A runners perspective

I hope this blog is of use/interest to walkers, runners and cyclists living in or intending to visit Scotland. Most of my entries below are described as long-distance runs - just because that's currently what I enjoy doing...

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Lawers Group

Distance: 19.7 miles (32km) 
Ascent/Descent: 2250m/2250m 
Start/Finish: C.P. N of Lochan nan Lairige 594416  
Terrain: 80% good tracks, 15% Road, 5% grass (wee bit of bog but not bad)
Transport: car for sure
Route: Route Map
(L to R) Ben Lawers, Beinn Glas, Meall Corranaich from Meall a' Choire Leith
Classic round of the Lawers Munros, walkable in a day.  My original route was to drop down into Glen Lyon (drop N from Meall Greig, follow tracks along S bank of R. Lyon and pick up access track up Glean Da Eig back towards start).  Instead, I opted for the longer (but less climbing) option so that I could maintain mobile-phone reception as it was getting late and there were storms brewing!

A late start, as this was a bit spontaneous.  I had planned on re-visiting the cairngorms this weekend having really enjoyed last weeekend, but the ongoing "stomach" problems prevented any thoughts of doing much over the last few days - it was already afternoon before I realised something might be on today...

Tarmachan Range from the slopes of Meall Chorranaich
The weather was perfect for the drive up, but forecast to deteriorate.  I decided to head to the Lawers area and try and get some desperately last-minute "UTMB" training in (hence hills rather than glens).  This year hadn't gone great running wise for reasons mentioned, so when I do get out I am all the more appreciative of having health, fitness and such fantastic countryside on the doorstep.

View NW, feat. Loch Lyon and Ben Nevis
After a bit of Lake-District-style parking somewhere around the tiny car park beneath the cairn (594416), I was jogging up a well-engineered track NE, the sun beaming down, the sky full of fluffy clouds, for now anyway.  It was already after 2pm so the majority of folks were coming the other way, having already earned their pints or whatever.  The path stops at bog, but it is a downhill bog so that's okay, I was aiming for the burn (Allt Geann Da' Eig) and then drier, steeper grassy hillside beyond it.  A feint path emerges beyond the burn and ascends around the corner of Coire Gorm, crossing its smaller burn (water bottle refill already!) before taking an uncompromising line up the steepening side of Meall a Choire Leith.  I stupidly tried to run all the way from car to summit (not clever UTMB training), so when I got to the top I was burst, but buzzing on endorphins and really happy to be up in the hills again.

Lawers & Ghlas, from start of descent off Meall Chorranaich
From then on the gradients are much easier so the running was great!  In particular there's a nice path over to summit No. 2 of the day, Meall Corranaich, with fine views of the next summits on the list, and also far-reaching views to the N horizon, Ben Nevis particularly prominent. 
About 100 or more deer ran in front of me as I ascended!  (Worth pointing out that the path passes by another fine spring for filling the water bottles).

The next bit was steeper, a sharp drop down beneath Beinn Ghlas - as you descend to the bealach ignore the gently-ascending "good" track that crosses between the mountains and look for the much fainter, steeper trail continuing up onto the NW ridge of the Beinn - it keeps South of the rockier bits and curves onto its crest via a grassy slope.  I of course missed this and ended up crawling up from the NW on all-fours. 

Once on top of Beinn Ghlas I was almost grateful to join the motorway up to Ben Lawers - another great trail run.  The ridge swings N immediately from the summit of Lawers, and suddenly things look a bit wilder.  Less people.  More rocks.  But a perfectly good and less ugly track descends down the ridge, steepening as it approaches the base of An Stuc (descend the bealach slightly N to get another stream for filling the bottles).

An Stuc above Lochan nan Cat

The ascent up An Stuc is initially steep but it levels off again towards the top. A fine place to be.
Now I've never been particularly confident with heights, but I seem to be getting softer with age.  I don't get any thrill out of being in exposed places, quite the opposite, so when I started the descent off An Stuc's E ridge and found myself above wet, slightly mossy slab of rock with a 30ft drop if I screwed up, I was actually pleased with myself for accepting my limitations and turning around.  Maybe okay for ascending but not descending, certainly not by me anyway!  Especially since vertigo is listed as a possible side-effect of the medication I've been put on! When I got back to the top I spotted that I'd come off the main path (which swings to the S and takes a much easier line).  This I was much happier on, it wasn't so much a scramble as a bloody steep path requiring lots of care (and testing loose rocks before putting weight on them).  I personally wouldn't go near here in Winter.
View down into Glen Lyon

The rain had started briefly, I knew it was coming, but I could still see most of Northern Scotland basking in sunshine.  The South was getting a soaking.

I continued over to the summit of Meall Garbh (a great view back over An Stuc and the Ben), steep in places, but from there to Meall Greig the mountainous feel evaporates into rolling grassy country-side, perhaps a bit of a drag to walk but it was a great place for a run!  A note left on the summit cairn brought a tear to my eye (definitely getting softer with age).  So that was that, seven Munros unceremoniously bagged (including one I hadn't done before - An Stuc weren't on the list when I were a lad!).
Lawers and An Stuc from Meall Garbh

As the sky started creating its own set of mountains in the form of storm clouds, and as it was quite late in the day, I decided against my original plan of dropping N into Glen Lyon.  A slight regret - it looks like a nice route (Glen Lyon is beautiful), and is actually shorter than what I ended up doing, although a bit more re-ascent required to get back to the car!  Because today had been a bit spontaneous, I hadn't really read up on the route through Glen Lyon (I'd planned this circuit a year or so ago and forgotten the details), and knew I wouldn't have phone signal down there, so stuck to the S aspect of the range instead.  

Meall Greig being threatened by the sky
  I dropped down to the tiny dam on slightly awkward tufty-grass, crossed the burn beneath the concrete sluice and attained the fantastic track on its W side.  This bit kind of made up for missing Glen Lyon - a chance to really run along this elevated smooth track above Loch Tay, with the Lawers summits rising above to the R.  It makes for really fast progress back towards the start, but there is a price to pay...

Loch Tay from the contouring track

After almost three miles of heavenly running, its important (I think) to take the feint upper-fork in the track, which ends abruptly above a defile.  I followed the fence-line on its far side, but there's no path and the terrain is quite rough going.  I was wary of losing too much height here, and aimed to remain above the lump marked on the map as Creag Dubh, which meant climbing slightly, and I was reduced to power-walking.  Once over Creag Dubh the contours turn more NW (into Corrie a' Chonnaidh), and I was finding traces of sheep-trod along the fence line here.  Eventually I was looking over the fenced-off deciduous plantation about 70m vertically below, and ignored the direct line down (involving climbing a deer fence and feeling naughty!) and continued to contour more N to pick up the main path down off Beinn Ghlas, which is all very civilised and uses a gate!  I was being soaked by thick drizzle by now, but grateful to be off the ridges and not exposed to thunder/hail storms - there'd been many of these lately.  From the N.T.S. car park it was a 3 mile uphill road-run back to the car sitting on its own at 8pm.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Heart of the Cairngorm

Distance: 30.3 miles (48.5km) 
Ascent/Descent: 2000m/2000m Start/Finish: Linn o Dee 
Terrain: 20% gravel road, 70% Good trails, 10% off-trail  
Transport: Linn o Dee (near braemar) buses from Aberdeen and also
some Summers (2013) there's a service from Blairgowrie/Aberfeldy
Route: Route Map

This is a real cracker!  It took me a while to settle on this particular route, but so glad I did.  Although it takes in four Munro's, there are easier routes for bagging these (and including more) summits, but I wanted to explore beneath as well as above, especially around Loch Etchachan and Loch Avon.  Oh and never have to look at any of the ski-world to the North!  I also wanted to start from Linn o Dee because Glen Derry is such a nice approach into the wild.  From Derry Lodge the route heads up the 100% runnable path to Derry Cairngorm, then boulder-hops to Loch Etchachan, does an out-n-back onto Beinn Mheadoin, drops to Loch Avon (which really does feel like the heart of the Cairngorms as it is often considered), before ascending steeply from there up to the plateau and Cairngorm Mountain.  From the cairn, drop SE to "the saddle" (I descended a little down Strath Nethy for water here), then up mostly easy slopes to Bynack More on nice terrain with open views.  Then after a steep descent through the heather its a mostly-downhill 10mile trail-run back to Glen Derry then Linn o Dee. 

Derry Lodge, where many leave their bicycles
I enjoyed the early morning drive up the A93, the glens were still clagged with mist but I broke through momentarily into pure blue sky and brightness on the Cairnwell Pass. The thermo in the car read 8degC at Braemar, it would be 20degC warmer by the time I got back there at 4pm. (Aviemore was the hottest place in Britain today with temps reaching 29.5, so a fine day to be 1000m up on the summits!) 

Easy trail up into the blue.  Smell those pines!
The car park at Linn o Dee was thick with midge, so no faffing just straight on with the pack and off through the misty Caley Pine forest onto gravel road for 3miles to Derry Lodge, already there were already a fair number of munro-baggers' bikes scattered around here.  My route was heading for Derry Cairngorm, so over the footbridge I went onto an excellent track through the heather and pines, quickly gaining height, soon enjoying fabulous sunshine. It was only 8:30am but already very warm above the clag, the visibility was superb, Lochnagar dominating the skyline to the E, Beinn 'a Ghlo to the SW, and once onto the ridge proper,  I could admire the mouth of the Lairig Ghru with Cairn Toul's eastern corrie looking like a missing tooth.  

View back over Braemar way, Lochnagar the highest bump on horizon
The air was scented with warm pine and heather. Ascending up to the bouldery summit of 'Derry is relatively gentle (surprisingly runnable) and the ridge broad, but the views down both sides are fine with the meandering river Derry in its lush glen below to the right, and the Cairngorm 'big boys' to the left.

From the summit I descended the bouldery slopes N  towards the 3-way-bealach above Loch Etchachan, eventually catching up with some other runners near the water - a father and his young son (about 12!?).

After a brief chat, filling the bottles from the outflow of Etchachan, I ran up to the summit of Beinn Mheadhoin wondering if I'd just met a future 'Killian Jornet'! Sat on the summit tor and munched cookies in the sun.  Killian and his dad weren't far behind - I met them again as I retraced my way back to the loch, then turned N to join the trail that drops down to Loch Avon and Shelter Stone. 
Loch Avon beaneath Beinn Mheadhoin 
The heat was really building, and having dropped beneath some vertical rock (Shelter Stone Crag) this was really beginning to feel and smell like the Alps.

Once around the N shore of Loch Avon I stopped to drink from Allt Coire Raibeirt, and eat the crisps and bread rolls that had been toasted by the sun, before proceeding on the the very steep ascent beside the "Allt", one big rocky step after the other so I don't care who you think you are there's definitely no running up here!

...Until that is quite suddenly the Corrie is reached and the path transforms into a ridiculously manicured ribbon of gravel.  They were still working on this and gave me a wave as I jogged past.  So it was time to join the crowds at the Cairngorm mountain I thought, with its road, train and ski slopes.
Looking back  across the now-hidden Loch Avon to where I'd been - Derry Cairngorm just visible

View SW over Coire an Lochan towards Braeriach et al
Surprisingly there was only one couple sat at the summit cairn, but I didn't hang around anyway, heading off-trail now, E to eventually pick up a trail that would take me down between crags into Strath Nethy.  Getting thirsty again, so I dropped from the watershed to where the River Nethy is born so I could refill my bottles from it, then retraced onto a gradually disappearing trail NE up the shoulder of A' Choinneach, the highlight of this being the views back over Loch Avon again - truly worthy of the label "heart of the Cairngorm".  Legs getting tired so I was glad this was the last climb for me today,  finishing on the summit of Bynack More with its rock "barns".  Even with dead legs and thoughts dominated by pints of Guinness, these are interesting.  Freaky.  Two sets of them, the little brown barns on the crest, and the much bigger and totally differently grey ones down the slope a bit. 

The photos don't really portray the size - i.e. the little ones on the left are only about 6m high, whereas the big grey ones are about 20m.

Fords of Avon Refuge (MBA-maintained)
I had another sun-toasted roll with crisps at the summit then headed off-trail steeply through the thickening heather aiming for the main Glenmore-Braemar through-route known as the Lairig an Laoigh*.  It was really nice (and important) to get back down to water as the temperature continued to rise into the afternoon.  There wasn't much climbing left in the legs but they felt great again heading down to Glen Derry - probably because I'd stopped, eaten and drank so much.  There were a few more people down the glen - all with huge grins on their faces knowing they were bloody lucky to be where they were on such a fine day.

* My dad had done this a few days ago with an 80litre pack and a 72 year-old sense of adventure (a-walk-in-cairngorms). He was going to wait till the weekend when I could be around (safety-in-numbers) but the weather window earlier in the week looked too good to miss and there were no guarantees it would hold.