What the Aonach Eagach Ridge Taught Me

Meall Dearg (953), most exposed section of the ridge, most of all when you have no rope.

Meall Dearg (953m), exposed section of the ridge, especially with 12kg bakpacks

      It was my first trip to the Scottish Highlands and I didn’t really know what to expect. We hadn’t meticulously studied the maps, we just knew we’d have three days to get to the train station of Fort William from the village of Glencoe. Our first idea was to get to Kinlochleven on the first day, and then safely follow the West Highland Way.

I can tell you now that we didn’t follow the plan at all. We thought it’d be faster and more fun to cut straight through the mountains instead of trekking in the valleys. So, we ended up crossing the famous Aonach Eagach ridge on the first day, making our way through the Mamores on the second day, and climbing Ben Nevis straight from the Southern valley on the third day.I’m going to focus on the first day because that was the craziest of all. The bus dropped us next to one of the best pubs in Scotland called the Clachaig Inn, located in the valley of Glencoe. Instead of following Loch Leven we decided to give the Aonach Eagach famed as the narrowest ridge on the British mainland a try. I wasn’t very confident as we had no climbing gear at all and heavy backpacks. But people wanted to move on, so I followed the group.

We began to climb the face of the mountain following something that looked more like a dried stream than a path. Soon, the way got steeper and steeper. The more we were going forward the more exposed it was. After not even 30 minutes we had to scramble crags, with no possibility to turn back.

Aonach Eagach ridge and Stob Coire Leith from Meall DeargI was relieved when we got on top of Sgor nam Fiannaidh, but I soon realized what we did was only a preview of what was about to come. As soon as I saw the ridge, I started to have serious doubts about the feasibility of our plan. But we ended up doing it! I still wonder how we made it. It was just insanely dangerous. We had to crawl along a traverse so narrow that I couldn’t not see the two huge drops on both sides of me at the same time.   We had to climb up crags so steep that I was feeling the gravity pull my heavy backpack. Often, we had to help each other with the bags to avoid a 500 meters free fall.

At some point, what had to happen happened: we got stuck. The way was just too narrow. There wasn’t a path anymore, just a succession of slippery rocks surrounded by deadly cliffs. We couldn’t cross them because of our bags. For a few minutes I seriously thought we’d have to abandon our bags, throw them down the 1500 feet drop or even call the helicopter. I have to be honest with myself, I had never been so scared and never felt so close of death. I regret  that no one thought of taking a picture of the obstacle but we were all so worried about getting ourselves out of this damn mountain! We tried to remain calm but everyone was worried. One of us took the lead and found a way to get us on the other side of the traverse. To do so, we had to scramble along a steep grassy slope just above a sheer drop. Luckily, the roots of the few plants I had to use as handles on this slippery section were deep enough to support my weight because otherwise I’m sure I would probably not be here to tell you this story. My muscles were tense with fear. For a moment I thought my body would just stop responding and I would slip and fall, rebounding against the cliff like a contorted marionette.

North side of the 1m (3ft) wide arete of Aonach Eagach. Similar drop on the other side.But I made it, and after the grass climbing part came the hard scrambling time. During the climb, I looked over my shoulder to see how the guys behind me were going. When I saw them struggling on this craggy mountain, surrounded by hundreds of feet of void, my head started spinning. I asked them if they were all right. “Yes we’re okay”, they answered quietly, trying to focus on their moves. My friend who had the most experience was leading the way and he finally reached the top of what was probably Meall Dearg. We all safely caught up with him. There was probably an amazing view from the top, but I was too worried about getting us out of this ridge to enjoy the landscape.

I felt way better when I saw that there was a path again, and the ridge was wider. We followed it, climbed down the last 30 feet high crag and arrived at a col. The sun was going down and we had the opportunity to quickly go down in a remote valley from here. After an exhausting walk in the Scottish marsh we finally got to a forest where we settled our tents and cheered for our adventure.

     Crossing the Aonach Eagach ridge has been a great lesson of humility. It’s been morally as much as physically challenging. It taught me not to ever underestimate the power of nature, and never overestimate yours. If you want to give something difficult a try, you’d better get prepared as much as you can. What scared me was probably more the fact that I wasn’t prepared and wasn’t expecting such an exposed route, rather than the route itself. Since that day then, I’ve been following some basic rules, I now study the route as if I had done it before,  I consider that everything’s probably gonna be harder than what I expect and that the weather is going to be awful, or I could possibly not get out of it alive. Challenge is exciting, danger gives you adrenaline, but when real fear takes over, it’s time to think and be humble and reasonable.

Aonach Eagach from Glen Coe

Aonach Eagach from Glen Coe

The mountain of Meall Mor

The mountain of Meall Mor

Climbing an a steep path

Climbing an a steep path

Glencoe Village, Loch Leven and Loch Linneh

Glencoe Village, Loch Leven and Loch Linneh

Little pond next to the Clachaig Inn

Little pond next to the Clachaig Inn

Scrambling session

Scrambling session

The Clachaig Inn in sight

The Clachaig Inn in sight

Glencoe Valley from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh

Glencoe Valley from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh

The Aonach Eagach ridge from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh

The Aonach Eagach ridge from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh

Loch Achtriochtan, Stob Coire nan Lochan, Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire nam Beith

Loch Achtriochtan, Stob Coire nan Lochan, Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire nam Beith

Loch Leven, the Mamores and Ben Nevis

Loch Leven, the Mamores and Ben Nevis

North side of the 1m (3ft) wide arete of Aonach Eagach. Similar drop on the other side.

North side of the 1m (3ft) wide arete of Aonach Eagach. Similar drop on the other side.

The ridge between Stob Coire Leith (940m) and Meall Dearg (953m)

The ridge between Stob Coire Leith (940m) and Meall Dearg (953m)

I never felt safe until we were back down in a valley

I haven’t felt safe until we were back down in a valley

Meall Dearg (953), most exposed section of the ridge, most of all when you have no rope.

Meall Dearg (953), one of the most exposed section of the ridge, most of all when you have no rope.

Climbing down a very steep crag. I still wonder how we made it with our 70L backpacks.

Climbing down a very steep crag. I still wonder how we made it with our 70L backpacks.

Aonach Eagach and Am Bodach (943m)

Aonach Eagach and Am Bodach (943m)

Aonach Eagach ridge and Stob Coire Leith from Meall Dearg

Aonach Eagach ridge and Stob Coire Leith from Meall Dearg

Going down in Coire nan Lab

Going down in Coire nan Lab

Coire nan Lab and the stream of Feith nan Lab, we're saved!

Coire nan Lab and the stream of Feith nan Lab, we’re saved!

This is the first day of a three days trek.

– Second day : A day in the Mamore mountains

– Third day : Ben Nevis from Glen Nevis

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50 Responses to What the Aonach Eagach Ridge Taught Me

  1. Erica Bowman says:

    In reading this I was brought back to the Aonach eagach myself. Your words described my feelings and experience entirely. It will never leave me.

  2. Pingback: Fear, Loneliness and Perspective | Hitting The Hills

  3. writer77 says:

    Wonderfully tremendous and incredible terrain!

  4. Brings back memories for me. I did the Aoneach Eagach ridge many years ago and I can still recall the sense of achievement. Sadly, I don’t have any photos from then so it’s great to see these fabulous photos of yours.

  5. mac says:

    Wow – very nice pics!

    And thx for the like :)

  6. Thank you for your well-told story and for your thoughts. I am on the Pacific Crest Trail right now and don’t have much time to read other blogs, but I look forward to reading more about your adventures after completing the trail. It is amazing what the mountains can teach. I hope to learn more from them in the coming 2500 miles!

  7. Beautiful photos – what a great adventure. Makes me want to go…

  8. Jon Maiden says:

    Great post and great photos. Having just done my first knife-edge ridge scramble along Crib Goch I can absolutely sympathise with the feelings you experienced… but strangely find myself yearning for more experiences of exposure and that ‘possible death’ sensation! Look forward to reading more of your posts, Jon

    • I’ve read your article. The photos are impressive. I’m sure it’s a good therapy but isn’t it extremely dangerous to do such a thing for a vertigo sufferer? Anyway, congratulations :)

      • Jon Maiden says:

        Hi Orel,

        I’m sure it’s more dangerous to do a ridge with vertigo however, as your own story teaches, as long as you’re careful and don’t push your limits too far then you’re generally safe enough. I wouldn’t, for example, have walked along the top of the ridge as my balance wasn’t steady enough. So four points of contact at all times for me. All no 70l backpack!

        Cheers for reading my post – I look forward to more accounts of your walks,

        Jon

  9. anabaptistcountryman says:

    My dear Young Friend,
    A lovely surprise to find your comment beneath the climbing photo on my own page – No one (especially younger folk) are interested in climbing in the 1920’s style – It all seems to be about Lycra, egotism, and hideously expensive commercial equipment, now. Given the fact that you have noted appreciation, I shall place the only other other digital photo (of my younger brother) that I have, below the one you have already seen. Age has insisted that my climbing days are over, but I should very much like to visit now and again, and see how yours are doing.
    Wishing you all the very best, I remain,
    Yours sincerely,
    Philip Livingstone

  10. Mike says:

    Great post! Enjoying your tales of hiking in Scioland – an area I know well, but haven’t managed to visit for a few years now. I’ve done the Aonach Eagach a couple of times in winter snow – both times on the kind of clear, crisp day that you can usually only dream about in Scotland! and rounded off with a couple of pints in the Clachaig – happy days!

  11. Simon Cox says:

    Hi there, been meaning to post on your blog for a while now. Thanks for your visits to mine. I chose this post to comment on, as I almost made an attempt on the Aonach Eagach recently, but didn’t have enough daylight. Good to see you managed it, and it seems you had quite an adventure too! I take it you didn’t get into trouble in the Clachaig Gully – a notorious black spot for people taking a ‘shortcut’?!

  12. Doug Hoffman says:

    I enjoyed your story. Keep it up!

  13. Great photos. I liked your lesson of learning not to underestimate nature, or over estimate your own. When you arrived to that edge between life and death reminded me of a simlar experience I had in my youth, rock climbing. I was following an experienced climber, fortunately, but all the same, at one crucial move, I realized how close I was to that “edge.” But it made me appreciate “life” that much more, and come to understand that old adage about never experiencing anything due to fear of dying, is akin to not really truely living. It led to a my personal life philosophies and deeper immersion into outdoor endeavors, much like it apparently has affected you. Keep on, keepin on. So much to see and do, so little time.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story! I think we live in a society in which people don’t want to take any risk, and it’s so sad! Everywhere they promote extreme safety, and it even gets ridiculous in a lot of situations. The saddest thing I ever saw was in Toronto: regular stairs with this sign next to them, saying: “At your own risks”.

  14. Tincup says:

    Awsome pictures and a great read. I hope I don’t see you on one of those episodes…”I Shouldn’t be Alive” ;)

    I love the natural world, but I hold to the philosophy…the mountains are to be admired from below…unless there is a safe path to the top :D

    • That’s because they should be admired from below that I want to climb them! Ahah.

    • Like a river viewed from the canyons rim, you can’t really know a mountain from only one perspective. Seeing things from many aspects brings a broader understanding of them. While a safe pathway may get you to the edge of some beautiful spots, often the more challenging routes, bring the larger rewards and a more meaningul understanding of them and yourself.

  15. Hey Ive tackled a couple of routes up there … the first time I was caught by the weather and I was alone … VERY SCARY … love your photos and blog!!!!!!!

  16. xandimusic says:

    great! I’ve never thougt that Scotland could be so amazing, maybe I must visit it toooo ;)

  17. Shanomi says:

    Orel. Thank you so much for visiting my blog and for your positive feedback. I thought my pics were good; you take amazing photos and it was such a pleasure to see them. But glad it’s you up there and not me, for I’d throw up and fall over the cliff. Stay well.

  18. Great writing about an adventure that your mother probably did nto want to hear about. LOL I also thought about how you have good weather….probably one more factor in the success of this experience. I will add a thanksgiving mention of your trek at our table today.

    • Orel Engel says:

      Hello! I hope you had an epic Thanksgiving dinner yesterday! I’ve always been lucky with the weather, excepted this one time when we had to abort our hike but in the end it was a good experience too! PS: My mom doesn’t know everything :D

  19. Amazing journey and photos. Life is boundless and you seem to be living it to the fullest.

  20. SL Schildan says:

    Great blog, it was well written and it made me feel that I was there. The photos are amazing, but the scenes remind me of an alien sci-fi location. Awe inspiring, but harsh and not so beautiful.

  21. I was scared reading it! Glad you came through ok. Great blog

  22. Lu says:

    Beautiful photos – you were lucky to have such a clear day for your adventures! Weather can be extremely changeable in the Scottish mountains – quickly making them treacherous.

  23. elizabethre says:

    Awesome trek, and pictures of my beautiful homeland.

    I most especially loved the, “and cheered for our adventure” line. Totally conveys the relief you all felt.

    • Orel Engel says:

      Thank you Elizabeth. Yes, we were so relieved! We couldn’t have felt this way if we hadn’t eventually succeeded to set fire to the dang wet wood (after a 1 hour attempt)!! It’s very hard to make a fire in your country ahah!

  24. beingouthere says:

    Never been hiking in highlands but surely know what u mean about feeling fear…
    Try to be always on the safe side and take no risks. Many more hikes are there waiting for you!

    • Orel Engel says:

      Hi there! After this first trek in Scotland I became very prudent with the choices of the routes. Trips after trips I became confident and tried new things, increasing the difficulty progressively. I think that’s the way to do it. I know you’ve been in trouble at least once (I read your one of your posts) and I know what you mean.

  25. Seycen says:

    What a fantastic story! I know it so well… one person says ‘the path is over there’, the other one (usually me) says, ‘but that’s boring, let’s go straight up’. Before you know it, you have to traverse a cliff face with no way back. I completely agree about the crossing the line between challenge and fear. The moment when you have to take a deep breath to stop yourself from panicking is very humbling. Et je dois vraiment vraiment essayer d’écrire en français !

    • Orel Engel says:

      Oui, à un moment ya plus d’autre choix que d’y aller. C’est un grand moment car on réalise qu’on ne peut plus compter que sur soi-même et se reposer sur ses propres capacités pour s’en sortir. Ca a été un moment qui a plus tard déclenché en moi une grande envie de me perfectionner pour devenir le plus autonome possible. J’ai encore un long chemin à faire tho. J’ai vu quelques références à la montagne sur votre blog mais je n’ai pas encore eu le temps de naviguer à travers tous les posts!

  26. adventures says:

    What a challenging hike and inspiration :-) I love the perseverance and determination. Bravo & beautiful pictures too!

  27. Guy Pressault says:

    Thank’s Orel. Much like life itself isn’t it?

  28. kalieghj says:

    Quite humbling, climbing is. Few other things can teach you so much about yourself. Merci de regarder mon article. Nous partageons une passion.

    • You learn much about yourself (and companions) in the mountains.

    • seekraz says:

      Yes, it is quite humbling…it gives one a new perspective. When we’re so full of the problems of our everyday lives with their pressures, taking a hike and finding yourself out in the middle of huge nature causes you to remember how very small and insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things…little breathing dots of dirt on a larger, but still small clump of rock sliding through the vast universe…humbling indeed.

  29. Hi Orel,
    I’m posting the Aonach Eagach myself on Monday 14th Nov. It’s not quite as entertaining or as enthralling as your post, but might help others who are contemplating the trip.
    Paul

  30. Pingback: A day in the Mamore mountains | Backcountry Tranquility

  31. WhelanTrek says:

    Spectacular! So many good lessons and such beauty rolled into one blog post!

  32. I’ve often said that there is a narrow line between adventure and misadventure, but I guess it’s an adventure when you are still around to write the blog!
    Tackling the Aonach Eagach with heavy packs and no prior knowledge of the route is quite impressive. More impressive is the “just get on with it” attitude displayed by you and your mates – there’s a growing trend amongst hill walkers when the going gets tough, to sit down and cry then phone the rescue services, but you stuck with it and sorted out your own problems.
    That sort of self reliance is to be applauded – well done Orel!

    • Hi Orel its stu’ s dad here. great article and photos. Yes Aonach aegach can be life changing. I first climbed it when I was 16 (1974) with my friend John and his dad. When we got on the ridge John’s dad took one look at the ridge and said he was not doing it! John and I couldn’t bear the thought of going back down so we tagged onto another party and set off(east to west.) Before I had read anything about Buddhism that day taught me about our mortality and how we are only one slip away from death, and how that thought develops great awareness and concentration. The other great thought was about materialism watching the cars going along the road 800m below. These cars are peoples pride and joy that some polish every weekend but in the scale of the mountains they looked so insignificant and irrelevant. I’ve climbed it twice since then and the route really is one of the best in britain. Hope you are keeping well and studies are going ok ;steve

      • Breathtaking account of an impossible situation along with beautiful pictures. The Wonderland Trail around mt. Rainier is like walking on a Bigalow carpet nearly every step of the way. No exposure at all. Only my mind, my herniated disc and a determination to avoid new injury. It was a head game without the physical barriers you so courageously mastered. True grit. Betsy Bell, Seattle

    • Orel Engel says:

      Thank you for your comments Paul and Stephen. They are full of wisdom and they really mean to me! I really love to hear your personal stories Stephen, they are precious to me and I think each of them taught me something.
      Orel

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