After several months of lockdown, an easing of restrictions sees Sanny get back to the mountains. Would it live up to expectations or would the midges and rain take the shine off?
“So from the middle of July, we intend to ease lockdown restrictions just a little….” announced everybody’s favourite Janet Godley impersonator, Nicola Strurgeon, much to my delight. Poring over the finer details, it quickly became apparent that a trip to the Cairngorms was finally on the cards. After much deliberation and poring over maps (remember those?), I settled on an old favourite, Cairngorm. Topping out at over 4000 feet, it is often unfairly regarded as a bit of a rounded lump. From Aviemore, it is the striking Northern Corries and the glorious line of the Lairig Ghru that draw the eye. Cairngorm suffers a little by way of comparison with most riders heading to MacDhui instead, which does the mountain a real disservice as there is trail riding treasure to be found by those who look.
Fair winds and following seas forecast? Errrrr, no!
With a forecast that could kindly be described as mixed, an overcast Sunday morning in July saw me making my way through the Scots Pine playground that is Rothiemurchus. The beautiful smell of pine resin fillied my nose, a sure sign that I was in my favourite riding spot. My thoughts wandered aimlessly as I made my way along the tracks and trails that lead you to Loch Morlich and the start of the ascent proper.
Crossing the iconic Cairngorm Club Footbridge, I stopped a moment to capture the scene and take in the fact that I was (finally!) back riding much loved trails in the heart of big sky country. Setting up a shot, I heard a distinct “Spladoosh!” “That sounded like a rock being dropped into the river…..” I thought to myself, “….except there is nobody around. How odd!” Within a midges minim, to quote “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue”, I realised that that rock was my water bottle which was now gently floating down the stream away from me. “Arse-biscuits!” I expleted, as I found myself knee deep in water in a desperate attempt to recover my bottle. No bottle would mean an early end to the ride and frankly, that was not bloody well happening!
Sitting on a rock, bottle recovered, I must have looked like some kind of weird washer-man with a penchant for flagellation as I repeatedly smacked my sodden socks against it in order to get most of the water out of them. Weirdo! Of course, the midges quickly joined the party and I must have looked a right pillock as I simultaneously smacked, flapped and cursed my way to slightly drier socks and feet.
That said, my attempt to capture my displeasure on camera – grumpy face and two fingers – ended up looking more like some pouting Insta-teenager giving the peace sign. I’ll leave you to be the judge of that.
Anyway, moving on quickly. My planned route would have seen me ride up the Altt Mor and then round the base of the Northern Corries. However, a combination of the Forestry having closed the path following repeated landslips and a gusty south westerly meant that a reroute was called for. Scanning the horizon, I spotted the distinct path that is Coire na Ciste. Unfamiliar with the route, I decided to give it a go. Popping my bike on my shoulders, it was a relatively easy hike up.
My lockdown riding regime of going out on my fat bike most nights had paid dividends and I felt remarkably fresh. Even the occasional blast of hail, heavy shower and side wind did nothing to dampen the spirits. I was back in the game, baby! A brief stop to sample the culinary delights in my bag ( A triple Bounty, milk chocolate coated, of course, a Clif Bar and Bacon Flavour Fries made for an interesting flavour combination) and I soon found myself at the head of the giant white elephant that is the Cairngorm Funicular.
Looking through the dusty windows of the top station, the Funicular casts a forlorn figure. A classic example of how not to design by committee, I genuinely wonder whether it will ever run again? Given the millions of pounds that it will cost to repair, I wouldn’t bet on it.
360 degree views if you can see through the clouds……..
A final push and I soon found myself at the summit, taking in 360 degrees of breath-taking…….nothingness. Surrounded by dense cloud, visibility was restricted to tens of metres. It wasn’t quite the scene I had hoped for. A passing group of poorly kitted out walkers (white trainers and a light fleece aren’t really the optimum choice for a summit that has an average temperature of 6 degrees as this time of year) passed the time with a bit of chat. They didn’t tarry long, recognising that a hasty retreat was perhaps their best option while I hunkered down at the summit cairn.
As with all Scottish mountains, the weather on Cairngorm definitely conforms to the four seasons in one day idiom. Within minutes, the scene changed to one of distant peaks and visibility measured in tens of kilometres instead of metres. My efforts were being rewarded in spades as I played summit spotting bingo with myself. As a first ride back, it was pretty special but it wasn’t over yet.
“Oh, Ambassador, you are spoiling us!”
Breaking off from the main path, I consulted the map before heading over the lesser used track past Marquis’ Well to the rarely travelled Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, using the ski infrastructure as handily located points of reference. Best described as vague to the point of non-existent at first, the track very gradually comes into relief until you find yourself on a truly magical slice of ridge line singletrack, heading down to the distinctive cliff face of Stac na h-lolaire (please don’t ask me to pronounce that!)
To my right was the hideous despair of Strath Nethy. If you ever look at the map and think “Hmmmm. That will go on a bike.” Don’t. Just don’t. No really, DON’T! Personally, I think it is a little joke played by the map makers on unsuspecting bikers.
Gradually descending the ridge, shades of light and dark filled the vista. Alternating between heavy banks of rain and shadow and light and sun, the whole scene had the quality of a Gainsborough or Landseer painting. While the sun brought welcome heat, there was always the implied threat of another heavy downpour. Truth be told, it was weather of the finest order and I was loving it.
Breaking off the trail down a well-trodden but heavily eroded path for Lochan Na Beinne, I reflected on whether I would have been better on the fat bike for this bit (Answer: yes!) but it didn’t lessen my enjoyment. Soon reaching the Coire na Ciste car park, it didn’t take long for my now sodden and sweaty self to make my way back through the lower section of the Alt Mhor trail and retrace my steps back through Rothiemurchus.
As an end to a ride, there can be few finer sections of trail. Gradually descending the whole way, you feel like a million dollars as you appear to have a new found spring in your step despite several hours of hard biking in your legs. As an end to my first big mountain ride back after several months, it was nigh on perfect. Apart from the midges, of course – they can just do one! Ha! Ha!
This article was brought to you in association with Ortlieb.
Sanny was using:
- Atrack 25 Litre Bag
- Map Case
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