Meall Dearg, Glen Coe
A bit of a South Face Odyssey...

Monday 20th April 2015

Weather/Conditions: Amazing. Again.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 3.4km / 900m / 2h 45m
Accompanying: Alone

This was an amazing day, one I still remember vividly years on. It was short, sharp and exposed - a line straight up the south wall of the Aonach Eagach. En route I had grass, heather, rotting rock and a bucket-load of exposure. Whether I’d get to the top was uncertain until top. In between there were more than a couple thought-provoking moments.

I'd taken an interest in the Aonach Eagach gullies and buttresses as much to see whether reasonable routes did exist here. As much as anything, it would be interesting to know whether the advice ‘you cannot escape the Aonach Eagach once committed’ really held water.

I left Keith's hostel mid-morning and parked in a layby in the glen. Heading up the slope, my first aim was the massive gully cleaved into the face. I later learned this had been referred to in the past as 'Big Boulder Gully' – I maintain that name.

Once in the gully, I realised the route would be an almost-certain 3,000 foot slog. I wasn't so bothered about doing that, and I'd already eyed up the buttress to the left. I moved out left onto the foot of the buttress, and a winding route brought me through the lower steepening: first I scrambled up a short corner and followed an exposed deer track out right above an overhanging wall. This brought me to a pair of trees, marking the end of this first little exposed section.

Beyond this were perhaps three or four hundred vertical metres of heather. It rarely outcropped into proper scrambling, but it was steep! Altitude gain was immediate. But the greatest interest remained at the top. The final couple hundred metres to the crest were guarded by steeper outcroppings of rotting rock.

At first I tried attacking this steepening directly. As soon as you pulled into the steepening, the exposure was almost sickening. It was just not an option not to fall. I could accept scrambling up the heather below; you always had enough to hold onto. But falling onto that same ground? It was hard to know if you would stop whatsoever. I am tempted to think that you would go a very long way.

I was pulling rotting rock off, kicking steps into mud; nothing could make the direct route justifiable. Instead, I climbed down to the heather. I traversed right across the foot of the steepening to try another route; too steep again. Going right once more, I unlocked the whole thing by finding myself a slanting gully cut into the side of the face. This reduced the exposure, and gave a fold in the mountain up which I could climb. I think I placed a cairn here, something that I never do. I was proud I'd made it this far, though. Maybe that was why. A further steepening followed up a slot on the edge.

One final rock step was between me and the top. The diagonal gully had run out, and this rock step was on the arete of the buttress: exposed and right-out-there. It was also the line of weakness on the buttress, so no avoiding it.

The whole experience was scary, exposed and uncomfortable. Yet I was in my element. With a lack of guidebook to point the way I was following my nose; an activity all too rare in most hillwalking, scrambling, rock or winter climbing. The thrill was immense; I had strong feeling of wonder as to who had possibly been this way before. Not many, I supposed; the scrambling was actually quite hard. The exposure was immense, there seemed little to break a fall all the way 2,000 feet below to the floor of Glen Coe. There was also little in the way of true rock scrambling; it was every variety of rubble, heather and mud.

I pulled onto the final rock step, thankful that the rock quality was a bit improved here. And climbing out over the top of a gully; the exposure was awe-inspiring. Whatever you do, don't fall. This was exactly what I came for, the experience was marginal and took some effort to unlock.

Over the top of the final step, a sharp grass ridge led up to the crest of the Aonach Eagach. I bet this little arête would have been good in winter. Then there I was, on the top of the Aonach Eagach with views exploding to the north. I counted my steps to the summit of the Red Chimney top to be sure I'd find the gully access again.

A bit more scrambling and the summit of Meall Dearg followed shortly after. A guide started along the ridge with a client; I felt hopelessly unconventional running around the mountain by these strange routes. I continued along the ridge with a couple options in mind for descent. The obvious choice was the massive scree-filled gully. I peered down it, looking for rock steps that might block the way. I did not see any, but it was still a risk. Imagine being half way down, getting stuck and having to turn around and go back to the top!

I headed into the gully, for the longest, loosest, most untrammelled scree run I can remember doing. At some points the gully seemed to take on a life of its own, a shooting range of stone, scree channels that slithered and flowed free in response to the slightest touch of a foot.

Sometime after this day to the tune of months or a year, there was a massive rock fall from one of the sidewalls into the base of the gully. The gully was consumed by rock fall debris; a real prominent scar if you knew where to look. It’s humbling to see how the mountain might change so violently in places you once felt safe enough!

And then I was back at the car; with an amazing route to be remembered. And it stoked the fires for more; it wasn't the last time I'd be scrambling on the south wall of the Aonach Eagach.

One final note on the buttress; I recorded a note with the SMC on this scramble under the name Bolly Quaffer's Buttress. This winter route, written up in the Glen Coe guide, doesn't follow the buttress I climbed though, and appears to follow a wall high up in the left wall of Big Boulder Gully - thus on the right side of the buttress itself. In any case this area will never be prime climbing or scrambling terrain.

360° Panorama

Meall Dearg
Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 10.30am Glen Coe layby
(2.00) 12.30pm Meall Dearg
(2.45) 1.15pm Glen Coe layby
Written: 2019-06-05