A circuit around Conachcraig and Lochnagar from Balmoral on Deeside
Date: 17th May 2016
Hills: Conachcraig, Lochnagar
Weather: Sunny with a cold northwesterly wind
Route: Click to view on an OS Map
Conachcraig always seems to have slipped through the gaps in my planning. A Corbett conveniently positioned above the car park at Glen Muick, it had previously been slated for an easy winter ascent. Latterly I'd been thinking about summit camping up there to get some sunrise photos of the light hitting the cliffs of Lochnagar. Now though I was looking for a straightforward option not too far from home and decided to put the fancy plans on hold and just go for it. Rather than the straightforward ascent from Glen Muick I deicded to try a different approach to the hill, one I had seen on a wintry daywalk a few January's ago.
To that end I found myself parking up at Balmoral on Deeside a little after 8:30. With the castle not yet open I had the pick of the parking spaces and after minimal faff was striding off towards Easter Balmoral. The drive had been under overcast skies but already the clouds were breaking to bring some very welcome warm sunshine.
I followed the South Deeside Road around past the golf course before branching off and climbing up the hill to the Lochnagar Distillery. Beyond this there was a stretch more along narrow farm roads which led me towards upper Glen Girnock. There were lambs gambolling in the fields and behind me the hills of Upper Deeside were catching the sunlight.
Near the farmhouse at Buailteach I left behind the road and after a little bit of heather wading reached the marked path that would take me over the low hills and across into upper Glen Gelder.
The ascent was a pleasant one. I was sheltered from the wind for the most part and the path was easy. Soon I was much higher up with views down over the desolate headwaters of the Girnock, distant Mount Keen emerging from the haze.
There was a couple of steep switchbacks and then I was bimbling across the plateau below Creag nan Gall. Ahead of me I now had sight of the Lochnagar masif and off to the left was the dark lump of Conachcraig.
The path wended its way across a series of heathery summits before starting to descend towards the main track through Glen Gelder. Off to the northwest the Cairngorms presented a wall of dark rock and streaks of snow.
The path soon disappaeared amongst the heather and rocks but it was easy to pick out a route down to finally join the main track. I followed this around the base of Little Conachcraig before leaving it to make a mostly pathless ascent of Caisteal na Caillich, the most northerly of Conachcraig's three tops. The occassional deer path provided some upward momentum but I spent most of the time in the wake of scattering hares, pulling steeply up boulders and clipped heather.
From this top there were good views back to the Cairngorms and across to Lochnagar. Conachcraig's plateau had a clear path across it and I followed this across to the next top, labelled Conachcraig on the 1:50k map.
This top, a little of the track itself, had a number of interesting tors and offered an interesting perspective down on the very end of Loch Muick, the hills of the Mounth stretching off into the hazy southwest.
With a brisk cold wind blowing I was soon heading across the final part of the plateau to reach the high point and summit of the Corbett. Here there were fine views onto Lochnagar but I made the most of the shelter to have an early lunch.
Refuelled I headed down the clear, steep path which descends down to the high point between Lochnagar and Conachcraig. From here it was ane asy decision to forgo and early finish and instead head up towards the Munro.
The well engineered path males the ascent up to the col below Meikle Pap short and sweet. I was soon looking back to Conachcraig.
Once at the bealach it was just a short diversion to get the magnificent views of Lochngar above its namesakke lochan. A couple were sitting enjoying lunch in the increasing sunshine - one remarked to the other how exicting it was to finally see this view that features in so many books about the Scottish hills.
I had a short break here, mainly to apply some sunscreen, before making my way up the Ladder. I soon was enjoying fine views from the top as the plateau opened up before me. Though there were snow patches round there was nothing to hinder easy progress as I wound my way around the head of the cliffs.
There were small figures in the distance - clearly its a popular choice for a midweek Munro. Rather than follow the trade route to Cac Carn Beag I followed the narrow path which sticks close to the cliff edge, enjoying the solitude and space around me. There were good views over the White Mounth hills though off to the west the weather looked somewhat darker and more threatening.
The cliffs of Lochnagar never cease to impress me and I spent a good long time enjoying the views from them as I wended my way along the crinkly edge of the plateau.
Occassionally there was a chance to peer down into the dark gullies, still choked with snow.
The most impressive cliffs are those closest to the summit t the northern end of the plateau. Here rock spires climb up from the dark depths below and the dark waters of the lochan look a long way down.
Too soon though all the fun was over and I made my way across the short stretch of plateau to the summit tor, clambering my way up the gully to reach the trig point and viewfinder. There were excellent views off to the Stuic and I was glad to see that the threatening clouds were still far off to the west.
I shared the summit briefly with another couple of hillwalkers but soon they headed off and I had the place to myself, sitting in the nook of a rock with the sun on me to enjoy a very pleasant early afternoon snack.
The last time I had been up Lochnagar I had descended north, working my way back towards the old bridge near Kerloch. This time I started the same way but turned northeast to descend steeply down to the bealach with Meall Coire na Saobhaidhe. This would lead me down into Glen Gelder and back to Balmoral.
The descent was steep but I made my way down carefully and eventually found afaint path near the bottom. This I followed up onto the rocky summit of Meall Coire na Saobhaidhe which offered an unusual perspective on Lochnagar.
The cold wind was still around and the blue skies were gradaully disappearing as clouds arrived. I didn't linger long and was soon making my way to the day's final summit, Creag Liath above Glen Gelder.
From here there were good views north to the Cairngorms. I enjoyed these last few minutes of hilltop air before making my way down the day's steepest slope and into Glen Gelder. I aimed for the landrover track coming up from Gelder Shiel and was glad when the steep slope finally eased. The blue skies seemed to be lingering over Glen Gelder and I enjoyed the views back to Conachcraig and Lochnagar.
Once on the track it was an easy stroll back along through the glen, pausing briefly at Gelder Shiel to peer in through the bothy window. A little further on two guys were undertaking repairs or upgrades to the landrover track.
Down in the glen it was much warmer and I shed a couple of layers for the long but enjoyable walk out to Balmoral.