Thursday, 22 September 2011

Braeriach Bike

The Cairngorms are the perfect range to explore on bike, the great mountains are split by  deep glacial valleys which have acted as natural passes and trade routes for centuries. Over the years good estate tracks have been pushed into the wilderness to support deer stalking and grouse shoots and provide a brilliant way to get a jump start on the mountain with your bike.

Bracken in it's late autumn flowering lines the track, a sea of purple flowers covering the slowly rolling landscape like waves on some frozen sea. Old Caledonian pines their branches and boughs twisting to the the sky stand silent sentinels along the trail which runs first through the beautiful thick woodland of the Rothiemurchus Forest and then out onto the sparser higher slopes where the trees become stunted and sculpted by the prevailing winds and harsher conditions. The slopes below the northern corries contain some of the last native woodland in Scotland. It's a fantastic place to walk, ride, and sleep amongst the trees.

The forest.

The track I'm following leads up Glen Eanaich to the loch at the valley head where I plan to dump the bike and climb Braeriach the third highest peak in the UK a great whale-back of a mountain on it's western side. East it's a different beast, it's broad plateau of a summit seemingly cleaved by the great trench of the Lairig Ghru. Loch Eanaich is quite a forbidding place sat below the grey the crags of Sgor Gaoith which fall almost sheer 600m to the west. Ribbons of silver tumble down the steep headwall of Corie Odhar full of vigor from the recent rains.

After a fresh brew (another benefit of cycling; ample storage space) I leave the bike and follow a path slanting upwards into the bowl of Coire Dhondail. Twin waterfalls cascade down from the col at it's head, and the path skirts up the left of these and squeezes itself on to the plateau.

Looking back down Glen Eanaich

From here Braeriach should just be an easy walk away but nature has other ideas; shortly  the the wind picks up and I turn round to see cloud racing over Loch Eanaich; leaving me enveloped in a grey mist that limits visibility to about fifty meters. Following a stream (a navigational technique known as handrailing) is an easy way to get up onto the low broad col between Carn na Criche and Einich Cairn and I soon come a cross the Wells of Dee the highest spring in the land where the River Dee bursts out of the granite and runs bubbling away over the plateau.

Unfortunately the spectacular eastern side of Braeriach carved with mosterous steep corries where the plateau plunges up to 600m into the Lairig Ghru is hidden in cloud; the cliffs fall away into nothing and only occasionally can one catch a glimpse of a sliver of silver hinting at water far below. The summit perches right on the edge of the void, but today feels non-descript it's spectacular views hidden for another day.

The plateau in the mist, handrailing the Well of Dee springs

As I begin to make my way back I get a little greedy, I've made good time so far and feel loath to waste all that height gain. Handrailing the edge of the plateau for about four kilometers would enable me to climb Sgor an Lochain Uaine (Angels Peak) and Cairn Toul the fifth and fourth highest peaks in the UK. The bike, my guarantee of a swift ride out rather than a long plod on foot means I can spend more time up here exploring and make the most of my day.

The route between Breariach and Cairn Toul is apparently one of the finest ridge walks in the country; I can't comment as I didn't really see very much. It was wet and windy, really windy; the upper slopes of both Angels Peak and Cairn Toul are littered with granite boulders covered in moss and slick with water, treacherous terrain at the best of times to walk over but buffeted by the wind a really challenge not to accidentally turn an ankle.

Both summits only sit about 150m above the cols on the ridge but in the conditions they feel hard meters, won in a struggle against the elements.  The Cairngorms feel vast and remote, stood on the summit of Cairn Toul I'm probably further from a road than I have ever been in the UK. In these conditions they have a savage beauty, as wild a landscape as we have; I'll be back to explore further.

I'm concious of the fact that getting back to the top of the stalkers path in this weather could be a little tricky as decending across slopes it's easy to drop too far; do that here and I will put myself on the geat boggy mess at the top of Corie Odhar and into a world of pain with no easy way to descend. The best option is to retrace my steps and make my way to the top of Great Gully on Carn na Criche; from here a bearing of 270 drops me smack onto the cairn which marks the start of the path.

An unexpected view and a unexpectedly good photo Sgor an Lochain Uaine (Angels peak)

I once heard Ian Parnell one of our best mountaineer photographers claim the most important part of photography was getting the camera out, now I understand why. Climbing back up toward Great Gully the cloud cleared for a few seconds, no more than three minutes and suddenly Angels Peak emerged from the mist it's eastern face falling down into the Lairig Ghru. I did not really have time to think, and I just quickly shot off a few frames. I amazed how well the picture came out, the light looks amazing and the greens and browns almost pastel. Not a realistic representation of the day but one of my best pictures and on an outing where I had all but given up hope of getting anything decent. 

The ride out is a blur of speed and adrenalin, over in a flash as the14km is disposed of in 30 min. This is what I bought my 29er for, wild days on rough but not horrendously technical surface. The bike just eats the distance, crushes the roughness in the trail, and throws great rooster tails of spray up my back. Now all I need to do is look for somewhere to bivi tonight.


My route:

Now the inevitable caveats, you need a map, compass and the knowledge to use them. Watch out for the fording of the Beanaidh Beag, there are a few stepping stones but these were covered when I was there and the crossing could be nasty or impossible in spate. The plateau is no place to be lost in bad weather. It can be ferocious up here almost any time of the year, snow often remains in the sheltered corries till June. Take care and enjoy.

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