Castles in the sky
Fully laden with mountaineering equipment, food and much alcohol, the car laboured up to Rannoch Moor where a crescent moon hung above the Black Mount. We were silent, but palpable was our rapture as we considered the glittering cosmos above, at once so completely beyond our comprehension but speaking directly to a part of us that modern modes of being have stunted. Men like us, that is to say, we who are still in possession of childlike hearts can never fail to swoon at the wonder of it all when we focus our attention on the remnants of aeons unfathomable. Bereft of understanding we are left reeling as our consciousness spirals in a futile attempt to grasp truths obscure, elusive and beyond the reach of simple folk such as we. The seeker of such things requires for their search an arena more tangible than the abstract realms of astrophysics or string theory. That arena can be many things to many men, but for me it is the mountains and in order to contemplate the cyclic nature of all things, one can do worse than to enter into the classic excursion…the black to black.
In the fleeting days of Scottish winter the black to black is often the only recourse open to the mountaineer wishing to complete routes which in summer provide leisurely kilt clad days spent lingering on the tops. Stops for food, philosophising and smoking must be kept to a minimum and temperance is strongly advised for the demands are high on both mind and body. Commitment and a very real desire to get the most out of the mountains are paramount, as is the willingness to suffer a little. The rewards are myriad but known only to those for which cold and darkness are feeble opponents in the quest for enlightenment on our castles in the sky. If this all sounds like high falutin’ pish then maybe, just maybe, that which follows may encourage those with more terrestrial sensibilities and delicate palates to imbibe of the heady, robust elixir afforded by the celebrated black to black.
If the thought of a day on the infamous Aonach Eagach wasn’t inspiration enough to make one leap out of bed, then trembling like a yodeller’s epiglottis certainly was. The Manse Barn was a veritable fridge and we (Juggs and I) were in dire need of defrostation (not to be confused with the heinous decimation of the lungs of the earth).
Breakfast was a hasty affair; a stomach knotted with anxiety is ill conducive to even the most avid grease guzzler, so come 6.30am we were ready to head into the darkness. In Glencoe’s silent depths we left the car and within minutes the toil began in earnest. No one spoke, for we were preoccupied in our own private worlds of purgatory and turmoil. The path up Am Bodach was steep, unrelenting and often covered in iron hard sheets of ice. Height was gained quickly and soon the sound of cars travelling through the glen was far below us; what their occupants must have thought at the sight of our tiny lights is anyone’s guess, but I could only imagine that their thoughts were similar to my own…fools.
It wasn’t long before we sensed a change; pitch blackness had been replaced by an eerie light across the frigid gulf where the Three Sisters stood as hunched, brooding monstrosities topped with a scum of low cloud. They scowled at us and I scowled back for they could harm us not this day. Upwards we climbed and upon reaching the broad shoulder below Am Bodach’s summit our mood brightened in unison with the sky. A little higher came the realisation that we were about to become embroiled in a very special day indeed, the show had started. As the sun rose we found ourselves stepping onto the summit and into a world blessed with all that is good. We laughed, we shouted and our hearts were gay as the highest mountains in Britain stood proud of an astonishing inversion which stretched to every horizon. Ben Nevis, the monarch, luminescent in the first rays of the morning sun; Bidean, every inch an alpine massif; Ben Lomond, the most southerly Munro and way out east to Meaghaidh and the Cairngorms. The splendour of that new born day will stay with me for all time; it will nourish my dark days and in my dotage I will close my eyes and relive the moment; it will remain evergreen.
With calm restored and composure regained we steeled ourselves for the job in hand. The Aonach Eagach is the narrowest ridge on the British mainland containing two tops, two Munros and numerous pinnacles. Exposure is ever present, often mind numbing and there is no escape once committed to its serrated crest.
Our first task – often described as the crux of the traverse – was the descent of Am Bodach. We walked over to the western edge of the summit and met with a precipitous drop of about 70 feet. The route down was obvious but the rock was covered with treacherous frost and patches of hard snow. This was certainly no place to fall; I turned to Juggs, “Do we really want to do this”? “Yes, we do” came the reply, so with infinite care we climbed down to safer ground.
Once fairly started, I felt a keen sense of urgency and we lost no time in scrambling up rock steps interspersed with easy walking sections on the narrow ridge. A sharp uphill pull deposited us on our first Munro of the day Meall Dearg (3119ft). The extraordinary view west stopped us dead in our tracks, mouths agape at what lay ahead of us, the pinnacles of the Aonach Eagach and the distant summit of Sgurr nam Fiannaidh beyond. The time to get serious was upon us so we donned harnesses and festooned our bodies with slings and karabiners in readiness to tackle any difficulties we might encounter.
The descent of Meall Dearg was steep and loose, leading us to the bottom of a 30ft chimney which we climbed with a series of bridging moves and delightful pulls on jug handles to the top of the first pinnacle. We were climbing as if in a dream and moved quickly up and down slabs, arêtes and corners. One minute we were operating in a domain of frost, ice and poor visibility, and the next breaking through the cloud again to a magnificent soul enriching ceilidh. In the early autumn of my life, I felt the intense bloom of a romance that is no respecter of seasons; I was falling in love.
I was also beginning to wonder why the Aonach Eagach has such a fearsome reputation; thus far the going had been airy but each pinnacle had fallen with not so much as a “Crumbs, I don’t like it”. In my reverie I had pushed to the back of my mind tales told of the ‘Crazy Pinnacles’. Until I saw them that is; “Juggs, get a load of this. Shit the bed”!
We had reached a pronounced notch in the ridge hosting two slender teeth of rock which fell away vertically both North and South; it was time to deploy the rope as Glencoe now lay almost 2000 feet below. Gaining access to the notch would involve a very precarious down climb on icy rock so we made a short abseil and set up a belay whilst soothing our jangling nerves with Golden Virginia. Our ledge was two feet wide and as I was already in pole position the only sensible plan was for me to lead over the rotten fangs. Committed as we were, there seemed little point in procrastination and there would be nothing to gain from calling for my mother.
A brief inspection of the first pinnacle revealed that the best holds were on the frosty northern aspect so I climbed up and then traversed out on decent holds. However, there were no opportunities for protection and once past the first hurdle I slung the rope over it. The second pinnacle was a trickier proposition but I managed to lasso a doubtful spike just in time to make a tenuous move on small and slippery footholds. The exposure was phenomenal and a steady head was required as I made the move, praying that my toe would hold and see me safely installed on the other side. It did. Juggs was quick to follow and led a short pitch out of the notch emerging once more into the sunshine where I joined him in a mood of celebration. We were now convinced that all major difficulties lay behind us so we came off the rope and strode over a fine arête on our way to the top of the great pinnacle. Once there we found a nasty surprise.
Beyond the great pinnacle and tantalisingly close were our last two peaks, the end of all impediments to rapid movement and the possibility of a descent before the fall of darkness. Unfortunately our path was barred by a terrifying down climb on ice covered ledges. After some desperate moves we both agreed that to carry on unroped was tantamount to suicide; though daylight was at a premium it would be beyond foolish to risk it all with success almost in the bag. An abseil followed by one final pinnacle saw us packing the rope away for good, we had done it, the Aonach Eagach was ours.
There was no way we would make it down before nightfall, indeed we still had a Munro and a top left to climb but it no longer mattered, we could take it easy and delight in the beauty of an authentic mountain heaven. At 3.30 we gained the summit of Sgurr nam Fiannaidh, our final Munro. There we sat and smoked in our extreme felicity, proposing a toast of Lucozade to friendship and the mountains as the sun dipped ever lower. Soon, almost imperceptibly, the circle was complete.
13 hours after leaving the car we slumped, utterly spent by its side. What had we learned? Nothing profound I’m afraid, but one truth was abundantly clear, that when men and mountains meet to share the sunrise and sunset, great things happen and the world by miniscule increments becomes a better place. That, dear reader is something we can all relate to and something we must all wish for.