Winter Moonlight Aonach Eagach
Meall Dearg & Sgorr nam Fiannaidh

Wednesday 29th November 2017

Weather/Conditions: Wintry all the way...
Distance/Ascent/Time: 8.2km / 1200m / 5h 40m
Accompanying: Olly

A winter Aonach Eagach is something I've had in the back of my head for a long time. Somewhere along the line I decided I wanted to do so under moonlight. W. H. Murray did it back in the day and famously wrote about it, so it seemed like one of these logical things to do.

Last winter I very nearly got the chance to do it. One evening a massive winter Moon rose in a clear eastern sky. The ridge was plastered in snow, but I could not find anyone to go with and chose to wait instead.

This winter the same thing happened. On the evening of the 28th November I drove back to Ballachulish from Glasgow. Crossing Rannoch Moor, the mountains were white in the night-time Moon. Doing a winter Aonach Eagach was obvious and the following morning I texted Olly. He replied saying he could do the evening, and a plan was on.

The day itself had been a bit cloudy with a snow shower or two. Night fell and I waited for 6.30pm, when Olly and I agreed to meet. I was getting excited: this was something a bit different.

I met Olly and we drove up the glen. We parked in the layby just prior to 7pm. It was predictably deserted. We shouldered rucksacks and headed off up Am Bodach into the night. Although there was more cloud cover than hoped for, it was all far above the summits. Occasionally the snowfields lit up to the glow of the Moon, and we appeared to quickly gain height on the Sisters across the glen. Views opened to the east too; car lights on the Moor moved in a silent procession. I wondered if they'd see our torches up here too, as you always do.

We seemed to gain height on Am Bodach quickly, and found ourselves soon within spitting distance of the top. It certainly felt like the night to be doing this traverse, the snow was crisp and the weather was really quite benign. I had a new pair of boots on, which on this first trip gave me a bit of bother. But I think a little breaking in resolved the problem, which was simply cushioning inside the boot pressing against a muscle in my foot. Nothing big.

At the summit of Am Bodach we put harnesses and crampons on. I was excited to get going! We headed along to the 'step', and down-climbed the first half. The second half goes around a corner and down behind a block. Here I suggested take the rope out and just ab past the section. The abseil was about 15 metres; we pulled the rope and continued on our way.

This next section highlighted to me that the Aonach Eagach really contains so much walking. But on our way to Meall Dearg we had a few nice walls and slabs to climb on the way. Undoubtedly the footprints helped route-finding in the dark, too. Steeply below, car lights were moving through Glen Coe an awful long way down. Across the glen, the heights of Bidean were covered in snow and bright in the moonlight. And to our north, the Mamores and Nevis were blotted out by cloud, unseen and mostly not thought of.

Over the top of Meall Dearg, we ended up at the Red Chimney. Normally this gully, 10 metres high and set into the ridge itself, provides a short climb on juggy holds. Today, it was banked out with snow with a line of footprints running up it. There was no climbing whatsoever, and this sense of the winter conditions diminishing the difficulties was something repeated often.

We would come to little notches or gaps to find accumulated snow had actually eased the way. But this was balanced out by some sections becoming fiddlier. Our resulting time along the ridge was probably a little longer than in summer, though not by a lot.

The bulk of the Aonach Eagach is comprised of two main pinnacles, west and east. The east pinnacle is shorter but appears steeper. The west pinnacle is bulkier but actually gives the majority of the climbing challenge. The rise to the top of the west pinnacle is also the location of the so-called crazy pinnacles. In some ways they were easier, the ice having welded together some of the rattling holds. Then in other ways it was more difficult. I'd thought about pitching this section owing to the slab at the end. It's not that nice even in summer. Then Olly, ahead of me, mentioned that the footprints traversed onto the north side of the pinnacle. In summer this would be sketchy, but in winter it made sense and an easy rise of turfy ledges led to the top.

The descent of the final pinnacle was the most fiddly climbing of the entire traverse, with two steps our way down. By the time we were down those, we pretty much had the ridge in the bag. One final pinacle was also traversed on it's north side, a diversion from the normal summer route.

From the top of Stob Coire Leith I took the camera out and Olly wandered westward into an ever- diminishing bulb of headtorch light. I got a nice snap or two of him in the distance with all the bulk of Sgurr nam Fiannaidh ahead. I only caught up with him when I finally joined him on the summit of the mountain itself.

What's interesting about the whole evening was to feel that doing it in good night-time conditions didn't add much to the venture. A little corner of the brain is on edge, but experience and evidejnce shows that there is nothing to worry about. If anything the night-time takes away the winter fear of oncoming darkness. But on this occasion the Moon wasn't bright enough to dispense with headtorches, and we accordingly lost some sense of traversing by moonlight. It would be interesting to try and catch it in condition so that the headtorches can be dispensed with completely.

I took just a few photos on Sgorr nam Fiannaidh and then we raced off westward. I'd had visions of getting off these hills far into the wee hours, so it was nice to know it hadn't gone midnight yet! And we raced down into Glen Coe, first on snowfields then picking up the Pap path in the lower reaches. It was like gently easing back into civilisation as we dropped height into the lower glen. Then we called Katie to pick us up from the road, reaching tarmac way under six hours after starting out.

For the last two autumns I've approached winter with a sense that I'd entirely forgotten how to winter climb, or even how to approach it. What was interseting about this first day (or night!) on the hills was that the familiarity all came flooding back immediately. I can't wait to get out more. Just as soon as this snow arrives...

Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 6.55pm Glen Coe
(1.20) 8.15pm Am Bodach
(2.25) 9.20pm Meall Dearg
(2.35) 9.30pm Red Chimney
(3.20) 10.15pm Aonach Eagach West
(3.55) 10.50pm End of pinnacles
(4.10) 11.05pm Stob Coire Leith
(4.30) 11.25pm Sgorr nam Fiannaidh
(5.40) 12.35pm Glen Coe
Written: 2017-12-02 & 07