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.
I 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.
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.
This is the first day of a three days trek.