A winters tale on Ben Alder in the “whiteroom”.

I had enough needed a break and life was hectic I just wanted to get away for a couple of days and disappear into the wild. It’s early winter daylight is short and I had not been out on the hills for a while ( actually a few years) I am in my early 60’s but I have the time now and I am off chasing my youth. It is just before Christmas but I said to my family I needed a break before the fun starts. Sounds familiar?

The gear was packed I decide to go as light as possible I thought I am  getting old and with a night planned in a Bothy with all the extra gear it would have to be. Ben Alder was the plan a real mountain I had done it before in summer many years ago with 5 other Munros I was fit then. It is a remote area protected by a long walk in and in winter a wild and lonely place and on the weekend up to Christmas few go on the hills.

There are so many decisions, do I take full winter kit, lots of weight ? No it’s warm down South and the winters not in the hills yet. I am out of touch with the hills but will see what they look like ! I try to check the weather forecast but forget it looks okay anyway on the evening news.

I sort out my gear I will I take crampons but I will see from the car if I need them? The maps are looked at  for the trip just take the bit that I may need I have my GPS. I pack the grand kids watch me pack and it is exciting  I say goodbye back in 2 – 3 days not sure  when exactly I tell my family I will try to get a signal on the phone but will call you if I can. If not do not worry.

I am late leaving next day and arrive at Dalwhinnie about midday the cloud is down so no views. It will be dark at 1600! The bag is heavy,I repack so I dump the crampons but take my ice axe and lighten the bag. It is a long way in and hard work . It should take me 3 hours walking but get there wet and with snow on the ground, the path is icy. I pass the big house and the loch then see the Garrons ponies out in the snow, they are hardy and lots of deer past the forestry. The walk in is a lot harder than I thought and the wind and snow arrives, gently falling. The bothy comes into view just the hills do as well there is  alot more snow on the tops, it is a bit lonely in mid winter on your own but good to be here!

A big wild mountain in winter Ben Alder

A big wild mountain in winter Ben Alder

The Bothy is empty and I get a brew, unpack the gear. This is the life  I get a wee fire going and then eat and an early night I get to bed feeling tired that was not an easy walk today. I read the Bothy book no one been in for a few weeks why do people write where there going? I come here to get away from it all. There is no phone reception here just peace but I miss the family. I will catch up soon, I will get a phone signal on the tops?

I have a rough night it’s dark till 0900 and head off it’s winter now and the tops are clear! It all takes time to get ready I am a bit out of touch with the hard life.

There is a scramble up one of the ridges  that I fancy the Long Leachas and that is my plan. There is a fair walk in across open frozen moor and its hard work the snow is deep in places and drifting.

On the ridge on another day

On the ridge on another day

At last I am on the ridge by 1030 but it’s slow going. The ground is frozen hard very icy I am glad I have my ice axe, it’s hard going the years are taking their toll and the weather is coming in. The wind strengthens and it’s so hard neve snow on the ridge now simple climbing but I need to take care as the ridge narrows. It is steep and the fitness is not there and I have to cut steps near the top and then the whiteout comes in!

I am now in a featureless place in the “white room “and the wind is building up now. The snow is blasting me in the open and its hard to see. There is no shelter but I get a bearing it’s a long kilometre to the summit into the wind the only way off the hill in this weather. I decide to do it in two legs.  I start to feel alone and I am.

I try to call home before I go but no reception the phone is dead did I leave it on last night? not so good! The grand kids will not get my call I promised from the tops, they will be disappointed. It’s goggles weather but I do not have them with me ( daft )and feel I am wandering near the huge cornices that hide the huge Garbh Coire that the ridge follows.

I check my map again it should be a kilometre to the summit at 1148 it’s high, featureless and remote. There is still no visibility I check the map it’s so hard to see. I wear glasses now and never experienced this before I can hardly see the features on the map. How do I pace again? I have not done it for years ? How many paces for 100 metres? 70 I think it will have to do but it’s a bit tricky in the wind and visibility.There are no visual features at all just whiteness,snow and wind! It’s been so long since I have been out in conditions like these! Concentrate.


On a clear day the plateau in good weather

I check with my GPS where I am the batteries are failing it must be the cold? I never put new ones in before I left I am an idiot! It’s now fairly useless.

Tricky navigation on the plateau and not easy to see the map with poor eyesight in bad conditions.

The Corrie cuts in half way to the summit yet the wind I feel is pushing me to the Cornices and the cliffs. I try to be careful but this so hard I am on my own and the ground is so icy I wish I had my crampons on. It  getting is so hard to stand on the wind, I am tiring!

I get the bearing check it can hardly see and have to reach the summit soon! I am not exactly sure where I am. The wind and snow tears at me I am cold I need some food and the weather is still awful. The wind is now about 50 mph with gusts. This is serious now.

I keep going I am still into the wind but there is no other way to go. I feel I am going downhill my timing is right but I may have missed the summit and then there it is. Not much shelter and a break at last ! I do not want to leave this place but I have to I am frozen and time is moving. The ground is so complicated to get off and there are still and there are steep cliffs all around.

I feel so alone the joy had gone my ego battered so I eat some food and try to get out the wind! It’s very steep ground all around. The only way off is to descend to the Beleach and it’s so icy and I have to be careful and navigate, mistakes are always made on the descent, switch on.

There is still no change, limited vision just a rough bearing to go on, my life is at stake. It’s taken longer than I think it is 1430 and dark soon I have to get moving. I am glad that my family do not know what is going on then off I go into the white and wind.

So many thoughts before I go off into the whiteness again? I re – check my bearing check my working time to the beleach 40 minutes then I should be on safe ground. I wish my Gps was working as there are still plenty of cliffs and outcrops about. Putting my glove on after taking a new bearing my glove it blows away into the whiteness!

I peer into the whiteness.

What now?

This was a partly true tale but many years ago before GPS and mobile phones . I met a guy lost near the summit when I was out on my own with my dog getting away from it all. Teallach my dog kept Indicating there was something out near the Cornices! That is where I found the poor soul on his last legs!

I got him off to the Bothy it was hard going and he told me his tale of which I adapted. He said he left late ill prepared and with no forecast when out without crampons. He was not fit and a late start, tricky navigation nearly killed him. He lost his gloves and then could not navigate at all ! His torch was useless as well!

So many

Lessons learned and I just adapted it to modern day mountaineering GPS,mobile phones etc! 

About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 36 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 4 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Articles, Bothies, Enviroment, Equipment, Gear, Hill running and huge days!, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Munros, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Weather. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A winters tale on Ben Alder in the “whiteroom”.

  1. Richard Burton says:

    Wow thanks for that a great read.

    Liked by 1 person

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