The Cairngorm 4000ers.
It is hard to overstate the potential severity of winter weather in the high Cairngorms, the coldest and snowiest mountains in Scotland. Sweeping unchecked over the rolling terrain, the winds can be ferocious (speeds in excess of 170mph have been recorded). In settled weather a round is feasible on foot over two winter days. Navigation on the featureless plateaux demands close attention, particularly when cairns and paths are buried under snow and the many corrie edges corniced. In really snowy spells touring skis can be the only practical mode of transport. The route is one of the all-time classic tours of Scotland. And I was about to attempt it, solo.
The car park was empty when I pulled in and the thermometer was telling me it was -4. The final packing and preparation decisions were made under the glow of my head torch. I was to go fully prepared for whatever winter conditions the Cairngorms were likely to throw at me. This included adding an ice axe, crampons and a survival bag to my rucksack and pulling on my full length over trousers. By the time I chucked my leg over the bike for the first time it was a touch before 06:30.
I had decided my route of ascent up Cairngorm, the first of the 5 famed Cairngorm 4000ers, was to pick my way up the least steep pistes of the ski area. Straight from the off, thick smooth ice covered the route, so within the first 5 minutes of being on my bike serious doubts about the wisdom of the whole venture crept into my mind. The thought of having to get off the bike and put my crampons on at this stage in the proceedings was almost enough to make me give up then and there. I scanned the trail looking for softer snow and any un-iced sections of the track. The best line was invariably on the very edges of the track and this allowed me to ride the first few hundred metres of vertical height gain. As the gradient and quantity of hard packed snow increased my journey became a mixture of riding, slipping and pushing. Within an hour I was at the top station of the ski area but the sub-zero temperatures had already taken their toll on my first headlight battery and it had given up the game.
As I looked up towards the summit the first signs of sunlight were beginning to show so I calculated that I would not now need any artificial light until about 16:00ish, in approximately 8 or so hours meaning the battery issue could be put to bed to be dealt with much later. The steeper incline of the terrain in front of me planted the seed that little further cycling would be done before the summit. However, it wasn’t long before I was back in the saddle searching for a smooth way through the rocky and snowy terrain. The smooth glassy ice on many parts of the ascent had been replaced with a covering of generally firm crisp snow. I was happy to be riding, engrossed in line choice and excited about the impending first descent. Without hesitation I carried on past the summit cairn and embarked on what would be the first challenge of the day and perhaps a strong indicator if the trip could be successful. I picked a careful line through the snow and boulder covered mountain side using the initial easier angled slopes to judge the traction available for my 4.8 inch tyres. As my confidence grew so did my speed and once or twice my heart was deeply planted in my mouth as momentum got the better of me and there was no option but to take on small drops in the increasingly steep terrain. I wondered if studded winter tyres would have been the sensible choice giving an additional level of security. Line choice was critical, avoiding smooth ice, slippy rocks, soft snow and concealed holes all come with knowing the terrain and what can lurk beneath the surface. The line down towards Point 1141 and then onto the spot known locally to mountaineers as windy col was smooth, fast and flowing. The crisp cold air in my face and high speed was exhilarating. I even managed to take high speed boosts off friendly and conveniently positioned boulders. As I took my breath at the bottom of the descent savouring the fun I had just had, I noticed few of the mountain summits were visible through the thick blankets of cloud covering almost all of the southern and western Cairngorms.
I headed towards Ben Macdui journeying over fantastic undulating terrain. The clear skies forecast were not completely in evidence but my fairly intricate knowledge of the Cairngorm plateau allowed me to just enjoy the superb biking without having to navigate in the poor visibility. Traversing some steep snow slopes created uncertainty and anxiety. Not knowing if the tyres were going to lose traction and send the bike and me cascading down the slope kept me fully alert. At times I would have to take immediate action and quickly turn downhill to ensure both wheels did not slide away from under me. A few small pushes and yet more amazing cycling brought me abruptly to the summit of Ben Macdui, Britain’s second highest mountain.
A point of no return
My spirits were high as I had made very good progress, ahead of the time schedule I had set myself. But doubts swirled around in my mind while I contemplating my next move over my first bite of my one solitary cheese and chutney sandwich. Here I was, on the summit of Ben Macdui with visibility down to only 30 metres. It is a notoriously disorientating place at the best of times never mind in winter, in poor visibility. Once you commit to continuing on the route of the 4000ers from the summit of Ben Macdui there is no easy way back, it is the point of no return so to speak. I had seized today’s opportunity to complete the 4000ers in winter because a number of factors had lined up nicely and my luck was appearing to be being structured. Along with my current relatively good level of fitness I had assessed that the ground conditions would be favourable for biking. They certainly had been up to this point. The weather forecast had promised cloud free, windless conditions making one of the trickiest parts of the venture, navigation, easy. Unfortunately and much to my dismay, this was not what I was now experiencing. As I seriously pondered my next move I quickly became cold and noticed my bike, clothing and rucksack had a coating of hoar frost.
I knew the options for the long and steep descent into the Lairig Ghru but in only 30 metre visibility, local knowledge and familiarity count for almost nothing. Navigation takes on a different meaning in the large scale mountain environment with poor visibility. Drops of several hundred metres that lurk all around are a good reminder of the importance of staying attentive. I decided to play it safe and choose the route that was likely to get me to the bottom, safely. I stopped regularly to check my position on the map and make sure the lie of the ground fitted with my judgement. Things were going well but I could sense that my pace had dramatically slowed. My heart sank as a huge boulder field appeared in the mist below me, this was not what I had signed up for. I had no option but to descend through it. Dismounting from the bike I began to delicately pick my way down through the potential bone breaking terrain. One slip, trip or fall on the icy boulders and it could easily be a snapped leg, arm or dare I say it carbon frame. With the boulder field safely negotiated I was now on steep heathery slopes which had a dusting of frost and snow which meant riding was again a possibility. As my altitude lowered visibility improved as I emerged out of the cloud and mist. I began to be able to make out the valley floor and the next part of the route. I could pick out the line of the path from Corrour Bothy up towards Cairn Toul, the next 4000er, before it disappeared in to the blanket of cloud on the other side of the gaping Lairig Ghru.
Dumfpttttt! A hole in the super steep heather was the cause of me becoming detached from the bike. I was ejected off and down the mountain side, luckily it was slow speed and there was no coming together with hard granite objects. It was definitely a warning sign that complacency was an enemy. It is worth noting that riding alone in winter, in locations which are very remote, have no mobile signal and nobody knows exactly where you are brings with it a level of seriousness that perhaps should not be underestimated. Yes, I was carrying emergency equipment but I had made the decision to go relatively lightweight and leave a number of items out of my pack. There were certain items I was lacking that could have been lifesaving in an emergency situation. I had made my judgements and was fully aware of the potential consequences of not carrying what others would class as essential safety items. The feeling of being truly on one’s own and out there certainly adds to that sense of personal adventure. There is a fine line between adventure and misadventure and one with which the wise and experienced balance on nicely. However as we all know good judgement comes from experience, but experience generally comes from poor judgement.
Near the bottom of the Taillear burn I took my first relaxed stop. I drank some of the fresh and crystal clear water from the burn and popped an Emergen-C into another half-litre in preparation of what I knew lay ahead. I again took the opportunity to assess the route of ascent of Cairn Toul.
Now well below the snow line, I was moving swiftly again picking up a track that led the last few hundred metres down onto the main thoroughfare of the Lairig Ghru. Icy streams and frozen puddles were the main hazard. Oooouchhh! This time my front wheel washed out as I crossed a large frozen seepage line and I ended up on the hard ice. I picked myself up telling myself to be more careful. A quote by the Austrian Mountaineer Hermann Buhl is lodged in my brain and often serves as a little reminder. His words “Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence” have been heard ringing around inside my head on numerous occasions over the years. A few minutes later I came across the first people of the day. A father, son and dog who had spent the night in Corrour Bothy. The father commented on my bike “I had always wondered what those big tyres were for”. I asked if they had the bothy to themselves and they informed me there had been others staying and they had headed up onto the mountain tops were I was going. This gave me some sense of security as I looked up into the gloom above, knowing there were potentially others up on Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak.
I continued on my way and as I approached the footbridge over the river, Boooofff! My front wheel broke through some ice and became wedged in a water channel as I had cycled through a frozen bog. That slow motion feeling of going head first the over bars is one which I can never get used to. This time it had the additional hazard of an ice axe and walking pole attached to my rucksack. I had considered this possibility while preparing for the journey and had fashioned a padded cover for the spike of my ice axe out of an old inner tube and some duct tape to lessen the possibly of impaling myself in the event of a moment just like this! I carried on my way unscathed but noted the fact that I had come off my bike three times within the last 40 minutes.
The aboding clouds above filled me with nervousness about the journey ahead, particularly as my knowledge of this part of the Cairngorms is not quite as good as the eastern side of the Lairig Ghru.
I had a quick check in on Corrour Bothy before I embarked upon what I knew was going to be the steepest part of the journey and the requirement to carry my bike. As the path crossed a stream I again took the opportunity to replenish my water supplies, knowing there may be no further possibilities, other than filling my water bottle up with snow, for the next several hours. Soon the path became too steep to ride or push. I took out my walking pole and shouldered the bike. There is no other option when the angle and the unevenness of the terrain increase to this point. I was hoping the conditions would not require me to use my lightweight alloy crampons and ice axe. I chose my route up carefully avoiding the main steep snowy slopes and icey patches meaning I would not have to waste time putting on and taking off crampons. A few scrambley moves near the top and the steep terrain was over. I was again high up and in the clouds, this time with even poorer visibility.
I could see evidence of a lone walker in the snow, this again offered some form of reassurance “others” were up here. I began the gentler climb up towards Cairn Toul. The trudgery of pushing my bike up the snowy mountainside not being able to see more than about 20 metres began to take its toll. I was becoming fatigued, the physical exertions of already having climbed over 1200m of ascent where beginning to have an effect. The night before I had mentioned to my wife that my lunch did not look very substantial for a day out in the mountains and this prophecy was beginning to be fulfilled. I had been rationing my four energy bars throughout the day but with supplies dwindling I was beginning to get concerned. Unfortunately I was already at the point of no return. The easiest way out of the hills would have taken me down to the Linn of Dee and 70 miles from my car so I pressed on upwards unsure of my exact location. I approached what I thought was the summit of Stob Coire an T- Saighdeir but much to my annoyance, I quickly realised it wasn’t. The ground continued to rise up in front of me and I still had several hundred metres to go.
Out of the mist a giant figure appeared in front of me. It looked 8-10 feet tall. I quickly thought I must be hallucinating from either tiredness or dehydration. As I approached closer it became evident it wasn’t some giant but an average sized lone walker who’s foot prints I had seen on my ascent. It is strange how light; cloud and snow affect the eyesight so much that your perspective of size, scale and distance become totally muddled. The bearded man was standing on the summit being amazed as a brocken spectre appeared in the gloom in the chasm of the Lairig Ghru. Brocken spectres are large and magnified shadows of the observer. They are cast upon the upper surfaces of clouds opposite the sun and the top of the shadow is often surrounded by glowing halo-like rings of coloured light. I have experienced brocken spectres before but they always capture your attention, imagination and wonder. I enquired if he was going on to Cairn Toul to which his response was – “Is this not it?” A doubt crept into my psyche and I quickly pulled out my map and pointed to Cairn Toul, I explained that it was another kilometre to the north. He asked if I was going to carry on and we discussed if the sun, that was desperately trying to break through the clouds, would eventually win the day. I was hopeful but unsure, whatever the answer I needed to push on regardless. As we said our farewells the man praised my perseverance. I saddled the bike for the first time in more than an hour to begin the short descent to a col before the final slopes of Cairn Toul. The next few minutes were truly spectacular as I cycled along the ridge line my very own fat biking brocken spectre cruised beside me. It was a once in a lifetime time experience to be biking high up in the mountains with a friendly brocken spectre fat biking partner levitating next to me above the massive drops into the abyss on my right side. This amazement and joy were then added to with a glance upwards to see the summit of Cairn Toul in bright blue skies surrounded by wispy clouds. My spirits were only slightly disheartened by the fact that there was a steep boulder field of several hundred metres lying between me and the summit. The blue skies however provided a massive boost to my confidence by offering glimpses of the possibility of what lay ahead.
I made the summit of Cairn Toul to be rewarded with glorious views. I was standing above a sea of clouds with only the highest tops appearing like islands. I treated myself to half of my final half of my lonely sandwich. The views of the route ahead were becoming apparent and I could begin to make a judgement of where the best cycling was and what the challenges would be. I was now behind the schedule I had set at the start of the day, but only by 10 minutes. I was not that concerned as the next stretch of the journey was laid out before me and it all looked very promising. A few pictures and then onward to Sgor an Lochain Uinane otherwise known as Angels Peak. The conditions were improving and the clouds were confined to below my altitude. Again I was rewarded with brocken spectres. I wanted to saviour the moment but knew darkness was not far off and I still had a long way to go. The descent from Angels Peak was spectacular fun riding without too much stress. I kept the huge drops on my right and soaked in the tranquillity of being high in the mountains alone heading towards Cairn Na Criche. The Braeriach plateau is not somewhere I like to move around on in the dark and in poor visibility as there are so many objective dangers on all sides. Navigation is crucial and in whiteout conditions one step in the wrong direction and there is no coming back so I was forever grateful I could see the route ahead. It put my mind very much at ease and made for a truly majestic ride. The ride from Carn na Criche over to Braeriach was mind blowing. I was flying over the crisp snow, my bike eating up the kilometres and I was never dropping below about 1200m in altitude. Crisp snow was being thrown up by my rubber and the ice and flakes were sparkling in the low lying sunlight. My shadows were absolutely huge and were being laid out before me on the expansive white surface. The sky was now also truly remarkable, deep blue with hues of orange and pink. The views all around were amazing. The air clarity was such that the visibility was spectacular; I could pick out many familiar mountains to the north and west. I noticed in the sky the moon had made its first appearance since I was on the summit of Cairngorm over 7 hours ago. The security of the sun’s light and warmth began to fade as I approached the summit of Braeriach. As we were fast approaching the year’s shortest day, daylight hours in the north of Scotland become more and more limited and my focused turned to the challenges that still lay ahead.
“A rich mixture of beauty, awe and adrenaline”
The route from the top of Braeriach is awe-inspiring. It’s the part of the whole route where it is at its narrowest. Cycling along a snowy ridge making sure not to venture too near to the edge of the overhanging cornices on your right or slip off down rocky outcrops on your left is an experience that captivates the soul. A rich mixture of beauty, awe and adrenaline.
Footprints showed me the way off the summit, they were probably from ascents either earlier in the day or perhaps a day before. Some of them were easily recognisable as those of people wearing crampons. This indicated either icy underfoot conditions or inexperienced climbers. My ability to ride the steep line informed my judgement that it was probably the latter. The decent all the way down to the col before Sron Na Lairge in fading light was technical, steep and focused. Not hurried or fast, I was just really enjoying the riding but I was very conscious not to have any more off the bike moments. My body was fatigued, the last of my food gone and I still had a number of hurdles to overcome.
Sron na Lairige is just under 1200 metres so the descent back down into the Lairig Ghru could not be underestimated. I had hoped for more snow so I could float over the holed and steep terrain. Unfortunately zigzagging my way down was the only option to be able to safely negotiate the steep lower snowless slopes.
Taking on “The Gap”
Reunited with the Lairig Ghru I stopped for some water. My body and mind were tired, I had no food but the thought of an energy tablet dropped into my water was the only uplift I needed. It would see me home. The daylight was all but gone so I prepared my head lights. I dug out my second battery and fitted it to the bike and donned my head torch. A brief carry and then some further energy sapping climbing brought me to the opening of the Chalamain Gap. I have been through the gap on too many occasions to recollect and I knew the safest and easiest option with a bike is to go about 40 metres up towards Creag a Chalamain and then traverse on a path above the horrendous boulders of the gap. I don’t know what possessed me, probably both the tiredness of mind and also the thought of adding another 40 vertical metres of accent onto the more than the 2000 I had already done meant that I decided to take on “The Gap” direct. 30 minutes later having battled the pitch black darkness, my bike and the jumble of enormous boulders with weary arms and legs I wish I had the gift of hindsight. This poor judgement was added to my “experience bank” to be used for future reference. Luckily the pain, irritation and frustration of the river of ice coated boulders were soon left behind as the distant lights of habitation beckoned me onward. The next few kilometres were superb riding. Crossing streams, bunny hopping drainage channels and descending steep paths brought me near to the conclusion of my journey. The elation of being on the homeward stretch even gave me the energy and will to get out the saddle and attack some small, steep, technical climbs. At my last turn back uphill towards the car park a sign stated the trail was closed due to a landslide! This hardly registered a dent in the mood I was in. Knowing I would have to complete the last three K uphill on the road did not diminish my utter satisfaction that the journey was near completion. I deployed my emergency rear light in case a speeding vehicle came across me. However, it was not required as only the glow of my headlamp accompanied me all the way back to my vehicle, allowing me the time to reflect on the last 11+ hours in quiet solitude. I was hungry, exhausted but contented the Cairngorm 4000ers by bike in winter was every bit as magical as I could have dreamed it to be.
4 kids, 1 Fat Bike – I never wish it was the other way round!
Experienced winter mountaineer, climber and skier. Holder of the Mountaineering Instructor Certificate. Experienced biker (25 years riding bikes all over the world from heli biking in Canada to climbing the classic cols of the Alps).
Equipment list for the Geeks.
Bike: Canyon Dude
1 x 11speed
25L lightweight pack – Not Full
1 x Head Torch
1 x bike headlight with 2 x batteries
Emergency Rear light
4 Season mountaineering boots suitable for crampons
Thermal cycling tights
Softshell over trousers
Softshell insulted gloves
Softshell Helmet cap
Lightweight alloy crampons
Lightweight touring ice axe
Emergency insulation layer – Synthetic insulated jacket
Emergency lightweight waterproof jacket
Emergency survival bag
Spare gloves x 1
1x 50 000 Map
1x 25 000 Map
Chain Tool & links
Fibrefix spare spoke
Selection of nuts, bolts, cable ties etc
Spare Inner tube
Puncture repair kit
Fuel & Hydration
1 x Cheese and pickle sandwich
4 x energy bars
1 x Sachet of Emergen-C
1 x High Five Zero energy tablet
Left at home
2 x additional sandwiches
Lots of Chocolate
Yellow Brick GPS tracker
Insulated survival bag
Superlight 2 man shelter
Additional warm clothing
First Aid Kit
A public health warning…
One thing that should mention is that the 4000ers in winter is quite a serious undertaking, perhaps you know this, perhaps not. It’s not for the faint hearted or inexperienced. Anyone attempting it should have a specific and extensive skill set. Particularly a wide body of experience in mountains in winter.