Cairn Leuchanhike

Since the start of the plague back in 2020, I’d been quite careful, but around the time of my 50th birthday I’d been encouraged back out to nights in busy pubs, had probably become a bit blasé, and was then stricken down with Covid at the start of November not long after the trip up Morven. A fairly rough week of illness followed, and once I was clear of isolation I went for some test strolls an easy bike rides, concluding that although on the face of it I felt mostly OK, I’d lost a huge chunk of fitness and strength, and that there’d be no quick return to full capabilities.

December brought storms Arwen quickly followed by Barra, depositing a large dump of snow on the hills, I was keen to head out but wary: there are few things more tiring than battling through deep snow. I planned some short routes on smaller hills, enough to test my newly ‘unfit’ status but staying relatively close to civilisation.

I headed off with a friend towards Lochnagar car park, the intention an up-and-back to either Conachcraig or Meikle Pap.

In Ballater no snow but heading out Glen Muick the snow was lying and falling heavily
Scenic but it’d be a long walk if the car got stuck

With there being a chance of being snowed in to the car park, we turned around and started on plan B: starting at Ballater and heading up Pannanich. Once at the top, we’d reassess the next move with a couple options available.

Up through the forest. Not too bad with regards storm damage. These ‘dams’ are new since I’ve been here last. Conservation measure?
Following a trail up the edge of the woods. This turns out to be an error
Below the snowline
I realise we should have went through the gate earlier. Can see the track we should be on, beyond a very rickety and old stile

We pressed on to the top of the woods then were forced to cross, I managed to get a shock from the fence on the other side not realising it was electric and let out a few choice words!

The track we should have came up, the woods where we did. On the right I can now see warning signs: clearly not expecting silly people to cross from woods to track
Deer reluctant to move
Snow getting deeper towards Pannanich

Glad to see the Pannanich hare sculpture is still here, though I’m still none the wiser to who/why made them (there are others scattered around the area).

Pannanich hare wisely surveys the steep climb “Hey mountain biker pushing up here, MTFU and ride around the long way”. Since I was here last this has been painted white. Hares, plastic or otherwise, changing to winter coat.
Saw a few dark tracks across the heather: deer herds
Pannanich 601m

So far so good. The climb up is steep and I definitely felt weaker than I’d expect, but I’m not exhausted (I’ve had spells of this unexpectedly in recovery).

I’d pondered that it’d be nice to turn left and do ‘heartbreak ridge’ on foot, but this is turning into the icey headwind, and it’s been blizzards on and off. We’d also need to suffer some road on the way back. To the right, the terrain is flattish and there’s a hut where we can stop for a break, easy choice.

A good few inches of fresh snow lying in the bed of the track
Ballater out of sight below
We’re mostly low visibility but the sky opens up occasionally
Lochnagar just about peeping out
A good view of the Coyles of Muick. It would have been a reasonable alternative walk today if I’d remembered it, could have parked near Loch Ullachie
The hut comes into view, it’s spartan but not normally locked
Quick snack break. Thermos has been deployed today: hot chocolate

Reinvigorated with sustenance, we decide to push on to Cairn Leuchan, it’s another 2km and 100m further ascent.

Second hare sculpture of the day. This one has a more commanding vista and is quite different to the other one in design – same or different creator?

Although only 100m higher than Pannanich, the difference is noticeable, the wind is really whistling past here, and there’s some sastrugi and ice has been scoured of fresh snowfall.

699 point at Cairn Leuchan
Cairn Leuchan 699m. Big mitts kinda weather
White mamba looking SW. The hillock right is the 700m point, is that Am Mullach or the real summit of Cairn Leuchan? Unclear on the map and not heading over to find out

This is far enough today, the windchill is registering -18c on the kestrel gauge, and I’m wishing I’d cracked open some hand warmers to put into the mitts earlier. Spindrift is whipping past. Waterproofs on mostly as wind protection.

Looking back NE from the summit cairn
Heading back down. We spot a mountain biker who has pushed up to the junction near the hut, a fair effort, but they’ve had enough and sensibly turned back downhill, it would have taken herculean strength to churn through the snow into the wind for miles to reach HBR
Heading back below the snow cover
I barely noticed this massive herd of deer against the heather. This is why there’s no trees anywhere near here, except protected in plantations.

As we head down I’m beginning to feel tired and stiff, and reckon we judged it right with a 15km walk / 600m ascent. I’ve now got a reasonable benchmark to work with over the next month, it’ll be a while before I’m ready for the bigger days out. Heading down, there’s not quite enough clear sky for a great sunset but there are bursts of colour making my head swivel and it rounds off the day nicely.

Winter sunset hues heading back to Ballater

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