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“Gasherbrum, Masherbrum, Distighil Sar,
All are good training for dark Lochnagar!”
We were properly in the mountains now, and as it was mid-September (2020), we were not to be troubled by the dreaded midge, and the ones we had encountered the night before our day out on Morrone (see post #286) were the only ones we came across on our six-week Scottish trip.
Things were not entirely trouble-free though – on a couple of occasions on the trip, the starter battery for the van had let us down, and we had been saved by the solar panel topping up the battery while we went on an extended dog walk. We would have to get it fixed, which is why one sunny morning we were driving to Aberdeen rather than the hills.
By lunchtime we were sorted (thanks Kwik-Fit), with half a day still available. ‘Plan A’ had been to drive to Ballater in the Dee Valley, then up Glen Muick to walk out to Lochnagar. Half a day wouldn’t give us enough time for ‘Plan A’, especially as we were still in Aberdeen, but it would be long enough for ‘Plan B’, which was to walk around Loch Muick. Which is exactly what we did. (Red route on the map above)
Over the summer, the road through Glen Muick (pronounced ‘Mick’) had been closed by the police on several occasions. The lifting of the national Covid-19 lockdown had seen tourist attractions throughout the UK absolutely mobbed – people who had never shown the slightest interest in remote places and mountains suddenly swarmed there like lemmings, infected not with Covid but with the ‘Fear Of Missing Out’, and the Glen Muick road had been blocked by traffic more than once.
Reports of big crowds and anti-social behaviour was another reason why we had waited until September to take the trip, but kids were now back in school and parents were heading back to work. So, we set out up the narrow Glen Muick road travelling hopefully. The road itself was quiet enough, but the car park at Spittal of Glen Muick was full to bursting, at a time of year when it could be expected to be less busy. Fortunately, there were no buses making the trip and the coach car park had been made available for overspill parking.
Having lost more than half a day having a new van battery fitted, we didn’t waste much time hitting the trail for a hike around Loch Muick. Going clockwise, we initially had the advantage of a good Landrover track to speed things up – as time was limited, we left the track before it rises up towards Broad Cairn, and instead followed the narrow path that follows the edge of the loch to the broad delta at its head.
From the path we had a view across the loch to the lodge at Glas allt Shiel. The original lodge, built in 1851 for one of the estate gillies, was a simple two-room affair. Soon after it was built, the estate was leased to Queen Victoria (yep, that one!) who fell in love with what she and Albert called their “little bothie”. There was a room set aside for royal parties, and the queen so loved it that she arranged to re-home the gillie and family near to Balmoral Castle. The “little bothie” she loved so much was then demolished to be replaced by the current fifteen-room building!
The lodge is now part of the Balmoral estate, and is owned personally by Queen Elizabeth II. As well as the usual estate facilities, it includes a building set aside as a free bothy for climbers and mountain walkers (out of use when we passed, due to Covid-19 restrictions). From Glas allt Shiel lodge we had a steady walk back to the car park at Spittal, just as the afternoon was turning to evening. Having rescued what could have been a wasted day, we decided to return a couple of days later for our original Plan A to walk up to Lochnagar.
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This wouldn’t be the first time I had walked up to Lochnagar from Spittal. In 1975 I was a member of 45 Commando Royal Marines, stationed at Arbroath on the East Coast of Scotland. When the unit wasn’t deployed, weekends were free for recreational climbing and mountaineering, and as 45 was the premier British Mountain and Arctic Warfare unit at the time, this was actively encouraged.
In June 1975, four of us left Spittal in the early evening, to bivouac overnight on Meikle Pap. The next day we crossed the corrie to climb Eagle Ridge, one of the finest rock climbs in Scotland. The four smaller images above show (clockwise from top left) – The view of the crag from the bivi site (me in the centre with hair!), Brian climbing the snow slope (snow, in June!) to the foot of the climb, yours truly on the first pitch of the climb and Graham on the final pitch. Happy days!
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The start of the track from Spittal of Muick car park was pretty much as I remembered it from 1975, passing the buildings and woods at Allt na Giubhsaich on the way. From there the track became a bit rougher as we started gaining height, before reaching a col where the track started descending towards Balmoral, and we branched off on a narrower path after a brew stop. From there, a steady 1½ km climb brought us to the col below Meikle Pap.
Our mountain trips in 2020 had been limited by the Covid lockdown, so Chris and I had decided that on this trip we wouldn’t push things too far and would only go as far as the summit of Meikle Pap, where we would have a good view of Lochnagar across the corrie. As it was, we would have been fine going on to Lochnagar summit, but our route for the day was a respectable 12½ kms with over 600 meters height gain – a chilly breeze made sure we didn’t hang around too long on the summit.
Then it was time to retrace our steps and head for home. We had only just left the col when I saw that we had company – a pair of golden eagles. I did my best to get some photos, but working with a focal length equivalent of 80mm, I was never going to get any pics with good detail unless the birds decided to land in front of us! Still, the shots I did get shown the unmistakable silhouettes of these magnificent birds. Even better are the memories of them soaring overhead – I think even Border Collie ‘Mist’ was impressed!
Text and images © Paul Shorrock