In God’s Country

Half-way Hut, Glentanar

Half-way Hut, Glentanar

Memories came tumbling back as I drove along the North Deeside Road between Aboyne and Ballater and caught sight of the dramatic dark cliffs that fringe the deep corries of Lochnagar; a familiar sight growing up as we went family picnics to the Forest of Birse, then a view that always brought a thrill of anticipation as I got old enough to make my own journeys westwards from Aberdeen to play in the hills. One of my strongest memories was of driving to a ski trip at Glenshee, leaving early in the morning, and suddenly catching sight of those snow covered cliffs caught in the first rays of the dawn sun, just as the jangling guitar riff of U2’s In God’s Country started on the CD player. That kind of thing leaves a mark on an impressionable young man!

Only the tiniest patch of snow was still visible as I drove in to Glentanar Estate on Friday, clinging on to the top of one of the gullies in the eastern corrie. Lochnagar was tomorrow’s objective though; today was all about Mount Keen, a fairly innocuous hill whose chief distinction is that it’s the most easterly of the Munros. I’m pretty sure I’ve been up this hill back when my ‘Munro bagging’ consisted of getting up in darkness and catching the coach with the hillwalking club from my dad’s work, then following a group of random adults across some nameless part of Scotland before meeting the coach again and heading off to the nearest chipshop. I always enjoyed the experience of being out and about but, for the most part, have absolutely no idea where we went!

Mount Keen from Glentanar on foot would be an epic slog, notwithstanding the beautiful pine woods you pass through for the first section of the walk, but on a bike, it’s transformed into a ‘half day hill’. The ride from the visitor centre out as far as the end of the estate road is easy going, and where you part company with the bike for the last 2-3km really depends on how much fun you want to have riding back down. I passed a couple of ladies who had dropped their bikes in the ruins of the shieling at the base of the hill track, while I opted to ride/push the bike up to the base of the summit cone, on the basis that I was happy to put in the effort for the downhill fun on the way back. The summit itself is a nice little rocky tor, reminiscent of Bynack Mor over to the north west and makes an excellent viewpoint from which to appreciate the huge rolling landscape of the Grampians.

A fairly chilly wind at the summit got me moving downhill again fairly quickly and, after dropping my seat post, I set off back downhill. The descent is a fairly gentle gradient, but very loose, with lots of ‘baby head’ sized rocks lying in wait, along with several drainage bars further down which encourage concentration. It’s been a while since I’ve done any proper mountain biking and it was great fun to get reacquainted with the capabilities of my Turner 5 Spot; it’s pretty long in the tooth now, but still a hugely confidence-inspiring bike to point downhill.

The return journey to Glentanar is a lovely cruise on a slightly downhill gradient for almost the entire length, and just long enough to both let you contemplate how much of a trudge this would be on foot, and build an appetite for the chilli I’d brought along for dinner.

After a very comfortable car camping in Glen Muick, assisted by a very nice bottle of Merlot I’d brought along to accompany the chilli, I had an early start the next morning, meeting Wendy and some of her supporters on the Christian Aid 70 Munros Challenge for an outing on the five Munros above Loch Muick. Thankfully, the previous evening’s rain had blown through, and we were treated to a cloudless sky and bright sunshine as we set off towards Lochnagar. I have fond memories of this circuit, as it was the first big day out I had as a fledgling solo hillwalker back in the early 80’s, and I remember the sense of trepidation as I set off into the low cloud hanging over the White Mounth plateau, and the pride as I returned to the car later in the day, knackered but with five new summits to tick off in my shiny new copy of the SMC’s ‘Hillwalkers’ Guide to the Munros’.

No such sense of trepidation today; the main sensation was one of relief that we were finally getting some decent weather for one of Wendy’s trips, rather than the usual low cloud; if nothing else, the long-standing joke about a commemorative album of summit shots entitled “70 Shades of Grey” was wearing a bit thin by this stage.

In the end, we had an excellent start and finish to the day weather-wise, bracketing a spell of fairly heavy rain driven along by a surprisingly cold wind for 1st August. Most of the group had done several of the 70MC walks already, and the resulting high level of hill fitness meant that we moved along at a good rate, covering almost 28km in just under ten hours; an excellent pace for a group of 13 people.

Back at the cars, we were faced with the final difficulty of the day; the recent fire at the Old Station has put Ballater’s best purveyor of fish and chips out of commission for the time being, so we had to look around for alternatives. Luckily for us, the owner of the appropriately named Lochnagar Indian restaurant came through for us, squeezing seven of us in at short notice, and supplying us with a selection of delicious food that made it obvious why his restaurant was booked solid.

That’s 52/70 done now, and only four more outings until the climax on Schiehallion on 2nd October. I suppose I’ll need to start figuring out what to do next year…