I had always thought of myself as a hillwalker. A hiker, climber or mountaineer, call it what you will, if it involved walking - or sometimes running - up big hills, I was there. Bikes to me were things that quickened a long walk in, not things to be enjoyed in their own right. Then the 2020 COVID lockdown arrived. Big hills and mountains were suddenly out of reach, well beyond the five-mile limit of Stonehaven. In that time I learnt to appreciate my mountain bike for what it was, a fantastic tool for exploring and keeping fit, and fundamentally, really fun! Since then I’ve been hooked and have wholeheartedly adopted MTB, gravel and bikepacking as my holy trinity. So when in July 2021, I felt the urge to get out into the big hills again and continue my Munro bagging endeavour, I wanted to make my bike integral to my hillwalking plans. My experiences bikepacking had made me realise just how much extra kit I could carry for multiple day trips in the mountains - plus how I could get that kit out of my backpack and off my back for those steep climbs. So with a fine weather window approaching, I packed up both my bike bags and my rucksack for a weekend out in the hills.
The Ben Alder region of the Central Highlands is about as remote as it gets south of the Great Glen fault. Multiple Munros are guarded on all sides by rolling uplands and extensive lochs. I had my eye on six of these, three of which would be straightforward however the other three - whilst close be - would be much more hard won.
With my trusty hardtail all packed up at the car park in Dalwhinnie, I set off down the shores of Loch Ericht on a beautiful summer evening. The gravel track which runs the length of the Loch from Dalwhinnie must be one of the cleanest I’ve ever ridden. I made quick progress to Ben Alder Lodge (the £20 million holiday home of a Swiss billionaire) then followed the now slightly more deteriorated track west up to higher ground. Just before dropping down to Loch Pattack a small cairn signalled my left turn. The landy track now became a super fun piece of singletrack that I found hard to keep my eyes on, as the view dead ahead - of Ben Alder and Lancet Edge glowing in the late evening sidelight - was sublime. I arrived unscathed at the closed Culra Bothy (asbestos issues) just under an hour from leaving the car. My Munro guidebook suggested the journey takes 3hr 35 min on foot - already huge brownie points for the bicycle! I now began the job of locking up my bike and decanting my overnight gear into my rucksack. This process was expedited by the presence of many, many midges.
The objective for the night was to camp on - or as close I could to - the summit of Càrn Dearg. Whilst only 2 km as the crow flies to the top, the ascent of 570 m made the climb punishingly steep and whilst conscious that the clock was ticking to sunset, my stops were few and far between. Making the cairn for around 8pm, I set about pitching the tent and getting on some dinner. A word of caution, the summit of this hill is very rocky and I think I managed to pitch on the only tent sized piece of “grass” on the top. The setting sun cast glorious light and shadows on Ben Alder’s Long Leachas ridge, my route of ascent the following morning. With (mercifully) no midges and Mediterranean temperatures up high I slept with the tent door open and fell asleep watching the full moon arc across the night sky.
The next morning I peeked out of the tent door, greeted by a thick blanket of fog, cloaking the floor of the surrounding glens. I’ve been above quite a few cloud inversions now, however they never fail to make me feel awe and wonder. What really made this morning special was the view away to the east. I slightly backtracked my steps from the night before to watch the sunrise and was met by a staggering sight - a group of deer stood right on the skyline, silhouetted against the cloud beneath, with a fiery dawn sky in the distance behind. It was a great moment, and one I’ll not soon forget. I spent the rest of my time on Càrn Dearg watching the sunrise and snapping lots more photos, before packing up and heading back to the bothy. A pro-tip if anyone plans to ascend or descend this hill from Culra bothy. On the steep hillside, vertically cutting through a sea of ankle-breaking knee-high heather and boulders is a lovely strip of grass. The evening before I followed this no bother, however now heading down into a thick expanse of cloud in the glen, I couldn’t see where this route of safe passage was so I had to endure the heather.
Back at the bike, I stashed my overnight kit in the frame and handlebar bags, leaving just my day hike items, which today would be copious amounts of water and suncream. The irony wasn’t lost on me as in the moment the cloud was so thick that I couldn’t see 20 metres ahead of me. Waving to the midge plagued campers outside the bothy, I set off once more on foot, out and up towards Ben Alder. Now on the spine of the Long Leachas ridge, I emerged again from the fog, which by this point had started to retreat back down the glen due to the climbing temperatures. The ridge wasn’t overly technical or exposed, but was in a great setting and the scrambling was easy yet really enjoyable. Fueled by Babybels (I’m open to sponsorship deals), I was soon on Ben Alder’s expansive plateau and heading for the highest point for many miles around. For mountaineering history buffs, there is a stone ruin by the summit that is the remains of a camp set up by Major General Thomas Fredrick Colby, as part of the original Ordnance Survey mapping party in the 1800s. After lunch at the top, the rest of the hike consisted of a very hot ramble down and then back up to Beinn Bheoli and its top. From here, the views up and down the shimmering Loch Ericht were amazing. All the way back down at the river I stripped off and bathed in a plunge pool. The water which almost felt warm was a welcome respite from the unrelenting heat.
Ben Alder's Long Leachas Ridge
I returned to Culra and my bike after around seven hours since leaving. I neatened up my hastily packed gear from the morning and set off in search of my three remaining hills. At this point I still had another day’s worth of food and fresh clothes stashed away thanks to all my bikepacking bags. The next three Munros of Beinn a'Chlachair, Creag Pitridh and Geal Charn were only around five kilometres away, however they are seldom climbed from where I was to the east, with most baggers opting for the more accessible start to their west off the A86. I think that with a bike, their more rugged, wild, eastern side is an equally accessible ascent route, even when starting 15 kilometres away in Dalwhinnie.
Following a stunning shallow descent to Loch Pattack, I spun, then grinded the final section of ascent on the now rough and loose track to my parking spot, a lonely crossroad in the glen of An Lairig. I hid my wheels in some heather at the side of the track and embarked on a long, slow slog up to the bealach between the three summits. I was planning on another high camp, possibly on Geal Charn, however my legs and feet were protesting that idea. I settled for the low point between Creag Pitridh and Geal Charn to make camp, a spot which provided a beautiful western vista of Glen Spean and the coastal peaks beyond. At around 19:00, after setting up the tent and having a lie down in the midge free haven, I decided to tackle Creag Pitridh before bed. It took only 15 minutes to get to the top of the relatively small Munro. Whilst it may be short in stature, its conical shape affords it a real sense of height, with the ground to the north dropping away to give a stunning panoramic view of the multiple lochs that line the Badger Divide bikepacking route below. Back at camp, with water collected and dinner wolfed down. It was time for bed and after 30 km in the legs, sleep came quickly and deeply.
Sunday morning arrived with the sun creeping over the north-eastern horizon - another fine highland summer day. Massaging my legs, I left my camp and headed up bagless to Geal Charn, where I found another tent just off the summit cairn. Snaps taken and the sights soaked in, I retraced my steps to my tent to pack up and begin the last hill of the trip. Beinn a'Chlachair stands relatively far apart from its Munro neighbours. After a punishingly steep short ascent of its northeast shoulder, I left my bag and began the 5 km out and back amble along its a broad whaleback ridge. I normally enjoy these high-altitude (for Scotland) low gradient sections of hikes, however that day, with no real path and lower body fatigue, it was a case of “Am I there yet? Am I there yet?”. Following the sixth touching-of-the-summit-cairn ritual of the trip, I returned to my bag - thankfully still there - and started the long, painful, final descent to the bike. My feet at this point felt like they were on fire and anyone who may have seen me there and then may have thought I was drunk as I stumbled down the track, tripping and slipping all over the place.
As I cornered the final bend, I anxiously started looking for my bike on the horizon. As the end of the trip and an ice-cold beverage at Dalwhinnie felt tantalisingly close, irrational bike-related thoughts came flooding in. I can’t see it, what if it’s been stolen by a passer by? What if an estate worker threw it into the back of his pick-up? What if I get a mechanical I can’t fix? What if any bits of significant ascent defeat me? I couldn’t face a single more metre of walking - let alone pushing a heavy bike the 15 or so kilometres back to Dalwhinnie. Therefore I was elated to find my steed exactly where I had left and all in working order. I packed it up for the final time and slowly set off. I was cautious descending the loose track back to Loch Pattack, with the fear of a mechanical at the front of my mind, though as the views opened up and the trail improved, caution and anxiety was replaced with a big healthy dose of adrenaline and glee.
Loch Pattack was a delight. A secluded, shimmering loch complete with beautiful wild ponies and darting dragonflies. I needed to cross the inflowing river to get back to the main track back to Loch Ericht and the two choices were either a questionable looking footbridge or a fording point. The gravel ford, due to the recent hot and dry weather, was running low and I decided to go for it. I emerged intact on the other side, though any deeper and I think I would have been going for a swim with my bike. The rest of the cycle out was a fast descent to Loch Ericht, then a relatively flat cruise along the loch, all highly satisfying, knowing what I had achieved and the fun I’d had. I made great time with not a mechanical in sight, arriving in Dalwhinnie just 50 minutes after setting off.
So that was that. 45 km of hot, sweaty hiking and 34 km of stunning biking from Friday evening to Sunday morning. Whether hiking or biking (though preferably both!) I would fully recommend the Ben Alder region to anyone seeking a wee adventure. I’ll definitely be back, whether it’s day mountain biking, gravel bikepacking or winter mountaineering.