Beaten By Ben Alder

© Stephen McAuliffe

Against his better judgement site user Stephen McAuliffe makes a long trip north to the highlands from his home in Ireland on the strength of a foul winter forecast. The result is predictable: mountain one, hillwalker nil, and Stephen fails to climb anything at all. You can't win them all.

This article is adapted from a post that originally appeared on Stephen's blog Howling Mist


Last year I went to Scotland, and ran into stormy weather with copious amounts of snow that made climbing impossible. Returning home early, I resolved that I would only go in future when conditions were right. Recently the weather had been superb, so I picked a week to head north, only for the forecast to deteriorate into storms. Naturally I ignored my promise to myself and went anyway.

My snowiest ever campsite  © Stephen McAuliffe
My snowiest ever campsite
© Stephen McAuliffe

Several trains and a ferry ride later I alighted in Dalwhinnie on a Saturday afternoon, a full twenty hours after leaving home.

I had no partner for any technical climbing, which made it an easy decision to take only one axe and no gear of any kind. I did have a tent and several days' worth of food, and an initial plan to camp near Culra bothy and climb  Ben Alder, before then decamping to Aviemore.

When I left the train the good covering of snow on the ground came as a bit of a shock, as did the chill in the air. But I soon warmed up as I hot footed it into the wilds.

As it was so late when I arrived I was certain I wouldn't reach Culra until well after dark, and with so much snow lying about I didn't fancy trying to find a place to pitch my tent. For that I'd have to find somewhere further from the base of the mountains. The walk is on a good estate road that runs along by the shores of Loch Ericht, sometimes in the open and sometimes through forestry. Across the water mountains rise steeply, and in the distance the beautiful snow clad peaks looked amazing as the sun started to set. I stepped it out lively and had covered the near 10 kilometres to the rather fantastical Ben Alder Lodge before six.

Waking in a winter wonderland  © Stephen McAuliffe
Waking in a winter wonderland
© Stephen McAuliffe

By now the sun had set and light was fading fast, and I needed to find a spot for my tent. Up past the lodge area I spotted some snow free patches in the woods, and after a brief search in the gloom I found a nice dry level spot. Soon I had my home up and was happy getting dinner ready in the frosty gathering dark. It had been a tiring journey and even though it was -1 degrees, once I settled into my sleeping bag I was toasty warm and slept very well.

"As darkness gave way to dawn I looked out of my tent at a land transformed by a deep blanket of snow"

Next day I had hoped that the forecast stormy weather wouldn't arrive until I'd had time to reach the summit of Ben Alder in reasonable conditions. So it was with some disappointment that I emerged from my tent to a leaden sky and the first flurries of snow. The wind wasn't too bad but the weather only promised to dis-improve. I decided to head in to Culra anyway, to see what things were like. There is a good track all the way in but the glorious views of Ben Alder and Sgor Iutharn were nowhere to be seen as the cloud was down to around 500 metres. Out here in the wide open bogland the wind was much stronger, and by the time I reached the bothy I had to guard my eyes against the horizontal snow. I was tempted to climb the Munro of Carn Dearg which rises immediately behind the bothy, but only briefly; I didn't fancy struggling in a white-out and strong winds without any reward in the way of views - I've been there and done that.

Ben Alder Lodge looking Disney-esque  © Stephen McAuliffe
Ben Alder Lodge looking Disney-esque
© Stephen McAuliffe

The six kilometres in to the bothy had at least given me a taste of the wonderful wild landscape, and I was content to return to my tent for the rest of the day. I was back by 11.30 and it was now snowing fairly heavily, so I got plenty of water and settled in for the long day ahead. It continued to snow until the late afternoon. When it turned to rain the snow on the tree tops decided to fall in lumps onto my tent, which was surprisingly loud. Later again the rain reverted to snow and I settled down to sleep. Unfortunately my blow-up sleeping mat had sprung a leak and I found myself in somewhat uncomfortable circumstances.

Wintry woods by Loch Ericht  © Stephen McAuliffe
Wintry woods by Loch Ericht
© Stephen McAuliffe

The long night eventually passed, and as darkness gave way to dawn I looked out of my tent at a land transformed by a deep blanket of snow. I had been wondering why I could no longer hear the nearby stream and now it was easy to see why. If anything the forecast had erred on the good side and it was now clear to me that Ben Alder was not going to be possible. At something of a loss I decided to leave the spot where I was and head to Aviemore. It was still snowing pretty heavily and the wind seemed stronger, so I did as much packing as I could in the tent before I ventured out and cleared away the build-up of snow. As I emerged from the woods I had to be careful to stick to the track, now almost indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. With the snow almost to my knees in places it promised to be a strenuous return to the train.

Back at the lodge I was pleased to see that the roadway had been cleared, and the going was much easier. It was truly beautiful, with the woods transposed to a Christmas postcard. The sugar coated turrets of the gate lodges looked Disney-esque. As I neared the station a train approached, heading for Edinburgh. I hadn't been planning it, but on the spur of the moment I decided to jump on and go home. As I shook the snow from myself I felt a weight removed; at least I now had a plan. Reversing my journey, I arrived back home 22 hours later. In all I'd been travelling a total of 42 hours, versus 44 hours in the wilds. Thirty four hours of that had been spent in my tent, and I had climbed precisely nothing. So was it worth it? Oh yes! I'm already planning my return.

The beautiful wilderness of Culra  © Captain Solo
Better luck next time! Photo Captain Solo Jan 2013

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