“ Country: Scotland „
I enjoy spending time in the outdoors. I have always been into walking and climbing mountains and enjoy anything with a hint of adventure. I try and get up into the Lake District as often as possible and try and visit Scotland at least once a year. With this in mind I thought it would be good to share some of experiences and knowledge of certain mountains. So for my first mountain review I choose one of my favourites. Ben Alder. Every April me and my friend or sometimes a few of us, head up to Scotland for a weekend and camp over somewhere. We then find a nice big scary looking mountain to climb and go for it. So for this review I want to tell you my experience of my weekend in the highlands climbing Ben Alder. Hopefully the account will give you an idea of the mountain itself, the surrounding area and how exactly to climb it yourself if this inspires you. So first of all, what and where is this Ben Alder.
Ben Alder is what is classed as a Munroe. This means it's a mountain 3000ft above sea level. Many people try and tick of as many of these Scottish mountains as possible and are known as 'Munroe Baggers'. Ben Alder is 3766ft high and is often thought to be one of the most challenging Munroe's in Scotland. This is not really because it's overly steep or has particularly dangerous terrain, but it's because it's so remote. To reach the summit of the mountain it's a fifteen mile trek from the nearest road. This of course means a thirty mile walk all together, not something many people are capable off. Most people tackle the mountain with an over night stay.
The mountain is situated in the Scottish Highlands, it's quite a central mountain lying to the East of Fort William. The nearest town to Ben Alder is Dalwhinnie. A small town known for it's famous whisky distillery that is located just off the A9. Dalwhinnie sits at the head of the imposing Loch Ericht which is one of Scotland longest Lochs at nearly twenty miles in length! The most popular route for tackling the mountain starts here. But there is an alternative, you can catch the train! Rannoch Station, made famous by a scene in Trainspotting is the most remote train station in Britain. There is simply nothing there. But you can exit the train from here and approach the mountain from the South. This is a similar length of walk and again needs on overnight stay unless you are super human that is!
Long Road To Ruin
So last April me and my friend Tom had decided Ben Alder was next on our hit list! Our plan was to drive up to Scotland on the Friday, arrive in Dalwhinnie in the afternoon, do a ten mile walk to near the Mountain and then stay overnight. Then an early start to summit the peak and then walk back to the car. Then camp somewhere near by and drive home on the Sunday. I remember first putting the idea to Tom and be greeted with 'you have a giraffe!?' Yes it would be a test of our fitness and endurance but Hell, it was to be a truly epic weekend of adventure!
We arrived in Dalwhinnie at about 2pm. We were relieved to see the sun shining and all the peaks were clear of cloud. The higher peaks still had snow encrusted on their high peaks from the previous harsh winter. As we parked up at the end of a dirt road we started packing up our gear. We had never been on a walk this long and the prospect of an overnight stay in a Bothy was quite exciting. More on this later! I had bought myself a brand new rucksack that was quickly starting to bulge. My friend Tom had a special water bottle that you can fill from the streams and the water is cleaned. I however was doing it old school. Carrying all my liquid in with me, this meant 5 litres of liquid on my back, heavy! Along with this, two days worth of food, a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, candles, head torch, batteries, maps, extra clothes, safety gear and a few other bits and bobs. As I lifted my pack on to my back I very nearly fell over! The weight was staggering. It was around now I wished I had splashed out on all the high tech light weight gear that my friend Tom was supporting.
We had in front of us a ten mile walk along the side of Loch Ericht. This would be quite an easy walk as it was down a dirt road, we had tried to find out if driving this was an option but had been told it was a private road and no cars were aloud. So we both took a deep breathe an off we went. Despite the weight of my pack I was in high spirits, the weather was stunning, the scenery breathe taking and my mate Tom in a good mood. As we churned up the miles I started to eat into my 5 litre water supply, this meant that my pack was getting slightly lighter and things were all going well.
However, after about six or seven miles we were both flagging. We were both quite fit at the time, but walking in the warm sunshine with a pack that heavy really sucks your energy levels. We were having to stop every fifteen minutes and have a break. I remember the first time I took my pack off I feel forward. My body could not get used to the change in weight, it was quite funny at the time but really did feel odd. Anyway after a slow hour we made it to the end of the dirt road and were welcomed by the biggest house I had ever seen. Not our over night stay by the way! But this mansion was stunning, the gate house was twice the size of my house back at home, the house itself was still under construction by the look of it, but was amazing. Sat right on the shores of the Loch with a commanding view North and South. From here we left the shores and headed inland towards our mountain adventure.
As we crested a small hill we got our first glimpse of Ben Alder. The mountain was an imposing sight at the head of the valley. A massive peak that dominated the sky line wherever you looked. The peak was covered in snow and looked so inviting in the late afternoon sun. We started heading towards the mountain and towards our overnight stay. The terrain had changed and the trees that had previously surrounded us had disappeared and there was now heather and peat bogs stretching for miles. Though it was quite barren it really was stunning scenery. We noticed deer were grazing nearby and they all stopped to watch out progress. Overhead a buzzard swooped past, wondering what two strange looking animals were doing on his patch. The feeling of remoteness was really starting to hit home as we went further and further from civilization.
At about 6pm we arrived at Culra Bothy. Now I hear you say, what's a bothy? About five years ago I would not have known myself. Our first encounter with one had been on a previous camping weekend. We were hiking up to a camping spot when a group of walkers asked us if we were heading for the Bothy? I remember mishearing them and wondering why there was a brothel out in the wilds of Scotland. It was a running joke between my friends all that weekend that we could go visit the Brothel! Anyway a Bothy is something very different. It's basically a small house that you can stay in. There are over a hundred Bothies dotted around Scotland, all are free to use and open to anyone. You won't find these advertised and many are not on maps, you usually find out about them by word of mouth or reading articles in magazines, or maybe reading a review! There is an association which maintains these basic shelters and keeps them up to scratch. The don't have electricity, they don't have plumbing, they are very crude and basic. There is a simple Bothy code which all users must follow.
This was our first visit to a Bothy so we were a little unsure of what to expect. Research had told us this one was one of the best and biggest in Scotland. Three separate rooms that sleep over twenty people mean that even on busy weekends your likely to find room. However you are told to take a tent just in case. We crossed the stream and approached the Bothy. I remember being a little nervous as I had never used one of these facilities before. We knocked on the big green door and went in. The first room was empty, there were wooden platforms to sleep on, a nice fireplace, a few candles, and a map on the wall. All very basic but quite nice really. We explored the other two rooms and discovered they were all empty to. We had our pick of rooms in our little home for the night!
We opted for the smallest room and set up our beds, just in case twenty people suddenly showed up in the next five minutes! After this we went outside to explore. The sun was low in the sky and the mountains looked amazing. The amber sky was starting to glow and the silence was deafening! This really was the best wilderness you were ever likely to see in the UK. We dragged a bench out of one of the rooms and I sat feasting on my Ginsters Pasty and cheese rolls. Simple food but enjoying it here it was really something special. I had also packed away a 500cl bottle of wine, so I cracked this open and enjoyed the sunset.
As the dark was gathering two more people showed up on mountain bikes. They were amazed we had walked in saying that most people ride along the dirt road and leave there bikes at the Bothy. In hindsight I think this would have been pretty smart and a lot easier than the walk we took on. The two men went into one of the other rooms and this was the last we saw of them for the night.
Me and Tom retreated to our room as it went dark. We lit a few candle and then broke out the whisky! We had Tom's phone and speakers so we stuck on some tunes and got some cards out. We played for about two hours and after giving Tom his usual spanking we decided to try and get some sleep. We had a very early start! This was the next phase of our master plan! We were to get up at 3am, no that isn't a typo! Climb the mountain in the dark which we had estimated would take three hours and then reach the summit for sunrise! Yes I know, we are slightly bonkers!
Anyway just before we went to bed we looked outside, the sky was clear and the stars were out in full force. It was a truly awe-inspiring sight, there is so little light pollution in this area and the stars were so spectacular. We knew this was also looking good for a clear morning! We then went to our hard wooden beds. Now I must admit I am a lousy sleeper, sleeping anywhere but my own bed has always been something of a challenge for me. So sleeping in a cold room on a hard piece of wood with just a thin layer of foam underneath was not going to happen! I lead there and listened to the eerie sounds around the Bothy. It was pitch black in here and quite spooky if I'm honest. Even though Tom was only a few yards away I really felt as though I was all alone. After a few hours of lying there without sleep Tom let of an almighty fart! This broke the silence and we giggled like little kids. Turns out he was having similar problems getting to sleep, and he can usually sleep anywhere!
Anyway after hours of tossing and turning my alarm off. I had had no sleep, Tom woke up after claiming he had gotten to sleep about nine seconds ago. We lit a few candles and starting getting ready. I had a cereal bar and some orange juice to try and give me some energy and wake me up. It really was not happening. After about fifteen minutes we were ready. We would be returning to the Bothy on our way back so were able to leave most of our gear here. There is no crime in this area! So we donned our head torches and headed out into the night.
The Endless Black
'Crap! Your Joking!' Or maybe something slightly less appropriate for the content of this review were my first words on leaving the Bothy. We turned off our torches and looked up. The was not a star in sight. Just a heavy damp mist! We were absolutely devastated. Our entire plan had fallen to pieces in seconds and our spectacular sunset now looked like being a murky blur! We seriously considered going back to bed! But the thought of five more hours on that hard wood did not appeal so we decided to stick with the plan.
We had selected a safe route up the Mountain. We were to follow a pretty clear path for a few miles and it ascended the valley. As it reached the top of the valley and headed back down we would veer left, avoiding all the cliffs and ridges and trekking up the side of the mountain. It was about five miles to the summit and we had plenty of time to make it before sunrise.
We set out and quickly found our path. Walking through the black mist was horrible. It was pitch black and deathly silent. Like nothing I had ever experienced before it was really quite unnerving. At one point a sheep was suddenly startled by us and ran off, me and Tom both nearly bricked ourselves! The sudden movement just to our left sounded so loud and when your imagination is running riot you wonder exactly what is about to appear out of the mist, bear? Wolf? Three headed monster? As we carried on I seemed to loose all sense of time and distance. There was nothing to use as a reference point, just the small yellow circle of light directly in front of our feet.
After what seemed like an eternity I suddenly stopped. Something was different. I turned off my head torch and looked around. There was the faintest grey glow. Light! This tiny bit of light was such a relief, I could just barely make out shapes in the mist, things were starting to look up. We had a few problems working out where on the map we were. We needed to come of the path at the right place or we would be heading towards very dangerous cliffs. After much stopping and starting we decided now was the time. Out into oblivion!
We left the path and started steeply heading up. The light was becoming stronger now and we risked turning off our head torches. As we quickly gained height patches of old snow started to appear. The going was still very tough but it felt as though things were looking up, the increased light really started lifting out spirits.
After about half an hour of steep climbing we stopped for a rest. Tom dug out his watch to check the time. It was 5.30am. Half an hour till the phantom sunrise that we would never see. 'Oh well, doesn't look like were gonna get there in time anyway' commented Tom. I could tell he was quite down, I had my phone with it's 2 MegaPixel camera on, but Tom had lugged his big heavy expensive camera and tripod all the way up to photograph the sunrise. The disappointment of the mist was really getting to him.
With Tom in low spirits and struggling he started to drop back a bit. I still wanted to make it to the top by six just to prove a point. As a hurried up something struck me as strange. I looked up. Blue! Blue! Suddenly I was like a child at Christmas! 'Tom' I screamed, 'were gonna break through the cloud!' Tom still a few hundred feet behind could see no blue yet, he seemed confused. I was not. A started running as if my life depended upon it, within two minutes I broke through the cloud. This was a full on cloud inversion. Something so rare it only happens on a few days each year. Something I had always dreamed of seeing but never thought likely.
As I gained height the sea of cloud stretched out into the distance. It was still ten minutes till sunrise and the sky was a deep blue with dark red staining the horizon. In the distance you could see other peaks breaking through the cloud and their snow capped summits were shimmering in the dawn light. I had never smiled so much in my life! Far below Tom was just breaking through, I could not see his face, but his body language had all changed. He now hurried along with real purpose in his stride. I turned to look West, I could tell the sunrise was close. I started running as fast as my aching legs would carry me. I could see the summit was still about a mile away along the long shoulder of the Mountain, but I could make it to the head of the towering cliffs that guard the West side of the Mountain.
Just as the sun started to creep over the sea of cloud I made it! The timing could not have been more perfect. Far below the cliffs dropped away into the cloud and as the sun made it's appearance everything started glowing. It was the most stunning view I had ever seen and probably will ever see. As I sank down I actually had tears in my eyes, this was what life was all about! We took a chance and we had been rewarded. As I took a few pictures with my phone I cracked out a big bag of Jelly Babies to celebrate. A few minutes later Tom caught up with me and we smiled. He had his camera out and quickly set up his tripod to get some pictures. Life was good!
As we left the cliffs we headed for the summit of the Mountain. The top of this mountain is huge. It's about two miles long and quite flat. You could probably land a plane up there if you had the nerve. The top was covered in solid frozen snow and crunched beneath our boots as we walked. At about 7am we reached the summit. To be honest the top itself is a little disappointing, some mountains have craggy peaks that jut up to a rocky summit. Here it's just a few feet higher than the summit plateau. There is a standard Trig point to mark the summit and me and Tom went and touched the top.
It had been a truly epic walk that had been so rewarding. However as we well knew the walk was only half complete. From here we were to head down the South side of the Mountain and then back up to another peak that was classed as a separate Munroe. After spending about half an hour on the summit and having some breakfast while we admired the views we set out.
We dropped back into the mist and then started to climb the other side of the valley up our second peak. This one was not as high as Ben Alder itself and far less imposing. An hour later we were on top of our second peak again above the clouds. The views back to Ben Alder were stunning and it was great to see where we had been walking a few hours earlier.
From this summit we had a four mile walk back to the Bothy. As we descended back into the mist we noticed it was getting more patchy. Back down in the valley we had to make our way through a labyrinth of peat bogs. It was tough going and not much fun, but as we neared the Bothy the cloud and mist was starting to thin. Two hours after leaving the second summit we were back at the Bothy and there was not a cloud in the sky. We realised that if we had set off at 9am like most normal people, we would have had a clear day but never had the privilege of seeing the rare cloud inversion. Be had truly been blessed for out efforts.
Back in the Bothy we stopped to have a rest and prepare for the gruelling walk back to the car. Our packs were a lot lighter now as we had eaten most of our food and I had drunk most of my liquids. However after having no sleep and already having walked ten miles that morning I was feeling the strain! As we hefted our heavy packs back on I knew this was going to be a testing walk.
The next five hours were the hardest walking I've even done. A walk which we did in three hours the previous day was now talking almost twice as long. My feet were sore and blisters were forming, my legs ached and my back was struggling with the weight of my pack. I was just so exhausted.
The last hour of our walk was torture. I had to stop every five minutes and as the sun was getting hotter I had run out of drinks! I was down to my last few Jelly Babies and had eaten all my other food in my pack. I had extra supplies back at the car and the thought of that drove me on. At about 3pm on the Saturday afternoon we finally staggered back to the car. I had never been so shattered in all my life. This truly had been a Marathon walk and an epic journey! We sat down in the car and relaxed! We had done it! It really felt like we had achieved something special and experienced something magical! Now we just had the six hour drive home to look forward to!
Fancy A Go?
Hopefully my review has inspired you to try something like this yourself! If you do want to give Ben Alder a try it's not something you can just roll out of bed one morning and go and do. This is a serious walk and requires a high level of fitness. I had been running for a few months before taking this on and still only just managed. You will also need some decent walking boots, a good large rucksack and some good quality gear. Also make sure you have a map and the skills to use it, if you get lost out here there is no signal on your phone!
I would recommend attempting Ben Alder from Dalwhinnie like we did. Bikes would make the trip a lot easier but I still think you would have to stay overnight. There are some excellent wild camping spots in the area or there is of course Culra Bothy. If you want more info on this you can look it up on Google and there is plenty of information about the Bothy and the Bothy code you will need to follow.
The other option is of course Rannoch Station which I mentioned earlier. From here there is another Bothy you can use known as Ben Alder cottage. This is situated at the far end of Loch Ericth and is famous for it's ghost! Again you can look this up on Google and get all the information you need.
If you have never done anything like this I strongly recommend it to you. The wilderness that certain areas of Scotland can offer is stunning. The area around Ben Alder and Ben Alder itself must be one of the most beautiful places in the whole of the UK. The mountain itself is not to hard to climb, it's just the distances that really cause the problems.
This was the best walking weekend I've ever had. Getting up early and climbing in the dark was so exciting. It is not something I would recommend unless you are very experienced as it is fraught with dangers. But being on top of Ben Alder for the sunrise is something that I will always remember and also feel like I was so privileged to enjoy. Anyway, thanks for reading my review, sorry it's so long, but I wanted to really give you a feeling of what this Mountain has to offer. Hopefully I inspired you to try something like this and if not, you can still get an idea of what something like this entails.