Hillwalking - A late start is fortuitous

Hills
Hills

The star of the show was, of course, Lochnagar.

Actually the star of the show was Lochnagar’s stunning Northern Corrie! On most of the many ascents I’ve made of Lochnagar it has been from The Spital of Glen Muick, the reason being those stupendous cliffs which tower above Byron’s ‘dark And so it was again, though in fact we had no intention of climbing to the mountain’s summit on this occasion. Our target for the day was the lowlier Conachraig, a Corbett with a view good enough to rival any from the summit of its loftier neighbour. Considering the shortness yet of our winter days we’d gotten a relatively late start; this however was fortuitous. We’d left Montrose under a blanket of thin high cloud and that had dogged us right up to the moment we left the car at the Spital car park; it was 10 o’clock. As we’d set off for the Bridge over the River Muick, those clouds began to shred. As ever, Red Deer stags with already sizeable velvet covered antlers, roamed the boggy flats beyond the wooden bridge; scant notice they seemed to pay us as we passed. The grey granite walls of Allt na-guibhsaich Lodge, dreamed of former Victorian opulence as we passed under the shade of its surrounding dark firs. Before long we were through the trees and on the track for Gelder and Balmoral. The allt na-guibhsaich itself comes down to its namesake lodge via a deep little trench beneath Cuidhe Crom; in rainy weather its unavoidable fording can sometimes give a little trouble. This time we barely got our boots wet. The aforementioned Cuidhe Crom, terminating in Little Pap, is Lochnagar’s mile long southwest ridge; today that ridge was white and lightly corniced, the result of the previous week’s snow fall. Meikle Pap, a little farther north and guarding the northern corrie’s cliffs, looked no less We arrived at the cairn that heralds the parting of the ways. The track itself continues on to Deeside. Hard to spot unless you know it’s there, a tiny cairn-announced path heads northeast onto the the heathery hillside of Conachraig’s broad southwest ridge. For now, and for us, it was the well made path off left for Lochngar itself. Soon we were walking on fresh and relatively deep snow, the going was easy enough, however. Even though things felt a little Arctic it’s a gentle climb, past the Fox’s Well and up onto the col. With a biting wind nipping at our ears and noses we dropped down a little on the other side for the superb scene that is the cliff backed lochan clutching corrie. Sublime! The cliffs themselves, riven by gullies no less inviting than The Black Spout and fortified by many a rocky buttress, were well laced with snow and ice. The lochan at their feet, frozen solid and milky white, would have doubled admirably as a curling pond. Above us, on our left, ‘The Ladder’, that boulder strewn ascent route onto the plateau above, looked so inviting. Against any such temptations, and since we’d set our hearts on Conachraig, we’d deliberately left our ice axes and crampons in the car. And so, a little reluctantly despite the biting breeze and with photos bagged, we retraced our steps to the track, and found a suitable nearby boulder for shelter against the wind for lunch. From the track the ascent of Conachraig is a quick affair. Gentle at first, and with the wind at our backs to chivvy us along on heathery ground, the path nevertheless climbs onto steeper, more boulder clogged ground for its final few hundred feet onto the Corbett’s summit. That summit greeted us in the form of a big heather draped and granite torred plateau. The cairn though, atop its own table like tor, is by no means all there is to Conachraig. Conachraig, at 865 metres, is of course the summit. Much better yet however is the subsidiary ‘Top’, Caisteal na Caillich, mysteriously: ‘The Castle of the Witch or crone’. And more like a castle it really is with its larger and more spread-eagled summit tor. Yet no matter which top you choose to stand upon you’re up here for the views. And what views a clear and sunny day can offer! Magnificent of course, is the sight of nearby Lochnagar, its cliffs still mostly visible, if partially obscured, by the cone of Meikle Pap. No less magnificent is the winter white panorama in the east, of the Angus hills, many of them Munros, dominated by the dusty cone of Mount Keen. Westwards the black torred whaleback giant of Ben Avon and its next door neighbour, Beinn a’ Bhuird, gave hints of the Cairngorm mountains over there. And if it’s scenes more pastoral that are to your liking, just gaze out north, over the rolling plains of Lower Deeside and Aberdeenshire and then to the North Sea vaguely glistening beyond them. In spite of a wind that kept us well wrapped up in Gore-Tex hoods, we wandered about to our hearts content, drooling at the world around us and snapping digital images to our heart’s content. And it wasn’t only the bigger scene that kept us enthralled up there either. There were ptarmigan in ‘burping’ little flurries and pure white mountain hares to spot as well. We knew that they were there well before we saw them, so obvious were their distinctive footprints in the soft snow. As was the case for our brief ascent to Lochnagar’s col, we’d left our back packs hidden in the heather down by the track; and now our bellies were demanding what elevenses were left in our waiting Tupperware containers. Time therefore to scurry back on down again. Which took very little time indeed. Ensconced behind our boulder once again we were surprised at how far along the afternoon had crept. Already long shadows were creeping up the sides of Cuidhe Crom and Meikle Pap; a distinct frosty tang was beginning to lace the late afternoon air. It was time already for us to set our feet for home. And yet the day must have warmed up sufficiently enough to thaw some of the snows up there on the mountainsides; when we arrived at the fording of the allt na-guibhsaich, it was to find that its waters had swollen by a good few rushing inches. We passed through the now gloomy trees of the lodge encompassing pine wood and out onto the last half mile or so of flat lands. No Red Deer hereabouts this time, nor any other walkers; just the quietness of encroaching evening and the ending of another perfect mountain day.