Another MTB traverse of the Cairngorms: Aviemore to Blair Atholl

Posted by on Jun 14, 2011 in Bike, East Highlands | 3 Comments


Former bridge at Carnachuin in Glen Feshie



In 1971 the Italian alpinist Reinhold Messner wrote an essay entitled ‘The Murder of the Impossible’, in which he criticised the trend among some mountaineers of the time of drilling holes in the rock to allow the fixing of expansion bolts. His objection was that, by using such means, men were able to get up routes that they would not otherwise have been strong or brave enough to climb. In doing so they not only disfigured the rock, they were depriving the stronger, braver climbers of future generations of the challenge of climbing such routes cleanly and in good style.


Singletrack in upper Glen Feshie



In this internet age we face an even graver threat, that of the murder of adventure itself. Nowadays almost everything – excepting the most contrived of challenges – has not only been done, it has been photographed, documented and published on blogs and web pages. Worse still, the tracks of others that have gone before can be downloaded onto GPS enabled mobile devices and slavishly followed.  What was the stuff of adventure only a few short years ago might be found today packaged up as a product and offered for sale by adventure tour operators. Even routes that have not yet been widely publicised can be researched into submission using Google Earth.
My weekend’s sport was the 75 km mountain bike ride from Aviemore to Blair Atholl via Glens Feshie, Geldie and Tilt. If you plan to take this ride on yourself I recommend that you stop reading now so that you can savour its delights through fresh eyes, untainted by the experiences of others.


Fording the Geldie Burn. Donald demonstrates the technique of removing shoes and socks in mid-stream, the biking equivalent of changing horses in mid-stream,



The plan had been hatched by a serial plotter of cycle trips that involve trains.  Last year, while cycling near Linn of Dee, Donald had met two bikers who had cycled through from Glen Feshie. They reported only around 2 km of pushing and the seeds of our adventure were sown. We studiously avoided any further research, keen to maintain an element of surprise. A look at the map revealed about 9 km of single – or no – track between the head of Glen Feshie and Geldie Lodge, with a further 12 km leading in to Glen Tilt. The rest was on landrover tracks. Based on my recent traverse between Tromie Bridge and Dalnacardoch I predicted that the journey would take no more than six hours and we set off from Aviemore at 0930, confident that we would comfortably make the return train from Blair Atholl at 1800.


A snake in the grass near Bynack Lodge. I was surprised to see adders out and about on such a cool and damp day. Perhaps the moisture makes it easier to shed skin.



We had originally planned to take the train all the way from Inverness, but traveling by train is a frustrating pastime for the cyclist, with room for only two bikes on the smaller sprinter trains and room for a paltry half-dozen even on the mighty Highland Chieftain. The bike spaces were already taken on the southbound train, forcing us to drive to Aviemore. This lack of bicycle capacity is all the more infuriating when you learn, as I did on Saturday, that intercity services have an empty compartment at the rear of the power car which would be capable of accommodating countless bicycles. That this commodious compartment remains closed to bicycles is one of the great scandals of our age and I urge you all to write angry letters to the railway companies.


A decomposed deer provides an unusual bit of surface interest on the approach to Glen Tilt. At this point I had a pretty good idea how the deer must have felt before it lay down for the last time..



Inconvenient though this lack of bicycle carrying capacity may be, it did add to the commitment of the journey. The penalty for missing our intended train would be having to attempt to board a later train onto which our bikes had not been booked. An ugly scene could have developed had we been turned away from this later train, for we would surely have attempted to storm the secret compartment at the rear of the power car rather than face a difficult hitch back up the A9.


The rocks in Glen Tilt are of great interest, for here James Hutton found “granite breaking and displacing the strata in every conceivable manner”, proof that granites were originally in a molten state. This helped to overcome the prevailing theory of Neptunism, biblicaly inspired mumbo jumbo that held that all rocks had been deposited from the ocean (see ‘Land of Mountain and Flood’ page 115). It would have been good to spend longer exploring the Glen, but by then time was short.



This was tough route; a damp day meant that we didn’t stop for any longer than was necessary to keep ourselves topped up with calories, yet we arrived in Blair Atholl, caked in mud, with a mere 20 minutes to spare.  The ride itself was phenomenal; we experienced the delights of the incredible upper reaches of Glen Feshie; we numbed our feet on countless river crossings; we watched an adder shed its skin while its companion hissed angrily at us from the heather; we rode singletrack that was equally unpleasant in or out of the saddle; we pounded our hands and cricked our necks on 25 km of almost continuous descent in Glen Tilt; we became acquainted  with a 1:50,000 sheet’s length of fresh and wild country. We found the adventure that we sought.


  1. swanscot
    June 16, 2011

    It sounds like a tough day. When I’ve been pottering about in Glen Feshie I’ve often wondered just how rideable it is in the upper reaches of the glen. It looks a long stretch without a track between the head of the Feshie and Geldie burn.

  2. Gavin Macfie
    June 16, 2011

    There’s always a track, it’s just that its degree of ridability is highly variable! The upper reaches of Feshie were awesome. The amount of young trees in the glen is very impressive. Full marks to the estate for actually managing deer numbers properly.

  3. Nick Bramhall
    June 19, 2011

    It sounds like a lot of fun was had on that adventure. I recently backpacked down that track towards the Tilt. It was perfect on foot but I couldn’t really imagine cycling it so top marks for effort there!


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