cheeks sandblasted with the blown icy snow, and my buff fills with snot and wet breath as I pull it as far up my face as I can without my glasses fogging up.

But I can’t complain, views from a Scottish hilltop in winter. I’m not sure I’ve had clear skies much even in summer.

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Sunshine on the Ben Lawers Round

The sun was shining, the midges were sleeping and the cloud across the Ben Lawers summit was looking like it would lift. What a perfect day for climbing mountains, it was hard to believe I was in Scotland.

Intending to do all of the 5 munros on the Ben Lawers range I knew it was going to be a long walk with a really dull slog back to the car. As I parked up at 9am at the main car park I was surprised by the number of cars already there and also by the information about the Nature Reserve on the large stones. Enough to distract me from my hike. From the car park the route starts sedately through the Nature Reserve.

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The route up Ben Lawers is a steep climb but simple to navigate as the route is entirely on a path. Compared to the previous day’s bog trot this was a fantastic mountain ridge with brilliant views into both Glen Lyon and to Loch Tay. It’s such a good walk I wasn’t the only one on the way up early in the morning. Crossing the first Munro of Beinn Ghlas I headed into the cloud, and the two German men who’d been behind me, finally caught me up.

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At 1214m Ben Lawers is the 10th highest Munro in Scotland and as such it was a surprise to find the two men who had confidently whizzed passed me up the mountain asking me if they were at the summit. Ok, we were in the cloud and you could argue it’s possible to be unsure, though I think the trig point was a bit of a give away. So I asked them how far they were going.

I was beyond surprised to hear they were on their way back down – not just because they were clearly fit enough to do the full round, but because the reason was they didn’t have a map. Seriously, there’s never an excuse to climb a mountain without a map! I resisted the urge to lecture them.

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A third chap bravely wearing shorts and clearly planning to complete the round before lunch and without breaking a sweat, stopped briefly to check his compass and headed off in the right direction to continue the round. I wasn’t going to bother trying to keep up with him.

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I bimbled across the ridge line to An Stuc, the third Munro and quickly worked out why Steve Kew warns in the Cicerone Munro guide ‘not to get stuck on An Stuc’. Commence jelly legs and bum sliding down the rock face as I descended. My down climbing is never graceful nor without swearing.

Annoyingly An Stuc looks like it has a simple way to ascend from the bottom which isn’t clear from the top. Damn.

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From An Stuc the remaining 2 munros Meall Garbh and Meall Greigh are barely noticeable except the miles which are needed to reach them. So it was lovely to break the trudge by meeting a shepherd and his four gorgeous sheep dogs. What a fantastic job, I mean it would be crap to do it in the typical Scottish sideways rain and but on a clear day, I’m jealous.

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I met at least 6 other walkers on these final tops who were also only doing part of the round. Perhaps I am too addicted to tick lists to consider not doing the whole route- while these final Munros might not have the adventure of An Stuc or the height of Ben Lawers they do have fantastic views.

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As I descended to the track at Lawers Burn I watched the sheep dogs rounding up the sheep, an amazing sight.

The trudge back to my car was long, dull and the sun came out which made it a real slog. The track runs around the side of the mountain and provides a quick route back, but unfortunately stops about half way, leaving the need to work your way around the hillside trying to contour and not lose too much height but also not twist ankles. I was knackered once back at my car. Having made it to the final Munro 4 and a half hours from setting out, it was soul destroying to have 2 hours 45 minutes back to the car. Ugh.

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Bog trotting – munro bagging

I’m not sure I fit the stereotype of the typical Munro bagging, surely they have old 1980s oversized waterproofs in neon colours, big heavy gaiters over old boots, rucksacks you could fit yourself in and doggy determination to walk for miles and miles.

As I stood ankle-deep in the peat bog between Meall Glas and Sgiath Chuil I had to question whether I was, however, crazy. To start with neither of these mountains are significant players in the munro lists (199 and 270 highest out of 283), there is no distinct path across the endless bog between the two and frankly there are nicer munros in the Trossachs – I’d even bagged 2 the day before.

But I was there and even when the sun turned to rain there was no point turning back. I think that statement either marks me as a munro-bagger or just plain mad.

The hike starts out from the A85 in Glen Dochart, parking at Auchessen – a lovely little spot on a surprisingly sunny day.

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As I crossed the river and headed past the cottages I actually thought the walk was going to be a nice uncomplicated affair, a bit off-path, but otherwise not too strenuous and the sun was out. There is even a new track being constructed by the local farmers presumably to provide them with better access to the moors and also making a simpler ascent beyond the houses towards Meall Glas.

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To be honest, the smile on the chap’s face as I passed his JCB digger should have told me everything, and it didn’t take long for me to find myself in a pathless plateau aiming for Meall Glas but wondering if it wasn’t at all easier to give up munro bagging and enjoy dry feet. On the plus side I did see some amazing bog plants as I waded through the peat hags. Ever cloud has a silver lining…. til it rains on you.

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Which of course it then promptly did as I ascended out of the bog and up to Meall Glas summit. So heavy I quickly continued along the fell top. Frankly, after crossing mile after mile of bog I’d like the trig point to be at the top of the right mountain but it sits on neighbouring Beinn Cheathaich. At least it stopped raining. Well, at least long enough for me to sit and eat something.

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Whilst I toyed with the idea of heading straight back to the car to save my feet and my sanity the thought of having to ever cross the peat again to ascend Sgiath Chuil was enough of a motivation. It is after all only about 310m to climb. Oh good the rain is coming my way again.

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At least the descent back down is straight forward and once back down to the main river it’s possible to follow it and eventually a path emerges to follow back down to the track. Even the cows were surprised to see me.

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