Aonach Eagach (mountaineering) Route Details

Route Description

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Introduction

Notorious as one of the hardest ridge walks in mainland Scotland, this ridge packs in a lot of difficulty in a comparitively short distance. Due to lenght between the start and the end, and the lack of escape routes, this is not a route to be undertaken lightly.

Conditions

Very exposed scrambling, on at times loose rock. A rope and basic climbing gear is a good idea.

Hazards and warnings

As well as the obvious dangers of the ridge, beware Clachaig Gully, if retreating. Several safer alternatives exist. Once on the ridge proper, there is no escape til Am Bodach

Detailed description

This is famous as one of the hardest ridge walks in mainland Scotland , arguably the hardest. In summer conditions the scrambing is generally technically easy, but the sheer length of the ridge (the hardest part is nearly two KM long), and the lack of escape routes, the unavoidable nature of some of the problems, and the huge exposure make up for this.

In winter, the ridge becomes even more difficult, with winds and ice covered rocks, plus some difficulty in seeing the rock make this far, far harder, which mean it has a Scottish Winter Grade of I/II.

Many of the guidebooks suggest doing the ridge from east to west, but this means a tricky descent at the end, down Clachaig Gully, which is very dangerous at the top.

Using two cars, with the end car parked at Altnafeadh, makes for a long route, but does avoid descending anything tricky at the end. You can descend via the corrie between Am Bodach and Sron Garbh, and the stream below, but it generally safer to carry on until you reach easier ground.

After climbing the path (very loose and rocky at the top) above the Clachaig, carry on to the summit of Sgorr nam FiannaidhSgorr nam Fiannaidh. After the summit the ridge narrows and the difficulties begin. The section after the next peak Stob Coire Leith is the Aonach Eagach proper (the name is often applied to the entire ridge), and is by far the hardest, where the ridge becomes broken by a series of notches, up to 10 m deep, each of which requires careful scrambling up and down, with huge exposure to either side, and some tricky moves with a whole lot of air below your feet.  Worse yet, there is no way out, other than to retreat or complete the section. One of the scariest bits is crossing a hugely exposed slab of rock, which whilst not hard, scares the hell of out you if you comtemplate slipping from the rock into the yawning abyss below.

After climbing to the summit of the Meall Dearg, the ridge becomes narrow again and you'll cross a part of the ridge called the Chancellor. Although not to be taken lightly, compared to the previous part of the ridge, it's fairly easy. After you reach Am Bodach, the ridge becomes wider with few difficulties. If attempting the ridge from east to west, the usual route actually climbs to the ridge here, and in an emergency you could down climb into the corrie and follow the stream to the A 82. However, as descending at the days end is usually when accidents happen, staying on the ridge until you reach safer ground is recommended. Follow the ridge to Sron Gharbh, and then after a further 3 KM of easy ridge walking, look for the ridge spliting from the main ridge. Descend toward Stob Mhic Mhartui, and then drop to the right of the peak, until you intercept the well trodden path of the Devils Staircase. Soon you be at the end of the ridge.

 

Narrative

I did this route with Dylan in mid November. There was a light dusting of snow. Not enough to merit crampons, but enough to make for slippery footings at times, especially on the muddier bits between some of the rocky sections on the Aonach Eagach proper.

We decided to do the ridge west to east, to avoid coming down Clachaig Gully. Once the ridge started getting hairy, after Stob Coire Leith, the mist descended and Dylan kept the camera firmly in his rucksack and didn't bother with photos as we were too concerned with hanging on to every rock with every hand. Despite being absolutely terrified (Dylan had to take an emergency toilet break on the ridge), we passed

We actually made a big mistake: our orginal plan was to do the entire ridge, but we got to somewhere just short of Am Bodach, and rather than push along the ridge, and either descend into the unknown dangers lurking in the mist below in Coire An Ruigh, or to push right through to the Devils Staircase, decided to retreat back along the ridge, as it was the devil we knew, as we were not 100% certain at that point we where (later on we worked out it was a few metres from Am Bodach), and didn't want to descend in poor visibility, only to find our way blocked by cliffs.

So, we did the whole lot again in reverse. Which was just as scary, but at least we knew exactly what to expect, which made movement faster. We got to a point 200-300 metres to the east of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, and as we had good visibility and could see a clear diagonal traverse across the scree, decided to drop off the ridge and head towards the junction of the Clachaig road and the A 82, which we managed without incident.

In retrospect, we made a big error by repeating the ridge, when easier ground was not much further, and doing the hardest parts twice in one day was really really hard work, and insanely scary. Having said that, if you are not sure where you are, it's better to do what seems like a safe option than just descend into the mist, only to find your way blocked. A GPS with waypoints for the various parts of the route would have helped us avoid that error.

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