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).

Monday, 13 November 2017

First day of winter on Lochnagar

November has so far been unsettled and for the most part windy.  A swing of wind direction to the northwest introduced a very cold airflow and the promise of wintry conditions in the hills.  Last year offered little in the way of "proper winter" weather, so I decided to take the opportunity while it lasted.

My plan was to climb Lochnagar, one of the classic mountains of the northeast of Scotland and a hill which rarely disappoints.  Something else which didn't disappoint was the frosty pre-dawn weather as I left home.  Before we lived in the northeast we associated frost only with still conditions, but here the deepest frosts are often driven in by a freezing wind.  The morning certainly had promise, and if the amount of scraping of the car windscreen was any indication conditions underfoot should be good and frozen on the hill.

The golden wash in the sky was just stunning as dawn approached, it was time to go!

Forty five minutes later and I was approaching the car park at Spittal of Glenmuick as a beautiful wash of light flooded the far side of the glen.  Don't be fooled by the warmth of the light, it was very chilly!  Lochnagar had a good dusting of snow across its upper slopes and looked great in the early morning light.

My route would take me across the glen to the house at the foot of the Allt na Guibhsaich (burn (stream) of the pine trees) and up the track which follows the burn all the way to a high point between Glen Muick and Glen Gelder.  From there I'd follow a path up to the prominent bealach (col) in this image, then go first up to the conical top of Meikle Pap, then return to the bealach and climb up onto the summit plateau and head around above the cliffs.

I set out at a fast walking pace to try and generate some warmth.  The temperature was hovering just below freezing and a heavy snow shower was raking the top of the mountain.  Showers had been forecast throughout the day, and given the likelihood of frozen ground I was wearing winter boots and carrying both crampons and ice axe.  I didn't expect to need an axe with comparatively little snow on the ground, but I prefer to carry and not use it rather than not carry it and need it.  In the event, I didn't use crampons either, though there was a section of icy ground on the descent where I nearly put them on.  As it happened, the icy section was avoidable on boulders to one side.

I was well warmed up by the time I reached the Muick/Gelder watershed after about 5km of easy angled ascent.  The watershed is at about 700m/2300ft and has a great view across the valley of the River Dee to Ben Avon which seemed to have a good covering of snow.  The path from here climbs more steeply to reach a bealach between Meikle Pap and the main mass of Lochnagar.......

.....where there's the classic grandstand view into the corrie of Lochnagar.  The whole mountain is named for the dark lochan below the cliffs which is called Lochan na Gair (little loch of the noisy sound).  It's a stirring view and one which never loses its impact.  The wind was also making an impact at this bealach, a scything cold blast deflecting around the corrie and pouring over the bealach.  It wasn't a place to linger today despite the grand view; I turned north to make the short climb up to the top of Meikle Pap and what's actually an even better viewpoint.