Wild Camp: Ben Alder from Dalwhinnie

In October 2019 I headed up on the sleeper train from London to Dalwhinnie, with the intention of climbing Ben Alder. I’d been interested in climbing this mountain for some time, I think mostly due to it’s remoteness. The weather forecast was, however, not on my side. Very heavy rain was forecast for all three days I would be there. After a lot of soul searching, I decided to take a tarp rather than a tent, despite the forecast. The tarp I took was my Mountain Laurel Designs Cricket. This is one of my favourite tarps for bivvying. It stands up well to serious weather, although having an open side obviously means you need to pitch it with respect to the wind direction. So I knew I’d be protected from the elements although not as well as in a tent. However the main reason I took it was it’s weight. Ben Alder requires a long (and as it turns out, boring) walk in and having a light pack was high on my priority list. I had a bivvy bag with me as well so I was confident I would be ok.

The first thing I did when I got off the train, was head straight to a local cafe for a full Scottish breakfast. Nothing like starting an adventure in the right way! Then I started the walk down the estate road that runs alongside Loch Ericht.

I’ll be honest, walking along a road in the rain really isn’t that interesting, despite the view of the loch. I had considered bringing my packraft to make this more interesting, but I’d heard Loch Ericht was quite famous as a bit of a wind tunnel at the best of times so decided to walk instead. This proved to be a good decision.

After a few km, the road runs out and the 4×4 track commences. As I started up the track I could hear deer rutting. This proved to be a soundtrack all day and all night for three days.

As I walked along the track, I could just make out the mountains in the distance through the low cloud. It was always raining, at times light, at others the kind of rain that stings your face as the wind gets hold of it. I was the only person brave/stupid enough to be walking the route, until I came across a ranger who seemed almost as surprised to see me as I was to see him. He told me he had been checking the path as they had recently installed new drainage and he thought this would be a good day to see if it was working. He confirmed that it was, and then told me that my chosen campsite that night alongside Loch a Bhealaich Bheithe would be a poor choice – apparently the wind was almost gale force. I thanked him for the information and continued along the track, now scouting for somewhere suitable to camp despite it being early afternoon.

Not long after this, my hand was forced anyway. The rain and wind became much stronger and I decided to pitch the tarp, initially just to get out of the rain whilst I ate. The ground here is quite flat and there were limited options to pitch using natural features as a windbreak. The ground right by the river is perfectly flat and good for pitching, but I didn’t fancy being right by the river in this rain. Eventually I pitched behind a small mound, sufficiently high above the river that I’d be able to get packed up and away if it started to rise. I was grateful to throw myself under the tarp out of the wind and rain. And, that was it for the day. Because it didn’t stop for the rest of the day or night and I saw no point in leaving my shelter in these conditions. There was probably only one or two short periods where it didn’t rain that whole time.

I climbed into my bivvy bag to stay warm and dry and enjoyed some food and read my kindle. I was able to watch deer crossing the river from the comfort of my bag, which was a nice way to pass the time given I couldn’t continue to walk. In between the rain I dashed out to filter some water from the river. I saw nobody else all afternoon and soon it was dark. In the dark, the tarp was thrashing and straining at the guy lines and I was concerned about whether it would survive through the night. But survive it did, and by the morning the rain had stopped, the wind had died and I could even see some blue sky! And there was Ben Alder, finally visible. My spirits were up, despite having had very little sleep.

Once I’d eaten and had some coffee, I packed and set off. I was confident I would summit Ben Alder today, as the weather was much better than forecast. So confident in fact, that I decided to tackle Ben Bheoil first (these two munroes are frequently tackled together). Oh how I had underestimated Scottish weather despite my many trips there. By the time I was at around 900 metres, I could barely stand in the wind. At one point it blew so hard, I sat down to avoid falling over. At least the rain was holding and I had great views down Loch Ericht.

I decided the wind was a bit much for me, so started to descend again back down to Loch a Bhealaich Bheithe, my intended campsite for the first night. In the 30 minutes or so it took me to descend, the rain had returned with a vengeance. So as I neared the loch I again started looking for somewhere to pitch to get out of the rain. And once again, there I stayed. There were two reasons for that. Firstly I was absolutely determined I was not going home without having summited Ben Alder, so I wanted to stay near enough that I could still climb it if there was a weather window. Secondly, the rain and wind barely let up all day.

Overnight the deer did not stop making a racket. It was a bit disconcerting but I managed a reasonable amount of sleep, more out of sheer exhaustion from not sleeping the day before than anything else. I was, to say the least, relieved to awake in the morning not to good visibility but at least absolutely no wind whatsoever. It was very peaceful and I really welcomed it after two days of almost constant windy, wet, weather. The Cricket tarp really had been a life saver.

Soon I packed and headed off. My train home was at 10pm so I had to summit and then walk the 20km or so back to the station. If I did this again, I wouldn’t return to Dalwhinnie but would continue to Corrour. I think it would have been a more interesting trip. The climb up Ben Alder was quite steep in places, but soon I was on the summit plateau in very low visibility. I passed Lochan a Garbh Choire, one of the highest bodies of freshwater in the UK, and knew I wasn’t far from the summit. I don’t mind admitting that at this point, with steep drops off to my right I decided to pull out a GPS device to navigate. I did have a map and compass of course, but as I had the technology it made sense to use it to increase my safety margin. I made it to summit, and admired the views, which were rubbish!

Descending out of the fog I could see Loch Ossian in the distance, and the walk back to the station was initially quite spectacular. But soon I had the long trudge back along the estate tracks, and it got dark before I made it back to the station. In the end I’d walked something close to 35km that day, and I was feeling it! I made my train, and enjoyed a meal and some wine before sleeping solidly all the way to London.

I used the excellent Harvey Maps Superwalker map for Ben Alder for this trip, which is highly recommended.

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