This thread is going to start off as a ride report for a recent 3 day trip across the Cairngorms. I did a previous rundown of a trip across the South Downs that folks seemed to enjoy (https://www.lfgss.com/comments/13572428/) so thought I'd share this one too. I'll probably end up using this to document the more adventurous outings I manage to squeeze in amongst packed family life. For me as much anyone, but if you are reading, I hope you enjoy.
I’d been keen to get a bikepacking adventure fix before the winter set in. Earlier summer trips had been lower scale than originally planned after an Exmoor / Dartmoor trip was replaced by more wanderings around the North and South Downs. So it was that a friend and I booked onto the sleeper train for a long weekend in the Cairngorms.
Last Thursday was the departure night and with the forecast looking decidedly average, we boarded the Caledonian Sleeper at Euston around 9:30pm for the long journey to the mountains. We had a return to Aviemore, but with the wind forecast to be stiff and from the south, we decided we’d get off at Blair Athol and aim to ride north to Aviemore. We packed the bikes neatly into an on-board shed big enough for 6 and settled into our comfy seats with a couple of beers and maps to plan.
A slightly restless night for both, my best sleep was had when I set up my camping mat, pillow and sleeping bag in the bike shed and managed to get 4 hours of decent kip on the floor. That was until I was awoken by a “hey pal, you cannae sleep in ere” as the guard turfed me out. He was surprised to find me squeezed between the wheels of our bikes but congratulated me on getting away with for so long.
Anyway, we were eventually dumped at Blair Athol around 6:30am in the drizzle and dark. Time for a coffee while we waited for the hotel to open. We’d been promised they could squeeze us in for a cooked breakfast but service wasn’t till 7:30. Rain was forecast until the afternoon so we were happy not to be rushing off first thing as we sheltered on the platform.
Breakfast was great from a proper old school Scottish highlands hotel. It had a strange 80s/90s breakfast playlist, a moody maître d’ and more random taxidermy than you’d necessarily chose to encounter before a meal. But fed and watered and with the rain looking lighter than expected, we packed up and began the trip in earnest.
We were aiming to go up Glen Tilt, over the top towards Linn of Dee before heading up Glen Derry to Bob Scott’s bothy. Not a massive ride, but mainly up hill. Fortunately neither of us are into massive days in the saddle and prefer to enjoy the journey than crank out the most miles possible. Our decision to start here and head north was a good one though. All the way up Glen Tilt the wind was like a hand on our back pushing us along (this would become a theme of the trip). The drizzle eased as we climbed, and when a squall of harder rain would come through you hardly noticed as it wasn’t in our faces. The River Tilt was absolutely firing though, due to the rain they’d had the previous few days. This was a worry as just passed the top of the glen we had to ford three rivers which can get shady if there is a lot of water moving around. More on that later.
As we reached the upper narrow section of the glen the landy track gives way to tight single track with rocks at derailleur height and sections with an alarmingly steep drop to the right and long tumble to the river rapids below. It was beautiful though and only got better when the sun started to peak through. We pedalled, pushed and forded smaller streams all bathed in the stunning scenery of this amazing glen. The effort to get up here and risk of a soaking is so worth it. you just dont get scenery like this in the south east...
By the time we emerged from the steep sided glen the blue skies were out. We still had that lovely tail wind as we meandered across the relative flat lands towards the ruins of Bynack Lodge. Then, out of nowhere, disaster strikes. I managed to snap my chain downshifting to get out of boggy bit. No bother I thought, chain tool and quick links mean this should be a five minute job. Unfortunately, pulling my tool kit out it became apparent I’d lost the nib of my chain tool and now had no way of removing the pins of the bent links. With the prospect of a 12 mile push to Braemar filling my head with dread I got to work on a bodge. Fortunately I was able to snap one of my smallest allen keys off my multitool and then snap that in half again so it would fit into the chain breaker in such a way that it would push the pin out. Success. I’ve never been so happy to see a complete chain linked up on a bike in my life.
We gladly peddled on to the ruined lodge for lunch. Boil in the bag carbonarra tasted great sat in the sun sheltered from the wind by the ruined buildings. It is gorgeous up here. We knew the next bit was make or break. Three rivers to ford, apparently each deeper than the last, the last being the Geldie Burn, which can get pretty rapid in spate. If we got over these, it would be an easy pedal to Linn of Dee and the last section up to the bothy. If we couldn’t get over, our plans would need change and we didn’t have a version B.
The first fording went ok. We’d given up on keeping feet dry so it was a case picking up the bike and stomping over. The next one was not so easy. As I stepped to the far side it got deep and before I knew it I was up to my waist, the water pushing me over. Fortunately I could reach and dump the bike on the other bank and stagger out.
As the Geldy Burn is supposed to be the hardest we were both getting worried. Then it all got a bit surreal. Just as my mate was wading into the burn (which looked better than we feared) we got a toot toot on a horn from behind. Some old chap was driving a Landrover up with 4 American tourists in the back. It was also pulling a trailer with an argocat on top. They’d been out stalking and were happy to give us a lift over the ford. As the old boy chucked my bike on the trailer we caught sight of what it was resting on. Two dead stags compete with bloody entrails. We clung onto the trailer, my saddle getting gored by the antlers as we were carted over to the other side.
Anyway, we were safely over and on our way. Cruising downwind towards the forest at Linn of Dee before heading up Glen Derry. A short pedal on nice fireroad brought us to Bob Scott’s bothy. Like all bothies, it’s free to use you’ve just got to hope there is room for you. It was deserted when we arrived, and surprisingly well appointed, this one even has a loo of sorts. Clearly there is no power or running water so it’s like camping without the tent. We were joined first by some walkers who just wanted to have their sandwiches out of the wind before heading on and later by a solo walker. It was lovely just chilling out by the river side, wandering up into the deciduous woodland with the leaves looking their autumnal best. A great spot to chill and read a book as the sun sets. This is the great thing about not ruining yourself with some massive miles. You have the time and energy to properly relax!
Later in the evening, we were joined by another chap. It turned out he was one of the main people responsible for maintaining the bothy. He'd lugged a big bag of coal up so we were able to charge up the burner stove and get the place toasty warm for the evening. He shared his stories of being a high altitude lavvy attendant, in charge of swapping over the composting toilet bags every month or so, even in the dead of winter. Sounds lovely. Anyway, it’s people like this that make these bothies a viable option, always decently maintained and they’re always taking on new ruins to turn into places to stay. His blog is a good read and it covers all the bothies in the Cairngorms - https://cairngormwanderer.wordpress.com/the-bothies/ .
We had a decent night's kip though. Mega dosses of fresh air always knock me out in the evening and we were all looking forward to another day in the hills the next day. No one really knew what the weather was going to do, I was just hoping it would remain as good as this:
This looks amazing, what a weekend. Amazing that this is effectively on our doorstep if we go looking for it.
absolutely lovely report and photos.
could i trouble you for a gps trail? I would very much like to do this ride.
Thanks, I'll try and get days 2 and three up in the next couple of days.
Here is the route from day one. Short, but still took us from about 9:30 till 3:30. We were not covering the ground rapidly!
This thread has made me realize I've got to the age of 32 thinking it was "Cairngorns".
Wonderful report for day 1!
Thank you for sharing.
Maybe you could do a bike/kit run down?
Oh, and great tip about the chain breaker fiasco.
Wait...Whut? I did too and I have walked there a fair bit!
Ha, glad to have brought some enlightenment to the community. @fizzy.bleach aren't you a copywriter?
You got me. This is why we have editors!
Did lol. Excellent report sir. Looking forward to more.
One advantage of doing a trip in October is the sun doesn’t wake you up at 5 in the morning. So it was I could happily snooze till past 7 watching the sun hit the slopes of the mountains out of the window by my makeshift bed. Peaceful, bar the light snoring of one our companions. Eventually it was time for coffee and a porridge mix made up of oats, powdered milk and all the random seeds and dried fruits from the back of the cupboard, calorie count; unknown. Having packed up we aimed first for a short trip up Glen Derry before crossing the river and heading back down some well-reviewed single track. The nice thing about this was we could leave our kit in the bothy and ride these first few km’s without any added weight.
It was lovely out. Not too cold, not too windy and the glen was looking amazing with the native trees hitting their autumnal stride. The Cairngorms are generally divided into old hunting estates, but here the estate had been gifted to National Trust Scotland. What this means is any dear or livestock are closely contained. This allows the old woodland to flourish as it should. The stark and powerful beauty of the bare Scottish hillside is all very well, but this is a landscape stripped of its natural biodiversity. Before man introduced deer and sheep, these hills were covered in mixed woodland. Once you understand this, and catch the glimpses of what it was like, you can’t help but see the barren hills in a different light.
With a cracking bit of single track done we lashed the bags back onto our bikes and headed back down towards the River Dee and then on to Braemar for coffee and cake. Its great getting nice and remote but you can’t underestimate the bennefits of a decent flat white and squidgy cake and fortunately Braemar could offer both. They also had an interesting take on customising local bikes. I'm thinking of posting this in Anti, but it does appear to be for chairty.
We stocked up on food and nibbles and then got on our way. Ahead of us was our first big climb of the trip. We were aiming for Loch Builg then Glen Avon (pronounced Aan?!) This would involve a decent climb out of the Invercauld Estate and over the shoulder of Culardoch, an almost munro. The climb out through the woodland was great, a decent gradient you could just tick over. It all gave me a chance to get this nice snap of my kit set-up, essential for any ride report and already requested by @Tomo187 .
The bike is a Jamis Dragonslayer from a couple of years ago. I love it. 120mm travel steel 27.5+ hardtail. It was marketed as a do anything hardtail (see two videos on youtube). I think it nails both jobs. With relatively slack geo and 3.0 tyres that grip like nothing else it rips down loose trails no problem. I’ve got a range of Alpkit bags draped over it. Their cheap saddle pack drybag for my clothes, a drybag upfront with all the sleeping gear (we shared a tent between us but didn’t use it) which is lashed on with Alpkit’s cheap ‘Joey’ harness and a made to measure frame bag for cooking gear and general gubbings. Tool kit in the bottle cage under the down tube. This left me with just a few bits and bobs and water in my backpack. People always ask if they could do this stuff on a cross bike or similar, and while you could, this kind of bike makes it so much more fun and easy on the joints, hands, arms and arse. You can also go really fast without thinking you’re going to die. All bonuses when you’re in the middle of nowhere.
Anyway, once we’d climbed out of the forest we were faced with the exposed landy track up and over the shoulder. Fortunately we still had the wind on our backs and we slowly winched are way over the top. Great views to the southern Caringorms were to be had over our backs but the ones in front weren’t too shabby either. Once we hit the highest point it was a great flowing descent to Loch Builg. Big smiles as I even started to get thigh burn from pinning it downhill for about 10 minutes.
Lunch was taken at another ruined hunting lodge before heading on past the loch and then down further to where the Builg Burn joins the Avon. Here at Linn on Avon is another of those amazingly gorgous bits of Scotish mixed woodland amongst steep sides Glen and waterfall river. It's great to see another estate, this time a private one, has fenced off the lower reaches to the glen to allow the old woodland to germinate. There were a few flyers up explaining what they were trying to do to encourage the woodland the thrive which is great to see. Hopefully, in 20 years times, many of these glens, and further up up the hills will be returned to closer to their former glory. For now, though, this is still a stunning spot but also marked the point where we turned left and finally headed into the wind for the first time this trip.
We had a decent slog from here up Glen Avon to a bothy around 10 miles up the track. It looks like a doddle on the map, but there is more undulation than we expected and this added to a decent net height gain in the round. The steepest bit is a daunting set of switch backs near the start, see below, but the track just keeps going and going, or at least it felt like that after a decent stint in the saddle and the headwind to temper your progress.
Eventually, we made it to Faindouran bothy. Now this place is remote. I don’t think there was another human within about a 10km radius that Saturday night. It’s a wonderful spot, just on the banks of the river with a cosy little room in the end of an otherwise ruined old lodge.
We made ourselves at home, before heading out to try and gather enough bog wood to get the fire sparked up. They encourage you to bring coal in, but we didn’t fancy lugging it over. In the end we managed to scavenge enough bits and pieces to keep the fire fed all evening, although the bog heather burns quick so you just have to keep shoving it in. We were very content in the toasty warm as we munched our boil in the bag chilli con carne and chocolate mousse pudding.
It was just the two of us this evening, but the reading material on offer was second to non. In the drawer of the desk in there was an array of mountain magazines and newsletters, including two copies of a publication I was until then unaware of, The Rough Stuff Journal. It’s an interesting read and even included an advert for Vaz Cycle Finishes, the forum recommended value bike painter of Hither Green. You can access a pdf copy of a 2014 edition here if you’re interested…https://www.rsf.org.uk/images/User_uploaded_files/Latest_web_journal.pdf
Anyway, after a lovely evening putting the world to rights and feeling a million miles from anywhere I settled into my sleeping bag to finish off the second copy of Rough Stuff by candle light. A pretty perfect day ended in our own tiny cottage at the end of the road. It would have been romantic were it not for the smell of socks and lack of amorous feelings between my mate and I…
Love it, love it, love it!
Saved for later so I can read it over a coffee.
10/10 so far. Strong chain tool bodging!
Excellent stuff, I'm moving to Glasgow in January and one of the things I'm most looking forward to is just being able to get out there without an extra two days' travel to and from LDN.
This is great - I'm jealous and inspired in equal measures, and may well copy this idea and do something very similar in the spring.
Thanks for the kind words all. Here is the route from day 2 if anyone wants to copy.
Really good story. Thanks for taking the time to write this up.
Last night I read your day 1 post, and then went right off at a tangent reading the cairngormwanderer blogs.
Photograph #7, day 2. Just a perfect spot for a break, brew up a coffee and take it all in.
Looking forward to day #3.
Beaut photos. Look more like painting than real. If I ever move back to the UK, it would be up North - just lovely.
I meant to say how resourceful you were facing the broken chain tool.
I have just been in the workshop and tried to break a 3mm allen key. Its not easy. I did succeed using 2 mole grips. The problem there being, I normally only carry 1 pair, 'vise-grip 6 LC' on longer rides.
I'll pick you to be in my team!
Ha, I'll admit now it was a 2mm or maybe 2.5...I did get pretty resourceful though with other parts of the chain tool and a rock involved as a lever. I was most worried about impaling myself on a sharp think metal stick.
It was another good night’s sleep. I was kipping in the attic of the bothy which had been partly laid out like a proper bed, what luxury to even have my own room! However, the roof was a fairly minimal affair and I was aware as the morning dawned that the wind had got up a wee bit. We coffee’d, breakfasted and packed up. Venturing outside it was clear the weather had come in a little over night but what rain there was was being funnelled straight back down the glen where we needed to go. We set off in great spirits, hardly having to pedal as we flew down the track we’d cranked up the previous evening. The best kind of wake up.
45 minutes later we reached the main track where we’d turned off the previous day. If we thought the wind was lively from down this valley, it was absolutely stonking down the one we joined at the bottom. As I zipped onto the bridge over the river it hit me, pushing me hard to the left. It felt like I was windsurfing at this point (another favourite hobby) as I leant into the wall of air trying to eek some ground upwind. As I got to the other side of the bridge I was pleased to bear away and move from broad reach to a dead run. The short climb over a little lump of valley took absolutely no pedal effort at all. Big smiles.
The sun even decided to come out at this point. So it was that we could zip down the lower parts of Glen Avon hardly breaking sweat. We had a date with more coffee and a bacon and egg sandwich in Tomintoul, marketed as the highest village in Scotland. It was quite something to descend for about an hour and half to the highest village but it gives you an idea of the scale of things, particularly just how high we’d been last night!
Anyway, sat in greasy café in the village it was clear the wind was only getting stronger. A look online suggested 45-50mph gusts with it swinging round to be more from the west. This was also the time we had to turn west. Gone was the helpful hand on the back of a tailwind we’d enjoyed for the best part of two and half days. Instead it was the seized brake pad, pedal downhill effect of a massive headwind to look forward to. Fortunately we were in no rush. We had to be in Aviemore by 9pm to get our train so time was on our side. Before I move on though, it’s worth pointing out now that the coffee in Tomintoul is not to be recommended. Both the café and classier bistro had seemingly not discovered fresh milk with frothed UHT in both…Braemar 1-0 Tomintoul.
Eventually, having eaten lunch as well, we had to brave it, heading out across the open moorland and straight into the headwind. The first section had the odd bit of plantation forest to shelter from, which was welcome, but when you got into the wind proper, it was slow going. There was also a section where the track became indistinguishable from a meandering burn and we must have forded it 10 times in 1km. On the bright side, it was sunny and hot. Quite how Scotland managed to dish up gale force winds in October that were warm enough for a t-shirt I still don’t understand.
The breaking point was a crazy climb over a relatively minor hill. The wind was so strong in your face it was hard to stay straight. Veer too much to one side and it would catch you and try to dump you in the heather. Even with our double brunch+lunch break we were flagging a bit. Sheltering by a small cliff we decided to skip the next bit of the plan. We were supposed to be heading up through a tight valley called Eag Mhor towards the Abernethy Forest. The wind was going to be funnelling straight through it and we weren’t really sure if it was even going to be possible to push our kit through. Discretion is the better part of valour. It may look nice in the pictures but it was howling.
There was an easy diversion Just past Dorback lodge which would whisk us down a paved road to Nethie Bridge with the added bonus of an afternoon pint, something this trip had been hugely deficient in till now. Chatting to the locals in the pub I found it amazing they had no idea where any of the places we spoke about were. I’m not sure if it’s my soft southern accent, or if they literally never leave the village.
A good thing about Nethy Bridge is it is linked to Aviemore by an off-road family cycle trail type thing called the Speyside Way. With all the hard going of the last few days it was really nice to be on relatively flat, quiet cycle track weaving our way through the forest and eventually down towards Aviemore. The pint and sit down had made our legs pretty heavy and it was lovely to know we just had to turn the pedals over and could sit back and take in the last of great views as the sun set.
We eventually rolled into Aviemore around 5:30, knackered but absolutely blown away by how good a trip we’d had. We cruised down to The Bridge pub and were instantly greeted by the walkers we’d met on the first evening up at Bob Scotts’s. Pints were quickly in hand and it was lovely to have some folks to share our story with straight away, comparing our weekends in the hills.
Soon it was time for some real food. I’d been dreaming of a massive burger since about lunchtime on Friday and the Cairngorm Hotel did not disappoint, deliciously disgusting. Before we knew it, it was time to get on the train. For the journey home we had booked the luxury of a cabin. The twin bunk beds and crisp sheets were a welcome sight. Also, with a cabin you get access to the bar and lounge so we could continue our debrief over more beers, before retiring for the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages.
It was surreal to arrive back in London on Monday morning. We parted ways both slightly spaced out by the whole adventure. I hopped on my bike to join the 7:30am commuters from Euston to Westminster and my office. A much needed shower and shave later and I was at my desk ready for a day’s work. Got to admit I didn’t have the most productive day, my mind was elsewhere….
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