Friday, September 12, 2014

In The Great Ben Alder Forest: Carn Dearg, Geal-Charn, Aonach Baeg and Beinn Eibhinn

2014 has been up until now a year off from climbing new Munros. The reasons for that are many, but start in January with the death of the friend with whom I had climbed so many of them. There was busyness too, especially with church commitments at weekends; but the underlying issue was that in January my desire to be out in the hills had been sapped. Something changed a fortnight ago though. I was invited to take part in a charity ascent of Ben Nevis, in memory of my friend. It was organised by his wife and family; and we all donned our "Climb for Kevin" T-shirts, and went to the very top of Scotland - raising money for the Highland Hospice who had cared for him so magnificently. It was not only a matter of being back out in the hills which re-intoxicated me with their beauty; but also being there with his family and reminiscing about his exploits somehow helped me to get over whatever had been holding me back. 

With a day-free and a great forecast, wearing that same "Climb for Kevin" T-shirt, I threw my mountain bike onto the car and drove up the A9 to Dalwhinnie. Drivers through the pass of Drumochter will be familiar with the mountains to the left of the road as they head Northwards. Hidden behind those is the exquisite silver ribbon of water called Loch Ericht, running SW/NE for mile after mile. In his Munro guide, Cameron 'Indyref' Macneish talks about the the glimpse of Ben Alder down Ericht-side from Dalwhinnie making it look closer than it really is. He is absolutely right; Loch Ericht is an extremely long loch, and Alder a vast bulk. 

Ben Alder is the largest mountain in a group of hills to which it gives its name; and from the North there is one point of access to them all; a ten-mile bike ride down Loch Ericht. The miles might be long, but the track is good; built by the bllionaire estate owner to access the various luxury properties which now dot the estate, and which facilitate shooting parties. Although this is the middle of the stalking season, a quick phone call to the estate office had assured me that there was no stalking taking place and so no restrictions on which routes I could take. I was actually undecided about what I would do until I arrived at Culra bothy and parked the bike; (Culra is the bothy which was recently shut because of an asbestos warning).

I began by following the feint track westwards/northwards towards Carn Dearg. While the sketch-map in Macneish's book indicates making the ridge to the west of the summit and bearing right up to the cairn; it seemed to me a more natural line of ascent to hit the ridge to the east, and curve leftwards up the steep pull to the rocky summit.

Stepping over the Carn Dearg summit rocks, I was startled to find myself face-to-face with a large, lone stag. It stared at me, and I back. What a day not to be carrying a decent camera just this little iPhone4! Never having been this close to a stag before, and being somewhat wary of its bulk, and antlers, I cautiously climbed away from it - giving it a wide berth. For its part, I was a subject of general disinterest. Perhaps it didn't take the beast long to realise that I just didn't smell rich enough to be liable to shoot it.... and once that had been established it merely observed me on my way.

In the "Alder Group" there are three clusters of Munros. To the North, accessible from the Laggan Road, lie Creag Pitridh, another Geal Charn, and Beinn a Chlachair. The Southern side of the group, adjacent to Loch Ericht has Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil, its little sibling. Right in the centre of this, and thus hemmed in from roads on all sides by other peaks, sit four mountains - running NE/SW, parallel with the line of Loch Ericht. Despite being so far South, these mountains are truly remote; they are as far from towns and tarmac as virtually any hill in the far North. The maintained stalkers paths which penetrate the glens are perhaps the giveaway to the truth that this is a landscape which while feeling remote and untouched, is in fact highly influenced by human activity; and has been for a very long time.

During the course of the long, hot day I worked my away along the ridges, and over all four of these splendid hills. Having looked at them from more easily accessible hills in previous years, they not only looked graceful and enticing but seemed to be dangled in my sight like a distant prize. It was then, exhilarating to stride across these perfectly sculpted mountains. Overblown expectations disappoint, but these hills did not. The vast views of far peaks, great lochs stretching away into the horizon, tight ridges, steep ascents, stunning lochans cusped beneath scalloped corries, all spread over great distances fired my enthusiasm again and again. 

Certainly some of the navigation, which was obvious on glorious summer day like this, could have been quite tricky in fog. Some of the narrow ridges connecting wide, flat summits would not have been obvious. As it was, I think I checked the map three times all day!

I picked my way down the steep Southeastern shoulder of Beinn Eibhinn to the floor of the glen, before climbing the southside of it, up to the stalkers path leading up to the Meall an t-Slugain. This is the high-point in the lonely mountain pass between these hills and Ben Alder itself; a silent watershed - and magnificent viewpoint back over Loch Ossian and out over the vastness of Rannoch Moor. This is not far from where my sister was taken safely off the hills by Mountain Rescue some twenty years ago - which is perhaps a story for another time. 

As the views Southeastwards were so impressive, I wondered if the Northwestwards view from the col would be equally grand. Most of all, by this stage in the day with sore legs after a big descent, and not much water left, I was hoping for a distant sight of Loch Pattack, and the bothy where my bike was parked. As can be seen in the photo above, my targets were too far to the left, hidden from view behind the lower slopes of Sgor Iutharn, and its' soaring Lancet Edge. Looking back along my route, this next photo is of Alder to the left, and the Lancet Edge of Sgor Iutharn to the right.

The path soon plunges in amongst a series hummocky moraines, left here by some long-distant ice movement; and then dives in by the Allt a Chaoil-reidhe river. Longing to know how far I still had to walk, I ploughed on, hoping for a distant glimpse of the bothy. I passed the place in the river where on my last outing to these parts I had fallen in trying to get across. I will always remember my walking companion (step forward, one Mr T. Pickering!) sitting on the bank chuckling like Muttley at my Dastardly floundering...

The bothy suddenly appeared in my view, closer than I had expected. I could just see my bike leaning up against the wall of it - awaiting my return. I had saved my final drink for this moment, and threw it down my neck with immense relief; packaged up my walking-poles and pedalled for Dalwhinnie, the car and home. The route in total was about 50km, with almost 30km of that being on the cycled section - while most of the ascent was in the walking. 

Best of all - a day off from all contact (there's no mobile reception out there), and a chance to think, pray, have space, and forget about the Scottish referendum; at least for a few hours! 

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