4 Munro bike and hike: Derry Cairngorm and neighbours
The weather was forecast to be wet on the west of Scotland and less so on the east, so a trip to the Cairngorms, where I still had a dozen Munros to bag, made sense. We drove up to Linn of Dee on the Friday, slept in the campervan and set off by 9am on the Saturday.
The first couple of miles are rideable by mountain bike so this is what we did. It’s a fairly easy ride, first through pretty forest and then on to wider Landrover track that winds alongside Lui Water. The trail gently ascends with a few ups and downs along the way. At Derry Lodge, we parked the bikes, swapped bike shoes for trainer and set off on foot.
We had planned to do two Munros, Derry Cairngorm (1155m) and Beinn Mheadhoin (1182m) to the west of Glen Lui. We decided that if we had the energy and the weather held, we might bag two more Munros to the east of the glen, Beinn a’Chaorainn (1082m) and Beinn Bhreac (931m) on the return.
Derry Cairngorm and Beinn Mheadhoin
A circuit of just these two Munros amounts to almost 20 miles and some 1200m of ascent. From Derry Lodge the ascent to Derry Cairngorm never felt too steep although the top seemed to take a while to come into view.
I have to confess that neither of us are Munro bagging fit just now so we took our time on a well-trodden path. We chatted and enjoyed the ever widening views over the many peaks of the Cairngorms.
The final 500m or so of this Munro ascent is over a boulder-strewn summit and this is quite tiring but the rocks are grippy and well-packed so it feels like you are climbing up hundreds of stepping stones.
The weather was kind, too, and although the wind picked up towards the top it did not feel too arduous. At this stage I was thinking that a four Munro day would be well within our grasp.
Munro 2, Beinn Mheadhoin, could be easily seen from the summit of Derry Cairngorm and it did not appear as if it was too far away. The peak features a number of large tors (freestanding rocky outcrops) and I focused on these as our next goal.
As with most Munros, there is always a lot more descent than you imagine there might be before the second mountain rises up.
It wasn’t easy picking my way down the summit boulders. The G-Force seems to find this much easier than I do and as he marched on ahead I felt like I was taking far too much time with my cautious descent. I like to make sure every boulder is solid before I step on to the next one. The G-Force is far more confident than I am with his steps. I have no idea why this might be.
Finally, we reached a path again and the going became a lot quicker. I can easily keep up with G on the paths and I am generally a bit quicker on the uphills so our walking speeds balance out over a long hike.
The route between the two Munros descends to the end of a large and beautiful lochan. We spotted around seven small and identical tents perched on the shoreline. It looked like a fabulous place to wild camp – and the ideal position for walking many Munros in the area.
The slope that climbs the lower part of Beinn Mheadhoin is steep. I decided to simply push on and get that section over with. After about 20 minutes of feeling out of breath, the slope angle reduces a bit and the next part of the walk is less exhausting.
It was a hot-cold-hot-cold sort of day because of the weather and the different angles of the slopes (working hard and then not so much) so I found I stopped a lot to put on a layer and take one off.
We did feel a few spots of rain at this point but it quickly dissipated and generally we enjoyed broken sunshine all day.
There was a path to follow and we commented how dry it was. Even after a few days of rain, the route to both of these Munros was dry underfoot.
Next came a false summit (or maybe two?) before we could see the tors above and ahead of us. I pushed on with the outcrops growing bigger with every step.
To reach the true summit of Beinn Mheadhoin, you have to climb to the top of the tallest tor. It is not a difficult scramble but the wind was strong so we did not wait around after a quick Munro bagging photo.
Beinn a’Chaorainn and Beinn Bhreac
We took shelter in a hollow at the back of the outcrop for a quick lunch during which we decided we would walk the other two Munros. The choice was to descend to the valley base and walk back to the van or descend, then climb up again and walk a higher route back to the campervan. The latter route would take in two more Munros. What did we have to lose, we both agreed?
Hmmmm. The latter option did actually include quite a lot of ascent and a great deal of hiking on rough terrain.
There is no clear path between Beinn Mheadhoin and Beinn a’Chaorainn and we were forced to descend a steep shoulder. The terrain was a mix of boulders (yet more), heather and deep grass.
Again, I was forced to take my time and I wondered if I would ever make it to the bealach. I was so slow that the G-Force felt sorry for me and lent me his walking poles. They aided my balance. (I had stupidly left my own poles back at the van.)
Finally reaching the bealach, we again faced a steep ascent. It wasn’t easy to keep going with my legs were already tired form two Munros. I started to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to make the long hike out via the valley floor instead of starting yet another climb.
But if you look at the map, the two extra Munros take you high above the glen yet in the same direction as the lower path. It seemed like the most sensible thing to do, to bag two more Munros on the other side of the glen.
I thought the top of this third Munro would never come. The wind had picked up by now and the sky was threatening rain. We passed another two walkers as they descended the Munro. We said we had the four Munros as our day’s goal. They said that two, Beinn Bhreac and Beinn a’Chaorainn, would be enough for them.
I tried hard to enjoy the third Munro and looked around at the beautiful landscape. It had been a while since we last walked any Munros in the Cairngorms and I was hopeful of convincing my tired brain that we were in a great place. We truly were!
Between Beinn a’Chaorainn and Beinn Bhreac is a long and arduous boggy, peaty moorland. I am not going to say this was a lovely walk because it was not. We tried to stay as high as possible and away from the wet ground but eventually I decided I didn’t care if my feet became sodden.
I had chosen to wear trainers and while it had been a favourable option for the first two Munros, the moorland between Munros 3 and 4 was a lot less kind. It really did feel like we would never reach Beinn Bhreac.
To add to the energy-sapping rugged terrain we were faced with a headwind. At times I could hardly find the energy to lift my feet up and I did wonder what would happen if I simply sat down and refused to go on.
Of course, I didn’t. I am fit enough to walk four Munros in one day but there is always a moment in a tough outing when I feel like stopping and never moving.
The weather was also closing in and this meant we needed to keep up a fairly fast march. At times we walked together and talked a little and at other times we hiked with many metres between us, lost in our own thoughts. By this point in a day’s hike we have normally chatted through everything we wanted to and we enjoy a bit of me-time for thinking.
The G-Force thought he could see a path about half-way up the slope of Beinn Bhreac and so we headed for that. This did require a lot of trudging through deep peat layers and some bog but the hoped for path turned out to be a good choice.
Once we found the path it was not long before we were on the summit of Munro 4. This was the lowest peak of the day and I was thankful for that.
The descent to the bikes
It is pretty much always the case that the walk back from the last summit to the start feels like it takes forever. We talked about how lucky we had been with the weather and we stopped a few times to admire the view, now partially bathed in afternoon sunshine.
The path petered out into mud and bog as we reached the edge of a stunning area of Scots pines. In between the greenery were the skeletons of trees that had once lived but now presented a stark but strangely beautiful white outline of ghostly tree.
Eventually we could hear the noise of rushing water and we knew the river and the thus the place where we had left our bikes would soon be in view. In reality it was another 20 or so minutes of walking!
As we stopped for a bite to eat (for energy) a group of cyclists rode by. I wished we had our bikes at that point!
I was feeling pretty fatigued by the time we swapped trainers for bike shoes and made, what seemed like, a muscle-zapping ride back to the campervan. Fortunately, it was only two miles of cycling (with the same ups and downs as the outward ride, except it felt like there was more up than down).
I was slow but this gave me more of an opportunity to look around at the most wonderful views along Glen Lui – and to relish the fact that I had ticked off another four Munros in my fast disappearing list of 282.
I am not sure if that first sip of beer back at the van has ever tasted so good!
Four Munros: The stats
The full walk was around 23 miles.
We reduced the time on our feet by mountain biking the first couple of miles.
Max height: 1,139m
Min height 364m
Total height gain: 1,402m.
My Munros tally is now 226. It still takes me by surprise when I remember that I have less than 60 to go to complete a round.