It can be frustrating trying to organise a weekend away, especially with other people. Times, transport, tents and more have to be coordinated. I had volunteered to lead a series of walks over two days in the Culra Bothy area with Glasgow HF Outdoor Club. No sooner had the programme gone to print than the devastating news broke that the bothy had been found to contain asbestos, and was closed, except for emergency use. A few club members had been interested in attending, but had to drop out in the run up, leaving one confirmed, plus a few guests. To put the cherry on top, not only had me knee flared up, but my back had decided to come out in sympathy.
The week leading up to the walk saw me connected to a TENS machine and consuming painkillers and anti-inflammatories, in a bid to be fit. I was aware that this may be a last chance to visit Culra, my favourite and most visited bothy. I’ve had some fantastic times there, and when the darkness falls and the fire dances there is no place like it. At the last minute, deemed barely fit for action, I left work and caught the train from Edinburgh, Dalwhinnie bound.
The bright Lothian evening gave way to Fife, then to Perthshire dusk and finally to Badenoch and Strathspey on the cusp of darkness. Quickly I erected my basha by the shore of Loch Ericht, laid out my sleeping bag and watched the bats play as I ate a late supper. An owl flew over me, headed for the other side of the loch, the distant hills barely visible, still decorated with snow. I bade the midges goodnight and settled in for the night.
I awoke around 4am with the coming of the light and the call of the cuckoo. As I packed my gear away two cyclists trundled past, laden with rucksacks, no doubt Culra bound. Soon I was too, ticking off the lochside lodges. Having collected some deadfall for kindling and firewood I was off again. It’s a fair old slog up the hill from Ben Alder Lodge, it’s only saving grace being the thought that on the return it is all downhill. The moor was dry and firm, and it was great fun to go off road, and indeed it was over too soon as the bothy revealed itself. Two cyclists, the ones who had passed earlier, stood outside the bothy, and we got chatting, as people miles from anywhere are wont to do. We had barely begun chatting when I was asked “are you Jim Cassidy?” It appeared I had bumped into two members of the Scottish Hills website, Kevsky and Neil who had seen my advert for the club walk on Facebook! It’s a small world right enough and we went our separate ways to walk part of it. They were off for a high level camp, while my group would camp near the bothy.
The bothy itself was unlocked, but decorated with warning signs about asbestos. If it came down to it if most folk had to choose between midges or asbestos, they would choose the latter. An examination of the bothy revealed that the asbestos was next to the outer timbers, and in all likelihood the inside was safe to use. That settled my mind and I decided that tonight I would use the bothy, for old time’s sake.
One by one I was joined by the team as they appeared along the track. Gillian, Doug, Karen and Fiona. Gillian is an HF member while the other three were potential new members. Introductions were made, tents were hastily erected, gear reorganised, and then, eventually, we were on our way.
Unless the river is very low it is necessary to head back to the bridge to cross over, before heading west along the path which climbs us the foot of Ben Bheoil, until at a small cairn we take the faint divergant path leading to the start of the Long Leachas Ridge. This section is, in my experience, the trickiest. Having been totally focussed on the coming scramble it’s easy to overlook the crossing of the Allt a’ Bhealaich Bheithe, a tricky burn leading from Loch a’ Bhealaich Bheithe which tumbles down to join another burn to form the Allt a’ Chaoil-reidhe. If the conditions are right, and you are patient, you will find a way across. I’ve managed to get across three times without a problem. I have now however fallen in twice after successfully crossing, then helping someone else across! So it was with one boot wet and the other dry that we picked our way through the heather, over grassy hummocks. The rocky outcrops increased, and we found ourselves at the start of the scramble itself. I swapped my sunhat for a helmet and had a quick chat about “actions on” safety as there was always the possibility of loose rock.
The scramble is easy to follow in clear conditions. Handholds are good, and there are a few parts where you can choose a less or more exposed path. There is only one part, to me at least, which is of great concern, and this is not for the exposure but for the loose rock and earth. It’s a short channel , 8-10 metres at the most, and should be attempted one at a time. I set off first and was quickly on top. I was followed by Fiona, who accidentally sent a few small(ish) boulders tumbling down the channel. BELOW! BELOW! BELOW! I shouted, and the three remaining at the bottom tucked themselves smartly away. Had they been following immediately behind they would have been unable to get clear, and would have in all likelihood been struck. It was a valuable lesson, showing the need for helmets, good communications and rehearsed actions when scrambling. The remainder of the scramble passed without incident, and we enjoyed a few final photo opportunities before stepping onto the summit plateaux. Dotterel scurried about the rocks, barely seen against the rock. Only their movement betrayed them. Our movement ended at the summit, with a group photo followed by lunch, surrounded by a panorama that stretched off for miles, a cue for the familiar summit game of “what’s that hill over there?”
Getting off Ben Alder can be straightforward or tricky, depending on your intentions. My first ascent many years ago was by the Long Leachas Ridge and a safe descent west via spot height 1056, then north west to the pass and back to Culra.
This time though I intended to return via Beinn Bheoil, and it’s a route I hadn’t done before. We descended south west for about 500m, before skirting round a still impressively snow clad corrie lip. There’s a fairly well established path and we followed that as it curled around Garbh Coire. I’m always wary of blindly following a path. The existence of a path neither means it is going where you are, or that it is a safe route. In this case we reached the sharp end of the ridge, Sron Bealach Beithe, and the path descended steeply. Leaving the group I descended a short distance to scout whether it was a feasible route. The first section looked steep, but manageable. Beyond that the ground was not visible, so I couldn’t say whether it was a safe descent route. I had already decided on a descent route before I had found this path, so we countoured around the hill for about 400m before descending south east to the bealach. As we crossed the bealach to begin the ascent of Beinn Bheoil our potential descent route revealed itself, a steep drop to the bottom of the corrie. In Gaelic the word Sron means nose, and I later confirmed that a walker who had died on the hill a few days previously had fallen from this very feature. In poor visibility it’s a horrendously easy mistake to make, and we couldn’t help but have our eyes drawn again and again to the potential disaster that we too could have walked into.
The ascent of Beinn Bheoil from this side is quite enjoyable and it was interesting to note just how much snow was packed on Ben Alder’s eastern corrie. Black streaks ran down the snow, mascara tears revealing where the melting snow has dragged loose rock with it to the lochan below. We drop down and around the impressive Coire na h-Iolaire before the final climb to our last summit of the day, a wind scoured Beinn Bheoil. It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer size of Loch Ericht, which stretches off apparently forever. The northern ridge of this hill only seems to go on forever though, and we follow it back before dropping down to the northwest where we find the path we left this earlier in the day.
It’s not long until we are at the bothy, and while the others head for their tents, I bring out my supply of firewood and kindling. Add to this some dry grass from outside and within minutes the fire is roaring. Dinner on, and hip flask out, I am joined by the rest of the group and we while away the next hour by the fire as the light fades outside. At one point I step outside to find myself face to face with a stag, only a few feet away. He poses for pictures before scampering off into the darkness, to be joined by others who then fade into the night.
We have a big day planned and an early start is necessary to pack it all in. My alarm goes off at 6 and I head out to rouse the others, only to find a herd of deer wandering among the tents, the occupants unaware that they have been infiltrated.
The early start doesn’t translate into an early departure though, and we leave 45 minutes later than I had hoped.
I don’t know whether it was the boil in the bag breakfast or not, but I was off and up the lower slopes of Sgor Iutharn like I was being chased by the devil himself, while the rest of the group trailed in my wake. This gave me time to locate the start of the scramble which is Lancet Edge, the sharp peak which stabs into the sky. I had wanted to do this for some time. I remember speaking to another guy in the bothy once, and in the talk of routes and intentions he said he was bound for Lancet Edge, and I was amazed. It appeared impossible, impregnable. Now I was ready to tackle it.
There is no clear path on the lower slopes, and it’s not until you arrive at the foot of the rocky outcrops that one becomes faintly visible. Having carried out a safety brief much like yesterday, we were off. The route is fairly straightforward to follow, there not being a great deal of doubt about which way is up! Crampon scrapes on rock guided us where there was doubt though, and there are one or two stretches where the exposure makes you think twice. It’s not a walkover.
With myself leading and Dougie bringing up the rear of the group we are soon on top of Sgor Iutharn, and I’m sad it’s over. However our attention is quickly focussed again, this time on Geal Charn, our next target. As we neared the top of Sgor Iutharn the weather had took a turn for the worse. The wind rose and a thick blanket of cloud now shrouded the way forward. Our late start and the fact we would not be able to maintain a reasonable speed in the thick clag led to a change of plan. We would now climb Geal Charn, then return to Culra via Carn Dearg. With the rain now falling, we set off into the cloud on a compass bearing for the summit. Our way was barred by a band of snow, stretching off both left and right. Hurrah for summer! With no indication of whether it could be safely bypassed we set off, kicking steps and digging in with walking poles. Once off the slope we began to head for the summit, employing the leapfrog method due to the featureless terrain. Karen walked ahead to the limit of visibility, then stopped, while we walked to her. This was repeated until we reached the cairn. It’s nice to dust off the compass skills, and more satisfying when you get it right!
From the cairn we headed north east to the corrie, then circled round it to find the way down, a steep descent on a sharp ridge that took us down past some amazing blue snow. The steep corrie walls were streaked black with avalanche debris, while we could hear snow melt running underneath the main body of snow. The ridge has lochans on either side, deep and black, and we sat above one while taking in the last of our food. My stove hissed, struggling against the wind which fought to find us tucked just below the ridge. Visibility was now good, and having ditched two of our target hills we could afford to just take in the view and relax. The hill was ours, alone.
Not so though, for Carn Dearg. We met a Duke of Edinburgh group descending, the second large group in as many days. As they vacated the top, we claimed it. This was my third ascent of Carn Dearg, and the first from the west. Previous ascents had been from Culra, and lightly laden I had been on the summit in under an hour. The views from here are spectacular. Looking back, Geal Charn and Aonach Mor were still lost in the clag though, and we were all agreed that our change of plan had been the right one. Besides, it will give us an excuse to come back…
Back at the bothy we prepared for the cycle out. The others had found the cycle in a bit of a challenge and weren’t looking forward to it, but it went very well. The beast of an incline up from Ben Alder Lodge becomes an enjoyable freewheel on the way back, and despite our heavy loads and the midges we made good time. It’s sad to think that the bothy, a Scottish hillwalking icon, may not have long to go. The character of the area will not be the same without it. If this was my last visit to Culra Bothy (in its current form) then it was a great way to say goodbye.