Conquering Aonach Eagach
North of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands, a towering ridge casts a shadow across the single, winding road that snakes through the valley. Aonach Eagach is one of the most iconic ridges in the UK, and holds the title of the narrowest ridge on the British mainland. For that reason, and the epic, panoramic views, this hike is hugely popular for scramblers and Munro baggers alike.
I accompanied four of my mountain-leader friends on this tremendous hike. Experience of scrambling and navigation is required so I was glad to be in the company of experienced mountaineers as this isn’t a route for a quiet, short Sunday afternoon stroll. I myself am fairly inexperienced so I was thankful for their company, support and guidance on this scramble.
We spent the night before the hike camping out in the neighbouring valley of Glen Etive. With sweeping valleys and a fast-flowing river rushing through the lush, green landscape, this location in itself is worth a visit. Our close proximity to the beginning of the walk meant that we could all sleep soundly, safe in the knowledge that we only had a short drive to the start in the morning.
Morning arrived in a shroud of cloud that drenched us the moment we stepped out of the van. We were immediately concerned that the adverse weather would prevent us from heading up the mountain, as the precarious ridge is covered in polished stone, already smooth and slippery: rain could make the hike impossibly treacherous. Thankfully, as we rounded the corner into the next valley, the rain stopped and we decided that we would at least climb to the ridge and, upon inspecting it, decide whether to venture onwards or cut the day short.
With our backpacks loaded with ropes, gear, helmets and layers, we set off on the steep climb to reach the ridge. Along the ridge are two Munros, Meall Dearg, the central mountain on ridge, and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, the western summit, so we knew we were going to spend much of the morning on the ascent. The rains started again half way up the mountain climb and the five of us were very quickly drenched, cold but unexpectedly exhilarated: now we had committed ourselves to the hike, we were excited to achieve this challenging climb.
We climbed for three relentless hours before we reached a cloud-shrouded summit. We floated the idea that, maybe, the ridge was not a wise choice on a day that was so damp and cloudy: visibility would be dreadful and the polished stone underfoot would be slippery. We all decided that we would hide under the group shelter, eat some lunch and then make a decision.
Thankfully, the clouds passed enough for us to assess the situation and decide that we would commit to the ridge walk because we had made it this far and none of us were comfortable with admitting defeat.
The ridge is listed as a Grade 2 scramble, so we all had helmets, harnesses and ropes just in case, but in the end only I, the amateur scrambler, used ropes just for peace of mind on some of the more treacherous ascents and descents. We passed many keen scramblers without the kit that we had but on a mountain, it’s always better to be prepared just in case.
We spent a few hours making our way across the ridge, up and down the pinnacles, taking in the beautiful panoramic views that had been revealed to us once the clouds passed. The ascents and descents throughout the ridge were relentless and unforgiving, the rock underfoot was polished and there were some moments when it felt like the earth simply dropped off into nothingness on either side of where we walked. It was spectacular: the effort it took to cross the ridge only increased the majesty of the view. Mountain peaks and ripples of low-lying cloud surrounded us, the road has disappeared to a mere scribbled line in the distance and we were surrounded by a mountainous wilderness.
On the descent, the sun shone and the clouds passed almost completely. It was hard to imagine that, just 6 hours ago, we had considered not committing to the scramble because of bad weather.
With beating hearts and aching legs, we descended through the clouds and finally reached the layby in which we'd left a shuttle car to take us back to the rest of the group vehicles. Our final stop on this epic day-adventure was the famous Clachaig Inn where we all crowded around a table in a dimly lit corner to eat gorgeous food, share a beer or two and reflect on the events of the day.
Guided trips over this epic ridge walk are available if you are new to scrambling or would just like some added support. This is a strenuous but rewarding day and as a new, and amateur, mountain-bagger, I can say with confidence that this is the hike that gave me the mountain-climbing "bug". If you're seeking a little bit of excitement and adventure, Aonach Eagach is not to be missed.