There are mountains, and then there are mountains. Ever since I first picked up a crayon, drew a triangle and gave it a wavy snowline halfway down (very funny, but no it wasn’t last week), I’ve been repeatedly amazed by the innumerable shapes, characters and idiosyncrasies of the many groups of mountains that are crammed into our little island. They change almost as quickly as our accents, and even more dramatically; a quick drive can, if you’re not paying attention, sweep you from the green spires, birch trees and soft voices of the Scottish west coast to the whaleback spans, ancient pines and clipped accents of the East. If the whole of the Scottish Highlands was dropped one day on to the great ranges of the Himalaya or Alaska, they would barely make a dent, but whoever was handing out the mountains way back in the mists of time clearly thought we deserved a bit of variety to make up for it. Who, for example, would have thought that the high, solitary hump of Ben Wyvis could be plonked so close to the esoteric stacks of Suilven, Cul Mor and Stac Pollaidh, with the sharper profiles of the Fannichs yet another change in between? And all that in no more space than that taken up by some of the larger alpine valleys. Ridiculous.
With that in mind, I wanted to try some different mountain flavours and visit some of the lesser-visited pockets within the Highlands. There are some hills that offer fantastic technical descents to those who are willing to hike there with their bike, but on longer rides with overnight kit, I’ve always tended to stick to the traditional routes through, rather than over, the hills. With summer, or what seems to pass for summer up here, well established, I headed east to see if a high level traverse of the quieter eastern Cairngorms might scratch the itch.
Beinn a Bhuird and Beinn Avon are big. Really big. They might lose out a little to their marginally higher neighbours in the main Cairngorm massif, but in surface area and complexity they are both a match for any other Scottish mountain (fun fact: Beinn Avon is the UK’s biggest mountian by volume). They have the same docile public face as any other Cairngorm hill, but both hide deep coires and towering rock features that are revealed only to those who will travel a long away from roads and 3G signal. Similar, but not the same, they are recognisable from a long way off by the tors, ancient granite pimples, that dot their summit plateaus. I had seen them plenty of times before, punctuating the horizon from other hills, but never been. I was curious, and curiosity is another word for an adventure that hasn’t happened yet.
Another thing that brought me here was those new fangled big tyres – 29+ is fantastic, if you haven’t tried it, and I wanted to find a real test of technical terrain to try their capabilities when loaded. I rode out from Braemar and its twee tourist trappings, first east and then back west after I had crossed the Dee, heading for the Linn of Quoich. Climbing gently into the hills, there is a feeling of a boundary being crossed. The views of Deeside recede as the open arms of the hills welcome you back; the forest becomes gnarled, older; the faces of walkers passing along the track wear tired but contented smiles, and nod conspiratorially as you pass. It’s clichéd, but time slows down – it must do, because the forest felt like a lifetime ago by the time I was finally sitting with my mug of tea and a hot meal in the tent.
The climb on to Beinn a Bhuird, by the way, is a good one as these things go. Make sure you’ve had many, many weetabix, and bring your climbing legs. The 3” tyres of the Krampus proved to be grippier than a plaster on a hairy leg, and a 28-tooth single-ring was almost enough to clean the climb. Bigger legs needed for next time. The mountain had its swollen back to me as I climbed, so it was a beautiful surprise to crest the saddle between its North and South Tops and see the black splash of Dubh Lochain in its coire far below. I had found the mountain’s real face, or at least a part of it. The going over the plateau was good, and as long as I kept the pedals turning the big wheels bobbled their way merrily along, following the vague path through boulders and sandy patches. Passing the higher North Top, I gained the granite tor of Clach a Chleirich as wreaths of mist began to encircle the hills to the north and east. I settled for a spot of flat grass beside a lingering snow-patch for the tent, where I could sit looking out over the void of Garbh Coire, where some of the mountain’s best-hidden spires and walls of rock are hidden. As beautiful as it was, it was getting towards 10pm and a little dark, so I thought a photo would be best saved for the morning. A few spots of rain began to ping on the flysheet, which seemed to settle the matter, and bedtime it was.
Hoping for a long day, I woke to the alarm at 5am, and opened the tent door. It wasn’t raining, but I may as well have been in Norfolk for all the view there was! Un-forecast clag seemed to be spoiling the panorama for the time-being, but I packed up and set off anyway, skirting the snow-rimmed edge of the coire below me, descending towards the col between beinn a Bhuird and Beinn Avon. I’m pretty sure this would have given great views to the north and south, if there were any, but at any rate it was atmospheric. In front of me there was nothing but a narrow crest, interrupted by mad granite shapes that would lurch out of the fog unexpectedly. To my left and right, there was nothing but white. I passed a branch in the trail that would lead me down to Glen Quoich, and possibly daylight, but decided to push up the other side and onto Beinn Avon. Arriving up there was another step into a strange, white world. Here the tors were bigger, and every minute or so a new one would appear, an object the size and shape of a small house could be completely hidden until I was only 20m or so away. ‘Fog loom’ would make them monstrous and gigantic as they solidified on the edge of visibility; I felt that this was a place to be very quiet, sneaking among squat giants in their fogbound world. I reached the summit tor without much trouble, having followed easy contours and a vague trail to get there. However, within 5 minutes of leaving the massive rock structure, I found myself facing it once more, although I was sure that I’d travelled in a straight line. Kicking myself, I got out the map and compass – it’s all too easy to neglect basic navigation simply because you’re on a bike.
It was a long time since I’d had to ride on a compass bearing, but that was what happened for the next 6km, traversing across Beinn Avon in its entirety. It was good practise, if nothing else, and strangely entertaining. It gave me a focus, which otherwise might have been distracted up there among the cloud giants. I ticked off tors and tops along the way, quietly distracted from time and place. Very suddenly, I was ejected from the fog at around 950m, and right in front of me lay the faint beginnings of the stalkers path that I was looking for, which would take me away from the mountain. Needless to say, it was worth hunting for. It doesn’t matter who, or where, you are, finding a new trail, which in that moment is yours and yours alone, will keep me returning to the hills again and again, even when all else fails to do so. By the time I had descended into the glen it was well past lunchtime, which explained the rumbling tummy. Sandwiches seen away, there were still many miles to get home as I was at the remotest point of my ride. The return followed a mix of landrover tracks and stalkers paths, at one point following an ancient, overgrown road as it wound between ruined dwellings and shielings. I wondered how different the place would have looked to the people that used to live here, without the scars of muir burn, and the newly built tracks to spare shooting parties the agony of walking anywhere on their actual feet, spare the thought!
My inner grumblings were interrupted as I caught the tyre on the edge of a rut on a short descent. Rather than making that satisfying ‘poing’ noise that tubeless tyres normally do, it went ‘flomp’ instead. It emerged that it had given up without a fight, and released all 12 of its psi as the bead was pulled back from the rim. I hadn’t encountered this problem before, despite having ridden the setup for several months in all sorts of places. I guessed that the extra weight of being loaded up might have contributed, so a short while was spent pumping up the spare tube with the ridiculously small pump that I’d thought it sensible to bring. This didn’t put a downer on proceedings though, as in the dying gasps of the ride I found yet another bit of trail that was new to me, linking up two fragments that had always seemed tantalisingly close but apparently very separate. The fresh shoots of the blaeberries almost seemed too green as I whizzed through the forest on sound-muffling pine needles. The best thing about the bike though, is the freewheeling victory lap back towards home as I followed the tumbling river downstream and out of the mountains. I felt a little bit sorry for the walkers that I passed, who still had a long way to go, but only a very little bit because there was cake and tea in the van and I thought they’d been well-earned.
So, the giants in the clouds were a very new flavour of Scottish mountain for me, and like all good explorations it was both unexpected and intriguing. The views of the hidden coires had been magical while they were there to be seen, and on-bike navigation is harder than it looks!