On September 23 2014 my wife and I were on Aonach Eagach ridge, Glencoe, Scotland. Its the UK’s longest, narrowest and possibly most exposed ridge so for mountaineers, scramblers and adventurers of all types its a great day out.
Running East to West it forms the steep , mist topped North wall of the stunning and atmospheric Glen Coe or Valley of Tears. It’s history is steeped in Clan stories none more heart breaking than the massacre of the McDonald clan in the winter of 1692.
The date of this event ? – February 13th , my wife’s birthday.
I am one half McDonald, the other half McIntosh, so Glen Coe holds a special place in my heart , more than for just its achingly beautiful scenery, its exceptional hill-walking and its famous winter climbing. The pain and loss of family is always almost impossible to bear. I can still remember my parents on one of our family summers in the highlands taking my to visit it’s memorial centre, and then onto the battlefield of Culloden to see our clan graves and the effect it had on me even at a young age. A link to the past.
September 23rd 2014.
After a night camping, Sam and I set off with nervous excitement to tackle the ridge. We had read stories & reviewed guides, heard from others and knew it was going to be well within our technical ability to traverse this long ridge with its many scrambles, down-climbs and those “Crazy Pinnacle” infamous for their exposure high above the valley.
We started the day early and with sun out and little wind we set off arriving at the summit of the first top, Am Bodach early . Looking along the ridge was incredible, like nothing we had seen before and we set off eager to take it all in. For anyone who reads Dean Koontz you may recognize the name Bodach. In Koontz’s Odd Thomas stories the Bodach is a bad spirit attracted to impending death. The Bodach’s gather at scenes of death yet to happen. An indicator of whats to come for the character in those books, Odd.
At around 1pm we arrived at the peak just before the Pinnacles. A trio of sharp, rocky and spire like formations requiring some nerve, some skill and some careful route choices with loose rocks and very high exposure on both sides. Fairly straightforward for those with experience or guts but incredibly daunting for many or downright terrifying for some.
I was sitting eating my sandwiches prepared by Samantha, taking in the view and chatting when I heard the faintest but clear sounds of rocks echo off rock as they fell. Not uncommon on a hill but not normal either.
For those who have read my previous blogs you will be aware of what happened next and that day will stay with us both for ever but for Samantha it made a deeper mark. It infiltrated her psyche, caused fear where none existed before, second guesses where before was sure footed and as a result ridges became an almost insurmountable challenge for someone who until now had been bold and adventurous in Scotland , the Lakes, the Alps and in Wales. Fear had replaced fun. The events of that day echoed every time we were in the mountains.
That’s why yesterday , July 23 2016 , almost 2 years on was one of the most memorable days I know we will have. We returned, Sam with mixed emotions to Glencoe – to the Aonach Eagach – and with friendly company and helping hands of great comrades Fraser and Davy we walked the Aonach Eagach once again.
For a week before Sam was nervous, we discussed the ridge, taking a confidence rope just in case , alternative routes if it rained – every aspect and every way I could support to ensure Sam had no pressure and only positivity going into it. We need not have worried
Start to finish, every scramble, down climb and pinnacle – Samantha did it all.Laughing and joking with the rest of us, making good route choices, moving confidently even when nervous, climbing like a boss – every ounce the mountaineer that she truly is, had returned.
I couldn’t have been prouder of her and I know it will have helped her lay some real ghosts to rest in a place with its fair share of them.
In an strangely poignant twist of fate as we arrived at the pinnacles we heard the distinctive sound of a helicopter and as we watched a Search and Rescue chopper came out of the north , flew close and then moved off to hover behind the rocky outcrop known as the Chancellor. At this time i don’t know the reason but hope all was well.
Same place, same time and here we are again with SAR as our companions.
Or a nod from someone who’s eternal home is the mountains to say
“Its ok, you can do this.”?
In all of this we never lose sight of the wrenching loss to the families of walkers or climbers who never leave the place they love so much and while for Samantha this was a day of well earned and welcome catharsis that she should truly be proud of I want us to remember the fallen like Lisa McDermid who never made it home in 2014 and say thanks to to all of those involved in search and rescue in the mountains.
If anyone would like to support Mountain Rescue in Scotland, a voluntary organisation that relies on public support then visit Scottish Mountain Rescue
Sadly an update is that a 44 year old male walker did indeed fall from the ridge on this day and did not survive. Take care out there. Remember getting to the top is only half of the goal, coming home is what really matters. My thoughts go to family and friends.