Carn Dearg from Dalwhinnie – Winter Walking in April!

17 05 2012

Sun 15 April 2012

Last time I was down Loch Ericht was in 2004 on one of my first Munroing and first-ever bothying trip. I’d answered an advert in the Open University magazine asking for companions for a Munro-bagging trip around Loch Ericht staying in bothies. As I’d just started Munro-bagging in earnest and had never tried bothying, I contacted the guy – Mark – now a good friend of mine.

We arranged to do the trip in August – the dates turned out to be perfect for my birthday-avoidance week (I won’t even acknowledge my birthdays, never mind celebrate them!) We managed two nights in Culra Bothy either side of a great day on Ben Alder and Ben Bheoil before the weather completely cracked up and we had to backpack our way the 9 long miles back out again to Dalwhinnie in torrential rain.

This April, I was back there once again – this time alone apart from my trusty little fold-up bike. The weather had once again completely cracked up giving me the most winter walking I’ve had all year… except it’s now Spring – or at least it is in England.

Having seen a pretty snowy Ben Alder down the far end of the loch before I set off on my bike I made the decision to take crampons but unfortunately decided not to take my ice axe. When I got to my hill, I found I’d have been far better with it and would certainly have been much happier. It would have been quite unwieldy to carry on my little bike though.

After a warm and cosy night in the new bunkhouse at Dalwhinnie (by the Tollhouse Cafe – also very nice and the same owners), I got my little bike out of the car boot, quickly put it together and strapped my pack onto the rack. I normally carry my pack on my person when I’m cycling but found this was a much comfier arrangement – I still carried my precious camera round my waist in its bag though.

I was soon heading round to the start of the track just across the railway and wondering what the track was like for cycling as I couldn’t remember it at all, except that it was long and boring when walking with a heavy bothying pack. I was delighted to find that the track surface was absolutely excellent throughout its length – the joint-best estate track I’ve cycled so far on my Munroing quest – the other one was the one along Loch Muick behind Lochnagar.

I only really intended to cycle as far as Ben Alder Lodge – 6 fairly level miles through the forest – after that, I remembered the track turned off uphill – steeply from what I could remember from my back-packing trip. When I got to the foot of the hill after the Lodge I got off to push the bike up the hill looking for a good place to chain it to the Lodge’s metal fence. I found the hill was such easy going and still such a good surface that I ended up pushing and cycling all the way to the junction of paths for Loch Pattack and Culra Bothy. As my outward journey to the hill was to be along the Loch Pattack track and my return would be the track from the bothy, I cabled my bike to the forest fence near the junction.

Beinn Bheoil and Ben Alder

My Hill…

Despite the map indicating that there were a couple of fords to cross and only one footbridge along the loch-shore, I found that there were actually no fords which had to be crossed and two footbridges. The first one was what is fondly termed ‘a shoogly bridge’ – a fun and swingy little suspension footbridge – one of my favourite things to find on a walk, a bit like a cake-walk for folks who remember such things at funfairs. The second was just a normal wooden footbridge. I was a bit surprised that there was a shoogly bridge on this route as this is the normal route you would take to Culra Bothy if you were cycling instead of walking and I’ve no idea how you’d get a bike over such a bridge. The ford alternative looked pretty deep for cycling! I met quite a few cyclists on this route coming out from the bothy but didn’t stick around to see what happened…

From the next path junction I took the fork heading NW towards the pass between Beinn A’ Chlachair and Geal Charn. After about quarter of a mile, this track took me up to the start of a wide ridge heading up to Sron an Nid to start my hill – I’d been hoping for a path from this obvious starting point but there was nothing. Shortly after I started ascending the ridge however, I could see a cairn off to my left and headed over to see if it indicated a path. It did briefly but within about 100 yards, my new-found path met a bog and disappeared for good! Oh well… onwards and upwards on my heathery plod.

Amazingly, considering the amount of snow which had fallen over the last few weeks, the ridge, although consisting mainly of peatbogs, was mainly dry at this level. By now I was a bit preoccupied though as, at the start of the climb, I’d caught a glimpse of the steeper nose of the peak near the summit and had seen a wide band of thick snow stretching right across it. As the snowy nose was facing north-east and the prevailing and horrific windchill was northerly, I suspected the snow band would be very hard-frozen indeed… and I had no ice axe, only crampons!

I continued upwards, by now stressing a bit and repeatedly checking my altimeter as I was hoping the snowy section was only a couple of hundred feet. By the time I reached the long, flat shoulder leading to the final climb, I saw I had around 700 feet to ascend through the snow and at a steeper angle.

At this point, fearing my non-return from this walk, I decided it was time I phoned Richard as I realised I hadn’t told a soul which hill I’d gone up. He wasn’t in but I left him a message in my clearest voice, especially when it came to the Gaelic place-names!

My problems were compounded by two things – one was that the wind was now blasting across my ridge and, despite that I had all my clothes on and even the hood of my windproof jacket up, I was getting pretty frozen. The second problem was that the very consolidated snow band was about half-way up the final ascent – before that it was just thin and patchy stuff. That meant that the lower snow wasn’t suitable for crampons, only the frozen section above it. But I knew from my trip to Ben Vorlich in December when I nearly froze to death donning crampons half-way up a slope exposed to the full blast of the wind-chill, that I had to fit them in whatever shelter I could find at the end of the flat shoulder.

I found a very small amount of shelter huddled as low as I could get behind a small hump and sat and fitted them. I wasn’t happy being in crampons on the thin, patchy snow lower down as it was very wobbly crossing stony patches and in between, on the soft mossy ground, I was worried about the damage I was causing. But at least I hadn’t got dangerously cold this time fitting them.

I soon reached the hard-frozen snow band and my crampons became useful at last. I was a bit surprised to see a previous walker had just gone up this in boots but maybe it wasn’t as frozen when he made his ascent. I was pleased to find that this section turned out to not be at all worrying, although it was quite a bit longer than it looked, and I found I was quite happy stomping up it, even without an ice axe. I kept myself above the col at the end of the ridge I’d come along and decided that, even if I did slide, which I didn’t feel like I was going to, I’d be fine and would soon come to a halt on the patchier snow below.

From the snow band there was a choice between more hard-frozen, solid snow or the patchy stuff. I kept my crampons on and sought out the hard-frozen stuff. I couldn’t believe I was doing proper winter-walking mid April though, especially after there being hardly any snow during the winter! Now I was up on the ridge I found that, as often happens, I was now out of the horrible wind-chill and it was quite pleasant.

There were superb views – to the right Beinn a’ Chlachair with a solid cap of snow right along its ridge – I was wishing it had been like that when we’d walked it a couple of years back as that would be far more pleasant than the never-ending boulder-strewn ridge which I kept tripping up along.

To the left were spectacular views of the magnificent Ben Alder

and straight ahead was the equally scenic Geal Charn (another one – there are several in this area!)

The ridge eventually narrowed slightly to the summit cairn and shelter. I debated whether to have a coffee in the shelter but wasn’t feeling in need of a break yet so decided to defer it to somewhere much warmer later on. There was another cairn on a little peak at the other end of the summit ridge so I stomped up the boulders around that, still following the footprints of the previous walker and noted he’d continued down the far end of the ridge towards the Munro ‘top’ – exactly my plan. I always like to have footprints to follow in snow – not sure why – it just makes me feel less alone on the hill – I suppose it also verifies my route decisions for me.

Summit Views

As I suspected, as I headed down the other side of the hill towards the ‘top’ I wanted to also bag, Diollaid a’ Chairn (the Saddle of the Cairn?), the snow was now out of the wind-chill and much softer. I sat behind the little peak and removed my crampons again and continued down on pretty much the same route as the footprints. The snow was mainly good but occasionally I sank in to just above my boot tops – a surprising amount of snow for the time of year I’d have said.

Lancet Edge Side View

The top was much lower than the Munro and a very easy climb so I was soon there. I looked around for a cairn and was surprised not to see one. I eventually noticed there was a sorry patch of stones spread around which must have once constituted a cairn and set about rebuilding a small but decent one.

Carn Dearg from Diollaid a’ Chairn descent

I then headed back to the col between the two peaks for the exceedingly easy descent to the corrie and Loch an Sgoir – a lovely round loch backed by the very snowy crags and gullies of Geal Charn and the stupendous Lancet Edge. This south-eastern descent had no snow whatsoever, right from leaving the ridge-line, in total contrast to all the surrounding slopes.

On reaching the outflow from the loch I was delighted to find a good path heading down out of the corrie. I knew there was a good path passing between Lancet Edge and Ben Alder which goes over the Bealach Dubh.

Ben Alder’s Long Leachas Ridge

Lancet Edge

Bealach Dubh

Lancet Edge from Glen Track

Glen Track Heading Back (Dalwhinnie is at the end of the furthest hill you can see and the bike is near the forest on the nearer hill!)

In no time at all I was hot-footing it along the superb stony little path which heads back round the glen to Culra Bothy.

Ben Alder Again

On reaching the bothy I stopped to have a look round to see whether it had changed much in the 8 years since I was last there. I started with the right-hand room, the only one without a stove and which Mark and I had stayed in before. As I opened the door I found there was quite a large group of guys staying in there and, despite the cold weather and the lack of a stove, they even had the window open! Must have been a lot of hot-air in there! I said hi and then went to look in the other rooms. I didn’t remember there being three rooms when I visited before so I’m not sure whether the rooms have been reconfigured or not but there was another lovely little room on the front of the bothy with a fireplace – it was a cosy and light room and I would probably choose that one if I stayed there again.

I then headed into the main room which I knew had a stove. As I entered the room felt very warm and I was surprised to see a fire still burning in the stove. It was lovely and cosy so I decided to have my break in there and had my 2 shortcake biscuits and my coffee while sat by the fire. I was pleased to see that the roof of this room, which had been badly damaged in the winter hurricanes, was now as good as new.

After my break I went back out and quizzed a man who was just packing up his tent on the riverbank about the whereabouts of the bridge as I thought it was just outside the bothy but couldn’t see one. He said it was a couple of hundred yards downstream and round the corner. When I found it I was pretty sure it had been relocated quite a way downstream. This used to be one of the fun, shoogly bridges but I was a bit disappointed to find it was now a normal wooden bridge and looked to have been upgraded to vehicle width and strength – surprising as it takes you onto the grassy path back across the moors from the bothy.

This path used to be quite bad for disappearing regularly into boggy areas which you had to try to jump across. Although my previous visit had been in August, I remember we’d got quite wet and muddy following the path so was a bit worried after all the rain and snow this year. But the guy who’d packed up his tent had just cycled off along it and seemed to be making good progress so I assumed it must have been improved somewhat.

The path is now much upgraded and in superb condition and was a really pleasant walk. As it is around a mile shorter than the vehicle track which goes via Loch Pattack, and a much more enjoyable route, I was pleased I’d chosen it. There were great views back from the path to the bothy backed by Lancet Edge, Geal Charn and Ben Alder so I kept stopping to take photos.

The weather had improved from the grey and dull start from Loch Pattack and there were short intervals of sunshine – still a bitterly cold wind though, even at this level.

I was in no rush heading back along the track as I was really enjoying the wilderness – every direction you looked in stretched for miles with no permanent habitation, just glens, mountains and moorlands. It didn’t feel at all lonely though – just restful.

For once I wasn’t hurrying back to my bike and accommodation… in fact, when I reached my bike, I found I didn’t really want to leave. I was all for heading back to the bothy for the night. I decided the bunkhouse folks would worry if I didn’t return that night though.

I took another short break in the shelter of the forest and a small period of sun while I drank more coffee then reluctantly uncabled the bike, loaded it up and set off slowly. I kept stopping and looking back to the bothy and Ben Alder and taking yet more photos but unfortunately had to eventually ride down the hill out of sight and back to Loch Ericht for the cycle back through the forest and civilisation. For just about the only time in my last couple of years of Scottish walking, I had completely dry feet and boots!

Goodnight Ben Alder

I committed a slight sin that evening… as there are no pubs or food outlets of any kind in Dalwhinnie in an evening, that meant I would have to drive 10 miles or so to Newtonmore for an evening meal. However, I’d noticed the evening before, that there were lots of packets of opened food in the fridge. As no-one else had been staying at the bunkhouse while I’d been there, I came to think of it as spare food which had been left by folks. There was a really tempting looking garlic baguette (had been a pack of two)… I decided that would be spot on for my tea and stuck it in the oven… By ‘eck, it were good! The next day I asked the bunkhouse owners, as I ate a nice breakfast in their cafe, what the food in the fridge was. Turned out it belonged to some contractors who were doing a job down the road and were due back in a day or so – whoops! Sorry guys! But if you’re reading this it really was good 😉

Stats: 28 miles (16 miles cycling), 3181 feet of ascent, 6 ¾ hours, 2 shortcake fingers and black coffee 😉



9 responses

8 06 2012
guild wars

Hi, I just stopped in to visit your blog and thought I’d say I enjoyed myself.


8 06 2012

Thanks – I try 😉


23 05 2012

Great trip report. The bridge at Loch Pattack is new since I was last there. In June 2005 I cycled the ford, but it was a lovely hot day, so nae worries. There is one of those plank shooglie bridges near to Culra Bothy which we crossed with our bikes – returning the shorter way, rather than via the Pattack ford again:


23 05 2012

The shoogly bridge near the bothy is the one which has gone now & been replaced by a vehicle bridge – not sure why onto that track as the other one is the driving track…


19 05 2012

Is it always 2 shortcake fingers, or do you ever really splash out and have 3? 😀 Grand looking day and an amazing amount of snow! I keep looking at the forecast this week and thinking about all those souls out on the TGO challenge…


19 05 2012

Hi Chrissie – really did laugh out loud at that one about the shortcake fingers! Nope, I never have 3 as they come in those nice little 2 packs. I actually find shortcake so calorific those little 2-finger packs are ideal for me for a hill day.

I kept bumping into folks on the TGO challenge in Glen Affric after my week on Skye. The weather, although snowy on the tops, wasn’t too bad. At least there was some sun between the showers. It was pretty cold though and one pair we met in the Struy Inn had been completely soaked all day!


18 05 2012
Paul Shorrock

Great post Carol.

Pangs of hunger or pangs of guilt? Hard choice, but I would have eaten the baguette as well 😉


18 05 2012
Paul Shorrock

I was going to add that the bike is a great idea – makes a 28 mile trip much more feasible.


19 05 2012

That cycle in was really pleasant and I’d love to do it again sometime 🙂

As for the baguette – I really did think it was just free food, like gets left in hostels sometimes (albeit labelled up as such!)


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