Four years ago, I hatched a plan to bike pack a slightly ambitious route. Up Ben Macdui, bivi, then descend to Loch Etchachan (a trail that often generates wistful looks and knowing nods between the cognoscenti), then on down to Glen Derry to meet the crew who were intent on Beinn a’Bhuird then Ben Avon and after, I would return by dropping down to the river Avon and follow this to Tomintoul, cross to Dorback Lodge and the Braes of Abernethy to Aviemore.
It didn’t happen and I had quite a gnarly experience up Macdui. The Big Grey Man was calling my name.
I returned with this route in my mind numerous times over the subsequent years, but it wasn’t until last weekend that I finally managed to get it done – more or less.
Why less? well, I did not ascend Beinn a’Bhuird or Avon, instead I headed to the south side of the River Dee and ascended from Crathie, on the road, until Corgarff Castle where I took estate tracks to rejoin the River Avon at Inchrory Lodge, before heading north to Tomintoul and completing the route aforementioned.
I had been weather-watching intently because I had a 3 day window and needed 2 days to do the route. As the wet weather of recent weeks subsided, I knew that some of the boggier ground on my original route (including the classic section to Loch Builg) would probably be a bit miserable, but having ridden various alternatives in the past, it was easy to re-route and I felt that I had minimised any needless misery, but kept all the fun stuff in.
I overnighted near Loch Morlich with a view to an early start. The sun was shining and the azure of the sky brought a broad smile to my face when I finally made it out of my kipsack. Gear was stowed and checked a final time and I rode out the logger’s trail to Glenmore Lodge then up to the ski hill and on up Coire Cas.
Having fitted an 11-46 cassette recently, I was able to pedal the lion’s share of the climb and once up top the views opened out and I took a deep breath and drank the majesty of the Cairngorm in.
It really is an otherworldly environment and I always feel I have transcended my everyday life as soon as I am up there. I had hoped to ride the bulk of the descent from Cairn Gorm but some of the bigger rock steps foiled me as my Revelate seat pack forced my body weight to stay high and forward.
Scott at Porcelain Rocket is working on a dropper friendly bikepacking set up and I’ll be very interested to see how this progresses. Most often, one tends to avoid the more technical routes on a bikepacking mission, but there are occasions where it could prove indispensable.
Back to the trails….
I carried and rode over Stob Coire an t’Sneachda, enjoying the rocky, steppy trail, then dropped to the saddle before Cairn Lochan, filled the water bottle with the icy cold, clear water from the Allt Coire Domhain and continued south west to join the trail to Macdui.
A beautiful, clear view over to Braeriach and Cairn Toul was reward for the hard work and after a relatively brief carry over the rocky section, I took to the summit cone of Macdui, where I met Jamie Pierce, whose pictures of riding in various locations around Scotland are a great inspiration. A good chat, then up to the top and after a few pictures, I dropped to Loch Etchachan.
Please click to see original and see the trail, snaking into the distance…
The technical track is fantastic. I had some concern over how it would ride loaded, but Snow Job took it all in stride. I filled the water bottle again at the brook that feeds Loch Etchachan and took on the trail beside the Coire Etchachan Burn, down to the Hutchison Hut. At one point, I nearly ass-over-tea-kettle’d into the burn as, again, my C.O.G was thrown by the saddle bag and I high-sided after a step down and careered off to the left. Serendipity was the only thing that saved me from a painful crash down the steep side of the banks of the burn.
The ride down Glen Derry, as the day began to grow old, was relaxing. The first hard section of the loop was done and I could feel some weight coming from the shoulders. Down to Linn of Dee, then east along the river – on the north side to Mar Lodge. Unfortunately, the bridge that allows forward progress, just after the Linn of Qoich, was washed away, so I turned tail, passed Mar Lodge and took Victoria Bridge over to the road and then ducked into Morrone Birkwood National Nature Reserve, where some steep forestry tracks (which I was interested to ride as they form part of the Deeside Trail route) delivered me to Braemar, cold and admittedly a bit tired.
A pretty iffy burger and chips at the ‘the Hungry Highlander’ gave scant warmth and I headed further East, towards Invercauld and took to the trails after the Bridge of Dee on the south side of the river. I knew the woods here, where there are efforts to regenerate ‘Caledonian‘ forest, would likely give me a good spot to pitch the tent and turn in for the night.
Overnight, the rain fell and at one point, after attending to natures call, I tripped over the front dyneema cord of the tent and broke it, leading to a collapse and some rain fall wetting my sleeping bag. After scrabbling around for the peg I had pulled out with my clumsiness, I eventually got everything ship shape and retired again.
Then the grunting started.
I suspect it was a stag and at one point it came very close to my tent. I was curious to see if it would come into sight but after about 30 minutes or so it must have wandered off somewhere.
Due to the broken nature of my sleep, I arose late and so it was 8.30am before I got going. Another reason for my lassitude was the rain, which had continued into the early part of the morning and I was loathe to get going until it stopped. It did and the smell of the woodland as I neared Balmoral was beautiful and invigorating.
The low cloud was beginning to rise and, taking to the steep road after Crathie, I climbed north, feeling that getting to Corgarff Castle represented the 3/4 point of the ride. It was interesting to see the estate track heading back west towards Loch Builg off the B976 and I nearly took it, but figured I would stick to my planned route. At Corgarff, I turned off the road and dropped to Inchrory Lodge and then sped north, beside the mighty River Avon, with cloud and rain at my heels. At Tomintoul, I bought a couple of sandwiches at the post office, answered some surprised locals questions about the fat tyres I was running, and made the turn to the west where the hop scotch down the Burn of Brown was considerably easier than in previous times due to the fat tyres.
Climbing over to Dorback Lodge gave an opportunity to refuel and I considered my strategy for crossing the Dorback Burn. At times, this can run quite fast and deep, but at lower Drum, I found the ford which has been created there to be rideable. Unfortunately, the rain had finally caught me and soon I was both cold and wet.
Unfortunately, the trail after the ford dead ended ~500m away from the trail to Eag Mhor. At this exact point the rain became considerably heavier. It is difficult to explain how hard the ground between the ford and the Eag Mhor path is to cross. Deep water filled clefts between Sphagnum moss clumps and huge tussocks of grass. Still, before too long I made it to what I consider the exit of the Eag Mhor, at which point the rain stopped and I climbed into Abernethy Forest, taking a stallar singletrack that wound through the trees and popped out at the Lodge, where I made the turn for Ryvoan, it’s famous bothie and the completion of the route.
A block of cheese and a handful of Mike-n-Ikes saved me from a bonk and I dropped to Glenmore Lodge with relief to have covered the ground and having enjoyed some classic trails, superb views and another rewarding Cairngorm loop.