I first saw Ben Alder from the summit of Beinn Udlamain in the West Drumochter hills in May 1998. I resolved to bag this impressive big, remote hill sooner rather than later.
But, with so many other hills to tempt me and only limited time in Scotland each year, it was not until May 2006 that I finally got round to a Ben Alder expedition with my friend Andy. Our plan was for the usual approach from Dalwhinnie, biking in as far as Loch Pattack and wild camping near Culra Bothy.
We had intended to go up the Long Leacas ridge, but poor weather on the day of our ascent led us to change our plan and go up by the central corrie, where it would be more sheltered.
Foolishly we failed to take a bearing from the bealach between Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil, relying on dead reckoning from the map (follow the cliffs and head for the high point) and the GPS to find the summit cairn. But the summit plateau turned out to be not so simple on the ground and in the mist and my old Magellan GPS chose this moment finally to give up the ghost. Unable to find the summit, we retreated to the bealach, and no longer had the energy or enthusiasm to take a bearing and go back up and do it properly. There will always be another day, we reckoned.
But the weather did not improve that holiday, and it was not until May 2011 that Andy and I made our next attempt. One advantage of making multiple summit attempts after being defeated by the weather (or by navigational incompetence) is that you can approach the mountain by different routes, giving a much better appreciation of its different sides. The plan for 2011 was therefore to bag Ben Alder from Corrour, also taking in the Loch Ossian Munros, and walk out by the Southern approach via Ben Alder Cottage.
We drove up on Saturday 21st May and camped at Kilvrecht campsite on the South shore of Loch Rannoch. Andy wanted to explore the local woods for rare moths and I had thought we could bag the Corbett above Kinloch Rannoch on the Sunday as a warm up for the Ben Alder overnighter starting on Monday. But the weather had other ideas.
As it was raining and windy on Sunday 22nd we just set up some moth traps in some likely birches and went for a walk on the woodland trails from the campsite.
Monday 23rd, when we had intended to start our Ben Alder expedition, was the day of the big storm. We bagged the Aberfeldy Distillery (aka Dewar’s World of Whisky) instead and booked into the Dunalastair Hotel in Kinloch Rannoch for the night to dry off our gear and prepare for the Ben Alder expedition the following day. We ate (and drank) at the Dunalastair (as recommended by Stretch on this site) several times this holiday and found it excellent.
Tuesday 24th May was to be the first day of our second attempt at Ben Alder. We parked the car at Bridge of Ericht (by the wrong track, we later discovered, but not too far away) and caught the local bus to Rannoch Station for the 08:45 first train to Corrour. I’d phoned the bus operator the night before to book the pickup by request, as advised on the timetable (having researched the public transport link carefully on the internet). The bus driver had warned me the night before that trees might be down on the road, but fortunately those that had come down had already been cleared by the landowners.
However, we were not so fortunate with the train. On checking the press-button telephone information service, I was told the 08:45 was not running as all the trains were in the wrong places after yesterday’s storm. The next train might run, but I’d have to check in an hour or so whether it had left Glasgow.
We were not keen on waiting for several hours at a drizzly Rannoch Station for a train that might not even run, so I proposed instead that we walk in to the Munros South of Loch Ossian up the nearby track for the South. If we could leave our overnight gear at the Moor of Rannoch Hotel, we could make this a day trip, taking the train to Corrour tomorrow to bag Beinn na Lap, then over to Ben Alder if the weather was good. The Moor of Rannoch Hotel confirmed we could leave our gear, and also that they had a room for the night due to a late cancellation from the weather. We booked the room and the owner warned that we needed to be back by 7pm for dinner, and asked us to call him to let him know if we would make it. He advised going out and back by the South ridge of Carn Dearg, as the way back off Sgorr Gaibrhe would be very boggy after the recent rain.
We had gone to some effort, and expense, to lighten our packs for this expedition. Our new LaserComp tents (2011 model) and other overnight gear and food all now came out. I kept my new Osprey Exos 46 rucksack and Berghaus Gore-tex Paclite jacket and overtrousers plus my single walking pole. The packs had been manageable before (though not yet tested going up hills) but were now down to day pack weight. So off we set down the road and up the Road to the Isles (as the track to Corrour proclaimed itself) with a spring in our steps…
…until we were stopped in our tracks by a side stream that crossed the path and today was a raging torrent. It looked like it was normally forded on the path, but today that was impossible. We recce’d up and down the stream, but nowhere looked easy to cross. I began to fear we wouldn’t even make it to our first Munro of the trip. Eventually Andy tried crossing at the only likely-looking boulders, using my walking pole for balance. He made it across, threw the pole back for me, and I followed.
Fortunately there was a bridge across the main river, and shortly after this we turned off on a side track below the South ridge of Carn Dearg. As this petered out, we struck off to the left and begin the ascent of the ridge.
This was initially steepish with many false summits, and as we climbed views began to open out of familiar hills across Rannoch Moor. We also began to appreciate just how windy it was today and to experience intermittent showers.
Eventually the ridge began to level off, but it was still a long way to the summit. The wind on top felt gale force at times and the showers were now of hail. The cloud was low, but breaking occasionally. The final dash to the summit cairn of Carn Dearg was a struggle against gusts of wind that threatened to blow us over, in hail and clag.
We stopped for Lunch Part One and considered whether to carry on for Sgorr Gaibrhe. It was windy, but not impossibly so and exhilarating in a way, the hail was light and intermittent, but not making us wet, and the cloud lifted occasionally. In one such break we glimpsed Sgorr Gaibrhe and the bealach in between. It looked do-able, so we went for it.
The wind on the descent to the bealach was perhaps the strongest of the walk. I stopped to take a photo and it caught my pack as I put it back on, almost blowing me over. The walking pole came in handy again here.
We got a break in the cloud at the summit of Sgorr Gaibrhe, giving views across to the elusive Ben Alder (if you braved the wind).
We sheltered by the summit cairn for Lunch Part Two and discussed the return trip. It was now looking touch and go whether we’d make it back by 7 for dinner at the Moor of Rannoch. We decided we’d follow the hotel owner’s advice to return the way we came. It should be faster returning by a known route, and we could contour round the summit of Carn Dearg, which should be sheltered from the wind.
So we bore off to the left from the bealach. But contouring round can be tricky. The ground was rougher than just following the Munro-baggers’ path and it can be difficult to maintain height. It didn’t seem much less sheltered either. I therefore proposed we abandon the contouring plan and return to the path. Andy agreed, and we were soon back on the path up Carn Dearg.
I bagged the summit again (as I was passing) and phoned the hotel to report progress whilst I had a signal. I thought it unlikely now that we’d be back by 7, but the owner thought otherwise. Maybe he was just being encouraging, but he seemed to know his local hills.
By now my knee was aching, making going downhill hard work. It’s been a long time since I’ve had such problems on the hill, and usually I romp ahead of Andy on the downhill stretches. My general level of fitness was probably down, as I’d recently moved house and had not been able to get out walking at weekends so often, plus I was no longer cycling 5 miles to work every day and back. It might also just have been that this was a long walk in tiring conditions.
Back down off the hill we recrossed the raging stream. I suggested to Andy we might make it back to the road in time to catch the last bus back from Rannoch Station as it passed. This would enable us to retrieve the car from Bridge of Ericht and save us the walk back along the road, plus retrieve the rest of our gear.
Andy romped ahead. I was slower, with my knee still hurting and a double rainbow to photograph.
I saw the bus on the road and thought we’d missed it. But when I crested the final rise, there it was parked by the road waiting for me! Andy had made it in time and the driver had kindly stopped until I arrived. I climbed gratefully on board.
The driver even phoned the hotel for us to tell them we’d be late. We arrived about 7:30, still in time to place our orders for dinner.
The Moor of Rannoch turned out to be a great little hotel. The owner and his wife ran it by themselves, as they had nowhere to accommodate staff, but he told us they would be moving out to the village down the road by Loch Rannoch and would employ a manager who will run the hotel in future. The food was good, the Fraoch Heather Ale was served in its own earthenware cups (we drank the hotel out of the stuff) and you could watch stags wandering just outside as you dined and the Caledonian Sleeper arrive as you breakfasted. The only downside was no internet access (to get the MWIS forecast) and no phone signal (to call wife and son) unless you went outside to the station.
So we had failed to bag Ben Alder for a second time, but we’d had a good day on the hill despite the weather and had bagged two of our target Munros. Tomorrow we’d have another go…
(to be continued)
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