o one will deny that the weather has been lousy since the turn of the New Year. My trip up ‘The Cobbler’ withstanding, every weekend had been cloud, more cloud and wind. This weekend looked different however. MWIS had promised reasonable weather and even a chance of cloud free tops. Scott was up on the Friday night but had to be back to Maryport on the Saturday evening. I also had commitments myself so if we were going to hit the hills there would be no hanging about. We had decided to run rather than hike so hopefully there would be plenty of time for a decent trip.
Ben Alder had been high on my wish list for a while now. If the weather would have been favourable when Mike was up from London then I suspect we would have had a pop at it on our Corrour trip in October. Unfortunately, the rain put paid to that and we had an amazing day on the Isle of Arran anyway.
The location of Ben Alder is pretty remote. Whichever way you come in; either from Corrour or Dalwhinnie, you have a good hike but with a decent path all the way, the favourable option is to tackle Ben Alder from Dalwhinnie. How about running in at night, sleeping at Culra Bothy then hitting the hills the next day and running out? This would mean the head torch experience but the path seemed decent and it would be good practice for the Montane 50, this summer. Scott had no issues with this idea so at 8pm we left Dunfermline and headed up the A9 towards our departure point. Surprisingly there were already a couple of cars parked up at the level crossing so it looked like we would not be having the bothy to ourselves.
We kitted up and with head torches illuminating the path ahead, we set off. I had my 25 litre pack I use for mountain marathons and even though I was not carrying a tent and I had forsaken the therm-a-rest, it was still pretty full. It was about 16km to the bothy. The wide path initially hugs the bank of Loch Ericht, passing The Shieling, An Tochailt and Ben Alder Lodge. From here the path heads up across the fellside towards Loch Pattack. About a kilometre before the loch it heads off south and follows the Allt a’ Chaoil-reidhe towards the bothy.
Night Run – Dalwhinnie to Culra Bothy
We set off at a nice steady pace. With a big day ahead on the Saturday, there was no need to push it hard and instead we took it easy and had regular walking breaks. The stars were shining brightly in the sky and although the moon was not too bright, you could still see the dark silhouette of Geal Charn on the other side of the Loch. We passed Ben Alder Lodge and the path headed west uphill. We headed along this for a couple of kilometres keeping our eyes out for the path heading south-west down towards the Allt. We checked the gps at regular intervals to ensure we had not ‘over-shot’ but there was no issues identifying the distinct path head down towards the bothy. The going was a little wet underfoot from here onwards and I was a little concerned that we may miss the turn off for the bridge that crosses the river to the bothy. I need not have worried, there was a huge sign pointing the way to the bridge.
Culra Bothy has three rooms and the first room we entered was empty. It consisted of two sleeping platforms on both side and a table in between them. There was no fire in this room but that was not an issue because we had no fuel and with the time close to midnight, it was time for bed anyway. The platform was hard and with only a small foam mat for insulation I had a restless night’s sleep. At 4am the heavens opened and I thought that our luck was not to be. Fortunately, a visit outside for the call of nature an hour later confirmed that it had only been a passing shower and with the stars shining brightly, it looked like it was ‘Game On!’
By 7am, we were up and eating breakfast. Our plan was to eat pasta first thing then snack on chocolates and sweets throughout the day. Pasta at 7am is not exactly my favoured breakfast but I managed to eat it and soon we were packed and ready to set off. Although it was cloudy, the tops were clear and the good news was that there were patches of blue sky breaking through. I did not want to tempt fate but I had a feeling that we were in for an awesome day on the hills.
Ice Cold Water, Precarious Ascent and Ben Alder
We headed back to the bridge, crossed the river then set off up the path that headed south-west towards Ben Alder. Initially we were running parallel to the All a’Chaoil-reidhe but after a couple of kilometres we headed southwards uphill. A small cairn marked the spot where we headed off the path, across the heather towards the Allt a’Bhealaich Bheithe. Once across this we would head up the Long Leachas towards the summit. As we approached the Allt a’Bhealaich Bheithe, it became apparent that getting across was not going to be a simple matter. The recent mild weather had resulted in a rapid melt of the snow and the river was extremely swollen. I was not concerned about getting wet feet, we had fell shoes on after all, but the water was flowing so fast, I was concerned we would be swept off our feet and carried downstream.
We followed the stream uphill, looking for a convenient place to cross. There were a couple of places that had potential but nothing that felt safe. We eventually found a location where the water was not flowing to fast and although there was an icy bank on the other side, there was a larger boulder to stand on to assist in getting up. We headed into the water and although it only went up to our knees, it was freezing. I did not waste any time in clambering out the other side but felt a little sorry for Scott who had to wait in the water whilst I got out. Fortunately, we managed to ford the stream without any mishap and we were ready to attempt the ridge ascent. Whilst we had been looking for a place to cross the stream, we had gained a considerable amount of height. In fact, if we wanted to ascend the Long Leachas, it would mean we would have to descend downhill first. It would be easier just to ascend the Short Leachas instead and whilst this was not our original plan, it looked fun regardless.
We headed across the tussocky ground towards the start of the ridge. With legs numb with cold, it was good to be running again and get the blood pumping. We headed up the ridge, broad at first then getting narrower as we climbed higher. As we stopped to put on our microspikes, I looked back down towards the bothy. With fantastic air clarity, the view was nothing short of amazing and with blue skies ahead; a cloud free summit looked ‘on the cards’.
As we climbed higher there was a small section that required ‘a little hand on rock’ but although there was a little exposure, it did not create any issues and soon we were approaching the top. As the ridge flattened out onto the summit plateau, there was one last obstacle to overcome. The snow had frozen over the side, forming a huge banking. With no rock to grab hold of, the only way up was to actually climb up the bank. Although we had microspikes on, these were certainly not crampons but fortunately the snow was just the right consistency to be kick steps in. I won’t deny the fact that this was probably ‘right on the edge’ of what I would do with the equipment I had and ideally this warranted crampons and ice axe.
I punched my fist into the snow and kicked a step in and hauled myself up. This was repeated a couple of times until I had traversed the edge and made it onto the slope. To be on the cautious side, I resisted standing up and instead clambered up on my hands and knees until I was a decent distance from the edge. I looked behind and Scott was right on my tail. Great news! You make decisions on the mountains and on another day the outcome of this traverse could have been different. I am a firm believer that it is indecision that causes accidents and whilst what we did had been a little ‘risky’, I felt confident in my own ability and never once felt unsafe.
With the ridge traverse over, it was time to push on up to the top. It was probably about a kilometre up and the views were magnificent. Whilst we had been protected from the wind on the ridge, this was not the case on the plateau. As we reached the top, I stopped to put another layer on and admire the views. There are some mountains that must be climbed in good weather to do them justice and Ben Alder certainly fits into that category. As we admired the views we discussed our plans. The four Munro’s of Beinn Eibhinn, Aonach Beag, Geal-Charn and Carn Dearg looked tantalisingly close but there would be a big descent and re-ascent and not to mention another tough river crossing. Add on to this the 16km run out to Dalwhinnie and our limited time; this was probably something for another day.
There was more cloud to the west anyway and with clear skies as we looked over Garbh Choire towards Beinn Bheoil, this seemed the better option. We headed off the summit and followed the plateau edge towards Sron Bealach Beithe. With crispy snow and cloud whisping in and out, this was probably the best running I have ever done in the hills. We dropped slowly down and then headed south-west where we headed steeply down the rough slope to the Bealach Breabag. With views to Rannoch Moor and beyond, I could make out the path Mike and I had taken last October; around Loch Ossian and up alongside the Uisage Labhair.
Great running over Beinn Bheoil
At the bealach we turned our attention to Sron Coire na h-Iolaire and Beinn Bheoil. I suspect it would be possible to skirt around the side and miss out Sron Coire na h-Iolaire but it is a Munro top after all and it would not take long to get to the top. On the top we grabbed some food and headed down the other side and then up towards the summit of Bheinn Bheoil. Scott suggested running up the other side and whilst I was happy to oblige, I could not maintain Scott’s pace, but ascended steadily anyway and met up with him just below the summit top. Whilst not as spectacular as Ben Alder, the views from Beinn Bheoil were great none the less, especially looking back down Loch Ericht towards where our car was parked. Dalwhinnie seemed miles away and I realised that whilst we had completed all the hills we still had a decent amount of running left.
Summit photographs taken, we headed off the top and down towards Sron Dreineach. As we levelled off onto the broad ridge, we dropped off the hillside and headed down towards the path we had come up earlier in the day. There is probably some sort of ‘trod’ leading down but we could not see on so it was a cross country yomp, not dissimilar to the terrain we have experienced on some of the mountain marathons we have run. The weather, which had been great all day, suddenly took a turn for the worse and within the space of five minutes, it went from sunrise and to snow showers. Luckily for us, we were now back down near the Allt a’ Chaoil-reide but I would not have fancied being on top of Ben Alder in the wind and snow.
We picked the path up and headed back towards the bothy. There would be no pitstop though; it was going to be a straight push back to the car. We headed up the path towards the Loch Pattack and then dropped down towards the amazing looking Ben Alder Lodge. Once past the lodge we kept the pace steady, just stopping to walk up the hilly sections. We stopped for some food and sat down for ten minutes. It was the first time we had stopped to rest all day. Scott had some marmite flavoured rice cakes and I had some cheese in my bag. Having eaten nothing but snack bars, chocolates and sweets all day, it was good to eat something savoury. We probably had about five miles back to the car and we decided to slow the pace right down but complete the remainder of the route without stopping. At 3pm we were back at the car, just in time to listen to the football on the radio on the way home.