Following rivers to the sea: part 2

23 04 2017

The night brought high winds that whip-cracked my tarp about my head as I fought to sleep, cocooned in my kip sack. I was experimenting with a new pole set up for my Mountain Laurel Designs Cricket tarp and I was a little nervous that it would not hold up, but I had no need to worry – it was bomber.

The morning was cold. Very cold. Getting into damp wool was pretty nasty but I was stoked about my Endura PrimaLoft gilet, a new product from the masters of Scotland-ready cycling kit, that allowed me to warm up with a bit of jigging and jumping as I packed up my kit.

I had around 112km to ride until I reached my destination, Montrose, on the coast of the North Sea. Normally, I do not have any time anxieties, but in this instance I had been required to book myself on a specific train to return home, to the south of Scotland. I knew the trains following the one I had booked had no space for bikes, so my target was fixed. That meant working backwards from this end point and estimating how long the ride wold take me.

I had planned the trip in a kind of disaster style: in other words, I had quickly looked at the map online and gone point to point on a macro scale, leading me to believe that I had around 90km to ride. I gave myself an arbitrary amount of time to make it, based loosely on a vague and unverified report of another’s adventure. Twenty km is not a huge difference and in my defence I allowed two extra hours for the journey, but it was a mistake that was going to make life interesting for me.

The major obstacle for the day was Mount Keen, Scotland’s most easterly Munro. This is accessed from the north by Glen Tanar. I knew the trails alongside the River Dee and love the impressive scenery and remnant Caledonian pine forest along side the gorgeous river corridor.

The Deeside Way allowed rapid progress in the morning once I had packed up and powered by bacon rolls from a cozy cafe in Ballater, I made quick work of the first section of the journey.

As I turned south into Glen Tanar, following one of the region’s premier spring salmon fishing rivers, I enjoyed the company of the winding, babbling, crystal clear water as I climbed the gentle grades, past the Half Way Hut and out of the tree line towards the great lump of Mount Keen.

I have never climbed this mountain and had no idea how rideable the trail would be. From the south, Glen Mark, it is well known as one of the most rideable Munro trails. However, it was clear that the gradient on the North side would make riding very difficult.

Indeed, as I got closer and closer, the trail deteriorated into broken rock garden that required prolonged hike-a-bike.

I had mixed feelings about going over the top. Geograph had shown me a singletrack that circled the summit ‘cone’ and rejoined the trail on the south side of the peak and given the terrible surface on the ascent I settled on finding this rather than continuing to the top: no Munro bagging on this day! The Mounth Road I was following is a historical droving route: I am amazed anyone would try and get over it with animals in tow.

Carrying water is always a balancing act when bike-packing. In Scotland, there are any number of water sources – often straight from the ground – that offer clear, clean water to refill the bottles without having to resort to sterilisation. I do carry a SteriPen and occasionally use it if I am concerned about contamination from animals. This was my first bike-pack where I had completely eschewed a back pack or bladder. As a result, I only had the option of refilling my two bottles. Perhaps because of the morning’s cold temperatures, I had not filled them when I could in Glen Tanar, but had concluded that Mount Keen would offer streams or perhaps even snow to recharge them. No such luck! By the time I finished the steep descent I was parched and stopped to drink several bottles of water from the Ladder Burn.

As I sat beside the Water of Mark, admiring the water falls and shear faces of Craig of Doune, it became clear to me that I was pushing it time wise. The tiny screen of my eTrex does not help judging terrain over large distances but I knew I had a fair old ride to get to Montrose and the hours were ticking by.

The report I had vaguely read of riding the Phil McKane coast to coast route, which I had joined at Braemar, suggested that the section I was doing that day took just over seven hours. There was no way I was going to make it in that time.

I sped down Glen Mark then around the Monument Hill of Rowan with a welcome tail wind, but after another stop to see if any detours would afford me a little advantage in attaining my goal with less chance of missing the train, I realised I had to start shifting a bit faster. Unfortunately, the route up the Clash of Wirren initially gave me more poor track then steep climbing.

The descent to Tillybardine, as described by Phil McKane in his guide to the c-2-c, is a singletrack classic. It starts thusly, but as it continues, it is a fairly broken sheep track – requiring some dismounting to clear some particularly broken, tussocky and boggy sections. I refilled again with water at a small stream and admit to being a bit dejected. I was pretty sure I was going to miss my train and that meant some complications to return home.

Soon after this point, the route becomes primarily sealed road – albeit narrow and pleasant. Fat bike tyres don’t roll with ease on tarmac, though, and I had to push very hard indeed in order to make it in time. The Mike n’ Ikes yet again saved the day, offering a boost of energy at the critical moment, seeing me into Montrose and the bitterly cold on-shore wind. I made the train and finally could let myself relax fully. The legs were shot – but the route had been a good one.

Whether I would bookend a bike-pack with train journeys again is a contentious point, but it had allowed me to do a point to point route along side the southern Cairngorm’s waterways and experience a diverse and beautiful landscape.

Following rivers to the sea: part 1

17 04 2017

With a couple of days to spend riding, an overnighter long overdue and some mixed weather a route presented itself that would follow some of the most well known and beautiful rivers in the southern Cairngorm area.

The train delivered me to Pitlochry on Thursday afternoon and despite some anxiety regarding how much and what sort of precipitation I would encounter, I was happy to start pedaling alongside the River Tummel, past Loch Faskally and the gorgeous singletrack at Killiecrankie.

The sun still had some warmth as I turned north at Blair Atholl to follow the River Tilt and I enjoyed the light on the hills enclosing the ever deepening glen as I climbed towards the waterfall where the River Tarf joins the Tilt.

Unfortunately, my luck with the weather was beginning to erode and some very cold rain had me head down and shivering.

It soon passed and the sublime track through upper Glen Tilt, which has been improved to drain some of the peat bog and offer a clearer, more ridable line, was awesome as the sun began to dip towards the horizon.

I was still anxious about crossing the Geldie Burn, but had noted how low the Tilt was and I hoped that it would not offer a significant barrier. Past the ruin of Bynack Lodge, I found the fording of the smaller Bynack Burn to be rideable and on reaching the Geldie, was stoked to find it also rideable. I have crossed this river a number of times and I have never seen it as low – even in mid summer. Incredible.

With barely damp toes, my concern for a very cold night were lessened slightly. The rain was holding off and the forecast for possible snow seemed remote though the predicted overnight high winds were clearly beginning to drive cloud over the Cairngorm Plateau at a significant clip.

Fortune was with me and the wind offered a helping hand as I sped along side the River Dee, through Mar Lodge and then into the regenerated Caledonian pine forest just east of Braemar.

The sun finally dropped fully behind the mountains and with it the temperature plummeted. My tent and sleeping kit set up was swift, with me shivering in my puff jacket. A warm meal and a couple of beers saw me asleep with a great days ride behind me.

Tomorrow would be some known and some unknown as I aimed to reach the sea on the east coast.

Under a canopy of trees: part 3

6 04 2017

With some miles in the legs, the next ride leaned towards technical riding. The forecast suggested 45 mph winds on the plateau, so I needed to plan accordingly. An obvious choice was the Creag a’ Chalamain Gap to the Lairig Ghru and then down to Rothiemurchas.

It has been many years since I first went through the Chalamain Gap and my memory of it was incomplete. I remembered the extreme sloppy, peaty crap on the far side – descending down to the Lairig Ghru path. I also remembered a sense of foreboding, which was separate from the concern the large and often mobile rocks cause as you try to climb up through the gap with a bike in tow.

Pedaling out through Rothiemurchas was as beautiful as ever. Transferring to the side of the Allt Mor I climbed then crossed the ski road, mindful of some potential damage to the trail from a previous flood. Climbing out of the Allt Mor gully towards Airgiod- meall, the views of the northern corries were stunning but it was also clear – as the cloud skipped across the peaks – that it was the right choice to stay low.

Soon enough, the Gap came into view. The trail to it is in very good order – perhaps as the Gap itself is quite difficult, it may not get the same foot fall as other trails in the area.

It was exactly as I remembered it: the almost Khazad-Dûm like entrance led to a rideable section and then into the rock fall itself.

Loose, large rocks scrape and click as you exert physically and project mental calm and climb though the sheer Gap.

Soon enough, I was through and the full strength of the wind could finally be felt. The trail has been hugely improved down to the Lairig Ghru but some of the rock step jumps were a little iffy due to the wind taking me as I left the ground.

A snack (very nice, actually – more on Fori later) whilst staring into the great pass of the Lairig Ghru behind the shelter of a large rock, then it was time to drop back to the tree canopy one last time.

The B-fat tyre made this rocky, narrow gauge trail an absolute blast and I felt a real flow before letting my breath out and pedaling home, through the Caledonian pine and heather.

It has been a fun few rides: I’ll be back soon.

Under a canopy of trees: part 2

5 04 2017

A good breakfast is essential if you intend to ride trails all day long and so I stuffed as many calorific things as I could into a croissant and got some coffee on the go. It had been cold through the night and I had stayed in my sleeping bag well after sun up. This meant that I would have to hustle to get to the planned objective for the day: the River Findhorn.

Findhorn salmon and trout are prized by the fishermen who have made trails along the side of the river. The bench cut sections on the steep gorge sides above the classic grade 2-4 white water were my objective after a blog post by Huw Oliver planted the seed in my mind.

Rolling through Rothiemurchas after fuelling up I couldnt help but smile. I had no where else to be and nothing else to do but pedal. Climbing through the Ryvoan pass, into Abernethy forest the speed was high. Calm weather and high pressure meant a crisp but sunny day with a hint of a tail wind.

Following the River Spey to Grantown, I then joined the Dava Way and spun the cranks northwards. The Dava Way is a relatively recent walking/cycling path that stretches from Grantown, 38km to Forres, near the Moray Firth. It follows the foundation of the old Highland Railway and as such is of mellow gradient and good surface for the most part. Some sections are ‘rafted’ on boggier ground and it made a sharp contrast with the rocky, steep trails of the Northern Cairngorm start.

On reaching the River Divie, I digressed from the route and went in search of the fabled Findhorn singletrack.

It didn’t disappoint.

I had hoped to be back in Aviemore in time for dinner and given that it was a sunday, this meant keeping total ride time to 8-9 hours ideally. It became clear that if I continued on the river side, I might have to dine at ‘Mountain House‘.

I couldn’t resist a little more, crossing the worlds most rickety bridge and taking in the surroundings as I munched on a snack or two.

Eventually I decided that there was more exploring to be done in the area and a future trip focussing on this would be required. With a rueful smile, I turned tail and headed back, south towards the mountains, away from the sea.

The ride was around 115km but the climbing was easy due to the rail grade – about 1000m. Mike and his friend Ike – washed down with Irn Bru – gave me wings…

Under a canopy of trees: part 1.

4 04 2017

Drive, north, pitch tent, revel in the cold, clear Cairngorm air and look at a cerulean blue sky between the red branches of the trees. Saddle up and hit the trail, bound for a relic of a time gone by, Utsi’s hut. The Swedish herder reintroduced reindeer to the area in the mid 1950’s. They are spectacular animals – I love seeing them and they are well established now.

Take some of the lesser travelled trails, grinning despite the growing wind, then drizzle, then hail and finally persistent rain.

Shivering, the smile remains and after some warming food, a wee dram and the maps are broken out to plan for the next day.

The Angus Glens – part 2.

30 03 2017

After refuelling and resting at the Glen Clova hotel, which exists in a strange-but-refreshing-for-the-21st-century wifi and phone signal free zone, the stage was set for day 2. On joining the crew, the plan was to take the Minister’s path from Glen Clova over to Glen Prosen and from there, climb on estate tacks before joining the Kilbo path and then we had two options.

Either we could take the ‘barely-track’ across the shoulder of Mayar – a rounded Munro standing sentinel at the top of Corrie Fee, before trying to drop into the Corrie itself, or we could continue through the Shank of Drumwhallow and down the Kilbo path back to base.

On ascending from Glen Prosen, we were treated to mountain hares, a lifting cloud-base and extensive views of the glens heading north. However, we also began to suffer through deeper, slushy snow that impeded progress – no matter the tyre width.

After re-grouping at the crest of the Kilbo path, the option to head across country to Corrie Fee was quickly cast aside due to the 30+ cm of snow packed in amongst tussocky grassland, peat bog and interspersed with standing water and ice.

We had tried to ride the Kilbo path in entirety previously, but had missed a junction and continued down a vague track on the edge of the cliff that surrounds Corrie Sharroch. This time, we intended to find the correct trail.

Well, we did and were slightly put out to find that the deep, steep track ahead of us was in essence a snow filled chute. Lacking fear or dignity, we set off, crashing ass over tea kettle, skidding through 90 degrees without warning and accompanied by the banshee-wailing of brakes. The most successful method appeared to be tri-poding with the inside, left leg at risk of being jammed into spaces between rocks, hidden under the snow. Far from the peerless descent we had hoped, it nevertheless gave us much mirth as we eventually slithered our way into the trees at the head of Glen Doll.

The trail from here was a blast – rocky, rooty, winding and steep, we hooted and hollered as we savoured this final drop.

At one point, Chris and Gareth came past me at head height. I tried to break out the camera to snap some action shots but the resultant blur is not worth putting in the public domain and in some ways, that probably signifies how much fun there is to be had in the Angus Glens.

Several of the pictures here were taken by fellow Moulineer, Marty and I am indebted to him for allowing me to use them in this post.

The Angus Glens – part 1.

25 03 2017

The Angus Glens, running like the fingers of a giant hand reaching down from the Cairngorm, are festooned with a network of famous trails. The Kilbo Path, Jock’s Road, The Minister’s Path, Streak of Lightning (aka Streak of Pish), Glas-alt Shiel descent, Capel Mounth and more. The options are almost unlimited and the scenery spectacular.

For this year’s ‘proper’ F.B.R.O.T.Y, we made a plan to ride from the bunkhouse in Glen Clova. I had some time off work and had been planning to bike pack, so meeting up, then riding, a few beers and a spraff with the boys seemed ideal.

A fraught week of weather watching was a little depressing. The route I had hoped to complete was looking a little messy, weather wise. I wanted to take the train to somewhere on the A9 corridor, then ride up Glen Tilt, pop over the Deeside via the Geldie Burn and head east past Linn of Dee, Braemar then ascend the lower slopes near Lochnagar and drop to Loch Muick, before climbing and dropping into Glen Clova via the Capel Mounth.

Heavy snow, lots of rain and high winds followed by much milder but still wet weather meant I was deeply concerned about crossing the Geldie Burn. Last year, later in March, I crossed the burn in much better conditions and it was mid thigh deep and running strong. It is a serious and relatively remote river crossing and if you don’t ford, there are zero options for moving east.

Of course, bivi-ing wet and cold, then riding a full day the next day could be, well, harsh.

After deliberation, I felt the sensible option was to simply head to Glen Clova and try and ride some of the fantastic trails there before heading out with friends the next day. So I pedaled up Glen Clova, to the start of Jock’s Road. Famous for the dispute between the drovers – who would drive sheep over the high Tolmounth pass from Braemar – and the land owner of the time, who wanted to close the path.

I have ridden Jock’s Road several times and knew it to be a classic. Out and back rides are less inspiring than loops, to my mind, but without committing to a long route, or the questionable trail around Loch Esk, and out and back was required.

At around 700m of elevation, the snow started to deepen and at Davy’s Bourach, the accumulations were enough to make riding – even with fat tyres – tricky. This tardis-like howff was built by the eponymous Davy Glen in response (if memory serves) to some walkers getting trapped high on the trail in bad weather and losing their lives.

Nevertheless, the return was ace.

After a brief stop due to my camera taking a roll down a rocky outcrop, I reached the bottom and went after the second target for the day – Corrie Fee.

This area of Special Scientific Interest – and nature reserve – is a classic coire, carved out by glaciers and with large moraine piles, forcing the stream to meander as it crosses the flat base of the cirque. The high, shear cliffs form a dramatic environment, that was made more profound by the low cloud and gloom.

A surprising amount of riding was possible as I climbed toward the waterfall, scything down from the cliffs above. Eventually, H.A.B was the rule with some thick plates of ice keeping things interesting. I stopped around 50m from the top, with the trail becoming scree. I had no intention of going cross country as I wanted to descend into Glen Clova from Corrie Fee, but it would have been interesting to see if a trail existed (see part 2) from the rim, although nothing was marked on the map.

It is a great trail in a fantastic environment and with care, can be ridden without leading to any significant wear and tear of this special environment.