A WALK UP DARK LOCHNAGAR, CAIRNGORM NATIONAL PARK

This beautiful mountain is easily accessed on good tracks (in summer conditions) and gives a spectacular glimpse into the huge, tundra-like plateaus that are a feature of Cairngorm summits.The approach ridge is ringed with steep cliffs giving spectacular, vertiginous views down into a dark loch below, but with no sense of danger/exposure at all.This is my kind of mountain!

Start Point: Loch Muick car park (pronounced Mick) which is 6 winding miles from Ballater on the unnamed minor road through Glen Muick. Be prepared to have £4 in coins (at time of writing) to pay for the car park.

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Loch Muick

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Total time: 6 – 7 hours walking. 930m or 3,051 feet of ascent.

This is Lord Byron’s romantic description in 1807 of the famed Scottish mountain, Lochnagar:

England thy beauties are tame and domestic
To one who has roved on the mountains afar
Oh! For the crags that are wild and magestic
The steep frowning glories of dark Lochnagar.

We arrived at the Loch Muick car park at 3.45pm on a sunny, warm July afternoon.Chris had managed to get a half day off work and hiking Lochnagar was our aim. It’s a 3 hour,  hard drive to Royal Deeside from our home in Glasgow and our plan was to walk part way up, camp somewhere,  then do the hill next day. I have to admit we were growling a bit at each other after a minor fall out on the way up over heaven knows what; trivia and both feeling tense for different reasons. I never like a drive of more than 2 hours before a big walk; I also like setting off in the morning whilst still fresh.Chris had already put in a whole week at work plus a busy morning and I imagined him thinking – ‘how on earth have I been persuaded to drive 130 miles on winding, narrow roads,with a lot of hard slog to look forward to at the end of it,  when all I wanted was a nice relaxing Friday night with a bottle of vino, slumped in front of the TV,  at the end of a LONG week?’

Ah but such ease is not what adventure and great memories are made of! ( I would have countered with this salient point, if asked. I wasn’t.)

So in a sort of grim silence we got our rucksacks ready, checked we hadn’t forgotten anything major like the matches or fuel for the stove( leading to starvation) and set off with heavy packs on our backs to walk as far as our legs would take us on this boiling hot,  sunny afternoon.

It’s amazing though, as you start walking, how stress and tensions disappear. I felt almost immediately energised, after having almost dozed off in the car before emerging stiff and lethargic at the car park. It reminds me of the wisdom of the Latin phrase ‘Solvitur Ambulando’   – it is solved by walking.It certainly is.Whatever little ails had been niggling us, soon evaporated as the beauty of the landscape and the simple act of strolling through it had its miracle effect.

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Lochnagar terrain

The excellent track took us through a pine forest then a very gradual ascent above a tumbling burn to a col which looked the most likely place to pitch camp.These hills are deeply covered in heather, offering quite dry and very lovely terrain.By now we’d walked about 3km and reached a good height of xm.

The problem was water – the river was a steep plod below but gallant as ever, Chris said he would go down and get our canister filled so that we were supplied for the night and next morning.

We took off along the track carrying rucksacks which felt heavy – a bit like our mood – but manageable.We still hadn’t quite discussed what the plan was but it was now or never for Lochnagar given the glorious weather.Lots of happy walkers passed us smiling and clearly having had a great day out.We still had 5 or 6 hours ahead of us.Ouch.

As we made our way up the open hillside beyond the forest , a little roe deer bounced away from us.A lovely start.Mynormally easy natured husband even managed a smile.Things were looking up! A couple of handsome stags were grazing on the opposite hillside, another fine sight.

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At ‘The Ladder’

With a lot more enthusiasm Chris announced that the plan now was to camp somewhere near water, dump the heavy stuff and carry on that evening to the summit.Sounded good to me.The old legs felt pretty good, the sun was hot but a strong breeze was tempering it.My guilt was evaporating with every step.The plan was working after all.

I loved that track.It takes you in such a gentle way up to the col between the two glens,even with the packs it was pretty easy.The last of the water though was here so we pitched the tent a bit off the path with good views to the Cairngorms.

It was relief to get rid of the gear and also to know our wee home for the night was all set up with some wine and tasty food to come back to.Plus we’d already walked for about an hour so it wouldn’t be too long a trek down on the return.
We were both smiling now, our mood lightened and even more so when a mother grouse and about 6 little chicks raced away from us on the track.We watched them for ages as they hid in and out of the heather.Gorgeous.

In another 40 mins or so we reached the base of The Ladder and the views were just wonderful.

I really loved the terrain.The granite rocks made a lot of the shots a bit of a photographer’s dream (not that I’m that but they did add interest).We looked at Meikle Pap and decided to climb it on the way back.The summit beckoned! The ladder turned out to be a beautifully constructed slab path at a good angle winding up through the boulder field. As others have said, the 3 quid car park charge has been put to great use.(that had caused more grumpiness at the start as like numpties we’d managed to arrive without enough change.A scrabble down the car seats finally got us the required amount; incredibly, no-one we spoke to had change either ).

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The plateau

The top was my kind of place….golden empty moorland for miles and miles with distant views down to Ben Lawers and over to Mount Keen and the lovely Angus Glens.Wow.

What a really beautiful plateau it is,a joy to walk on a first class track.It was about 6.30pm by now and the clarity was improving all the time.My mind was definitely changed about when to walk the hills – this was perfect and there wasn’t a soul around.
On Cac Carn Mor we watched a Snow Bunting hiding form us on the cairn.I just got a shot and no more.I imagine he was thinking…b****r off and leave me alone.Everyone else has gone home, why can’t you?

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Endless high moorland

It was a short walk along the plateau and up to the main summit, balanced on Cyclopean rocks and bathed in early evening sunshine.A really wonderful spot.

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Summit plateau
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The cliffs

But we were getting a bit tired now and the tent beckoned so reluctantly we headed back, keen too to go up Meikle Pap.

It was a bit of a slog, if a short one, up to the top of MP and if I’m honest, I didn’t think the views were much better than on the lip of the corrie itself.But maybe I was just getting tired and thinking too much about the tumbler of sparkling wine chilling at the tent. Philistine that I am.

So with weary legs we began the walk back,our little blue tent just visible in the empty moorland below.Home!
The walk was still so interesting, with mountain hares popping up all around though my skills weren’t up to capturing them very well on camera.

Oh…the relief to throw the rucksacks down, get the wine from the burn and relax,knowing we’d done it and our bad-start afternoon had finally turned around into a quiet success! AND we were still on the hill, amidst the heather and the grasses and with the sun beginning to do wondrous things as it dropped ever further down behind the Cairngorm giants to the west.

Crisps and olives, hot chicken curry and rice.Nectarines.We had a meal fit for the mountain gods (well,maybe not but it always tastes brilliant outdoors).We were very happy indeed in our silent mountain home with the prospect of a clear, calm night ahead but just enough of a breeze to keep the dreaded midges down.

And still the sky got more spectacular.Who needs the aurora borealis when you get this on many a decent night?
And then a big full moon rose behind us.

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Sunset from camp

I love wild camping.Knowing you are still amidst the beauty of the hills, the absolute peace of a lovely camp.We had started out in such poor fettle but the hills had worked their magic, the sheer beauty of Scotland and of Lochnagar had revived our tired urban souls. Solvitur Ambulando. It is solved by walking.It is so true.

The grouse were calling incessantly during the night (hmm…did I mention peace and quiet?) but it was no matter.Gallons of tea for breakfast as usual and then we packed up to return to civilisation.It had been a gorgeous dawn, the hillside turning pink as the sun rose higher around 4.45am.One of the advantages of having to ‘relieve oneself’ during the night – starry skies and rosy dawns.

The hour’s walk down was a busy one.There were ‘hunners’ of people heading up quite early, some of whom were, they told us, trying to fit in the whole round.I hoped the forecast was wrong and they would get a fair bit of it done.Part of me also regretted that we didn’t manage to do that ourselves,as planned.Never happy! (In fact the mist and rain came in late morning).
But in all honesty, it had worked out pretty perfectly and, in fact, memorably.We left the hill with a new found affection for this little corner of Deeside though the stony tracks had taken it out of our ancient legs a bit.Ah..age doesn’t come alone!

For more Cairngorm hikes :Walking with Reindeer in Cairngorm  and A Hike to Lochan Uaine, Cairngorm    A hike in the Cairngorms

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