Lochnagar… almost

The cliffs of Lochnagar in the Cairngorms

Massive and still winter-choked – the cliffs of Lochnagar

The great thing about heading for the hills is that even your failures can turn in great days.

Last weekend I was bound for Lochnagar, to the Gelder Shiel for the area meeting of the MBA. You’ll all be absolutely riveted to hear the minutia of bothy maintenance and administration issues we discussed on Saturday afternoon (to be fair, no-one actually fell asleep this time), so I’ll pass quickly on to the evening.

Which turned out to be rather a jolly one. The craic is always good at these meetings: catching up on old friends, gossiping about friends not there, enlarging on obsessions, swapping hill and bothy yarns and generally (and increasingly, as the cumulative effects of those modest libations take hold) blethering a whole lot of drivel.

Enlivening proceedings further was the music. These days there’s always an MP3 player about, with someone else’s music selection to slag off, but the make-up of the Eastern Area MBA is such that live music is almost guaranteed. This night Bill was there with his guitar and huge repertoire of songs, John Gifford from Callater can play guitar and sing some great antipodean songs, Hugh and Marlene from Faindouran both sing and Hugh plays guitar and a mean moothie, Ian Shand had his pipes with him, and even I got to squeak away on the penny whistle. Stan sings a great folk song or three, as does Kenny Freeman – and the rest of us all make varying qualities of noise as chorus singers.

Piper Ian Shand at a ceilidh in Gelder Shiel Bothy

Ian Shand on his border pipes

John Gifford plays guitar in the Gelder Shiel Bothy, Cairngorms

John Gifford takes a turn on Bill’s guitar (Bill in the foreground)










It was all just so damned fine that I’ve no idea what time I went to bed, nor what time I ruined an already tired OS map of the area by throwing up on it, but I do know it was hardly past 7am when that heartless troublemaker Neil Findlay came in from his tent to fling his dog Alfie onto my head and tell me it was time I was awake. Thanks pal. Feeling like death would have been an improvement.

No point in trying to get back to sleep though. I’d already decided Sunday would be a hill day and the cold but clear weather outside was irresistible, even in my tender state, and after rummaging about to find some food I could get down and pack a rucksack, I was heading off for the hill.

I wasn’t, initially, very successful. Suffering more from lack of sleep than hangover, I’d only been on the go for about half an hour and just a little past the end of the landy track when I stopped at a large, flat rock and succumbed to this temptation of the only dry area in sight to lie down and doze for a time, enough clothes on to fend off the chilly air, drifting in and out of consciousness to the sough of the wind and the chuckling of grouse.

Only slightly refreshed after half an hour of this, I was still moving with an ‘auld mannie’ slowness which gradually convinced me that the original plan of climbing up the north side of Lochnagar’s corrie was never going to happen. I was too slow, too hazy in the head and could see that the wind was blowing fiercely up high, fresh snow smoking off the ridges.

Cliffs of Lochnagar, Cairngorms

The massiveness of Lochnagar’s cliffs beetle over the edge of the ridge I wasn’t going to climb. I was getting blown about here and could see spindrift smoking off the ridge.

There followed one of those swithery days which saw me lunch at the outlet from Loch Lochnagar, admiring the cliffs, still winter-clad with a rim of large cornices. Looking round to the eastern lobe of the corrie there’s a great plume of spindrift clouding across the blue sky.

Spindrift blowing from Lochnagar in the Cairngorms

Clouds of spindrift show how much fresh snow had fallen

Leaving there I think that rather than retrace my steps I’ll cut across to the landy track that comes over from Loch Muick, but my trail stays high and gradually starts gaining height as I’m drawn towards the white rocky cone of Meickle Pap. Foreshortening does its usual trickery and I decide I can at least get up there. And of course I can, steepenings and rocks adding occasional interest, with snow varying between soft and deep to crusty but taking a kicked step, until finally I’m staggering up the final few feet, battered by a wind that’s increased markedly with height. The views are tremendous though, with the awesome sight of Lochnagar convincing me I’d climbed the right hill after all – no views like this from Lochnagar itself.

Lochnagar, viewed from Meickle Pap. Cairngorms

Looking out from the Meickle Pap across a frozen loch to the iconic cliff scene

The day hadn’t stopped giving, with the path down from the Pap giving me my first sight of the year of a lizard. Below the snowline, but not by much, it was soaking up the sunshine when my arrival caused it enough fright to cross a patch of snow to get to cover.

Lizard on path on Lochnagar, Cairngorms

Not a great pic, but if you look closely you can see the lizard trying to get away but reluctant to go over the cold snow.

So, yeah: hungover, blown sideways, walking dead slow and stop, failed to climb my intended hill… but, hell, I was happy. A good hill day.


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14 Responses to Lochnagar… almost

  1. Piper says:

    Aye Neil…A good nicht indeed. I headed off before yourself . Pushing the bike most of the way over the snow covered landee track , to loch muick . Took me 3 hours from bothy to my hoose.

    • Aye Ian, I was in a sorry state. That wee wander up the Meickle Pap and back by the landy track… took me until about 5pm before I got down to the car. Too old for all this partying! 🙂

  2. I can’t do anything nowadays unless I’ve had a good night’s kip! Bet that poor lizard was frozzen!

    Is it not just Loch Nagar and not Loch Lochnagar (I haven’t got a map handy) – I suppose there is a Loch Loch though so anything’s possible up there 😉

    • I think it’s usually called Loch Lochnagar just to differentiate between hill and loch. Can’t remember Adam Watson’s take on the history of the name, but seem to recall it’s quite close to this Wikipedia account: Lochnagar or Beinn Chìochan is a mountain in the Grampians of Scotland, located about five miles south of the River Dee near Balmoral. Technically, the English name is a misunderstanding, being named after Lochan na Gaire, the ‘little loch of the noisy sound’, a loch to be found in the mountain’s northeast corrie. Today the lochan is popularly called Lochnagar too. The summit itself is usually referred to as Cac Càrn Beag, meaning “small cairn of faeces” in Scottish Gaelic.

  3. Kenny Ferguson says:

    have ye considered Bingo Neil

  4. Sinbad says:

    Reading that story brought back memories of my own hangover, so I know how you felt!! At least, I’d no intentions of doing anything on Sunday, far less climb a hill I’d been up several times before. Maybe you should stop flavouring your whisky with water!!

  5. Piper says:

    Neil…did Binky cycle over the landie road to Loch Muick on Sunday Morning ?

  6. Norrie Muir says:

    A fine tale of a hardened mountaineer/drinker.

    One winter’s Friday night over 35 years ago, we arrived in the Gelder Shiel, about midnight, after ploughing our way through 2 feet of fresh snow, we stopped a few times to sample our travelling sherry as it was cold. For some unknown reason we kept drinking, then about 5 o;clock we realised there was a big thaw taking place, so there was no point going onto the hill or going to sleep. About 9 o’clock, the Saturday night bevvy was finished, so we left the bothy to head out to Braemar and get refreshments.

    Another time in the Gelder Shiel, I tried another tactic as there was good weather and good conditions, just a can a day. This time I got to the foot of Eagle Ridge, and failed, so I am nether hardened mountaineer/drinker.

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