The first weekend of May 2021 marked the first mountain expedition of the year for me and boy did the hills, and the weather, conspire to make it a truly memorable day.
I felt like a kid in a sweetshop. Except instead of pocket money, I had the week to spend in Ballater to explore the Mounth. Having had amazing winter days on the Cairngorm plateau to the north of the Dee, not to mention being stuck at home for months on end for Lockdown, I was just ecstatic to roam the high ground again.
It was a surprise how the faff crept in! I know all this stuff, what to pack, where it goes, what layers to go with but still it seemed to take longer in the morning to get going. This was despite a wonderful loosener the day before traipsing over Glas Maol and Creag Leachach, both to get the legs working and to check the snow cover higher up. Actually, it is really cold for early May, no wind and super clear air (so fantastic views), but plenty of snow expected.
I’d also got myself a new larger rucksack, the Osprey Talon44, with the thought of packing the extra needed for overnight bivvy trips later in the week. It swallowed everything needed for the day trip easily, plenty of accessible storage for on the move and fitted well, almost didn’t feel like I had anything on my back!
My starting point was from the Spittal of Glenmuick which reportedly takes its name from a hospital for travellers of the drove road and was a small township over the centuries. There is an interpretation board at the site and the remains of the whisky still, barn and other buildings can still be seen.
Finally ready to set off, just one last bit of faff to sort out. It turns out I needed coins to pay for parking but I hadn’t used coins in months and didn’t have any. To be fair, a note on the meter offered an alternative, to make a donation online to the Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland which I gladly did once I got back down.
My preferred way to do the circuit was clockwise, building up to the crescendo that would be the 1155m Lochnagar with panoramic views of the Mounth and into the Cairngorm plateau. Partly because my mate Martin, who more than anyone helped me get into the joys of Munro bagging, wasn’t all together complimentary about the hills in the area saying ‘apart from Lochnagar most of them are just like a high level walk in the Peak District!’ (Although at the time after 7 months abstaining I did think to myself I would Love to do a high level walk in the Peak District!). Anyway, with the weather set to deteriorate through the day I switched to anti-clockwise, getting the highest in during the clear weather for the views, and being prepared to trudge through the forecasted snow showers later. (Good refresher on navigating).
I set out around 9am North West along a good track through charming forests and across the flat of Glen Muick before climbing westwards next to the Allt-na guibhsaich stream going steady as Pat LittleJohn used to teach - climbers pace. I was tempted to nip up the Corbett Conachcraig at just a 200m extra climb but knew I had a long day ahead and might need the energy later, and anyway, leaving it could see me back for another visit!
Climbing steadily on a splendid track I got to the col at 917m just under Meikle Pap and what a sight! The rocky, snow strewn western cliff face of Lochnagar dramatically bookending the view out towards Balmoral was a thrill, and a promise for the mountain landscapes to come.
First close up sighting of Lochnagar pic
Climbing South West more steeply now and picking through compacted snow and boulders to the top at 1078m before skirting well clear of the buttresses and pinnacles that made up the impressive headwall to Lochnagar (loch) far below. I trudged shin deep snow past the mega cairn at Cac Carn Mor before the final assent to Cac Carn Beag (Lochnagar) 1155m. I had been going steady and stopping for water and snacks but made it to the summit by 11:15.
One surprising thing for me on this trip was the number of other folk out on the mountains and remembering how the friendly waves and hellos and the good chat and banter with those we encounter in the hills really adds a positive camaraderie. One bloke I chatted with sounded like Neil from the Young Ones and another told me of a friend of his who didn’t know who Dominic Cummings was, because they had been walking for three years! Everyone was chuffed to be up there and making the most of the weekend.
The views from Lochnagar are really special, particularly as the Mounth is covered in snow, as is the Cairngorm plateau to the north, and the air was so clear, giving intense panoramic mountain vistas. Time for a few snaps and then onwards.
Lochnagar summit pics
Loch nan Eun from the summit
Descending South and then West and then climbing up to the summit of Carn a’Choire Bhoidheach 1110m took me under an hour over snow covered, rolling high country. I was loving every minute, feeling fine, and met a group at the top who were climbing their first munroes. Lockdown had given them pause to think about stretching their horizons nearer to home and they were certainly chatty and were kind enough to take my summit picture.
Carn a’Choire Bhoidheach summit pic
With the weather potentially coming in in the afternoon I stopped for lunch and a coffee. My innovation for this year would be a small insulated cup and a steaming hot drink on the hill. I had kept it in the mesh on the outside of my pack and whilst the coffee wasn’t cold, it certainly wasn’t piping hot, perhaps keeping it inside the pack next time will be better, still the caffeine would be a welcome boost for the later parts of the walk.
Refreshed and recharged, I descended westwards again through snow and took the opportunity to fill my water bottle at a bairn as it emerged from its snow tunnel at 217845. Looking at the map it didn’t seem as though I’d easily find flowing water again. I contoured West and then began to climb, the weather came in and wet snow started falling softly. It is an eerie thing snow with no wind, it floats silently all around and it added to the feeling of being in an immense landscape. I reached the summit of Carn an t-Sargairt Mor at 13:15 two hours after summiting Lochnagar and four and a quarter hours after setting out this morning. There are two cairns on the mountain top and I went to both before getting the map out to make sure, but the southernmost one is the true summit. I met ‘Neil’ again who was using the OS app on his phone, saying so long as the maps are downloaded you can find your location even without phone reception - I made a mental note to check this on my next trip. It turned out we were both attempting the circuit and agreed we must be about half way around by now.
Carn an t-Sargairt Mor summit pic
He settled for lunch and I carried on, turning South East now between Glen Callater and the hanging valley at the top of Glen Muick. Ground was a mixture of fresh snow and clipped heather so it was really good walking. Every now and then the intense sun would shine through and clouds of evaporation would float over the heather soundlessly drifting by, again it was eerie. Perhaps two thirds of the way to Cairn Bannoch the cloud set in with some persistent snow. Visibility dropped completely and I got the compass out to make sure I didn’t start climbing the wrong rise. I could ‘handrail’, by keeping the steeper ground on my left, but I was a little relieved when I reached the summit of Cairn Bannoch 1012m just after 2pm. I took a snap but all you can see is the summit cairn!
Summit cairn pic
I didn’t hang about and set out heading South over a few subsidiary tops and then back Eastwards to a col at 934m and then an easy climb to the final summit of the day, Broad Cairn 998m reaching it before 3pm. Still no visibility! The downside of having no wind is the snow showers are persistent, they don’t move on very quickly. Still, I had summited the five munros I’d set out to do, but still had quite a distance to cover to get back down. I had a second lunch of sorts and the rest of the now cold coffee, a caffeine and chocolate boost! I was just packing up to head off when ‘Neil’ turned up. He was planning to return by the Lochside whilst I wanted to stay higher up for a while longer getting down to Loch Muick about half way along.
Broad Cairn Summit
He disappeared off through the short snowy boulder field. Shortly after leaving the summit I dipped below 900m for the first time in nearly 5 hours and coincidentally began to emerge from under the cloud base. The good path stretched Eastwards however my legs were beginning to feel it. After 3kms I joined the path on the top of the steep ground leading right down to the Loch. The scenery completely got me, I was entranced at how beautiful the glacial valley was. My perspective of everything, from the tiny house and forests below, the hanging valley to my left, the water coursing it’s own path through alluvial ground into Loch Muick, the steely blues, greys, greens and browns and the moody weather off to my right, I was completely transfixed and a bit overwhelmed! I walked slowly drinking in the views, glad I had taken the higher route. A heavy shower came up the valley, silently, slowly but surely but it passed and revealed more details and shades on the intricate headwall as I looked back along the Loch in the direction I had just come from.
The path snaked steeply down to the Loch side followed by 3 or 4 kms of flat marching North Eastwards back to the car. My body and mind were tiring and I thought back to the Corbett I turned down at the beginning of the day and chuckled. Thinking back around my day as I walked, a line from an Elbow song popped in my head, ‘One day like this would see me right’ and I agreed, it was a truly splendid day, high level circuit with a remote feel and some really breathtaking scenery, particularly in the snow. It was indeed a fitting outing after months of lockdown. I really was enjoying all the sweets at the sweetshop! Knackered, but already plotting the next few days.
I got back to the car park at 5:30pm so it had been eight and a half hours, and about 27km and 1,300m of ascent.
Share your personal walking route experiences in Scotland, and comment on other peoples' reports.
Warning Please note that hillwalking when there is snow lying requires an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge, experience and skill to use them correctly. Summer routes may not be viable or appropriate in winter. See winter information on our skills and safety pages for more information.