Lochnagar Solstice

Let there be light… on dark Lochnagar!

“What a night!” I recall Alan saying, as he regaled me with his story. There we were, sitting enjoying our tea break in the main boilerhouse at Dundee University in June 2004, where Alan and I had been busy carrying out the annual service to one of the four monstrous boilers that provide heat for the many campus buildings.

In front of us was displayed, on his computer monitor, a photograph of Alan standing by a summit trig point, in the pitch black of a wild, gale-driven summers night, his waterproofs clearly sodden! This he tells me, was the summit of Lochnagar but a few days previous, his intention to be on the summit for sunrise on the summer solstice! "Dae ye ken… he pipes up in mock irritation… that’s the third time I’ve been up there for the solstice and I still havnae seen the sunrise yet!

Once the mirth and hilarity had died, we set down our mugs and took to our tools once more. I said, “You must be out of your feeble old mind, haulin’ yersel awa’ up there at night, in gale force wind and rain!”

Little did I know I’d be standing in the same spot, with Alan in tow, just a few years later!

Our days toiling around the noisy boilers, sweat-soaked and grubby, our singing voices muffled beneath uncomfortable dust masks are now over; Alan retired last year and I accepted a voluntary redundancy package, but the two of us were to keep in touch and rekindle in each other our passion for the hills and mountains of Scotland.

So the past year we’ve stretched our legs around the local glens of Angus, and apart from a jaunt up Ben Hope in Sutherland, we haven’t really tackled anything of note. So with mid-summer’s day 2008 approaching, we felt we ought to make plans for another assault on this spectacular mountain.

I was just a young lad the last time I pushed myself up the massive lump and admittedly, neither of us had had much opportunity to ready the legs for such a long ascent so far this year. So, over the next fortnight, we took to the hills around Glen Doll, with a heavily-laden hike over Mayar one week and up to the horse’s hut at Broad Cairn the next, descending by the Capel path. By now the boys were approaching pretty good form for a trip up Lochnagar!

The week of the solstice was then upon us and we watched the mountain weather forecast closely as much of the U.K. was drenched in heavy showers. It looked as though we’d be having another soggy day on the hills and the chances of our enjoying the sunrise this year were looking decidedly pessimistic, but as the week went on our optimism increased daily as a large patch in the curling weather front opened almost directly over Braemar; This might just yet prove to be the sunrise of a lifetime!

The night before the walk was an unsettled one, due I believe to the work I’d been doing the previous day, as working to install some new pipework under a customer’s bathroom, I’d been careless not to wear a dust mask and, suffering the mild asthma that I do, my lungs were making their discomfort known to me. So Friday the 20th of June 2008, I rose bleary-eyed and annoyed with myself, knowing I’d been careless with my health in the run up to the hike. But there was no turning back now, if it meant my pace was slowed somewhat at the risk of a ribbing from my senior companion, then I’d just have to thicken my skin for the duration!

I’d only light work to attend to that morning and since we’d arranged our departure for 4 in the afternoon, there was time enough to dose my lungs with enough corticosteriod to loosen up the chest a bit, so by the time I was free to throw my gear into the car for the ten minute run up to Alan’s, I was breathing a little easier.

As usual, when the two of us get together there’s no shortage of banter as we work off the excitement of another jaunt among the heather. With “Bessy” (Alan’s old camper van) now sold, he was keen to shpw me what progress had been made on his latest project… a Volkswagen minibus he’d acquired from an old friend some time ago.

Alan had already spent no small measure of time and money making the bus roadworthy and had lately lost a little enthusiasm for further investment in the project however, having sat back and considering the bus’s potential as a fine lad’s “getaway” vehicle, the enthusiasm was freshly fired! This idea gave Alan a renewed vision of what could be achieved and as with all projects ‘Alanesque’ he was in there going great-guns at it already!

Touring the extra-large garage he’d built, by hand I should add, he showed me around the work he and Jean (Alan’s charming [and long-suffering] wife) had already done. With the floor now re-lined with vinyl and the upholstery shampooed, the interior was looking splendid. The rear seats had been removed to make way for a new shelf, which would become part of an extended platform on which we’d fold out a large mattress! Like a couple of school boys designing they’re imaginary custom car, we chewed over a number of options for the next half hour, musing at the possibilities and imagining the destinations to come! But our runaway enthusiasm was cut, turbo-charger and go-faster-stripe short, when Jean summoned us in for tea!

Ten minutes and a tasty curry later, we were throwing Al’s gear in the rear of the Audi.

To fond farewells from Jean we hit the road, heading north through Brechin and Edzell, before climbing the Cairnomount road and rolling steadily over moor and through the forest. We turned off the road at the old AA phonebox and joined the B976 to by-pass Banchory. We made our way on a bright and breezy day, passing Aboyne on the south side of the river Dee and pressed on past Ballater before taking the Glen Muick road south west. We seemed to be the only fools heading into the glen at this late hour of the day, as all the other walkers, campers, runners or dog-walkers were heading the opposite way!

We drew up at the Muick car park just after six, the light softening as the sun starts it’s long slow descent to the horizon. The stiff breeze that seemed to foretell of a blustery night on the mountain was thankfully dying, but we pondered our chances of staying dry when a large dark cloud spilled over the summit plateau of the mountain we were about to climb.

As we prepared ourselves, we had the company of sparrows, tits and finches who boldly gathered around our feet expectant of a morsel. I was delighted when one little chap quite confidently pecked a crumb from my open palm, only to sit quite happily before me and munch his prize!

All geared up, we set off from the car at 6.30pm with the intention of taking an easy-paced saunter to the top. We were in no hurry at all as the sunrise was some hours away, 10 hours to be exact, but with the prospect of there being a possible crowd of fellow solstice adventurers to share some stories with, we were keen to be there early!

We set ourselves a nice easy march across the glen, enjoying the views down the steeply gouged walls of the loch, then joining the Lochnagar footpath through the woods. Into the open once more, the angle gradually increases and sets a long sinuous track, over a river then up the side of a deep V-shaped gorge. By now the legs are warming up nicely and we reach the top of the gorge to see a fine moor and hill panorama open before us that stretched far and wide under a rippling blanket of light clouds and blue sky.

After a brief photo-stop we set off down the path, which now drops into the open head of the gorge. Levelling out, it then begins to climbs once more beneath the perfectly conical slopes of Meikle Pap, one of a number of almost alpine-like cones that guard the main Lochnagar massive. Here the path is impressively constructed; large slabs of granite have been locked together to create a natural stairway that is excellent under foot. A far cry for the boggy, crumbling mess I climbed some twenty years before, it seems the national park status now enjoyed by this part of our country is benefiting enormously from the improvement program.

With a short stop to read the memorial to 1953’s climbing fatality, Bill Stuart, we followed the path around the Pap’s boulder-strewn slopes and up towards the col. As we gained height, the wind steadily increased in our faces as the relatively steady breeze which washed the moors around us was caught in the towering curve of rock that is the north face of Lochnagar. Swirling round the wall it was then channeled into the col as a force 5 gale! More than once we were knocked off balance in the buffeting gusts, our voices at times lost in the blast. We heard later that other walkers turned back at this point, fearing much worse higher up.

We stopped half way up the shoulder, tucking ourselves out of the wind for a breather and a quick bite to eat. If it was going to be like this on top, neither of us would be keen to hang around, however, with another push to the top of this first rocky knoll, we found ourselves clear of the wind-tunnel and standing in relative calm with the sun once more on our faces.

Ahead, the path dropped onto a bhealach (high valley), curving around some distance from the cliff edge. With a quick detour we stopped for a quick photo-shoot atop one of the sheer buttresses then marched off across the open ground and rejoined the path as it climbs the rear of the summit plateau. This position offered a grand panorama of the hills to the south, over which Alan and I had been training the few weeks previous.

We reached the first and easternmost cairn of the curving and undulating rocky plateau, stopping briefly for a quick photo before setting off in the direction of the summit. We passed by the deep gaping gulleys, some of which still harboured seracs of snow untouched by direct sunlight. I took up a hair-raising position on one of the many towering buttresses for a spectacularly exposed shot above the deep, yawning gouge that is Lochnagar’s north face, careful not to trip over my own feet as I approached the edge!

By 9.30, Alan and I were approaching the summit and to our great surprise were greeted by, not ten, twenty or a hundred fellow sun-worshippers, but by absolutely not a single fellow human being! We scaled the boulders to reach the summit proper and looking back on our route realised we were going to be alone here for quite some time, as not another soul was visible in the late evening sunshine. It seemed the legendary gathering of the crowds for Lochnagar’s solstice sunrise were all but the inspiring recollections of one man’s memories.

Never mind old Lochnagar, we’re here to keep you company!

Night on the mountain…

We took some time posing for the essential summit shots while gaping in awe at the views all around us. In the foreground, the street lights of Ballater sparkled like fireflies, then, as wispy clouds sailed past, Aberdeen came in to view, shimmering in the distant gloom. Minute by minute the light changed hue as the sun dipped ever lower and clouds wafted by silently as haughty strangers aloof and oblivious to our presence.

Now, having toiled our way up this enormous lump, our sweaty bodies were beginning to chill, so with extra layers applied and hoods drawn close, we sheltered among the rocks, screening our bodies from the cold zephyr that spilled over the mountain while tucking in to our sandwiches and tea.

After a while the sun dived behind the distant clouds and any heat afforded us was lost as clouds formed around our lonely perch, so we climbed down from the exposed summit and found ourselves a small patch of green among some large sheltering boulders. In fact, I’d come on this trip without any intentions of sleeping on the summit and so hadn’t bothered to carry any overnight gear. But Alan had decided to bring a goretex bivvy-bag, albeit without a sleeping bag to provide extra warmth.

As far as I was concerned my thermal base layer was doing a grand job, so long as I could raise myself off the cold earth I’d surely get some rest, and for that I’d planned on lying on my rucksack! It wasn’t the first time I’d adopted this position, and it so happened i found the perfect hollow to fit my pack, tucked between two boulders. So with my feet propped up by a lump of sphagnum moss ripped off one of the boulders, and my body curled up on the pack, I was drifting off just fine… cool… but not cold.

Alan on the other hand was having a bit of a difficult time. This was the first time he’d used his bivvy, and it was taking him a bit of time getting settled. It was like sleeping next to a set of river-rapids, with Alan rustling around in his over-sized bag! I was beginning to get frustrated as the noise was keeping me awake, and since I’d struggled for sleep the previous night, I really needed some shut-eye! Eventually, I opened an eyelid to see what was going on and i couldn’t believe my eyes…

There in front of me was this 8ft tall camouflaged monolith, like an animated hedge dancing in the twilight! I blinked hard but there it still was twisting and cavorting around. “What’s the matter?” I asked the great bivvy monster, " I cannae find the end of the zipper!" it shouted back in a familiar voice!

It was then it struck me.

Alan had stepped into the bivvy-bag and hauled it up around him, intending to do up the zip then lie back. Unfortunately, the way he’d stepped in had left the zip behind him and to his left.

Well, for those of you aren’t aware, Alan suffered a stroke some years ago which left him partially blind in both eyes. The actual effect of the injury was to leave him blind to the left in both eyes. So he was beat. The zip was out of his field of view and no matter which way he twisted the offending puller remained elusive. To add insult to injury, the zipper was only part way down the side of the bag, so the puller was just too high up the side to be felt easily by marauding fingers!

Well, I was just about to leap to my mates rescue when I was afflicted with a severe bout of hilarity. As much as I sympathised with my good pals predicament, the image of him wrestling among the rocks with this goretex crocodile was just too much and Jock was left utterly petrified with laughter, tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched the Lochnagar’s famous dancing bivvy-monster perform! I barely gained enough composure to grab the camera only to have him turn toward me and see Alan’s face gape from the mouth of the beast like a fancy-dressed shark, that was it, I was disabled. My mate might have shoogled himself off a nearby cliff and I’d have been utterly helpless to save him!

With that, all hope of sleep was hence abandoned and a brew put on the stove!

A new day dawns…

We sat and blethered away, impatient for a little extra company so, suspicious that we’d heard voices, we decided to head back up to the summit. As we clambered onto the jumble of giant boulders that decorate the peak, we were surprised to come upon a couple enfolded in one another’s arms! We introduced ourselves and chatted about the coming spectacle, discovering that they were German professionals working and residing in Aberdeen.

We chatted away for a while, covering the currently fashionable issues of money, oil and politics and I indulged a request to take a photo of them together on the summit. By now the clouds, which had earlier shrouded our lofty perch, wafted by low enough to leave our views unhindered, and though the sky remained inky-black to the south, the northern horizon was a blaze of ruby-red , deep blue and white gold that drew the eye in some subconscious expectation of sudden drama!

Above the clouds it was surprisingly mild and with yet another brew fresh off the stove, we were quite happy to remain aloft and it wasn’t long before we were joined by more adventurers as two Forfar lads joined the party! It turned out one of the lads was a friend of one of Alan’s neighbours… I’m starting to get suspicious that Forfar are sending these agents after him, just to keep an eye on him, Alan seems to be in a habit of finding Forfarians wherever he goes!

As we chatted away, I was taken aback when one of the chaps pulled out a hipflask and took a swig… damn, I’d forgot! I had a flask filled with my favourite dram in the backpack, awaiting a toast on the summit! Well, there’s no time like the present, so with the smart little flask conjured up from the depths of my pack, I took a refreshing and very welcome tot of the Laphroaig in toast to Lochnagar and the pending sunrise!

I was further delighted when my new partner-in-toast offered to exchange flasks that we may compare our respective drams, so with toasts and compliments shared, we settled in around the summit boulders to await the sun.

Yet more fellow solstice seekers joined us on our lofty perch and some were quite surprised when we told them how early we’d arrived (they likely thought of us as pretty daft) and I was to find myself indulging yet more groups with their cameras as Alan announced me “official” Lochnagar photographer! So we made a few more friendly acquaintances there on the top as we exchanged stories and banter and I snapped away with the cameras, one after another.

The deep embers that had until then lit only the farthest reaches of the northeastern horizon, began to light our faces with a warm yellow glow. As the clouds warmed and began to boil off, the flanks of the summit appeared as a fine watercolour below us, the boulders glowing yellow-pink, and the rough grass a blanket of misty emerald green.

An excited murmur passed through the crowd, by this time some thirty to forty strong, all gathered as large groups, foursomes and pairs with eyes firmly set on the growing light far away.

For some time the distant clouds teased us as they threatened to reveal then hide the rising fireball. Time and again, between increasingly excited chats with our companions, we checked the scene in expectation of a sudden piercing of sunlight, only to have our hopes dashed as the light dimmed once more! By now fine threads of gold and red slowly rippled across the edges of the far cloudscape as the moment of revelation approached.

Quite suddenly, almost by surprise, a shaft of bright yellow light pierced our collective gaze as finally that great orb of energy which gifts us life made it’s entrance upon this grand stage. All around us the sound of voices died away as all present were captured momentarily in wonder at the scene.

As the sun slowly revealed her mass, the warmth grew upon our faces and crept into our chilled limbs. Then, as if some malevolent power fixed a fiery red eye upon us, she was free of the blanket of cloud and making her omnipotent power clear to all before her. A glowing halo of red and gold surrounded the luminous bloody inferno of the sun and all else was cast out of vision as our eyes adjusted to the glare.

It is at times like these that one truly appreciates the overwhelming importance of our star and it’s responsibility for our existence here on earth and then one realises just how insignificant we are in the grand universal scheme of things.

As she rose, the land below began to sparkle as the myriad of pools, streams and tributaries that dappled the moorland caught the days new light and reflected it from their glassy surfaces as though mercury had been sprinkled upon the earth. As the sky edged ever closer to clear ice-blue, the land began to take on the reds, browns and greens of the Scottish highlands as the foothills and peaks began to emerge from the gloom of night.

With the day finally upon us, it was time to make for the descent, so along with the others we donned our packs and turned from the greatest show on earth to pick our way off the embouldered summit.

Instinct drove me to follow the path close around the edges of the crags as the light cast this early on such a glorious morning brings an entirely new perspective on each view. With cameras in our hands Alan and I caught a number of unusual vistas lit by the now blazing-yellow solar fire. Into view came a boulder, perched precariously on the edge of an exposed vertical drop, the sunlight far behind a dramatic backdrop silhouetting the high buttress… this was a photo opportunity not to be missed!

Handing my camera to Alan I told him of my plan, and before he could protest for his breakfast I was off running around the edge of the cliffs! As I approached the big flat boulder I could see it was in a very precarious position, far more than first imagined, so it was only after a firm shunt with my boot that I considered climbing aboard!

Reminding myself to step carefully lest I fall to an untimely demise, I stepped gingerely onto the table-sized flatstone. Standing on that precarious perch I was on the lip of a drop hundreds of feet deep on three sides. As my exposure became apparent, the instinct for self preservation kicks in and the familiar surge of adrenalin coursed through me, a sensation that would likely send any vertigo sufferer into blind panic!

Ensuring I had a stable footing, I raised my head to Alan, standing a few hundred feet away with camera at his eye. The vision in my mind was of a Druid priest welcoming the midsummer sun, so, always with an appreciation for the dramatic I adopted the pose; arms held wide and high as if to receive some blessing or make some offering to the mighty God of fire! With a shout from Alan I stepped away from the edge and picked my way back to my friend across the rocky plateau.

We walked on, and considered our options for the descent; do we go back the way we came, or head down by the Glas Allt Shiel (geal: gray stream cottage)? We stopped at the first cairn once more and Alan caught me a posed picture for the album sitting there upon the rocks. After a brief discussion the decision was made and we set out for the Glas Allt with fresh legs and growing appetites!

As we descended the easy path we commented on the sterling job the chaps who had built it had done. No lack of effort required for this task, the boulders that made the majority of the steps were larger than oil drums, placed quite precisely and uniformly as a giant natural staircase… all credit to a job well done!

The path meandered it’s way down the vale, and our pace became a steady march as the boulders passed to impacted gravel. With the marching rhythm of our footsteps came the song once more and we traipsed along in good order and good voice, crossing the little timber bridge over the Glas Allt before descending by the impressive waterfall.

Here the stream had gouged a cleft in the steep wall of the Loch Muick’s glacial channel and, as we emerged from the cleft, the Loch came into view. From where we stood, possibly 300ft above the surface, the water appeared deep blue as it reflected the crystal-clear midsummer sky. We found a perch upon a large path-side boulder and allowed our legs a brief rest and our mouths a welcome rinse while admiring the vista.

Back on our way again, we descended into the Loch-side wood. Here the new day’s sun pierced the canopy and dappled the floor with fresh colour and sparkling light. On a carpet of pine needles we approached the loch-side road and into view came the famous Glas Allt Shiel. Impressively constructed in heavy granite block, the building was commissioned by Queen Victoria as a royal retreat and is one of the places Prince Charles courted Diana in happier times.

By now it was 5.30 am, and the thought of a cooked breakfast in Banchory spurred the limbs for the walk along the long road back to the car park. We set a steady pace on legs that were beginning to tighten, but all the while buoyed by the beauty of the morning sunshine. We had gone some half mile from the Shiel when, much to our surprise, a chap appeared behind us shouting for our attention! We were a little surprised to see a man is his late forties approach us from the way we’d came and question us of the presence of a group of walkers that may be headed this way!

As it happened we had noticed a party of around seven, one chap among them, believe it or not, wearing a day-glow pink thermal romper suit!! Aye he shouted… that’s them, and off he went back to the Glas Allt Shiel. For a moment we wondered where on earth this chap, dressed in everyday “townwear” had emerged from, and then it dawned on us; doubting that he was a member of the royal family enjoying the seclusion of the shieling, we theorised that he must have been ensconced in the bothy that occupies the rear of the property! Surely he’d heard us pass and was concerned he may have missed his rendezvous!

Onward we continued, a brief stop for a leg-rub by the boathouse, then a midge-infested march across the glen to join the road to the car park. As we approached the farm buildings on the way, we passed a number of walkers out for the morning’s air and heading for destinations unknown. With brief chats and hellos along the way, we reached the car park with the thought of full Scottish breakfast in our minds… Banchory, here we come!

Full of chatter about the beauty of this stunning morning and the night that was, we sped off along the road with appetites anew. We passed through Ballater and I found the sudden change of physical pace was taking it’s toll. Quite suddenly, the lack of decent rest over the past 36 hours became obvious as I began to feel the fatigue rise. within two minutes the comfort and physical rest enjoyed in the driving seat proced the catalyst for a complete shutdown, so to continue any further would have been sheer folly. I pulled in to a large lay-by, parked quickly and told Alan i was sorry but this can’t go on… I must rest! I laid back on the back seat of the Audi and the next 40 mins were a blur!

I woke as Alan climbed back into the car, surprised, annoyed momentarily (I could have slept for an eternity), but looking forward to a hearty breakfast! As the energy flowed back to my head, slowly, I got back behind the wheel, slapped my face and got on with the job! Ten minutes later we were pulling up in a car park in Banchory, appetites raging!

I stepped out of the car and there was only one deed in my mind before breakfast: I had to shake off the fatigue that had overwhelmed me earlier, so pulling the water bag from my rucksack, I emptied the contents over my head… ice cold, sharply piercing, and utterly refreshing! Right I said… where’s my f’ing breakfast! Two minute later we’re sitting in a Banchory restaurant that advertises a full Scottish, boy… am I ready for this!

There are times when a good breakfast is appreciated, and there are times when a full Scottish breakfast goes down in the annals of history! Black pudding, bacon, egg, toast, sausage, beans, grilled tomato, pancake and lashings of damn good coffee later… Jock was in heaven! God give me a woman who can produce this culinary utopia!

With life renewed we departed the restaurant full of vigour. Seldom does life and it’s trials produce such euphoria, such drive… this is living, and this is experience, this is what so many miss in life’s complexity.

We rolled along in the Audi full of comment and debate, captured by philosophy, politics and every man’s endeavour to find someone to share such richness in existence. Over Cairnomount we rode and down into Angus we meandered, always in conversation while admiring the verdant farmland and hills as we approached Forfar.

With Alan dropped at home, all that remained was my return to my dwelling, not my home for that is yet to be found, and as I pull into the driveway,the disappointment of having no-one to come back to, someone with whom I can share the weekend’s adventures and laugh at life’s trials cuts deep, and so it’s to bed, 8am on saturday morning.

Jock

Lochnagar Solstice

barbreck

Dundee, United Kingdom

  • Artist
    Notes

Artist's Description

A climb up one of Scotland’s most famous mountains, to greet the rising midsummer sun.

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