Ben Alder Expedition (walking) Route Details

Route Description

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Introduction

A big, long walk over the some of the most remote parts of the central highlands.

Conditions

Generally good paths on the lowland sections, but poor to non existant paths on the mountains

Hazards and warnings

Remoteness, routefinding and carrying enough supplies, are hazards on a route of this nature.

Detailed description

Follow the easy, but boring track from Dalwhinnie, alongside Loch Ericht. At the lodge, follow the track around the lodge and up into the woods. Head along the landrover track towards  loch Pattack. Turn left on to the rough path which heads across the open country to a river bank. Cross the small footbridge if planning on visiting Culra bothy, otherwise carry on along the river bank.

The path leaves the river, and climbs steeply up towards the corrie below  Ben Alder. The area besides the lake is a fine place for wild camping. Follow the boggy track along the side of the loch, and then climb the wet path to arrive at the bealach. From the bealach, you need to head west to climb the steep slope of the hill above. Don't stray too far to the north as the ground becomes dangerously steep. Once the slope eases, you will need to take care crossing the rock covered slopes of Sron Bealach Beithe. Head towards Ben Alder. The ground is easiest near the edge of the cliffs, but take care to avoid walking on a cornice. At the summit, turn around and repeat your route to arrive at the Bealach.

At the bealach, head SSW along the path towards Ben Alder cottage. The path can be tricky to find as it is faint near the top. Keep close to the small stream until the path becomes obvious.

At Ben Alder cottage bothy, head NW up the valley, and away from the loch along a well surfaced path, which climbs steadily. Shortly after where the path crosses the col, you must leave the path, which countinues N and back towards Culra bothy. Head downhill across the boggy heather, and cross the river at the shallowest (usually widest) point. Pickup the faint path on the other side of the river and follow it alongside the river. After a long, and fairly hard walk you will arrive at a bridge, shortly after the waterfalls. Cross the bridge and head towards the forest. Follow the path around the edge of the woods, and towards Corrour Shooting lodge. Cross the river twice, and head past the houses and along the south side of loch Ossian. At the edge of loch Ossian, follow the track towards the train station, allowing plenty of time to catch your train, as the service is infrequent.

Narrative

My plan was to walk between Dalwhinnie and Corrour station. Rather than face the hordes of midges, I thought winter would make it more interesting. I planned to stay in a bothy for 2 of the 4 nights, to make it slightly more comfortable. Like most plans, things didn't quite work that way.

My train deposited me in Dalwhinnie at 10:30 PM. As the warm train sped off towards Inverness, I started to notice just how cold everything looked, covered in frost. After a few minutes walk, I was beyond the streetlights and out, under a very big cold starry sky. I didn't intend to walk far, but to get a few miles distance and find a suitable place to pitch a tent. It's harder than you think trying to find a flat spot other than the road to pitch a tent, and by midnight, I decided a vaugely flat, and grassy area was good enough. By the time the tent was pitch and dinner cooked and eaten, it was 1:30 in the morning. When I woke, it was mostly clear, except the fog flowing along the loch. It had been so cold the fuel in my stove was reluctant to light. Once packed up and walking again, I was able to take in the amazing remote beauty of the place. The beatury soon wore thin as the track along the loch is very dull. The neo-gothic castle like shooting lodge provided something to aim at and I rather gladly left the loch and began to climb away from the loch.

After climbing steedily for a mile or so, it was time to leave the easy walking offered by the landrover track and head across country on a much rougher path. Fortunatly, the cold temperatures ensured the ground was frozen, and I could make reasonable progress. After crossing the river on a rather wobbly bridge, I had lunch at Culra bothy. As bothies go, this was at the luxury end of the bothy scale, and the coalfired stove made for a cozy rest stop. Just before I left I met a party of two who were on the way back from Ben Alder. We talked about conditions up the mountain and they told me how they had come down a ridge from Ben Alder that was not too difficult. I decided I'd climb Ben Alder tomorrow by the same route. I set off again, and made good progress up the long zig-zags that took me to the small lochan below Ben Alder. I soon had the tent up and food prepared, as the sun set, leaving a lovely warm glow on the mountains above. Warm was not how you could describe the campsite. As it got dark the breeze picked up and any thoughts of lingering outside were banished by a chill that even a down jacket couldn't dispel. I retreated to the tent, and listened to the radio until I feel asleep pretty early. There's not a whole lot to do once it gets dark (and in Scotland in winter that's around 4:30), and if you are backpacking where every gram has to be carried, even alcohol is limited by the thought of having to carry it along with you.

I awoke to a clear sky at dawn. The mountain looked absolutely amazing. The lochan was mostly frozen during the night, and it was bitterly cold when I broke the ice to get water. Soon, I was off and climbing towards the ridge. Even at 800 metres the snow cover was patchy. As I carried along the ridge, the sense of exposure on both side became massive. I was moving over snow and rock fairly comfortably as I had an ice axe (the crampons stayed in the pack as there wasn't really enough ice to make them worthwhile). I got to a point where the ridge started to climb steeply and become very rocky. Despite the words 'not to difficult' from yesterday, I decided I wasn't going to carry on. A heavy pack, a solo climb and a lack of knowledge as to just how difficult the ground was ahead made the choice to turn back the only option. I returned to the place I had camped and then made good progress up to the Bealach where I had lunch. I decided to keep my pack and not ditch it there for a fast and light summit attempt. As I climbed, I noticed the weather was turning, although the sky was clear above, mist was flowing in along the lower areas. Up at 1000 metres there was far less snow than I'd have expected for mid winter. Although there was an impressive build up along the very edge of the summit plateau, there wasn't much snow on the rest of the hill. I summited and started to retrace my steps. The mist had thickened, and I was in a island above a sea of fog, with only a few of the large peaks (Nevis, some of the Glen Coe peaks etc) poking out. It was also rather late in the day, as the failed attempt on the ridge had eaten time.

I got down to the bealach, and into the mist. It was by this point, late in the day, I was tired and just wanted to get off the hill. I headed across the boggy flat ground of the bealach in what was now dense fog. I headed for where I thought the path down to Ben Alder cottage lay. I had a GPS and refered to it vaugely to ensure I was heading in the right direction. However, in my haste, I failed to pay enough attention to my actual course. After starting to descend with no sign of the path, I kept on going down into the mist. The ground was steep and rough, but doable. I came to the edge of a stream that tumbled down into a narrow gorge. By this time it was pretty much dusk, and nagging doubts started to surface about where the hell was the path. After crossing a nasty boulder field, I finally spotted a lone tree on the edge of a drop. I decided to try and curve around the top of the drop onto what looked like easier ground. Many year before I had climbed the same way, and none of this seemed familar. Suddenly the mist lifted and I saw, to my horror, a huge body of water far below. I stopped, got out the map, and plotted my GPS position. At that point I had the proof that I had in fact drifted in a SSE direction and was on the wrong side of some very steep ground and was nowhere near the path. I had a stark choice facing me: option one was to carry on in the same SSE direction and hope that I could find a way between the rock bands and eventually drop onto the lochside path and then get to the bothy. Option two was to try and downclimb one of the steep gorges, over the very rocky ground and pickup the same path. Option three was to use the GPS to retrace my footsteps to the bealach. The first two options were dangerous, and finally I got a grip off myself enough to realise, the last, lease pleasant, but safest option was the only choice.

So, with weary legs, I started to climb back up. By this time, the combination of mist and dark made conditions miserable. Not quite dark enough for a headtorch (as soon as you turn on a torch, you lose the ability to see beyond the light), but not great visibility. Fortunatly, the GPS enabled me to pick my way painfully back up. I had waypointed the bealach and could see how far in distance and climb I had to go. I arrived at the bealach and decided the only sensible choice at this point was to make camp. Trying to find the path off the hill, and walking a icey path in the dark, when I was so tired would be courting disaster. I soon had the tent up. Next, I found a slight problem. I had drank all my water on the walk to this point and needed to find some more. Despite the area being boggy, finding water was actually damn hard. Visibility was very limited in the fog, and it was totally dark. I didn't want to move far from the tent, as loosing the tent would be to invite freezing to death. I set up a spare torch on the tent, and set it to flash, and waypointed the tent with my GPS, so I could find the tent again. Despite hearing the sounds of bubbling water all around, I couldn't find water I could get to. I just couldn't bring my self to moving far enough from the tent to loose sight of the flashing beacon, so in the end, had to bring back enough snow to melt for the water I needed to cook.

I was finished eating (and boy did I eat a lot!) by about 6:30, and had a few hours to contemplate the day before falling asleep. The wind had got up and conditions were pretty unpleasant, but a full belly and a good tent and sleeping bag made life as comfortable as I could hope. I had made a series of errors that day. Despite a lot of experience on the hills, modern equipment, including a GPS, I had managed to get lost and put myself in some danger. My mistakes were firstly, trying an unknown route up the ridge, that in the end I had sensibly bottled out of. This had used valuable time, and I really was running pretty late by the time I had returned to the bealach. Short days and changing weather meant I really didn't have much time to cover the ground I wanted to cover. Then, I made the classic mistake of not stopping to do my navigation properly and in my eagerness to get off the hill to the bothy, I had missed the path and made a mistake and not stopped to take stock of why the ground failed to agree with where I thought I was. Tiredness, and low blood sugar levels were probably to blame there. Although I ate well for breakfast and dinner, I didnn't eat nearly as much lunch and snacks as I should have to to keep the calories coming in, and muscles and brain functioning properly. I had recovered from the mistake and made the right choice in retracing my route to the bealach, but by then I had missed the chance of a relatively comfortable night in a bothy. At least I was well equiped for night spend on a very inhospitable place. Modern gear really is good like that: Down jackets, sleeping bags, and a decent tent (Terra Nova Voyager) and reliable cooking equipment ensured I was able to shelter, eat and stay warm. And the GPS really did help me, once I used it correctly. Off course, setting a route off the mountain along the proper path, would have saved me all the bother to begin with.

The next day was warmer, but windy and grey. The cloud had lifted and I realised how fustrating close to water I actually was. Oh well. Melting snow may have used more fuel than I needed, but I had a plenty left. I picked my way down from the hill, and picked up the path (which was pretty much impossible to find near the bealach) and after a knee jarring descent was soon at the bothy.

After having a look around the bothy (not nearly as nice as Culra) I was on way way again. The path north was well surfaced, but a long steady climb to a col. I arrived at the col, and after lunch, I left the path (which headed east to a higher col and back to Culra Bothy), and headed downhill. I was slightly worried about crossing the river, as there was no bridge. The map showed a faint path and a ford, both of which I could find no sign, but I was able to hop accross the river, without getting wet feet. I then picked up a path running west towards Corrour. Progress was slow, as the path twisted as it followed the river. There were many muddy and wet bits, now mostly unfrozen, and wet muddy feet slowed by progress. I eventually caught sight of the forest along loch Ossian, and this spured me. After crossing the river, I was soon walking into the egde of the forest. After a few days up a mountain, seeing trees was quite a relief. I even passed a house and saw electric lights and other trappings of modern life. I carried on along the gravel track through the woods, looking for a good spot to camp. I found a nice spot right by the loch. In summer weather it would have been breathtakingly beautiful (as long as you don't mind midges).

In the morning I was keen to get going. I only had a few miles to go, but I was keen to avoid missing my train. Soon I had left the loch behind and was heading over the bare moors towards the isolated station at Corrour. I was massively early, and there's not exactly much to do at the highest, most isolated station in the UK. It was slightly odd seeing stuff you associate with modern Britain, like a bike rack (for all those commuters!), signs showing the disabled access route from the station (again, very irrelevant in such an isolated, wheel chair unfriendly wilderness) and posters telling of the dire consquences of assulting station staff (what staff?). The station is not a pleasant place to linger, once you get over the ironic aspect of this little bubble of modernity in the middle of nowhere, and I was glad to hear the train labouring up the hill to the station. Getting on the train meant being hit by a wave of warm air and it was so nice to be warm without having to wear layer after layer of clothing. I was even happy to buy an overpriced nasty tasting cup of train coffee, and gaze out the window at the desolation of Rannoch Moor flying by.  The train ride down to Glasgow is a visual treat. Although the line runs close to the A82, which I have driven many times, the view you get from the train is far better than from a car. My trip eneded with me standing outside Queen Street Station bewildered by the crowds of shoppers flowing past, when only a few hours before I had been in the middle of nowhere.

 

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