It was a dull, showery Wednesday after two days of great weather that I'd used for an epic walk-camp in the Western-central Cairngorms. After a morning and lunchtime lazing around Pitlochry, I decided to get things underway to make the most of a better forecast for the next day. Step one, to get myself across to the A93 and onwards to Lochnagar.
This offered a good combination of factors. An easy, but spectacular scramble up the Stuic. Four Munro Tops around Lochnagar that I'd missed out when walking the White Mounth circuit several years before. And a choice of bothies, depending which approach I chose, to save the hassle of putting up a tent on rain-soaked ground.
My plans hit a hitch quite early on. Stopping in Braemar to organise, the off-and-on showers turned to more persistent rain at the end of the afternoon. I dallied, sorting out my pack and making more route decisions: approaching from Glen Muick meant that I could use my Harveys waterproof map, so no faffing with a map case. Gelder Shiel could wait, perhaps for when I get around to a third visit.
More checking the forecasts, which were hopeful for Thursday but still bad for the rest of Wednesday. Not wanting to give up, I eventually had a leisurely drive around to Glen Muick, taking my time on the minor roads. But the rain wasn't giving up, so the question was: which of us was the more stubborn?
Another wait at the Glen Muick carpark. This didn't accept new £1 coins and I didn't have any of the old style, so ended up needing to pay by donation (as a notice asked) once back in reach of a phone signal the next day. Several other cars and vans were parked up with people in them, likewise staring out at the pounding rain and grey skies - though, not entirely grey. Just to be especially foreboding and spectacular, the weather was cranked up to 11 with some thunder and lightning thrown in.
Caution nearly prevailed, especially considering the breadth of exposed ground across Glen Muick. But I somehow persuaded myself that there are much higher hills to either side, so I only had torrential rain to be concerned about. So, with that still pounding down, I made perhaps my latest start for a walk at about 9pm. Though it had been about this dark and brooding, if less dramatic, for hours.
At least there was a decent track and path - which would be eminently suitable for two wheels. My two legs (plus a pair of poles; I decided that if a few million volts were picking routes, they weren't going to change their mind over a few hundred grams of aluminium) made brisk progress, especially over the open area near the Loch.
Passing a boat-house, I joined another level track along the northern shore. The weather seemed about to turn to steady rain at moments, but always seemed to switch back to torrential if I so much as eased back my jacket hood. At least I was at no risk of overheating, despite a brisk, almost electrifying, pace.
I was glad to see the wood around Glas-allt Shiel come into views, a large stand of conifers compared to the alders straggling along the loch. In among them to the lodge, though my "research" earlier while waiting had forewarned me that it's not all bothy!
I stepped into the dark corridor, finding the bothy door. The storm had passed and the rain also seemed to ease away by the middle of the night, though they had been fun (partly type 2) while they lasted. And, with that encouragement, it had only taken an hour to get along this stage of the route. Luckily I had the bothy to myself, so no guilty feelings about being noise making a brew and having a late meal. It wasn't surprising to be alone that night (that eejit would be out in weather like that?), but every time I stayed in a bothy during this trip, I've had the place to myself.
Glas-allt Shiel was snug (in the sleeping area upladder) and dry, so I could hang up my waterproofs and get a good night's rest. Then resume my walk the next morning, which was basically dry with a cool, light breeze and cloud high on the hill. I chose to put on my slightly-damp waterproofs again so that they could finish drying off, rather than pack them away wet which'd make them of little use if there was a shower.
There's a pleasant path up, out of the woodland and then staying within a stone's throw of the Glas Allt. That was flowing well after the last night's rain, though the falls were attractive rather than being a roaring spectacular. Maybe I was just a bit jaded with falling water after the evening before!
The gradient eased off after the falls, but continued uphill for a way until a wooden bridge over the burn. At that point, I not only crossed but turned right on a separate path that runs above Monelpie Moss (and, as the name warns, had more than a hint of bogginess in places).
My planned route led up the Little Pap, or towards the thinning cloud that drifted there. After a few minutes on the path, I turned left up first moorland, then drier heathery ground with increasing amounts of stones. Quite a few mountain hare were watching, though none saw fit to put on a hop-and-dance routine in front of me as one had done when walking the eastern Drumochter plateau a handful of days before.
I persisted up over a bit of a boulderfield to reach the summit of Little Pap, though this was revealed as a modest pimple on the side of the next Top, Cuidhe Crom.
I stopped for a drink and snack, appreciating the cool drying breeze though hoping that the cloud was going to lift. Then, checked my bearings for a longer, stonier climb up the southeastern side of Cuidhe Crom. This is one of the Munro Tops that I visited when previously on the plateau. But that meant I knew that it gives pleasant walking and a direct route to the path, better than trying to contour sloped uneven ground around the flank.
After some almost-scrambling, I got up to the first of several weathered outcroppings (or baby tors); the highest is at the southeastern end of the hill, with a slightly-lower cluster another minute or so to the northwest.
Then an easy saunter over the stony ground to the main path. I find that kind of terrain ideal walking, firm and grippy underfoot but held by the soil, rather than like boulderfields which can always shift beneath your weight. I was still surrounded by cloud, but the path and corrie edge offered plenty of "handrails" and let me enjoy the surroundings, rather than focus too much on navigating.
Just like last time, I followed the corrie rim in preference to the path. Even with minimal views (and some big drops alongside), this felt much more enjoyable than a well-trodden path up easier slopes. So I had a series of gullies, mixed with misty glimpses of pinnacles and crags, before coming to the cairn of Cac Carn Mor.
I did spot someone else near the summit, apparently taking photos, but they were off along the path by the time I turned away from the crag edge. That was particularly diverting because the clag had started to clear.
There were good views by the time that I got around to Cac Carn Beag, the summit of Lochnagar. Scrambling up the granite outcrop, I found a good spot to appreciate them with an early lunch. The Stuic looked particularly fine, though I'd a steep descent and one Top to visit on my way around. Another walker arrived, having come from the carpark in much less time than I'd taken from Glas-allt. He was intending on walking the White Mounth circuit.
After a break at the summit, I headed down a gentle shoulder to the northwest before starting more steeply downhill. Probably too steeply, though at least the ground was dry, as I needed to pick my way down some testing grassy slopes. At least I'd not tried to go directly: a look back showed bare rock slabs above Coire na Saobhaidhe.
Finding some easier ground, I shrugged off my pack and left that at the bealach before the northern Top, Meall Coire na Saobhaidhe. That has a series of rocky outcrops standing from its bouldery ridge, but inconveniently the highest is towards the northern end.
I had even more of a slog on my return, foolishly trying to traverse the western side instead of coming back across the top. Cue a lot of stepping between heaps of boulders and wishing for some "paved" stone such as covered Cuidhe Crom. With the cloud shifted and even some sunshine, I started to find things warmer going, especially with a lot of rough, heathery and stony ground to cross before my next objective.
I tried contouring a bit at first, then realised that the better option was probably just to aim directly for The Stuic. That's a good, prominent objective and I was going to end up going up and down lumps and bumps either way, so might as well minimise the distance (and amount of heathery, stony walking) en route. I took another break at the burn flowing from Loch nan Eun, cooling down as well as having a drink. That was also a chance to have another bite of lunch (it was past midday), then stow my walking poles and study The Stuic.
That isn't a demanding or long scramble, but it is enjoyable, with great views (weather permitting, which luckily it did) and a fine location. Lochnagar stood to my left, curving round to the plateau's northern fringe, or back towards upper Deeside. I also enjoyed the best weather of the day between Cac Carn Beag and the top of the Stuic, providing clear views and an hour or so of warm sunshine. So there were more pauses to look around or take snaps than for comfort or route-finding.
Once back up into the plateau, the cloud began to come down again, at first reaching the highest summits. That put me off heading to Carn a'Choire Bhoidheach - whose top is probably the least interesting of this group. Not that the two Munro Tops that I wanted to include looked particularly dramatic either, but at least they would be first visits.
Crossing the shallow Coire Boidheach, I noticed a woman moving along the burn as though looking for something. Curiosity got the better of me (and I was headed that way), so I enquired and found that she was from Aberdeen University, monitoring for water vole and other activity. I'm involved with a wetland conservation group down in Norfolk-Suffolk, the LOHP, but it was a surprise to think that "ratty" might also have relatives up in the Highlands.
After some rodent and wetland talk, I made my way across to Eagles Rock. This has some magnificent crags lower down (I've admired them from Creag an Dubh-loch), but on top is just a rounded green rise where I wandered for a while, trying to work out which stone was higher than the rest.
Then a race against descending cloud brought me to a final Top in this area, Creag a' Ghlas-uilt. Again, all cragginess and drama are saved for lower on the hill, but at least it made for easy walking - and I wasn't missing out so much in the clag.
The cloud set in, I think creeping downwards, but fortunately did stay dry and comfortable for the rest of my walk out. I cut across the top of Coire an Daimh Mhoile, then traversed for a while until I picked up the paths where those join. I met a family group on the path near Fox Cairn Well, after I'd descended the superbly-built boulder steps leading down from the southeast end of Lochnagar Corrie.
The track lower down did feel rough going, probably owing to my deciding to walk on the trackway - a lot of which was dumped stone, pebbles and other material - rather than erode the heathery turf beside it. OK, so I might also have been feeling some effects from the big walk a couple of days before. Crossing Glen Muick towards the carpark, I noticed the same walker who I'd seen earlier on Cac Carn Beag, making good time to finish minutes before me.
Despite only visiting the one Munro (and five Tops) this time, I took longer than when I'd walked all five Munros (and seven of the Tops) several years before. That's less related to carrying slightly more weight in overnight equipment than because the later route involved more ascent and descent, some scrambling and, in particular, some steeper and rougher ground rather than so much open plateau as the usual baggers' round.
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