Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Ben Alder...Again. Perseverance Pays

Sometimes it pays not to give up. I'm back home again after another trip to Scotland and another try to experience the wonderful wild winter wonderland that is to be found there. It is a bit of an undertaking to get there but when the weather plays ball it is worth it in spades. I had been there just a month previously and been snowed out of it but I reckoned that Ben Alder was worth the effort of another trip.

Monday March 23rd;

I had set off once again on the long journey north and caught the sleeper train in Crewe which deposited me in Dalwhinnie at the very acceptable time of 7am. I was fully laden with everything I needed to camp for about four days and the bag was pretty heavy but the walk in towards Culra Bothy is (while long) fairly level and on a good track. I was most pleased to see that the weather was pretty good as well and I managed to get all the way into (and beyond) Culra bothy entirely dry. I pitched my tent about a kilometre above the bothy and after a quick bite to eat I set off to climb Ben Alder at 11am. I should backtrack a bit and say that the first thing I noticed as I left the train was the snow had retreated from 300 meters in February to about 700 meters now and southerly aspects were mostly snow free. Also the last time I was here I didn't even get a glimpse of Ben Alder but today when I finally crested the hill behind the Lodge I was treated to a scene of true splendour and grandeur. Any lingering fatigue from the journey were soon forgotten and was replaced by an anticipation and excitement that I hadn't felt in a while.
Approaching Culra with a true Alpine landscape behind.

So when I finally set off from my tent there was a spring in my step which was helped by having to now carry an almost empty bag, There is a nice trail running alongside the north side of the fast flowing river. I'm not sure why I thought there would be a footbridge across but eventually I realized that I would have to bite the bullet and risk wet feet and I crossed (dry..ish) about 500 meters beyond where the track leaves the side of the river. I made my way up the steeper boggy ground and I gained the ridge at around the 700 meter contour. Wow, suddenly I was in a winter wonderland. I was now faced with a beautiful elegant ridge of steep snow and mixed ground that soared above me and after about a kilometre reached the plateau at 1000 meters. To my left a series of huge winter corries stretched nearly four kilometres to Bealach Breabag. I donned crampons and made my way steadily up the delightfully firm old snow. I was on the Grade 1 winter route the Long Leachas and while it is never other than straightforward it is interesting and delightful with some exposure in places, snow up to about 40 degrees and some nice mixed sections. I was loving it.
Beautiful snow ridge


Some nice mixed sections

Reaching the plateau

Definitely a happy chappie

Eventually I reached the plateau and the nature of the outing changed again. Ben Alder is big, really big. From the plateau giant cliffs of almost 400 meters in height stretch around three coums on the eastern side. On the northern rim the cliffs stretch for two kilometres. The plateau was in places scoured of much of its snow cover but plenty remained so progress in crampons was easy. It was easy to feel tiny and isolated here in this remote wild place and I felt truly fortunate to be here. Plus I had the whole place  to myself and this only enhanced the remote wild feeling. Any thoughts that winter was over were also dispelled by the sub zero temperatures and the added "bonus" of a stiff breeze that dropped the temperature further. It was still a further kilometre and a half to the summit so I pressed on. Some cloud was coming and going but at no time was it necessary to get out the compass to ensure progress. When the cloud passed the views were as you would expect extensive and wonderful. It is easy to see why this mountain is one of the most remote in all of Scotland. Its fair to say that light pollution isn't a problem hereabouts. I continued on around the impressive Garbh Corrie and then dropped from the plateau to Breabag Bealach before climbing the gentle snow free slopes of Sron Corie na h-lolaire and then on to the other Munro of the day Beinn Bheoil. From here it is an easy descent back to the valley below and then on to Culra.
Looking towards Beinn Bheoil
Looking towards some of the cliffs of Ben Alder. Note the huge and impressive cornices

Looking west along Loch Ericht, Note the snow on the eastern slopes.
The view east from Beinn Bheoil. 

 The day had been been great up to now but as I reached the valley I was caught by a steady wet snow shower which meant I had wet pants and boots by the time I again reached the river. I was also suddenly aware that I had to walk down beyond the bothy to the footbridge and then walk the extra kilometre up to my tent. I finally reached the refuge of my tent at five pm a full 10 hours since I left the train. I had covered a total of 32 kilometres and about 1400 meters of ascent. I was ready for a rest. I gratefully changed out of my wet clothes and I set about getting my dinner ready. It had been a wonderful day and I was delighted to have experienced a stunning winters day in the wildest of Scotland. A long restful night followed.

Tuesday March 24th;

The weather forecast for today had been quite poor with low cloud and prolonged periods of snow predicted so it was with some delight that I emerged after a frosty night to a reasonably bright morning with patchy cloud that left the summits mostly clear. All things considered I didn't feel too bad after the exertions of yesterday but I reasoned that a short day would be perhaps the best option given the forecast. There had been a few centimetres of snow overnight and the heathery landscape had taken on a more wintry tint. After breakfast I had to put my feet into my wet boots which ensured cold toes for the first hour of the day. My last pair of La Sportiva Trango Alp boots started to let in water and this was a replacement pair and the right boot is already leaking. Safe to say that my next purchase will  not be Trango Alps. Anyway, my objective for today was Carn Dearg 1034 meters and as the slope to the summit starts right beside the tent I was climbing straight away. My eye was constantly being drawn to the beautiful Ben Alder as I climbed but equally attractive was the spectacular Lancet Edge which rises to Sgor Iutharn A top of over 1020 meters. This view when taken together with Ben Alder is one of the best I have seen in Scotland.
A more wintry scene this morning

Sgor Iutharn

The rather uninteresting slopes towards the summit of Carn Dearg
The pull towards the summit of Carn Dearg doesn't have a lot to recommend it except giving plenty of excuse to stop and take in the wonderful landscape all around. Despite the cold toes I was looking at this morning as a bonus day as the weather forecast had been so poor. I wasn't sure this fine window was going to last and it was great to be out getting another route in. I didn't have to don crampons until around 100 meters below the broad gentle summit and as is often the case with me as I arrived near the top the cloud rolled in and robbed me of any views. I got out my map and compass and took a bearing for Diollaid a Chairn from where I could easily descend back to my tent to perhaps continue on and extend my outing if I wished. I was feeling quite strong and when the cloud cleared when I reached point 924 meters I was treated to stunning views of the tempting (easy) ridge called Aisre Ghobhainn which led to the summit plateau of Geal Chairn 1132 meters. On my left was the coum of Aisre Cham and below this the frozen Loch an Sgoir nestled. It looked truly amazing and now that there were once again plenty of areas of blue sky about I was sorely tempted to just keep going. I thought about it for a bit and reluctantly decided that as tomorrow was forecast to be a good weather day and the predicted bad weather could still arrive today it would be more prudent to return to my tent. I arrived back at 11.30, just 4 hours after setting off. It was with some satisfaction I saw the weather turn for the worse at one pm and there were frequent periods of snow for the rest of the day. Indeed well into the night the snow was still coming down and I wondered if my good weather day wasn't going to show up.
Summit selfie

With the weather clearing I was sooo tempted to go on.

What a view across to Sgor Iutharn

Down by Loch an Sgoir looking towards Geal Chairn

Deep drifts filling most gullies and hollows
Wednesday March 25th;

I awoke to sunlight hitting the side of my tent and when I looked outside I saw that several inches of snow had fallen but more importantly there wasn't a cloud to be seen in the brilliant blue sky. I had overslept a little and I wasted no time in getting breakfast ready and setting off. Today I was heading for Lancet Edge on Sgor Iutharn and I then planned to continue over the Munros of Geal Chairn 1132 mtrs, Aonach Beag 1116 mtrs and the twin topped and Beinn Eibhinn 1102 mtrs before finally going as far as Meall Glas Choire and then descending to Creagan na Craoibhe and then heading east to Bealach Dubh and from there back to my tent. It promised to be a full day and with conditions like this I didn't plan to waste a minute.
What a morning

A bit of a snow plod to the start of Lancet Edge

Inviting start to the route

Sparkling drifts




 I followed the track for a few kilometres and then headed for the lower slopes of Lancet Edge, reaching the snowline at around the 700 meter contour. Oh what a day. Suddenly I was faced by firm/icy snow that soared into an elegant arret and glistened in the brilliant sunshine. Crampons on and ice axe at the ready I set off up. It was delightful and exhilarating in equal measure. Steep and narrow enough to maintain interest with some narrow mixed ground thrown in for good measure it is a route that delivers as much as it promises from afar. I was feeling great and upon reaching the top at 09.15 I set off on the now broad slopes to the saddle under the snow slopes of Geal Chairn. I soon reached the pristine snowy plateau and found myself in a magic winter landscape yet again. This plateau was over a square kilometre of unblemished snow and I was looking forward to exploring it. Alas just as I arrived so did some wispy cloud but I was confident this was a very temporary interruption to the day. I had no reason to pause so I made my way to the summit. Unfortunately the cloud was proving to be stubborn and I had to get the compass out to find my way to my next munro Aonach Beag. This soon passed and but the cloud remained and didn't lift until I had left the summit of Beinn Eibhinn. I briefly considered returning to the col before Aonach Beag and descending from there but I stuck to my original plan and descended via Meall Glas Choire.
The pristine plateau of Geal Chairn

The final ridge to Beinn Eibhinn




The cloud finally clearing..back to Aonach Beag

Heading down and looking towards Ben Alder

After crossing the river looking back

The northern cliffs of Ben Alder


Wonderful winter climbing to be had

 I contoured around above the river and this proved to be tough going as I was constantly twisting and turning avoiding peat hags and water pools not to mention the constant banks of soft snow in the afternoon sun. It was pretty tiring stuff and I was glad to eventually cross the river and climb up to join the track heading for Bealach Dubh and this made for much easier going. I eventually reached the bealach and continued easily down and back to my tent. I had covered over 22 kilometres and climbed over 1200 meters and it had taken almost eight hours but I enjoyed every bit of it. I also realized that I had managed to get a good dose of sunburn. I once again enjoyed a long leisurely evening in blissful solitude in wildcamping heaven.

Thursday March 26th;

It had snowed again overnight and I awoke to a winter landscape again. I was leaving Ben Alder today and heading back to Dalwhinnie with the plan of heading to Aviemore. I had hoped to return over The Fara but the low cloud and six inches of fresh snow dissuaded me of that idea so I decided to return via the lodge again. Once again cold fingers were the order of the day as I packed up the tent in the snow but it all added to the experience. I wasn't in the least disappointed by the weather today as this trip had been a wonderful experience so far. The walk back was uneventful and I arrived in Aviemore after 1pm. It was luxury indeed to have a soft bed and central heated rooms and the drying room was put to good use that evening.




Friday March 27th;

The weather forecast was once again good for today and I arranged to spend the day with local guide Gary Hodgson http://www.tarmachan-mountaineering.org.uk/ and explore some of the Cairngorm Plateau. We caught the bus to the ski car park and headed from there into Coire an Lochain from where we climbed to the crest of the corrie on our right and from there walked up and around to Chairn Lochan. 
Entering Coire an Lochain with Fiachaill Ridge on the left

Gary, Cheerful, Great Company and a mine of information

The cliffs are pretty well rimed up.

The huge bleak plateau. Looking towards Ben Macdui

The views were wonderful and I got a great feel for the huge scale and drama of this landscape. The cliff were well rimed up as well and it was a bit of a surprise to see that there were no climbers to be seen. The Fiacaill Ridge looked very inviting and offered promise for future days. From there we made our way across to the top of Hells Lum crag where superb views of Loch Avon were to be had. We were continuing on towards Shelterstone Crag to enjoy what is Garys favourite view in these mountains when one of his Grivel G12s snapped right across the front section. Good job we weren't on difficult ground. We headed back to Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and from there crossed to the summit of Cairn Gorm. Here we were treated to a blast of snow lest we forget that we were on the most inhospitable landscape in the UK. It is a matter of minutes from the summit to reach the top ski station and a good path led back to the ski carpark. It had been a wonderful relaxing outing in a wonderful environment with great company that was a fitting finale to my Scottish trip. 
Looking towards Loch Avon

The top of Jacobs Ladder

Cairn Gorm 1244 meters

Gary at the summit weather station

The Cairngorms from Aviemore railway station.
I caught the excellent sleeper train south that evening and made my way home. It had been a most enjoyable trip in what I feel is one of the most remote and wild places I have been. Camping in the Ben Alder wilderness is an experience I will cherish. There really is no place quite like the highlands.