Up Close and Personal with the Aonach Eagach Ridge

Not in a million years could I do the famous scrambly and exposed ridge walk that is Glencoe’s Notched Ridge (as translated from the Gaelic.) But I so wanted to get up there and see those views AND bag one of the ridge’s Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet) into the bargain – Meall Dearg (the Red Top.) Luckily, there is a very easy way up , with the usual 2 hour slog of course,  but on safe slopes and very beautiful ones.It was wet though, as the start of so many Scottish hill walks are, even in summer.In fact, this one was dreadfully so! But  – it was worth it and a hike I’d do again.

I set off from home one warm, sunny mid-week morning, around 6am, the sun already well risen (it’s light from around 3.30am in June, hardly gets dark) and drove the 2 hours or so from our home on the edge of Glasgow to Glencoe and Kinlochleven. What a beautiful drive it was too but then, it always is and in any weather.

I must admit after I parked the car and started to get on my boots, I suddenly couldn’t be bothered with the climb! I prefer walking in company these days but Chris couldn’t get the day off. There was already another guy setting off too, a chap who looked around my age.There is a lot of talk about not doing the big walks on your own, especially as you get older, just in case of twisting an ankle, or taking a fall on rough ground.Ah well, at least there would be somebody ahead to hear my cries as I hurtled down a gully, or sank into a peat bog.I really had to force myself to put one boot in front of the other, as I locked up the car and headed for the start of the track.

It’s an absolutely gorgeous area, even at the start.Big shapely mountains all around, their slopes a fresh summer green.

My route was up to the very left of the photo, then a right turn

The first half an hour was appallingly wet, like walking up a small river bed – not on gravel as such but black bog.I knew it would soon improve as I climbed; the book description had warned about the sogginess and improve it did. I suddenly realised that Older Guy had disappeared, no sign of him ahead at all then realised that he was doing a different hill; right bang next door is a Corbett, a mountain around 500m lower than the one I was doing. It looked a bit of a monster from where I was but my own route I knew would soon steepen, so no point in talking too soon! So far, it was all at a very pleasant angle taking me into a very beautiful lush corrie with only a few red deer for company and above me, a skylark singing his little heart out. No midges either – they hate bright sunlight plus, being on the move keeps them at bay too.

I stopped briefly at a cairn after I’d made a complete mess of going up a short rocky outcrop section, nothing difficult about it, just a case of threading your way on the grass and heather rather than the rock.However, as usual I found myself clinging onto grass as I heaved myself up through a rock crack – honestly, I’m drawn to the worst routes sometimes like a moth to the proverbial flame.I’m sure it’s the mountain ticking me off – so you think this is the easy way up, eh? I’ll soon learn ye…..

The ridge in centre of photo

There was a perfect flat stone to sit on and relax a bit, before I headed up properly onto the steeper section.It was a delight to just ‘be’ (after an hour’s walking) and enjoy some tea and a chocolate biscuit.The simple pleasures of life….warm sun, the almost indescribably sweet , fresh scent of Highland air, the silence apart from the burbling of the little burn close by. Paradise.Not a soul around.

I squinted up at the Aonach Eagach ridge itself, it’s outline now visible about 2,000 feet above me. Checking the OS route on my phone, I now had to look out for a set of old fence posts,  which offered the best way up the final slopes.

Fence posts found , I turned up the broad shoulder, the views already quite magnificent.In contrast to earlier, there now wasn’t anywhere I would rather have been that morning than amidst these mountains.

 

The next hour or so was hard work and it got very steep at one point, but with no sense of danger or exposure – more a case of burning thighs and heavy breathing. But then it eased and I could take in my surroundings a bit more.Wow, wow, wow – already Ben Nevis was in view, the summit of the UK’s highest mountain crystal clear and ringed with multiple peaks and corries, lochs and moorland.Magical, truly magical.

Looking west over Rannoch Moor to Schiehallion’s pyramid

Two hours from starting out and I was standing on the roomy, comfortable summit of Meall Dearg, watching braver souls already clambering along the main ridge, which they would have accessed from Glencoe itself.Tiny figures, like ants amidst the grandeur, were scrambling over the pinnacles and down the gullies.

Bidean nam Bian and Glencoe

But what caught me most was the view – WAY down into the glen lay lovely Loch Achtriochtan. The mountain opposite was Bidean nam Bian, the highest in Argyll and looking superb from my vantage point. I walked out a bit further to get a good view of the famous ridge itself and was very glad I wasn’t doing it.I couldn’t deal with that exposure though it didn’t look too technical as such.The air was so clear, the views along it and beyond were fabulous.

Oh the joy of having reached a summit, with the really hard work out of the way! Now I could sit as long as I wanted and drink in the scene, enjoying tea and my tuna sandwiches.

aonach 4
This and below are not my photos

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There wasn’t a soul around when I reached the summit but  I was up there early, around 10am.But soon, the first intrepid hiker appeared, a youngish chap (they all seem young to me these days) who I chatted with for a while.He looked at me oddly – ‘how did you get up here?’ he asked, puzzled because he obviously hadn’t seen anyone ahead of him. ‘The easy way’ I nodded behind me, indicating my own sneaky route.He looked slightly incredulous and peered over to check it out.

Then he looked ahead, grimacing and mumbling something about ‘not really liking the look of the next bit’ but off he went with a wave.Everyone is so friendly and inspired somehow on the hills,  it seems to bring out the very best in folk.

SONY DSC

aonach5
(Not my photo….) looking down into the glen

More people started to appear, a group of English guys that I heard long before I saw, non-stop talking in excited voices; they barely stopped at the summit but headed straight down to pick up the ridge itself.I actually heard one whooping in delight – ‘WOW,  look at THIS!’

Ben Nevis clear (the big wedge)

Then a guy and his girlfriend, very chatty,  who were curious about my route too.The guy offered to help me along the pinnacles with a rope but I declined! I did feel slightly regretful later that maybe I should have challenged myself but then, as a stranger, who knows how good he was with a rope?? Plus, it would have taken me forever  -I would have needed that rope from the minute I set off from the summit.Unless someone suffers from vertigo, I don’t think they can ever understand how easily that numbing, paralysing fear kicks in. No-one wants to be 3,500 feet up with sheer drops on each side,  unable to move forward or back, rope or not.

aonach eagach
An internet photo, not mine

So I waved them off and watched them tackle the first pinnacle, which needed care.

Half an hour later and I headed back down, the route so steep in places, I couldn’t actually see where the next bit went, but I knew it was ok and there was no danger of hurtling into oblivion.Tough on the old pins though.

With the walking poles I now use (as of about 10 years ago) they are a brilliant help in descending , really improving balance.I read of a couple of people that went flying on this steep, gravelly, rocky track so I kept to the moorland which gives much better grip.I know you are supposed to always keep to the path but better that than suffering a fall and needing to be rescued! Plus so few people do this route, it’s not eroded as such (oh, the self justification.)

A final stop at the big flat boulder again, munching on handfuls of calorie laden honey-roasted cashew nuts and a lot of sparkling water; it was hot work descending but now the angle eased a lot and it was easy going back to the car.

Putting my trainers on after heavy, leather hiking boots , always feels like I’ve suddenly got slippers on my feet, they seem so light and super comfy. But I do like the support that kind of traditional boot gives me on our often pathless, rough terrain.

It was just so beautiful above the loch that I went for a short drive to tiny Kinlochleven itself, a small village which is a pit stop for hikers doing the West Highland Way.It looked pretty on this warm, sunny day, a lot better than I remember it looking years back when it was dominated by an Aluminium Smelter.That’s now been turned into a Climbing Centre, a sign of the times when the plant closed down about 20 years ago. Thankfully the village has continued to thrive.

kinlochleven

I was very glad I’d fought that laziness of 5 or so hours ago; it’s a horrible feeling not to do a planned walk, to take cold feet and makes for a depressing drive home.Fabulous country altogether and as ever, it left me on a natural high for days.Even recalling the experience now, nearly a year later (and in the midst of the horrible Coronavirus crisis)is doing my heart and soul the world of good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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