Big Mountain Days on Culra's Sleeping Giants

View from the Washroom

Fraser and I had arranged to meet at Dalwhinnie, and that's what we did.  Both on time.  I gave him the last of the coffee. I'd drunk nearly a litre on the way up, which was probably more than enough.  We geared up and got on our way.
In the planning, we both seemed to favour somewhere both remote and new to us over something easier to access - no roads, no flightpaths, few people.  A well kept landrover track leads to Ben Alder lodge, serving a 26,000-acre estate owned by the Swiss industrialist Urs Schwarzenbach, a slick and commercial sporting affair, a favourite with the Royals.  We passed other mini balmorals rendered in concrete and glass on the loch side, their more modest (a)spires looking slightly suburban and a little needy.  We slipped quietly past, glad to get off the track at last towards Culra Bothy.  We forded the river twice and found a flattish pitch, home for the weekend.  We'd decided at some point to base ourselves in one place, which turned out to be a wise decision.  I tentatively had in mind two grade 1 winter mountaineering routes, weather and comfort permitting.  The Long Leachas, and The Lancet Edge - both exposed scrambles and not backpacking routes, especially in winter.  

In the end, the window of opportunity was right, and the mountains extended their blessing. On both days I entered the upper realm on a fine line and was rewarded with silence.  Apart from the croak of Ptarmigans.  Ascending the plateaus via these ridges was like a whispered secret, an addictive mix of anxiousness, adrenaline, connection and complete calm.  It's all in the mind, but some of it's in the thighs, arms, lungs.  There's nothing like clambering on all fours face 2'' away from the rock to remind you of your animal ancestry.  Climbers might look at my efforts and laugh, but no matter, as transitional approaches these were perfect challenges for me.   

It was great to meet Fraser at last, conversation was easy and relaxed, and ranged from politics (Scottish independence, Westminster and the {what's} Left) the usual gear and blogs gossip, to music, conservation and photography - all things close to my own heart.  Meeting like minded outdoors folk in the flesh has really helped me feel at home in the North.  I found his sense of ambition refreshing (''I don't see why we can't do it all'', referring to tourism, land reform, species reintroduction and habitat protection all in the same breath. Agreed!) and picked up some subtle things about photography too.  I've long thought Fraser is a poet with a lens, and it turns out this poet thinks in 3D tonal relationships.  Genius.

I'll write some more on this weekend later in the year, but for now, what I'm left with is new friends and old.  Progress, not conquest - there is no end result.  I keep going back to myself, more at home in the upper realm by increments. The mountains keep welcoming me back, sometimes with open arms.  The day on the Lancet Edge and the Gael Charn Munro's was probably my biggest day in the Scottish hills to date.  It's a real adventure, and an honour, not to be taken for granted.  Still recently arrived from a vast and narcissistic metropolis in the south, I feel very lucky to have access to this, and am very aware that so many others don't.  It's great to share it - in words and pictures, and at the time.

The final night was extremely cold and clear, both platy and nalgene frozen solid by the morning, my boots turned to B2 stiffness.  Another inversion under Culra bothy in the morning.  A long walk out in bright winter sunshine.  Back whence you came, your guest visa has now expired.  Until next time.  I'll be seeing you.

The walk in
Breakfast for Champions

Sleeping Giants, 11pm
Hard Rime and overhangs on the Long Leachas

A rest point on the Long Leachas

The Long Leachas Ridge from Ben Alder summit Plateau

a cashmere shawl on rugged shoulders - dusk in the highlands

Baby blues, sea greens and alpine blacks towards the Bealach Biethe

The temperature plummets, we drag our front points and head for base

Crystal Baws
Sunday's dish - The Lancet Edge, before the white out
The mountain leads the way to Aonach Beag

My own private Himalaya
Aonach Beag Summit - there won't be time for a fourth today, but this is enough
looking back to Bealach Duhb in the dark - a tricksy, avalanche prone prospect
Final night's camp - crystal clear and my coldest night out yet

Read Fraser's account of our trip here.