Paul's Photos:
Scotland - Ben Alder

A Highland Fling


Whereabout is Scotland Dalwhinnie is
From Dalwhinnie to the bothy by bike (in blue)
Our walk from the bothy


A small glossary may be in order here:
Ben - instead of saying Mount for a hill's name in Scotland you use Ben e.g. Ben Nevis, Ben Alder (sidenote, to say valley, you say Glen e.g. Glen Nevis)
Munro - a hill in Scotland that's over 3000ft, there are at least 276 though there are arguments over the exact number as the peaks must be separated by a minimum drop (so that walking along a ridge doesn't count as 15 Munros!). It is not uncommon for people to try and walk them all in a lifetime.
Bothy - a mountain hut, provided by the owner of the land, maintained by a voluntary organisation and used by hill-walkers. Sparsely fitted but with everything necessary: 4 walls, a roof and a fireplace.
Burn - a stream
Adrenaline - the rush you get when scaling a steep slope and the rock you put your weight on moves!
Achievement - having a sneaky drink and smoke on the top of the highest peak in the area

Start as you mean to go on!

The trip had been in the planning for about a week, I decided I'd go on about the Tuesday at which point the weather in Glasgow was spectacular; glorious sunshine, little wind. Getting a little nippy but nothing major. Of course, knowing Scotland's weather it meant that it was impossible for the weather to hold until the weekend. Plans were formalised and the party confirmed: me, Doug, Mark and Neil. The plan was that as everyone else was starting in Edinburgh, I'd get the train to Perth and meet them at the station.

An early start was in order as we wanted to climb Ben Alder on the Saturday as snow had been predicted for the Sunday. So, I was up before dawn and cycled into the city centre to catch the 7am train to Perth. No problems here, I got in at around 8h15 and the plan was to meet the other 3 in the car park. I get off the train, follow signs for "Way Out" and see a car park. Perfect, so I set myself up there and wait (I expected them to be a little late)

Time passes and I decide to do a few repairs to my bike, adjusting the rear brakes as the pads almost certainly need to be replaced. Still no sign. OK, I'll go find a phone in the station and call them. A quick tour of the station reveals a phone box with no phone in it! Great! So I jump on my bike and go on a few quick sorties looking for a phone box in the nearby streets. Still nothing. Then when I cycle down one of the streets I see signs for the station and follow them. First thing I find is a pile of phones at the bus station so give Doug a call. As I had suspected they were waiting at a different car park! Neil, being from Perth, has assured the others that there was no other car park for Perth station and so they were waiting at the parking over the footbridge.

Some people just aren't morning people

After we'd strapped my bike to the bike rack, I got in the corner and it was immediately obvious that Neil was suffering. Neil normally sees the other side of early mornings; going to bed at 6 was more common that getting up at 6! He revealed he'd been up drinking whisky with his sister until 2!

By this point we were already about an hour behind schedule, which was putting our timetable under a bit of pressure as we weren't exactly sure how long the climb would be. So we zip up to Dalwhinnie, a real hamlet stuck out in the middle of nowhere, consisting of a handful of houses, a hotel and a train station.

We stopped, and loaded up our rucksacks with all our supplies. One very noticeable aspect of the Highlands is that there are no trees, none, zero, zilch on the hills. Thus, when planning to camp overnight, you have to bring your own firewood. As we were only planning on staying the night, we decided to take a disposable barbeque as this provides the world's best burgers after a hard day in the hills.

Riding into the unknown

Fully equipped we set out on our bikes to cycle to the Culra bothy from where we would climb Ben Alder. It was supposedly a 16km bike ride over forestry tracks. The first section was along Loch Ericht which was good roads as there were still residences on the loch's edge. There was a certain pecking order to the ride: Mark was always in the front having the lightest bag, the lightest bike and being a very keen cyclist; Doug being super-fit was second; I was third being unused to long bike rides and then Neil.

Now Neil was certainly not used to great physical exertion having turned into a bit of a stoner, and was a little hungover from the previous night. As we were already late, we decide to try and get to the bothy a.s.a.p. We quickly left Neil behind and we stopped and waited for him. After a couple of minutes waiting Mark gets a call on his mobile, it was Neil saying he'd be right there.

He also explained that he'd had to stop to be sick. Being the sensitive, caring friends that we are, we stopped laughing after a minute or so. He looked like death when he turned up. This put is in a bit of a bind. We needed to get to the bothy to climb Ben Alder, but there was no way Neil was going to make it in time.

After an hour or so of gradual uphill walking following the burn upstream we were evaluating the best way to tackle the ascent. the recommended route involved walking up the valley and then coming roung the back to reach the summit. However, this would then mean retracing our steps on the way down and was also quite a long journey. So we decided it'd be much more efficient to go straight at the summit but going up the steep face as it would allow a circuit and save substantial time.

Indeed the weather was perfect, clear sunny and no wind at all. I had packed two jumpers as I was expecting to be freezing at the summit. In fact, it was the opposite, and we all took off our tops, as much to try and dry the damp backs! It's not often on any day of the year that you can do this, but it is practically unheard of for October. Whilst on the summit, we partook of a few sifters of whisky and a little of Doug's homegrown leaf. nothing too extreme mind, as we were on top of a hill in the middle of absolutely nowhere!

It was now 4pm and we set off and were trying to work out when it would get dark and whether we'd get back to the bothy in time. Doug managed to persuade us that instead of walking down the valley on the way back, we should walk down the ridge opposite, thus conquering another Munro. I was a little concerned about the light but was too tired to argue.

One Munro, Two Munro, Three Munros, Four!

The greatest problem this presented was getting down from the Alder ridge. We didn't have much time to waste and so took the most direct route; down. This meant that every footstep was one foot forward and two feet down, all done facing sideways. Not great for the ankles.

Thankfully, the other ridge had a pretty gradual gradient and was very grassy. For a while we even had a path to follow! However, by the time we reached the summit, the sun was disappearing behind Ben Alder. The temperature duly plummeted, especially in the valleys where cloud started to form. The wind picked up and started pushing the air over the ridge cooling it as it rose. Thus it got foggy quick! Soon, we were looking at a visiblilty of about 15m.

All the way, we were having little debates about whether Neil had made it ok to the bothy. This was doubly important as he had most of the food! As we were in the middle of nowhere, there was no signal for the mobiles but amazingly whilst on the second ridge, Mark received a text message!! Unfortunately, it wasn't Neil, but some girl inviting Mark to a party that night. Mark called her back and explained he wouldn't be able to make it as he was currently on top of a mountain and it was 20 miles back to the car. Apparently "that's just not good enough!"

The end would have been in sight

The light was fading quite rapidly now, so we again had to resort to the most direct path home, down again, but at least this got us out of the mist. By this point I had lost most control of my legs and my steps were very heavy, meaning that I was completely unprepared for loose stones or unseen dips and so on. Luckily, I escaped without any problems and we soon hit the path and followed it back towards the bothy.

All throughout the walk we had seen plenty of deer and had been hearing stags calling to each other. On the path back we came across two stags fighting! It's pretty incredible seeing them throw themselves at each other. Unfortunately, it was too dark to really see what was going on, and at this point we were just wanting to see the inside of the bothy.

One of the problems is that we were now on the wrong side of the burn and by this point we couldn't see much more than a few metres in front of us due to the approaching dusk. This meant that it was very tricky to cross the burn. I was sure that I'd seen a bridge on the ride in, but it meant we had to walk past bothy to find it, and I wasn't sure where it was, and it couldn't be seen. Since we were all exhausted, we wanted to walk no more than was necessary and eventually just crossed the burn at the first remotely crossable section.

Thankfully, Neil was at the bothy and had started the fire going. He told us that he'd found the bothy no problem but had checked every room except the one we'd put our stuff in and thus wasn't sure it was the correct place. He thus continued down the track for another couple of miles before turning back and checking out the final room. Sacre Neil!

Party at the bothy?

So, we fired up the BBQ, munched down all our burgers before moving indoors and firing up the stove. We had gotten back to the bothy at around 7 and by 9:30 I was ready to hit the sack. It was pretty surpsrising but we were all so knackered that we didn't even drink any of the whisky we'd brought.

Sleeping was a bit of a problem; firstly Neil started snoring and you have no idea how loud this boy is, then I couldn't get comfy because my legs would start cramping, then the sleeping platform was slightly too short for me, meaning I couldn't quite stretch out; also sleeping in one position for too long just meant that the bone that you were leaning on would soon be sore.

I slept fitfully, but amazingly we 'slept' for 12 hours! It was 9h30 before any of us got up! There was no real sense of morning as there were only 2 small windows so there was no light to wake us up.

Homeward Bound

A quick breakfast, a quick tidy-up and we were off back towards the car. Although the ride was easier in terms of gradient, my legs were not thrilled by another day of effort and protested heartily. It was a fairly uneventful ride back, except that Mark decided to try and ford the burn instead of taking the bridge. Everything was going fine until he reached the middle where it became obvious it was slightly too deep and upon pedalling he had to put his feet in the water. Another quality comedy moment.

We all got back to car no problem, there was one nasty moment when Doug's car battery threatened to be dead, but all proved to be OK. We then drove back, stopped in Pitlochry for some nosh before getting back to Edinburgh at around 4pm.