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Culra Expedition

Culra Expedition

Postby christianhowell1982 » Thu Jul 16, 2020 8:05 pm

Route description: Ben Alder and Beinn Bheòil from Culra

Munros included on this walk: Aonach Beag (Alder), Beinn Bheoil, Beinn Èibhinn, Ben Alder, Càrn Dearg (Loch Pattack), Geal-chàrn (Alder)

Date walked: 06/07/2020

Time taken: 20 hours

Distance: 68 km

Ascent: 3000m

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With the 5 mile rule finally relaxed, the temptation to spread one’s wings and venture further afield was too great. Having completed the Ardverikie Trio already, the Geal-charn group and Ben Alder massiff were the next obvious targets. Being the most remote mountains of the Central Highlands a long walk-in from any direction was inevitable. The closest approach for me was not Dalwhinnie or Loch Rannoch, which are the norm, but Kinloch Laggan in Glenspean where excellent estate tracks lead for 11 miles to Loch Pattack where other routes merge, before continuing across the wild moorlands to Culra.
This would be my first true wild camping experience and much time was spent in the weeks prior, planning and organising and collating the necessary equipment. With my small frame, weight was hugely important to me as was carrying sufficient food to keep energy levels high. Comfort and gourmet cuisine were less important.
On top of my usual hill walking equipment I packed a Wild Country Zephyros Compact 2 lightweight tent from Terra Nova, Helium 400 90/10 down-fill, 3 season sleeping bag from Mountain Equipment and a self inflating bed roll also from Mountain Equipment. The Jetboil camping stove and 100grams of gas would ensure I had hot food and drink and a 10000mh power bank phone charger would ensure I didn't run out of battery over the 3 days. Oats so simple porridge sachets, milk powder, dried fruit and nuts were packed for breakfasts over the 2 days and Summit To Eat freeze dried meals and desserts would provide the bulk of my calorie intake. Chocolate, biscuits, sweets and pastry snacks were carried to eat on the go.
With water and ancillaries and additional clothing I was pleased when my pack weighed in at under 11KG, less than 20% of my 60Kg bodyweight which I understand to be important on any medium to long distance trek.
Despite the time spent researching equipment and planning the expedition there were still many unknowns. How would the tent and Jetboil cope if the winds peaked at their predicted 40mph?, would I be permanently hungry throughout the trip?, how would the distance and heavy pack load affect my physical performance and endurance over 3 long and tough mountain days?, would I be warm enough?,.....I guess all these questions would soon be answered.
The small, rough layby parking at Kinloch Laggan on a fast section of the A86 was not the ideal place to leave my car unattended for 3 days and so my wife dropped me off. The wife and dog accompanied me for the first hour of the walk in. The first 1 mile or so of criss-crossing estate roads and un-mapped hydro tracks would subsequently prove to be the most testing navigational leg of the entire expedition and after having filled my wife full of doubt as to my capability we said our goodbyes and parted company.
I was pleased at how quickly I became unaware of the additional burden I was carrying as I ventured further and further into the wild. Downstream of Loch Pattack, the river had been dammed to support a new Hydro scheme. This came as a complete surprise as it was not something I had either read about or seen annotated on any map. The existing estate track disappeared into the dark depths of the man-made loch and progress therefore seemingly halted. Scurrying up the very recently churned up banks I was thankful to emerge alongside a newly constructed deer fence which led, via a ladder stile to the continuing track. A fork in the track a short distance on appeared to bypass the new hydro scheme entirely. I made a mental note of this for I would be returning this way in 2 days time.
On approach to Loch Pattack the excellent estate tracks degenerated into a rough, grassy, bog fest. Leaping over the worst of the bogs sapped the energy and it was of some relief when the track once again improved as I rounded the head of Loch Pattack and met the track coming from Dalwhinnie along the banks of Loch Ericht. The bothy and lodge at Culra are seen from here as two distant silvery reflections. Their apparent close proximity not at all commensurate of the time taken to reach them across the baron moorland, once the ancient Ben Alder Forest. As the great bulk of the Ben Alder Massif loomed ever closer I got the first look at the Long Leachas ridge. Twinned with the ridge of Lancet Edge on the opposite side of the Bealach Dubh these two steep, craggy and narrow ridges would form my gateway to the heights over the next few days. Both described as airy, exhilarating, yet technically simple scrambles my heart pulsed at the prospect.
Having not seen another sole en route to Culra I must admit I was a little surprised and disappointed to see not less than 8 other tents in the relative close proximity of the Bothy with numerous people milling about, some packing up their kit, some just setting up having arrived a short time ahead of me.
Greeting those I passed as I sought out a nice pitch close to the Allt a' Bhealaich Dhuibh I was thankful that it had remained dry and looked to remain dry, long enough at least for me to establish camp. 15 minutes later I was unpacked, tent up, food stowed and lightweight hillpack re-organised. It was early, maybe 5pm, too early to eat and certainly too early to get my head down. The Lancet Edge was by far my preferred route of choice up to the lofty summit of Geal-charn. The conundrum however with this route is that, emerging at the central point along the Carn Dearg - Aonach Beag ridge, there are Munros to complete in both directions involving a not inconsiderable amount of descent and re-ascent not to mention the additional mileage. So, I thought, if I was to 'nip' up Carn Dearg now, working up an appetite for dinner whilst passing the time, I would have a far less arduous, almost linear route tomorrow. And so, after a quick call to the wife to say I had arrived at Culra safely, this is exactly what I did.
Carn Dearg sits directly above Culra Lodge, up steep, sodden slopes of heather. An arduous 500m climb up these slopes sees me emerge onto the more pleasant NE ridge. Unfortunately, whilst the conditions underfoot did improve, the weather did not. Quickly I was enveloped in cloud reducing visibility to 100m or so and with it came the rain and wind. I scurried along a compass bearing to the summit cairn, took a very quick soggy, summit snap and returned to the sanctuary of my tent not more than 90mins after I had set off. Not a particularly glamorous start to the 'bagging' spree but a start none the less. Dinner was freeze-dried tikka and rice with freeze dried chocolate mouse and cherry granola. Very average taste yet surprisingly sustaining was the verdict.
I barely slept a wink that night. Not able to sprawl with legs and arms as is normal, without the comfort of a pillow or the wife and with the wind buffeting I just couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned until first light at about 415am and then tossed and turned some more. Shortly after 5am I gave up and unzipped the tent to see, not more than 100m upstream, a women, trousers and drawers round her ankles, squat over the bank, peeing (or at least I hope that's all she was doing) directly into the river!!!!
I could barely believe what I was seeing,..literally peeing in the river, the same river that everyone will be taking water from for cooking and eating and washing,...I was gobsmacked and appalled to say the least.
After getting over this horror, I got dressed, brewed and enjoyed a big bowl of warming porridge whilst rehearsing the days route over and over in my head. It was just after 6 am when I set off. It had rained most the night but was dry for now and cloud was hovering somewhere around 800-900m. I felt chilly at first and I put on far too many layers as I was quickly stripping down to start the climb up to the base of Lancet Edge. First there was a burn to cross which caused me to dither, not wishing to soak my socks and feet so early in the day. Safely across the burn the going was rough and I took a diagonal line up steep slopes of heather to avoid the first prominent outcrops lower down on the ridge. Once on the ridge proper, an intermittent path wends its way steeply uphill, navigating a route through and around seemingly impenetrable crags. The rocks were wet and greasy and I was surprised at how loose and crumbly the holds were, jangling the nerves and adding more than a little trepidation to the ascent. A very big step up onto a small slippery ledge, over a significant drop was the crux. Beyond here the ridge narrowed considerably, think Aonach Eagach pinnacles, without the technical difficulty. The exposure was significant and the risk of a slip on the wet rock very real resulting in me taking to all fours on more than one occasion. The ridge broadens once again and flattens off. Rock gives way to grass and the summit of Sgor Iutharn is reached with much relief that the trickiest bit of the day was over already and it was only 730am! I called the wife, waking her from her sleep and found someones OS map, complete with rubberised Ortlieb map case a short distance beyond the summit cairn. I was half expecting to find a wandering soul, lost in the vast expanse of Geal-charns summit plateau. Hopefully they had a spare or had already dialled in their compass bearing which would steer them safely to Geal-charns summit in the same way as I had to. Visibility was poor and aiming- off from my compass bearing a little to avoid a large swathe of snow I arrived at the great northern corrie rim about 100m west of the cairned summit. At 1132m this was the second Munro of the expedition and it was still before 9am. Now on a clear path I'm able to put the compass away. Descending to the intervening bealach between Geal-charn and Aonach Beag I drop briefly out the cloud were I'm able to 'reccie' my descent route that will later lead me down into Coire Charra Bhig and onto the Bealach Dubh path. The path is easy to follow and the ascent to Aonach Beag is never so steep or so sustained to hinder the swift progress I make to the summit cairn at 1116m. Another quick call to the wife to report on progress and eat half my lunch (despite it only being 930am!) before moving on to Beinn Eibhinn, the most westerly of the days Munros. On descent and re-ascent the path is rockier and twists and turns its way down the ridge with some dramatic rocky tors and hanging boulders which appear to defy gravity. The true summit of Beinn Eibhinn when tackled East to West is not the first but second cairn you come across although I believe they are recorded as the same height, 1102m. I touch both to be sure.
Retracing my steps to the BE - AB bealach I stop to chat to the only two other people that I will bump into on the hill over the two days. A father and daughter who, the night before had enjoyed a far more peaceful camp setting than I had, near to the outflow of Loch an Sgoir beneath the rugged eastern cliffs of Geal-charn. I left them to continue on to Beinn Eibhinn whilst I started my descent into the saturated bowl of Coire Charra Bhig. This is a standard descent route from the Geal-charn group however, lacks much to recommend it. Innumerable burns must be crossed and peat hags and undulating ground seem unrelenting. Not wishing to lose height unnecessarily, the route contours around the base of Sron Ruadh, staying below the crags before finally joining the excellent Bealach Dubh heading up the glen all the way from Ben Alder Cottage. From the bealach it is a pleasurable 3 mile descent over easy-angled terrain all the way back to Culra. As is so often the case on descent, the cloud disappears and sun comes out to bring a warm afternoon with largely blue skies. I enjoy the vistas and try not to be too disheartened that so far, I've had no summit views.
Back at the tent, I take my socks and shoes off, and find a rock to sit on near to my tent whilst cooling my feet in the river. Its still before 1pm!!
I while away the afternoon, enjoying the sunshine and peace and tranquillity of this remarkable mountain landscape. A great opportunity to catch up on some reading and great opportunity to contemplate life and the future. Dinner that night is Beef Stew with Vegetables followed by Apple Crumble and Custard. Freeze dried of course but better than the Tikka.
I thankfully manage a marginally better nights sleep, grabbing perhaps 4 hours on and off. Don't get me wrong, the ME Helium 400 sleeping bag and bed roll make an excellent and plenty warm enough combination. I guess I'm just not used to sleeping with my body straight, arms down by my side like I'm embalmed Mummy, unable to move.
A repeat of the day before sees me brewing and eating my porridge on or around 5am. The cloud is much, much lower today, it’s like I'm already in the cloud. The Long Leachas ridge is not even visible from Culra, reminding me that here in my camp I'm already at c470m. There is no wind at all, not a breath, and I worry that this will be another day when I have no views. Thankfully, to my delight, the clouds start to lift and as I set off the Long Leachas ridge and my highway to the skyway looms into view, it is spectacular. Like a giants staircase, a series of seemingly vertical rocks walls break out onto grassy levellings one after another. First though, one has to get to the base of the ridge. As was the case on approach to the Lancet Edge the day before, there is a burn to cross, however, on this occasion the burn is considerably wider, and faster flowing. Obvious boulders that would once form easy stepping stones are submerged under 6 inches of rushing water. Slipping off one of these boulders one would do well not to pulled under by the force of the water. I followed the bank upstream for several hundred metres testing the occasional boulder for grip or, as I found out to be, complete lack of grip. Beyond a sizeable re-entrant, the volume of water in the main burn reduced by half and at this point I was able to scrabble across dryshod. Thankfully it was only a short diversion and I was soon back on the right track and aiming for the first prominent levelling, low down on the ridge, to the left of a large hump.
Almost immediately I was in to the scrambling. The rocks were still greasy and care was needed and as height was gained so the ridge narrowed. The path comes and goes but for the most part is easy to follow. The levellings provide opportunity aplenty to look back at the incredible views to Culra and down to Loch a'Bhealaich Bheithe with the bulk of Beinn Bheoil beyond. Opportunity also to pause for breath and allow the heart rate to settle before tackling the next rocky step.
The crux here is to the right of a prominent rock wall where the path leads perilously into a narrow loose gully over huge drops. Either side of the gully the rocks are loose and wet and come away in your hand! I had a real wobble here and was relieved to emerge out the top of the gully unscathed. The scrambling is more sustained from this point on but it is never more than G1. A series of rock pinnacles are the final obstacle to overcome before reaching the grassy plateau beyond.
Nearly all the cloud has lifted now and just a few remaining swirling patches of mist remain on the vast plateau. Small groups of deer appear and disappear and large swathes of snow have turned pink due to the presence of a species of algae which thrive in freezing water and cold environments. Its a magical experience, and only the beautiful call of a snow bunting breaks the eerie silence.
Following the rim of the coire for much of the way to the summit, an array of ruinous buildings scatter the area. The remains of a camp set up by Major General Thomas Frederick Colby as part of the original OS mapping party. At 845am I arrive at Ben Alders huge summit cairn complete with wind break and dilapidated trig point. At 1148m this is the fifth Munro of my expedition and highest of them all.
The Snow Bunting and her fledglings remain with me all the way to Lochan a Garbh Choire, teasing and flirting playfully. One of the highest named Lochs in the UK and still hiding under a blanket of snow, Lochan a Garbh Choire is a surreal sight. Beyond here, a highpoint marks the spot to leave the coire rim, descending steeply through crags and broken ground to Bhealaich Bheithe. From here the views in all directions are simply breathtaking. I stopped to eat a very squished sausage roll and chocolate digestives before continuing up the easy slopes beyond to the Munro top of Sron Coire na h-lolaire; another excellent viewpoint from where Loch Ericht appears to continue into infinity!
It feels like quite a trudge up the grassy broad slope to my second Munro of the day and sixth and last of the expedition, Beinn Bheoil at 1019m. From the summit cairn I phone the wife to provide an updated ETA back to Kinloch Laggan. Its 1020am, 1hr back to Culra, 40mins to pack up camp and 4 hours walk out. I arrange my taxi for 4pm!
Descending from Beinn Bheoil I use the opportunity to practice my timing and refine my pacing. Immediately to the east of Beinn Bheoil and for some distance beyond along the continuing ridge, steep screes barr a direct descent down to the valley. Measuring a distance of 1.3km from the summit cairn to the point where I need to drop off the ridge I calculate the number of paces and estimated the time it will take. The terrain was benign and gradient gentle enough so as not to greatly affect my base measure of 68 dbl paces per 100m. A handful of small pebbles passed between hands helped to keep count and a prominent Northing line on the map, that intersects the point where I should drop off the ridge, which I could confirm against the GPS, would verify whether or not I had fallen short or overshot. It proved to be a great little exercise and something that would be very useful repeating on steeper or rocky terrain to further refine the skill.
Descending off the ridge down slopes of heather I was startled on more than one occasion by Grouse who appeared to wait until the very last minute to jump up from under my feet before 'croaking' their way off into the distance. It was also the first time I had ever seen Cloudberrys on the hill!
Arriving back at Culra I will admit that I was a little disappointed that my expedition was coming to an end but on the other hand I was very much looking forward to a warm shower and getting a good night’s sleep.
With tent packed down and gear stowed I said my farewells to this beautiful place and started the long walk back to Kinloch Laggan.
The pack felt heavy, perhaps not surprisingly and I stopped frequently.
As the bulk of Ben Alder and Geal-charn grew distant on the horizon, I felt truly blessed to live in such a beautiful part of the world where a lifetime of mountain adventures, right here on the doorstep, await!!

Track 6 Jul 2020 at 1326.gpx Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts

Last edited by christianhowell1982 on Sat Jul 18, 2020 10:47 am, edited 1 time in total.
Mountain Walker
Posts: 5
Munros:249   Corbetts:20
Sub 2000:3   
Joined: Jun 8, 2018
Location: Kentallen, Appin, Argyll

Re: Culra Expedition

Postby jimbell21 » Fri Jul 17, 2020 8:47 am

Great trip and a very detailed account of your travels. Glad you managed some summit views in the end and some braw pictures too :clap:
Mountain Walker
Posts: 228
Munros:188   Corbetts:34
Grahams:4   Donalds:5
Sub 2000:25   Hewitts:4
Joined: Feb 19, 2018
Location: Dunfermline

Re: Culra Expedition

Postby Sgitheanach » Sun Jul 19, 2020 6:18 pm

How much of your route in could be done by MTB?
Posts: 5
Munros:42   Corbetts:3
Joined: Mar 22, 2013

Re: Culra Expedition

Postby christianhowell1982 » Sun Jul 26, 2020 12:04 pm

Sgitheanach wrote:How much of your route in could be done by MTB?

Hi there, you could cycle all the way in to Culra without too much trouble. A little boggy on the track as it approaches Loch Pattack but there were a number of others that had cycled in this way during the time I was there ;-)
Mountain Walker
Posts: 5
Munros:249   Corbetts:20
Sub 2000:3   
Joined: Jun 8, 2018
Location: Kentallen, Appin, Argyll

Re: Culra Expedition

Postby christianhowell1982 » Sun Jul 26, 2020 12:05 pm

jimbell21 wrote:Great trip and a very detailed account of your travels. Glad you managed some summit views in the end and some braw pictures too :clap:

Thank you :-)
Mountain Walker
Posts: 5
Munros:249   Corbetts:20
Sub 2000:3   
Joined: Jun 8, 2018
Location: Kentallen, Appin, Argyll

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