Saturday 30 December 2017

A winter day on Morven

The period since Christmas has been quite cold, with temperatures down to -8 Celsius overnight, while a northerly airstream has brought snow showers. I was looking for an opportunity to get out and about and a day of clear weather on 28th December looked perfect.

I headed the short distance over to Cromar to climb Morven - there was markedly less snow on the ground here than at home but plenty higher on the hill.  Morven is an Anglicisation of "Mor-Bheinn" (big hill), and it lives up to the name- a bulky dome which stands apart and seems to tower over the surrounding countryside.  I've climbed this hill several times and it always seems to take more effort than you'd think it should. On the drive across I noted the shroud of cloud across the higher parts of the hill, and the banner of snow blowing from the summit - there would be some lively conditions near the top.....

The shortest route to the hill from near Balhennie is the one most folk use, it's short but quite steep and pretty much out and back.  I looked for a route with a bit more variety and settled on starting from the minor road north of Loch Davan, taking a track past Raebush and Redburn which passes through a pleasant wood before heading uphill onto the moor.  The views up to the northeast are extensive, beyond Cromar to the hills near my home.  Snow showers were moving across much of the higher ground, but up to this point I was in clear conditions.

A clearance in the cloud over the top of Morven offered the hope of a summit view, but I was still three kilometres from the top and the cloud soon closed back in.  My route followed tracks curving across the broad saddle to the left of this image, then I went up more steeply, aiming for the right hand edge of the summit ridge.  The going was initially tough in deep, snow covered heather, but as height is gained the vegetation becomes much shorter and the underfoot easier....

...though the conditions were really fierce as the summit area was gained.  The cloud was combining with a 50mph tearingly cold northwesterly wind which was raising a considerable groundstorm of pulverised snow.  This image was taken in a brief lull in the wind and shows the best visibility for some time!  To add to the fun, a heavy snow shower arrived so I battened down and put on ski goggles to maintain some limited visibility.  This was full-on winter and I found myself really enjoying the wild conditions. 

A line of battered fenceposts is a useful guide towards the summit; today adorned with foot long frost feathers.  These feathers are formed when a cold, strong wind deposits moisture onto the windward side of rocks and other objects; the feathers show the direction of the wind as they grow directly upwind and can build up to a considerable size.

The now shower eased as I was heading across the flattish ground of the summit ridge on a compass bearing and I was pleased to see the cairn emerge from the whiteness right on cue.

This wasn't a day for a leisurely snack whilst enjoying the summit vistas!  A brief crouch behind the trig point to set up bearings to the track below and I headed back along the ridge - the wind by now was really biting and was pushing me bodily sideways in the stronger gusts.  At the end of the summit ridge I took another bearing and headed dead SE down into the murk towards a track which passes to the south of Morvern.  The snow whirling off the ridge was all being deposited down here, but not in sufficient quantity to constitute an avalanche hazard.  It did make for a speedy descent through the heather and I was soon on the track and into much more benign conditions.

A look back from the point where the track heads steeply back down to Raebush; the cloud banner still streaming off the top of the hill, conditions would still be as fierce up there.  At 872m/2860ft, Morvern isn't the biggest of hills, but once again it had given me a terrific winter day.

Sunday 24 December 2017

Happy Christmas

Wishing you peace, health and happiness wherever you may be this Christmas

Thursday 21 December 2017

Turning point at the solstice stones

The north east of Scotland is rich in neolithic monuments, and in particular there are many hundreds of stone circles and standing stones.  One particular type of circle, the recumbent circle is found only here in Aberdeenshire (nearly 100 examples) and some in the south west of Ireland. 

One of the nearest circles to home is also one of the more complete examples, at Cothiemuir Hill.  I've written about this circle previously here and here, and I continue to find the place absolutely compelling.  Now within a wood, the circle is on a low hill and would have had good open views during its period of use around 2700-2500 BC.

The 2.9 metre tall west flanker is aligned precisely to the midwinter moon when viewed from the centre of the circle.  This is the orientation of almost all the recumbent circles, so it's no coincidence. Even more remarkably, the alignment is designed to frame the standstill moon which occurs every 18.6 did the neolithic people calculate this?!  The movement of the setting sun seems also to have played a part in the alignment, and I've tried to recreate this by taking an image offset from the centre of the circle a few days before the winter solstice.

It really isn't difficult to imagine the people who built this sophisticated and massive undertaking marking out the days shortening, recording the apparent two day standstill at the solstice, and then the slow lengthening of the days as the year is reborn.  Nor is it hard to empathise with why this mattered to them so much.

We try to visit as close to the winter solstice as we can, not from any new-age belief, just from a simple, instinctive feeling that this is their time in the year.

Sunday 17 December 2017

A disproportionate reward

 My friend Duncan has recently written about the fact that when difficult things are attempted, the rewards are all the greater.  It's a sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with, but sometimes - just occasionally - there's reward out of all proportion to the effort expended.

A weekend morning shortly before Christmas, and a busy day of preparations ahead.  I took a morning walk in intensely cold air, just as the sun was rising.  Near to the solstice, there's precious little daylight here and if it dawns fair like this, it's a bonus.

 The morning sun flushed the hills and forest behind our house a delicate pink shade, the air was still and this was to be the last day of clear, cold weather before a run of Atlantic low pressure systems.  It would have been perfect for a mountain day, but family commitments come first.  I resigned myself with the thought that the hills are always waiting, and headed home.

 By early afternoon the things we'd planned were done, and it was suggested that maybe I'd like to go for a walk.....  There was just two hours until sunset and initially I thought to walk close by.  But then I remembered how good the hills had looked that morning; I hastily packed a rucksack and headed the few miles towards the car park for Millstone Hill.    Setting off an hour before sunset I climbed steeply up the path through trees which were sparkling with ice on every twig.

 A brief pause at a favourite viewpoint looking west along the valley of the River Don and I continued uphill, hoping to beat the sunset to the summit.

 Although my pace was fast, there were scenes which just couldn't be rushed past.....

 ....including some rather festive looking Spruce trees.....

 The summit of Millstone Hill is reached easily in less than an hour, and as the domed top is reached there's one of the great "reveals" of the north eastern hills as the Mither Tap of Bennachie comes suddenly into view, rearing into the sky and always looking far higher than its 518m/1700ft height.

 To the southwest, the sun was setting in a searing blaze, the movement clearly discernable as it skimmed below the skyline.  Here was reward far in excess of what I could have expected for the 300m climb - and there was more to come.

Well after sunset, when I was getting chilled by a sharp wind from the north west, the sky once again flushed pink, this time the clouds lit by a sun below the visible horizon.

 Gradually the colour faded and Bennachie seemed to stand even further forward in the twilight.  I briefly considered climbing to the Mither Tap, but this would have made me late home and we had a Christmas tree to decorate.....

 So instead I headed down to the bealach between Millstone Hill ad Bennachie, known as the Heather Brig, before taking the track which circles around the western flank of Millstone.  As the temperature plummeted below freezing there was a subtle change in conditions underfoot.  The soft swish of unconsolidated snow changed within a few minutes to the squeal and crunch of icy powder,  To the west, the last of the sunset smouldered away - and an Owl called from nearby.  It was truly a beautiful evening to be out on the hill.

 My entire winters evening walk took a little over two hours, and had given me a disproportionate reward for the outlay of effort.  I got home energised yet calmed - and ready for decorating the Christmas tree!

Saturday 9 December 2017

A winter morning's walk

Two days of snow showers borne on cold north westerly winds in the wake of a deep Atlantic low pressure system have turned the landscapes of northern Scotland back to winter.  A morning walk in sub zero air was a bracing affair, but at least the wind has dropped.  The pre-dawn colour in the sky was delicate rather than blazing, and matched the scene really well. 

  Trees have become outlines of themselves, the snow frozen hard against trunks and branches.

The sun at this time of year doesn't rise until after 0830 and sets again before 1530, but there's beauty in the short daylight.  As the sky in the south east flushed pink, a trace of the shade was projected onto the snowy scene, the most delicate shade in the air.

The moon was still well up as the sun began to rise, but no longer the supermoon of some days ago.

As I turned for home on the last part of my walk, the sun rose above the hills across the Howe of Alford in a brief and brilliant flare of light.  Bright it may have been but there's little heat in the sun at these latitudes as we approach the winter solstice - it would stay below freezing for the whole day.

With scenery on a morning walk like this, it's impossible to dismiss winter as dull and dark......

Monday 4 December 2017

A Supermoon morning

The full moon of 3rd December was a "supermoon", the only one of 2017. A supermoon occurs when the moon's elliptical orbit brings it to the closest point (perigee) of an elliptical orbit. At perigee, the full moon can appear 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than a "regular" full moon.  The night had been clear and certainly well illuminated, but perhaps the most striking view we got was when the moon was setting beyond the hills behind our house.

The proximity to ground objects made the moon seem even larger as it appeared to rest in the crowns of a stand of larch trees, we could clearly see the movement as it passed the trees to drop below the ridge at 0748.  Shining through a corona in the cold air close to the ground in a beautiful wash of light, it was quite a spectacular, if perhaps not quite as stunning as the "blood moon" during the lunar eclipse on the winter solstice of  2010 - what a sight that was!

Meanwhile, at our backs the eastern sky was washed with pre-dawn pinks and golds.  What a super supermoon morning, another virtuoso natural performance!

Friday 1 December 2017

A pale and fleeting beauty

 November snowfalls are often fleeting events; deep snow disappears more quickly than might be thought.  Well after sunset and under a waxing gibbous moon the snow was a pale, marble white - what little colour there was in the landscape lay in the golden stubble in the fields and a delicate pink wash to the tops of the clouds.  It was to be a cold night with temperatures well below freezing.

 The sharp, frosty morning air was a real pleasure, the clean freshness mirrored in the pale shades just before the sun rose sufficiently to light he lower ground.


 When the sun did rise above the hills beyond the Howe of Alford, it was with a searing intensity which was in sharp contrast to the cool blues of the snowy fields.

The whole landscape was briefly lit with pink shades before the sun climbed higher and the light hardened.  Truly, winter has its own beauties.

Thursday 30 November 2017

Winter arrives

 Winter has well and truly arrived in Aberdeenshire; overnight falls of snow borne on a blustery north wind have swept across the landscape.

 A morning walk was somewhat more challenging than usual in whirling showers of snow, visibility reducing as they passed through.  Travelling today was tricky......

 As each shower passed through, the snow cover has got deeper and more complete......

 ...and by late morning there's an even cover of some 10cms (6 inches) of fresh snow.  The overnight change in the landscape from the muted colours of late November to the cool blues and shades of white is really striking.

The view from our house is transformed to dazzling brilliance - and more snow is forecast to fall.

Sunday 26 November 2017

Granite noir

The summit tor of Lochnagar is a great viewpoint.  Looking to the south west past the Ordnance Survey trig point you look straight into the "other" corrie of the mountain which contains another dark lochan - Loch nan Eun (loch of the birds).  The prominent ridge just to the right of the lochan leads straight to one of the "tops", known as the Stuic (pronounced Stoo-ee).  Although I've been to the Stuic several times, I've yet to reach it via this there's a good excuse to climb the hill again!

Crouched out of the wind amongst the summit rocks, I could see the next batch of snow showers building to the north.  Rime ice on the boulders showed how cold it had been up here, perhaps a good omen for a proper winter season to come?

Across the valley of the River Dee the view was closed off completely by the approaching weather - it was time to take bearings for two descents and make a start.

I decided to head down the bold ridge which bounds Lochan na Gair, partly to get the best view of the crags and partly because it's a good line on the mountain.  A little way below the summit, at the head of the ridge, there's a super view along the crags - though your gaze may well be drawn downward......

...into one of the branches of Black Spout gully!

The views continue as the ridge is descended.  This is "granite noir"; seen in close proximity the line of 1000ft crags are an impressive sight; massive and slightly menacing .  This is Byron's "Dark Lochnagar" and also one of the great winter climbing arenas of Scotland.

You get well down the ridge towards the lochan before the steep rocks relent and there's gentler ground on which to rest.  I've done this ridge in both directions, and rate it both as an ascent and a descent. 

On the floor of the corrie the crags dominate the view  - my compact camera didn't got to a sufficiently wide angle to image the whole scene!

Rather than contour around the base of the Meikle Pap to regain the track back to Glen Muick I decided to cross the corrie and climb back out over the bealach between the Pap and the Ladder.  My advice to anyone thinking of doing likewise is...don't!  The going is very difficult through moraines of house sized granite boulders with deep gaps between them - especially tricky with snow on most surfaces.  It took an inordinate amount of time and effort to get to the slope beneath the bealach and I several times reminded myself that a fall here would be serious as it's an unfrequented part of the mountain.

I plodded up towards the bealach in a stinging snow shower and  a whirling wind, fortunately blowing from behind me.  The back edge of the shower passed through as I reached the bealach to leave blue sky......

...and the descent back to the track took me, it seemed, out of winter and back into autumn.  I stopped to rest and eat below the snowline on the boundary of Balmoral estate in what seemed relatively warm conditions.  All that remained was to retrace my outward route down the track back to Glen Muick whilst reflecting that Lochnagar, once again, had given a superb day out - and the first winter day of the season.

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).