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Ben Alder backpacking

15-17 April 2016
Mid-April, and winter was competing with spring. John was leading a group of hardy folk into the Ben Alder wilderness for a couple of nights camping under stars !

photo 1 Friday afternoon saw me at the Loch Ericht track end at Dalwhinnie, loading a mountain bike pannier set with kit for our trip into the Ben Alder area. The forecast was distinctly wintry, with freezing levels down to the valley, and a Met office weather warning for strong winds and snow. Great camping weather!

As we set off, John and Peter on bikes, with Ian electing to walk an hour or so earlier, the sun stayed out, and we had a strong tail wind. Consequently we whizzed along Loch Ericht, and made short work of the whole ride, arriving at Culra bothy well within two hours. Ian took somewhat longer, and we had a brew on by the time he got there.

photo 2 The bothy is still closed due to asbestos, and now has 'bothy closed' daubed all over it in large painted letters, most depressing. I do hope the MBA manage to either repair it or rebuild it, as it is a great place. Peter placed his tent nearby, as well as some other folks who were in the area, and we settled down for the night as the snow set in.

In the morning we woke to fresh N winds, squally snow showers but interspersed with clear, cold conditions - 'Four seasons in fifteen minutes' as the group quipped. We were away sharp, and soon sweating as we toiled up the rough side of Carn Dearg. There is little to commend this ascent, but once we gained the ridge, and donned crampons (which we then had on for six hours, in mid-April!), the views more than made up for the hard work, the bright sun being magnified and reflected by the icy snow.

Diolland a'Chairn was next, a 'top' of Carn Dearg, and then a steep and icy ascent up the East ridge of Geal-charn. The top had quite a serious feel to it as we front-pointed up, and the plateau was positively arctic in nature. Again, the views were extensive. The descent down the narrowing ridge towards Aonach Beag had an almost Alpine feel in the conditions, as did the one on to Beinn Eibhinn, and the group enjoyed the concentration and focus required in good crampon work, especially with the occasionally fierce cross-wind.

photo 1 The final summit of Beinn Eibhinn crowned a cracker of a day, when the weather was just enough to add some frisson, whilst affording wide views between the snow showers. The longest shower, which turned heavy, was as we descended towards the Bealach Dubh, and so even came at the most opportune time it could have. The long tramp back to Culra is on one of the best paths in the highlands in terms of construction, the estate seemingly sparing no expense, but still seems to take forever. Surely they could lay on an Argocat taxi service for good measure? ;)

We started even earlier on Sunday, conscious of the ride out at the end of the day. We had decided the Long Leachas route onto Ben Alder would have been a little too adventurous for the 45-55 WNW wind, as well as the frequent snow and hail showers, let alone the lowering cloud at around 900m, and so went along the excellent path as far as Loch a'Bhealaich Beithe and up to the Bealach Breabag.

photo 2 The route on to Ben Alder from there goes steeply up through small crags and rocks, indistinct enough in clear conditions, but under snow, a wee challenge for anyone not confident on crampons. We worked as a team, the more confident ensuring good foot placements for the less-so, and steadily made our way upwards, and into the cloud. We met the only other person all weekend on his way down, and he shouted cheerfully 'it's a wee bit blowy on top'. It was. And the cloud had closed in completely by the time we got to the final hummock before the summit.

It is most straightforward in clear conditions, as you can just handrail the coire edge to the trig point pretty much, but with immense cornices and whiteout conditions, this was out of the question of course. I took a bearing from the left edge of the hummock, ensuring I avoided the buried lochan (which would have been frozen solid I suspect, but belt n' braces me), and off we went. The deep powder in places made pacing tricky, as well as the wind making my measuring of the distance a little short, so we had a quick pause, readjustment, and then Lo!, the summit appeared directly ahead. It doesn't matter how many times you have to navigate hard in serious conditions, you always get a buzz of relief and satisfaction when the objective reveals itself out of the murk, and this was no exception.

photo 1 We wasted no time in turning tail and heading down, as the conditions were getting no easier. The cloud only lifted as we tackled the final icy slope down the bealach, and here one of the party felt they had had enough for one day, and took the easy path back to the bothy. The rest of us pressed on over the final munro of Beinn Bheoil, and then back to the bothy ourselves. I smiled ruefully as we were bullied by the wind up there that I do not think I have ever been on that hill and not been so. One day maybe.....?

All that remained was to pack the gear and make the 15k cycle out. This is always an effort after the day's walking, but having veered, we were really lucky to have a helpful tail wind again, and were back in about 1hr and 20 mins.

A proper old Scottish Spring trip, with everything from basking sun to Arctic winds. Bracing, satisfying and very exhilarating!

A few more photos are up on Flickr.

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