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.
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.
Another 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.
Paul 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.
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.
That 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.