I’ve been making a belated effort to tackle some of Scotland’s toughest/best (depending on your penchant for uphill) cycling climbs. Towards the end of the winter I sampled the Mennock Pass (nice but by no means nasty), a few weeks ago the Bealach na Ba (nice and nasty, thanks to hideous weather) and, just the other day, the Cairn o’ Mount (read on).

Cairn on Mount South

Cairn o’ Mount Stats

  • Length: 3.4km
  • Average Gradient: 9.5%
  • Maximum Gradient: 18.6%
  • Height climbed: 319m

My Cairn o’ appointment came on a drive north from Edinburgh to visit family (the start of the climb is only twenty minutes’ drive from the A90, the main road to Aberdeen). I started in the village of Fettercairn and followed the sign. Easy enough.

A couple of miles later I passed the Clatterin’ Brig tearoom and hit the start of the climb. There’s a signpost right there warning of a 16% gradient. It’s not for laughs but that didn’t stop me scoffing. Anything I had read about the climb I’d long since forgotten and so assumed it wouldn’t be that tough. Steep? Yeah, perhaps, but not for long.

It was steep, from the get go, and the get gone, and on, around 12% for at least the first kilometre. In my naivety I attacked those first slopes, received a swift slap of discouragement and, undeterred, decided to push a bit harder, to show this silly little Scottish climb who was boss. The Cairn o’ Mount already knew the answer: it was the boss and I was the idiot riding too far into the red after an insufficient warm up.

The steepest section ended just passed the rubble remains of an old cottage, by which point I was already coming undone, brick by brick.┬áThe next kilometre-ish wasn’t easy, but easier, never much above 8%, but then never much below either. Gently winding, it was a respite of sorts, some minutes of borderline lucidity in which I was able to look up ahead and realise that the worst was yet to come: the road was way up ahead, slicing cutthroat round the mountainside. 16% the serious sign had said. I mentally added a couple more for good measure.

This wasn’t my first foray into the wilds of Aberdeenshire. I’d been here before, many moons previous, sans bike. That fortnight of grouse beating on the Fasque estate had been the Vietnam War experience of my youth. Two weeks wandering moorland, piss-wet through, starving hungry and freezing cold; lead shot raining down all around us, grouse in hiding, shooters barely resisting the urge to blast and bag a few of the staff in stead. Happy days? Not really, not even in hindsight.

I clunked down into fourth gear, then third; second didn’t feel like the blessing I’d hoped it might. I wasn’t going into first. Nae chance. Come on laddie, pull yourself together. You managed the Bealach na Ba in the hoolie from hell, you can grind your way over the Cairn o’ Mount.

I shifted up a gear, but then so did the gradient. My breathing followed suit. I eased, almost a track stand, got my shit (half) together then started again. Finally, the road swung round that bend I’d seen from way back down on the ‘easy’ bit. I’d hoped the summit would be my reward, but no, not yet. Another sharp tarmacked slap in the face, the eponymous cairn lurking in the cloud a few metres from the roadside, a couple of hundred metres from my gasping, rasping mess.

At the top I unclipped, spat, sat down on the top tube. The view was pretty good, when the oxygen returned.

Rather than just ride back to the car I cobbled together a 40 mile loop along various back roads. It was my first time riding in rural Aberdeenshire and won’t be my last. My short ride was packed with fast and fun rolling roads, gorgeous scenery (including the Falls of Feugh), more (smaller) climbs, and almost as many red deer as cars:

Cairn o Strava

(Click map to view on Strava.)