Wild horses of Ben Alder – [# 152 & 153]

Ben Alder (1148m); Beinn Bheoil (1019m)

  • Pronunciation:              Ben Alder; Bine Vee-awl
  • Translation:                   Mountain of the Water of the Steep Slope (Possibly); Mountain of the Mouth
  • Total distance:              56.8km (of which 34.8km was cycled)
  • Total time:                     10hrs 20mins
  • Total ascent:                 1497m
  • Weather:                        Mixed. Very windy and overcast with rain showers and mist. Overnight storm delivered fresh snow down to 600m.
  • Start / end location:   500m north of the Dalwhinnie Distillery on the A889. [OS Map Sheet 42 – Grid Ref: NN 640 859]
  • Map:                                A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window. The map displays on most browsers, but not unfortunately Internet Explorer.

Suspension bridge across the Allt a' Chaoil-reidhe with Ben Alder massif in the background

Our plan was to cycle into the Ben Alder estate, which lies to the west of the A9, camp overnight and then over two days tackle the remaining six Munros left to be climbed in that area.

Preparing to leave the 'van parked by Dalwhinnie

We began our trip at Dalwhinnie where we found a suitable place to leave the ‘van overnight. We packed all the gear that we’d need in large panniers hung on either side of our bikes. Apart from food provisions, the amount of camping gear required is generally the same whether you’re staying for a week or only one night, and so for our “wee” overnight trip we actually had quite a load of equipment to carry. This included a tent, sleeping bags, foam carry-mats, stove, pot, plastic crockery, eating utensils and dry clothing. However, given we were able to pack this in the panniers it left us only requiring to shoulder our smaller day-pack rucksacks as per a normal day’s climbing. Nevertheless, the bikes did end up being rather on the heavy side.

The Shieling (Alder Estate office) on the north shore of Loch Ericht

From our parking spot we cycled passed the Dalwhinnie (whisky) Distillery and into the tiny village where, after 600m, we turned right (west) onto a short road that led to the railway station. Just before we reached the station platform we turned left to reach an unmanned level-crossing after a further 300m. [There was a notice on a piece of waste ground at the end of this little (no-through) road that leads to the level-crossing that stated that walkers may park their cars there – this would have been a bit handier than where we parked.]

(L to R) Lancet Ridge to Sgor Iutharn, Geal Charn (snow-capped), Carn Dearg & Beinn a' Chlachair

Once we’d safely crossed the railway line we began the long cycle towards our camping spot at the foot of Ben Alder. The estate track we cycled along was well maintained and although rough in places would have been suitable for a normal 4-by-4 car – although the track cannot be used for public vehicle access without authorisation from the Ben Alder estate. The track ran along the NW side of Loch Ericht and was used to service the various estate buildings as well as the Ben Alder Lodge, which was located about 8km from the Dalwhinnie railway station. As we cycled along this track we first passed The Shieling, a rather grand Victorian inspired, but modern, estate gatehouse that was used as the estate office – see photograph. This set the scene for the other grand buildings that we also passed on the 8km shoreline track.

The Ben Alder massif from the south shore of Loch Pattack

Along this section of track we met a couple of people coming in the opposite direction who were pushing their bikes. I instantly had a flashback to a week ago when we had to push our bikes a total of 11.75km and wondered if this couple had lost their bike lock key or their bike(s) had suffered from some sort of mechanical problem. It turned out to be the latter and I wondered if I could help them (a puncture or a broken chain I could fix) but the problem that they had was that the whole rear derailleur arm on one of their back gears had snapped off – there was nothing that I could do for them. They mentioned that they’d spent the night in Culra Bothy and that it had been busy with Coast-to-Coast walkers. On this news we were glad that we’d packed our tent and were not reliant on the bothy for our overnight accommodation.

When we reached the Ben Alder Lodge we were greeted by another modern “Victorian-inspired” gatehouse before, through a tree-line avenue, we caught a glimpse of the lodge itself. What can I say, the 26,000-acre Ben Alder Estate is owned by the Swiss industrialist Urs Schwarzenbach – a man who is worth £852m!

Nest and eggs of a sandpiper photographed near the shores of Loch Pattack

As we passed to the north side of the lodge we began climbing a moderately inclined track westwards that skirted the boundary of a conifer woodland en route towards Loch Pattack. Around 500m before the eastern shore of Loch Pattack was reached a walkers’ path branched off the track to the left: this provided walkers with a slightly shorter route to Culra Bothy. However, as we were cyclists we stayed off this walkers’ path and kept to the land-rover track that follows the south shoreline of Loch Pattack. Just as we arrived at the loch-side a small bird broke from cover by the edge of the track and on a bit of inspection we came across its nest and four neatly arranged speckled eggs. There were a few sandpipers wading along the shoreline and the size of the bird that left the nest – seen by us only peripherally – was of a similar size, although its markings weren’t clearly observed. Nonetheless, the “evidence” led us to conclude that this was a sandpiper’s nest that we’d found.

On the suspension bridge over the Allt a' Chaoil-reidhe burn

Not much room for bike and rider on the suspension bridge across the Allt a' Chaoil-reidhe burn

Culra Bothy with Ben Alder in the background

We moved on quickly to minimize any disturbance around the nest site and it was then that we noticed that the land-rover track we were on actually started to make use of Loch Pattack’s shoreline. This was because immediately adjacent to the shingle beach were tall peat hags that completely blocked vehicle access. Our problem, however, was that the heavy rains of the last week or so had caused the level of the loch to rise and cover the track. So, I first of all tried investigating whether it would be possible to lift our bikes up onto the tops of the peat hags and negotiate a route through with our bikes: but once I stood on top of one the hags I knew that it would be too difficult and too boggy. We therefore were forced to contemplate peddling through the brown peat-stained waters at the edge of the loch: there was nothing else for it.

We donned our gaiters for some added damp-proof protection and I then set off along the shingle shoreline first. Cycling on shingle is hard enough and I felt a bit concerned that I might “stall” at some point once I’d entered the water as I wouldn’t be able to see what my front tyre was passing over. I needn’t have worried as the adrenaline of cycling through the water with my feet getting submerged on every revolution focused my mind to ensure that I applied maximum power on the peddles in order to see me through. Elaine, having seen how deep I got in the water, and moreover that it could be cycled successfully, followed on without any incidents. A few more such watery challenges were overcome before we finally reached an interesting looking small suspension bridge across the Allt a’ Chaoil-reidhe burn.

Inside the small room in Culra Bothy on the Alder Estate

The bridge utilised two thin cables at floor level to carry the planks making up the deck of the bridge, whilst two higher suspension cables acted as the handrail and provided tensioning anchors for some vertical wire stays. The bridge had a decided list to port side as we crossed east to west. Our two big problems were lifting our heavy bikes with panniers over the huge stepping stone boulders used to gain access to the bridge on the east side, and then trying to walk alongside our bikes across the wobbly deck of the bridge with its obvious list. Given the weight of each bike plus pannier combination Elaine was more than happy when I volunteered to ferry her bike across too. So after two trips back and forth we both ended up safely on the west side of the burn.

The NE cliffs of Ben Alder from across the Bealach Beithe on Beinn Bheoil

We completed the last 600m of loch-side cycling without further incident before we forked to the left (SSW) and followed the track for another 2.5km to eventually reach Culra Bothy. The weather was beginning to get a bit more overcast as we peeked inside the bothy. The bothy comprised three rooms: two larger rooms, one with an open fireplace and the other with a small cast iron stove, whilst the third room was smaller and without any fireplace. There was now no one staying in the bothy so we decided that we’d base ourselves there for the night rather than pitch our tent: rain and gales were forecast so we thought it would be more comfortable in the bothy. We proceeded to unpack our sleeping bags and left them lying on a wooden platform in the small room in order to “claim” our space. We then locked our bikes together outside the door and set off on foot to bag a couple of Munros: Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil.

At the summit Trig Point on Ben Alder

From the bothy we popped back along the track for 300m in the direction of our earlier arrival as we were then able to use a small but sturdy bridge to cross the swollen Allt a’ Chaoil-reidhe burn (the same burn that we’d crossed down-stream earlier in the day via the suspension bridge). After crossing the bridge we walked up the SE side of the burn (passing the bothy on the opposite bank) until the path began to veer up the northern flank of Sron Dreineach. At one of the prominent zigzags in this path we aimed off SW towards the base of the NE ridge of Ben Alder. This was our intended line of ascent and it looked like an excellent route to the summit plateau. Unfortunately, to get to the bottom of the ridge we had to cross the Allt a’ Bhealaich Bheithe burn, and like every other burn in the area it was running in full spate. I searched up and down the burn for 100m either side of our ideal crossing point but could not find a place that I considered safe enough for us to cross: some burns you can easily roll up your trousers and wade through – but not this one today.

Beinn Bheoil (L) from Sron Bealach Beithe on Ben Alder

A quick look at the map showed that the best course of action was to simply rejoin the path that we’d left and then continue to the top of the Bealach Beithe (glen or pass), which is what we did. We passed Loch a’ Bhealaich Bheithe on its eastern side before a steeper section of path took us to the crest of the pass. From this point we turned NW and ascended the very steep-sided slope just immediately to the left of the Sron Bealach Beithe. When we reached the top we followed the rim around the escarpment above Garbh Choire, which arced north-eastward as it first passed Lochan a’ Garbh Choire before finally climbing to the summit of Ben Alder at 1148m or 3,766ft. The surface of the lochan was still partially covered in ice and on top of that was laid a blanket of fresh spring snow.

Heading NNE towards the summit of Beinn Bheoil

To reach our second objective we had to retrace our steps right back to the col at the top of the Bealach Beithe where we then climbed the other side of the pass up easier slopes to reach the 955m-point marked on the OS map. Once this subsidiary top was gained it was very straightforward for us to follow a broad ridge NNE to reach the summit of Beinn Bheoil at 1019m or 3,343ft. From the summit we got some excellent views across the Bealach Bheoil to the east-facing cliffs of the Ben Alder massif. We didn’t linger long as it was really cold in the wind, and the rain was once again threatening on the horizon.

On top of the summit cairn of Beinn Bheoil with Ben Alder in the background

Continuing in a NNE direction along the summit ridge we initially dropped slightly before climbing over another top and then descending once more to reach a broad col below Sron Dreineach. From this col we turned NNW off the ridge and proceeded towards the top of the zigzag section of the path that we’d used earlier. As we descended over the stunted heather and grass tussocks we came across another nest with four eggs in it – this time we believe belonging to a golden plover. The weather had really begun to turn nastily cold and wet and we both couldn’t imagine what possessed birds to nest in such exposed positions that feel the full force of the prevailing conditions.

Nest and eggs of a golden plover photographed on the descent of Beinn Bheoil

Once we were back on the path it took us little time to cover the 3.5km to reach the protection of the bothy, which we found to be still empty. It was already 19.30 and we quickly set about making dinner and a brew of hot tea. The weather was turning decidedly stormy outside with sharp showers rattling through. Later on in the evening we were lucky enough to see a few red deer grazing by the side of the burn and oblivious to our presence nearby. Later still I had another look outside and thought that I saw a small group of people making their way along the track towards the bothy. It was around 22.30 and I was surprised by the potential lateness of their arrival. As I watched, it turned out that the “little group” was in fact four wild horses (Highland Garrons is the particular breed). They approached quite close and grazed on the opposite bank of the burn.

We turned in for the night with only the two of us in the bothy and lay listening to the gathering storm outside. A few bits and pieces around the exterior of the bothy were making some rattling noises – all of which were unfamiliar to us. Eventually we drifted off into a restless sleep.

Four wild horses take shelter in the lee of Culra Bothy

Chestnut coloured wild horse by Culra Bothy

Suddenly, at some point in the dead of night we were awakened by a loud thud at the door. Our senses were sent instantly into overdrive as we listened intently and tried to determine what made the noise. Was it simply an extra strong gust of wind? Was it someone trying to gain access to the bothy? Was it something unexplainable??? As we listened, we heard a scraping noise accompanied by heavy sounding footsteps – but this time away from the door, heading round towards the back of the bothy. Then we heard it, the missing piece in the identification jigsaw: what sounded like a distance “neigh”. I had to get up and peer out to confirm our suspicions. Wiping the condensation from the window I was able to make out a dark shape moving near the doorway and another off to the side near the gable end of our room. It was indeed the Highland Garrons that I had spotted earlier in the evening: they had come to the bothy to seek shelter from the snow storm that was raging outside. They stood in the lee provided by the various parts of the building and rubbed up against the outside walls and “scraped” the ground with their front hoofs. Even though the mystery of the unknown noises had been solved it took us both a while to drift back into our uneasy slumber.

Geal Charn (Ardverikie Estate to the north of the Alder Estate) in fresh spring snow

We woke the next morning with the storm still active outside and with the hillside immediately behind the bothy plastered with fresh snow. We agreed that these were no conditions for us to venture onto the high mountains and so lay in our sleeping bags for a while longer. When we did get up and I tried to venture to the burn for some water for the kettle my way was blocked at the door by a rather cheeky and inquisitive slate-grey mare. I ended up having to force my way passed to get to the burn. On my return a chestnut brown, and largest of the horses, was eyeing up our mountain bikes and already beginning to nibble at the saddles and handlebars. As quickly as I could I unlocked the bikes and we took them inside the bothy whereupon Elaine noticed that the bung at the end of one of her handlebars was missing – we presumed being digested as we stood there inspecting the rest of the bikes! By the time we had packed up all of our kit into the panniers and attached them to our bikes and were ready to leave, our friends (the horses) had moved away from the door and begun their morning grazing. We slipped out and began our journey back to Dalwhinnie – only this time we used the walkers’ path for the first 3km in order to avoid the suspension bridge and the loch-side fording part of the land-rover track.

Once we were properly back on the track it was mostly downhill and we enjoyed a fast and exhilarating bike ride of over 14.5km back to our ‘van. We both agreed that it had been a brilliant two days despite not climbing all of the Munros we’d hoped for and being scared witless by some “wild” horses.

We will be back sometime soon to conquer the four Munros that still remain to be climbed.

About Cameron Speirs

Born and brought up in the Scottish Highlands, Cameron, has been interested in outdoor pursuits since he was a wee lad. Over the last few decades he has climbed extensively in the Italian Dolomites as well as summiting the Matterhorn and several other 4000m alpine peaks. Closer to home he has spent many wonderful weekends mountaineering and biking in Snowdonia, Cairngorms, Glen Coe, Skye and Lochaber.
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One Response to Wild horses of Ben Alder – [# 152 & 153]

  1. Robin D says:

    It has been a while since I have managed to catch up with you guys, but still – how awesome is this year turning out to be?

    Great to see you making such progress.

    We are thinking of you (still with a tinge of jealousy! 🙂 )

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