Time: 8.5 hours
Route: OS Map 44
Given that April is now underway, the daffodils are blooming everywhere and the days are longer and lighter you'd perhaps think that deep snow and biting winds would not be expected on the summit of a Scottish mountain no more than an hour and a half's drive from Aberdeen. Well you'd be wrong as we discovered today on the climb to Lochnagar, a 3790ft (1155m) Munro located to the south of Ballater and very close to the Royal Castle of Balmoral.
We were dropped by the coach at the Spittal of Glenmuick car park, the traditional starting point for ascending the Royal Mountain. The skies were solemn with dark brooding clouds drifting across the mountain tops and obscuring our view of Lochnagar as we crossed the Glen to begin the climb. Passing through a short section of forest, dappled by early morning sunshine, we hit the first patches of snow as we started to head up the track. The going was easy at this stage and we quickly overtook a group of Duke of Edinburgh people who were struggling along beside the stream. As we climbed, the snow became thicker underfoot and we lost sight of the sun. At a fork in the track we paused for a spot of tea and divided the group, nine souls heading left to the summit of Lochnagar itself.
From here on, until we descended to almost the same point later in the afternoon, we saw very little besides the mist, the snow and the occasional tantalising glimpse of a cliff edge or jutting rock. As we climbed up through thick snow the visibility dropped to something around 10-20 metres. It was essential that we stuck together as a group as there was nothing in the way of visual references.
We struggled up to the col below Meikle Pap where we met a couple of climbers who were heading for the cliffs of Lochnagar. At this point we were a little above the famous corrie containing the loch of Lochnagar but nothing of this could be seen.
Not discouraged we began the steep ascent of the Ladder which takes you from corrie level up to the summit plateau. Here the snow had drifted making footing unsure. Steve, our leader, soldiered forward with his ice axe, testing the depth and picking a suitable route upwards. The snow was deep and gave good footholds so it wasn't too technical a climb but at this point a fierce wind had sprung up sending stinging spindrift into us.
We now had to pick our way around the edge of the cliffs with their deadly cornices of snow to the summit of the mountain, Cac Carn Beag. This was easier said than done and only with the aid of compass and GPS did we eventually come across the secondary top of Cac Carn Mor. After a brief stop for lunch we carried on, again seeing the occasional cliff edge to our right. It seemed even more difficult to find the true summit even though we were literally yards from it. Eventually a bit of luck brought us to it and out of the white loomed the peak, its trig point, and laughingly, a view point.
We spent only a few moments there taking our pictures and celebrating success. Even a hip flask of whisky was produced. Then we were off again, the idea being to follow our tracks back down off the mountain. Again though the weather had different ideas and after only a five minutes or so we had lost them, the tracks covered by drifting snow and wind. Instead we chose a heading and followed a route down some way away from the cliff edge, passing below Cac Carn Mor and meeting a brave, solitary walker heading for the summit. We eventually met our tracks coming up the Ladder which provided an interesting descent involving a few slides and unsure footing.
As we descended the mist thinned slightly and to our left we saw the Lochan of Lochnagar, a frozen patch of dark barely visible through the snow. The visibility got better as we passed below Meikle Pap and made our way down the slope to the fork in the track where the group had split earlier in the day. We now got a stunning view across the Mounth, splendid beneath the snow and even had a bit of sunshine to brighten up our final stop for tea.
Now it was simply a matter of wading through the snow along the landrover track to Balmoral. To our left the mass of Lochnagar rose into the clouds whilst before us the Cairngorms, including Ben Avon could be seen. The walk was largely uneventful except for an encounter with a "highland safari" and after about two hours we were walking through the woods around Crathie, passing the entrance to Balmoral Castle and scrambling aboard ur coach, weary but with a huge sense of achievement.
A brief stop for a pint in Ballater gave us a chance to compare notes and swap stories and thanks were given to Steve who safely kept us away from the cliffs and gave me my third Munro.
See all the photos in my Lochnagar Photoset on Flickr.