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WATCH: Exploring running trails in the Cairngorms with Trail Running Scotland

By John Davidson

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Balraj makes his way down the Lairig Ghru path into the forest.
Balraj makes his way down the Lairig Ghru path into the forest.

There’s a sense of optimism in the air. The mountains may be holding onto their winter coats well into the depths of spring and the world may have changed, but things are starting to turn.

The birds are returning from Africa and, as we run along these magnificent trails, I look up and spot a shape above the group, graceful and silent. An osprey. It’s so close that I can make out its features as it swoops back towards the water.

A shared moment that we all savour. Life has changed, but life goes on. It’s good to be back here among the Cairngorms, these giant plateaux that attract so much life, human and otherwise.

Today we’re staying below the peaks and corries, though, exploring the paths that wind through the forest and give a tantalising taste of the wildness above. It’s good for the soul, as our guide Ian Stewart says.

This is his first weekend back at the coal face after months of lockdown restrictions, and he’s enjoying the beauty of the hills, the wonderful tracks and, perhaps most of all, the social aspect of taking clients out into this environment once more.

Ian Stewart (second left) with Tash, Nina, Balraj and Colleen with the Lairig Ghru behind.
Ian Stewart (second left) with Tash, Nina, Balraj and Colleen with the Lairig Ghru behind.

Trail Running Scotland offers a range of running trips, from yoga breaks to multi-day Highland adventures. Today I’ve joined a group as part of the Cairngorms Explorer weekend. The day before the runners – Nina, Tash, Colleen and Balraj – enjoyed a forest run from Feshiebridge; today we’re heading to some of my favourite trails in the area, and I can’t wait.

Thanks not only to lockdown but also to injury, it has been a long time since I’ve been able to run here. As we set off from the Hayfield, it’s great to just jog and chat as we make our way through the forest towards the bridge over the Allt Mor.

Utsi’s Bridge, named after the Swedish reindeer herder Mikel Utsi who introduced the creatures to the Cairngorms in the 1950s, had to be replaced last year after 40 years of service.

We pause at the bright new wooden structure and Ian shows us something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Beside the bridge is a stone with an inscription, “UTSI’S BRIDGE” – a lasting gesture to the man whose herd has an enclosure on the far side of the river from here.

On the other side, there’s a steep climb but a path zigzags up to ease the gradient. The climb continues past the enclosure until the magnificent view of the Northern Corries comes into sight – at least it would were it not for the grey cloud clinging to the white slopes above the ski centre.

Now we’ve all loosened up a little, Ian leads us through some “warming-up” stretches as we continue along the path.

There’s some great running as the route stretches out ahead, leading to a little ‘V’ on the horizon. As we approach, the entrance to the Chalamain Gap is guarded by a large blanket of snow that we’ll need to cross.

Thankfully, it’s soft and stable enough to walk through safely, and we enter the rocky section of the notch, which soon becomes a jumble of huge boulders clearly collapsed from the impressive cliffs above. It’s a remarkable place and adds a whole new dimension to a route that is otherwise on fairly straightforward trails.

The nimble-footed can keep moving through the gap, but we take our time, using our hands when required to ensure safe passage until we finally emerge to the spectacular viewpoint on the far side.

Across the defile of the Lairig Ghru and framed by the rocky exit to the gap, the snow-covered Braeraich looks like a picture postcard. Once the gasps and ‘wows’ have subsided, the silence is audible. A perfect peace in the perfect place.

After the careful ascent of the Chalamain Gap, the path now descends to the Lairig Ghru, offering a fast run for those ready to leap the large drainage channels and focus on the obstacles that threaten an even speedier way down at every twist and turn.

The freedom is bliss. I rush down with a grin across my face, pausing above the final steep drop as we regroup to take in the view south through the Lairig Ghru. A careful descent of the rocky steps to the Allt Druidh follows and a chance to fill up the water bottles in the pristine water.

The temptation is there to venture further into this unique montane territory, but we are not prepared for the continuing winter conditions higher up. Our route heads downhill from here, initially on a tricky stretch with awkward rocks and poor drainage.

We keep left at a fork as we enter the edge of the forest and Balraj, Tash and myself enjoy the narrow trail that darts in between trees and over rocks and roots as we up the pace all the way down to the crossroads of tracks deep in the forest below.

Ian comments when he arrives close behind that he feared we’d gone the wrong way as he couldn’t catch us up; we were just having too much fun on the descent!

Turning right, we follow the main path back to join the Rothiemurchus Lodge access track, then soon turn right to meander around the edge of Loch Morlich as we make our way gently back to the Hayfield.

It’s as we’re running along the popular trail here that I look up and see the osprey right above our heads. Getting back to nature and back to fitness really is good for the soul.

Route details

Cairngorms Explorer

Distance 11.5 miles / 18km

Terrain Good paths, tracks and trails, with rocks, roots and other obstacles; the Chalamain Gap involves some easy scrambling over large boulders

Start/finish Hayfield car park, Glenmore

Map OS Landranger 36; OS Explorer OL57

An off-road adventure in the Cairngorms with Trail Running Scotland

The scale of the Chalamain Gap is apparent as the group make their way through the boulder field.
The scale of the Chalamain Gap is apparent as the group make their way through the boulder field.

Hit the trails

Trail Running Scotland is offering a number of guided trips and other activities this year. They include the 26-mile crossing of the Lairig Ghru between Linn of Dee and Glenmore, as well as Explorer weekends in the Cairngorms and Torridon.

The running is focused on fun rather than speed, and Ian offers tips on technique, training and navigation for off-road adventures. He also provides skyrunning training courses for those wishing to take their running onto the high tops.

For more information see www.trailrunningscotland.com

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