A rewarding bike and hike to bag two Munros, Ben Avon and Beinn aâ€™ Bhuird, in north-east Scotland.
The first time my partner Gordon walked Ben Avon and neighbouring Beinn aâ€™ Bhuird he cycled some of the very long route into the Munros via Glen Quoich. On that occasion, he left his bike close to a ruined building tucked into a dip in the landscape known as Fairy Glen around halfway along the pass.
Recently, we returned to do the same walk but this time Gordon vowed we would cycle on â€œmuch, much furtherâ€. And as we set out from Keiloch car park (grid ref 187914), near Braemar, on the Invercauld Estate, he told me his story.
Gordon said: â€œI thought I was being so clever, cycling about halfway along the glen. It really helped to cut down on the long hike into the two Munros. At the ruined building, the track seemed to become very rough and I thought this would be the best place to start walking from. But I was so wrong.
â€œIf Iâ€™d only persevered for 200 metres more I would have found myself on a good trail again, and certainly one that IÂ could mountain bike. Today, we will not be making that mistake again!â€
Gordon was right. To start with, the route into the glen from the car park follows an old military road that is now tarmacked. It then turns into wide forest trails where we followed signs for Slugain. These trails become narrower as the route heads deeper into the glen and upwards. However, the path is still mostly rideable if you are on a mountain bike.
As we cycled, we passed people on foot and others on bikes. While weâ€™re not skilled mountain bike riders, weâ€™re fairly fit and the undulating trail was a pleasure to ride. It felt so good to be heading to the base of the two Munros at two to three times the speed of fast walking.
Walking versus biking
Perhaps I should take a moment here to talk about â€œpuristâ€ Munro bagging. I have no doubt that there are some Munro baggers who believe the whole route should be completed on foot.Â I have no problem with that view but I found the mountain biking to be a great relief.
The day before, Gordon and I had walked the five Lochnagar Munros so we had tired legs. To have the aid of two wheels for a large section of the two Munros of Ben Avon and Beinn aâ€™ BhuirdÂ seemed to make perfect sense to me. I hope you donâ€™t think I was â€œcheatingâ€!
Back on the valley trail
At the ruins of Slugain lodge, the trail became very rocky and steep. If Gordon had not advised me to get off and push my bike I would easily have been persuaded to lock it up and continue on foot from here.
But just a little way on, the path became much more rideable again. Much of this next section of well-crafted path is smooth and wonderfully swooping although there are numerous water channel outlets to negotiate. While some of these can be ridden over, others are so wide and deep that I had to get off my bike to walk/push over.
The stop-start process did make the cycling a little slower but if we had been entirely on foot the 8km glen may well have felt like forever.
As it was, we arrived at the foot of the head of the glen, just before a crossing of the fast-moving mountain river, Glas Allt Mor, feeling relaxed and ready for a hike upwards.
The route continues on a narrow path alongside Glas Allt Mor and towards an obvious bealach at the end of the glen. There were still patches of snow to cross and while some of the path was wet and boggy, for the most part it was an easy walk.
At the bealach â€“ also called The Sneck â€“ thereâ€™s a choice. Head right (north-east) for Ben Avon (1171m) or left (west) for Beinn aâ€™ Bhuird (1197m). We chose to summit Ben Avon (pronounced Ann) first.
As we headed upwards we could look back down and overÂ theÂ Sneck towards stunning Slochd Mor and the corrie of Garbh Coire. There are numerous mountains in the distance and, in sunshine, this is a Scotland-at-its-best view.
A path zig zags repeatedly up the steep side of Ben Avon. We stopped a few times to rest our legs and enjoy the vistas. After a while the path flattened on to a rounded plateau.
Looking ahead we could see the vast tor of Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe, which is the real summit of Ben Avon. Strong winds at this point made the climb to the top of the tor a little hair-raising but if youâ€™re bagging Munros you need to ensure you have made it to the top!
We then retraced our steps back to the bealach, finding ourselves increasingly buffeted by the winds. By now the weather had turned for the worse, as Scottish weather can often do, but it was still clear enough to see our way up the â€œeven steeperâ€ side of the Sleck towards the second Munro.
Â Second Munro of the day
On weary legs we pushed upwards on another zig-zagging path to reach the southern high point of Beinn aâ€™ Bhuird. Frustratingly this point is 1179m and some 20m shy of the real Munro summit.
The hike to the 1197m cairn took far, far longer than it might normally due to increasingly thick mist and rain. Time after time we imagined we must be close to the cairn only to realise that what we could see was a large rock.
Using our map and compass we finally saw the outline of the cairn looming before us. A quick photograph and another good look at the map found us returning across the plateau through wind, rain and mist while tracking a compass bearing.
What always amazes me when hiking in Scotlandâ€™s mountains is how much longer it seems to take to retrace your steps compared to the outward journey. Perhaps it was the deteriorating conditions that made matters worse but it felt like we had been on the second Munro for many, many hours by the time we finally made it back to The Sleck.
Sadly, we also missed out on what I can only imagine are fine views from this Munro top.
The walk out from the bealach followed the same narrow path alongside the overflowing river and back to our bikes. We had discussed what to do with our bikes earlier in the day and the outcome was to â€œburyâ€ them in heather. We also took the view that people who walk in the hills wouldnâ€™t steal bikes.
However, it was still with a great deal of relief that we re-found the mountain bikes. I canâ€™t imagine how heavy hearted I would have felt to discover the bikes were missing andÂ we needed to walk all the way back to the campervan.
The cycle back along the glen was even swifter than the journey in thanks to the gently descending trail. It took a while for my hands to warm up after the chill of the second Munro but the power of the pedalling and the improvements in the weather helped enormously.
I have great respect for all those that have completed this route entirely on foot but the bike and hike is a delightful way to bag two Munros, too.
See the Walk Highlands suggested routes to the Munros.
Ben a’ Bhuird