Wednesday, 10 February 2010
The Traverse of the Aonach Eagach
Aonach Eagach: it's a name that conjures up different images for different people. For many it will speak of queues and stress to finish a monstrous mountain traverse before impending dark, followed by a dangerous (and sadly sometimes fatal) descent of the Clachaig Gully path. But for others, notably the climbers based at the Clachaig, the Aonach Eagach is a symbol of perfection in the mountaineering world and today's traverse did not tarnish that image.
The ridge includes four peaks, two of which hold Munro status, and the only way to connect them all up (the Traverse) involves several miles of continuously exposed climbing. In winter this is an expedition of classic stature and the scene of countless epics.
With perfect visibility, an azure sky and low winds, I rapidly ascended the ridge to the first peak, Am Bodach. The sun was already starting to heat up (it was around 10am when I arrived on this summit), and I knew it was going to be a hot day! Despite this, the ice and snow was still iron-hard from the overnight freeze. We are currently in an Alpine freeze-thaw cycle in which snow thaws due to solar radiation during the day, then refreezes at night.
In fact, everything about today was Alpine: the perfect weather, the conditions underfoot, even the slight sunburn and the necessity of wearing glacier goggles at all times to prevent snow blindness. Exposed rock was warm and dry.
The initial descent from Am Bodach is the first fierce section of the ridge and a taster of the difficulties to come. As on my first traverse almost exactly a year ago, this descent featured one decidedly tricky step down but did not present any problems. Happily, all of the difficult slabby downclimbing sections were furnished with usable water ice, making them straightforward.
Rapid progress was made up to the Pinnacles, at which point I slowed my pace and considered my moves more carefully. This long section of highly exposed climbing features drops of over two thousand feet to each side. At times the ridge is the width of a hand and was highly corniced in places. The large amount of experience I have gained soloing climbs of this kind has given me a great deal of competence on this kind of ground, and I progressed confidently. There are several difficult steps throughout the Pinnacles, one of which I did not remember from the previous traverse. The pinnacle we roped up for the first time was much easier than I remembered.
I descended with regret, having been given a second chance to enjoy what is surely one of the most coveted winter mountaineering expeditions in the British Isles ... although it felt like a day in the Alps! I'm quite pleased with my time, as well: 6:30 from the Am Bodach car park to the bottom of the Pap of Glencoe path.
Here's the full photo album.