Words by Ian Bailey
Photos by David ‘Sanny’ Gould
The Cairngorms National Park is long-esteemed as a superb and testing venue for walkers, climbers, skiers, and those quintessential hardmen, the Scottish winter mountaineers. Perhaps less well-known, though, is the scope for adventures of the gravel persuasion, with the tantalising draw of genuine wilderness, testing trails, and stunning vistas amongst the secluded peaks and valleys providing more than enough enticement for adventurous types.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the area on many occasions, and yet sadly the views have often been elusive, the soupy summertime clag and winter white-outs creating epic navigational examinations rather than picture-perfect enjoyment. Nevertheless, despite the meteorological misgivings, an opportunity to spend some time in this majestic region is always savoured, even when chances of seeing anything are guaranteed to be zero.
And so it was recently when a Velotech Platinum mechanics course at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s outdoor training centre, provided the perfect excuse for another trip to the Eastern Highlands. Knowing that ‘the lodge’ would perfectly take care of all fuelling and sleeping needs meant I just had to throw in the bike, lights and a selection of clothes more suited to an Everest summiteer or Arctic explorer than for an everyday cyclist. One choppy ferry across the Irish Sea, a lengthy drive North on increasingly picturesque roads and I was comfortably settled in and ready to commence the course the following morning.
The intention was to go for a daily pre-breakfast training spin on the myriad gravel tracks that surround Aviemore town; a great chance to gently wake the body and blow out the cobwebs of immediate post-season excess. However, I hadn’t bargained on meeting Jon Entwistle, Scottish Time-Trial champion over both sprinty and ridiculous distances; he was both psyched to join me and blessed with an engine and mindset that would up the ante considerably. Almost instantly, that intended leg-loosener was morphed into a twice-daily chase into the hills, straining to milk the most from early morning starts and the two-hour gap between studies’ end and dinner commencing. The best of which was a 33km multi-terrain cracker, savoured under a pitch-black sky and fuelled by the motivation of avoiding missing a top-class feed.
Leaving the luxurious warmth of the centre, we spun the entrance road rapidly to maintain heat, the heavy vapour of warm breath twinkling in powerful headlight beams. The air was crisp and cold, displaying that delectable freshness that cleanses the lungs as temperatures tickle the minus figures. The initial plan was to loop up the road to the ski-centre and hit some trails on the way down, a chance to acclimatise to conditions before pushing further afield.
As we powered up the twisting ascent, snow began to fall, gradually at first and then heavily enough to allow us to lay fresh tracks, the crisp squeak of compressed flakes under knobbly tyres, grins widening at this rare experience. Unsurprisingly we were entirely alone, free to chat unhindered by traffic, me gasping heavily whilst Jon was encouraged to elaborate widely on every answer, anything to keep his breath from supplying power to Chris Hoy-like quads. A quick photo-stop at the car park and then straight into a tentative descent line, eyes streaming and exposed cheeks burning as we deliberately locked up rear-brakes for endless skids on the slippery surface, just for the fun of it. Half-way down we departed the asphalt, dropping into a gem of a singletrack, tight and twisty with intermittent drainage gulleys to be hopped, rolled or avoided as appropriate. Buzzing with the adrenaline of visually impaired trail bashing, I got over-confident on an iced-up boardwalk, taking a comedy journey over-the-bars to a fortunate soft-bush landing a few feet below. Following an extended laughter stop, a slightly more sensible approach was adopted until gradients eased, the gravel lane kicked-in and we were speedily dispatched back to the road. It was time to go explore.
Re-passing Glenmore, we picked up the trail North-East, gradually climbing the valley fire road. At these lower elevations the satisfying crack of frozen puddles was replaced by the slurp of porridge-like slop, lumps of slushy mud flicking from rapidly rotating tyres. To our left, there was a tangible presence in the bulk of Meall a Bhuachaille, our sixth sense awareness forming mental shapes without vision as we ascended to the stunning An Lochan Uaine. Dropping down the steps, we paused to admire the glassy still water, moonlight illuminating the pristine scene, the snow clouds of the peaks a distant memory.
Re-mounting and pressing on, the technicality upped with some punchy rises and broken rock on the narrowing path adjacent to the Ryvoan Bothy, damp sweat on heavily layered skin and time to finally free my head from the ‘granny scarf’ Buff arrangement. A fresher feeling accompanied the gentle drop towards Abernethy Forest as we regained the tree cover and briefly followed the River Nethy towards the Forest Lodge. At this point Jon clearly felt the need to turn the screw a touch, ‘accidentally’ deviating us up through the contours of Cairn Rynettin whilst cheerfully providing running commentary on our wattage output. As fascinating as the figures were, the diversion tactics failed to drown out a growing weariness and the first pangs of hunger as I dreamed of the delights being cooked up for us back at base.
Error rectified, re-tracing our steps was a hoot of a greasy descent, off the brakes and two-wheeled drifts through jinky bends before turning left and bearing due West once we hit the main track again. Skirting the bottom of the forest, the distance clicked by rapidly on ten kilometres of gradual descent, round Tore Hill and back to the road near to Glencairn. The trails here were classic forest-fare, generally solid and speedy but unpredictably scattered with deep mud patches and deeper puddles where heavy plant had recently churned through. One such pond forced lengthy consideration before opting for the straighter, but potentially deeper central line as opposed to the treacherous angles of the trail side. Past the point of no return momentum faltered, bottom brackets and then feet took a soaking, pedals splashing through the depths and the inevitability of imminently frozen digits to look forward to.
With stomachs rumbling and mild concerns over missing strict dinner times, the decision was made to straight-line it homewards. A quick stop to gawp in amazement at the star-stuffed sky, killing our lights to enhance the show and then on to the serious business of the two-man chain gang. As often occurs, the elevation low was also the metaphorical one, legs and head conspiring to struggle on the cruel final three-kilometre climb before instantaneously recovering at the plateau and driving hard along the rollercoaster of perfect gravel known as the ‘old logging road’. A final sprint along the shores of Loch Morlich before the tractor beam lure of dinner and dessert dragged two very satisfied bikers in.
The triple warmth of smugness, full bellies and a roaring fire served to cap-off a superb early-evening’s entertainment as we shared the delight of a memorable trip into the darkness. The sense of being outdoors sometimes trumps seeing the outdoors, a perfect autumn night conspiring with the limited vision to create a sensory feast of smell and sound, whilst all the time being aware that the mountains were all-around, invisibility afforded by the blackness unable to mask their brooding aura. Whenever the brain is so engaged in the moment, memories form easily and last long; this was a ride that won’t be forgotten.
Ed. Note: You may have noticed a lack of snow and darkness in the photos accompanying this story. As Ian’s ride was mostly in the dark, no photos came from the actual trip; but Sanny was able to provide some from the same area.