Hills: Carn na Drochaide (Corbett, 818m)
Distance: 13 miles
Time: 4.5 hours (including stops)
Route: View on OS Maps
It seemed the hillwalkers forecast on Sunday morning had been wrong; for much of the journey out from Aberdeen on the 201 Stagecoach the skies were blue and the first hills looked beautiful. Morven in particular, with a cap of pristine fresh snow (we had seen the clouds march towards Aberdeen on Thursday but they had never hit), looked stunning. We passed through Ballater where there was a thin covering of snow on the green by the church, but it was only really as we entered the trees a few miles before Crathie that things changed. The bus driver commented â€œit was like going through the wardrobe into Narniaâ€. All of sudden the branches were laden with snow, and fresh flakes were drifting down onto a ground that was increasingly white and winter-like.
I hopped off the bus at Keiloch and zipped up against the fresh westerly wind that was coming straight down from the upper reaches of the Dee. The tramp along the Invercauld estate road was fine with views onto the nearby hills. A quarter of a mile or so in front of me a solitary walker emerged from the trees and was engulfed in a spiralling column of spin drift â€“ it would have made a great photo but my camera was tucked away against the elements, deep in the folds of a dry bag!
As I took the Slugain track I got a view of Carn na Drochaide. It was to be my last of the day until I came off the traverse.
Slugain is a remote and lonely feeling place, even in the summer when I was last here. It seems to attract a covering of mist and with snow billowing through the gap at its head it was eyes down and keep on trooping. Only one pair of footprints, going both there and back, were a sign of human passage on the good double track. Against the wind there was neither sight nor sound of animal and even the chattering burn seemed to be muted by the conditions. At its worse I was considering turning back but the weather has funny ways and each time this happened the sun peeked through the clouds and offered me a glimpse of the hills in front of me. I pressed on thinking I could at least make it to the ruin at the head of the glen and then, if necessary, return back by the same route.
In fact the climb up the delightful path through the fairy glen was the most enjoyable part of the day so far. In the tight confines between steep slopes it was sheltered from the wind and the snow drifted down in picture-postcard perfection. I spied three chaps taking a brew stop down by the river â€“ they commented on what a lovely day it was! They were joking. They will return later in the story.
At the ruin itself I met another couple of brave folk who had come up, had lunch, and decided to head back down. To be honest I didn't blame them! Here I stopped to don waterproof trousers and add another layer to head and hands. I then broke trail in the fresh, deep snow heading up the track to the top of the glen. The wee lochan just above the ruin was a sorry sight, ringed by ice and snow but I picked out a route above it onto Carn na Drochaide's north-eastern slopes. I had planned to take in the other summits here but visibility was pretty much 0. Instead I took a bearing towards the summit and strode out into the mist.
Immediately I fell waist deep into a snow covered burn. After that initial problem though the going was reasonable with heather patches providing better going. Eventually I picked up a track which took me up to the western end of the summit where a small cairn/shelter had been built. As I came across the top from my relatively sheltered side the full force of the wind hit me and I got well and truly blown. I made for the shelter and basically had to lie down to keep out of the wind. Everything was rapidly icing up as I sipped a cup of tea and strained to see across to the actual summit.
Luckily though I caught a break and after packing away my bag I looked around my shelter to find the briefest of gaps in the rolling snow clouds. Suddenly the mountains all around Braemar had opened up. I rapidly retrieved the camera from the bag and reeled off a few shots. No sooner had it arrived though than it disappeared, the visibility reducing and the view vanishing.
I pressed onto the summit and found the large cairn. Still being battered by the wind and with no view I barely paused to set a bearing and make my way south, heading essentially for Braemar.
As I descended the heathery slopes down towards the day I was rewarded with a second opportunity to admire the view. This time sun lit up the White Mounth which looked glorious. I could even see west someway down the Dee.
I descended further, losing height and aiming for the public right of way which comes around from Quioch. As the snow transition into a number of small burns snaking across the hillside the snow again rolled in, thick and heavy and reducing visibility again. The track was easy to find though!
It was then simply a case of head down against the snow and marching back to Keiloch. Once back in the trees it was lovely, snow falling from laden branches and a smell of freshness in the air.
I crossed the Slugain burn and rejoined the track from Invercauld. Coming down the track from the Slugain were three figures who I thought might be the chaps from the Gleann. They weren't but turned out to be a party from the Cairngorm Club who had been to the South Summit of Beinn a'Bhuird but had turned back as it got icy. They were heading to Keiloch to catch their coach and kindly offered me a lift, first to the Fife in Braemar for a pint, and then back to Aberdeen. At the Fife I met the three guys from the Gleann who were also from the Cairngorm Club.
An excellent afternoon out - things for the next one though are a pair of goggles and a waterproof/windproof pair of mitts!