How to scramble: Aonach Eagach

Posted by Hanna Lindon on 09/12/2015
One of the easier bits of the ridge - but look behind... Photo: Dougie Cunningham

Glen Coe's Aonach Eagach ridge is the most legendary Grade 2 scramble in Scotland. Do you have the skills to take it on?

Whatever measure you use to assess the quality of a scramble - length, exposure, views, or overall adrenal gland-squeezing awesomeness - the castellated crest of rock that looms menacingly above Glen Coe is pretty hard to top. Nowhere else on the British mainland will you find a ridge of such narrow yet epic proportions; and when you add in the ease of access and the scenically stellar location, it comes as no surprise that this is one of the most bucket-listed mountain days in the country.

For a large swathe of the hill walking world, Aonach Eagach has all the dazzling unavailability of an A-list celebrity. You might pin her picture on your wall and dream hazily about meeting her one day, but the prospect of getting up close and personal is woefully remote. Unlike other celebrity scrambles - Crib Goch, for example, and Striding Edge - this sky rail scramble requires more than just some basic experience in the hills and a good head for heights. So how do you know if you’re up to the challenge?  

Get skilled up

“You should already be confident moving on Grade 1 ground without a rope before you think about doing Aonach Eagach,” says locally-based mountaineering instructor Alan Halewood, who regularly takes groups across the ridge with his company Climb When You're Ready. “I’d also recommend getting a few Grade 2 scrambles under your belt first. Liathach makes a better introduction to grade two scrambling because the difficulties are more escapable - unlike the Aonach Eagach, where there’s really just two convenient ways off: the beginning and the end.”

You’d also be wise to hone your down-climbing skills before tackling the Aonach Eagach. Whichever way you do it (and east to west is the most common direction), the ridge has almost as many downs as it does ups. You’ll spend a good proportion of the day staring at your own feet - a hairy prospect when there’s a 900-metre drop right beneath you.     

WATCH: Britain's Mountain Challenges: Aonach Eagach ridge on BMC TV

The rope conundrum

When it comes to roping up, most people know where they stand with Grade 1 (a rope is generally unnecessary) and with Grade 3 (climbing kit is generally advisable). Grade 2, though, is somewhere in that hazy should-I-shouldn’t-I middle ground.

“Everybody is different,” explains Alan. “Some people run across it soloing without thinking twice, but I’ve seen others totally frozen and definitely in need of a rope. I often carry a short length of rope on the ridge in case I meet anybody in trouble, and I’d say it’s a good idea to have somebody in your group who is confident with a rope.”

One factor that may push the scales of the rope conundrum in one direction or the other is the weather. There merest hint of rain can turn Aonach Eagach into a greased ladder, so keep an eye on the weather forecast and plump for good conditions if you’re planning on soloing it. Check out our Rope Work for Scramblers BMC TV series for tips on improving your rope skills.

Scrambling the gauntlet

From the east, Aonach Eagach is approached via a meandering mountain path that begins at a layby just off the A82 (NN173567) (keep in mind that it's a long walk back up the glen once you've descended near the Clachaig Inn - most people arrange transport at the other end.)

You’ll encounter the odd scrambly section on the way up, but there are no real difficulties until you hit the summit of Am Bodach at 943 metres and prepare to descend. This downclimb is, for many people, the crux of the whole day.

“If you’re not used to downclimbing then this section is tricky,” says Alan. “Luckily there are plenty of anchors available, which you can use if there’s somebody in your group who is feeling anxious. An understanding of direct belays is key here.”

In good weather, more experienced scramblers should be able to manage this section unaided. Then it’s a fun-filled tightrope walk up to the Munro top of Meall Dearg - the official start of the Aonach Eagach ridge. Consistent exposure and mind-bendingly beautiful views characterise the day from now on, with the fabulously varied scrambling taking in everything from terraced ridges and knife-edged arêtes to towering chimneys. The most technically challenging section ambushes you right at the end, in the form of a series of spikes known as the Crazy Pinnacles. It’s best to approach the pinnacles directly rather than trying to edge your way around the side.

“Again, you may find you need to use a rope here,” says Alan. “You could use direct belays to bring less confident people across, or there are running belays available if you have the skills to move together.”

Down and out

The ground gradually eases after the pinnacles and the col below Stob Coire Leith marks the end of the serious scrambling. Any attempt to escape the ridge between Meall Dearg and this point is asking for trouble - there are no safe descent routes to the south, and the northern options will leave you stranded a long way from civilisation. Ignore the old path down the side of Clachaig Gully (now generally considered dangerous and unpleasant), instead turning right towards the Pap of Glencoe after the last rise and joining up with a path that zigzags down to the south west to emerge on to a minor road running parallel with the A82. Turning left, a walk of about two kilometres will bring you to legendary hill walking pub the Clachaig Inn, where it's well worth rewarding yourself for your efforts with a pint of their finest ale - or a wee dram.

From here it's either a long walk on the road back up the glen, or a jump into the transport you've arranged in advance.

Winter warning

Like most scrambles, Aonach Eagach throws off its Mr Nice Guy hat in winter and emerges as a true mountaineering proposition. Even without a blanket of snow it’s a different beast altogether in cold conditions.

“If you get it under a light dusting of powder and an early season freeze then it’s slippery and very challenging indeed,” warns Alan. “Remember that this is a long day, too, so in short daylight hours most people will be burning head torch batteries by the end.

“When the snow has properly consolidated some of the rocky sections can smooth out completely and you sometimes get double cornices forming on both sides of the ridge. A heavy build-up of snow can make for a pleasant romp, but in these conditions it’s a grade 2/3 winter climb and you will need a rope as well as knowing how to move together effectively as a group.”

A winter traverse of Aonach Eagach is a treat reserved for those with significant experience in snowy Scottish conditions. Still, if you really want to test yourself then there’s always summer Grade 3 - a step up that we’ll be tackling in the next installment of this series.

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