Another busy weekend just gone by, with a trip to the Ben Alder area guiding Wendy Young around another six Munros on her 70 Munros Challenge for Christian Aid, then over to Ben Nevis on Sunday for a walk up the Mountain Track with a fantastic group of folks who were raising money for an Islamic Relief Worldwide water project in Africa.
Ben Alder is one of the more inaccessible hills in Scotland, with the ‘easy’ route from Dalwhinnie requiring a 15km trip just to get to the Culra Bothy area. Sadly, Culra is currently shut due to a problem with asbestos, so our plan was to cycle in, then camp in the meadows near the bothy and use that as a base for two days of hillwalking. After dropping a bike for Wendy with the very helpful folks at the Dalwhinnie Bunkhouse, we set off along the side of Loch Ericht at an easy pace, being careful not to run the dogs too hard on the surface of the well-maintained estate road. We’d bumped into Alan Anderson, a regular 70 Munro-er, at the car park, and the three of us made good time up towards Loch Pattack. As has often been the case this year, Alan was a godsend, as negotiating the heavily laden trailers across the rickety footbridge in the dark would have been fairly challenging without his help. I’d opted to avoid the shortcut trail across the moor, as the last time I walked it, it was fairly badly eroded, but it turns out that it’s been recently repaired and is a fairly straightforward, if narrow, option for even inexperienced off-road cyclists.
It was dark by the time got to Culra, but a trio of head torches welcomed us into ‘base camp’; Val and Liz, who have been on several trips with me and are fantastic craic, and John, who was a newcomer, but who proved to be great company on the hill, as well as being monstrously fit after having spent the preceding fortnight on holiday in Scotland ‘bagging’ Munros at a prodigious rate.
Wendy wasn’t joining us until 8am the following morning, so after getting the tents up and having a brief catch up chat, we all headed off to bed, ready for an early start. Conditions as Wendy arrived on the Friday morning were best described as ‘dreich‘ and, with our group now complete, we had a chat about options; I’d suggested heading up the Lancet Edge as a more ‘sporting’ option, but a couple of folks were keen to do something fairly straightforward, so we settled on a heading straight up Carn Dearg and along the ridge. The initial climb is a bit of a slog, but gets you up high reasonably quickly and, once the eastern shoulder of Carn Dearg, it’s a straightforward day out. That said, I managed to add a bit of distance to the day with a navigation error caused by inattention, ironic given someone was complimenting me on my abilities at the time! I managed to redeem myself on the next peak; Geal Charn, following a compass bearing fro 500m across the plateau in limited visibility to walk straight onto the summit cairn.
From there, Aonach Beag and Beinn Eibhinn are a straightforward walk along the ridge, before we retraced our steps to the bealach between the two and dropped south into the coire towards the stalker’s path over the Bealach Dhu. The path itself is on the opposite side of the glen, and the low ground in there is a wet mess of peat bogs, so we opted to contour northwards under the Sron Ruadh, keeping high enough to avoid the worst of the bog, until we were opposite the spot where a stream cuts the path and it begins to gain height. From there, the path gives straighforward walking back towards Culra and our tents.
I’d brought our big Macpac tent in to use as a communal space for the evening, and managed to squeeze a couple of bottles of red wine into the trailer which, along with some contributions of chocolate from various folks, helped make for a very pleasant evening, especially as a stiff breeze kept the midges at bay.
Saturday’s objective was the duo of Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil, and we set off in an uninspiring drizzle towards the Long Leachas; the easier of the two scrambly routes onto Ben Alder. Thankfully, the rain eased as we reached the base of the ridge, and we made our way up the fun little outcrops and gullies with one or two patches of blue sky appearing above us. After lunch on the summit of Ben Alder, we crossed over to Beinn Bheoil, where Alan produced his hip flask to lubricate the celebration of Liz reaching her penultimate Munro; just Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart to go! Alongside that impressive achievement, this was John’s 200th Munro and, of course, we were at 58/70 on the 70 Munro Challenge.
Celebrations duly completed, we made our way back to Culra, packed up and pedalled the 15 km back out to the cars. Cat, Wendy and myself made a quick detour up to Aviemore for our traditional post-walk fish and chips in the Happy Haggis, before Cat and I headed over to Fort William for my next assignment.
Sunday definitely rang the changes in terms of working context; whereas the previous two days had been spent working solo with a small group in a remote location, today I was part of a team of six, guiding a group of 60 participants in a charity event on behalf of the Islamic Relief Foundation, who were walking up Ben Nevis to raise funds for a project to build clean, safe water supplies for communities in Africa. The group arrived in the visitor centre car park at 7am with a palpable buzz of excitement. First task was to give a briefing to a group of 15 lads who had cycled up from Glasgow over the previous two days, and who were keen to get going on the last leg of their challenge. Once the main group set off, I dropped in at the back of the group to sweep up behind them and make sure any stragglers were looked after, accompanied by Zakariyya and Nikky; two of the group leaders, which gave me a great opportunity to hear a little bit more about the charity and some of the other fundraising activities they’d been involved in, including treks to Toubkal and Mt Kilimanjaro.
The weather on the day was generally bright and clear, and a pleasant contrast from the previous Sunday, when the low lying cloud obscured everything from Halfway Lochan upwards. There was some cloud hanging about the summit, which made getting a view at the top a bit of a lottery, but as we arrived with the back markers, the cloud swirled apart and we got some brief, but spectacular views over the Mamores to the south, and little hints of the cliffs and ridges to our just to our north.
Heading back down the zig-zags, one of the girls in the group had an unfortunate accident, twisting her ankle on the loose surface of the path and giving her quite a bit of pain. The lower section of the path was clearly a bit of an ordeal for her, but she was made of pretty tough stuff and persevered, assisted by some walking poles and occasional use of her accompanying guides as a handrail. A really brave effort from her, and a great achievement for the group as a whole.
People might wonder if walking up and down the same mountain doesn’t become a bit uninspiring, but the reality is that the mix of constantly changing conditions and companions makes each trip unique; with new stories to hear and the chance to see the mountain through a fresh pair of eyes each time you head up. Wendy shared an interesting article yesterday about the experience of awe; a timely reminder that both awe and boredom have their origins within our own minds as much as they are stimulated by our exterior environment. Perhaps the best evidence of this is found in Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain, in which she documents her lifelong fascination with the Cairngorms, a range of mountains which she explored in minute detail. She has an amazing eye for detail in describing her experiences, yet observes that “knowledge does not dispel mystery”, and her love for the Cairngorms increased the more she experienced them;
“A scatter of white flowers in grass, looked at through half-closed eyes blaze out with a sharp clarity as though they had actually risen up out of their background. Such illusions, depending on how the eye is placed and used, drive home the truth that our habitual vision of things is not necessarily right: it is only one of an infinite number, and to glimpse an unfamiliar one, even for a moment, unmakes us, but steadies us again. It’s queer but invigorating.”
I find her example, and that of others such as John Muir, both reassuring and challenging; if I ever get bored of the hills, whether it’s Ben Nevis, Ben Lomond or any other, it’ll say more about the sorry state of my head at the time than it will about the mountains themselves. In the meantime, to quote Mr Muir:
“The mountains are calling and I must go”