The Aonach Eagach Ridge

 

The Forcan Ridge, Cuillin traverse, Tower Ridge, the crossing of Liathach and a host of others - Scotland has more than a lifetime's worth of fantastic ridgeline adventures.  But a very strong contender for the finest mainland challenge is undoubtedly Glencoe's Aonach Eagach, or the 'notched ridge'.  Said by some to be the narrowest ridge in the British Isle and offering a full mountain day in a beautiful setting with challenging technical terrain and few chances for escape. The ridge is certainly a great adventure at any time of year - but it really comes into its own under winter conditions.
 
The Aonach Eagach is long.  9km long.  It stretches for most of the length of  Glencoe valley which is itself a stunning and atmospheric place.  Glencoe's breathtaking geography and it's eerie history as the site of an infamous massacre set it apart.  Entering from the flat expanse of Rannoch Moor really doesn't prepare you for the narrow U shaped valley that awaits and it seems improbable that at the base of these steep sided cliffs and shadowy clefts was once the home of the Mac Donald's clan.  In February 1692 soldiers of the king rose in the night to slaughter the sleeping clansmen who had been their hosts.  It is reckoned that up to 40 people died in or near the villages and as many again perished from exposure after fleeing into the bitter winter night.  This is certainly a place with a presence.
 
As the ridge follows a linear line some transport jiggery pokery is required.  It can be traversed in either direction but most people tackle it from east to west and that is the route described here.  If you are in a group with 2 cars transport is easy.  Just leave a vehicle at the finish point then drive up the pass and leave one at the start.  If only one car is available you can leave it at either end and hitch hike up the valley at either the start or end of the day.  This is usually fairly easy as there are lots of hill goers driving up the valley at these times and they'll usually guess what you are up to.  Some groups leave the car at one end and use bikes to cycle to the other.  This works well but it's a fair old climb up the valley at the end of the day (unless you do the uphill in the morning!). There are also some local buses that run through the valley from Fort William (including some that link up to Glasgow Airport) but you'd have to check how times fit into your day.  A final solution would be to get a taxi to drive you or, of course, walk to the start.  If you do walk just bear in mind it adds a potential 7km extra to what is already a long mountain day.
 
However you get there, the starting point I'm going to describe is at the top of the valley.  As you drive up the road there is a parking area on the north side of the valley near a bend in the road and about 200 metres before the isolated building called Allt-an-reign.  From the parking area cross the road and a well defined path leads up the hillside just before the bend. The climb that follows is steady, but sustained, as height is gradually gained towards Am Bodach. This is the peak that marks the start of the ridge.  The path generally stays close to the stream although it zigzags left to avoid a gorge at one point before you eventually arrive at the bealach between Sron Garbh and Am Bodach.  Please note that there is an alternative scrambly ascent route to the ridge starting further down the valley but I recommend this easier and quicker option for a winter approach given the shorter days and overall length of the route.
 
Am Bodach is a good place to get organised for the adventure ahead as the first challenges of the ridge start soon after leaving here.  The descent line from Am Bodach involves a slabby section weaving onto the north of the ridge that then leads, rather awkwardly, to a boulder by a tower.  At this point the difficulty level for the rest of your traverse will already be getting clearer.  If the snow is well consolidated or has been trodden down by previous parties it will feel a lot easier than if it's loose or powdery.  I have made traverses where I haven't used a rope and others where the ridge has felt far less secure and some sections have compared to a substantial winter climb.  If you get on to this initial ground and feel this section is beyond you it's a clear sign that you would be better to head back before committing to ground where retreat isn't possible.
Once past this section the ridge is easier and the crest can be followed until a descent to a col that sits above an impressive gully. From here a short straightforward yomp leads to Meall Dearg (953 metres) which is the first Munro of the day. 
 
The next kilometre of ridge is fantastic.  An intricate series of rocky pinnacles stretching all the way to Stob Coire Leith.  It's engrossing ground and on a fine winters day you won't want it to end.  At times you'll be on narrow and exposed sections and at others you'll be traversing rocky pinnacles or climbing small rocky gullies.  The technical grade is never above winter ll but given the exposure it can sometimes feel every bit this grade and more.  Benightments are common on the Aonach Eagach and this is one section that can really eat into a short winter day if you aren't moving confidently. 
 
Once beyond Stob Coire Leith the difficulties ease and the ridge broadens as you continue on to Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.  This can be a bit of a slog after the excitement of the last section, but you'll be rewarded by stunning views to Loch Leven and there's the satisfaction from now being at the high point of the ridge (967 metres) and on top of the second munro.
 
After celebratory cake and photos all that remains is to descend. However, never has the adage that getting to the summit is only half way been more true than on the Aonach Eagach - safe descent from the ridge requires care, patience and good mountain judgement.  
 
Much is said of the dangers of the descent down to the Clachaig Inn via the path that flanks Clachaig Gully and many fatalities have occurred here.  I've only descended this way once (on a day where we had lots of time and excellent visibility) and it was clear how it would catch people out.  I certainly won't be heading this way again in a hurry and descent via this route is not recommended.
 
My preferred descent route involves continuing along the ridge in a westerly direction.  After about 700 metres there is a rise and from here taking a north westerly line down the broad shoulder leads to the col below the Pap of Glencoe. Head south west from here and you'll meet the road.  I also like this route because it stretches the day and gets the most distance from the ridge - using this route always makes me feel we've not cut the day short too soon.
 
An alternative descent is possible that leads southward into the valley from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.  This descends the hillside via steep scree and grass to meet the road near Loch Achtriochtan.  This route leaves you nearest to the car (it's about 4 km back up the road to Allt-an-reigh) but the ground is steep and loose and it should only be tackled by confident route finders in good conditions.
 
 
Grades, difficulties and equipment advice
 
The Aoanch Eagach is a brilliant challenge and on a fine winter's day the traverse is a real mountain feast.  But it's also a serious undertaking that requires a good understanding of navigation, route finding and solid winter mountaineering skills.
 
It is a route best attempted in fine weather.  While good visibility will really help you to appreciate the spectacular surroundings it will also help with the crucial route finding from the end.  
 
Assessing the time needed for your party is crucial.  A small, fast moving party will complete the traverse in around 6 hours.  Factor in slower moving members and challenging conditions and that short winter day might easily be too short.  You may, of course, be able to 'buy' a bit more daylight by starting the climb to Am Bodach before sunrise or leaving the traverse until later in the winter season when the daylight hours increases slightly.
 
Finally, carefully consider the equipment you need.  In addition to your usual winter gear a rope, harnesses, helmets and a small climbers rack are required.  That is along, of course, with the skills to use them!