It was like a scene from a film set. Four men stood on the otherwise empty Dalwhinnie station platform, patiently awaiting the arrival of the Inverness train. Bang on time, the train slowly pulled into the station, then went on its way.
Just one passenger had alighted. Thank goodness it was Rhona. Jimbo, Brian and I had arrived by car, as had Steve, having a week’s winter break in Speyside. It was then a short drive to the car park by Balsporran Cottages – the target, Geal-charn.
I was last at Dalwhinnie station four years ago. With my car in the garage and hillwalking friends committed to other exploits, I had to come up with a last-minute plan to make the most of the forecast good weather. I established that a train could get me to Dalwhinnie by lunchtime, with a return that evening – just enough time to climb Geal-charn. My route that day was perforce a longer one; six miles there and back; from the northern end of Loch Ericht, then south to reach Creagan Mor and the long undulating NNE ridge.
This time it would be a shorter day. A modest hill at 917m/3008ft, Geal-charn is rather too close to road and railway, nevertheless, with a 425m start it was ideal for our January outing.
This Geal-charn (there is quite a cluster of them nearby, albeit with slightly different spellings) is sandwiched between the A9 and the more formidable barrier of Loch Ericht to the west, consequently the popular route starts from Balsporran. With flavours of Brigadoon, that name is likely a corruption of Beul an Sporain. For a circular route, Rhona, Steve and I decided on a circuit of upper Coire Beul an Sporain, corrie of the mouth of the purse, then returning by the more direct popular route; the latter used by Jimbo, Brian and two dogs for both ascent and descent.
There is a new sign at the bridge over the Allt Coire Fhar – “Geal-charn 3.15 miles, A’Mharconaich 3.5 miles. Pass by the former railway cottages then take full precautions – Stop, Look, Listen” – at the level crossing gates of the railway line. The mapped path, in fact a track, soon has a junction on the right with a newish track heading west on the north bank of the Allt Beul an Sporain, the start of the circular route. (The second junction on the right, a rough track for a bit, leads to the popular route. Straight on is the track into Coire Fhar).
Our track made light of the 300m ascent to the high ground of the NNE ridge south-west of Creagan Mor. Continue round upper Coire Beul an Sporain, then leave the track and head south for the summit. There were lots of white hares in the corrie and a dozen dazzlingly white ptarmigans that scarcely moved away from the summit plateau. With most of the hill snow-free that day, their white camouflage was premature. So much for Geal-charn meaning “white hill”.
On the small, stony summit area are two cairns. It is best to visit both. On our disappointingly raw and misty day (the forecast had been 60 per cent chance of clear summits), we were neither tempted to wait for views, nor to continue to neighbouring A’Mharconaich.
Careful navigation may be needed on descent, north-east then east. It is all too easy to drift too much ENE towards steep, best-avoided eastern slopes. On reaching the lower eastern slopes, the horribly eroded path betrays the popularity of the route.
Rhona had over an hour to wait for her next train so the obvious place to make for was the open-all-year Tollhouse Restaurant, Station Road. After the train’s arrival we went our separate ways, delighted to have climbed our first Munro of the New Year.