I Used to Climb Mountains...

Munros: Carn a'Choire Bhoidheach, Carn an t-Sagairt Mor, Carn an Tuirc, Lochnagar

Date walked: 14/09/2018

Time taken: 11 hours

Distance: 38km

Ascent: 1797m

I used to climb mountains. My last Munro was climbed 4 years ago. In January 2014 my dodgy knee finally cracked, and I stumbled on for a few months, a brief recovery allowing for a fantastically memorable few days in the Culra Bothy area, with ascents of Ben Alder and Lancet Edge among others. In August with Glasgow HF I struggled up Sgorr nam Fiannaidh and the Pap of Glencoe, and by the time I descended I had pretty much decided to call it a day.

Since then I've had two knee operations, and the long term diagnosis isn't great. I still suffer from knee pain and it's not something which you can predict the arrival of. Psychologically that's had a huge effect on me. I look at the map and see what I used to be able to do, and withdraw inwards, planning short walks of a few miles, low level walks as opposed to high tops. With physiotherapy and the right tablets I had found I was at times able to do more than I had, and I'd gained a lot of my confidence back in the Pentland Hills, so much so that for the first time since 2014 I actually thought that I might actually be capable of something bigger.

Having got a few days off work and managing to synchronise plans with my mate Jim, the final decision as to where we would go was made by the weather. With tropical storms and hurricanes raging across the globe, we were getting some mild disturbance as a by product. The West Highlands were out as the weather looked just awful, and our options got smaller. One of the plans which we'd had was to visit Callater Bothy near Braemar and this looked a reasonable option, with a short window of reasonable weather from lunchtime on Friday until Saturday evening. We decided to go for a later start to avoid the rain, but this looked to have been in vain as we drove up past the sad remnants of the Spittal of Glenshee, slowly weaving past an endless line of drookit cyclists as they slowly pulled themselves up the glen. The ski centre was packed to the seams with cyclists making it impossible to get served in the shop there, so we carried on to Braemar to pick up a few fresh items. On a whim we stopped in at the Bothy Cafe and by the time we'd left there and driven to the car park at Auchallater the rain had stopped.

Jocks Road, near Auchallater
Having prepared for dreich conditions, the warm sunshine was an unexpected surprise, and we were able to enjoy the walk in along Jock's Road, taking in the scenery and observing the birdlife, with the obligatory golden eagle/buzzard debate along the way. We'd last came this way 7 years ago, in March 2011. Back then there had been a fair bit of snow on the ground, today was much kinder.

Callater Bothy
At only three miles it's around an hours walk in to the Callater Bothy, which looked every inch the picture postcard with it's saltire flying above it against a  blue background. Although itching to get to the hill, we stopped to chat to Bill Duncan, the custodian of the estate lodge next door, who invited us to drop by on our return. With minimal equipment we set off up the well defined track and I was pleased to see that there were still many hares active here. When last here we had been amazed at the sheer number of hare on these hills, and recent reports in the media regarding culling of hare had left us worried that we would discover a barren hillside, devoid of life. Thankfully that wasn't the case.

The mountain hare population here is still impressive
Not wanting to drone on, but this is cheating!
When we were almost on the final shoulder before Coire Kander we were passed by a large 4WD vehicle, which we then passed in turn as the occupants got out to fly a small drone above the corrie! We veered off here for the last few hundred yards to the rocky summit of Carn an Tuirc, to watch the sun go down.

Carn an Tuirc, my first Munro in four years!
From here, Glenshee and its surrounding hills looked a different prospect altogether from the wet, grey and forbidding aspect they presented earlier in the day, and it was was with some disappointment that I tore myself away from the summit cairn, my first Munro in just over four years. A high point in more ways than one! Like our last visit, we descended in darkness, Jim often way ahead of me. As darkness became more complete stars began to appear, with Mars low on the horizon, a taster for what was to come later.

We had the bothy to ourselves, and after a quick meal we paid a visit to Bill Duncan, the custodian of the lodge next door.  We couldn't have been made more welcome, and by the time we made our way back to the bothy it was the wee, small hours, and the sky was ablaze with stars. We stood in the cold for as long as we could, necks bent back, gazing at the vastness above and the wispy Milky Way, before finally heading in to get some sleep.

After our late night, we were still up at a reasonable time next morning, and with breakfast and admin out of the way it was time to head off. The big factor which decide whether our destination was the car of the high tops was my leg, and I felt reasonably confident that I could manage something, the question was, what? A last minute, bag of a fag packet plan was hatched to walk to Lochnagar. At this point, looking at the distance to be covered, I must admit I wasn't confident that I would manage.

The path to Lochnagar is clearly defined.

The path begins just outside the perimeter fence of the lodge, so we headed back out before climbing up sharply. The path then contours along the side of Creag an Loch before turning north east into a wide, shallow valley which then climbs up the increasingly rocky upper slopes of Carn an t-Sagairt Mor. While the actual path to Lochnagar goes around the summit, the 1:25,000 scale map shows a fence curving to the top, and we veered slightly off this line for a more direct route, and were delighted to come across around 15 ptarmigan, starting to adopt their winter plumage. With their grey and white camouflage they were often invisible when static, only their movement gave them away as they picked their way towards us, before flying off when they got too close.

Ptarmigan, concealed against the rocks.
The summit cairn is a modern art mixture of rock and mangled fence posts, no doubt it incurs the displeasure of Prince Charles when he takes the air here. Scattered here and there just beyond the cairn is the remnants of an English Electric Canberra B Mk2 which crashed here in November 1956. While we only saw some engine parts, there are apparently some far more substantial pieces to be found. While researching the fate of this plane I found that there are three of its type still in service today- with NASA!

Carn an t-Sagairt Mor summit cairn.

With the first Munro of the day under our belts we dropped down the east side of the mountain to rejoin the path, sending mountain hare flying as we went. We descended to cross a series of burns before a nice even climb up to a point just north of the summit of Carn a' Choire Bhoidheach, the summit of which we decided to leave for the return journey. From here the vista opened up and we crossed a wide, bare plateau, the impressive Coire Lochan nan Eun providing a stunning view. We could only wonder at the view enjoyed by the group we could see scrambling up the Stuic Buttress, and enjoyable looking way to make the ascent from the loch to the high tops above.

Dubh Loch, which feeds into Loch Muick

Loch nan Eun

Scramblers on the Stuic Buttress

Looking across the gully to the summit of Lochnagar

We arrived at Cac Carn Mor, a rocky field with a large cairn, an intermediate top en-route to the summit, and stopped overlooking a feature known as the pinnacle, still draped in abandoned slings, as well as the watery Lochnagar far below, and took in lunch as well as the view. Despite being unfamiliar with the area I was still able to pick out the odd familiar hill, as well as indulge in a bit of lucky guesswork, picking out Bennachie  off beyond Ballater. While sitting here we noticed a number of Snow Bunting, and we were lucky enough to be able to get within a few feet of them as they hugged the earth, nibbling on stunted stems of heather.

Juvenile Snow Bunting

The top of Lochnagar with its twin adornments.

Approaching Lochnagar summit from the south is very much like approaching the top of Arthurs Seat in Edinburgh, with a similar profile of a small rocky lump above a flattish grassy false summit. It has other similarities too. The twin peak adornments of trig point and summit view indicator is another, as the constant stream of visitors from all corners of the globe, with a variety of accents being heard around the top. I was glad we had taken lunch earlier, as it was simply too busy to have it at the top, and you would be forgiven for thinking that there was a car park just out of sight dispensing coach loads of walkers. The views here are stunning, but we had a long journey back and the only way was back the way we had came. We rounded Coire Lochan nan Eun and were soon atop Carn a' Choire Bhoidheach, a mere 400m diversion off the well trodden path, my 3rd Munro of the day, and my 4th of the trip. There's not much to this one, and even the cairn is understated, but I enjoyed it all the same. After 4 years with no big hills these were big achievements for me!

Carn a' Choire Bhoidheach

Back to Callater Bothy

Now there was nothing for it but to head back to the bothy, traversing Carn an t-Sagairt Mor, and dropping ever so slowly until we were at the bothy again. With our gear gathered up we said our goodbyes to Bill and headed back down Jock's Road to Auchallater. My knee had been reasonable throughout, the tablets keeping it in check. My feet on the other hand as it were, were in no doubt that they'd been on the hills. Unused to the sustained mileage, I had a huge blister on my heel. I also had a huge smile on my face. A blister is a small price to pay for that, and it's one I'd happily pay any time. Before this I said I used to climb mountains. For now at least I can say that I still do...

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Comments: 9

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