Scrambling along the narrowest ridge in the UK | Aonach Eagach, Scotland

After a day of rain spent relaxing and cooking in our campervan, we finally woke to clear skies…wow!! We were up before the sun so we watched as it slowly kissed the mountain tops. The ground was covered in frost, the first of the season and we were surprised to see the highest mountains looked a little white. As we drove to the trailhead we had to pull over and take some photos of the mountains perfectly reflected in a small pond. Our plan for today was to hike along the Aonach Eagach ridge which is known as being the narrowest in the UK. We’ve scrambled across some really fun ridge-lines in the UK but we were a little torn about this one. Some people choose to use ropes on a few sections for extra safety and that was a little worrying to read as we don’t have the equipment or skills. But other people said it sounded worse than it was. We figured we had to try it for ourselves so up we climbed to the first top of Am Bodach at 943m.

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The weather was so perfect with the sun piercing through the valley and mountains layered behind one another. We were a little concerned about how icy it would be up top, if it was bad we wouldn’t be able to do the ridge. The first summit had frozen puddles and a light dusting of snow but we decided to continue as the sun was now much higher and would probably melt the ice quickly. It did mean that a lot of the rocks were wet though, even though it was a perfectly dry day the melting process kept every rocky surface rather slick.

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We were told the section leading down onto the ridge itself would be our first challenge, if we struggled here we may as well give up and go back. It was a steep, slanted, shelf that we got down by sitting on our bums and easing ourselves down by holding onto rocks and jamming our feet into any ledge or nook we found. We made it down so the hike continued on and we had a pretty daunting chimney section to climb up now. It was basically a meter wide gap in a rock wall, pretty much vertical but with enough rocks and handholds to pull ourselves up. We watched as three men went ahead of us, all wearing helmets, with carabiner clips round their waist and a pile of rope poking out their backpacks. From what I read this route is considered the top end for scrambling at grade 2/3, any more challenging and it would require ropes, but some people like to use them anyway for added security. It was our time to head up this chimney section and the first lunge up was the most difficult part, I struggled to find a good foot hold but eventually I made it up and didn’t dare look back down.

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We were soon standing atop the first Munro of the day, Meall Dearg, and now we could finally see the narrow ridge ahead of us. Three people were traversing it, looking like tiny specks on the sheet of rock that seemingly rises from the valley floor. Our next challenge was the pinnacles that stood ahead of us, said to be the toughest, most exposed section of the ridge. Supposedly the final pinnacle was the most difficult but we got to a section that looked almost impossible to get past way before then. It was the narrowest point so far and extremely exposed, just a row of rocks that looked like they were floating above the abyss. It always amazes me how easy these hikes are when there’s the safety of floor below us. I wouldn’t think twice about climbing over these rocks, but it’s another story when you realise a bad step could be the end. I wouldn’t say it was that big of a drop, I can’t even remember to be honest, the whole day blended into one but I’d say about 50m…which isn’t much when you consider we stood on a tiny boulder in Norway 1000m above a fjord, but it’s still a deadly distance to fall.

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The narrow rocks weren’t our only problem, getting down to them involved climbing a vertical wall about 2m tall. And getting down the wall wasn’t even our problem, we figured we’d manage it but if we then struggled along the narrow rocks we’d have to turn back and we weren’t sure if we’d be able to climb that wall in the opposite direction. So we did what any sane person would do and stopped to have a sandwich and let our vertigo fears build up. Luckily we spotted a young lad walking the opposite direction to us so we could see the exact route he took and how easy or difficult it looked. His advice was ‘just don’t look down’. We couldn’t wait any longer, we either had to continue or turn back. But the idea of turning back and doing the sections we already struggled with sounded just as daunting, so we cracked on. To be honest it wasn’t as bad as I thought, although I was muttering ‘fuck fuck fuck’ for the 20 seconds it took me to navigate the most sketchy section.

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Once that challenge was over we had another chimney to climb up and this one was only about a foot wide. It was fine at the beginning but then the rocky wall to my right sort of got in my way. It was hitting my bag and I couldn’t tuck myself into the chimney enough, I felt quite safe inside the chimney but seeing as I didn’t fit I had to have my body leaning over quite an exposed section. So I didn’t like that section much either.

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At this point I didn’t know if we’d already conquered the final pinnacle or not, but the challenges kept coming so we figured we hadn’t reached it yet, in which case my hiking notes breezed very casually over the difficult sections we just traversed.

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The next pinnacle was an intimidating rock wall in front of us. Craig attempted to climb up, shuffling his hand around the rock face for a few frantic seconds before declaring he couldn’t find a good enough hand hold. Luckily we spotted a bypass route, or what Craig’s nicknamed an escape route. I’d actually read that it’s not recommended to take any of these as they are on eroded goat tracks and actually far more exposed than climbing straight over the rocks. But considering we couldn’t climb up the rocks we had no choice but to take this sketchy route which involved more scrambling and pulling ourselves up rock ledges but once we made it up and over we had conquered the final pinnacle. Wahoo. We stopped to eat the rest of our lunch but not for long as we still had a big distance to get back. We had an amazing view looking back at where we’d come from. The three pinnacles were visible on the narrow ridge, wiggling like a crispy piece of streaky bacon standing on its side. It was quite crazy looking back and where we’d come from, wondering how there was even a route across that wild landscape.

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The rest of the hike was pretty straight forward and when we reached the summit of Sgor Nam Fiannaidh we decided to cut down the mountainside back to the road. Most of the route was a rocky scoria slope that all moved under our feet, sort of like a rock-covered version of a travolator. If we hadn’t of taken this short cut we’d of been 7.5km from our car. This way we’d be about 4km away which meant we could actually walk it as appose to potentially hitch hiking back but I don’t know how much luck we’d have with that during covid.

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The scoria slope was absolutely horrible and not what my jelly legs needed after such a tough hike. Eventually a faint path appeared and we zigzagged our way downhill. On the way we spotted three wild goats, when I opened my backpack to change lens one of the goats came storming towards us. We thought he was going to attack us to protect his family but he got within a meter of us and just stared at me with his huge, icy blue eyes. Then we realised he was begging for food, stupid tourists have probably been feeding them and now they just expect food. It infuriates me when people do this because a) it makes the animals reliant on being fed by humans, so if it suddenly stops they could starve b) human food isn’t designed for wild animals and therefore isn’t good for their digestive system.

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Anyway, we finally made it down to the roadside for the walk back to Helga. We got back to Helga about 9 hours after we started and we were amazed how long it all took. The ridge was so technical to traverse that just that 3km section of the hike took us about 5 hours! Our legs and feet were feeling extremely heavy and sore but there was one thing keeping us going – we discovered a hot shower nearby for just £1 so we were going to relax our muscles for 5 whole minutes each. Wahay.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. teabeestrips says:

    Beautiful photos. The views are amazing. I would not want to do the scrambling though. I would be so affraid.

    1. Yeah it was definitely the most challenging scramble we’ve done…my mum was rather angry when she found out we did this route, oops!

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