Days Like This, No 1: The Aonach Eagach Ridge

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THE Aonach Eagach is one of the most exhilarating high-level walks on the British mainland. The ridge forms the northern wall of Glencoe and stretches in a line of imposing crags from the foot of the glen to the pass at its head. The path follows the crest of the ridge – dipping into gullies and swooping up the polished rocks of obstructive buttresses. To the accomplished climber, the Aonach Eagach is a fine walk. To the accomplished walker, it is an experience that raises appreciation of the mountain environment to a new plateau, while throwing in a dusting of adventure and a few hairy moments. But you probably know this already. If you don’t, then that’s great . . .

This is a new type of post for Because They’re There. It’s a letter from the past, if you like, featuring a memorable walk and the contemporary events surrounding it. Boots on. Here we go . . .

It’s late on a Friday night and a lone drinker is propping up the public bar in the Clachaig Inn, Glencoe. That’s me. Another lone drinker is standing next to him. Their eyes meet in the mirror behind the bar – because that’s the sort of clichéd thing that happened in those days – and they strike up a conversation about mountains and the dead Pope.

Yes. Pope Paul VI has died at the age of 80. Oh, and the Commonwealth Games have opened in Edmonton – wherever that is. Is it a part of north London?

The second lone drinker is a chap called Paul. He’s from Tyneside. The two of us get really drunk and decide to rise early to walk the Aonach Eagach ridge. Paul has heard of an easy way up. Apparently, the best way to attack the ridge is in a west-to-east direction, climbing the steepest and highest section first and descending by the lowest and easiest section. Sounds good when you’re drunk.

We wander back to our tents in high spirits. In those days you could camp on the land around the inn. The riverbanks were open and green, almost meadow-like, the turf kept firm and short by numerous tents and their accompanying vehicles. Nowadays, now that wild camping has been outlawed here, the entire area has reverted to bogland. This is probably good for the environment, and also for the midge population.

glencoe 1So we rise early and begin clambering up the edge of the incredibly steep Clachaig Gully on Sgorr nam Fiannaidh (967m, 3,172ft), the mountain that soars angrily behind the Clachaig Inn.

We arrive on the summit of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh – my first Munro – just before noon after an arduous, leg-wrenching ascent. We sit in the sun discussing international affairs, such as the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between China and Japan. It should do wonders for Sino-Japanese relations, we reckon.

Glencoe 3Another topic of conversation is the Turin Shroud, which is going on display for the first time in 45 years. Meanwhile, across a very wide and tempestuous ocean, the Sandinistas are about to seize the Nicaraguan National Palace. So there’s plenty of good news about.

Uncle Jim’s the prime minister, by the way. And his government has just given firm backing to the De Lorean sports car project in south Belfast. See, loads of positive news. I tell Paul I’ll be buying one when I’m on the journeyman’s rate. I expect there will be loads going second-hand before too long. The old Mini 1000 Estate will go in part exchange once I’ve painted the plastic padding on the nearside wing.

glencoe 2 Glencoe 4 glencoe 5Paul and I traverse the Aonach Eagach ridge. There are one or two hairy places, but nothing that detracts from the sublime experience of balancing on knife-edge slabs and gazing out across a panorama that embraces the highest mountains in Scotland. Like eagles, we touch the clouds. And soon we have taken in the second Munro of the ridge – Meall Dearg (953m, 3,126ft).

The Aonach Eagach is a mighty walk. With Glencoe – a valley steeped in history, conflict, blood and tragedy – thousands of feet beneath the soles of our boots, there is a sense of continuity; that it isn’t just us up here today, we are part of a human stream that began as the Ice Age glaciers melted; a stream that flows to this day. People come and people go, but humanity goes on for ever.

Bidean nam Bian on the southern side of Glencoe

Bidean nam Bian on the southern side of Glencoe

Paul astride the Aonach Eagach

Paul astride the Aonach Eagach

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On the Aonach Eagach with Glencoe winding into the distance

On the Aonach Eagach with Glencoe winding into the distance

We walk into the east – over knobbly crags on an edge that falls away on both sides into air and space – towards the Devil’s Staircase and the winding descent to the glen. We are aware we have experienced something special today; something we will remember for a long, long time.

glencoe 11That night we get drunk again in the Clachaig Inn. The jukebox is playing sad songs. The Commodores are at No 1 in the top ten with Three Times a Lady, and John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are at No 2 with You’re the One that I Want. Not my cup of tea.

Nothing else in the charts is worth mentioning, except the Boomtown Rats at No 32 with Like Clockwork, but I include this through personal preference rather than a sense of objectivity.

And that was the Aonach Eagach – a mighty experience. Blokes have to challenge themselves once in a while and celebrate their successes with laughter and alcohol. It’s all part of the maturing process. I haven’t worked out what the final part is yet. One day I shall probably mature and write a post about it.

Aonach Eagach: August 1978.

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About McEff

Alen McFadzean. Journalist. Recently made redundant from The Northern Echo when my job was transferred to Wales to be done by people on lower wages. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climb mountains and run long distances to make life harder. Gravitate to the left in politics just to make life harder still.
This entry was posted in Beer, Camping, Climbing, Environment, Glencoe, Hiking, History, Life, Mountains, Walking and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Days Like This, No 1: The Aonach Eagach Ridge

  1. teigl says:

    I love the way you capture that sense of wonder, the expansive thoughts that come in to the mind on the summit of a Munro, or anywhere wild and majestic for that matter. It’s also a lovely snapshot. I could think of many such adventures of my own, but couldn’t express them as well as you have here, and set them against a backdrop of contemporary events and Scotland’s finest gnarly bits. I know what you mean about that maturing bit, too.

    • McEff says:

      Hiya Teigl. Thanks very much for your comment. I’ve been rooting through my old 35mm slides and discovering things that have completely slipped from memory, so maybe that is part of the maturing process as well. Perhaps one of the secrets of avoiding the ageing process is never to let go of your younger self.
      Cheers, Alen

  2. Mjollnir says:

    What do you want to go and mature for? Get pished, climb a mountain and roll aboot the pub laughing sounds good to me! :-D

  3. Ash says:

    Oh to be young & foolish again! Hanging about in bars, not a care in the world! Nah, been there, done all that! Time to look forward to being old & foolish & driving about in one of those rusty old De Lorean’s!

    • McEff says:

      Never did get one, Ash. But not people did, so there you go. I had to make do with an ex-Cockermouth fire brigade Escort Van after the Mini. Still, at least there was room to sleep in the back. Happy days.
      Cheers, Alen

  4. Brilliant blast from the past there :-) I’ve often met up with people in Youth Hostels and decided to walk with them the next day – but I’m not usually in the pub or drunk when I discuss it! ;-)

    I’ve thought about going up the middle peak again from the back like last time and walking from there to Am Bodach – going up that bad bit must be better than going down it and I reckon I could do it. Richard’s been down it once before so he can help route-find.

    Looking at your first photo though, I don’t see how you get to the top of that first pinnacle/buttress as it just looks sheer for a long way! Where on earth does the route go?

    • McEff says:

      Hi Carol. I’ve often thought since then that going down by the gully route must be as hard on the legs as it is going up. But easier on the heart, I would imagine.
      I didn’t know you could get up from the back side of the ridge. Live and learn.
      And you’re right, that pinnacle does look steep. All I can remember is that there were a couple of very steep rocky bits along the ridge where some exposed scrambling was required – but in those days I didn’t give a damn about stuff like that. Nowadays I’m a bit more careful.
      Cheers, Alen

  5. Oh yeah – and I remember plastic padding too – think my Cortina’s seen quite a bit of that!

  6. David says:

    Ahh the Clachaig, I have developed many a hangover in there and ruined many a grand plan for a Sunday in the hills. When it comes to such places sometimes the pub antics stand out as much as the mountains when I look back.

    The Aonach Eagach is a grand ridge to do summer or winter and your post has ignited a few memories of my own. Not tried it from the Clachaig Gully end though. The advantage I suppose is also the fact you are not tormented by the pub which never seems to get any closer at the end of a long day.

    As for maturity, it is to be avoided at all costs.

    • McEff says:

      Hi David. Yes, the last time I dropped in for a pint was about three years ago. I think my most memorable visit, though, was in January 2000 when there was a folk group playing rather loud anti-English songs and lots of people had their faces painted blue and white like extras from Braveheart. Damn good night.
      I’ve never climbed the Aonach Eagach in winter. I expect it would be quite a technical venture when it’s got snow and ice on. A bit beyond my capabilities, perhaps. I would have to sit out the day by the roaring log fire in the Clachaig and drink to warmer times.
      Cheers, Alen

  7. I’ve been to Glencoe twice. The second time I realised my first visit had been in a dream. Very spooky feeling. It is one of the most haunting places I’ve ever been to. At the time I was passing through so didn’t go up on the tops or the ridges. Incredible views.

    1978! Olivia Newton-John at no. 2 in 1978. Seems like only yesterday. Whatever happened to that John Travolta bloke?

    • McEff says:

      Hi Chris. Glencoe in a magical place so long as the weather holds up. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve made the long drive up there only to find the cloud-base right down at road level on Rannoch Moor and unrelenting rain soaking the earth. But when the sun’s shining and the skies are clear, it’s a different story . . .
      I’ve just taken a look at John Travolta on Wikipedia, out of curiosity, but I refuse to be drawn into any further discussion.
      Cheers, Alen

  8. Hanna says:

    Norwegians are born with their skis on, you were born with glue on the boots, thank God for that.
    I think it’s a great expression; hairy places. To look cool you need a tight haircut :cool:
    The mountains are scary, and I would prefer a parachute if I was forced up on the Aonach Eagach.
    It is cozy pictures, and I like the title; Days Like This. Love the post, Alen.
    All the best,

    • McEff says:

      Hey. Are you saying I don’t look cool, Hanna? I thought I looked really cool and moody. I might grow my hair like that again, but I’ll give the corduroy trousers a miss.
      Glue on the boots is a good idea. Glue on the backside would also help on sections of the ridge.
      I like “Days Like This” too. But at this point I will have to admit that I shamelessly pinched it from Van Morrison, it being one of his songs. I’m sure he won’t object.
      All the best, Alen

      • Hanna says:

        Oh! Don’t get me wrong. You look absolutely stunning :-)
        It’s quite ok with the borrowed title. At least you can remember where you got it from. The worst thing is when you think it’s a brilliant idea you’ve just got.
        Apropos; what about Don’t Get Me Wrong! Bu……!

  9. Jo Woolf says:

    Wow, that ridge looks a bit scary! But I love your photos! I can’t believe how you can remember what you were talking about all that time ago. Isn’t it strange how our hairstyles change but the mountains stay the same? Kind of reassuring, I guess. I think you should ignore the comments of thinly-disguised hair-envy – everyone had styles like that (not that I remember, ahem!) :D I like your new style of retro blog post!

    • McEff says:

      Jo. “Isn’t it strange how our hairstyles change but the mountains stay the same?” Why do I get the feeling you women are having a laugh at my expense? I post some pictures of when I was a really cool dude and all I can hear is virtual cyber tittering in the background. Huh.
      But I must admit, I like the “retro blog” idea. That has a good sound to it.
      Cheers, Alen

  10. Hello Alen – a great blast from the past, and matches my experience a few years ago. I walked it East-West though from Am Bodach. My mate who was to be my guide sent me a text two minutes before he was due to turn up – ‘Wah, my girlfriend has dumped me’. Sympathy was short, so I drove up to my start point and thought I’d wander up to have a look anyway.
    I met up with three Glaswegians who told me ‘it’s a piece of pish big man’ – so I followed them across. Before they’d set off they’d given Jimmy Saville a load of abuse as he took his milk in off the doorstep – good for them says I.
    Thanks for posting this one.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Pete. It’s a great walk and If I ever repeat it – which is unlikely at the moment – then I will opt for the east-to-west route and hitch back to the start.
      I knew Savile had a house up there but I wasn’t sure which one. Apparently, it’s been vandalised since all the furore broke. Unfortunately, after reading your comment, I’m now stuck with this mental image of him in a dressing gown and smoking a cigar while he’s taking his milk in.
      Cheers, Alen

  11. That takes me back to younger braver days1

  12. Wow,you had a scary, gutsy and incredible adventure Alen.
    and nice hairstyle by the way… ;)

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