Ben Macdui 21/08/04
Munros: Derry Cairngorm, Ben Macdui
Accomplices: Paul, Yvonne
Having climbed one of the toughest mountains in Scotland, it was time to go for one of the highest. Two previous attempts at Ben Macdui had been aborted – one because of bad weather, the other because of Brian’s bad knees! Yvonne decided to join myself and Paul at the last minute, so off we set early one Saturday morning in what looked to be half decent weather.
We were off and walking from the Linn of Dee by 11am and soon reached Derry Lodge, at which point Paul decided we should climb Derry Cairngorm as well rather than continuing up Glen Derry. There was a short shower as we started climbing up from the edge of the forest to the first crags above, but the sun came out and warmed us immediately. Unfortunately the higher we climbed, the worse the weather got, eventually turning to sleet as we neared the final boulder-hopping climb to the summit of Derry Cairngorm. No-one was feeling too happy at this point, but the rain eased shortly after reaching the summit giving us a chance to get some photos at least.
We dropped down North West from the summit and began heading towards the path up from Loch Etchachan, where we would decide whether to continue on to Ben Macdui or drop down out of the weather and head back along Glen Derry. I wasn’t keen on the idea of letting Ben Macdui thwart me again and my argument to continue was aided by the appearance of two cheerful figures through the mist wearing shorts! This strengthened everyone’s resolve, so we pressed on, chatting to our new companions as we went.
After passing some climbers in the corries to our left, we eventually reached the plateau and made the final gradual ascent to the summit cairn of Ben Macdui under the cover of cloud. Miraculously, shortly after reaching the summit the cloud cleared and we caught glimpses of the view of the Cairngorms all around us – enough to make it all seem worthwhile at least!
Not wanting to dwell too long whilst the weather was on our side, we headed back the way we had come to the edge of the plateau and left our new friends to take in Carn a Mhaim. Our way down lay along the ridge from Sron Riach, passing Lochan Uaine far below to our left. The weather wasn’t quite done with us yet and we had to endure several stinging showers of hail before we reached the safety of lower ground, where the temperature began to rise. The final descent was tough on tired knees and feet but at least there was no rain!
Once we were down in the glen, it was just a question of a couple of simple river crossings followed by a long slog back to the car. A couple of fell runners we had seen near the summit caught us up and jumped on the bikes they’d left nearby, making the walk ahead seem even longer for us. The clouds of midges chasing us along Glen Luibeg made that stretch particularly unpleasant, but luckily they eased off after Derry Lodge and let us concentrate on putting one foot in front of another.
A little over 7 hours after setting off, we reached the car and rushed home to recuperate and in my case, beg forgiveness from Yvonne for putting her through it! My other concern was the fact I was planning to mountain bike up Mount Keen the following day with Stuart and Ewan. It had been a tough day, but well worth the hardships endured.
An Teallach 07/08/04
Munros: Bidein a Glas Thuill, Sgurr Fiona
Now that our appetites had been whetted, the decision was made to use a weekend to head to the West coast and get a couple more munros under our belt in the shape of An Teallach. Nothing quite like going in at the deep end!
We set off as early as possible on Friday night hoping to get up to Ullapool in time for the chippy before bed. After driving round looking for a decent parking space we got out of the car to get changed and were immediately engulfed in midges which wasted no time in sinking their jaws into my arms. This resulted in us retreating to the nearest pub and spending as much time time there as we could listening to a ropey duo with their hi-tech keyboard tunes before returning to the car and suffering a miserable night being eaten alive by imaginary midges.
After rising early and hunting for a shop that was open to stock up on refreshments, we found ourselves ready but not quite raring to go in the layby near Dundonnell House by 8 o’clock. After a brief excurison up the wrong side of the Garbh Allt, we began winding our way up through the rhodedendrons until the trees began to thin out. Eventually, the slopes of Glas Mheall Mor and Glas Mheall Liath revealed themselves, with the last of the morning’s cloud clinging to the side as it was burnt off by the sun.
The sun was also having an effect on the two Stella-fuelled mountaineers making their way up to the waterfall at the confluence of the Allt Coir a Ghiubhsachan and the Allt a Ghlas Thuill. A lovely site to spend some time in less hungover circumstances. However, the mission at hand and the ever present threat of midges kept us moving as we turned to the west to follow the lesser burn up to the corrie of Glas Thol. My pounding head made this easy going climb up the decent path a lot less pleasant than it should have been and the usual promises never to drink again were made, to be forgotten at a later date.
Finally, the corrie opened out in front of us as we looked to our right to see the best place to begin the first real slog of the day. It all looked to be of a similar steepness, so we began zig-zagging our way up to the top of Glas Mheall Mor, giving ourselves plenty of breathers and trying not to fall all the way back to the corrie. I eventually lost my head and ran up the last stretch to get it over with, whereas Paul was a little more pragmatic, opting for the slow and steady approach. One look at the view from the top was enough to make the effort worthwhile, with the beauty of the west coast opening out on one side and the hazy mountains surrounding the others.
After having a wee chat with a lady who’d come up the sensible way from near the Dundonnell hotel, we set off to claim our first munro of the day, Bidein a Ghlas Thuill, which lay on the opposite side of the corrie. Upon crossing the col the path took a slightly indirect route to the summit, offset from the ridge’s prow, making the going less steep until turning for a final push to the summit trig point.
After a quick stop for a bite to eat and to take some photos of the upcoming pinnacles and the deep green waters of Loch Toll an Lochain, course was set for Sgurr Fiona, the day’s second munro which lay a short distance across next col. Here the ridge began to narrow slightly, not that the goats grazing halfway down the slope seemed to be bothered. Another pull to the summit and we were on another munro in a little under 40 minutes, a wonderfully exposed place, with views of Lord Berkeley’s Seat to set the pulse racing. Dehydration was beginning to take it’s toll, however, and Paul had used the last of his water already. There was only so long that the remains of my water could keep us going.
A sketchy descent from the summit along the crest of the ridge followed by some hands on scrambling brought us to the narrow connecting ridge before the next ascent, with Lord Berkeley’s Seat towering impossibly above us. A tiny silhouette on the very peak was enough to convince us this was the way to go and we were soon enjoying some real scrambling as we made our way to the best vantage point of the day. The feeling of space on the summit was incredible, especially when standing, which was not too stressful thanks to the complete absence of any wind.
After reluctantly descending from our lofty vantage point, the Corrag Bhuidhe pinnacles stretched out ahead of us. As we debated the wisdom of taking the high route over the lower path, a couple flew along the top in shorts and approach shoes, jumped down and carried on over the Seat. This made the decision for us – so up we went. The going along the top of the ridge was easy enough until we came to the end of the Corrag Bhuidhe Buttress and saw the downclimb that was required to regain the broader ridge below. A fall from this side would take you pretty much to the floor of the corrie below and having read about walkers falling to their death at this very spot, it was an easy decision to backtrack slightly and regain the lower path at a less exposed spot.
After a bit of hairy downclimbing, with not much margin for error, we reached the path without careering down the steep mountainside and continued on along the crumbling path. We descended down a loose path towards the col from which we were supposed to make our way down to Toll an Lochain below, as all thoughts of climbing Sail Liath had disappeared along with the last of our water. Even as we approached the ‘path’ we were a bit dubious as to whether we had the right one, but this was it and no amount of nervous looking over the edge was going to make it any less steep. We took the plunge and started slipping our way down what was to all intents and purposes a run-off for snow melt. The going got easier and firmer as the slope eased and eventually we even managed to get some water at a handy burn halfway down. Sigg bottle water never tasted so good!
Recharged and rehydrated, we made light work of the rest of the descent to the lochan and were soon walking along the quartzite slabs at its head and back down the Coir a Ghuibhsachain, with excellent views of the impressive escarpment on the opposite side. Our route took us down from above the waterfall we passed earlier in the day, rejoining the path through the rhodedendrons and returning us safe and sound to the car. This mountain would be a hard one to beat.
Lochnagar 19/07/04 Munros: Cac Carn Beag Accomplices: Brian, Paul
This was retrospectively my first Munro, since a few days later, myself and Paul decided to take up munro-bagging. It wasn’t the first time I’d climbed it, but we took a more interesting route than usual (courtesy of Ralph Storer) by starting from Invercauld bridge near Braemar. The weather was fair, so Brian was sporting a rather fetching outfit of faded green Speedo shorts, brand new boots and shiny grey hiking socks which he pulled up as high as they would go. The look was completed with a black t-shirt bearing a large picture of Strongbad (Long story). Needless to say, he made Paul and myself look like a couple of rank amateurs.
After a quick photo shoot, we set off down the road from Keiloch and across the A93, crossing the old Invercauld Bridge into Ballochbuie Forest. So began the long slog up out of the forest, made much more pleasant by the fact it is a beautiful place to be. With a wee stop for photos on a wooden observation platform below the Falls of Garbh Allt and a couple more for Brian to take on oxygen we eventually emerged at the deer fence that marks the edge of the forest. The occasion was marked by squirting my platypus hose at Brian’s groin in the hope of a passer-by spotting his wet patch.
We continued up the path for a short distance, before dropping down to our left to cross the Feindallacher Burn and climb the rise of Druim Odhar. This was followed by the usual off-piste heather bashing, peat hag-skirting antics until we reached the banks of the Allt Lochan nan Eun where we picked up a stalker’s path to make the going slightly easier up towards Sandy Loch. All the while, the Stuic began to reveal itself to our right, with Cac Carn Beag of Lochnagar our eventual target ahead.
Brian and Paul wanted to peel away early to get to the base of the Stuic directly so we began the slightly-longer-than-you-think haul up to Loch nan Eun. Upon reaching the loch, the rain came in, putting our scrambling ambitions in jeopardy. We settled down out of the wind behind some rocks to eat a bit of lunch and the rain soon tailed off, leaving us free to begin our ascent.
The Stuic looks quite imposing from the base, but Ralph’s book had assured us it was only a grade 1 scramble so up we went, the rock drying quickly under the reappearing sun. After the initial grassy/stony climb, this was a great scramble and we were soon stripping off our wet weather gear and stopping to admire the breathtaking views across to Ben Avon and the rest of the Cairngorms. Despite the narrow profile of the Stuic it is an easy climb to the top with lots of hands-on moments, but no major exposure, making for an ideal introduction to the world of scrambling. Brian, who had been flagging at the base, suddenly got his eighth wind once the going got vertical and used his non-existent sense of self-preservation to find the more eccentric routes of ascent.
To reach the top of lochnagar was simply a case of following the path round the top of Corrie Lochan nan Eun, striking for the top of Cac Carn Mor, then onwards to Cac Carn Beag. Unfortunately, Paul and myself neglected to tick off Carn a’ Choire Bhoideach on the way, not yet realising that were going to be munroists. After dragging Brian up the hundred metre climb, we diverted to walk along the cliff tops above Corrie of Lochnagar and posed for the obligatory photos atop either side of Black Spout (Easily amused) before continuing to the summit.
After another wee lunch break, with views across to the Stuic and the striking green waters of Loch nan Eun, we began our descent of the north west ridge of Lochnagar, which was mostly boulder field – making hard going for Brian’s rapidly failing knees!
Eventually, the banks of Sandy Loch were reached allowing us to retrace our steps back down to Ballochbuie forest and Keiloch car park. This is definitely the best way to experience Lochnagar, short of getting into proper rock climbing and gave us all the scrambling bug for future escapades.
Having been obsessing over offroad touring after my Cairngorms adventure, I was itching for another ride. After much internet research with what little information was available, I decided I wanted to tackle the legendary Corrieyairack Pass. It is an ancient road, built by the industrious General Wade in 1731 to allow for efficient movement of troops around the country for the purpose of crushing rebellion. Ironically, the best recent information I could dig up was 4×4 enthusiast forum conversations and a write up from a mountain biker warning he had been turned back by snow drifts and blizzards in June! However, with my trusty Scottish Hill Tracks book, I had all the information I needed. To make it into an overnight ride, I would jump an early train to Inverness, ride the Great Glen Way down to Fort Augustus for my overnight camp and then ride the Corrieyairack the next day before catching a train home from Newtonmore.
After an uneventful train ride, followed by a bit of kit shopping in Millets, I made my way over the bridge and along the river. I was using a black and white print out of the OS maps for the ride at half normal size to minimise paper. I had a decent idea of where I was going, but anything intricate was going to be tricky! This immediately made itself felt as I tried to catch the end of the Great Glen Way in the housing estate below the psychiatric hospital! I manage to find what looked to be just the ticket and followed it up to the hospital before missing a turn somewhere and ending up going downhill. I also managed to let my bundled up gilet fall into my back tyre and wear a hole in its containing pocket. Rather than face the heartache of going back uphill, I decided to push onwards at a lower level across a forest firebreak and rejoin the path further up. At a squint it looked like it would work!
I got back on track and followed the route along a mixture of forestry tracks and stretches of tarmac road. There was one bit that showed a planned route on the OS map, with no actual path indicated on the ground, so I took a road detour above Abriachan, rather than waste time struggling to find out if there was one. This gave me a phenomenally steep tarmac descent in to Drumnadrochit, during which I still swear my speedo hit 55mph – a speed I have not come close to matching, even on the road bike. Probably a calibration issue with the old Sigma computer, but I wasn’t backing off to be fair!
I was pretty tired and dehydrated by this point, so I hit one of the many tea rooms for tea, Coke and food. I had been so consumed by the idea of climbing the Corrieyairack Pass, that I hadn’t really considered what I was riding beforehand as part of the challenge. After taking on as much liquid as I could consume, I left town and started regaining all the height I’d lost.
I followed the many undulations along, high above the loch, occasionally glimpsing a view when the trees opened out. I was managing to stay on track despite my inadequate map detail, but was goosed and Invermoriston couldn’t come soon enough.
At Invermoriston, I availed myself of the lavish public toilets on offer, shedding some weight and cleaning off the sweat of the day’s exertions. I also made a decision – I was going to skip the last off road section and take the main road into Fort Augustus. Time was getting on and I hadn’t the legs for another climb above loch level. Even so, the steady tarmac incline away from the village felt like hard work at this point. I managed to survive the road stretch without any mishaps and rolled in to town some time after 8pm. After a bit of strolling around the canal to pick a dinner spot, I went in to the Lock Inn, barely making the cutoff for a hot meal. The large pizza went down a treat whilst I watched the football, before reluctantly climbing back on my bike for the mercifully short ride to the campsite.
I was travelling light again with the same army bivy bag, cheap sleeping bag and borrowed Thermarest as last time. I had upgraded my luggage to a Camelbak Transalp pack, imported direct from the USA via eBay at a considerable saving, which was much more suited to cycling and allowed me to carry a bit more kit in it’s many pockets and pouches. I locked my bike to an adjacent picnic bench and settled in for a thankfully mild night in my non-insulating sleep setup. In the morning, I had some fun with hexi-stove cooking of army rations and headed off for what was supposed to be the tough part of this ride with some trepidation after my poor performance yesterday.
I had a bit of micro navigation to do to get me to the bottom of the pass, but managed okay with just one dodgy crossing of field full of cows.
Once through the gate, the climbing began in earnest and there was to be little respite until I reached the top. I slowly winched myself up the first steep section, before dropping down to a dip where I crossed the Connachie Burn, before resuming the climbing.
Next was climbing, climbing, climbing.
I noted the position of Blackburn bothy for a potential future visit, but couldn’t hang about as I had a train to catch and much more climbing to do. On the long steep drag, I admitted defeat and jumped off to start pushing. No big issue, as my knees and backside were needing the break anyway.
As I finally reached the hut at the top of the pass, a couple of proper mountain bikers out for the day caught me up and stopped for a chat, whilst they waited for the rest of their group. They also obliged me with a rare portrait shot for the memories.
Once my lunch was eaten on the doorstep of the hut, I started to head downhill towards the famous zig-zags. Even with the super-advanced elastomer suspension afforded by my Judy TT forks, it was rough going. There were large chunks eroded from the track to drop off, but I was managing okay. Once they were dispatched, the track improved and settled down to a constant rattling. As I ploughed through a ford a little too vigorously, I managed to pickup a hefty snakebite puncture. I began feeling a little anxious about getting to Newtonmore in time for my train.
Tube patched, I resumed my descent, with my arms getting particularly pumped on the rough cobbles taking me down to Melgarve bothy.
I passed by without poking my head in, fully focused on making that train. I was back on the tarmac in no time and just needed to get my head down and see how long it would take me to hit Newtonmore.
I wasn’t really a road cyclist, so wasn’t sure how much quicker I’d be along the main road when I reached it. Turns out I had nothing to worry about, arriving at the train station with a good 45 minutes to spare before my train back home. A highly pleasant way to spend a weekend and expand my horizons of how far I could travel by bike offroad.
A spot of reminiscing back to my first overnight mountain bike ride in 2003.
I’d just become the proud owner of a Scott Expert Racing hardtail, the first brand new bike I had ever owned and somehow got the idea in my head I was going to ride it through the Cairngorms and stop overnight somewhere. I had a distinct lack of lightweight camping gear as well as a non existent budget. Luckily, my buddy Paul had a few bits and bobs from his time with the TA, so I raided his gear and packed up for the weekend. My kit list:
Berghaus 15l Freeflow Rucksack
British Army Goretex bivy bag
Thermarest 3/4 self-inflating mat
Cheapest, smallest, lightest sleeping bag I could find in Blacks
Hexamine stove and blocks
Small mess tin
Couple of army ration packs
Hot chocolate sachets
Ancient Regatta fleece
Edinburgh Bicycles windproof jacket
Helly Hansen base layer
Altura MTB shorts and liner
Salomon trail running shoes
DEET midge repellent
This all just about packed into my rucksack, which was totally unsuited to mountain biking, due to its rigid construction and curved back, which moved the weight outwards to allow a back cooling air gap. I don’t think I’ve ever packed so lightly for an overnighter since and probably never will again!
My route was mainly inspired by Ralph Storer’s excellent Scottish Hill Tracks, which was basically my cycling bible back then. I was planning to take an early train from Aberdeen to Aviemore, ride around the edge of the Cairngorms and finish up in Braemar after an overnight bivy, where Paul would pick me up, since he was planning to go for a drive up to Loch Muick on the Sunday.
I got down to the station on the Saturday morning for the first train to Inverness, which went smoothly enough. Unfortunately my bike booking only got me this far and I was ejected from the next train by an overzealous conductor, leaving me with the option to either try and ride to Aviemore, or wait a couple of hours for the next train and hope i was allowed on it. Since I only had a map of the Cairngorms with me and had no idea of the roads round there at the time, I opted for the latter!
Luckily, it paid off and I rolled out of Aviemore station at lunch time, heading for Loch an Eilein and the first stage of my trip, through beautiful Rothiemurchus Forest. It was a beautiful August day and the summer had been very dry, so the tracks were dusty and the going was good. It was my first time in the area and I’ve basically never stopped visiting since, it left such an impression on me. I worked my way through the forest without any navigational hiccups, eventually being deposited onto the road at Loch Morlich. I popped into the shop for drinks and extra food and continued towards Ryvoan.
An Lochan Uaine was a spectacular green in the summer light and I lingered here for a while, drinking in the ambience of the place and making note to come back with Yvonne some time soon. On past the bothy and I just about caught my turn off rather than flying downhill to Forest Lodge. After fording the river, I climbed back up onto the track that heads for the Eag Mhor as the sun continued to beat down.
An easy river crossing, followed by a push through the trees took me to the narrowest part of the gap, where I gingerly crossed the electric fence and aimed across the Braes of Abernethy towards Dorback Lodge. I got to the Dorback Burn and spent several minutes wandering up and down looking for a dry way across. Eventually I gave in and accepted the inevitable, wringing out my socks on the other side. I made a meal of getting to the lodge, dragging the bike through rough, tussocky grass to hit a sandy track that got me onto the road.
As I rode away from the lodge and the sound of shotguns on an adjacent track, I started to feel a bit tired heading up the big climb before the drop to the Burn on Brown. My inexperience was beginning to show, as I’d ridden every climb like I was on a BMX, rather than making the most of the mountain bike gearing. I also hadn’t noticed that the ridiculously well greased seatpost had been slipping down all day, which was knackering my knees!
Luckily, the many crossings of the burn had me hopping on and off the bike constantly, giving my knees a break. The river was so low, I got right the way along without getting my feet any wetter. Another climb, followed by a fast descent down to the Bridge of Brown, saw me rolling along the road to Tomintoul. As the day was getting on, I decided to fill my face at the chippy and bask for a while in the late afternoon sun. I had a wee chat with a couple of blokes in an old convertible, who were on a distillery tour and handed me a whisky miniature to help me on my way.
Eventually, I started rolling again down Glen Avon, where I was planning to bivy for the night. I was struggling to find a place I felt comfortable in, due to there being a few dwellings in the upper section, eventually settling for a wide grassy area down by the river. As I unpacked my bed for the night, the midges soon closed in, leaving me to set up in bursts of activity, punctuated by running away to get them off my scent. Once ready, I dived into the bivy bag and cocooned myself inside, with the tiniest of cracks to allow for oxygen entry. A combination of a poorly inflated Thermarest and a sleeping bag with no insulating properties whatsoever made for a cold night’s sleep, as the temperatures plummeted in the glen with clear skies above.
I stirred in the morning and tentatively poked out my head to find midge levels had decreased sufficiently to allow me to get my cooking kit down to the rocks on the riverbank so I could very slowly boil some water for a heated breakfast and hot drink, without being eaten alive. The steep sides of the glen kept me in shadow, so I headed off wearing every item of clothing I had, until the effort and a gap in the hillside allowing the sun to thaw me, let me dress a bit more appropriately. As I went along, I glanced up to my right and was treated to the sight of a massive stag posing on the edge of an outcrop in as stereotypically Scottish a scene as I could possibly imagine. I vowed to get myself a digital camera and take it with me on any future rides like this!
I passed the impressively remote and well looked after Inchrory lodge and made my way up Glen Builg, eventually reaching Loch Builg, where I bumped my way along the awkward singletrack, before speeding down into Glen Gairn. I had a big climb to come and the bridge over the Gairn was midge-free, so I took the opportunity to lay down in the sun and get an extra 30 minutes. Refreshed, I got going up the glen and ready for the monster climb up Cullardoch. For some reason I decided to turn on my phone and was greeted with a message saying my first niece had been born that morning, making the weekend doubly special.
My knees creaked their way up, occasionally hopping off for a walk when the going got too steep. I’d made the mistake of being squeamish about filling up my water bottle from the rivers below and was completely out of water, with the sun baking down on me. As I topped out, I was so desperate I decided to take a sip from the whisky miniature I had been gifted. Big mistake! Throat burning, I ripped down the descents towards Invercauld House and made my sorry way along the tarmac into Braemar, where I bought myself as many cold drinks as I could carry and went for another lie down in the sun.
As a sting in the tail, when I called my lift to see when he’d be there, he was just reaching the summit of Lochnagar, meaning he was a long way off. Always a glutton for punishment, I re-mounted, rolled off towards Ballater and took the turn off for Loch Muick and a welcome car ride home.