When you bite off more than you can chew in an October day

Munros: Geal-chàrn (Alder)

Date walked: 10/10/2021

Time taken: 30.5 hours

Distance: 52km

Ascent: 1950m

The October school fortnight was looking pretty booked up, what with a DIY to-do list that read like War and Peace and the incredible inconvenience of a jury duty citation for the second week, so if I was going to get back out for the first time since John and I had a stunning day on Ciste Dubh and the Brothers Ridge in Kintail back in late August, it was going to have to be the opening weekend.

I messaged John a week or so beforehand to see if he was interested in another outing to which he replied "bigtime!" and so wheels were put in motion for a Saturday afternoon/evening walk in to Ben Alder Cottage bothy from Loch Rannoch. Our targets were the Ben Alder Forest Munros of Geal Charn, Aonach Beag and Beinn Eibhinn. This threesome would take my count up to 232, leaving me a nice round 50 to go. I had had a notion earlier in the year to take a tent in from the A86 at Gallovie near the eastern end of Loch Laggan and to camp around Loch Pattack but the fast disappearing year had caught up with that idea and now here I was planning this alternative.

I dropped my daughter off at her gymnastics class at 12 o'clock and headed to Morrisons for one or two last minute bothy essentials. John was due at my house for 1 o'clock but was running late and it was closer to 2 o'clock by the time he rocked up and getting on for quarter past by the time we hit the road.

A little under two hours later and we were parked on the verge by the white house at Bridge of Ericht, at the start of the track leading all the way to Corrievarkie Lodge halfway up the eastern shore of Loch Ericht. The last time I had been parked here had been when I had done the long masochistic walk along that track to climb Stob an Aonaich Mhoir. That walk had been done in the shadow of approaching lockdown, just two weeks before the hills beyond my own local authority went off limits for 3 months. This time the outlook was far less bleak and after the extended closure of MBA bothies during the worst of the pandemic, I could now look forward to my first bothy night since that night in December 2019 in Glean Dubh Lighiche bothy.

Part 1 - Saturday 9th October 2021 (Bridge of Ericht to Ben Alder Cottage)

Time - 4.2 hours

We hoisted our heavy overnight packs onto our backs and hit the track just after 4 o'clock. We were each carrying 7 cans of beer (John had started out with 8 but had polished one off while I drove in the interests of bothy equality), I had about 4kg of coal and a decent stash of wood for the fire and John also had his one man tent in case of emergency. How two of us and a dog were going to manage in that should it be necessary was not something I wished to dwell on too much. I had opted for this route in, turning off the Corrievarkie Lodge track at the southern end of Loch Ericht before crossing the dam and following the edge of the forestry along the shore for 3km before hooking up with the track in from Rannoch Lodge. Had I known what a bogfest that 3km of "path" would be, the track from Rannoch Lodge, although slightly longer, would have been much preferable. The walk along the tarmac as far as the dam was done in glorious late afternoon autumnal sunshine and by the time we had reached the far side of the dam, we felt that a little sit down and a beer was well and truly in order.

Golden autumnal colours on the walk in to the Ericht Dam

Crossing the Ericht Dam

North up Loch Ericht from the western end of the dam

With our respective loads lightened to the tune of one can of beer each, we crossed the stile in the deer fence onto the thin strip of land between the fence and the trees for the 3km stretch to the track. It was pretty clear from the outset that it was going to be boggy and I only hoped that we made it out and onto the track before nightfall. Darkness would soon swallow us, but hopefully this bog would not do the same!

Things could be worse - we could be on the other side of the fence!

Despite the hellish terrain, things were all going "swimmingly" (pun intended) until the point in a story that John was recounting about a recent hill walking weekend in Galloway where he was driving through Newton Stewart and observed a buxom young lady emerge from a public house and cross the road in front of him with a glass between her teeth. Just as he was about to get to whatever the punchline in the story was, disaster struck and he went down arse first into the stinking, sucking bog. Despite my efforts to grab and support him and prevent a full on collapse into the bog, I was undone by the weight of his six remaining cans of beer and I failed miserably. I recall his rather pained voice exclaiming "Oh no!!!" as he went down, before managing to extract himself and thank the foresight he had had to pack a change of trousers and underwear! As for the story about the girl in Newton Stewart, we never did get closure on that! :?

The length of Loch Ericht opening up northwards from the bend in the forest just east of Dun Daimh

At this point we ended up doglegging back and following the fence at the edge of the trees rather than taking the path along the shoreline, emerging onto the track at the gate and cattle grid just south of the shed and the bridge over the Cam Chriochan.

Nightfall fast approaching

It was a blessed relief to be out of the bog and onto the track. Shortly after crossing the bridge, headtorches were pressed into service and a while later, as the track dipped and ran across a large area of sandy beach shortly before it ended and turned into a muddy, grassy path, John's phone pinged a few alerts and we managed to pick up the news of the epic 3-2 victory for Stevie Clarke's men at Hampden. After John had made a quick call to the kids, it was with renewed vigour and energy that we set off again in search of the bothy. 8)

After a seemingly endless slog on the muddy path past the edge of an area of fenced forestry and then up through an area of scattered larch, we picked out a moving light that guided us down to the quirky little bridge over the Alder Burn and then the short distance further to the bothy. Luna really didn't like the look of the bridge and opted instead for ploughing straight through the burn, but not without a brief struggle against the strong current that gave a momentary sense of concern.

The bothy was currently home to four guys from near Paisley who were holed up with a good fire going in the left hand room. They had walked in and arrived at 1am the previous night and had spent the day drinking and fishing but mostly drinking. Three of them hit the hay in the bunks in the little central room and on the sleeping platform in the LH room shortly after we arrived (not sure if it was something I said or the smell of stinking bog emanating from John's trousers). John and I retreated to the RH room where we (1) cracked open the first of the remaining beers, (2) got Luna her dinner, (3) got the fire going and then (4) turned our attention to our own dinner. Such are bothy priorities. :lol:

One of the guys popped his head in as we were getting dinner going and asked if he could join us as all his mates had bailed on him so we chatted away to him for an hour or so before he called it a night. John got some pasta on the boil which he put a jar of pesto through and we shared that before I got the Diabolo toastie maker going and made a couple of cheese, chorizo and jalapeno toasties in the fire.

We listened to Maiden and FFDP while we nursed the fire and most of our beers through until the early hours of Sunday before calling it quits and getting some kip.

Part 2 - Sunday 10th October 2021 (Ben Alder Cottage to Bridge of Ericht the LONG way!)

Time - 13 hours

We awoke to a decent looking Sunday morning with two cans of Tin Man still standing and set about getting breakfast on the go. John realised that the 2 litre bottle of water he had carried in was still unopened and after closer investigation realised that he had boiled the pasta using water out of a bottle that had been left in the bothy by previous occupants. I tried hard not to entertain the possibility that he had boiled the pasta using water from someone's bothy p*ss pot and what we had actually had for dinner last night had been not so much pasta pesto as pasta pisto! :shock:

Nice view of Loch Ericht but also why you'll never see bothy windows appearing in a CR Smith advert

Sunrise across Loch Ericht

The Paisley guys headed off for the walk back out to Loch Rannoch and we packed the necessary essentials for the day into day packs, tidied the place up and took turns to go for a short walk with the spade before setting off on the path towards the Bealach Cumhann.

Leaving Ben Alder Cottage behind

The early promise of a good weather day had somewhat evaporated and it wasn't long before a steady drizzle set in and forced us to resort to full waterproofs. The good path made for good going though and the weather soon picked up again and we were treated to sunbeams and rainbows as we approached the bealach.

Low cloud on the hills but a hint of something more promising beyond

Down the Alder Burn to Loch Ericht

Rainbow over Beinn a'Chumhainn

Beinn Eibhinn through the narrow gap of the Bealach Cumhann

As we turned north east and started to descend down to the gap between Sron Ruadh and Meall an t-Slugain, the clag again swallowed us and almost obscured the views of Loch Ossian over our shoulders to the west.

West along the Uisge Labhair towards Loch Ossian

The wisdom of the route we were undertaking on an October day after a "relaxed" start from the bothy was now being called into question as the path to the point where we could take to the Lancet Edge ridge of Sgor Iutharn seemed to go on and on and on for ever.

The Long Leachas ridge of Ben Alder and another Geal Charn across Loch Ericht from the Bealach Dubh

Eventually the north east ridge of Sgor Iutharn became clearly defined and we left the path and did a bit of heather whacking until the ridge became rockier and better defined.

The Long Leachas ridge from the beginning of the ascent

Maybe it was the gnawing realisation that we were a VERY long way from the car, that time was marching on, that we were against the fast ticking October clock counting down to the onset of darkness, maybe it was something else, I don't know, but I was failing to find the fabled Lancet Edge anything more than unremarkable.

Is this a hint of scambliness I see before me?

Rainbow over Carn Dearg and a distant Fara

Eventually the spice factor of the ridge picked up a few notches and we got into some decent scrambling terrain above the void of Loch an Sgoir.

Luna assessing the scrambling opportunities ahead

Alder and Bheoil

John picking his way up the ridge

Loch an Sgoir

By now it was obvious that we were NOT going to get all three Munro scalps today and that I was NOT going home with only 50 more to go. We still had not even claimed ONE of the three, had a lengthy return back to the bothy from any exit point on the ridge and then at least 4 hours from there back to the car. To my slight surprise, John still seemed well up for the task but I remained unconvinced.

John taking a wee breather on the Lancet Edge with Loch Ericht in the distance

Ben Alder - memories of a long ago gargantuan trip with Kev from Dalwhinnie and a night in the asbestos ridden howff that is Culra

John and I have both recently got quite in to kayaking, both having invested in inflatable kayaks recently and put them to fairly regular use throughout this year. We discussed the idea of kayaking in to Ben Alder Cottage from Dalwhinnie but a look at the map and the length of Loch Ericht between these two points made last night's bog walk seem like a piece of cake in comparison!

Meanwhile, Luna was having issues of her own as the ridge narrowed and tapered towards the summit of Sgor Iutharn. She was having to drop down off the crest to find alternative routes, unable to cope with the slabby rocks on the crest itself. At one point I had to clamber down, get her on the lead and find a suitably grassy rake for us both to climb back up. Thankfully for her, if not us, the ridge levelled off and broadened out into the summit of Sgor Iutharn and we had our first summit, if not our first Munro, of the weekend, the lion's share of 24 hours after leaving the car.

Luna going increasingly off piste

John generally much prefers to be on the piste :lol:

Summit of Sgor Iutharn looking to Loch Ericht

From here I took a bearing on the summit of Geal Charn and after a slight drop and then a short but steepish pull up, it was onto the big, flat, featureless summit plateau of the White Hill.

The road ahead to Geal Charn

Towards Sgor Gaibhre and Loch Ossian

Back to Sgor Iutharn

Up on the plateau, the White Hill was really not living up to its name today. The grey and slightly dirty shade of brown hill would have been a more appropriate moniker today. It was certainly baring its teeth though and we were being battered black and blue by the gale. More than once I almost parted company with my trusty cap and my gilet, which I had popped over my waterproof jacket, was inflating like a drivers air bag in the gale and threatening to provide enough lift to whip me clean off the plateau. It was probably only the weight of water in it which anchored me to the ground. It was never waterproof but it was also never as sponge-like as this! Mental note - Arcteryx gilet overdue a reproofing! :shock:

This business is not for everyone and at this very moment I wasn't sure if it was even for me!

We must have been blown off my bearing as well as we turned left when we hit the path that links the four Munros together when not done via the Lancet Edge but soon began to descend. John's phone confirmed that we were heading away from Geal Charn and dropping down to the bealach between it and Aonach Beag. This would be the closest we would get to Aonach Beag let alone Beinn Eibhinn today. We retraced our steps and soon enough the rather miserable looking cairn of Geal Charn loomed out of the clag and FINALLY, my Munro tally reached the 230 mark.

A compleation of sorts - my final Munro by the name of Geal Charn

John was still up for doing Aonach Beag. Luna was non-committal. I was already taking an escape bearing! :lol: In the end, neither John nor Luna protested and we trudged soggily in a more or less due south direction for the long walk back to the bothy to pick up our overnight gear.

Again, we must have been blown off our bearing. That's my excuse anyway, although the reality is that in the face of the pounding gale, I wasn't paying nearly enough attention to the needle. As a result, we ended up coming down to the west of the crags on Sron Ruadh and being funnelled down some tricky ground into Coire a'Charra Bhig. Not to worry, it was all leading us slowly home.

Awkward descent into Coire a'Charra Bhig with Beinn Eibhinn ahead of us

The weather continued with that infuriating Scottish thing of being several different seasons in the same half hour and I tried hard not to be too morose about the events of the day or to dwell too much on our failure to manage all three planned Munros. Looking at the positives, I had realised a long held desire to do the Lancet Edge ascent and had enjoyed a first bothy night in nearly two years. Not such a bad weekend after all and of course at this stage in the game, a single new Munro is a single new Munro and one small step closer to compleation.

Nice light in lower Coire a'Charra Bhig

Back within sight of Loch Ericht

We were back at the bothy for 17.30 and allowed ourselves half an hour to eat what little food we had left, to get our big overnight packs sorted and to polish off the two remaining cans of Tin Man. On the stroke of 6 o'clock we took a deep breath, shouldered the considerably lighter packs and pulled the front door of Ben Alder Cottage closed, leaving the ghost in peace, before starting the long walk back to my car on Loch Rannoch. This time we were going nowhere near the shore side of the forestry or the dam, instead heading straight down the track to Rannoch Lodge and then the 1.5km or so trudge back along the tarmac.

A last look back from the bridge

South down Loch Ericht

Stob an Aonaich Mhoir

Back towards the bothy in the descending darkness

Headtorches were back on before we reached the bridge over the Cam Criochan, although I was paying the price for having mine of full beam too much last night and it was now down to the lowest setting. Even so, even when John fell back a bit and I had to rely on my own light, my eyes managed to adjust and keep me on the straight and narrow rather than allowing me to wander off into a ditch. The occasional whack around the shins with a big stick served as reassurance that Luna was still there!

Long before we hit the tarmac we both agreed that this seemed considerably longer than our route in last night and were almost beginning to wish we had chosen the bog over the track. But we both knew that tackling that thin ribbon of swamp between the loch and the forestry in the dark at the end of an epic weekend would have been a catastrophe that no man could mitigate against with any amount of spare trousers and pants.

The last stretch along the tarmac was a painful experience. Luna was still trotting along as if nothing had happened but we were shadows of the men who had set out over 30 hours previously. I have certainly rarely been so happy to see my car at the end of a walk before. It was 22.30 and there were still a couple of hours of driving before we got back to Perth. I guess that's what you'd call an epic.

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Graeme D

User avatar
Location: Perth
Occupation: Teacher
Pub: Moulin Inn
Mountain: Too tough to answer
Gear: Paramo gilet/Scarpa boots
Member: MCofS
Ideal day out: No such thing as a bad day out on or amongst the hills - only degrees of goodness.
Ambition: 2b sent home on full pay!

Munros: 230
Corbetts: 114
Grahams: 67
Donalds: 22
Wainwrights: 27
Hewitts: 36
Sub 2000: 57
Islands: 6
Long Distance routes: West Highland Way   

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Distance: 176.7 km
Ascent: 11950m
Munros: 7
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Ascent: 28081m
Munros: 25
Corbetts: 9
Grahams: 7
Donalds: 1
Sub2000s: 16


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Ascent: 24365m
Munros: 30
Corbetts: 21
Grahams: 11
Sub2000s: 7
Hewitts: 6


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Ascent: 15243m
Munros: 27
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