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, 3 August 2013

Above and Through the Lairig Ghru

Distance: 33 miles (53km) Ascent/Descent: 1860m/1860m 
Start/Finish: Linn o Dee (near Braemar) 
Terrain: 70% trail, 20% gravel/surfaced road, 10% Rocky Tundra (off trail) 
Transport: car  (or bus to Braemar & taxi)
Route: Route Map

Nice single-track by River Dee, Devil's Point behind, slopes of Bheinn Bhrotain to L
The Lairig Ghru is part of a classic 18 mile walk between Aviemore (Rothiemurchus) and Linn o Dee (Braemar).  The strange loop described here takes a high route Northwards on the mountains to the West of the Lairig Ghru, then returns back through the Lairig itself.  There are some interesting variations of this, e.g., a tour of the summits around Glen Geusachan, thereby including Carn Toul and the Devils Point.  When I set off I wasn't sure exactly what I'd end up doing, especially given the weather forecast.  The described route does provide two contrasting aspects of these mountains - they look a bit lame when seen from the rocky high ground to the W, whereas they rise impressively above cliffs and hanging corries.when viewed from the N or E.

Heading to White Bridge by the River Dee

The forecast wasn't great - reality check from met. office indicating rain, 70mph gusts and -5degC windchill on Cairngorm summits, a bit different from the 19degC and cloudless skies I was enjoying as I left work on Friday, walking through Edinburgh and watching festival-goers enjoying their beers outside the pubs.

Saturday morning in Braemar was dull but not that bad, the wind was still to pick-up and let's be honest 14degC isn't exactly bad for Scotland, just half what it was last time I was here.  

Might as well give the Cairngorms a try, I figured, if it got too nasty I could always come back down and do a low-level loop like Lairig Ghru followed by Lairig an Laoigh.  That appealed more than experiencing a Winter's day in August, being buffeted across a stony plateau which I could only see 50 yards of in any direction.  And it might clear up!  So we all tell ourselves.

Like two weekends ago, but in quite different weather, I left the car at Linn o Dee, this time heading W towards White Bridge where the Dee makes a right-angled turn.  I crossed this bridge and followed the river's E bank upstream, the wide track followed for the first 3 miles now left behind and replaced by a well-constructed singletrack that still had enough rocks on it to demand concentration.  I became aware I was already "in the zone", loving that feeling of heading off into the wilds again.  That's what the Cairngorms do best - they don't have the pointy shapes of the NW Highlands, but they do give a great feeling of "out there".  An intrepid mountain biker with a German accent (and probably a bruised arse) slowly bounced his bike over the stones towards me, he was also clearly buzzing with enthusiasm, already been up and down mountains and now on his way to bag the remote lumps of "Sgarsoch and Ealar" to the SW.  A reminder of how late it was - already afternoon.  Well I guess it gave the clag more time to b*gger off.

I followed the track until it does a U-bend to cross the Allt Garbh just beyond where title photo taken, then as the weather looked fine from down here I took a L fork to follow a seemingly newly constructed path that ascended the N bank of the Allt, this pretty much being my route up Beinn Bhrotain.  I was quickly reduced to a walk (back to UTMB training!) and the trail quickly reduced to a muddy strip through bashed knee-high heather, all a bit awkward, it quickly improves but I wasn't running again until above the waterfall higher up where the burn changes course.  Once on higher ground the path seems to disappear.  The clag was coming down the mountain-side now so time to reach for the map and compass (no pre-programmed garmin route today).  The jacket and gloves came on as the rain arrived, assisted by a sudden strengthening of wind.  Pretty bleak.  Nothing to see here.  I basically took a direct NW line towards the rocky dome of Beinn Bhrotain's main summit.  Terrain was runnable at first, wind-clipped grass and heather, but when I hit the gradient and barricades of rocks I gave up on the pretense of running and settled into a big stride that was probably faster anyway.  I arrived at the trig-point, sheleted by a fanatastic wall, so I quickly got myself low to the ground against this to escape the wind and consult the map.  And eat some more of those Jaffacake bars.  And flapjacks.  And wonder why the hell I had chosen to come up here and not stay down in the glens.  No regrets. 
A glimpse Glen Geusachan - sun shining somewhere!

From here it was pretty much a case of continuing on the NW bearing, which meant slightly traversing whilst descending, the rocks were pretty evil  (Derry Cairngorm was nothing in comparison), they were wet with ankle-hungry gaps between them, and the wind wasn't helping my balance.  I dropped down below the clag and could see a bit of the world again.  Just a bit, but enough to get me reaching for the camera in case I never saw anything else for the next while.  I could see the bealach below and a definite path emerge from it heading up towards Monadh Mor.  To my right I
A path emerges from the bealach towards Monadh Mor
could see down into Glen Geusachan - which looked like a pretty wild place to be.  It was a really steep way down from here but I judged it safe enough should I decide the need to escape the windy plateau!  For now though I was surprisingly cosy in the Haglofs LIM jacket, and keen to go on.  

A miserable sod descended out of the mist (so called because he didn't say hello or even acknowledge) and disappeared again below.  I climbed up towards where he'd come from, the path eventually disappearing but the terrain was much nicer and all runnable - it became all flat and featureless and cloaked in clag again so I had to keep an eye on the bearing ( NW till it starts to drop again then N).  

And so I unemphatically arrived at the cairn-topped lump called Monadh Mor.  And departed just as quick.

Harsh landscape of Moine Mor - Bhrotain & Monadh Mor in background
The cloud lifted and suddenly I could see for miles, there were splashes of sunshine on distant hillsides.  It was quite featureless to the W - the Moine Mor - I preferred looking E over Geusachan.  I found some inadequate shelter from a band of rocks and sat to eat and take photographs of this strange place.  Ahead near the watershed was a lochan, beyond which rose the slopes leading to Cairn Toul, Angel's Peak and Braeraich.  And a spring to take water from.  Three of the highest summits in Britain not looking so exciting from this remote, elevated angle - their much more celebrated corries and precipices hidden from view. It was good to see this contrast during today's run.  

After descending to the watershed, trying to decide where to go next, I again looked across the Moine Mor, rolling for miles towards Sgor Gaoth etc, wondering if there were any other dafties getting buffeted around up here.

In the end I admitted to myself once again that I like bagging Munros - worse still - bagging Munros that I haven't already done!  Carn Toul and the Devil's Point I'd done years ago as a student, the days when there were 273 Munros and Sgor an Lochain Uaine wasn't one of them.  The latter would eventually be my next target (sometimes called Angel's Peak), there was no Angel up there today, just wind and clag again.  As I ascended from the SW on increasingly rocky, pathless tundra (which was easy enough going) I started to see other walkers on the "main ridge" - more of a wedge than a ridge - gentle from my direction, cliffs on the other.  I eventually gained the path the walkers had been on, and headed ENE through the rocks, back into cloud, it was like the edge of the world to my left, and the wedge had narrowed into a ridge up here when I reached the small summit area.  I immediately dropped down as safely as I could to the lee side, which meant my feet were dangling over an abyss of cloud whilst I ate a roll and packet of crisps.

Retracing my steps down the path, I headed for Braeriach, certainly the highlight of the day for me.  Perhaps because by the time I'd hauled myself onto its rocky plateau (Carn na Criche), the clag had been dispersed and the more impressive aspect of Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul was on display.  I ran across the plateau assisted by the wind, crossing the river Dee again, this time no need for a bridge, a single leap was enough (the Wells of Dee were about 400m to my left), and climbed up through the stones back towards the crest of Garbh Coire, then finally NE for 300m to the summit.  Wow.

Looking over the Lairig Ghru from near the summit of Braeriach, Lochan Uaine beneath Cairn Toul
I'd certainly left the best for last.  Descending E and very quickly I was on a nice rocky ridge from which I could look down and across both sides.  Aviemore not far away, the world looking rather civilised over there in contrast to the other direction!  I was heading along the path marked on the OS map which descends 3 miles over Sron na Lairige.  Path improvements were taking place on the steeper, lower slopes.  As I dropped down, there was more and more sunshine and by the time I arrived at the Lairig Ghru beneath Lurcher's Crag it was Summer once again.  Jacket off, hat off, gloves off.  Now to finally tick-off another thing I'd always wanted to do - actually go through the Lairig Ghru.  

Lairig Ghru
And into the wind.  The Lairig Ghru is runnable, to a point, then its boulders.  Its also very beautiful (on an evening like this) and so I hardly minded the enforced slow-down, trying to ignore the fact I might miss my dinner back down at the Fife Arms Hotel!

Currour Bothy puts the Devil in perspective
I saw other walkers/climbers hanging-out at Corrour Bothy - a building dwarfed by the Devil's Point which in turn was dwarfed by its higher neighbours.  What a great evening for sleeping out wild.  At this point I reflected on my thought's about how the Cairngorm's don't really do "pointy and rugged" - from this angle the Devil's Point does a reasonable impersonation of the Buachaille!

I took the uphill L fork away from the River Dee to head for Glen Lui and eventually Glen Derry.  27 miles done and feeling good, the trail improving, and so I started to really run, like old times, taking risks now I was off the hill and seeing others about.  And sure enough I clipped a rock and became airbourne, this was going to be a nasty one, stupid boy.  God knows how but I
Looking N up Glen Lui from Lairig Ghru Path
managed to get my other foot beneath me, immediately clip another rock, repeat, regain control and continue forward.  What a recovery.  I went back into conservative mode after that, feeling very lucky.  Sure enough a through-packer came past me the other direction just moments later.  Back down to Caledonian Pines with the River Lui meandering through them, another highlight of the day, more people with their tents around Derry Lodge where I crossed the footbridge in the opposite direction to 2 weeks ago, and then a 3 mile easy run back to the car at Linn o Dee.  And yes I made it in time for dinner, by about 10 minutes.  Another great day.

Glen Geusachan, enclosed by Beinn Bhrotain (L) and Monadh Mor (M), Devils Point (R)