Saturday, 18 November 2017

Scale and space on Lochnagar

It's a short climb from the bealach to Meikle Pap, which gives a great view across to the cliffs of Lochnagar, except that today the top portion of the mountain was in cloud.  Looking across the bealach, the way ahead goes up the curving ridge known as the Ladder and then around the rim of the corrie and up onto the summit plateau.  Scale is not easy to convey, but this is a fairly big chunk of hillside.  Although bouldery, this area has a reputation for avalanches when under deep snow cover.

The cloud began to disperse as I crossed the bealach and headed up the Ladder.  A pause to catch my breath was also a chance to look back across to the "top" of Meikle Pap (big breast)- quite descriptive as Gaelic hill names often are.  For scale, there are two hillwalkers crossing the bealach just to the right of centre in this image.

Close up, the granite of Lochnagar is pink like most of the Cairngorm area.  Seen en masse at the head of Lochnagar's corrie, it often appears dark and slightly menacing.

The rim of the corrie was a wild place to be on this day; the wind was pouring into the north facing bowl and being forced out over the corrie lip in a freezing blast - literally so as the tears the wind was wringing from my eyes were freezing to ice on my face.......

Across the head of the corrie was the slope I hoped to use for my descent, it comes down from close to the summit in a bold sweep and was a part of the hill I'd not previously walked.

There are some terrific views from the head of the corrie - this spot at the head of a steep stone chute is one of the best places to look down on the lochan which gives the mountain its name  - Lochan na Gair (Little Loch of the Noisy Sound).  Up to the north there were signs that the cloud which had capped the mountain for the previous hour was beginning to break up and I hoped it might allow a summit view.

The summit area of Lochnagar is a gentle dome with southerly trending dips to the Munros of the White Mounth, a complete contrast to the dramatic crags of the north face.  As far as the eye could see - which was quite a distance - the high ground was covered white.  The sense of space and scale under huge skies rivals the main Cairngorm plateau here, but in poor conditions navigation needs to be accurate.  In parts the subtle glint of ice reflected the sun and I was glad of the crampons in my rucsac, there was no doubt that these were winter conditions.

Approaching the summit there are cracking views down some of the gullies which split the crags of Lochnagar, the walls sheer and square cut all the way to the corrie floor.  The head of this one framed the Meikle Pap nicely, but given the roiling turbulence of the wind I didn't venture any closer to enjoy the view downwards......

Ahead, the summit of the mountain, Cac Carn Beag was just a couple of hundred metres away.  Sometimes translated as "little pile of shit", its an undignified name for a grand viewpoint but is quite descriptive when seen from some angles, although the name is thought to be probably a corruption of Cadha Carn Beag (slope of the little cairn).

Monday, 13 November 2017

First day of winter on Lochnagar

November has so far been unsettled and for the most part windy.  A swing of wind direction to the northwest introduced a very cold airflow and the promise of wintry conditions in the hills.  Last year offered little in the way of "proper winter" weather, so I decided to take the opportunity while it lasted.

My plan was to climb Lochnagar, one of the classic mountains of the northeast of Scotland and a hill which rarely disappoints.  Something else which didn't disappoint was the frosty pre-dawn weather as I left home.  Before we lived in the northeast we associated frost only with still conditions, but here the deepest frosts are often driven in by a freezing wind.  The morning certainly had promise, and if the amount of scraping of the car windscreen was any indication conditions underfoot should be good and frozen on the hill.

The golden wash in the sky was just stunning as dawn approached, it was time to go!

Forty five minutes later and I was approaching the car park at Spittal of Glenmuick as a beautiful wash of light flooded the far side of the glen.  Don't be fooled by the warmth of the light, it was very chilly!  Lochnagar had a good dusting of snow across its upper slopes and looked great in the early morning light.

My route would take me across the glen to the house at the foot of the Allt na Guibhsaich (burn (stream) of the pine trees) and up the track which follows the burn all the way to a high point between Glen Muick and Glen Gelder.  From there I'd follow a path up to the prominent bealach (col) in this image, then go first up to the conical top of Meikle Pap, then return to the bealach and climb up onto the summit plateau and head around above the cliffs.

I set out at a fast walking pace to try and generate some warmth.  The temperature was hovering just below freezing and a heavy snow shower was raking the top of the mountain.  Showers had been forecast throughout the day, and given the likelihood of frozen ground I was wearing winter boots and carrying both crampons and ice axe.  I didn't expect to need an axe with comparatively little snow on the ground, but I prefer to carry and not use it rather than not carry it and need it.  In the event, I didn't use crampons either, though there was a section of icy ground on the descent where I nearly put them on.  As it happened, the icy section was avoidable on boulders to one side.

I was well warmed up by the time I reached the Muick/Gelder watershed after about 5km of easy angled ascent.  The watershed is at about 700m/2300ft and has a great view across the valley of the River Dee to Ben Avon which seemed to have a good covering of snow.  The path from here climbs more steeply to reach a bealach between Meikle Pap and the main mass of Lochnagar.......

.....where there's the classic grandstand view into the corrie of Lochnagar.  The whole mountain is named for the dark lochan below the cliffs which is called Lochan na Gair (little loch of the noisy sound).  It's a stirring view and one which never loses its impact.  The wind was also making an impact at this bealach, a scything cold blast deflecting around the corrie and pouring over the bealach.  It wasn't a place to linger today despite the grand view; I turned north to make the short climb up to the top of Meikle Pap and what's actually an even better viewpoint.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Remembrance - November 11th

In remembrance of all those men and women who have lost their lives in the service of their countries, those who still suffer the physical and mental scars of the conflicts in which they served; and those who are left with loss and grief.

               "At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them"       

Saturday, 28 October 2017

An incendiary moment

Yesterday evening's sunset over the Aberdeenshire countryside - a stunningly rich blaze of colour....

...the intensity of which charged the whole sky with incendiary shades and changed the quality of the air around us as we took an evening walk.  One of those evenings which take the breath away.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Cairngorm contrast - the relentless foe

Afte two days of really lovely October conditions the weather broke.  I was staying at Rothiemurchus Lodge and through the night the whole building was shaken by violent gusts of wind - my thoughts were with the Duke of Edinburgh's teams over on Deeside but actually they had quite calm conditions low down in Glen Derry.

I set out into heavy rain and scudding cloud.  What this image can't show is the violence of the wind; tearing gusts which blew sheets of rainwater from the ground and roared through the trees.

Climbing high above the woods of Rothiemurchus, a glimpse on sunlight on the far side of the Spey valley would be the last for some hours.

Ahead, the weather looked particularly challenging as cloud and rain belched out of the jaws of the Lairig Ghru.  The rain now set in with real venom and the wind, dead against me, slowed progress right down.

At some points I simply had to turn my back to the wind and rain as it became too painful to face into the combination of 60mph wind, lashing rain and gravel blown from the path.  The Lairig Ghru is one of the great through-routes of the Cairngorms, and indeed of Scotland.  A huge former glacial breach linking Deeside with Speyside, it slices through the Cairngorm plateau reaching 835m at its highest point.  Today it was perfectly orentied with the wind, which was roaring through, almost stopping progress at times.

In normal circumstances I'd have avoided heading up into such weather, but I intended to meet the D of E teams as they came through the other way.  They would have this weather at their backs but would still find it more challenging than previous experiences in the hills.

Hunkered down at the Pools of Dee, a few small lochans near the high point of the pass, I watched the clouds racing past.  The main plateau lies some 400 metres above the Lairig and I could only imagine the power of the wind up there as it raced unchecked over the dome of the Cairngorms in the first real "blow" of the autumn.

In these conditions, and particularly in winter, the wind is a relentless foe.  I've had some of my hardest fights not too far from this spot, the wind sapping energy, strength and willpower - a fundamental and fierce experience.  There's a wild pleasure in being able to operate on the hills in such conditions though - a feeling almost impossible to explain to someone who doesn't walk or climb in the mountains.

Briefly poking my head up occasionally to scan for folk coming through, I settled down for what might be a long wait.

But remarkably, both teams were keeping good time and going well - impressed but not overawed by the conditions.  It was a relief to put my back to the wind as I headed after them - progress suddenly seemed so much easier and now th trick was not getting blown over.

And then, one of those moments.......the rain ceased and the cloud tore apart as if a curtain had been pulled; we walked into bright sunshine and clear air.  The wind stayed at the same severe gale force, but what a difference!

Looking back up into the Lairig, the cloud was now racing across the pass rather than straight down.  The shif of wind as a front passed had totally altered the conditions in the space of a few moments - a real Cairngorm contrast.