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Ben Alder and the Lancet Edge from Culra Bothy

Ben Alder and the Lancet Edge from Culra Bothy


Postby christianbartlett » Sat Nov 09, 2013 1:53 am

Route description: Aonach Beag: Four Munros from Culra

Munros included on this walk: Aonach Beag (Alder), Beinn Bheoil, Beinn Eibhinn, Ben Alder, Carn Dearg (Loch Pattack), Geal-charn (Alder)

Date walked: 12/07/2013

Time taken: 27 hours

Distance: 68 km

Ascent: 3475m

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A magical spot on the descent from Geal-charn. The Lancet Edge is behind my rucksack.



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Descending Geal-charn towards Aonach Beag


It was an unusual and quite special invitation when it came: to join the famous Scotland bothiers on one of their jaunts into the depths of the Highlands. The answer simply had to be yes. Not only was this to be a trip in the company of such seasoned Scotland explorers as Mark ‘Marcus’ Ingram and Thomas B. Bertins, but this trip was to be quite out of the ordinary. It was to involve a traverse of the central Highlands from the West Highland railway line to the Highland main line at Dalwhinnie, taking in one of the emptiest and most spectacular wilderness regions of Scotland. This is a region which contains mountains with multiple ridge ascents like Ben Alder, which would be so popular with visitors were it not for their extreme inaccessibility. It is a region which contains the spectacular Lancet Edge, as fine as any pinnacle ridge in Scotland, but made finer still by its relative obscurity and remoteness.

There was, almost as soon as the plans were conceived, a twist. The plotting mind of Thomas B., ever game for a laugh, had concocted the most ambitious prank scheme yet devised in our years of designing practical jokes in various locations in the Scottish Highlands and islands. The idea was simple: Two key members of the party (Tom and Jason) would cancel their involvement, citing difficulties in getting time off work, but then magically appear in the remote bothy on the first night of the trip. The allocation of duties to make this prank work was interesting, to say the least. Tom and Jason would plot and scheme, and it fell to me to keep Mark in the dark at all costs, preserving a semblance of normality. With the original cast of four thus apparently halved, Mark and I set out to find another member of the team, as two was felt to be too small a number for such a distance. A third member was recruited: James Hoggett (Speedy for short) willingly joined the team, and was immediately taken into my confidence about the scheme, not because this made things easier, but because I am very bad at keeping secrets.

From then on, every official meeting to plan the details of the trip was immediately followed by a shadow meeting including the secret members of the team but not, of course, Mark. Planning became quite complicated, but the potential for hilarity seemed to multiply with every further hare-brained scheme from Tom’s imagination. Not only would the meeting be a surprise to Mark, but disguises would be required, possibly including fake beards, moustaches and even skin colouring. Champagne (not a common sight in a bothy 6 hours’ walk from the nearest road) would be needed; party food would mark the occasion. The shadow meetings became a total contrast from the ‘official’ ones: every new change to the public version of the plans had to have a contingency plan in the private version.

The day arrived, or rather the very early morning, and the public version of the team set off from Lincoln northward-bound into the blackness. Bleary-eyed and energyless, we tried to sleep in the car but mainly failed to do so. Mark was at the wheel until Scotch Corner, and then we crossed the Pennines under the rather more sprightly helmsmanship of Speedy.

By dawn we were almost in Scotland, and we threaded our way through Glasgow just as the morning rush hour started to subside. After crossing the Clyde, we headed for Helensburgh, where we would leave the car and catch our train into the West Highlands.

We squeezed onto our train with our heavy packs, and then once again managed to miss an opportunity for some much-needed shut-eye, instead watching the progress of the train attentively to ensure we didn’t miss our stop. For the station we needed was only accessible by train: the only station on the British mainland with no road access. Its name was Corrour, and it was truly a remote spot.

As the train departed we could see the station hotel, the tracks weaving across the peat moor, and beyond those nothing but mountains. Our first day’s walking was a fairly ambitious 15 miles, which was no small task with our 15kg packs, our noon start and our almost complete lack of sleep the previous night.

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The start of the walk - Corrour station.


We set off from Corrour and made good progress along the southern shore of Loch Ossian. From the very start we could see a notch in the skyline up ahead, the Bealach Dubh which we were heading for and which was almost a final milestone before the bothy in the valley beyond. But how long could that same bealach taunt us in the distance? A long time, it turned out. And the paths, so good and clear at the start, petered out to nothing at all by the time we reached the upper slopes of the nameless glen, with the river called Uisge Labhair at its centre. Still in the valley, our altitude reached 720m before we finally crossed the bealach into another world which lay beyond.

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Mark encounters a temporary setback

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Coming over the Bealach Dubh into a new valley: between Ben Alder and Sgor Iutharn


Bealachs can do this sometimes: open up an entirely new vista in the space of a few footsteps. Suddenly in front of us were the massive rocky shoulders of Ben Alder’s northern outliers; on our left loomed the equally rugged cliffs of the Lancet Edge’s lower slopes. And in the middle, or so we believed, should be the bothy itself – perhaps a mile away at most, but surely visible from the head of its valley.

Alas, not so. Our overly optimistic memory of the OS map deceived us to the end. The real distance down the valley was more like three miles along rocky, steeply descending paths in gorges of waterfalls. Beautiful, remote and atmospheric, but hardly what we had bargained for, and with evening advancing, our packs felt heavier than ever. We put our heads down, chitchat a thing of the past, each fighting our own private battle to press on to the goal.

Not far from the end, James, who was slightly ahead of me on the path, caught sight of a distant human silhouette near a rocky outcrop on the slopes ahead. The person immediately ran down the slope when James came into view. James and I, safely ahead of Mark’s gaze, exchanged a secret smile. The plot was working.

The bothy, when we finally caught sight of it, could not have been a more welcome sight. For miles we had walked in scenery containing no real scars from human activity amounting to more than the occasional path in the heather. Now there was an actual building in front of us, with windows and real chimneys, and we gained new energy as we crossed the final 100m to the bothy itself.

James and I were a little ahead of Mark at this point, so we used the minute or two we had to do a quick check of the building, and sure enough in the third room we found two sleeping travellers, bearded and covered in hats and disguises. We stood awkwardly in their doorway for a moment, then said, ‘It’s OK, Mark’s not here yet!’, and they suddenly awoke with big grins.

We selected one of the two vacant rooms, the larger one with a fireplace, and began to settle down. Mark joined us, and we enjoyed a cooked meal together, consuming almost entirely tasteless packaged foods with real gusto. Such are the effects of fresh air and physical exertion. At one point in our unpacking, the two strangers next door objected to the noise of our bags, and decided to pound on the wall. Mark was appalled at this. ‘It’s not a hotel, is it, lads?’ James and I earnestly agreed.

The plan was that Tom and Jason would head outside as darkness fell, and in causing a disturbance, elicit a response from Mark which would involve him coming outside to remonstrate with them. The flaw in the plan was that Mark’s 15-mile walk after a 300-mile drive had caused him to retire early. The boys started making noises outside, safe in the knowledge that we had the valley to ourselves. I roused Mark and said something suitably incendiary about our neighbours’ behaviour, as Mark was not responding. Mark grudgingly put his boots on and headed outside for the inevitable confrontation. He was confronted only with a smiling, bearded man and his attendant cameraman, filming the moment for posterity. The beards came off and Mark slowly began to realise that these people were Tom and Jason and that they were on the trip after all.

It was a superb moment that almost did not happen, a triumph after months of plotting. After some ‘champagne’ (in fact Bucks Fizz – yes, more of Bertins splashing out!) and explanation, the lads moved their things into our generously-sized room, and the jaunt began for real, with a jovial, joyful larger team to share things with.

The next day dawned and the specialness of the location really hit me. OK, we had no electricity or water, but what we did have was surely better, especially on a beautiful July morning. A river to bathe in, a fire if we needed it, a roof over our heads, and the sublime, powerful sight of Ben Alder and Sgor Iutharn guarding our valley in the distance. Who really needed the comforts of civilization?

We headed for the Lancet Edge and our day got even better. It’s quite hard to convey just how a person feels when climbing a rocky ridge like this. Everything is humanly possible on this ridge, but does not appear that way just before the moment of doing it. The steepness of the drop on both sides is breathtaking; the deep blue loch in its corrie 150m below your right knee only enriches the occasion. The views behind the climber change constantly, as Loch Ericht looms larger than ever, and the nearest ridge of Ben Alder becomes more and more evident in its pinnacled complexity.

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Speedy's better side


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The Lancet Edge, Sgor Iutharn


It was a truly superb circuit of mountains on that gorgeous Saturday, taking in the Munros and Munro Tops of Sgor Iutharn (1028m), Geal-charn(1132m), Aonach Beag (1116m), Ben Eibhinn (1031m) and finally the much less spectacular mound of Carn Dearg (1034m) which stood right at the back of Culra Bothy, our temporary home. The highlights included the ascent of the Lancet Edge, some superb ridges between Geal-charn and Aonach Beag, a snowy patch close to the summit of Gael Charn, and a most captivating and magical overhanging rock on the descent from Geal-charn to Carn Dearg, where we lingered for ages, taking photo after photo of this mesmerising location. By carefully composing the shot, you could give the impression that a person was teetering on the brink of a fragile overhanging cliff, hundreds of metres above the loch directly below. In reality there was no such danger, as solid ground lay just two metres below the jutting out piece of rock, but several unforgettable photos were taken that day above Loch an Sgoir.

I even managed to get a brief spell of mobile reception on the highest summit of the day (sadly, really) and rang Alex, who at that moment was in the Victoria and Albert Museum in the heart of Kensington. For a moment, the wonders of modern technology seemed truly remarkable.

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Loch an Sgoir in its corrie (Geal-charn)


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Visitors at Culra Bothy


The team worked well together. Despite my slight concerns about the banter required from an all-male team (I can’t do banter), there were no difficulties. My other worry was that, when I run out of blood sugar, I find it hard to be cheery and optimistic on a long trek. This too was hardly ever an issue, thanks mainly to advance planning of provisions, and plentiful pockets in my coat in which to secrete cereal bars and chocolate. I was even able to start each day with a real cup of coffee, thanks to Alex’s present to me of a cafetiere attachment to my Jetboil. The team had a great balance of personalities: Mark the eternal optimist, who always believes the summit is just over that slope; Tom the slightly wacky and yet extremely capable and practical climber; Jason the thoughtful and kind team player, and James with his wicked smile and such gems as ‘Rain doesn’t kill you – your skin is waterproof!’

Bothy evenings are great, too. Despite the arrival of new neighbours, we still had the big room to ourselves, and managed to have an excellent game of poker using various sizes of stones from the stream as chips. Some of our neighbours were female, which came as a shock to certain more traditional members of our party. I think the presence of some women on our trip would only have added to the enjoyment. In this case, they added to the humour, as one of the women from the room next door arrived in our doorway to introduce herself at exactly the moment Tom decided to change his pants, which for some reason he did while standing on the raised platform that formed his bed. The visitor withdrew discreetly.

Sunday dawned a little dankly, not with rain but with low cloud, temporarily obscuring the upper portions of Ben Alder, our target for the day. We set off regardless, and sure enough the clouds cleared sufficiently for us to find our way up the rocky ridge known as the Short Leachas to the peak of Ben Alder (1148m), and then to proceed to its neighbour, Beinn Bheoil (1019m), which faces it across Loch a’ Bhealaich Bheithe. By the way, if you’re forgetting that ‘bh’ in Gaelic is like our English ‘v’, so was I. Ben Alder is a truly massive massif, with its enchanting ridges allowing tiny human beings onto its summit plateau. Beinn Bheoil is a striking, long, thin mountain, squeezed between two lochs, with spectacular views of Ben Alder and the other Munros on the opposite side of the quite enormous Loch Ericht.

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The Short Leachas


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Beinn Bheoil from Ben Alder


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Beinn Bheoil and Loch Ericht


On the way back to the bothy, on Tom’s suggestion, our somewhat aching limbs were soothed by a superb dip in a rocky pool in the Allt a’ Bhealaich Dhuibh. The water was cold and invigorating. Who needs warm showers?

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Hygiene in the mountains


It was at this point that we came to a mutual decision to change our plan a little. Rather than staying one more night in the bothy, we voted to head for civilization in the form of Dalwhinnie, a mere 10-mile walk along the shore of Loch Ericht. The attractions of soft mattresses and pub food were too good to resist, so as soon as we had finished our 7-hour trek around Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil, we collected our packs from the bothy and set off on the 4-hour walk to the nearest road, thus completing our traverse from railway to railway.

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The trek from Culra to Dalwhinnie


It was a long slog, but made tolerable by long and absorbing conversations with other members of the team. How relieved I was to reach Jason’s car, which had been parked at Dalwhinnie since Friday as part of the elaborate plot to get Tom and Jason to Culra before us.

There ends the real story. Except that two amusing incidents after this point still stick in my mind. The first was precipitated by our attempt to find a meal at a hotel in Laggan, where we encountered the most surly, unpleasant welcome any of us had ever come across. The menu contained several spelling errors, and when Tom light-heartedly asked about the ‘Lasanga’ on the menu, not only did the waitress insist on the correctness of its spelling, she also spat out a threat-laden question: “Any more jokes?” We took a vote and decided to scarper. At the last moment I decided to go back inside and inform the staff that we wished to cancel our orders. The second place we tried was a pub in Newtonmore, and the welcome could not have been more different. A warm, convivial place, with superb food, ice-cold beer and a friendly, smiling staff – all things we considered gold dust after our sojourn in the wilderness.

There was one more surprise to come. Admittedly, we began searching for a bed for the night quite late (around 11pm) considering that this was a small town in the Highlands. But the bunkhouse we found was fascinating in its approach to a fairly innocuous question: Do you possibly have five beds for the night? The proprietor said no, and his wife then intervened, saying that perhaps something could be arranged if we really didn’t mind being very close together. There was a prolonged private discussion between the two of them, and eventually it was conveyed to us that they would do their very best to locate places for all five of us. When they showed us into our room, we all struggled to understand the difficulty, as it was a five-bed room. This caused much hilarity late into the night. James suggested that fish and chip shops around here would respond to a request for fish and chips with: “Not another one! Fish? Chips? I don’t think we can manage that!” I’m sure you can imagine the types of scenario that were discussed along this theme. I was worried that we would wake the other occupants of the bunkhouse, as we certainly believed the other rooms to be full, but in the morning it transpired that the other rooms were empty too! We concluded that we will never fully understand this particular approach to business, and once again rocked with silent mirth as we recalled our hosts’ dilemma the night before.

All in all, a superb way to spend four days. Four days? How much did we pack into those days? We had adventures enough to fill a week or more. A really memorable trip.
Last edited by christianbartlett on Wed Jan 07, 2015 9:21 pm, edited 5 times in total.
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Re: Ben Alder and the Lancet Edge from Culra Bothy

Postby The Rodmiester » Sat Nov 09, 2013 9:06 am

Hi christianbartlett, great report on fabulous hills, enjoyed the read very much, sounds like you all had the time of your lives, in pretty good weather conditions. Hoping to do Ben Alder and others from the Loch Ossian side next year as one of the club members has a couple of these to do for her completion. I hope we get similar conditions. I like you don't understand some attitudes of Scottish establishments, but glad you did what you did and headed on off to where you had a warm welcome. Looking forward to doing the Lancet edge, as I have never done it, thanks for posting some great photographs. Look forward to your next Scottish adventure :) :)
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Re: Ben Alder and the Lancet Edge from Culra Bothy

Postby davetherave » Sat Nov 09, 2013 9:46 am

As Kevin said "you guys had a great trip there"
Nothing the matter with a bit of male bonding in the hills. I do it all the time with my two dogs. Haha.
We also done a big round in this area several years back, seems so long ago now.
Thanks.Dave.
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Re: Ben Alder and the Lancet Edge from Culra Bothy

Postby lochlaggan » Sat Nov 09, 2013 9:49 pm

I think you will find the Scottish establishments you mention are not owned by Scottish born individuals!!!!!

Enjoyed your report! :clap:
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Re: Ben Alder and the Lancet Edge from Culra Bothy

Postby christianbartlett » Sat Nov 09, 2013 11:32 pm

The Rodmiester wrote:Hi christianbartlett, great report on fabulous hills, enjoyed the read very much, sounds like you all had the time of your lives, in pretty good weather conditions. Hoping to do Ben Alder and others from the Loch Ossian side next year as one of the club members has a couple of these to do for her completion. I hope we get similar conditions. I like you don't understand some attitudes of Scottish establishments, but glad you did what you did and headed on off to where you had a warm welcome. Looking forward to doing the Lancet edge, as I have never done it, thanks for posting some great photographs. Look forward to your next Scottish adventure :) :)


Thanks The Rodmeister for your kind words! We'll be back as soon as we can!
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Re: Ben Alder and the Lancet Edge from Culra Bothy

Postby christianbartlett » Sat Nov 09, 2013 11:33 pm

davetherave wrote:As Kevin said "you guys had a great trip there"
Nothing the matter with a bit of male bonding in the hills. I do it all the time with my two dogs. Haha.
We also done a big round in this area several years back, seems so long ago now.
Thanks.Dave.


Thanks, Dave. It's a superb part of the country.
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Re: Ben Alder and the Lancet Edge from Culra Bothy

Postby christianbartlett » Sat Nov 09, 2013 11:34 pm

lochlaggan wrote:I think you will find the Scottish establishments you mention are not owned by Scottish born individuals!!!!!

Enjoyed your report! :clap:


Thanks for this, Lochlaggan. I'm sure you're right. I'm half Scottish myself. We met lots of warm welcomes too.
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Re: Ben Alder and the Lancet Edge from Culra Bothy

Postby jester » Sun Feb 23, 2014 6:27 pm

Great report, really enjoyed reading that. I'm heading back there later in the year with Glasgow HF Outdoor Club, and this was a noice wee reminder of what's there.
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