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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ben Alder...I Came, I Didn't See..I Left

Last year I went to Scotland and ran into stormy weather with copious amounts of snow that made climbing impossible so I returned home early. I promised myself then that I would only go in the future when the conditions were right and I would be able to get some value from the trip. Recently the weather had been superb and I picked a week and decided to head north and guess what...the weather took a turn for the worse and storms were once again forecast for my time there. So I ignored my promise to myself and went anyway.
Carn na Caim 

The metropolis of Dalwhinnie

Looking southwest along Loch Ericht

The first of the gate lodges at Ben Alder estate

Having free train travel I once again took the long way there and so after a train to Dublin, a ferry to Holyhead, a train to Crewe, another to Edinburgh and finally another train towards Inverness I alighted in Dalwhinnie at 16.00 on Saturday afternoon, a full twenty hours after I left home. The weather on the way up was actually really nice and I was able to enjoy some wonderful views of the Lake District and the Southern Uplands on route. The mountains of The Lakes were very white and I was briefly tempted to change my plans and head there instead. About my plans---well, I had hoped to hook up with Patrick again but he was feeling under the weather so I had no partner for any technical climbing which made the decision to only take one axe and no slings or gear of any kind an easy one. I had packed the tent and I carried several days worth of food as I initially planned to camp near Culra bothie and climb Ben Alder and perhaps another Munro or two in the area and then decamp to Aviemore. I then hoped to do a high level traverse over Cairngorm and Ben Macdui and descend to Corrour bothie, stay there and come back via Cairn Toul and Braeriach the following day.
Beinn Bheoil

Stunning evening light

Another gate lodge

 I really enjoyed the trip up and it was nice to see the various changes in the landscape as we got further and further north. Sunshine and mostly blue skies were the norm and I began to feel hopeful that I might at least get to stay dry for my first night. As we passed north of Perth it was only the higher tops held any snow so it came as something of a shock to see the ground outside the train with a good covering of snow as we approached Dalwhinnie. The chill in the air when I left the train came as a bit of a shock but I soon warmed up as I hot footed it into the wilds. As it was so late when I arrived it was certain that I wouldn't reach Culra until well after dark and with so much snow lying all about I didn't fancy trying to find a place to pitch my tent in those conditions. I was therefore resigned to the fact that I would have to find somewhere further from the base of the mountains. The walk is on a good estate road that runs along by the shores of Lough Ericht, sometimes in the open and sometimes through forestry. Across the water the mountains rise steeply and in the distance the beautiful snow clad peaks looked amazing as the sun started to set. I stepped it out lively and I had covered the near 10 kilometres and  reached the rather fantastical Ben Alder Lodge by 17.40. I had really enjoyed the stunning scenery (and weather) on the walk in but by now the sun had set and the light was fading fast and I needed to find a spot for my tent. I walked up past the lodge area and in the gloom spotted some snow free patches in the woods and after a brief search I found a nice dry and level spot. Soon I had my home up and I was busy getting my dinner ready in the frosty gathering dark. I was well happy. It had been a tiring journey and even though it was -1 degrees as I ate my dinner once I settled into my sleeping bag I was toasty warm and I slept very well that night.
Meet the locals

More locals

Ben Alder dead ahead

Approaching Culra Bothie

Back at my tent

I had hoped that the stormy weather that was forecast wouldn't arrive until the early afternoon which would give me enough time to perhaps reach the summit of Ben Alder in reasonable conditions. It was with some disappointment that I emerged from my tent in the morning to a leaden sky and the first flurries of snow in the air. The wind wasn't too bad but the weather only promised to dis-improve. I ate a quick breakfast and decided to head in to Culra and see what things were like. There is a good track all the way in but the glorious views of Ben Alder and Sgor Iuthran were nowhere to be seen as the cloud was down to around 500 meters. Out here in the wide open bogland  the wind was much stronger as well and by the time I reached the bothie I had to guard my eyes against the horizontal snow coming against me. I was briefly tempted to climb the Munro of Carn Dearg which rises immediately behind the bothie but only briefly as I didn't fancy struggling in a white-out and undoubted strong winds without any reward in the way of views as I have been there and done that. I wasn't too bothered in any case as the six kilometres in to the bothie had at least given me a taste of the wonderful wild landscape and I was content to return to my tent for the rest of the day. I was back at my tent by 11.30 and it was now snowing fairly heavily so I got plenty of water and settled in for the long day ahead. It continued to snow until the late afternoon when it turned to rain. At this point the snow that had lodged on the tree tops decided to fall in lumps onto my tent which was surprisingly loud. Later again the rain turned to snow and I settled down after dinner to sleep. Unfortunately my blow up sleeping mat had sprung a leak and I found myself in somewhat more uncomfortable circumstances for the day and night.
Starting to snow in earnest

Definitely the snowiest camp site I have ever been in.

Winter wonderland

The long night eventually passed and as the darkness gave way to dawn I looked out of my tent at a land transformed by a deep blanket of snow. I had been wondering why I could no longer hear the nearby stream and now it was easy to see why. I had been hoping against hope that the weather forecast had been wrong but if anything it erred on the good side and it was now clear to me that Ben Alder at the least wasn't going to be possible. I relaxed for a while and thought about what I was going to do. The prospect of being able to climb anything near Aviemore were looking distant as well so I was at something of a loss. I decided to leave the spot where I was and head to Aviemore anyway and see what the next couple of days would bring. It was still snowing pretty heavily and the wind seemed stronger as well so I did as much of my packing as I could in the tent before I ventured out and cleared away the build up of snow and wasted no time in packing away everything. Soon I was ready for the off and as I emerged from the woods I had to be careful to try and stick to the track as it was almost indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. The snow came almost to my knees in places and it promised to be a bit more strenuous on the return to the train station.




Billionaires paradise

 When I got back as far as the lodge I was pleased to see that the roadway had been cleared and the going was much easier. It was truly beautiful on the way back as the woods were transposed to a Christmas postcard picture and birch trees had become gigantic decorations from a Christmas tree. The Disney-esque gate lodges on the way back were fantastical with their sugar coated turrets and roofs. I arrived back in the village at 11.30 and I asked a local man who was busy shovelling snow away from around his car if the trains were running and he assured me that no trains had run that morning but I would be able to get a bus to Aviemore. I didn't mind as I had plenty of time but as I neared the station a train approached from the direction of Inverness heading to Edinburgh and on the spur of the moment I decided to take it and start heading for home. I hadn't planned it but as I shook the snow from myself after I boarded I felt a weight removed now that I at least had a plan for the next while. So I reversed my journey and arrived back home 22 hours after I left Dalwhinnie. I had been travelling a total of 42 hours and I spent 44 hours in the wilds of which I spent 34 hours in my tent and I had climbed precisely nothing. Was it worth it......................I don't know.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Curved Gully Carrauntoohil.

Yesterday I went back once again to The Reeks in the hope of having a winter climb. The wonderful winter conditions of the previous couple of weeks were gone and a thaw had no doubt done its worst by now. I reckoned that the gullies would still be holding a fair bit of snow so I hoped that I might get to experience a decent winter outing. I had hoped that there would have been a frost overnight but it was a balmy seven degrees as I drove back. A little cloud covered the tops as I left the car and there was no need to walk in anything other than a baselayer so I felt a bit foolish carrying two axes, some rope and crampons but I reckoned that the heavier bag would be good training for my upcoming trip to Scotland. It was pretty clear that there was still a fair bit of snow about but I didn't doubt that it would be sugary and soft. Ah well the perfect winter conditions couldn't last forever and at least I would get a day in the mountains. I decided to have a look at Curved Gully which gives a very nice atmospheric Grade 1 winter route right to the summit of Carrauntoohil.
The lower slopes of Curved,..totally full.

 By the time I reached the second level of Coumeenoughter it was plain to see that there was still copious amounts of snow in the gully and that it was still completely banked out. I could also see that there was a party in front of me so at least there would be some steps to follow. Upon reaching the gully my worst fears weren't realised and the snow wasn't as soft as I feared. There was no need for crampons but I did use one axe which plunged in and through the snow a bit too easily. The gully is initially narrow before swinging around to the left in open ground and once again becomes narrow all the way to the top. It lays back at about 35 degrees with occasional sections maybe five degrees steeper. In leaner conditions it can have some nice icy steps and the bottom section becomes much more tricky but today it was a homogeneous snow slope. Progress was easy and it was like climbing steps of a stairs but it was still nice to be in what looked rather than felt a winter environment.
Looking down from the narrow upper section.

Soft and warm it may be but its still great to be here. 

 Upon reaching the summit the cloud still hung about so there was no view to be enjoyed. I rested awhile and set off towards Maolan Bui or The Bone. This added a further 400 meters of ascent to the day as I had to go over Cnoc na Toinne and Cnoc na Cuillan before reaching the bone. It is fair to say that I was tired by the time I got there and the heavier boots and bag and perhaps my lack of good living etc were showing. I dropped easily down the long spur and back to my car. Perhaps the next mountain I will set foot on will be in Scotland.
Back down enjoying spring sunshine. Benkeeragh still looking a bit wintry


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Another Beautiful Temperature Inversion On Carrauntoohil.

A friend of mine from work asked me to help a group of his mates ,who were on a stag weekend in Killarney, to climb Carrauntoohil. Winter conditions remain on the mountains and while the past couple of days had been a little milder lots of snow remained on high. So a total of fifteen plus myself and the redoubtable Frank set off on an overcast morning and set off into the Hags Glen. I decided that the Devils Ladder route was the only feasible way to go as  none of the group had any winter experience or equipment. Thankfully the ladder was nicely stepped out and we reached the saddle without any problems. An added bonus is that once again I found myself above the clouds in an alpine wonderland. The exclamations of delight from everybody (many of whom this was their first mountain experience) was great and it was nice to share their obvious delight.

A glimpse of heaven

Arriving at the saddle above the ladder

Cnoc Duff peeking the blue.
The slopes to the summit are pretty gentle and everybody made it with relative ease. Upon reaching the summit we were all wowed by the stunning scenery. After a nice lunch and the group photos were captures we set off back down the way we had come. The final slope out of the ladder was smooth and icy so I set up a rope that could be used as a handrail for the first thirty meters and this worked very well. Frank then went to the front of the group and ensured that they stayed pretty close together and we made it carefully and safely down below the the snow and then back to the car. Everybody was delighted with their day and I was delighted to help out and that was made all the easier thanks to Frank. What a pleasure to see this beautiful range in such glorious conditions. An auspicious start to the nuptial celebrations for Joe.


Frank