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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Ben Aulder


By J. G. STOTT.

FAR away up in the Inverness-shire Highlands, keeping watch and ward over leagues of lonely moor and mountain, —a central boss in the rugged rocky shield of old Scotland,—stands big burly Ben Aulder. At the time of which I write,—half-a-dozen years ago,—the Mountaineering Club had not come into existence to procure facilities for its members to visit such out-of-the way spots, or to restrain their enthusiasm within legitimate channels and seasons. So when our party of five conceived the desire of climbing this strictly-preserved and little-visited mountain, we simply took train and went thither.

Blair in Athole is passed; Ben-y-Ghlo's triple peaks support the blue vault on our right; Schiehallion's cone cleaves it in the west; we have left behind the sweet- scented larches of Bruar and Struan, and are toiling up through the purple moors of Dalnacardoch. Dalnaspidal comes next,—bleak, cold Dalnaspidal, at the head of the Garry's Glen; then we attain the summit level—nearly 1,500 feet—and rush through Druimouchter Pass, between the wild brown hills; and just as twilight drops, cold and grey, over the country, we pull up at Dalwhinnie Station. This is our place! We are up about 1,200 feet, and the whole neighbourhood is brown and cheerless. Over in front is a long hill, 3,000 feet high, on whose breast a snow-wreath has curled up and gone to sleep to await the return of winter; a burn plashes sullenly through stony channel in the middle distance; far away on the left, road and rail roll onwards to Glen Truim and the swift-rushing Spey beyond. Two or three cottages are scattered about, their grey smoke whirled swiftly away by the impatient wind; and in the centre of the view there is a black pine wood. Close under its shelter cowers the comfortable hotel, and to it our steps are directed meanwhile.

Somewhat gloomy broke the morning after a night of rain; but a strong cold wind was sweeping across the country, and overhead were patches of blue sky, and swiftly-flying cloud masses, and short bright gleams of sunlight. So breakfast was despatched, a couple of knapsacks crammed with provender, and by half-past eight we were en route. The worthy landlord tried hard to dissuade us from attempting Ben Aulder, painting fearful pictures of its difficulties, and promising us mild amusement and fine views from a small hill near the house. He threatened us too with trouble from the foresters, but this we were content to leave to chance.

When we reached the head of Loch Ericht—a mile across the moor—we found a gale blowing, with big waves that quite turned our minds from attempting to travel part of our way by boat. So we contented ourselves with rowing across the head of the loch, instead of walking round it, waded ashore through the shallows, and began to climb the steep grass slopes to the summit of the ridge that, varying in height from 1,000 to 2,000 feet, bounds the loch on its northern side. We might have taken the road by the waterside for four or five miles, but this would have brought us to the shooting-lodge, and consequent risks of unpleasantness, though it was still a month before the stalking season.

The wind blew harder and harder as we rose, and black squalls of mist and rain from time to time enveloped us. Then the light would pour through the tattered clouds, and troop on troop of gladsome sunbeams hurried in pursuit of the showers, driving them in confusion across the dark moors. The view widened as we ascended,—the waves. racing in foam towards the head of the loch, the dreary moor, the sinuous railway track, Dalwhinnie with its pine wood. Far beyond them, to the eastward, towered the shadowy Cairngorms, dim and indistinct as mountains in dreamland. Presently we crossed the deer fence, traversed a bog literally white with cotton grass, and finally topped the ridge, and put its crest between us and Loch Ericht For the next four or five miles we bored our way through the storm, across ling and bent clad slopes that rolled forward in easy undulations, deeply grooved by the courses of descending streams. Deep down on our right we saw the Pattach river rushing to the Spey, a peep of the east end of Loch Laggan, the bright green of grass land, the more sombre hue of plantations, the white dots of the cottages. A herd of some forty deer passed us, up wind, not much more than a hundred yards away.

We were getting a sight of Ben Aulder now. Half-adozen miles ahead of us rose a huge mountain mass, still robed in mist, which occasionally cleared sufficiently to let us distinguish three big hills in particular. The middle one was Ben Aulder, but we could not make much more of him than that he had a flat top, with a large cairn towards its southern edge. A few minutes later we sighted Loch Pattach, some hundred feet beneath us, and on the brae above it we sat down for consultation, with maps, compass, and binoculars. The first discovery we made was that the four mile to the inch map was altogether wrong. Loch Pattach was misplaced by a few miles; the range of hills flanking Loch Ericht was wrong both in position and direction; Ben Aulder himself was represented as a single compact mass, void of outliers, tarn, shoulders, and everything connected with him. Bartholomew's map, two miles to the inch, showing contour lines, was very much better; and a short survey enabled us to lay off the ground. The central Ben of the trio was Ben Aulder, 3,757 feet. The big hills just beyond, and to the north of it, were Ben Eibhinn, 3,611 feet; and Aonach Bea, 3,646 feet. Nearer us was Carn Dearg, 3,391 feet. Between Ben Aulder and Loch Ericht rose Ben Bheoil, 3,333 feet. In the saddle that separates them lies, at a height of 2,347 feet, Loch-aBhealaich Bheithe, a narrow tarn about half a mile long. In fact, Ben Bheoil and its lochan occupy just the same relations to Ben Aulder as Meall-an-t-Suidhe and the tarn do to Ben Nevis. The north-eastern side of Ben Aulder facing us showed two immense granite buttresses, reaching up to the edge of the tabular summit. Between them was a vast dark corrie, and high up in its throat reposed a patch of snow that had defied the heats of summer. Our route was soon chosen. We should cross the Pattach river, just below its loch, and follow the course of the Culrea burn for more than three miles up to the foot of the northern of the two arétes already mentioned.

With our goal now fairly in view, we charged down the steep brae, crossed a stretch of heather, splashed through the swiftly flowing Pattach, raced along the shingly shore of the loch, and then on a rough forest path began rapidly to rise again by the banks of the boisterous Cuirea. Ahead Ben Aulder loomed larger and larger, now entirely free from mist—and his buttresses towards their upper courses showed an amount of bare rock and serrated outline that promised some fine work. Above us, on our right, towered Carn Dearg, shooting steeply aloft. Viewed "end on," his ridge was like a huge lancet, and reminded some of us of the Ross-shire hills about Glen Shiel. Just at the foot of the Ben we made a welcome halt for luncheon ; then about three o'clock we forded the torrent, and set foot on our mountain. We had not gone far before one of us set face on him too, for the slope was steep and the heather long and tangled, hiding some ugly holes. This accounted for a pair of ponderous boots ramping in air where their owner's head had been a second before. The next accident nearly cost us our dinner. The round tin case of a Paysandu tongue slipped out of a knapsack, made two or three bounds on the steep slope, whizzed past the head of one of the party, and was rushing full tilt towards the torrent down below, when its career was stopped by a boulder. Eagerly it was pursued and recaptured, and secured against a repetition of such escapades.

The real work of the day began soon now, when we got well established on the arete. The long heather came to an end, the grass only grew in sheltered hollows, the rounded rocks stood out smooth and naked. Steeper and steeper it became, till from the crest the eye went plumb down on either side, and stones fell right away to the bottom. Soon the ridge got too broken and narrow for comfortable footing, so our leader dipped a few feet down the side, where the rocks rose so close overhead that a few yards bounded the vision. Then we crossed again to try the reverse slope, then we took to the shattered crest. The huge buttress had thinned away to a mere blade, and frost and storm had rendered it rotten and insecure as a pile of old chimney stalks or the crumbling wall of a ruin. We were, in places, all but standing on each others' heads; and sometimes you saw the face of the man above you through his legs, as he held on with his hands and bent his body outwards to kick a foothold in the crumbling granite. We must have displaced many tons of rock and shingle ere a final effort hoisted us over the edge of the plateau and conquered the Ben.

The rest was easy. Ben Aulder's summit, like those of Ben Nevis and Ben Macdhui, is a big table-land, said to be sixty acres in extent, for the most part strewn with sand, stones, and boulders. There are patches of moss, and coarse alpine grasses; and in a hollow we found a big plot of snow several feet deep.

The view was splendid, yet not so comprehensive in detail as from many other mountains. It was wild and desolate in the extreme, not a house nor a trace of man being in sight: nothing but bare brown moorlands, hills without number, and the sky-cleaving summits of most-of our nobler mountains. The whole of the central Highlands may be said to have been in sight,—the Cairngorms, the Monadhliath range, Ben-y-Ghlo, Schiehallion's clean-cut peak, the rugged Glencoe hills, the walls of the Great Glen. Lakes there were too; and on distant slopes the blackness of woods; and we could localise many of our glens and rivers. It was very wild,—nothing heard but the roaring of the wind over the rocks, and the cry of an occasional plover, raven, or ptarmigan.

We stayed a long time on the top, enjoying a hearty dinner among other things, and about seven o'clock we turned for home over the southern brow of the mountain. Fourteen hundred feet of a breakneck descent among boulders we made to the tarn, where we picked up a forest track and drew rapidly away from the darkening Ben, through the Bhealaich Bheithe. Our best course would have been to have followed this track down to Loch Pattach, and thence across the hill to Lochericht Lodge; but night was coming on apace, and we preferred to make for the shore of Loch Ericht at once. In daylight this would be easy; but now in the darkness we found ourselves among villainous bogs, where we jumped, scrambled, floundered, swore (I fear), and lost not a few ferns, rock specimens, and other trophies. We reached the water at last, and, up and down, crossing jutting spurs of the hills, brushing against shaggy heather, splashing through streams, striking sparks out of stones, we trudged along in the mirk till we found a good road at the lodge, and by its help reached Dalwhinnie shortly before midnight. We had been out about fifteen hours, and must have covered a good deal more than thirty miles.

Undoubtedly the easiest way to climb Ben Aulder would be to row down Loch Ericht to Aulder Lodge, a couple of miles from the foot of the loch. From here, an easy piece of work would take one to the tarn, whence the hill can be climbed en face; or the Uisge Aulder burn could be followed well on to the S.W. face, and a route sought that way. The long row would enable the climber to enjoy to the full the magnificent scenery of Loch Ericht, and a visit could be paid to Prince Charlie's Cave and the Pictish fort. The mountain may also be well approached from Ardverikie on Loch Laggan, or up the Pattach river; but both these routes must be done on foot, and are long and arduous—possibly even more than the way we pushed to a fortunate conclusion.


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