Friday 18th – Sunday 20th September 2020
The wild landscapes of the Scottish Highlands and Islands always offer the ultimate escape for me – one of the last corners of Europe where you can still discover genuine solitude.
This is a place where the sky feels huge, where the world slips away into the mountains and lochs, and troubles can dissipate in awe of nature.
Glen Coe always holds a special place in my heart. As a young girl I remember being huddled up in the back of my parents car full of excitement with my sisters and brothers and heading up North. I always remember coming into the Glen Coe Valley and being in awe of the mountains as we drove threw them. I had never seen anything like this in my life and always felt they were huge, amazing, scary but very beautiful. These memories will stay with me forever and have definitely formed my love of the mountains to this very day and on every single drive I undertake through the Glen Coe Valley I still have that very same feeling, like I am seeing those mountains for the very first time…I am still in awe of this magical place, it still amazes me and I will never tire of such beautiful scenery…its a very special place to me and I love it.
I remember when we walked the West Highland Way a few years back and after travelling by foot for many miles coming around a mountain and being hit with such an amazing view of the Glen Coe Valley whilst standing right next to the famous Buachaille Etive Mor, a magestic looking mountain, and feeling pretty overwhelmed and proud…you could actually feel the history of this place.
Pointy mountains aren’t just a thing of the Alps – we have plenty of them here in Britain…especially Scotland!
We were off to Glen Coe once again for a weekend of wild camping in these wonderful mountains. We were specifically travelling up here to conquer the most notorious ridge walk in the UK and if not the world – The famous Aonach Eagach.
Famed as the narrowest ridge on the British mainland, the Aonach Eagach gives a thrilling and spectacular traverse for keen scramblers with a head for heights, linking the Munros of Meall Dearg and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.
We had been meaning to undertake this ridge walk for a while now but after reading some scary reports about the ridge, seeing photos, watching video’s I always somehow managed to put it off. Then we discussed leaving this ridge walk as our final Munro challenge, it could be that special occasion where we celebrate having bagged our last Munro’s…all 282 of them! However I am not one of those people…I don’t believe in doing things for that ‘special occasion’ like waiting until that ‘special birthday’, that ‘special anniversary’…I can’t understand the point of that, if somethings worth doing then I am a firm believer do it today if you can, why wait until tomorrow, it may never come…its just the way I like to live my life I guess.
This weekend was going to be another one of those moments about conquering fear and I decided to challenge myself out of choice rather than by force…this one involved heights again and I do genuinely have a fear of heights and this was potentially risky business!
Nothing is done by halves in Glen Coe, but the reward for taking on these mountain brutes are experiences that will stay with you for a lifetime…I wanted that memory, satisfaction, sense of accomplishment but I also wanted to live to tell the tale!!!
Friday 18th September
We headed up Friday evening and decided that we wanted to pitch our tent high up on the mountains for numerous reasons. We wanted the seclusion as Glen Coe Valley is a very touristy spot and tonight it was busy. We also thought that we could escape any invasions from that annoying Highland Clan, the famous midgies. We had also read that the Milky Way could potentially be very visible tonight on clear skies and tonight we had exactly that and lastly we like a hike and a view, and somewhere that we could call home for the next few days.
We found that perfect spot on a mountain straight across the valley from the Buachaille.
The north east face of the much-photographed Buachaille Etive Mor, a perfect pyramid of sheer mountain meanness towered above Rannoch Moor straight before our eyes.
We pitched our tent, made some dinner then headed further up the mountain for darkness to engulf us. We watched and photographed the most amazing sunset.
We waited and waited until things got really dark and the skies opened up before our eyes….a sky full of diamonds and right above us stretching over the Buachaille was the Milky Way. Stunning, peaceful, mesmerising, awe-inspiring, there are no amount of words to explain this experience, what we were witnessing and feeling was special…we stayed up late and simply star gazed.
Saturday 19th September
Next morning we woke up early to watch the sunrise and we were rewarded by the most amazing cloud inversion I have ever witnessed in my entire life. We were dazzled by this rare weather phenomenon which swept through the mountains. The clouds hugged the ground below, giving the appearance of fog whilst the sky above was completely clear.
Mother Nature was showing off to us once more.
We had planned on leaving camp early to start our ridge walk but we could not leave our spot due to this sheer spectacular show that was being played out before our eyes….this was a very special moment and one I certainly was not going to rush away from.
Eventually we made it back down to the car and from here we had to drive along the valley before beginning our ridge walk.
As we drove, we looked up and dominating the skyline as we travelled through Glen Coe it was hard not to notice the outstanding ‘Notched Ridge’ towering above the road.
This ridge is a substantial challenge which covers some 10km from the Pap of Glencoe at the west to the eastern end at the Devil’s Staircase, and includes two Munros; Meall Dearg and Sgorr Nam Fiannaidh, and it has a good dose of exposed scrambling thrown in for good measure. The slopes to each side are extremely dangerous, with steep grass and scree slopes hiding even steeper slopes which end in cliffs on both north and south sides of the ridge.
The rocks can be extremely slippery when saturated and we prayed before arriving here that we would have dry conditions and that we would not have to battle with vicious winds on top of the knife-edge ride….today seemed like perfect conditions.
This is a commiting route and there are no ‘escape’ routes from the ridge between Meall Dearg and Stob Coire Leith. To attempt this route, we read you needed a decent head for heights, which I tried to ignore when committing to the hike!
The ridge has, unfortunately, seen several deaths over the last 10 years, with the most recent being in 2017. Some of the fatalities were experienced hikers, which just proved we needed to take the utmost care when traversing this technical mountain route.
Viewed from Glencoe below, the Aonach Eagach ridge appears as a narrow crest with a series of small towers.
We began our ascent. The path climbed steeply up the south east ridge of Am Bodach giving some really great views of the Lost Valley, the Three Sisters and the Buachaille across the valley. In the opposite direction we saw right across to Ben Nevis.
Before we knew it we were stood on the top and the ridge became more defined. It is only once onto the crest that the scale and size of the ridge becomes apparent, running almost the entire length of the Glen Coe.
The razor-sharp ridge of Aonach Eagach, is over 3km of serrated edges, spiky pinnacles, and heart stopping drops. Nowhere else on the British mainland will you find a ridge of such narrow yet epic proportions and it comes as no surprise that this is one of the most bucket-listed mountain days in the country.
With my heart firmly in my mouth we were about to commit to this ridge walk…and I mean commit as there’s really just two convenient ways off: the beginning and the end…the third, well the less said about that the better! This sky rail scramble requires more than just some basic experience in the hills and a good head for heights, I hoped I was up for this challenge!
As soon as we started the ridge walk it began, the first indicator of the exposure to come – and probably the most exposed side path – is on an outcrop called the Chancellor! The scramble down wasn’t for the faint hearted, wet and polished rock making it more exciting!! Then there were some more hard, exposed scrambling which went on and on along the ridge between Am Bodach and Stob Coire Leith. I must say and possibly more so now that I have my feet firmly on solid ground but my goodness what an amazing experience crossing this ridge. You really cannot imagine the beauty of this ridge until you are there, rewarding you with some good exposure at points…my heart was pumping!
The Three Sisters of Bidean nam Bian were now a companion to the south, a circuit we hoped to undertake the following day…if we make it off this alive!
The ridge at points started to fall away sharply to cliffs below. From here on there was no escape off the top…we were now committed.
We climbed up a narrow 15m passage called the chimney. And if things weren’t already sketchy it was about to get a whole lot more interesting…we were at the crux of the ridge, and now facing those famous ‘Crazy Pinnacles’.
These are what the adrenaline junkies come for. These Crazy Pinnacles are a 500m long very exposed section of the ridge and provides some fantastically committing and sustained scrambling, they say some of the best in Scotland. Confronted by huge towers of rock with a steep exposed rise, there is no option but to head straight up them, manoeuvring yourself carefully as consequences to your actions are fatal, there are sheer drops on both sides. On reaching the top, there was apprehension on what we were next going to be faced with!
After these ‘difficulties’ we continued along the ridge tackling a few more easy rock-scrambling bits, I guess I could say that now after undertaking those pinnacles and we were on our way to reach Stob Coire Leith our first Munro of the day…we were safe!
On reaching this summit I must say this has been that Munro where I can say I HAVE EARNED THAT SUMMIT…and by god did we deserve these views. We were rewarded by the most amazing panoramic views of Glen Coe and the surrounding mountains…I felt ecstatic and fell in love with Scotland all over again, this was Scotland at her best…added to this feeling I guess was the natural high I was experiencing right here right now after that amazing ridge walk and what a feeling, this will never be beaten!
This is Scotland at its natural and uncompromising best. The forces of nature are strong here!
We reluctantly left this spot to continue on the path along a magnificent ridge walk over easy ground to a bealach.
We then went up some patches of scree and boulders to the cairn on Sgorr nam Fiannaidh. And once again were rewarded by superb views in all directions, particularly back along the ridge we had just done whereby we stood in amazement at our accomplishment’s and its beauty. In the other direction we enjoyed magnificent views out to the west towards Ballachulish bridge and the Ardgour peninsula.
Today has been a tremendous and testing day out on the mountains, partly because of the persistent exposure and partly because it is so long you must therefore maintain your concentration levels for such a long time. Scrambling is not everyone’s idea of fun, but this was the single most best day we have 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 on that ridge, we were committed to it as there was no escape routes from it half way across it. Once we were on it, we were on it and I guess that adds to the excitement and adrenaline rush!
With airy drops on either side and a real sense of exposure I can now confirm, this is where the Aonach Eagach gets its reputation. It is consistently ranked as the best ridge walk and scramble in the UK and in the top few across the world by National Geographic (allegedly)…and I agree!
The mountainous landscape that surrounds Aonach Eagach is simply jaw-dropping and we can easily recognise many of its surrounding mountains such as Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK, and the Three Sisters standing proudly in the distance.
What an unforgettable experience!
This has been a beautiful, rigorous, thrilling trail, with extensive scrambling and for pushing through we had been rewarded with an experience of a lifetime.
I can tell you this, I went to sleep in my tent a very happy girl!
Sunday 20th September
With the legs feeling fine next morning and a beautiful forecast ahead we decided to undertake the Three Sisters also known as Bidean nam Bian. This circuit is meant to offer a beautiful and fairly strenuous hike onto the highest peak in Argyll and down into the scenic Lost Valley.
The three sisters are the three Munros of Stob Coire Nan Lochan, Bidean Nan Bian and Stob Coire Sgreamhach linked by narrow ridges with steep ascents and desents. It has a dramatic northern ridge, whilst having the highest summits of the group Bidean Nam Bian, hidden away behind.
Starting from the western end of Loch Achtriochtan in Glen Coe a fine constructed path leads uphill past some beautiful waterfalls onto the high rocky crests of Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire Sgreamhach. There’s some easy bits of rock-scrambling to enjoy here and there, but nothing difficult or graded.
Once on the ridge, we then hiked up a rather steep boulder formation of rocks which took us to the summit of Stob Coire Nan Lochan with the higher Bidean Nam Bian becoming visible towards the south.
We decided to have lunch here as it was warm and the views were superb – we could see Ben Nevis, Loch Leven and Loch Linnhe, Loch Etive, Mull and a wide range of mountains all around, it was absolutely stunning, rugged and wild.
From this top, we then crossed to the Bidean Nam Bian summit via a ridge with the Diamond Buttress slightly to the right. The last part to the summit of this Munro was quite steep. On the top, the view was great once again in all directions.
From the summit, we walked southeast on the mountain ridge towards Bealach Dearg, with great views of the Lost Valley appearing on our left.
From the saddle point we then continued straight on to the top of Stob Coire Sgreamhach, another Munro, which bagged us our third for the day.
Third time lucky we once again had clear visibility and amazing views.
Once again we sat for a bit taking it all in admiring Scotland’s beauty. We reluctantly left our spot as we had a long walk down and out to the valley.
Firstly we had to undertake a very steep and dangerous looking scramble down into the eroded scree gully and it was here we met a couple who were having difficulties. The girl was petrified of what she had gotten herself into and had completely frozen on the spot, she was literally on her bum, three quarters of the way up in this gully and was in floods of tears. We held back a bit not wanting to put any pressure on her/them. However on waiting around for quite some time at the top we looked over the edge and she had made no progress whatsoever. We opted to try and manoeuvre around her but this meant we were forced further over to the edge which had a sudden drop. As we progressed passed the couple we tried to reassure the girl that if she took her time, breathed slowly and calmed down she should start to move towards us and from where we stood there were a few footholds to stop her sliding. Still in tears she ‘bummed’ her way towards us slowly, whilst telling us she had ripped her trousers severely in doing so. I felt her pain! Once she looked safe enough we left them to their own devices and I must say on continuing to look back to make sure they were ok, her partner was very supportive with her, helping and encouraging her down.
After the gully, we kept scrambling on scree but the path became more visible. We continued walking downwards, crossing streams until we were almost on a level valley strewn with boulders.
The river begins to flow below the boulders here. A couple of large boulders guard the entrance to this steep valley from the north completely hiding it from view.
This valley has a bit of history as this was the place where the Clan MacDonald hid their rustled cattle from their neighbours, or perhaps where they hid their cattle to stop them being rustled by their neighbours and its where some of them hid to escape the Clan Campbell during the rather grizzly massacre of Glen Coe – we were in the Lost Valley!
The geologists tell us that the lost valley was formed by the weight of ice that could not escape from the valley as the huge ice cap flowed down to the sea through the pass of Glencoe from off Rannoch Moor. Even knowing this, the size of the valley is huge and you would be surprised at viewing it for the first time…I had been here before.
From the Lost Valley we climbed slightly before descending steeply through woods and boulders down to the river which we crossed on stepping stones.
The path passed a waterfall and then Glen Coe opened up before us. We passed through some moorland, across a bridge before climbing some stairs which took us to the main path through the valley which would then take us to our car.
The view of the Three Sisters from here was great and it gave us the opportunity to see where we had just been.
Glen Coe is an amazing place. You can feel the mighty forces at work here, whilst breathing in its history, it has many stories to tell.
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.
This weekend has been perfect. The weather, the views, the challenges and good old Mother Nature once again reminding us of the beautiful and fragile world we live in…I have been constantly in complete awe of some of her finest achievements. This weekend was for me Scotland at her best and I have fallen in love with her all over again – she is a treasure!