Sunday, September 01, 2013

Back to Lochnagar

I first climbed Lochnagar back in 1995 on a hot summers' day. On the way up the steep ascent from Clais Rathadan towards the col just beneath the top called Meikle Pap, I fell into conversation with a very old man. He told me he had first climbed up mighty Lochnagar with the Army at the end of WWII, as he had started his National Service. He hadn't been back since, yet the image of the great cliffs on the mountain's wild north corrie had so embedded themselves in his imagination that he had determined to see them again while he was still alive. As he slowly puffed and panted and dragged his reluctant body up the slope to the mountain, I seriously worried that he might have left his quest an hour or two too late... Lochnagar is though, a mountain which draws walkers back time and time again. There are about eighty Munros I have never climbed, which I would like to do. There are some Munro's I have climbed once, and have no intention of ever returning to, as dreary memories of assorted rainy Geal Charn's don't leave me reaching for my boots and longing for the outdoors. Lochnagar is different however. It drew back for a whole day's walking, covering old ground, not gaining a new Munro - but I loved every minute of it! What made it even more special was that I was able to take #2 son up it for the first time; we spent the day walking with a neighbour and his son as well. Two 'forty-somethings' showing Lochnagar to their respective eleven-year-olds.

We took the tried and tested route from the Spittal of Glenshee carpark at the end of the dead-end-road from Ballater. Car Parking charges there are now an eye-watering £3- per visit, our annoyance at which was dampened when we subsequently read the pay-and-display ticket and realised that the money raised wasn't being syphoned off by a greedy council or company, but was being invested in preserving the area. It presumably needs considerable amounts of preservation work as it is exceptionally busy on a weekend, with a full car-park and colourful groups of people lining the main routes and decorating the main summits like ants on proverbial ant-hills.

From the car park we headed towards Loch Muick but turned right before the Lochside and took the track to house at Alt-na-giubhsaich where the track climbs up and through the woods, curving round between the hill named as Conachraig on the OS map, and Lochnagar itself. At various points along the way, the distant cliffs of Lochnagar can be seen, high, black and forebodeing. "Are we going all the way up there...?" a child asks. The footpath away from this landrover track across to Lochnagar is obvious and leads to a distinct col, adjacent to Meikle Pap. This spot provides a fine view of the massive corrie which is Lochnagar's main feature, and provides a wonderful panorama of the route around its' rim to the summit which is the next challenge.

With both youngsters feeling tired and hungry, we sheltered at this point and loaded them with food and drink, and hats, gloves and coats were donned for the upper section of the mountain, as a bitterly cold wind was whipping across the tops. Suitably revived, and with restored blood-sugar levels, they ascended the steep "ladder" section of the walk without difficulty and we made our way towards the summit of Cac Carn Beag, which was blowing in and out of fog.
After another break here we explored the dramatic cliff-tops before looking for the path to take us down to Loch Muick.

The tracks around Lochnagar are incredibly well-engineered and maintained.
They have been completely upgraded since I was here last, and even on the alternative descent route, the track was drained and re-enforced. Anti-erosion measures like these are helpful in preventing thousands of boots scaring the landscape. What usually happens is that a well-trodden path wears a groove into the land, this then becomes a stream bed, which gets deeper with every rainfall event. Subsequent walkers then start walking alongside it, and the pattern is repeated, with the increasingly boggy track getting wider and wider with every year. These engineered paths prevent that process from occurring, but at some cost. I don't just mean the £3- cost of parking either, but also the merciless pounding that descending down these solid rock paths causes the feet and knees. 

The track passes the delightful waterfall called The Falls of the Glassalt,
before descending down to Glas-alt-shiel, a mountain Lodge, built by Queen Victoria and still favoured by Royals today.

From the Lodge, a private roads leads all the way back alongside the Loch to the Car-park and the end of a very fine day's walking. It was wonderful to re-visit Lochnagar, (Loch Muick is worth visiting on its own!), and the two 11 year old were exhausted but rightly proud of their achievement. For my son, this almost 13m mile walk with 1080+metres of ascent was the hardest walk he has done. I'm delighted to report that he has already started to talk about which Munro he be able to climb 'next'!

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