It's about time! DofEing on the doorstep of winter!

Munros: Geal Charn

Date walked: 28/10/2018

Time taken: 68.5 hours

Distance: 52km

Ascent: 1660m

As many readers will know, I regularly manage to escape the confines of the classroom and get out into the hills with DofE groups. We have one of the biggest DofE programmes of any state school in Scotland and in the average calendar year, I tend to get out on anything up to 4 or 5 expeditions, usually during May/June and August/September. As a school, we tend to avoid taking groups out after the end of September and as an organisation, DofE itself does not allow groups to go out after the end of October except in special circumstances where they grant an exception to this.

I had thought my involvement was done for the year when I returned to work after the summer break but then I got an email one day at the beginning of September asking if I could take a Gold Assessment group out from 28th to 31st October. I assumed it was a mistake and should have said September rather than October and that the person who had written it had overlooked the fact that September only has 30 days. Easily done! :lol: I queried it and was told that it was indeed for the last four days in October. I queried it again, just to be doubly sure we were singing from the same hymn sheet and got the same response. Oh well, if that's the case, I'm in! Nothing like heading out on expedition the day after the clocks change to winter time! :shock: With hindsight, it turned out to be something of a masterstroke of timing - we got notice in early October that we would have the pleasure of a week long full scale HMIE inspection visit the week of 5th November so by the time the expedition rolled around the week before that, everyone was utterly sick fed up of the preparations and I was heartily glad of the opportunity to escape the madhouse and find some sanity in the hills.

The group had originally planned a canoe expedition but it had had to be cancelled in the summer for a variety of reasons and had proved too difficult to resurrect. It had then become a walking expedition but the problem had been finding a suitable date. The school generally likes one of the four days at Gold to be a weekend day to take the pressure off at work but it had proved difficult to get a weekend date when all 8 candidates were available and didn't have work commitments. Until the last weekend in October that is.

The group initially came up with a Cairngorms route, very similar to the Aviemore to Kingussie route that I have done about 3 million times in the past few years but I gently but firmly steered them away from this on the grounds that there would be a couple of very big days involved and limited daylight at the business end of the day. Instead I steered them towards the Dalwhinnie area and in particular a route that a couple of colleagues had used with a Gold training group back in June. It would mean some shorter days but DofE are quite flexible in terms of what they are happy to accommodate in light of specific conditions and circumstances, just as long as the spirit of the expedition is not unduly compromised. It had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that I still have three unclimbed Munros in the area! :crazy: :lol:

With a few days to go, they had still not come up with a fully workable route and so the Dalwhinnie circular route was imposed upon them. I met them for a working lunch in my classroom and told them to look out hot water bottles, buy return train tickets to Dalwhinnie and be prepared to sleep in every item of clothing they could carry for three nights. Then I told them that my colleague Paul and I would meet them at Perth train station for the 10.58 train to Inverness on Sunday morning.

Sunday 28th October

When we rocked up at the station on the Sunday morning we discovered our train was actually a bus which would take almost twice as long to get us to Dalwhinnie as the train would have. Already faced with the prospect of pitching tents and cooking dinner in the dark, we were now even more up against it! :roll: We eventually got into Dalwhinnie just before 1pm and after telling the kids to get their skates on and make like the wind along the side of Loch Ericht, Paul and I decanted to the hotel for coffee and cake. :lol: We eventually decided that we had given them enough of a start and had better make a move ourselves.

On the long and not so winding road along the side of Loch Ericht

We caught up with them a couple of clicks short of Ben Alder Lodge with the gloom already beginning to set in. The original Day 1 campsite was around Loch Pattack but we told the kids to get clear of the lodge buildings and then look for a spot along the track leading towards the loch.

It was a long, dark, bitterly cold night camped on frozen ground that had clearly seen little if any sun that day. The kids found a rather skanky looking spot just to the side of a cattle feeder on the left of the track while Paul and I headed up onto the old grassy track that runs just below the tree line above the right hand side of the main landrover track to Loch Pattack. I was fed, tent zipped up and into my sleeping bag with the hot water bottle by about 6.30 with nothing to do but nurse a dram and read some of my new book, Of Big Hills and Wee Men by Peter Kemp. Somewhere in a parallel existence I was tucked up on the couch with Ailsa watching the latest episode of Doctor Who with the wood burner on! I don't know what time I switched the head torch off and settled down to get some sleep but I awoke at some point with no sense of what time it was. It was pitch dark but that didn't really narrow it down much! I fumbled for my watch and hit the light button - just gone half ten! F**K!!!! It's going to be a long night :roll: . The same thing happened just after 2am. At least wearing almost everything I had, being warm when I got into the bag and having a hot water bottle by my feet kept me warm until nearly 4am at which point the bitter cold started to breach my defences and that was the end of anything even close to decent sleep for the rest of the night.

Monday 29th October

When a pale daylight eventually enticed me out of the tent, I wandered down to where the kids were camped to find no sign of life but plenty of pots and pans kicking about, some of them filled with water which had frozen solid overnight. I established that they were all alive and nobody had actually perished during the night before we had a chat through canvas about how it is ill-advised to leave unwashed cooking utensils lying about outside in sub-zero temperatures. And not just that, did they not know there are bears and wolves in them there woods, not to mention crazy horses in the neighbourhood, and they can all sniff out a skanky, pasta encrusted pan from miles away!!!!??? :lol: :lol: :lol:

The Culra Munros on a cold and frosty morning

Zoomed to Alder and co.

Zoomed to the Lancet Edge

I returned to my own tent where I sat and had coffee and porridge as I watched them strike camp and head off in the direction of Loch Pattack, looking for all the world like a rag-tag caravan of Mexicans heading for the US border and a showdown with Trump! :lol: After a while Paul and I shed a couple of layers, decamped and followed the caravan!

Beinn a'Chlachair and Geal Charn beyond Loch Pattack

They had to take the long route around Loch Pattack (as per their route to the proposed Day 1 camping spot), allowing Paul and myself to nip ahead of them (via the mad horses with an uncanny ability to detect chocolate biscuits concealed in backpacks and then over the wobbly wooden suspension bridge) and cut them off near the ford over the Allt Cam. I had already decided not to entertain the vague notion of bagging my three unclimbed Munros from Geal Charn out to Beinn Eibhinn, having failed to work up any motivation for the idea! :lol:

Carn Dearg and Beinn a'Chlachair

Culra Munros from the bouncy bridge

Safely beyond the reach of the crazy, mooching horses - The Fara filling the background

Beinn a'Chlachair

Tricky crossing of the Allt Cam

Fording the Allt Cam on extremely slippery rocks, I was taken back to the time many moons ago when in atrocious conditions on the second day of a silver training gig, a colleague and myself were unable to ford the river here with our group. We pushed on upstream and had downed tools for an early, soggy lunch, when we heard the sound of whistles. Eventually three kids appeared over a slight rise and informed us that they were with another school group and they needed help. One of their leaders was AWOL on the high tops. The one who had stayed low with them had just keeled over and was not thought to be breathing. :shock: My colleague and I tossed a coin to decide which of us would attend the scene and who would escort our group back to the safety and shelter of Culra. I won the toss, so Rob got to go and investigate the possibility of there being a stiff in the hills! We spent that night huddled in Culra (pre-asbestos alert) with our group having overseen the evacuation of their group and their fortunately not deceased but somewhat incapacitated leader. The group was from Gordounstoun school and despite us calling them the following week to enquire after the young lady, we never got as much as a thank you from them for our help that day. :(

First sighting of Loch a'Bhealaich Leamhain

Back to Carn Dearg from the eastern shore of the loch

Our group of 8 had downed tools themselves at the southern end of the Loch a'Bhealaich Leamhain and Paul and I took the opportunity to march on and put some distance between us. I had looked down on this loch before from the Geal Charn-Beinn a'Chlachair bealach to the north but had never walked the shoreline. It would have happened the day of the Gordonstoun incident but events rather took over that day, so this was new territory for me, a bit like joining up the dots on a huge virtual map of the country. We had deliberated over which side of the loch to take and soon regretted the decision to stick to the eastern shore which gave rough, pathless going. The western side would have entailed a bit more climbing but looked to have more of a path line to follow.

Looking back down on the loch from the ascent to the bealach

West from the bealach towards the Spean Bridge and Fort William hills

At the bealach Paul continued down the path towards our camping spot at the south western end of Lochan na h-Earba while I dumped my pack and nipped up onto Geal Charn. I didn't have to climb too much higher before the lying snow started to become pretty deep, with some monster drifts in places. It definitely felt like full scale early winter conditions up here and a bit different to my previous visit one dreich, claggy July day a few years ago.

Beinn a'Chlachair from the ascent of Geal Charn

Across Creag Pitridh to Loch Laggan and Creag Meagaidh

The Drumochter Munros from the summit of Geal Charn

Beinn a'Chlachair and another Geal Charn group

Creag Pitridh with Beinn a'Chaorainn rising above Glen Spean in the background

I returned to the bealach about 5 minutes after the group had passed through and quickly shouldered my pack and hurried off down the path after them.

Binnein Shuas and Binnein Shios from the descent to Lochan na h-Earba. It's almost like summer down here!

Paul was already pitched in a old sheiling a couple of hundred metres short of the loch and we sent the kids another hundred metres or so beyond us to a flat area of grass nearer the loch. I pitched my tent alongside his on the lovely flat grass of the sheiling and got dinner on the go as I watched some rather ominous looking clouds roll in across the loch.

Monday night campsite

Ominous (but impressive) clouds rolling over

Then I settled down to the same old routine - hot water bottle, dram, book - before lights out and off to the Land of Nod for a few unbroken hours up to around 3am before a few more hours of fitful and broken sleep until a grey light began to penetrate the thin canvas layers.

Tuesday 30th October

We awoke after a much less bone chilling night to another decent looking day. I was looking forward to today - a long walk on the flat alongside Lochan na h-Earba (a bit tedious in some respects but surrounded by absolutely stunning scenery) and then onto some unfamiliar tracks and terrain before looking for a camping spot around the Linn of Pattack.

We watched the kids head off before leisurely striking camp and heading off along the track after them. I spent much of the first few hours of today reflecting on my last DofE expedition around Lochan na h-Earba. That was another Silver expedition where we had started at the Gallovie Farm track on the A86 before walking in to the other end of the loch and then along to the south western end where we had camped last night. We had also camped there before heading right around the far side of Beinn a'Chlachair and through to our second night campsite at Loch Pattack before walking out the last day to Dalwhinnie. The morning of the second day I had got up before daybreak (pretty early considering it was June) and headed along the same track we were walking now before taking in the twin Grahams of Binnein Shios and Binnein Shuas on the other side of the water. That had been a great morning walk, back at the tents by 8am in time for breakfast before the kids had emerged from their tents. Euan, my colleague on that expedition was sitting outside his tent in the June morning sunshine with his stove whistling for what was probably his second or third mug of coffee, a look of pure contentment on his face. That was 2013. It was the last expedition I ever did with Euan, a husband and father like me and the same age as me, as soon afterwards he was diagnosed with a brain tumour which would claim his life within 2 years. :(

Shuas and Shios at the start of the day's walking

Back to Shuas

The northeastern part of Lochan na h-Earba between Binnein Shios and Creag a'Chuir

Back to Shuas again

We stopped for elevenses at the bridge over the little stream just by the prominent stand of trees on the shore of the north eastern section of the loch. Our eyes were immediately drawn to the unsightly scar that had been left by some moronic ***** for whom Leave No Trace would involve rubbing two brain cells together in the hope of getting a spark! :roll: We spent a good 20 minutes or so deconstructing the skanky old firepit, lobbing blackened rocks and bits of wood into the stream and trying to scatter the blackened earth to the four winds, before carrying on down the track in pursuit of the kids.

Shuas from the stand of trees at grid ref NN495845

Shios from the track junction at grid ref NN505864

At this track junction a few hundred metres beyond the end of the loch, we took a right onto a motorway of a track and felt that we were now making the big turn for home. I was also now on new territory - another case of joining the dots on the big virtual map of this marvellous wee country of ours.

The camp site was supposed to have been around the Linn of Pattack but my two colleagues who had done this same route back in June had reported that there wasn't much in the way of good camping terrain round there. We had already discussed the possibility of pushing on further when we had chatted with the group that morning, and just where the track descended down into the valley of the River Pattack we caught up with them and took stock. They agreed that we should forge ahead to the point where our maps showed the track ending on the open moors a couple of kilometres short of Lochan na Doire-uaine. Paul and I left them finishing their lunch at a rather industrially scarred looking spot which has clearly felt the full effects of the Beauly to Denny power line work, before pushing on to recce a camping spot.

River Pattack, approaching the Linn of Pattack

Over the bleak and lonely moors, heading for home

Approaching the end of the track and campsite number 3

We found a lovely wee spot at the end of the track with a lovely flat grassy area for their three tents and a smaller patch a short distance downstream where Paul and I could squeeze a couple of tents in. We quickly set up camp and waited for them to check in. I spent a good half hour sitting on a rock in the middle of the river reading a couple of chapters of my book in the weak late October sunshine while we waited.

Creag Ruadh and yet another Geal Charn from the campsite

The view from my midstream reading rock

We were still unsure of what the transport situation was likely to be the next day and if/when we would get a train back south or have to rely on a bus replacement service. Paul managed to get a bit of tech up and running but the findings were inconclusive. We didn't know what the story was with the broken rail near Dunkeld so we were just going to have to haul our skinny asses to Dalwhinnie and take our chances from there. At least there was a distillery and a functioning hotel selling food and beer in the village, so we would manage to get by if faced with a lengthy wait! :lol: There was a scheduled train just before 11am with the next one being at 4pm but it was unclear whether that was really a train at all, so the kids set their minds on getting that early train. Alarms were therefore set for ridiculously early o'clock and a pre-dawn start. I had my doubts that it would happen but ...............

Wednesday 31st October

.............the next thing I knew I was hearing Paul's voice shouting to me in the cold darkness. Something about it being after 5am! FFS! I should have stayed at work and suffered the pre-inspection mayhem! :shock:

As I sat having my coffee and porridge in the dark watching the kids strike camp and cross the bridge in front of us, I commented to Paul that in my 12 years of leading DofE groups with Perth High School I have seen plenty of groups come in at the end of the day in the dark but this was the first time I had seen a group leave in the morning in the dark. :shock: Respect! :clap:

I finished breakfast before unceremoniously ramming my gear into my pack and hitting the open heather moor towards Lochan na Doire-uaine and the Dircs. We caught up with the group as they picked their way gingerly along the shore of the loch and into the yawning boulder field of the Dirc Beag.

Heading along the shore of Lochan na Doire-uaine and into the Dirc Beag

A place with a sense of foreboding

I was now back onto familiar terrain, having covered this ground with my good friend and colleague Robin a few years ago when we had done Meall nan Eagan and The Fara in a circular from Dalwhinnie. On that occasion Robin had gone through the Dirc Beag on the way from the Graham to the Corbett while I had taken the high route over the 589m top. We had explored the Dirc Mhor a bit before heading up onto The Fara but this was my first experience of the Dirc Beag. It was pretty rough going in the early morning of Day 4 of a Gold expedition. The terrain was rough with no shortage of deep, hidden holes that could quite easily snap an ankle and the rocks and boulders were very slick. We bunched up and had to do a bit of close supervision and coaching through the cleft before we were safely down onto the flat ground on the other side.

Back towards Beinn Eilde

The last couple of legs now lay ahead - the walk out along the glen to the Dalwhinnie-Laggan road and then the yomp along the tarmac over the railway, past the Distillery and into the village.

A stretch of tarmac back to Dalwhinnie just to finish the feet off!

The Fara framing the distillery

Our early start means we are too early for a dram!

We got back to the station just as a bus replacement service was pulling out for Inverness. The platform signs still showed our train as running on time so we holed up in the rather spartan Waiting Room for an hour or so while we waited for our train home.

I have no idea how many DofE expeditions of various sorts I have now done over the past 12 years. There have been many. There are one or two that I would probably like to erase from my memory. There are a few that I probably don't remember too much about because they were fairly routine and run of the mill affairs. There are some that stand out as being epic affairs that I will remember for a long time. This was one of those. 8)

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Comments: 8

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Attachment(s) Grahams: Beinn Ghobhlach
Sub 2000s: Cnoc a'Bhaid-rallaich
Date walked: 13/10/2018
Distance: 7.2km
Ascent: 840m
Comments: 2
Views: 286

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Attachment(s) Sub 2000s: Beinn Eilideach
Date walked: 12/10/2018
Distance: 8.3km
Ascent: 520m
Comments: 1
Views: 219

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Attachment(s) Grahams: Stac Pollaidh
Date walked: 11/10/2018
Distance: 4.5km
Ascent: 590m
Comments: 4
Views: 275

1, 2

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Attachment(s) Munros: Ben Vorlich (Loch Earn)
Date walked: 17/07/2018
Distance: 10km
Ascent: 900m
Comments: 21
Views: 1766

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Attachment(s) Corbetts: Geal Charn (Arkaig), Meall na h-Eilde
Date walked: 16/07/2018
Distance: 19.5km
Ascent: 1350m
Comments: 1
Views: 246

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Attachment(s) Munros: Gulvain
Date walked: 15/07/2018
Distance: 25km
Ascent: 1500m
Comments: 10
Views: 820

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Attachment(s) Munros: Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine
Corbetts: Beinn Bhreac
Date walked: 17/06/2018
Distance: 98km
Ascent: 3110m
Views: 310

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Attachment(s) Sub 2000s: Stronend
Date walked: 09/05/2018
Distance: 13km
Ascent: 470m
Comments: 2
Views: 380

Ambleside 2018 (Day 5) - from the Jungle to the Dungeon

Attachment(s) Wainwrights: Allen Crags, Bowfell, Esk Pike, Rosset Pike
Hewitts: Allen Crags, Bowfell, Esk Pike, Rossett Pike
Date walked: 11/04/2018
Distance: 14.7km
Ascent: 1180m
Comments: 4
Views: 481

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: 210
Corbetts: 97
Grahams: 60
Donalds: 22
Wainwrights: 27
Hewitts: 36
Sub 2000: 55
Long Distance routes: West Highland Way   

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Trips: 18
Distance: 350 km
Ascent: 18085m
Munros: 6
Corbetts: 4
Grahams: 3
Donalds: 1
Sub2000s: 4
Hewitts: 14
Wainwrights 21


Trips: 19
Distance: 209.4 km
Ascent: 17090m
Munros: 9
Corbetts: 11
Grahams: 2
Sub2000s: 3


Trips: 26
Distance: 352.85 km
Ascent: 25760m
Munros: 18
Corbetts: 4
Grahams: 7
Donalds: 4
Sub2000s: 2
Hewitts: 15
Wainwrights 6


Trips: 23
Distance: 451.7 km
Ascent: 24468m
Munros: 18
Corbetts: 6
Grahams: 10
Donalds: 9
Sub2000s: 3


Trips: 28
Distance: 450.3 km
Ascent: 24390m
Munros: 16
Corbetts: 10
Grahams: 5
Donalds: 1
Sub2000s: 8


Trips: 30
Distance: 355.5 km
Ascent: 24877m
Munros: 12
Corbetts: 14
Grahams: 8
Sub2000s: 6


Trips: 29
Distance: 393.5 km
Ascent: 23469m
Munros: 20
Corbetts: 8
Grahams: 4
Donalds: 5
Sub2000s: 5


Trips: 37
Distance: 478.9 km
Ascent: 28081m
Munros: 25
Corbetts: 9
Grahams: 7
Donalds: 1
Sub2000s: 16


Trips: 48
Distance: 569.5 km
Ascent: 24365m
Munros: 30
Corbetts: 21
Grahams: 11
Sub2000s: 7
Hewitts: 6


Trips: 19
Distance: 271.4 km
Ascent: 15243m
Munros: 27
Corbetts: 7
Grahams: 2


Trips: 3
Distance: 60.1 km
Ascent: 3488m
Munros: 4

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Last visited: Dec 09, 2018
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