It had been over a month since my last hillwalk, a month in which I had over indulged in eating and drinking, more so the former. I’ve not been running either, so this first serious walk of the year came as a shock to the system. My destination was an old favourite, Dalwhinnie, and from there the mysterious and elusive Beinn Udlamain. Tucked away at the back of the Drumochter hills it has escaped me on three or four occasions now. I was playing around with some new Memory Map software and was scrolling around the Dalwhinnie area when this caught my eye. Time to tidy up this one away I thought.
I dropped in to Dalwhinnie Signalbox to leave my gear for the train, stuff I didn’t want to be carrying up the hill. As a first real winter outing my bag was heavy enough, with snow shovel, crampons, ice axe, spare layers, goggles and helmet on top of my usual gear. The need for crampons means heavy winter boots. Chris Townsend has often said that every pound on your feet is like another three on your back, and I couldn’t help but agree. My extra gear, heavy boots and general rustiness were about to combine to knock the (christmas) stuffing out of me.
I feel sorry for Dalwhinnie. While a few miles north Newtonmore, Kingussie and Aviemore have done well out of tourism, be it ski-ing, hillwalking and the like, Dalwhinnie has withered on the vine. I remember coming here in the 1980s, with its lively hotels and pub, now silent and locked up. The realignment of the A9 to bypass the village has meant that passing traffic now does just that. For now there’s a brief upsurge in activity though. A construction site for the Beuly-Denny power line occupies the former Loch Ericht bar, and a helicopter sits in the field across the road. Were it not for the petrol station and the distillery there would be almost no reason for anyone to stop here, which is a great pity. For one of the coldest places in Scotland it always has a warm welcome.
I cycled down the old A9, now a Sustrans cyclepath, the spray painted “Cycle Path To Pitlochry” seemed more a warning that a welcome. I puffed away, struggling under my heavy baggage, passing now the now familiar rubbish which lines the route. If you are ever short of a bottle of pee, look no further than layby 85 which seems to be a magnet for the stuff…
Having struggled enough coming down the path I abandoned any thoughts of cycling up into the hills, locked the bike and got down to business. Up ahead I thought I could see someone ascending Geal Charn, before being swallowed in cloud. I quickly passed the path which cuts off to that Munro and ascended Coire Fhàr on a wide track suitable for landrovers, watched from above by a herd of deer alerted by the clack-clack-clack of my walking poles. Behind me I could hear the buzzing of the helicopter up and down the A9.
Around sixty minutes after leaving Balsporran cottage I was at the head of the corrie. Below me lay Loch Ericht, and beyond that Loch Pattack, Culra Lodge and Bothy. The lower slopes of Ben Alder could just be seen, the rest of that hill would remain in cloud for the rest of the day. The new chapel could be clearly seen sitting by the lochside, it’s traditional look suggests it has been there for a hundred years or more. In truth the last time I was in this spot, in April 2009, it was still clad in scaffolding and under construction. Only a few weeks back in Glasgow, Springburn Public Halls, a magnificent old building was pulled to the ground, obviously not shiny and metallic enough for a new modern Glasgow. Here instead great effort has been made to make this look as if it has always been here. If only that attitude was held elsewhere.
The track carries on, undulating towards Fraoch Coire, and as I near the end I lose, crossing the snow covered heather before picking it up again to a point where I peel off for the last part of the journey. Struggling now, energy levels dropping, I stopped for bite to eat and a hot drink, before attempting to pick my way through the rocky band of scree which lies between me and the summit. Covered in a thin layer of wet snow, it’s nasty stuff. Too thin and wet for crampons, but slippy enough that every rock becomes a potential slip, I try and pick out patches of heather or wedge my feet into gaps in the rock.
Mountain hares watch me warily before bounding off. Judging by their tracks they are having difficulty on the rocks too. Within a short time I’m clear and on less rocky ground, an intermediate cairn catches my eye, and from it a line of fence posts lead uphill, before taking a final turn to the summit cairn, which seems to be formed from a series of windbreak shelters and scrap metal. From here I can see almost 40 metres, in a white, milky mist. I make a quick mental calculation and decide that I can be back at Dalwhinnie for the 1550 train if I get my skates on. Bearing in mind how treacherous the rocks were on the way up I put on my helmet and head back down.
Almost free of the rocks and I came across a patch of hard snow which on the way up had been tricky, but manageable. Going down is a different matter, and I used my ice-axe to cut steps. As I removed my ice-axe my flask slipped from my rucksack and skimmed across the surface, coming to rest in the heather below. I made my way down and recovered it, before tightening my rucksack straps for the speed march along the path to Balsporran. Jogging in winter boots isn’t fun, but it was necessary. I could see a fresh set of prints leading downhill, perhaps the walker I thought I saw earlier. A mixture of fast walk and jogging saw me back at the bike, with only thirty minutes to get back to Dalwhinnie…
With only five minutes to spare I was back at Dalwhinnie, and with gear duly recovered I stood on the platform, still getting my breath back as the train came in. As as looked from the train I realised that I had finally completed the Dalnaspidal Munros. Four journeys, one abandoned due to high winds, the remainder by bike from Dalwhinnie and all in winter. It had taken a few years to tick off what some folk do in one long day. With this area done and dusted it seems like time to set my sights further north, and with this being at the limits of what can be managed comfortably in a day by train, it’ll be time to get the tent ready for the year to come. Next stop-Aviemore!
Beinn Udlamain: Grid NN 57959 73966
Distance: 29.50km (including cycle).
Time taken: 6hrs 15 min.
Parking available at Balsporran, NN 62766 79186