High above the valley of Glen Coe is the razor-sharp ridge of Aonach Eagach; it is over 3km of serrated edges, spiky pinnacles, and heart stopping drops and it the best British ridge walk and single day out in the mountains that I have experienced.
Every time that I cross the Erskine bridge that crosses the Clyde and takes you towards the highlands I feel like I am leaving all the madness and chaos of my life behind me. Ahead is open, wild, and mystical country. Loch Lomond is lovely and there is some good walking to be had here, but it is when you hit Rannoch Moor that you first feel Scotland at its natural and uncompromising best.
I love Scotland and I’ve had so many great trips here. The West Coast and the Islands are particularly beautiful, and I love the contrast of high mountains and water and travelling around here it is easy to understand why so many writers, poets, and artists have been inspired by the natural beauty of this part of the world. The forces of nature are stronger here; I’ve been lucky enough to spend a week on Skye with blue skies and stunning sunsets but also spent a night on Arran wondering whether a storm would rip the roof from the building that we were staying in.
As the road which crosses boggy and windswept Rannoch Moor starts to turn west your eye turns towards Glen Coe. At its head is the iconic and triangular form of Buachaille Etive Mor, a majestic looking mountain which is a big screen star now having featured in the James Bond movie Skyfall – and there are many other films that have been filmed in this imposing valley and it’s easy to understand why. Above to the right steep mountainsides shoot up and the ridge of Aonach Eagach looks down on you from high above as you drive down the valley.
We were staying in Glen Coe for a few days on our way to Skye where we would be walking on the Cuillin Ridge – Skye’s epic alpine-like ridge of gabbro rock. Our base for the next few days was the Clachaig Inn – a great walkers’ and climbers’ inn with bucket loads of character, good food, and a few bars to while away the evening hours in.
On the first day we had done a small hike up Coire Gabhail to the Lost Valley. My parents had walked here a few years previously and purely based on the name alone I was intrigued enough to follow in their footsteps. The walk up was a good introduction to walking in Glen Coe as a path took us steeply uphill at the side of a roaring river before opening into a huge hidden valley. The valley has a bit of history as this was the place where the Clan MacDonald hid their rustled cattle and where some of them hid to escape the Clan Campbell during the rather grizzly massacre of Glen Coe. The beauty of this place is incongruous with such acts and this huge glacial valley was lovely for a summer evening walk and offered us good views up to Aonach Eagach where we would be heading to the next day.
There is a slight complexity to be overcome with the Aonach Eagach walk in that the start and end points are in different places so if you don’t have two cars then you will need to get from one end of the valley to the other. On this occasion we tried hitching but without success which was no surprise to me given that my walking partner can give off an air of a potential axe murderer. He is not of course, but he would have been useful in those battles between the Macdonalds and Campbells all those years before. So, no lift for us then.
Instead we yomped up the valley to get to the start of the walk which begins with the hard bit; a 750-metre uphill trudge to the peak of Am Bodach. From here there is a section of the down climbing between here and Meall Dearg where the ridge proper starts.
So, what is it like to do the Aonach Eagach ridge? In a word; exhilarating. It’s a tremendous, terrifying, and testing day out, partly because of the persistent exposure and partly because it is so long and therefore you must maintain your concentration levels for such a long time. Scrambling is not everyone’s idea of fun, but this was single best day I’ve had in the hills in this country. We have plenty of scrambling and climbing experience, but this was still a test as the pinnacles, serrated edges, and seriousness of the drops meant that there was route finding and problem solving to be had at every twist and turn on the ridge. Once you are on the ridge you are committed to it as there are no escape routes from it half way across it. Once you are on it, you are on it! We had consulted the BMC website for research on the route and as ever anyone contemplating an outing of this magnitude should be well prepared.
Aside from the continuous excellent scrambling the other main feature of the day was the persistently jaw dropping views. Glen Coe is an amazing place. The valley was created when a huge glacier carved its way through an ancient volcano on its way to lochs and sea beyond what is now Glencoe village. You can feel mighty forces at work here. It is intimidating and intense yet at the same time such a beautiful example of what the natural environment in this country has to offer. There were views back across to Rannoch Moor, north to Ben Nevis which was unusually free of cloud on this fine day, and to the lochs reflecting the glistening sun to the west of us.
The best views of the ridge are from the west end just before you start the joint straining walk downhill. It was late afternoon by the time we reached this point and as we looked back the sun lit up the ridge for one last time. The ridge, the valley, and the mountains up to Buachaille Etive Mor all in one fabulous view. We headed back downhill for a well-earned pint at the Clachaig Inn and to contemplate all that we had experienced on a marvellous mountain day out.