Run to the hills: Cairngorm trip

Eoin, one of the other ultra-runners in work (we have 3!), was desperate to get away for a few days during his summer week. Annecy was deemed too expensive this year, so Aviemore was the second choice. Not being confident with maps yet, he invited me along as co-driver. Surprisingly, the boss allowed me off at the same time so we booked the bus, boat and trains, then negotiated the sometimes cryptic campsite price-systems to get backpacker rates for 4 nights: the plan was to set up base-camp somewhere with showers and a pub, and run out from there each day. Glenmore Forest campsite proved ideal with nice facilities and Loch Morlich right beside it for post-run leg cooling. The small shop has recently added a bar that provided a few benches for patrons and their dogs to enjoy some live folk music, decent drinks (Red Stag slips down very well), and hide from the midges.

We both went overboard with luxury, stuffing our expedition duffles with many changes of clothes, towels, food, and cooking apparatus. Sometimes it’s nice to remind yourself why you normally go lightweight… There was little lugging involved however as we transitioned smoothly from transport to transport for 11 hours. Gourmet hotdogs, pints and chocolate brownies in Glasgow broke up the journey and added an air of hedonous pre-celebration. Despite bringing 5 books, I spent the rest of the journey dozing off and randomly waking up to point out an excellent mountain bike line spotted out the window (you can’t go 5 mins without spotting something tasty).

Aviemore greets us with a sunset

We hopped off the train in the evening and stayed the night in Aviemore itself. There was no need for dinner after the feasting earlier, but we bought supplies and watched all the Harley’s rumbling in for the weekend’s “Thunder in the Glens” event. In the morning, we took our last bus up the valley to Glenmore, set up camp and finally headed off to the hills for the first run. I really struggled as we slogged straight up Cairngorm itself. The Windy Ridge proved an apt name and I’m sure Eoin was getting chilly as he kept having to wait for me: I always seem to take a few hours to get going, especially if starting straight into a climb. For all three days, the mountain tops sat in cloud, cutting off our views, but it never really rained on us, and after day one the wind died right down also. *note: do not take a compass reading near the weather station on top of Cairngorm – you will get a very false reading!

Eoin and Craig on summit of Cairngorm

Craig scrambling up a ridge

Steep, rocky descent

We dropped straight over the summit and followed the craggy ridge over some more high points, taking in some rocky scrambles at the end and dropping onto a sweet, fast trail back to the campsite. Curses! I went over on my ankle on the most easy, flat section of path. This is never good, but especially on day 1 of a running trip. I quickly resumed an easy run and the twinges loosened up. With a dip in the lake, I was thankfully good to go for the rest of the holiday. 14 miles done.

Prepping dinner in the rain.

The rain began that evening as darkness fell and I tried to do all the prep for my dinners. If it wasn’t raining, the midges were swarming. I calmly persevered, and finally enjoyed a big pot of pasta, peppers, pesto, onions and pork. With all the prep done, subsequent dinners would be much quicker. On the high side of six foot, I let Eoin have the 2-man tent to himself and bivvied. This really is my preference these days, but I admit it was muggy and damp during the wet night. It also seemed like there were thousands of midges buzzing around me when I opened my eyes and peered through my head-net into the dawn light. Can’t get much closer to nature!

Up the Lairig Ghru trail

Eoin running up the trail

Day 2 turned into the longest run. We wound our way through open forest and heather scrub up onto the Lairig Ghru. Nice steady running through beautiful landscape. Eventually the big ascent arrived, and we peeled off the path to march up Braeriach into the mist. A close grey, littered with rocks was a surreal and eerie environment. We hit the summit then aimed to cut across a flat section and wind around another edge to pick off 2 more tops. Now, despite taking the odd bearing things started to get strange and confusing. There were several ‘ah, we must be here’ moments before the final stumping when walkers we had passed earlier appeared from a side track in front of us… and we reached the summit… again. Now, this could be construed as embarrassing for someone about to do the elite class in the MMM, but I’d prefer to think of it as a good lesson for my companion… the compasses came out and stayed firmly in our palms, with bearings set. It soon became clear how, negotiating around the various terrain obstacles, could have you 90 degrees off track in a matter of minutes and be none the wiser if you didn’t stay glued to the compass. We soon used streams and a cliff edge as catching features and honed in on a steep goat track down into the next valley. Some scrambling and sliding found us emerge below the cloud at a nice waterfall leading to Loch Eanaich. After 3 hours messing about up in the clag, we welcomed the runnable trail that went on for about 5 miles. We started knocking out 8 minute miles, but a new battle with fueling was lurking just ahead. Soon we were devouring our remaining gels and bars every 10-15 minutes as we kept dropping into empty, and eventually it was a trundle down to the lake with nothing more in the bag or tank. None-the-less, a satisfying end to 27 miles of great start and end running, and a hearty lesson in navigation in the middle. Hearty dinners were ahead, with a few hours pinting and listening to Riverman Rod in the Pine Martin Bar.

Waters of Dee? Meeting just before they fall over the cliff

Glorious descent ahead

We originally had massive plans for Day 3, but I quickly agreed when Eoin suggested he’d be ”happy with 20”. Our route was easily modified by dropping the first 800m climb and selecting one-sooner valley. My energy just wasn’t there and my sore throat-turned cold had settled into a gruff cough. We missed our path up Strath Nethy until we had climbed enough above to see it snake through the boggy heath. It was clear that this is a terrible quagmire a lot of the year, but the dry summer left it firm enough to skip through. Solidity aside, it was still highly technical, and barely wide enough for a foot in places with heather scratching the shins and disturbed bees chasing us along. It was walking speed, but we’d like to think still quicker than walkers would walk it, and added to our wilderness adventure. The quiet slog was rewarded with views opening out over the saddle and we tumbled down along the lake to it’s beachy head near the famous Shelter Stone.

Strath Nethy

Trail winding up Ben MacDhui

Final descent

I bust my ankle again when a step-down gave way, but we immediately started up a steep climb and as the gradient lowered my ‘old man shuffle’ soon loosened it up once again: I am very happy with this unusual sprain-recovery technique… keep running (careful, but relaxed/symmetrical)! We exchanged pleasantries with others at the summit of Ben MacDhui, then had miles of glorious descent to finish our adventure. Eoin developed a tendon pain on the way down and as we neared the last few miles of road and track I got a stabbing shin pain (from over-poised foot on the tech descent). I think we got the most we could from our trip and our bodies were suggesting they had had enough for now… just a hint of things to be careful of: we were both ok the next day. I was happy to rest on the journey home and enjoy the views we had missed, as Scotland had a fine day of sunshine to see us off. Thanks to Ann from Minnesota for the lift into Aviemore when Scotland’s excellent transport network just failed to turn up!

100km (62 miles) run, 3600m ascent, in about 14.5 hours over 3 days. I think we covered a good 80 sq km of the national park, but know we only scratched the surface. There are so many trails, routes and variations that you could run everyday for a year and still find new things to do. We would go back in an instant.

Recovery time!

* Credit to Eoin for any of the photos I’m in! ¬†You can see more of my photos from the trip on Flickr

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