Recently working 9 to 5 has ceased to be a thing I need to do. Living the van life full time opens up so many opportunities, not just physically but creatively and motivationally. Inspired by the recent freedom and favourable weather it was time to hit the hills and get more munros climbed. Two summits remained in Glen Coe connected by one of the most famous ridge walks in the UK. The Aonach Eagach ridge had been a life long ambition to scramble across and now was the time to do it.
Scramble or hill walk
Scrambling is a step up from general hill walking in terms of technical skill and physical activity. A scramble in the mountains requires you to get close up and personal with the rock. Using your hands and legs for leverage to progress over obstacles nature as put in your way. Scramble routes are graded from 1 to 3. An example of a Scottish grade 1 scramble is the munro, An Stuc, in the Ben Lawers range.
Graded scramble routes
Grade 2 routes are as you’d expect a step up in all aspects. The most important being exposure or in simple terms enhanced fear of falling off. There are two munro routes requiring grade two scrambles to get the most out of the mountain. The first Liathach near Torridon and the second, Aonach Eagach in Glen Coe. Aonach Eagach is by far the longer of the two scrambling routes. Never to do anything by half I jumped in at the deep end.
Build confidence to help you scramble
A couple of years ago I could never of seen myself scramble the Aonach Eagach ridge. I knew I needed to as I had an addiction to ticking lists and became determined to complete all of the Scottish munros. Many hill walkers have the same fear. If you aren’t naturally gifted with a head for heights or a love of climbing trees then you need to build up confidence in your own ability.
How and where to find it
I started my scrambling journey attending indoor bouldering sessions through local meet ups in Glasgow. Most cities now have climbing and bouldering clubs to go along and try out the sport. The people are some of the friendliest I have met.
Think chilled surfer types minus the van, board or waves. If you’re a vegan eating hipster you’ll fit right in here. Practicing my bouldering gave me the confidence to enjoy climbing without a rope in a safe environment. Meeting and being inspired by like minded people to grow further.
Climbing takes more than technical skill
A large aspect of scrambling or climbing in general is mental strength. I will touch on this later but it’s fair to say that puzzling out routes and learning through failure will make you a stronger person. Being able to keep a cool head under pressure and focus on the goal in front of you is key. Its a skill that will not only help you as you scramble across any munro but in all aspects of life.
From climbing I progressed on to more complex indoor climbing. At the moment I do top rope climbs up to grade 5. I’m not a world beater at it but for now its a level I’m comfortable at having reached to help with my mountain goals.
At lower grades, top rope climbing is quite similar to bouldering but with the addition of a rope and extra height off the ground. Its a good way of building up the mind to get adjusted to exposure and the feeling of abseiling as you belay back to the floor.
Route planning for Aonach Eagach
Aonach Eagach is a six mile ridge walk through Glen Coe Scotland. With separate start and end points (unless you do it twice) you will either need a car or organise transport. I opted to camp over night near Glen Coe village in Harvey the RV and then cycle to the start point. Rising at 5am to avoid the heavy fast moving traffic on the A82 road was tough but worthwhile. Biking through Glen Coe gave me a chance to take in the scenery I usually miss by speeding along in the van.
The recommend route to traverse the Aonach Eagach ridge is from east to west. I opted for the same direction to provide good parking for my transport home. It took around 8 hours to complete the scramble across Aonach Eagach so make sure you leave enough time and day light to complete your adventure. An early start on an excellent summers day gave me plenty of both and saw me be the first scrambler on the ridge that day.
To reach the start of the ridge your climb begins next to the famous white house at the entrance to Glen Coe. It was previously owned by entertainer and all round not very nice guy, Jimmy Saville. From there the path climbs steeply for an hour or so to reach the first munro of the day in Meall Dearg. The path here does not require any scrambling so can be reached easily. For those who want to now go on and summit Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, a traverse of the Aonach Eagach is required.
Putting the plan into action
When the alarm sounded at 4am to get up I didn’t sleep in. Scrambling the Aonach Eagach ridge traverse had been years in the making. For me no further motivation was required to get the job done. As a bonus it would add a further two munros to my total, taking me closer to my 200 target.
My mind felt ready for the challenge I would face ahead of me that day. The body was willing too but as I like to complicate things I was slightly injured from a fall the prior week. Cycling between Calendar and Killin should have been without issue. However a slip on the grass had resulted in a smashed up elbow. Fortunately the body can cope with a lot if the mind is willing to overcome.
Getting the job done
Cycling up the A82 early in the morning went without hitch other than some fast vehicles. Parking was limited at the start of the Aonach Eagach trail so taking the bikes was an excellent idea. Low stress makes for a happy life.
Conditions as I climbed towards the first munro and the start of the Aonach Eagach ridge were perfect. Low wind, clear visibility and no rain. You can’t ask for much more for a day out in Scotland and I was keen to take advantage. Before long I had summited the first munro of the day and was ready to take on the ridge.
Scrambling the Aonach Eagach ridge an epic traverse
Scramble skills are tested early as soon as you reach the ridge. A difficult down climb begins just after the first munro summit. Exposure is considerable even at this stage with drops to Glen Coe below of almost 1000m on both sides. You should not attempt the traverse without either building your skills and confidence up or hiring a guide. The chance of death here is very real.
A lull in the scrambling storm
With the down climb out of the way the ridge begins to widen out slightly. Contrary to popular belief it isn’t all a case of a tiny slither of rock and loose footing. I was even surprised to come across a herd of wild mountain goats during this relaxed stage.
They seemed to have no problem at all tackling the challenging terrain and ignored the drop below. Grateful as my heart was for the more level ground to rest on. The pace was about to step up again considerably.
Conquering the Aonach Eagach pinnacles
At this point the true test of everything I been preparing for took place. Facing the pinnacles of the fearsome Aonach Eagach was a moment boys became men. Girls transformed into strong independent women.
The pinnacles of Aonach Eagach are a set of jutting rock that require up and then down climbing to traverse across. Foot and hand holds during favourable weather are excellent if you can keep your mind clear of exposure panic. I can now understand why many hill walkers run into difficulty during a winter crossing or lacking preparation.
My recollection of what occured while navigating across the pinnacles is sketchy, such was my focus. Only the task directly in front of me mattered and anything outside of that was a distraction opening up to failure. Maximum concentration was dialled in to ensure that I had three points of contact with the rock at all times.
I am at one with the rock and the rock is with me
Sounds like a hippie mantra but the rock really took care of me and saw me through the day. I placed my trust in the rock and the rock looked after me. For around two hours I scrambled over and under the ridge. Even venturing deep into the belly of the beast on some down climbs.
Avoiding the bypass paths was my strategy during the scrambling traverse. Tackling the pinnacles head on and avoid any eroded routes that looked easier but could spell danger. Sometimes you need to step out of your comfort zone to progress and today was definitely a step up in exposure.
Thank you magical Glen Coe
Down climbing from the final pinnacle of the Aonach Eagach ended the hard part of the day. People talk about ‘bad steps’ on the route but to me it was a constant battle of wills to reach the finish line. A huge feeling of elation washed over me in fulfilling a life ambition. It wasn’t to show all those people who thought I couldn’t that I could, it was for me. Mission complete. Thank you Glen Coe.
A weary return
What was left of the day was a tough walk back in hot weather to Glen Coe village. After the sheer exhilaration of the ridge scramble, it was all about safe travel across loose scree. Avoiding injury and returning intact was my focus here. I didn’t go about setting a world record pace. For the first mountain walk in over 6 weeks my legs felt a little tired.
Endurance will improve over the coming months as I battle the munros full time and gear up for an epic yomp. A long distance trail known as the Cape Wrath trail. Starting in Fort William, I will walk over some of the remotest terrain in the UK northwards to Cape Wrath. A distance of over 200 miles, it is sure to be an epic encounter and will see me revisit the sights of my favourite mountains.
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