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Ben Alder et al - wild camping in the sun

Ben Alder et al - wild camping in the sun

Postby Mikemurphy58 » Tue May 21, 2019 9:30 pm

Route description: Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil from Culra

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

Date walked: 14/05/2019

Time taken: 16 hours

Distance: 31 km

Ascent: 1911m

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I've been bagging Munros since the mid-nineties. Based in North West England, I've steadily worked my way north with a few exceptional excursions to Skye and Torridon. The next logical campaign for me was the Loch Ossian / Loch Ericht area. Two separate stays at Loch Ossian SYHA had allowed me to climb the southern and western hills but I still had Ben Alder and its neighbours to deal with. The remoteness of these hills provided a challenge I had not faced before: namely, wild camping.

In reality, I'd been thinking about Ben Alder and its difficulties for a long time. I was doubtful of my wild camping capabilities as my experience of this was very limited. I also had an issue with equipment as the only gear I possessed was purchased over 25 years earlier when I had completed Wainwright's Coast to Coast walk.

Hours spent on Walk Highlands reading walkers' reports boosted my confidence somewhat. But when to go? Where to stay? What to carry?

I tested my ancient equipment, supplemented it with some new odds and ends, and made my plans to go as soon as the weather was favourable. Recently retired, I have the luxury of taking advantage of good weather as it arises without the yoke of work around my neck.

Week commencing 13/5/19 looked promising and on the Tuesday I took the train to Dalwhinnie via Edinburgh, arriving at 4pm. I called in at the Snack Shack, just around the corner from the station, and had an early dinner. This saved me from the need to carry food for the first night of my stay. In any event, I really couldn't have packed any more items into my 75 litre rucksack. I had almost as much stuff strapped to the outside of the rucksack as was contained inside. My plan was to walk in to Culra Bothy or Loch Pattack (day 1); climb Ben Alder and Bheinn Bheoil (day 2); climb Carn Dearg and Geal-charn (day 3); walk out (day 4). I also had in mind an option to climb the trio of Beinn a'Chlachair, Geal Charn & Creag Pitridh depending on how I felt and thus extending the trip to 5 days. This option was not adopted but I needed to carry sufficient food for the possibility and this contributed to my bulging rucksack. The rucksack weighed in at over 23kgs and that was a heavy weight for a lightweight like me.

To Culra bothy from Dalwhinnie

our_route.gpx Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts

I'd started walking just before 5pm and I was keen to arrive and pitch my tent while the light was still good. It was a beautifully sunny afternoon and I started out at a reasonable pace. By the time I reached Ben Alder Lodge however, I was beginning to flag. My ancient equipment included a 2 man tent and all its attendant paraphernalia and it now felt more like 50kgs than 50lbs. I persevered, afraid to rest in case I couldn't haul the rucksack onto my back! I'd made the decision to go to Culra Bothy rather than Loch Pattack even though the latter was a little closer. I reasoned that there were more likely to be others at Culra and that may aid my wild camping naivete. I looked for the left turn off the track onto the footpath, conscious of the advice not to turn too early into boggy ground. However, desperation for the finish got the better of me and I convinced myself that I had turned where directed. I was wrong of course. Fortunately, the dry weather had turned the swamp into a pleasant dry, bouncy, walking surface and I made an effective short cut.

The bothy came into sight at long last and I could see other people had camped. I arrived about 8.45pm with plenty of light in the sky and was surprised to see about 10 tents clustered in and around the bothy.

A veritable camp site
ImageIMG_6341 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

You will note that mine is the green, egregiously large two man tent, first in line. I must invest in something more suitable. Something from the 21st century.

Looking north east
ImageIMG_6343 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil

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The next day dawned just as sunny as the one before. I was up and walking just after 7.30am: my target Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil. The location of the bridge over the Allt a'Bhealaich Dhuibh means that you have to start out in exactly the wrong direction, albeit only for 300 metres

Going the wrong way
ImageIMG_6344 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr.

The path follows the stream for a couple of kilometres and moves away striking southwards. Soon a turn to the south west at a small cairn, directly towards the Long Leachas, is required. I don't know whether I was enjoying the sun too much or taking an interest in the interesting local modern art exhibitions but I managed to sail right past the putative cairn.

Mobile modern art near Ben Alder
ImageIMG_6347 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

After a few hundred metres heading in the wrong direction I realised my error and turned to cross the Allt a'Bhealaich Bheithe. This was straightforward as was the next kilometre or so until I intercepted the path towards the bottom of the Long Leachas. Both the crossing of the stream and subsequent crossing to the ridge would likely be more difficult had the recent weather been wetter.

I'd been a little apprehensive about climbing the Long Leachas but in such good weather and with a clear path to follow it was very simple. There was one somewhat exposed chimney to negotiate but it really wasn't difficult. As I neared the very top of the Long Leachas I spied a ptarmigan sat on a rock directly above me, about 10 metres away. It was still showing a lot of winter plumage.

Ptarmigan defending the top of the Long Leachas
ImageIMG_6352 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

I persevered upwards and the ptarmigan seemed unconcerned by my presence. Each step took me closer and I took successive snaps until I was only one metre away!

A very tame ptarmigan
ImageIMG_6360 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

Easy as it was, it was still a relief to gain the summit and look back north east down the ridge.

The top of the Long Leachas, looking towards Culra bothy
ImageIMG_6361 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

A kilometre and a half of much less steep ground, rocky in parts, leads to the summit. There was still a small amount of snow on the plateau but reduced to isolated snow fields. It could all be circumnavigated if desired. The lack of snow surprised me a little: I had been expecting more and was concerned it may have lying thickly on the Long Leachas - where there was none. I've just read the walk report of cbas104 who, just a week earlier, encountered deep snow on the ridge and plateau. It just shows what a difference a few days of good weather can make at this time of year.

A quick repast at the summit where I was briefly joined by Jonathan (2manyYorkies) and Sue (RumTruffle). I'd met 2manyYorkies at the bothy before I started out and I was to see more of them later in the trip.

From the summit I followed the edge of the cliffs, at first south west then south south east at Lochan a Garbh Choire (still snow covered) and finally more south east at spot height 1103m (an obvious rise in the ground) heading steeply down to Bealach Breabag. There is a good view of Loch a'Bhealaich Bheithe from here and Loch Ericht in the distance. The shallow, aquamarine colour of the nearer loch contrasting with the indigo of the deeper Ericht.

Loch a'Bhealaich Bheithe with Loch Ericht in the background
ImageIMG_6365 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

More climbing from the bealach and then skirting Sron Coire na h-lolaire to access the ridge. Another short drop and then the final pull onto Beinn Bheoil. I barely paused here preferring to continue along the ridge and drop down 100 metres or so to a more sheltered spot for a rest. The weather was still excellent but windier and just a little too cool when stationary.

I followed the ridge until the scree to my left was no longer evident and turning north west at a height of about 850 metres, started my descent towards the footpath. The ground was dry and no difficulties were encountered as I made it to the footpath and soon after I was walking beside the Allt a'Chaoil-reidhe. I'd taken my time, had a self-inflicted detour and a couple of stops, and finished in about 9 hours. A bit slower than average and I must admit that I was feeling it in the last section from from Beinn Bheoil. The previous day's exertions with my heavy pack were beginning to tell. The number of campers had diminished by this time with only three other tents remaining.

Carn Dearg and Geal-charn

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I slept well again that night and felt refreshed for my assault on Carn Dearg and Geal-charn. The weather was beautifully sunny again if a little windier. Jonathan and Sue had a similar itinerary and we started at a similar time - about an hour later than the previous day. Hence we arrived at the summit at almost the same time. The climb to Carn Dearg starts immediately from the bothy and that meant we were at the top in little more than an hour and a half. The wind was stronger up here and I put on a extra layer for the first time on my trip.

Summit of Carn Dearg with Loch a'Bhealaich Leamhain in the distance
ImageIMG_6368 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

Following my fellow campers I approached the highest point of the ridge - Diollaid a'Chairn - before the scary looking Aisre Ghobhainn. Before reaching Diollaid a'Chairn I noticed a medium sized wader near the path. It was a Dotterel and the first I had seen since climbing the Aonachs 20 years earlier. Initially I took the bird to be a female as it was rather drab but a later check of the literature revealed it to be a male, the female being more brightly coloured. Highly unusual if not unique in bird species. Jonathan and Sue, who were slightly ahead of me, had seen both male and female.

The next challenge was the aforementioned Aisre Ghobhainn. Not dissimilar in character to the Long Leachas, I'd also had some misgivings about this climb. As I approached there were excellent views of Loch an Sgoir to the left and the smaller Loch Coire Cheap to the right.

Loch an Sgoir
ImageIMG_6376 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

Loch Coire Cheap
ImageIMG_6375 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

Aisre Ghobhainn proved to be not at all daunting although somewhat physically demanding. Obviously it would be a different proposition in snow or otherwise inclement weather.

Aisre Ghobhainn from the ridge near Diollaid a'Chairn
ImageIMG_6374 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

An easy stroll to the summit assisted by straightforward route-finding under blue skies.

Jonathan and Sue (left) on the summit of Geal-charn
ImageIMG_6377 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

Here I left my fellow campers as they were headed for Aonach Beag and Beinn Eibhinn. I'd climbed these hills the previous October from Loch Ossian SYHA (hosted by the inimitable Jan). Instead my climbing for the day was done. I'd planned a route down to avoid the dreaded Lancet Edge. I couldn't persuade myself to climb up this ridge and I definitely wasn't going to climb down it. My initial route off the summit did take me in that direction however, making a bee-line for Sgor Iutharn. After a kilometre I bore south east, down to the bealach below Leacann na Brathan. I took a break here for 30 mins and had some lunch. Refreshed, I made my way down steep slopes to the south east descending about 250 metres to the Bealach Dubh. The 5 or 6 kilometres walk down the Allt a'Bealaich Dhuibh seemed effortless and I arrived back at camp at 3.30pm, having had a close up view of a Wheatear as I descended. Today's effort was only 7 hours and that seemed more like par for the course.

I had a lie-in the following day as my train from Dalwhinnie was not due until just before 4pm. I packed up and slung my rucksack on my back. All my food had now gone but it was still a challenging weight and promised a tough walk down to civilisation. In fact, it took me almost as long to get down as it did to get up! The weather was still glorious and I had a close encounter with a Cuckoo singing its famous song whilst being harassed by a pair of (unidentified) passerines. I had a second visit to Snack Shack and enjoyed a very well-earned beer. I was at the station with time to spare for the 6 hour journey home.

Waiting for the train south
ImageIMG_6384 by Mike Murphy, on Flickr

All in all, a really exciting and enjoyable adventure. I met a couple of very pleasant people and still enjoyed a lot of solitude. I wouldn't worry at all at repeating a wild camping experience though I must invest in some lightweight gear!
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Re: Ben Alder et al - wild camping in the sun

Postby 2manyYorkies » Wed May 22, 2019 12:55 pm

Great report Mike, summed up the experience perfectly!
I left at 5am on the last morning - insomnia being my friend once more - and found the ride out a lot easier than the ride in after two days intensive training on the hills! Good luck with the rest of your Munro's.
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Re: Ben Alder et al - wild camping in the sun

Postby Rum truffle » Wed May 22, 2019 1:37 pm

Great report Mike, and lovely to meet you! Didn’t realise it was your first wild camp (at least since the C2C) as you seemed to know what you were doing :D Glad you got your beer once back in Dalwhinnie - you deserved it after the long walk out!
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Re: Ben Alder et al - wild camping in the sun

Postby BlackPanther » Thu May 23, 2019 9:58 am

We did the same route for Ben Alder/Beinn Bheoil from Dalwhinnie on Thursday (16th May), but used bikes and managed to return to the starting point in a day. Cycling really speeds it up :D

I was a bit apprehensive about the Leaches, too, having been told that the chimney was "a serious scrambling business" but in the end, I coped with it, no problems. I think the whole ridge looks very intimidating from below, but on closer inspection, it's not as bad as it seems.

Looking down the problematic chimney...
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Re: Ben Alder et al - wild camping in the sun

Postby Mikemurphy58 » Thu May 23, 2019 6:55 pm

The weather definitely makes a huge difference. The Long Leachas was straightforward in the sun with a clearly defined path. I can imagine it being far trickier with snow lying on the ground and the path invisible. It would be much more intimidating even in the wet. I did Crib Goch on Snowdon in the rain and that had me concentrating very hard. When I did the Aonach Eagach and Liathach it was a glorious sunny day on both occasions and it wasn't too bad. I'll save the really tough ones for when I'm sure about the weather!
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Re: Ben Alder et al - wild camping in the sun

Postby kevsbald » Fri May 24, 2019 1:22 pm

Well done sir.
You cant beat wild camping - it does mean investing in lighter gear, which isn't cheap but if you can afford it, makes things easier and more comfortable. Love that area and probably one of the last people to spend a night in Culra Bothy :shock:
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Re: Ben Alder et al - wild camping in the sun

Postby Sunset tripper » Fri May 24, 2019 3:36 pm

That looked brilliant, great pictures and it's a great area. The Lancet Edge, I used as a descent last year and not much if any more difficult than the Long Leachas.
All the best :D
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Re: Ben Alder et al - wild camping in the sun

Postby Mikemurphy58 » Sat May 25, 2019 10:42 am

I just read you report from last year Sunset tripper. I wish I'd done the Lancet Edge now! Maybe next time.
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