When Robbie posted in the SA Grampian Whatsapp group chat that he was seeking interested riders to join him in a recce of the Lairig Ghru, my first thought was: "wow, no way, that's crazy". For those unaware, the Lairig Ghru is the highest mountain pass in the UK, climbing up to 835 metres, taller than many British peaks. It cuts right through the heart of the Cairngorm mountains, connecting Deeside to Speyside. Having walked it before I knew that a bike wouldn't be a particularly efficient form of transport. But it got me thinking, how much could be rideable? Well by me at least, a pretty novice mountain biker. So I mulled it over and decided, "well, why not!". Robbie planned to scope out the route for a Rough Stuff Fellowship ride later in October, so with no other takers, he and I were the guinea pigs.
After a couple of logistical hiccups caused by the fuel shortage, we found ourselves at the Linn of Dee all prepped and ready to go. The plan was to head via the 'Ghru' to the Youth Hostel at Loch Morlich, then to return to Deeside via the Lairig an Laoigh - a pass to the east which features in the Cairngorms Loop bikepacking route.
We made good progress on the familiar track to Derry Lodge, which is a stunning setting and one of my all time favourites places. After the bridge across the Derry, there's a short section of bog but then it's back onto a decent track. The weather was holding out and the sun was throwing dappled light across the hills as we made our way closer to the Luibeg ford. As I was crossing only my third water bar, I completely misjudged it and my front wheel was swallowed hole by the gap throwing me over the top and I landed right in a gravel-filled puddle. No bike damage thankfully, but the first aid kit made an appearance and Robbie kindly nursed my grazed hand.
Fresh faced at the Linn o' Dee
Stopping to take in the scenes between Derry Lodge and the Luibeg burn
A lone, long dead pine on the right marked the end of the continuous riding for the day
The difficulties began at the Luibeg ford as the burn was partially in spate. A crossing could have probably have been made but the chance of getting our feet wet was high, so we opted to keep them dry by aiming for the bridge upstream. From here on out the going was pretty hard. The bogfest from the bridge back to the path was partially cycleable but once back on the path it was a steady push uphill past water bars and large steps. From the cairn which marked the high point of this section, we now veered north, into the southern entrance of the Lairig Ghru. The descent to the Corrour bothy turn off and the flatter section beyond were actually fairly rideable but this was to be the end of any kind of consistent cycling for many, many miles.
The bridge over the Luibeg
The Devil's Point and Corrour Bothy
Up, up, up!
Turns out Robbie running single speed made no difference, gears don't matter when you are pushing!
One of the many minor burn crossings. It's remarkable how substantial the stream on the right (the Allt na Lairig Ghru, not the Dee as I thought) was this high up.
A rare short section of riding
As we approached the summit of the pass, the conditions, both above and below got fairly ridiculous for a "cycling" trip. Squally gusts combined with boulder fields made transporting a heavily laden bicycle quite problematic. Whenever we attempted to carry the bike to ensure the pedals cleared boulders, the whole bike acted like a sail and we were nearly blown over. Luckily the wind was a southerly and we both later agreed that a northerly would have maybe forced us to turn back.
Successfully through the first bolder field, after greeting the only two people we saw since Derry Lodge
Frankly absurd "cycling" terrain
The top of the Lairig Ghru, but only half way through
Any hopes of a speedy descent through the pass were quickly dashed. A narrow path, rocky steps, large drop offs to the side, a strong wind and increasing fatigue, combined with less than adept mountain biking experience resulted in a continuation of the push/ lift/ carry slog.
A steepening of the path led us down to the confluence of the Braeriach, Chalamain Gap, Rothiemurchus and Lairig Ghru paths. We went straight on at the crossroads taking the direct route down. From here we intermittently saw tyre marks in the mud, indicating that the terrain was finally getting better. Not too long after we took a right at the fork in the path and made direct for Rothiemurchus Lodge, where we knew there was a smooth gravel road to be enjoyed. I like to think I could have rode the final section to the lodge but the trail had become a quagmire from all the recent rain, a final sting in the tail.
Beaming at the prospect of a hostel three-course dinner
Finally at Loch Morlich
Once at Rothiemurchus Lodge, I could have kissed the gravel. From here our progress increased dramatically and the last few kilometres down to the road flew by. We stopped briefly at Loch Morlich to take some pictures and to reflect on our journey. 30 kilometres had taken us 7 hours and 43 minutes. Yes, that is an average speed of 3.9 kph!
We were warmly welcomed by the staff at the Cairngorm Lodge Youth Hostel , where we had access to a secure bike storage area, a truly excellent drying room (and I've seen a lot in my time) a comfortable room and hearty meal.
The next day dawned with a much better weather outlook. The rain had serendipitously stopped just as we arrived at the hostel the previous evening and in the end held for most of the next day. Despite this, we had changed our route back to Deeside. The original plan was to take the most direct cycling route back through the Lairig an Laoigh. This however, includes the notorious Fords of Avon river crossing, which is a formidable and potentially impassible obstacle when in spate. Neither of us fancied the 10 km detour (of most likely bike pushing) around Loch Avon, or dicing with death at the ford after yesterday's rain, so we opted for a more indirect route around the main Cairngorms, through Glen Feshie, past Geldie Lodge and back through Glen Dee to the Linn o' Dee. This route is also part of the Cairngorms Loop bikepacking trail so we assumed the going would be relatively straightforward.
After all the continental breakfast we could stomach (the cooked breakfast is unavailable at the moment) we struck out on the tarmac roads to the entrance to Glen Feshie. The sun was shining and the red squirrels were scampering about - so was Robbie, spinning furiously on his single speed on the flat. Though he quickly caught me up on any climbs! We were soon back off-road and riding through one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland. The regeneration of the Caledonian pine forest here is a wonderful sight to see. One hopes more Scottish glens would look like this. The awesome power of the River Feshie has dramatically altered the landscape here. Since last being here in 2019, the terrain has visibly changed with the river washing away some bits of the path. This is a dynamic environment and how the natural landscape should really be.
The amazing river banks of the Feshie. The old path goes straight over the edge!
Negotiating a washed out section of path
Feels good to be riding a bike again!
I told Robbie about the luxurious Ruigh Aiteachain bothy that we would soon pass, with its Edwin Landseer painting, glorious wood panelling, functional cooking stove, bug hotel, raised garden beds and lavatory outhouse. Though all he had heard was the cup of tea that I mentioned that I was offered when I was last there. Low and behold when we popped our heads in, we were met by a lady who coincidentally offered us a cuppa!
Ruigh Aiteachain bothy. One of the best.
Even the bugs live in luxury!
Past the bothy the glen becomes wilder and the footfall reduces. The views across the valley open up and at times it looks almost Canadian or Alaskan. We emerged from the forest at the first of two conjugate fords, where we were met by three wild campers who had spent the night nearby. At first glance, the river looked fairly terrifying but a line of rocks just downstream looked like a possible point to cross. But it turned out the tale that the trio told would have us turning tail. They said that the previous evening, two bikers going in the opposite direction to us just managed to cross, however they were up to their necks in water and one of them had to swim after his bike at one point! The water level may well have reduced overnight but neither of us fancied dying that day so we retreated. Luckily we had prepared for this eventuality and knew that a couple of hundred metres back, a footpath climbed up the hill and traversed across, which negated the purpose of the double crossing of the Feshie. This was mostly fine and required minor amounts of pushing, however there was one section where the path was washed away by a sub-vertical burn, so a bit of mountaineering had to be employed! Following this all the difficulties were passed and we were back riding on the double-track.
A bonnie bonnie glen
A wee bit of mountaineering to avoid swimming across the Feshie (twice!)
As we climbed up to the top of the watershed, the glen became more barren and after a while the path deteriorated to a boggy mess. In drier conditions this section would probably be rideable, but alas we were back on two feet pushing, though the progress was far easier than the day before.
We stopped at an old wooden ruin for our lunch (helpfully provided by the hostel) as a shower passed through. Soon after, a highlight of the day was reached. We read online that the bridge across the River Eidart - a Feshie tributary - was pretty sketchy and on its last legs. It turned out that that couldn't be further from the truth as the wooden panels looked like they were freshly laid and were most likely only a month or two old. God bless those who maintain these remote bridges!
Up onto the moor
One of the easy crossings at this point in the glen
The Eidart Bridge first erected in 1957. Essentially scaffolding with some wood on top!
Robbie crossing the Eidart
Freshly laid wood on the bridge
The penultimate section after the bridge was a case of on-again, off-again as increasingly flowy singletrack dipped down to boulder strewn burn crossings. The riding became better and better as the epic singletrack then dropped down to join a main landy track at the Geldie Lodge turnoff. After a final burn crossing we rocketed down the glen to our second bothy of the day: Red House, which is currently being built from an old ruin. Once finished it will be a single storey, two roomed bothy with a separate toilet outbuilding - which has four toilet seats in a row! The shelter will be in a great location because it is at the intersection of routes east to the Linn of Dee, west to Glen Feshie and south to Glen Tilt.
Nearing the top
The summit of the Feshie-Geldie pass
Red House bothy, currently under re-development
From the bothy we smashed out the final section over White Bridge and back along the River Dee to the oasis of the Linn of Dee. We arrived back at the car at around 3pm after 60 km and our average speed for the day had jumped to a massive 9.4 kph!
So it was definitely a weekend of two halves; a type 2, maybe type 3 fun sufferfest on the Saturday followed by a brilliant ride with small amounts of pushing on the Sunday. The ride through Glen Feshie has inspired me to get back out there and ride the rest of the Cairngorms Loop. The first day on the other hand has inspired me to not take a bike anywhere near the Lairig Ghru ever again!! Good luck to Robbie who has to do it all again soon with the Rough Stuff Fellowship!
Smiling or grimacing?
Pints in Braemar calling!