By Ken Ross
I had just returned from a week’s holiday near Loch Ranock. I was flicking through a book of walks in Scotland, which Val had purchased, when I came across the heading ‘Lairig Ghru’. On seeing this name I was taken back over 50 years to the summer of 1949.
The spectacular gash of Lairig Ghru through the Cairngorns is a route of great antiquity, 17 miles long 2750 feet high between Aviemore and Braemor approximately 26 miles in length .It should not be attempted by the ill-equipped or fainthearted
It all started as a joke between the lads, members of the local C.T.C. I had read an article about the Lairig Ghru, which was one of the toughest passes in Scotland for cyclists to cross. Eventually it turned out that while on a fortnight’s Scottish tour in July 1949 with our bikes as impediments rather than assets that Bill, Ben and I crossed the famous pass.
We awakened at 5-15am in the Y.H.A. at Aviemore and urged on by the sight of a clear sky we settled down to a fine breakfast, which we cooked ourselves (at that time all Scottish youth hostels were self-catering). By 6-15am, having signed the hostel register saying where we intended to go, our wheels were soon humming along the main road to Coylumbridge.
The Lairig Ghru was twenty-six miles from Aviemore Braemar, rising to an altitude of 2750 feet at the summit, just north of the Pools o’ Dee. Of this distance two or three miles can be ridden from Avimore to Coylumbridge as can the last eight miles from Derry Lodge to Braemar hostel. The remaining 17 miles there is no alternative to wheeling. Pulling or carrying one’s cycle.
At Coylumbridge we turned off the main road onto a bridle way which wandered through a large forestry plantation. It was while moving along this section that we came upon some chaps who had been camping out. On learning of our destination, they said that we must be quite mad to try it. Amid jokes from both parties we pushed on through the trees and out onto the slopes.
Soon we were climbing steadily up to where the path became rougher, stonier and rockier. The sun was still in evidence, but the clouds were building up and the wind was gaining in strength as we struggled upwards. After about three miles we came to a burn which was swollen with recent rain. There was no bridge (now there is one in place), so we had to cross by way of the stones lying in the burn. After we were safely across, we immediately came upon the first stiff gradient, about 1 in 4.After surmounting this we reached the 2000 foot contour on the shoulder of Great Na Leacainn on the northern spur of Ben Macdui , the second highest mountain in Great Britain.
We had been going for three hours and our hopes for a fine day seemed to be disappearing. The route was starting to get even rougher, so we decided to carry our bikes by slinging them across our shoulders.
The top was now in sight and this seemed to spur us on all the faster. The last half-mile was a terrible climb and we were soon strung out every man for himself . The top was finally reached and there were deep sighs of relieve from all of us. We stood there feeling very satisfied with ourselves taking in the view. After a few minutes taking photographs we pushed on towards the Pool O’ Dee. It was here that we had a bite to eat. However the wind was getting up even more, so we decided to carry on. Bill and Ben moved off while I packed up and followed them. It was then that I saw what I had expected , Bill shouldering his bike ; the dreaded scree and boulder field had been reached. Spurred on I soon reached it as well. A huge mass of scree of all shapes and sizes which had tumbled down from the peak and lay as a barrier across the path some two miles wide. There was nothing for it but for me to carry my bike on my shoulder as I stepped from boulder to boulder, always hoping that I would not slip. “Heavens above” I thought, “ this is too much for flesh and blood to stand”. I must confess that at one stage I contemplated leaving the bike, but a severe mental pulling up of socks saved the situation. Eventually I accomplished a killing haul across the rocks.
It took over an hour to cross some fields and it was only the knowledge that the whole crossing was a matter of life and death that kept us going.
A short descent over rough grass was welcome, but then more rocks and boulders and I crashed downwards. Protect the spokes in the front wheel was my recurring thought. What the other two lads were thinking at the time, they told me afterwards was unprintable.
At last everything seemed to be going well, when I heard a shout from Bill. Looking back I saw him in the middle of a burn with his bike on top of him. This incident was a good excuse for lots of laughter from Ben and me and in the end Bill had to join in and laugh at himself. We proceeded on downwards following a winding path strewn with loose stones until we reached Larn o’Dee. Here we paused and took in some fine scenery. The Dee was in spate after the recent rain and crashed over the Larn Falls and swept away in a churning mass of brown water It flowed between groves of deep green pines, which bordered on the river at this point. It was now about 5pm and soon Derry Lodge came into view. It was a fine sight, for then we knew that the road was at hand. We reached the road at about 5-30pm and this was the first sign of habitation that we had seen since leaving Coylam Bridge. Here we saw a laconic and satirical signpost, which indicated a public footpath to Aviemore without a hint of the very strenuous nature of the journey. There were eight miles of macadam road for us to cover before we arrived at the youth hostel at Braemar about twelve hours after leaving Avimore.
After a brew of tea, a brisk clean up and a change of clothes, we felt more like human beings. “You know” I said to the lads (after supper which we cooked ourselves)” I would not have missed this experience for anything, but I don’t think that I will ever do it again with a bike”
True to my word I never did attempt the above again, but I did cross many similar rough stuff passes with the bike over the following years.