An epic dash and splash through the Cairngorms

Looking towards Meall a’ Bhuachaille from the path beyond the Chalamain Gap.

There can be few better places to spend a glorious summer’s day than on the plentiful trails that take you through some of the best scenery in Scotland.

The Cairngorms are like a magnet for visitors at this time of year – and there’s a good reason for that. There are endless ways to spend a day out and about, from a gentle stroll to a cross-country mountain biking epic.

On a day like this – so rare yet so beautiful – the high mountain plateau would have been mobbed with walkers, while the beach at Loch Morlich was already beginning to fill up when I set off on my own mammoth challenge.

I devised this 20-mile run as part of my training for next weekend’s Great Wilderness Challenge, and I had a nervous buzz as I set off along the Old Logging Way towards Aviemore.

The first five miles or so are relatively flat to downhill, though the latter stages truly make up for that! I had to force myself to ease off, knowing I would need to conserve every ounce of energy to get through this one.

Heading for the Lairig Ghru near Coylumbridge.

The path was busy with families and friends enjoying the perfect conditions and it was impossible not to smile your way through it.

After the path crosses the ski road and drops to Coylumbridge, I followed the pavement to the campsite and then took the track that leads south into the Rothiemurchus forest. Take the left fork after a couple of gates, following a sign to the Lairig Ghru, the huge V-shaped pass through the mountains to Glen Dee, a classic route in these parts.

It was still busy here but I knew the crowds would start to thin out soon. I crossed the Cairngorm Club Bridge and continued on the track to reach a signed junction at the top of a short, steep rise.

Taking a short break here as I downed some water, I got chatting to a foreign couple who were cycling on the trail to Loch Morlich. “What’s a ‘Lairig’?” the man asked, pointing to the sign to the Lairig Ghru. I explained about the mountain pass to Braemar via Linn of Dee, warning about the difficulties in case they got any ideas to explore beyond their capabilities.

“Enjoy your run,” he shouted, as I headed off on the path towards the “Lairig”. This is where the real climbing in this route begins, with around a 1000ft ascent into the mountains.

On the way up the spectacular Lairig Ghru path.

Thankfully, the path climbs gradually through the beautiful woodland on a soft surface interspersed with tree roots and stones, so I was able to run for much of this stretch, albeit with a heart rate much nearer to the max than had been the case thus far.

It’s a steep drop down into the Allt Druidh as you emerge from the cover of the forest to the open hillside, with views ahead through the Lairig Ghru. I could see the steep path up onto Braeriach and the striking Lurcher’s Crag (Creag an Leth-choin) opposite.

For three-quarters of a mile or so the path becomes boggy with large rocks, making any attempt at running futile, so I picked my way through as best I could before the going improved again.

My next junction was a crossroads of sorts beside the burn, and my watch just clicked for 10 miles as I approached the area. At halfway, I decided to stop and enjoy this peaceful and beautiful location while I refuelled for the next section of climbing which would take me to the Chalamain Gap.

Days as perfect as this are few and far between in the mountains and I was glad to take a moment or two to breathe it in.

The climb to the gap involved more walking than running and I looked back over the Rothiemurchus forest to Aviemore and beyond, seeing the path I had followed snaking its way back down the hill into the cover of the trees.

As always, care was needed to plot a route through the debris of boulders that make up the Chalamain Gap before I was on my way again – downhill now, at last, though conscious that I needed to concentrate on what was below my feet to avoid tripping.

Cairn Gorm and the Northern Corries were bathed in sunlight, while down in the glen I could see Loch Morlich, busy with boats as people – including my wife and children – made the most of the day on the water and on the beach.

The bridge over the Allt Mor.

I followed the steep descent to cross the Allt Mor by a bridge, taking the route left to follow the burn, cross the road and continue to meet a track beside the Allt Mor car park. I’d already done 15 tough miles but I knew I now had to head up the pass to Ryvoan and over the highest hill of the day before I could rest.

Turning right, I followed the track straight on past a number of junctions, running right through a shallow burn – which gave a refreshing moment of cool to my aching feet – before eventually meeting the familiar path from Glenmore Lodge to An Lochan Uaine.

An Lochan Uaine living up to its Gaelic name as the Green Lochan.

The gentle climb was hard going and I paused only briefly at the loch, gloriously green in the afternoon sunshine, before continuing on the rougher route up to Ryvoan, where crowds of people were gathered.

It was time for more refuelling. There may have been little over three miles to go but a massive climb to the 810m summit of Meall a’ Bhuachaille lay between me and my finishing point back on the beach at Loch Morlich.

I surprised myself by running the initial climb away from the bothy but it wasn’t long before the contours became too close and I just marched up the path to reach the large cairn. Time was needed here to admire the panoramic view, content that it was literally all downhill from here.

Being careful not to end up flat on my face at this stage, I took it easy off the summit, skipping past crowds of walkers to the bealach then dropping left on the clear path towards Glenmore forest.

The path stayed east of the Allt Coire Chondlaich as it dropped into the shade of the trees. At a noticeboard I forked right to drop down to the visitor centre, taking a right to follow the Old Logging Way the short distance to the beach.

It didn’t take me long to locate my family, then I dumped the bag and jumped straight into the inviting water of Loch Morlich – a scintillating end to a glorious run.

Route details

Cairngorms classic
Distance 20 miles / 32km
Ascent 3400ft / 1036m
Terrain Follows good paths and tracks throughout but climbs to a height of more than 800m above sea level, so anybody venturing out must be prepared for mountain conditions and carry map and compass
Start/finish Loch Morlich beach, Glenmore
Maps Footprint Explore Aviemore map; OS Landranger 36; OS Explorer OL57; Harvey British Mountain Map, Cairngorms
A stunning run on some of the best trails in the Highlands

* Article first published in Active Outdoors | August 4, 2017

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