Date: 2nd January 2012
Time: 6hrs 8mins
Hills: Mount Keen (Munro, 939m), Gathering Cairn (790m) Weather: Cold, bright sunshine in the glen during the morning. Later high winds and snow showers. Route: View on OS Maps
With my car on the fritz and an uncertain weather forecast I decided to do a local walk to kick-start 2012. Mount Keen is the most easterly Munro and can either be accessed from the south via Glen Mark (the more popular route) or from the north via Glen Tanar (as well as more adventurous and less trodden routes coming in from either the east or west if you prefer). I’ve done both the northern and southern approaches in the past but must say that I prefer the delights of the Glen Tanar approach which also has the benefit of being slightly closer to Aberdeen and on better roads. In his Christmas special Coast to Coast from Aberdeen to Knoydart, Cameron McNeish came by way of Glen Tanar to Mount Keen and the time he spent there demonstrated the attractions of this particular glen. The estate are working to regenerate the Caledonian Forest and they maintain good tracks through the woods and upper, wilder parts of the estate as well as providing a walkers car park at the entrance.
As the sun broke above a blanket of clouds sitting over the North Sea I left Aberdeen, travelling down quiet roads until I passed Aboyne and wound my way down to the car park in Glen Tanar. I paid my £2 and was soon off. I was the only car in the car park and didn't see anyone for quite some time. I wended my way along the estate tracks until I crossed the Tanar and passed the small fishing lochan.
The forest of Glen Tanar was wonderfully still, only the chattering of the river off to my left and the occasional birdcall broke the silence. With a firm track under my feet I made good progress and soon the sun had risen above the hills, bathing the woods in golden, wintry light. It warmed the air noticeably.
As the Tanar tumbled down a series of small falls and rapids I dropped down the bank to take some long exposure photos. Regaining the track an estate vehicle rumbled past me – the first people I’d seen all day! A little further on I reached Half-Way Hut, a traditional point to stop for a brew. With sunlight spilling through the pines I enjoyed the sit down and munched on some food as I drank a couple of cups of very bitter tea (never get distracted whilst making up your flask!)
Once on the move again I soon left the welcome cover of the trees and was out in the exposed upper part of the glen. Although it was still bright I could immediately feel the wind blowing into my face and could see impressive looking snow clouds looming above the distant hills. Within ten minutes I was engulfed in the shower. Though the snow wasn’t that heavy, the ferocity of the wind reduced visibility to near zero. I stopped to stow away the camera and get out my ski goggles.
I plodded on through the snow, enjoying the bite of the wind and feeling the excesses of the Christmas period being blasted away. However, by Etnach farm the sun was again out and though the world was a little whiter, it looked like nothing much had happened. With blue skies overhead I could see another bank of snow clouds amassing above the hills.
I now had good views of Mount Keen which for a few moments had an Everest style cloud plume coming from its conical summit. At the end of the track I caught up with the cyclists who had passed me at Half-Way Hut (I guess cycling into a headwind isn’t much faster than walking into one!) They turned round and were heading back towards the forest (a good plan). I meanwhile crossed the new bridge and made my way steadily up the lower slopes of Mount Keen.
The track was a little snow covered but the crunchy gravel offered up plenty of grip. I enjoyed the views down an icy Glen Tanar but pushed on as there was a chill wind starting to blow and the effort was keeping my temperature up. I made good progress and was soon drawing level with the grand northern corrie which you skirt around to reach the final summit slope. Ahead of me just for an instant I thought I saw someone but by the time I reached the plateau they were gone, engulfed in a fresh shower of snow.
Once out of the shelter of Mount Keen's lower slopes the wind was ferocious, blowing snow horizontally from the south. Luckily this meant it was largely a crosswind as it was certainly strong enough to knock me off course a few times. I didn't waste any time and was soon tackling the final steep pull up to the top of the hill. The strong winds had blown off all but the thinnest layer of snow so the track was easy to follow. I shouted hello at three people who were descending and then pressed on to reach the deeper snow that lay on the more sheltered northern side. Here the low temperatures had consolidated it down to a hard ice and so I put on my microspikes for the last few slithery steps up to the trig point.
At one point I came out on the ridge proper and found the wind to be incredibly strong. Everything was shaking and vibrating as it ripped past me and a single gust would have me reeling around, struggling to stay upright. I ducked back down and half crawled to the trip point which I embraced like a long lost friend. After a couple of seconds I had had enough and dropped down to the thankfully sheltered north-eastern side where I could stop to catch my breath and look around.
The world was one of shifting shapes and shadows, half-seen hills veiled behind sheets of billowing snow. It was eerie and mysterious and I was quite glad to be on the summit on my own. Nevertheless the strength of the wind made me feel a little tense as I pondered my next step. Rather than face the gale back on the exposed western flank I decided to make a loop of the walk and drop off the more sheltered eastern side.
Here the snow was less firm and made for a quick descent down to the bealach between Mt Keen and Braid Cairn. Rather than ascending Braid Cairn (which I did last March) I contoured around, occasionally picking up a faint animal track which helped in the continuing poor visibility, until I picked up a more substantial track coming down from Braid Cairn and on to Gathering Cairn. I followed this through the snow-spattered heather until I reached the prominent cairn.
Here again I was exposed to the wind but the loss of a couple of hundred meters had reduced its intensity. I stood and marvelled as the snow showers ripped through, eventually clearing to reveal Mount Keen, Braid Cairn and much of the surrounding landscape. To the east there were blue skies and the hills of Aberdeenshire such as Bennachie stood out, bathed in golden afternoon sun. To the north the far eastern march of the Cairngorms stood with Morven brooding under grey, sullen skies.
With time moving on I dropped off Gathering Cairn, making for the clear land rover track I could see winding its way below Clachan Yell and back towards the forest of Glen Tanar. I realised I hadn't eaten since Half Way Hut so as soon as I reached the reassurance of the track I stopped to have a sandwich and a cuppa. Behind me Gathering Cairn and Braid Cairn briefly made an appearance against a grey sky but as I moved off once again they were engulfed by yet another snow shower. This one caught me before I reached the forest but provided some atmospheric views of the hills to my right.
Once back in the forest I was on familiar ground and with a clear track made good time. I hadn't noticed how much the constant wind and snow had chilled me, even through some substantial winter layers, so I employed my hand warmers to good effect. These, combined with the warmer air in the forest revived me and by the time I had once again reached the Water of Tanar I was enjoying the walk. As the twilight grew I passed the main house and crossed the fields to return to the car. It felt a very different world to the high, snowy and windy place I had been just a few hours before.
A great way to start the year and the earliest I have made it to the top of a Munro. My third ascent of Mount Keen brings it to the joint top place on my list of summits...