A climb up Geal Charn

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The Culra Bothy again! This time I’d come specifically to put a new sleeping bag through its paces. Trouble was, the freezing weather of the past week or so had suddenly turned milder; the snows were receding fast, it certainly wasn’t frosty.

Long winter nights in the wilds mean long hours propped up in a sleeping bag; half the night I was far too warm! How glad I was to be out and about as the first grey beams of dawn turned the black hills around me a slatey shade of grey.

Having set off early the previous morning in bitterly cold weather, I’d cycled from Dalwhinnie, on a frost hardened track along the shore of Loch Ericht. By the time I’d come within sight of Loch Pattack, dull white clouds, thick and purposeful, had begun to obliterate the tops of the still distant Ben Alder Hills; even The Lancet Edge had lost its point. It was a dull and overcast afternoon that welcomed me to the bothy.

It has been a long standing, if perhaps trivial, ambition of mine to ascend Geal Charn from Ericht-side; usual ascents start on Laggan-side and utilise excellent tracks and stalkers paths. Sadly, my last visit to the area had been marred by the presence of huge transporters carting out loads of ripe timber from the Laggan Plantations. By now the work is probably done, but I wasn’t taking chances.

It’s a bit of a cheat, I know, but to save a little time at either end of the day, I cycled back down to loch Pattack. Well, almost. Just before the loch is reached another track, somewhat rougher, shoots off west, this I followed until, at a spot marked ‘ford’, upon my map, I abandoned my wheels and crossed the river.

I’d been a bit worried about getting across the river here. I’d been here the previous March when thawing snows had swollen the Allt Cam to quite spectacular proportions; if that had been the case today I’d not have been allowed to cross at this point. As it was I was obliged to remove my footwear to wade the almost knee deep flow.

There is no path up onto Geal Charn from this side, (not that I could discover, at any rate). It was simply a matter of ploughing through rough grass and, higher up, straggling heather; all the while I kept on a more or less north-westerly bearing.

At first the going was easy enough, the gradient being fairly gentle and the snow cover sketchy, if soft. In a little less than a mile the hill began to take more interest in me, steepening markedly and trying to hold me back with deeper snow banks. I had all day; I took my time.

In fact it was a pleasure to stop occasionally for the retrospective views across The Ben Alder Forest; the vantage point lent by this side of the mountain offered perspectives I’d never before enjoyed. Already Loch Pattack seemed a long way down; beneath the leaden sky its waters glared back at me, pencil lead grey and cold!

Over my left shoulder, Carn Dearg and Beinn a’ Chlachair, big Munros, threw up their respective brooding walls; between them An Lairig, my favourite hidey hole glen in these parts, was already busy gathering mist.

I hoped that said mist wasn’t going to be invading the slopes of Geal Charn, any time soon; that thought spurred me on. After a while heather and grass gave way to stony ground and a good speckling of wind blown snow; I knew by this that I was nearing the summit cairn.

A stiff breeze had been holding my hand for most of the time, now it began to drag me along as though the trig point would up and disappear if we didn’t reach it soon. Even in the lee of the mountain’s big summit cairn, (1049 m), I was glad of my mitts and balaclava!

The vistas, though extensive, were watery. A great black and white patchwork stared back at me from all directions. There was still a good deal of snow lying on the high tops; Creag Meaghaidh, across a largely hidden Loch Laggan, looked particularly fine. So too did the distant Cairngorms, though today they were struggling to look any better than opaque given the clouds that were massing in their direction.

Still, despite the less than perfect conditions, Geal Charn’s summit was a fine place to sit awhile and dream. Strong hot tea and a huge slice of cherry cake no doubt had much to do with that!

You can’t visit Geal Charn without giving little Creag petrie a shout. I say, ‘little’, the hill is a Munro (924m), and a fine one too. Graced by a pleasantly undulating ridge and with pockets of easy rock to add a little spice, should you wish it, she’s always worth a couple of hours or so.

I wouldn’t be able to spare her too much time today, but I deemed a visit to her cairn a must. Thus I raced down Geal Charn’s western flank. For much of the descent the slope is comprised of rough boulder fields; grass takes over as you near the col between the two mountains.

A feint path scratches its way towards Creag Pitridh’s craggy looking mound. It then weaves an easy staircase upwards; before you’re hardly out of breath you find, amongst the quartzite rubble littering the top, the welcoming pile of stones that mark the summit.

There are plenty of rocky nooks and crannies nearby for shelter, though in today’s wind I didn’t linger long, just long enough to gaze down on a choppy looking Loch Earba and at the great climbing crags climbing out of its northern shore. I retraced my steps and headed back across the short and, given the mild conditions, surprisingly icy flats, back to the col.

The weather had turned positively gloomy; cloud was settling on the tops and creeping down the hillsides like custard on so many Christmas Puddings! Time to think about the bothy.

Contouring round the south-western foot of Geal Charn, the path I was on headed for Beinn a’ Chlachair. All three Munros can easily be traversed on a good day. Today wasn’t a good day! I contented myself with the last short climb between the grass and crags of the lower slopes. A grand reward was the sudden sight of lonely Loch a’ Bhealaich Leamhain, yet another pearl shaped body of water painted battle ship grey; in a fine setting of rising grassy slopes, the Lochan made for a grand finale.

I followed the path through the lower crags of Beinn a’ Chlachair’s eastern spur. Dark and gloomy at the best of times, today I felt as though I were walking in a dungeon.

Within another two miles I was ready to re-cross the Allt Cam. Now the bike could take the load. This itself was not to be so easy! The wind that had so kindly jostled me on my upward way this morning seemed determined now to send me all the way back up again. I was flagging a little, even a tad ill of humour, by the time I finally reached the bothy door. The feeling wouldn’t last for long though, a hearty bothy dinner would soon be putting me to rights.