Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Alpine snow aretes in the Ben Alder wilderness (a guest post from Alex)

Since leaving Glencoe in May 2011 I have never stopped thinking about the mountains. I have spent too many years wandering in the upper world to forget my time there easily; in fact, my experiences there have a profound, continuing effect on my daily life, a phenomenon every climber who lives away from the mountains will recognise. Moments of perfection burst in on you when you least expect it. Taking the bus to work in the morning over the dreary fen, I might glimpse the sun peeking over the edge of a cloud and be transported back to the summit of Bidean in January 2009, when alpenglow coloured the promised land golden and Brocken spectres danced over the Aonach Eagach's shadow through the mist. Such is the curse of those who love the mountains. They enrich our lives beyond measure--they can even help to teach us the meaning of life itself--but they never let us be free.

I had to go back.

My last trip to the hills in October last year felt a little like a broken record. It was great to see my friends in Glencoe again and relive some past adventures, but unlike my brother James I have started to become too familiar with Glencoe (possibly a result of my more intensive campaign in those mountains due to a lack of private transport). I resolved that my next trip would be to somewhere completely new. For a long time now Ben Alder had beckoned from the unknown regions between Lochaber and the Cairngorms; regions I had heard tales about, stories of soaring ridges and remote mountain huts surrounded by awesome splendour, but had never glimpsed myself. As luck would have it a train ran fairly directly between home and Dalwhinnie. I booked tickets and dusted off my winter equipment.

Late on the 4th of February I arrived in Dalwhinnie itself. Every surface had been glazed with freezing rain, making walking along the road a problematic task. I pitched my tent by the side of Loch Ericht and passed a comfortable night. In the morning I began the nine and a half mile walk to the place where I planned to spend the next few days: Culra, a remote mountain hut famous with long-distance walkers and Munro baggers.

The walk by the side of the loch ought to have been easy enough (it follows an excellent road leading into the Ben Alder estate), but the freezing rain made walking more tricky than might have been expected, and I seemed to spend most of my time clinging to the rough ground at the edge of the track. I passed several buildings, all Gothic towers and battlements, helping to increase the sense that I was steadily walking away from the real world and into a fantastic one.

The track grew fainter as it struck out over the moor. I passed through herds of red deer, feeding from the same haybales as sturdy mountain ponies. Ravens and eagles flew overhead. I didn't see another person, and as I strode out the miles my spirit felt increasingly glad to be leaving the world behind. Finally I reached Culra, a pair of small buildings nestled in the curve of an icebound river. Having carried my camping equipment all the way there I decided to pitch my tent on a small island in the river (besides, the weather was fine).


Two mountains dominate the view from Culra: Ben Alder, a vast complex of ridges, corries and plateaux; and Sgor Iutharn, not even a Munro but of so sharp and commanding an appearance that it immediately fixes itself in the climber's mind as a necessary objective. The snow arete leading to the summit of Sgor Iutharn is known as the Lancet Edge, and without knowing any details of the ascent I set off just after 7am to climb this striking natural feature.

The walk along the Bealach Dubh towards the mountain is an interesting one in its own right, following a frozen river upstream as it winds between ancient moraines. This is the corpse of a glacier, left behind at the end of the last glaciation when the ice steadily receded and left behind the carved-out landscape we know and love today. As I climbed higher I passed some remarkable snow features, crevasses and monstrous cornices in the most unlikely places, the result of a past blizzard. Finally I began the steep climb up to the base of the arete.

I climbed entirely on snow and ice; the mountain was so buried that scarcely a rock protruded. In the main the snow was well-bonded and stable, but drifts of powder lay here and there, bonded in varying degrees to the hard, old stuff beneath. The climb became steeper and steeper but averaged (I would estimate) about 35 degrees up until the start of the arete proper. Then the fun really began!

In my years of climbing in Scotland I have rarely seen a ridge so continually sharp and exposed. The Carn Mor Dearg arete is the only feature quite like it I can think of. There are many aretes in Glencoe and Lochaber more difficult than the Lancet Edge (indeed it had no particular difficulties at all, except one short a cheval section), but it just keeps going! A mixed tower led to a finely-carved snow ridge, then cornices, then another tower; and just when you think the summit is in view, you are rewarded with another long, fine blade of ice and snow. Without being at all difficult this amazing route manages to provide enjoyment from valley to summit.

The summit of Sgor Iutharn was nothing special, a small carn on a flattish plateau with a distant view to Glencoe and the Blackmount. To the south, a stupendous drop of two thousand feet led straight down to the old glacier bed, then up again to the north face of Ben Alder. Northwest, Geal-charn presented an almost unbroken view of pure white. Spellbound by the promise of this ice world (not to mention another peak on Munro's list), I dropped down to the little bealach and began the climb back up to the plateau of Geal-charn.

Once again, the depth of snow surprised me. Hardly a rock showed through the pack. I climbed the steepening slope for some time before the angle relented and I found myself in a desert of white, hot and still in the bright sun. Although the temperature was several degrees below freezing I felt the familiar sense, that every Alpine mountaineer will recognise, of being slowly roasted alive by the sun above and the glare of the snow beneath. I wore goggles to protect my eyes but my nose got burnt!

Even in the Cairngorms I have never seen a plateau so continuously white and desolate. I trekked for half a mile over this icy waste, aiming for the highest point, a little lump hardly thirty metres higher than the rest of the plateau. In the distance, the views became shrouded with low-lying clouds, a sort of partial temperature inversion. I began to notice old friends in the distance, familiar mountains from old adventures. From Ben Lui to the Blackmount, Glencoe to the Mamores, Ben Nevis to the Grey Corries, dozens of distant peaks brought back happy memories by the score.

The summit of Geal-charn, at 1,132m, hardly distinguished itself beyond a simple cairn and a commanding view of the Ben Nevis massif. I spent a few moments there before retracing my footsteps across the plateau, and eventually descended to the top of the pass between Bealach Dubh and Uisge Labhair, which drains into Loch Ossian. It felt very wild, standing on that bleak col many miles from the nearest road or habitation, surrounded by towering cliffs and utter silence.

The temperature dropped considerably as I walked back to my tent in the still evening, and I passed a very cold night under canvas.


I awoke a little later the next morning, reluctant as I was to get out of my warm sleeping bag. The overnight temperatures had been very low indeed and the condensation from my breathing had coated the inside of my tent with a thick layer of frost, which fell on me when I stirred; and worse, both of my water bottles had frozen into solid blocks of ice, not to mention the pan of water I had left in my tent porch. My boots had frozen to the ground and were quite useless until I had warmed them over my stove and worked the stiff laces through my teeth. Even then, it took two hours of walking before they were thawed out.

If possible, that morning was even more perfect than the previous day. Dawn painted glorious colours over the mountains and, as always, I spent a while just standing and looking in awe at the beauty of my surroundings. The walk in to the corrie of Coire an Leithchois, at the northern end of the Ben Alder complex, proved to be a little longer than the walk in the previous day, with a long detour to find a suitable river crossing over the ice. I was aiming for the Long Leachas ridge, a famous scramble and a classic way up Ben Alder. This ridge has a commanding appearance but I expected it to be easier than the Lancet Edge, as it is less narrow, and other climbers had already broken trail; this would save me a lot of effort.

The first tower on the ridge passed easily enough. After that a long and not particularly narrow snow ridge climbed upwards towards another tower, which presented the first difficulty: a steep and loose gully passing between rock walls. The rubble under the snow had not frozen in place and this little chute proved to be more insecure than I had expected, but not really out of character with this kind of route.

After the chimney, the ridge became more intricate and mixed, with some pleasant snowy scrambling leading to a short pinnacled section which provided the only real difficulty on the route. I negotiated these blunt towers, making comparisons in my mind with the Crazy Pinnacles of the Aonach Eagach (which are of course much more difficult), and soon came to a notch with a step leading out which was obviously much harder. This vertical step was about two metres high but proved to be quite awkward. I've never been much good at mixed climbing, and I found the footholds on sloping rock to be insecure. After looking for a good placement for my ice axe I eventually dug out some excellent handholds and hauled myself up this barrier.

It was the last real step on the ridge and easy scrambling now led to the plateau. Ben Alder's plateau is much rocker than Geal-charn, with a more pronounced summit and some gigantic cornices to the left, which I carefully avoided. Down in the glacial bowl of Bealach Beithe below, clouds were boiling over the mountains from Loch Ericht, and the lighting had an eerie quality that led me to believe bad weather was on its way. I had no concrete evidence for this theory but I became steadily more uneasy and convinced that a major storm could only be hours away. Consequently I hurried to the summit of Ben Alder, in increasing winds, and stayed there for only a short time before retracing my steps and locating the top of the Short Leachas ridge, which is the only relatively easy descent from Ben Alder to the north.

I met a climber who had just climbed this arete who advised me not to descend that way, due to some steep slopes, but I had no other option so carefully downclimbed the very steep upper pitch of the ridge, where snow had piled up to form a pitch of perhaps 50 degrees steepness that dropped some ten metres from the plateau down to the ridge. After that I found no difficulties except for a traverse on snow to avoid a rock tower, and right at the end of the ridge where a cliff piled high with powder drifts had to be negotiated. The wind increased as I descended. Back down in the corrie, I recrossed the ice bridge over the river and descended at speed to my camp, where I decided to strike my tent (which does not cope well with high winds) and move into the hut for my final night.

I chatted for a while with the only other inhabitant of the hut, who had climbed the Long Leachas ridge himself the previous day and had just returned from a long mission over to Aonach Beag. After camping for several nights, a dry and relatively warm room in which to lay out your gear and thaw or dry items is a real luxury. I packed everything ready for an early start in the morning.

Sure enough, when I left Culra at 5:30am, a near-gale was blowing and the weather showed further signs of deterioration. I walked the miles back to Dalwhinnie with the wind behind me and caught the first train back to Lincolnshire, glad I had not decided to stay another night as I had originally planned.

The odds for a visiting English climber of getting two near-perfect mountain days are remote, so I am beyond happy with this very special trip. For once nothing went wrong: I got no blisters, suffered no injury, experienced no late trains, and climbed everything I had set out to do. Two new Munros on my personal list now bring me up to fifty, which might be considered a small number to show for my six years of mountaineering in Scotland, but that includes over 40 ascents of Bidean nam Bian, well over 50 ascents of Stob Coire nan Lochan, and 13 ascents of Ben Nevis, not to mention all the other mountains I have climbed many times.

As always, it's about the experience and the memories, not the numbers. This is a trip I will remember for a very long time to come.


  1. That is another place on the to do list. A great post that has only further whetted the appetite. What a wonderful experience.

  2. Alex! Great to see you enjoying the mountains again and the photos are stunning! Hope I can join you for a walk next time your up. Maz x

  3. Thanks Maz, I hope to come and visit at some point before the summer!x