A 12 mile hike in Cairngorm

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Loch Muick

We’d loved this area after a first climb up Lochnagar 2 years ago. Looking across to Broad Cairn , all I saw was mile upon mile of an arctic tundra-like plateau and hogsback hills, purple and brown moorland and dark indigo loch glittering below – wonderful country. We’d vowed to come back and explore it all a bit more though I never thought it would take us so long. Scary how time passes even more quickly as you get older!

With a family get together in Pitlochry looming, it seemed sensible to make some use of part of the day to actually DO something, before we were expected late afternoon. Our plan took shape : a wild camp the night before at Loch Muick , then a hike up to Broad Cairn and onto Cairn Bannoch, both ‘Munros’ – Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet (913m) .IF the weather held – thunderstorms had been the order of the day recently so all could be scuppered if they persisted.Decent weather was preferable for a 12 mile hike and 800 metres or so of ascent and descent.

Headed off after Chris finished work around 3.30pm on the Wednesday in bright sunshine with not a rumble in sight. Big relief! And it just got better as we headed north. Glenshee looked really stunning in the sunlight and shadows, the tops crystal clear.

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Evening light near Braemar

Quick stop in Braemar at 6pm to get some fish and chips as we’d decided, for a change, not to cook our own food when we got to Loch Muick. Big mistake. The Hungry Highlander in the village is well-named; my fish was pretty small and Chris’s chicken fillet supper comprised of 3 of the tiniest chicken bites I’ve ever seen!One to avoid in future! Sadly, the excellent The Bothy was closed.

It couldn’t dampen our mood however, as the evening sunshine was just glorious as we set off for Ballater and the winding narrow road to Glen Muick. Noticed the Lion Rampant was flying from Balmoral – the Queen was in residence. Funny to think we would also be staying on the Royal estate, albeit in slightly simpler accommodation!

Ah, those jokes we made about staying c/o Her Majesty clearly didn’t go down well as it was the deep growl of a thunderstorm which greeted our arrival at the Loch Muick car park. In fact, the weather had changed dramatically with the tops invisible and the highest of all was covered in angry, boiling clouds – Byron’s ‘tempests of dark Lochnagar’ indeed.

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Thunderclouds over Lochnagar

There wasn’t another soul around this normally busy area – and only one other car.

Had the usual tense 15 mins or so till we got ourselves sorted out, made sure we had everything, got the boots on. So much stuff! I was distracted already by the rumbling thunder – it was right above us.

‘You’re not really supposed to walk in thunderstorms, are you? ‘ I tried to sound light about it. already wishing we’d chosen the Glenshee hills. Things looked a bit horrible here and the waterproof trousers were going on now, as a real downpour looked likely. My husband batted this question back in his usual philosophical way. ‘It’ll be fine. Anyway, if your time’s up.…..’ He was too intent on making sure the matches and fuel were packed. Can’t survive a camp without endless cups of tea in the morning (and a few on arrival.)

’Rubber soles protect you don’t they?” I was lacing up my boots, still fretting about how near the thunder was.

‘’Not from 250,000 volts they won’t, ‘ came the deadpan reply. Sometimes, a wee lie is the right response.

In fact, by the time we set off at 7.15pm, the storm clouds were miraculously moving away and we were unlikely to be burnt to a crisp on the loch-side track as we headed off to find a good camping spot.

I always forget how extra heavy the rucksack feels when you’re lugging in camping gear but it still felt good to be underway. Our rucksacks are always a weird mixture of attempts at cutting down weight to really heavy items (Litre of milk, bottle of wine , tin of grapefruit ) but as we weren’t going very far it didn’t really matter and it was an easy flat walk on a great track along the Loch’s pristine shore.

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Stags in velvet antlers

It’s such a beautiful area and the bell heather and harebells, foxgloves and wild pansies, were lining the edge of the path with purple and pink and blue. On the hillside to our left, a large herd of stags in velvet antlers grazed high up, a handsome bunch, almost amber in colour against the emerald and brown moorland.

Even the sun had made an appearance again as we strode along and I was already so glad we’d made the effort to camp. There is something really special about spending a whole night in a beautiful area. You get to see sunsets and sunrises that are just out of this world as well as brilliantly clear night skies . I enjoy it as much as the hillwalk itself, it’s just as memorable to me.It’s not something I’d do every trip – I love my comforts too and nice B&Bs or self catering places, but wild camping is a huge draw when the weather is right for it.

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Home sweet home

Our original plan had been to camp near the bottom of a zigzag landrover track that climbs up onto the mountain plateau near the end of Loch Muick. But we could see how the track climbed quite quickly into country that looked too rough and steep for a tent. The last thing we wanted was to be hunting for a decent pitch. (with hindsight, there WAS another track which would have taken us down to a lovely beach.) Already , by the loch shore, there were all sorts of flat grassy bits so we made the decision to camp only a kilometre or so in.

The tent was up in no time, fresh water collected from the burn and the trangia kettle on for tea. I knew Chris had brought some whisky as he loves a drink of an evening and now wished I’d picked up something for myself. It was just the evening to sit and relax with a plastic cup of something nice. As if reading my thoughts as I sat on the grassy bank, so glad we were here in this beautiful place, Chris pulled a bottle of champagne from his rucksack ! It was a bottle of Aldi’s best (£9.95 and excellent stuff). Champagne out of a plastic cup beside a wild loch and a gentle breeze – ye canny whack it , as they say! A real big treat!

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Sun going down

It was a fine evening by now and the peak of Broad Cairn itself looked absolutely lovely at the head of the loch. It looked much closer than it actually was (about 9km from here).The light was glorious and we settled down on the bank to watch the evening shadows fill the corries and the evening light play on the loch, sipping our champagne. Some things in life just can’t be bought (ok, pop excluded.)

Ah we spoke too soon – as the evening breeze died a sudden death, we realised we were soon being eaten alive! Yes, the best things in life are free -so are the worst. They were in dense little battalions around us, I’ve never seen anything like it. I thought they were flies at first, were just so many of them clustered together. Time to build a fire and keep moving! I was sent off pronto to gather sticks while Chris did the clever bit of getting the flame going. They don’t like the smoke or the heat and it gave us an extra hour or so to just sit and enjoy the evening. The air was muggy so it seemed unlikely that the temperature would cool down enough to get rid of them, even at this height of nearly 400m.

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Twilight

Turned in around 10.15, still light.

I never sleep that well before a walk and was up at the loo twice during the night. Bitten in places midges don’t normally access – enough said! It actually felt painful afterwards, there were just so many of them. Also gulls and geese were making a heck of racket from about 3am.Life and death in nature being enacted close by.

Woke to smirry rain at 6.30am (Met Office wrong again it seemed, where was the sunny morning they promised?) pattering unmistakably on the tent and the tops all well covered in cloud. Time for tea to cheer us up– I got brownie points for volunteering to get the milk carton from its cool little nook in the loch and braving the clouds of midges just waiting for us to emerge.

THE WALK

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Loch Muick track

Endless cups of tea and a Cup- o-Porridge later and we got the tent tidied a bit , repacked the rucksacks and then left it set up for dismantling later.

It was 8am by the time we set off, thankfully leaving the midges behind as we moved and – just as thankfully – noticing the sky clearing overhead. Uncursed the Met Office.

What a great track it is all the way to Broad Cairn. Good to see the Royals are spending our money wisely ; it must make for a smooth journey up in the landrovers when the huntin’ and shootin’ season starts! The zig zags were steep but short and in no time we were high above the loch, looking down onto indigo waters and a really superb panorama of corries and round granite peaks. The Glas Allt Shiel Lodge looked magnificent below us now – a ‘cottage’ built by Queen Victoria and to which she retreated on the death of Albert and known as The Widow’s House . Quite a spot.

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On the ridge
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Above Loch Muick

There were tracks visible all over the hills, an incredible network of ascent and descent paths and cross-country access. Irvine Butterfield described this plateau as a ‘dead and desolate landscape’. But there is something tremendous about its scale and on a sunny bright day the scattered screes on the hillsides look dramatically pink against the jade and yellow moorland. We headed on, passing tiny dark blue glittering lochans and with the hills of Glen Doll making an appearance to the east.

A female peregrine made a dash and harry across the moorland a few hundred yards ahead of us . She rested on a stone then took off again , a superb sight.

It was 10.30am before we finally reached the stony summit, after an unpleasant clamber over a few bands of boulder-fields. I’m never elegant on the hill and always seem to be encumbered with stuff hanging off my neck. The camera and lens I was carrying , I hadn’t adjusted on their straps properly (I lost the lens hood after about an hour’s walking as I kept bumping it) and dodging the spaces between the boulders I was sure the camera was heading for destruction early doors as it was falling so low in front of me as I clambered over the boulders.Two walking poles flailing about too. In contrast, Chris looks made for the hills with his shepherd’s crook walking pole and neat rucksack.

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Below Broad Cairn’s summit

Oh the joy and sense of achievement at a summit! 2.5 hours to reach the first Munro. We could see Dreish and Mayar now, Mount Keen.Even, incredibly, the Lomond Hills in Fife. It had been hot when the sun came out fully (almost too hot) but cloud had come over now and the visibility was excellent.

Had a good half hour break, just enjoying the sun and the rest and the silence. We’d met two people so far – a husband and wife walking separately and far ahead of us, a family of 4 with a dog going at a great rate of knots.Blissful silence and space.

Realised at this point I had left my John West Tuna Light Lunch and bananas somewhere so made do with a few crisps and a handful of cashews and raisins. Great boost to the energy levels! I don’t eat properly on the hill and never feel hungry as such but its really bad practice and I occasionally get a sugar crisis where I feel I’ve hit a brick wall. All in aid of trying to work off the multiple Swiss Rolls round my middle – being on a 12 mile hike isn’t really the time to do that.

12noon and it was up and onwards to Cairn Bannoch which was a very easy extra Munro – just 35 mins or so of mostly flattish walking, a slight descent and mild ascent and we were there.

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Grassy walk to Cairn Bannoch

Decision time .It had taken us 3.5 hours to get this far (it was now 12.35pm ) and we ideally wanted to be back at camp to pack up at 2.30. That wasn’t going to happen. We’d planned to go back via the Dubh Lochan (and I wish we had) , but I was worried about how high the burns and rivers were and being delayed with boggy ground too. Better the devil we knew………

I have to admit it felt a LONG way back and I felt surprisingly weary. The tremendous plateau now seemed endless – distances are deceptive up here. Should have eaten more too as I had a minor sugar crisis, which a big handful of mixed nuts and raisins helped a lot with, as well as a stop at by far the loveliest viewpoint of the day – on the moorland high above Loch Muick opposite The Widow’s House. It would be worth hiking up to this spot alone on a nice day – what a picnic spot!

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Great picnic spot

Thank God I had the poles for the zig zag track descent. Ouch! It’s a tough angle though pretty short and it certainly does the business of dropping you quickly down to the lochside again but we both really felt it on the old knees.

Back at the tent by 3.30pm and we just had time for a quick brew of tea – nectar! Almost as good as the pop .Demolished a squashed banana and half melted Picnic I found as we sorted out the tent. Back at the car by 4.30pm after an easy walk out albeit on legs that were already feeling the twelve mile hike and 800 metres of ascent and descent.

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Broad Cairn in the distance now

Way in the distance, Broad Cairn was visible now.

It had been a fine reintroduction to the hills for us and as always happens when the aches and weariness quickly disappear, just whetted our appetite to get out on the hills again. Like Arnie, we will (I hope) be back to explore more of this gorgeous area.

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