Monday, 28 May 2012

A day to remember on the N.E Ridge of Aonach Beag

 The North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag (Difficult*) - the steep ridge line just right of centre

 A golden eagle soared slowly over Glen Nevis as I trudged my way back to my car after a successful dawn climb. Only 10am…and already 25 degrees centigrade. Even the eagle looked to be having a lazy day today.

With the heatwave continuing, last night after my shift I decided to go and try a climb that I've wanted to do for years, one that needs really dry conditions to be safe to attempt to solo.

"One of the great traditional Scottish ridge climbs…now much neglected and forgotten"-  that's what has to say about the North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag. For me it had become one of the last great summer mountaineering routes in Lochaber that I hadn't climbed, a huge route that has all the ingredients that in my opinion make a climb special.

 The crux towers of The North-East Ridge. The route heads towards a chimney underneath the patch of pale rock at the top of the tower.

The North-East Ridge (Difficult*) is often associated with forced retreats and unsuccessful ascents, especially when wet or snowy. So inevitably when I'm going off to solo a route like that I need to be in exactly the right frame of mind. Work had been mad on sunday night and one again I forgot all thoughts of sleep and drove towards Steall at 2am.

The Chemical Brothers were my company on the long, punishing and pathless approach up Allt Choire a'Bhuic, full volume on my iPod to keep me awake and energised after having no rest. But my iPod was switched off as I started the descent from the col into Coire Bhealach.

 Dawn over Binnein Beag and Binnein Mor

Coire Bhealach, the huge corrie underneath Aonach Beag's North-East Face, is a singularly magnificent place. There are few if any places in Lochaber to equal it for its sheer scale, huge snowfields still clinging onto the face, overlooking the wild and beautiful glen below. Waterfalls flow onto old banks of snow, boulders occasionally detach and come crashing down the face. By comparison the North face of Ben Nevis is remarkably tamed.

 Old snow on the North-East face

After 3 hours of trudging tussocky ground I finally started up the North-East Ridge. From below it looks very straightforward and the initial scrambling would appear to suggest the same thing, but the route is a deceptive one.

The Aonach Mor snowfields

A few hundred feet of easy scrambling deliver you quite suddenly below a huge fin of rock that looks fairly unclimbable. It took me a while of nosing around to work out the route took an unlikely steep wall up to the top of the fin, and despite its appearance I climbed it easily.

The first steep wall

Then the fun started. To progress up the ridge you must reach a vertical chimney via a slimy and exposed ledge traverse. This is why I've waited until exceptionally dry conditions, because the ledge is pretty nasty.

Easy but delicate teetering on moss and slime brought me to a step on the ledge which made me distinctly uncomfortable. There was very little solid or safe to step on or pull up on, and a slight wrong turn got me pretty scared for a moment as one of my feet slipped. I managed to get in balance and up the step to the relatively safe ground below the crux chimney.

The chimney was a good old-fashioned inelegant squeeze up slimy holds, and it took a bit of intuition to climb it. My scare on the ledge made it seem harder than perhaps it should, and I battled for a short while with the chimney before eventually breathing a sigh of relief as I hauled myself to safety above.

 Looking up the awkward crux chimney

I quickly climbed the rest of the ridge, easier but amazingly exposed ground. From above you can really see what a great route it is, I suppose similar in a way to Ben Nevis' Tower Ridge but climbed far less often. I trudged soft snow to the summit and sat down smiling. I was very pleased to have soloed it.

My walk back to Glen Nevis was exhausting in the unreal heat of the sun. Even at 8am it was too hot. But I spent a while wading in the river on the way down, enjoying the peaceful sensation of cold water flowing around my legs and taking in the extreme beauty of Coire Giubhsachan. 

 Coire Giubhsachan - a fine place to cool off.

Seven hours after setting out I was back down and watching the golden eagle. What a privilege, especially after a morning on such a fine climb in a wild and magnificent place. A morning I'll remember for a long while.


1 comment:

  1. Hi Alex - can you give me a call please (Guy Robertson) on 07827322535. Need to speak to you about a book project - see http://bigstonecountry.wordpress. Cheers