A winter round of three of the Munros encircling Glen Callater in the Mounth area of the eastern Highlands south of Braemar.
Date: 11th January 2014
Hills: Carn an Tuirc [Munro], Tolmount [Munro], Carn an t-Sagairt Mor [Munro]
Weather: Very cold, snow underfoot, occasional cloud but mostly sunny
Route: Click to view on Social Hiking
The first high pressure system of 2014 showed up just in time for the weekend and finally I was looking more at the possibility of sunshine and icy temperatures rather than rain and gale force winds that have oft been the dominating weather feature of late. Rather than heading too far afield I chose to revisit a favourite corner of the world and take a stroll down Glen Callater which lies to the south of Braemar and cuts into the western side of the high Mounth plateau, angling towards the hills and glens of Angus.
Back in 2011 I walked a high route, taking in all the encircling Munros (and a Corbett) that ring the upper end of Glen Callater. With a little less daylight to play with on this occassion I chose to settle for a more modest set of hills and, to dramatically mix things up, went for an anticlockwise circuit.
The drive out was straightforward enough on well treated roads and as I came out of the woods near Dinnet the pre-dawn sky started to brighten. Across the Dee near Invercauld and the first signs of a light snowfall were seen by and on the road, and Braemar itself looked positively wintry. Lochnagar had been hidden by cloud but the peaks on either side of the A93 looked more promising as I pulled up in the parking area at Auchallater.
I was quickly booted up and on my way, tugging down my fleece hat and pulling on a second pair of thicker gloves against the chilly air. The sun was catching the tors on Ben Avon away to the north, illuminating them with the most beautiful dawn light. Closer at hand clouds were moving swiftly in from the west and their underside glowed with the red of a dying fire.
A brisk walk warmed me up nicely as I followed the easy landrover track up through the glen, watching as the light changed and the sun got closer to cresting the hills. All was peaceful except for the tumble of the river which was carrying plenty of water and though it was mostly calm in the glen, the clouds were rushing through the skies above.
Carn an Tuirc, plastered in snow, appeared at the end of the track, and soon I had views of the other peaks that form the headwall of the glen, a grand cirque, impressive for this corner of the Cairngorms. The sun was now very close to cresting the hills and the light was glorious.
I made my way down to the end of Loch Callater and sat down on the shingle beach for a hot drink from my flask and a quick snack. A couple of folks arrived and left their bikes outside the bothy at Callater Lodge whilst I stood gazing out over the still and remarkably ice-free waters. It really has been a mild winter thus far.
After crossing the outflow by the bridge I followed the winding track as it climbed up the lower shoulder of Carn an Tuirc. After avoiding the ice on the glen track it was now impossible to avoid the wide swathes of hard snow that lined the recessed track. Instead I headed up mostly on the heather on either side, taking to the snow when it was broken by vehicle track or footprint to give a somewhat more grippy surface.
Despite the less than ideal surface I gained height quickly and was soon dropping down to the col before the real rise up towards the Munro. Here I started to get peeks of the Glenshee hills off to the west and also stopped to put on my crampons as before me was a vast unbroken swathe of icy hillside.
I made slow but steady progress up the slopes, making for the skyline, and though it looked like the cloud was steadily building, was pleasantly surprised to emerge close to the lip of Coire Loch Kander with views of the sunny Mounth plateau opening up in every direction.
The major change had been the wind. Both the glen and climbing the lower slopes had been sheltered, but coming on to the broad sweep of the plateau brought with it a sudden increase in wind speed and I was struggling to make progress into it. At this point a large bird of prey, possibly a golden eagle, came up from the coire and flew over me, quite close to the ground. I could see its sharp eye scanning the ground but was too slow to get the camera out and focused on it.
The going was relatively easy though, the land scoured of snow down to a very thin layer, and I made my way over to the lip of the Coire to enjoy the views down to the dark loch and along the line of crags towards the summit of Carn an Tuirc and, more distantly, Cairn of Claise. Spindrift was tumbling down the coire from the plateau, picked up and whirled by the ferocious wind.
I made my way along the edge of the coire, climbing up to the first of the cairns on Carn an Tuirc's wide plateau. From here it was a difficult walk directly into the wind to reach the summit cairn. I soon had my goggles on and had covered every bit of exposed skin such was the chilling effect of the wind. The views were spectacular though as the clouds rushed over the hilltops, causing shadows and light and a mingling of landscape and cloudscape.
At the summit cairn I enjoyed the restorative powers of an early lunch and managed to squeeze myself low enough down behind the cairn to enjoy a respite from the wind. Another couple came up from the west but pressed on, leaving me to enjoy the sound of the wind whistling past the cairn, a fine spindrift soon coating me and everything I was carrying.
After the short break I was soon on my way again, retracing my steps a short way before dropping down southward to the bealach below Cairn of Claise. The couple who had passed me at the summit were heading in the same direction and higher up the slopes of the neighbouring Munro there were more figures labouring against the wind.
I turned away from this Munro though and headed east and south, contouring around and above the Coire of Loch Kander with views opening out back towards Glen Callater and further out across the Mounth. The snow was still icy firm and I kept my crampons on to maintain assured progress across the smooth surface.
With each undulation in the plateau my target, the Munro of Tolmount, came and went from view. The weather though was improving and the earlier cloud seemed to be dispersing so it was easy to maintain a bearing and negotiate slight obstacles along the way. In short time I was making my way up towards the hill's broad western ridge.
The final slopes were icy but easily climbed with crampons and soon I was at the exposed summit, the wind still coming in from the west making it difficult even to stand at the cairn. I headed north a short way to get the view down to Loch Callater before retreating off the hill to the east where a depression offered me some shelter for another drink.
From my resting point I looked northestward around the rest of my proposed circuit. At this point it would be possible to drop down the head of Glen Callater, following roughly the line of Jock's Road and thus cutting off a section of the high route. However, though Carn an t-Sagairt Mor, the next Munro, had often been shrouded in cloud during the day, it was now clear as the base had lifted slightly. I decided to continue on around to it.
There was another long plod up easy snow slopes to reach Fafernie, a subsidiary top of nearby Munro Cairn Bannoch. The skies were dark and ominous, the wind careering into me from the left, but nothing much changed and I was at the small cairn soon enough.
Looking back the Mounth appeared as an undulating desert of snow with peaks rising up here and there. To the northwest the high Cairngorms, mostly shrouded throughout the day, were starting to appear.
I headed northward from Fafernie, dropping down into the slight depression that marked the bealach between it and Carn an t-Sagairt Mor, and then it was up the steep slopes of this third and final Munro with dark clouds looming overhead and the ever present wind buffetting me with every step. I was glad to reach the plateau and the pair of cairns and after briefly visiting the summit cairn headed north to the second, slightly lower cairn, where I sought shelter.
There were views all the way back around the circuit to Coire Loch Kander and Carn an Tuirc, to the deep trench marking Glen Muick and further off to the southern march of the Cairngorm hills.
The dark clouds cleared, though Lochnagar remained resolutely shrouded, and so it was in sunshine that I took my leave of the summit and started to make my way downhill, following the obvious line of fenceposts towards the bealach far below. On the way down I came across the unusual sight of a piece of plane wreckage slung around a fencepost.
After a steep final descent I picked up the footpath that rises up from the bealach and paused to take off my crampons and shed a layer. Already, just a few hundred metres below the summit, it was much warmer and the wind far less present. I made my way carefully down the path, skirting patches of ice and looking out at the views over Loch Callater as the sun sank.
The descent was perfectly timed as though the glen below me was already in shadow, the setting sun lit up the hillside I was on a glorious golden colour. I followed the track as it traversed high above the loch.
There were a couple of interesting burn crossings where deep banked up snow made it tricky getting down to the stepping stones that crossed them. Lower down, approaching Callater lodge, I found a nice boulder to lean back against and eat my final food. It was wonderfully peaceful sitting watching the sun sink down beyond the hills, the alpenglow stretching across Tolmount and Carn an t-Sagairt Mor.
And then it was a simple matter of walking back down the landrover track that I had come up earlier in the day. The sun had set and the glen was chilly and gloomy, the sun now only catching the highest peaks. I made swift work of the return and was back at the car just as true darkness was falling, the end of a perfect winter day.