Having recently decided to leave the world of office life and spend more time focusing on the things and the people that inspire me, I decided to take time in the wilderness of Scotland and cleanse my busy mind for a weekend. As a regular reader of bike packing adventures, my first foray into the world of bothies and biking was to be Ben Alder. Bike packing has been an ever-growing itch that’s been grabbing my attention lately. So much so I recently went to a supper talk with John Metcalfe, a seasoned mountain biker racer and now conquerer of the mighty Tour Divide. Glued to his slide show and wise words, I was keen to leave the dibber, start lines and feed stations alone for a weekend and head off under our own steam, maps in hand and find out what bothy life was like.
Our adventure began at Dalwhinnie, a quiet little village just off the A9. Notable for its whisky, alas we arrived a bit too late for a nip and so bunked up for the night in the van to make an early morning start. Luck was most definitely shining bright. Quite literally we woke up to blue skies. After a quick coffee stop and scan of the OS map, we set off over the railway and along the long track road of the Ben Alder Estate. Having done my research, I knew of the fairytale castles built by the Swiss Billionaire on the shores of Loch Ericht, a sight not to dissimilar to Disneyland. Fortunately we were not to be staying in such luxury, but floating our feral side and roughing it in the ruggedness of the Ben Alder croft.
On the approach, we could see Ben Alder, still snowcapped, to the left and the sharp ridge line of Carn Dearg – a razor sharp ridge noted for another day. Firm trails gripped our tyres and we made good progress up past Loch Pattack and the Culra Bothy. Ideally we would have spent the night there, but asbestos rendered it closed, although many of the bikers and walkers we met said it was fine to stay, we opted for the healthiest option and made for Ben Alder croft. Beautiful, sweeping deerstalker trails with the inevitable drainage ditches weaved all the way to towards to the Bealach Cumhann, which took us in a neat curve round toward Loch Ericht and with the bothy in our sights. We’d been a little keen perhaps in judging the terrain, as we made it by midday!
I was surprised to see the bothy had come to life as it’s truly remote; we’d ridden 30km to get there. Still, I was thankful for the time to chill out and just be. Not often do I find myself with literally nothing to do. We brewed tea and chatted to our fellow guest who had been there for the last 4 days, eager to see if we had whisky in our packs. He was a real wanderer with a face that was aged by the sun and many an expedition in the hills. He spent his summers between bothies, reading, drinking whisky and marking off his munro list. How lucky we are to have these shelters, maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association, they make for a real Scottish adventure and a great way to meet other kindred spirits.
Wood chopping was our next task! My bothy dream consisted of a roaring fireplace, keeping cosy and chatting by the light of the flames. Off we went to find what wood we could, armed with blunt axes and saws. Malcolm took to the fallen tree, and I gathered sticks and kindling – this was enlightening and properly back to nature. No phones ringing, no wifi distractions.
With a roasting fire started, we cooked up our dinner and settle down for the night, scratching our brains over a game of dominos and eventually deciding once we’d played the only version we knew, to build towers! There was some serious concentration on my face as I triumphantly stacked them all in one mighty tower! Who needs a posh castle to keep you entertained….
Sleeping in the bothy was a very calming albeit bloody noisy experience! The howling wind blew holes threw the walls and I wondered what would appear out the window when we woke up the next morning. At 5.3o am, an early arrival poked his head around the door too, made his apologies for waking us and took off. We spent some time wondering where he’d appeared so early, miles and miles from any village.
We started the next day with a sobering hike-a-bike up the backside of Ben Alder. Having been spoilt by the almost groomed trails from the day before, this time we were searching for trods and trying hard to keep our feet dry. As my bike doesn’t fit proper bike packing saddle bags due to it’s mildly freakish form (small frame and 29er wheels) I had my pack on my back, and managed to sling the bike round my neck of sorts, then trudge up the hill after ‘mountain-goat-Malcolm’.
An hour later and we made it to the top to encouraging sounds of “We’re nearly there…”. Now on the mountain saddle, the snow was packed in patches and we found it a bit tricky to find the path, but navigation was fairly simple as it was just a downward direction towards to the lochan. Picking up the trail a short while down, we rode our bikes to the bottom, a soggy reflection of snow rapidly melting in the 20+ degree heat. This theme continued as we rode over soggy, sponge-like moss to the head of the deerstalker trail, with only one man-eating bog gobbling up my front wheel as I gambled with the black hole ahead of me.
Once again we picked up the awesome trails we’d headed out on, and swooped easily down the mountain, back to Loch Pattack and passing Culra bothy. This was to be a long day – 60km of truly unforgiving terrain. We added on the hike-a-bike over to the Ardverikie Estate, a mammoth mission that rewarded us with a smile-inducing descent. With only a mild river crossing to get us there, I heaved my bike up the hill, deciding I was a little too jaded to keep ducking and diving bogs. Pushing was good training all the same. After skirting the icy patches and hoping not to slip and tumble metres down the crag, we made it to the saddle summit with spectacular views to Ardverikie.
We were starving and sweating our body weight with the heat turned up to max, so took a rest stop, ate some snacks then shot off down the track, gathering momentum and bouncing over rocks till in no time, we made it to the bottom and the lochan that would take us back to the beginning. A long, dry and stable 4×4 track weaved through the pine forest, leading us most of the way back to Loch Pattack. All that remained was to pedal our tired legs back to the station. As we’d remarked on the way out, there was plenty uphill in that last stretch and we didn’t talk too much as sleepiness set in and began dreaming of ice cream.
Back at the van we high-fived! Was an epic weekend of microadventure: wild and peaceful, beautiful, rugged, challenge and character building.
I was hooked. Now to the next bothy adventure!