For some time now, I’ve been talking to David Lintern of Self Powered about getting together for a trip, we’ve exchanged emails several times in the past year or two and with Dave now based in Edinburgh I felt a little guilty about having not extended a proper welcome to the neighbourhood. Dave came up with a few proposals for destination and we settled on the Ben Alder area, as neither of us had visited before and there was some exciting looking walking beyond Culra. The weather and avalanche forecasts both looked favourable, cold and settled weather had given the snow a chance to consolidate. I booked Friday off and we arranged to meet in Dalwhinnie mid morning.
I was late getting out of the house due to a plumbing snafu and was glad of a reasonably quiet A9. I put the foot down and concentrated on dodging the regular potholes. I arrived just in time to help Dave polish off the last of his flask of tea. We headed out over the railway line and along the side of Loch Ericht, gawping and mocking the absurd faux-baronial lodge buildings. We walked and talked, it’s strange meeting up with someone for the first time, who you feel you know. Conversation is easy, especially with many shared interests. Dave is almost exactly as I expected him to be in person. We spoke of many things over the weekend, politics, music, conservation, photography, cameras [you know it’s not the same thing right?], blogs and gear, inevitably. It was nice to have some company after my usual solo trips.
We arrived at Culra and stopped for some lunch with a couple of Irish guys we met on the walk out. I was somewhat sad to leave behind the propect of four walls and a coal fire for a draughty
tent tarp. We pitched up by the river under Ben Alder, ready for an early start the following morning. Food was had. Whiskey consumed. An early turn in to our ‘his and hers’ TrailStars to set us up for the next day.
My hip had been bothering me in the latter part of the walk out. My soft feet blistering in the usual place, under the ball. Usually this only happens after decent milage, but the hard track had taken it’s toll and my unconscious mind sought to rectify the situation by having me walk funny, thus aggravating the hip. I popped some pills at camp and put on some clean socks, the blister had long since popped of it’s own accord.
Dave had done most of the work on route planning and favoured a challenging approach via the Long Leachas to Ben Alder summit, a challenge for both of us in winter conditions. We fucked up a little by attempting to go straight up the first of the lumpy steep approaches, crampons on, kicking steps, rather than say, just walking around it. As it turns out, I’d end up walking around it anyway.
Following Dave up, all was well until the slope steepend and my left knee started disobeying my brain. This knee is renowned for being a bit dodgy, but I get by most of the time. Stretches help. But here, a matter of meters from where we’d strapped on our crampons it was rather suddenly not coping. Flippy floppy boots and crampons no doubt a contributing factor [despite Dave doing okay with his]. I eyed the small but unpleasant looking drop I’d slide over if the knee gave way and quickly started a down climb. A shout up to Dave to let him know what the hell I was playing at was met with a reminder to keep my feet up if I had to self arrest. Good advice.
As it turns out I managed to down climb slowly and steadily without incident. I wandered around the side of the spur and quickly found a rocky ascent which was much faster than kicking steps, but meters from the top another steep snowy section blocked the way. If there was going to be more of the same terrain further up, this route was not going to be an option for me. I down climbed again and headed further around the side of the spur where I met Dave coming looking for me. We walked back around over easy slopes to the top of the section. Why hadn’t we done this initially? Nevermind, it was clear to me at this stage that I wasn’t going any further up Long Leachas. Too risky. I was surprised Dave was keen to press on alone, but he was having no problems with the terrain, so we resolved to meet at the summit. I’d take the route through the bealach, past the frozen loch and up the more manageable slopes at the eastern end of Alder.
I kept my crampons on and swapped my ice axe for walking pole and I headed over the snowy bealach. Going was good, crampons biting into the firm snow. I stopped regularly to follow Dave’s progress up the spur, until eventually my view was blocked by the Short Leachas. This too looked like a pretty serious undertaking in winter conditions. The distance to the saddle between Alder and Bheòil seemed to remain constant, forward progress making little difference to the apparent proximity of the Col. Avalanche debris littered the eastern cliffs of Alder and the cloud overhead had broken sufficiently to reveal blue skies and unexpected warmth.
From the saddle the view opened out over the southern end of Loch Ericht and the mountains of Glen Lyon and beyond. Swapping back to ice axe, I started up the slopes of Ben Alder following the route of some hardy postholer of days gone by, good steps on the steeper sections, but easier going if avoided elsewhere. I was much more comfortable on these gradients than I’d been on the Long Leachas, I wondered how Dave was progressing and hoped he hadn’t slid off into the corrie. I passed the rocky sections and made it onto open slopes, but unfortunately my hip was still bothering me. Every step was painful. I decided to abandon a push for the summit and drop back onto the saddle and up the lower slopes of Bheòil to watch out for Dave. I assumed he’d grab some lunch at the summit and press on when I didn’t turn up. I was somewhat disappointed to not meet him up top, but I’m not summit bagger and was happy with a still outstanding view from my current position.
I took up position on a rocky outcrop and had lunch, the sun was beating down by this point and, having forgotten my sun cream, fashioned a nose guard from an antiseptic wipe. Two tiny figures appeared on Alder. It was so windless, I could hear them chatting. The two Irish guys from the bothy. They seemed to be having fun, self-arresting their way down the upper slopes. Shortly afterward, a lone figure appeared. Dave was alive! I gave a wave and hollered up to him, but he was too distant to make out if he was waving back or not. I packed up and dropped back into the col, ready to greet him. My hip seemed better after an hour’s rest and some warm sunshine. Dave looked happy, and I was glad he took my change of plans in his stride.
We set off back through the bealach and were treated to a rapid succession of changing light conditions. As a diffused sun dropped over the Ben Alder cliffs, Dave and I snapped away with cameras, the next shot more spectacular then the last. Alpenglow in Garbh Coire, pastel shades too many to mention. We walked on, stopping every few feet or so to raise viewfinder to eye. The temperature had dropped considerably from a few hours previous. The light show ended. Clear grey skies and breaking cloud. Further on, moonrise over Ben Bheòil. One lightshow replaced with another, less colourful, but equally spectacular. As the moon rose above and skies darkened, stars appeared overhead and the snowy slopes of Alder glowed in reflected moonlight.
We had reached the far end of the bealach by this point and we both cursing not having a tripod handy to do justice to the scene. My hip was acting up again and I was keen to get off my feet, despite wanting to linger and absorb the light on the landscape. The clears skies meant it had become bitterly cold and in the end we were pressed into action in order to stay warm and get back to camp for a hot meal.
Crampons off, we followed the stalkers path before dropping back down to the river. My hip made this slow going. I was glad of a cup of soup and nip of whisky [Bunnahabhain/Ardbeg] back at camp. During out gear discussions, Dave mentioned he was using the Newtonian synthetic top bag method to stop his down bag succumbing to condensation. I’d been meaning to do this myself for some time, but just haven’t got around to purchasing something suitable. However, I hit upon the idea of using my Sea to Summit Thermalite bag liner outside of my sleeping bag, rather than inside. The same principles apply and I found this worked well in reducing the amount of condensation I would have expected to see. I still had some around the hood area from my breath, but on the whole the experiment seemed successful. I still fancy something synthetic to supplement my 3 season bag over winter though, purely for additional insulation purposes. I ended up sleeping fully clothed on the second night, despite the cloud rolling in shortly before bedtime and not being as cold as we expected.
Sunday morning I was pretty much decided that I couldn’t join Dave on any route he was planning. He’d decided to stay on an extra night, but given my feet and hip issues, I thought I had enough on my plate with the eleven mile walk back to the car. Eleven slow, agonising miles. Worse than childbirth, I expect. I struck camp and left Dave as he was heading off in the direction of Geal Chàrn. I hobbled off past Culra. I was really struggling initially, my hip was even worse and progress slow. At this point I realised that my hip had become much more painful/problematic than my feet. I forced myself to walk normally and fairly quickly the hip pain subsided. I even picked up my pace past Loch Pattack and toward Ben Alder Lodge when I really got some good pole technique working, propelling me forward on a shorter stride. Several hours and four Ibuprofen later, I arrived at the car. Relieved, and looking forward to a soak in the bath once home and drove off. A coffee and toasty stop in Pitlochry punctuated the slow, steady drive home.
I look forward to reading Dave’s gnarr-tastic report on the weekend. I expect there will be some overlap, photographically at least. Despite not turning out quite as planned, due mainly to my waist-down malfunction, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and look forward to meeting up again. Discussions are ongoing about a Tomintoul/Cairngorm route in the spring maybe. In the meantime, I’ll be investigating blister avoidance techniques and replenishing my first-aid kit.