Through the Lairig Ghru

It sounds so grand, doesn’t it. Hard to work out how to pronounce I guess. La-Rig Gr-roo or something like that. It sounds better in a Scots accent than my Geordie. Grand in sound, grand in nature. I’d heard of this pass through the mountains a long time ago, perhaps because of its height, almost 850m, and the notorious boulder field that greets you making progress slow, what ever the reason as soon as I heard about it I’ve wanted to do it. A classic point to point route. One which is made even more desirable that to drive or take public transport between his quite hard and would take a few hours.

As part of this adventure weekend, I’d be doing this on the last day and with that thought I had some doubts. The weather would be a worry, as would the tired legs but with an open ticket on the train I would have as much time as I needed to get through the gap.

The MWIS provided me with the weather forecast. “Fierce winds in mountain passes” it said. Gusts of 70mph would be on the Munro’s. That morning I spoke with Ian who is experienced in this part of the world, he was minded to say I’d be crawling in that wind but he didn’t say I shouldn’t attempt it. Probably sensing my nervousness at a solo adventure he kindly offered to be a rescue option but with no signal until the pools of Dee I’d be almost through it before I could raise a signal that I’d had to turn around.

The bridge at Derry Lodge

In my calculations the WSW winds would be blowing over the top of the cairngorm mountains, over Breariach and Ben Macdui the two Munro’s that butt against the pass. And if there was wind, it should be at my back. Undeterred I set off.

Ian accompanied me for a short stint, either to make sure I would go, or just to stretch his legs either way we parted ways at the track that would lead me to Derry Lodge. All was calm at this point, overcast, cool but calm. I started to bimble after the legs warmed up making steady progress. I thought of the recent times I’d been on this route, and the main reason is Ian after taking the Cape Wrath Dream Team on a Munro adventure and then I returned to hike it with Andy, and finally when Ian and I took part in the Type2 Fun Run. All of these times I had dreamed of doing the Lairig Ghru but never seemed to make it part of that adventure at that time.

So I was familiar with this section and made good progress to Derry Lodge. I crossed the bridge and turned left to cross the relatively boggy field to a track on the otherside. I met a couple of walkers here, they were planning to go to Ben Avon, I wished them good luck and continued to run. I passed another walker who commented that “I’m not as fit as you” which is strange to say. I pondered that response for a while after trying to work out why he felt that. I mean, sure I was running and maybe it was true but why should he feel like that. Should I have walked past to make him feel better, what should I have said back? In the end I just said “lots of training, perhaps”. Anyway I hope he made it through.

The Luibeg Burn from the Bridge

I reached the Luibeg burn and followed a trod North to the bridge. The first time I came here the bridge was out. I was running with the Cape Wrath guys and so a river crossing wasn’t anything to get worried about. The ice cold water was soothing on the feet and legs. This time I opted for drier feet. The trod was boggy in places, through the heather and trees. I think I’ve done 2 / 3 trods marked on the map on the east side of the burn. I think the one that is closer to the burn is the best. There is a higher up trod which may miss this bog but I was in the middle on and in the middle of bog. On the other side of the bridge the bog continues back to the path. Though here I was able to navigate across exposed rocks. The going was slower than if I’d just crossed the burn and if the bog had have been worse then wet feet would have been a guarantee so I see no reason to use the bridge, except for hikers who have good boots and when the burn is in spate.

The path heads up hill at this point on the shoulder of Ben Macdui. I was hiking at this point making decent progress still and feeling fresh. The weekends mileage didn’t seem to be bothering me, perhaps due to the rest day the day before.

I reached the path to Corrour bothy and took the right fork instead, there was elements of wind but it wasn’t strong and so I wondered if I would get away with it. The path descends from the shoulder into the valley to follow the river Dee and then the Allt Na Lairig Ghru. Ascending again at this point I looked back over my shoulder and couldn’t see Devils point, and angels ridge which we’d scrambled up. This was my first scramble in an “airy location” but today it was shrouded in clag. Ahead of me lay the pass and it too was claggy. I opted to eat at this point to make sure I was fuelled for the adventure that lay ahead.

I pulled on my waterproof in anticipation for rain or wind or both, filled up my water bottles from a stream coming down from Ben Macdui and headed up. The going was easy, the sides of Breariach and Ben Macdui closed in on me, I could see a hiker ahead and I was closing in. The gradient became easier and in the distance a pile of rocks covered the way with many years of rock fall. Was this the boulder field?

Start of the Boulder field

The path at this point was noticeable through the rocks, my gps track on my watch confirming that I was on the right path as it headed up the steep east side. From here it was a little scramble and I became used to hopping between rocks. I looked down at the pools of Dee and before I realised I was off track. The gps telling me I should have descended, and as soon as I looked up I could see the path on the otherside of one of the pools. I rock hopped toward it and continued on the path. Another boulder field and this time I caught up with that hiker. We exchanged pleasantries and I bimbled past. Making note not to fall over and embarrass myself.

Cairns stood proud to direct the way which made navigation easier. I looked up from the concentration required to navigate a boulder field and a gust of wind hit my back and pushed me over. I fell onto the rocks on my hands. Thankfully not injuring myself in the process. It seems there’d been a steady wind at my back which I was not aware of but it was there. At this point I took time to take in the view. All too often when running you can be too busy concentrating on foot placement and forget to look around.

A pool of Dee

Cliffs high up on the eastern ridge were being lit by sunlight, any early clag in the pass was gone. Ahead through the opening you could see for miles, like a window out of the mountains toward Carrbridge in the distance. Forrest green lay between here and there.

The path started to descend and I was through the boulder field. A hike was 50m to my right battling that wind in the other direction. His head was down trodding through bog. I wondered if he meant to be there, he was going to have a tough go of it if he meant to be. I stood and stared to see if he would notice me and realise he was off path. He eventually did almost perpendicular to me. I shouted through the wind that I was on the path, he had to lower his hood to hear me and he made his way over. It turned out he’d just missed the turn a few metres back as the path skirted to the other side of the pass. I was glad to have helped a stranger get back on track.

The path descends into a gully under Lurcher Crag. I stopped for lunch as the sun was out and I was sheltered from the wind. Cheese sandwich, twix, water, and a soreen bar. I decided to take the waterproof off as the sun warmed me up. Following the track to Coylumbridge was an absolute pleasure, heather bounded single track, eventually reaching forest. The perfect trail conditions. I passed a lot of day hikers heading up to the Lairig Ghru. I wondered if they wondered where I’d come from? I arrived in Aviemore after 5 hours on the trail 35km later feeling glad to have made my solo journey unscathed and ticking off another thing on that bucket list.

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