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.





4 years ago.

8 10 2016

Four years ago, I hatched a plan to bike pack a slightly ambitious route. Up Ben Macdui, bivi, then descend to Loch Etchachan (a trail that often generates wistful looks and knowing nods between the cognoscenti), then on down to Glen Derry to meet the crew who were intent on Beinn a’Bhuird then Ben Avon and after, I would return by dropping down to the river Avon and follow this to Tomintoul, cross to Dorback Lodge and the Braes of Abernethy to Aviemore.

It didn’t happen and I had quite a gnarly experience up Macdui. The Big Grey Man was calling my name.

I returned with this route in my mind numerous times over the subsequent years, but it wasn’t until last weekend that I finally managed to get it done – more or less.

Why less? well, I did not ascend Beinn a’Bhuird or Avon, instead I headed to the south side of the River Dee and ascended from Crathie, on the road, until Corgarff Castle where I took estate tracks to rejoin the River Avon at Inchrory Lodge, before heading north to Tomintoul and completing the route aforementioned.

I had been weather-watching intently because I had a 3 day window and needed 2 days to do the route. As the wet weather of recent weeks subsided, I knew that some of the boggier ground on my original route (including the classic section to Loch Builg) would probably be a bit miserable, but having ridden various alternatives in the past, it was easy to re-route and I felt that I had minimised any needless misery, but kept all the fun stuff in.

I overnighted near Loch Morlich with a view to an early start. The sun was shining and the azure of the sky brought a broad smile to my face when I finally made it out of my kipsack. Gear was stowed and checked a final time and I rode out the logger’s trail to Glenmore Lodge then up to the ski hill and on up Coire Cas.

Having fitted an 11-46 cassette recently, I was able to pedal the lion’s share of the climb and once up top the views opened out and I took a deep breath and drank the majesty of the Cairngorm in.

It really is an otherworldly environment and I always feel I have transcended my everyday life as soon as I am up there. I had hoped to ride the bulk of the descent from Cairn Gorm but some of the bigger rock steps foiled me as my Revelate seat pack forced my body weight to stay high and forward.

Scott at Porcelain Rocket is working on a dropper friendly bikepacking set up and I’ll be very interested to see how this progresses. Most often, one tends to avoid the more technical routes on a bikepacking mission, but there are occasions where it could prove indispensable.

Back to the trails….

I carried and rode over Stob Coire an t’Sneachda, enjoying the rocky, steppy trail, then dropped to the saddle before Cairn Lochan, filled the water bottle with the icy cold, clear water from the Allt Coire Domhain and continued south west to join the trail to Macdui.

A beautiful, clear view over to Braeriach and Cairn Toul was reward for the hard work and after a relatively brief carry over the rocky section, I took to the summit cone of Macdui, where I met Jamie Pierce, whose pictures of riding in various locations around Scotland are a great inspiration. A good chat, then up to the top and after a few pictures, I dropped to Loch Etchachan.

Please click to see original and see the trail, snaking into the distance...

Please click to see original and see the trail, snaking into the distance…

The technical track is fantastic. I had some concern over how it would ride loaded, but Snow Job took it all in stride. I filled the water bottle again at the brook that feeds Loch Etchachan and took on the trail beside the Coire Etchachan Burn, down to the Hutchison Hut. At one point, I nearly ass-over-tea-kettle’d into the burn as, again, my C.O.G was thrown by the saddle bag and I high-sided after a step down and careered off to the left. Serendipity was the only thing that saved me from a painful crash down the steep side of the banks of the burn.

The ride down Glen Derry, as the day began to grow old, was relaxing. The first hard section of the loop was done and I could feel some weight coming from the shoulders. Down to Linn of Dee, then east along the river – on the north side to Mar Lodge. Unfortunately, the bridge that allows forward progress, just after the Linn of Qoich, was washed away, so I turned tail, passed Mar Lodge and took Victoria Bridge over to the road and then ducked into Morrone Birkwood National Nature Reserve, where some steep forestry tracks (which I was interested to ride as they form part of the Deeside Trail route) delivered me to Braemar, cold and admittedly a bit tired.

A pretty iffy burger and chips at the ‘the Hungry Highlander’ gave scant warmth and I headed further East, towards Invercauld and took to the trails after the Bridge of Dee on the south side of the river. I knew the woods here, where there are efforts to regenerate ‘Caledonian‘ forest, would likely give me a good spot to pitch the tent and turn in for the night.

Overnight, the rain fell and at one point, after attending to natures call, I tripped over the front dyneema cord of the tent and broke it, leading to a collapse and some rain fall wetting my sleeping bag. After scrabbling around for the peg I had pulled out with my clumsiness, I eventually got everything ship shape and retired again.

Then the grunting started.

I suspect it was a stag and at one point it came very close to my tent. I was curious to see if it would come into sight but after about 30 minutes or so it must have wandered off somewhere.

Due to the broken nature of my sleep, I arose late and so it was 8.30am before I got going. Another reason for my lassitude was the rain, which had continued into the early part of the morning and I was loathe to get going until it stopped. It did and the smell of the woodland as I neared Balmoral was beautiful and invigorating.

The low cloud was beginning to rise and, taking to the steep road after Crathie, I climbed north, feeling that getting to Corgarff Castle represented the 3/4 point of the ride. It was interesting to see the estate track heading back west towards Loch Builg off the B976 and I nearly took it, but figured I would stick to my planned route. At Corgarff, I turned off the road and dropped to Inchrory Lodge and then sped north, beside the mighty River Avon, with cloud and rain at my heels. At Tomintoul, I bought a couple of sandwiches at the post office, answered some surprised locals questions about the fat tyres I was running, and made the turn to the west where the hop scotch down the Burn of Brown was considerably easier than in previous times due to the fat tyres.

Climbing over to Dorback Lodge gave an opportunity to refuel and I considered my strategy for crossing the Dorback Burn. At times, this can run quite fast and deep, but at lower Drum, I found the ford which has been created there to be rideable. Unfortunately, the rain had finally caught me and soon I was both cold and wet.

Unfortunately, the trail after the ford dead ended ~500m away from the trail to Eag Mhor. At this exact point the rain became considerably heavier. It is difficult to explain how hard the ground between the ford and the Eag Mhor path is to cross. Deep water filled clefts between Sphagnum moss clumps and huge tussocks of grass. Still, before too long I made it to what I consider the exit of the Eag Mhor, at which point the rain stopped and I climbed into Abernethy Forest, taking a stallar singletrack that wound through the trees and popped out at the Lodge, where I made the turn for Ryvoan, it’s famous bothie and the completion of the route.

A block of cheese and a handful of Mike-n-Ikes saved me from a bonk and I dropped to Glenmore Lodge with relief to have covered the ground and having enjoyed some classic trails, superb views and another rewarding Cairngorm loop.





Two trips to Aviemore.

7 09 2014

Ugh! where does all the time go, eh? I have a huge backlog of things to say, from trips, rides and messing around with various bike parts to a review of the Mountain Laurel Design Cricket tent. I try to keep things in chronological order and no doubt as the skies darken and the winds and rains come, there will be plenty of time for blogging. Now, however, the sky is blue, the sun is still warm and I am enjoying being outside as much as possible – solo and with my family. All good.

A while ago now I had two different trips to Aviemore. For the first, I had a plan to clover leaf several rides from a base at the Rothiemurchas campsite. After arriving in the middle of the day, I wanted to take advantage of the warm sun and long day to head north on the Dava Way, essentially heading through the Ryvoan pass, then following (for the most part) an old rail line, to the coast at Forres. A blog I follow, Topofests, had described some sweet looking singletrack along side the river Findhorn. Unfortunately, I left too late in the day to cover the distance and see this. Another time.

My hombre Chris joined me for the next couple of rides. After the initial climb of the Burma road, we had a great time taking in this classic loop, but threw a curve in at the end and headed out to Burnside, railing some of the tight, woodsy singletrack. Awesome!

That left a classic Morlich/Badaguish loop for the last day – those trails always deliver a broad grin and are as challenging as you want them to be.

The next trip to Aviemore, a few weeks later, was with intentions of an evening preamble to find a decent camp, somewhere in the trees, followed by a big mountain ride the next day. The bags were packed and strapped to the bike, but the weather refused to play ball. The rain was sheeting down. Hardly conducive. Fortunately, I found a space at the Old Bridge Inn bunkhouse and planned a loop for the next day, up towards Ben Macdui, then round to Cairn Gorm and studied the topography of the various ridges and potential ways down over a fine meal and a dram.

The initial climb across Coire an Lochain and up onto the shoulder of Cairn Lochain started in fine weather, but became punctuated by squalls of rain and low cloud. It was clear the wind was strong but once I was up onto the plateau, 60kph sustained wind made the sleety rain sting and a ride around the cliffs edge towards Cairn Gorm a perilous proposition. With tail tucked firmly between my legs, I enjoyed the descent and the weather was far better below cloud level. I headed over to Abernethy forest instead, revelling in the warmth amongst the caledonian pine forest.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained – but sometime soon, I’d like to get that loop done.





A loop around the Cairngorm.

27 03 2014

It is time to get some proper miles in the legs. Weather and circumstance kissed opportunity and the bike and bags were made ready. Some new kit to check out with the promise of a good few river crossings and a cold night on the proposed route.

Leaving Blair Atholl, I rolled up Glen Tilt. Still early, but the sun was out and it was entirely pleasant. As I neared the north eastern end, it was clear that there was going to be a fair amount of low snow to navigate.

Sure enough, as I passed above the Allt Garbh Buidhe gingerly placed feet were a necessity whilst manoeuvring the bike along the vague impression of the trail left in the snow on the steep sided glen. After a few challenging route choices to avoid the often hidden, crusted over frigid waters, the trail dropped to the ruins of Bynack Lodge and it was here that the first major obstacle was to be found: fording the swollen Geldie Burn.

I have learned that I am a softie when it comes to going barefoot in rivers, so I removed my socks and insoles, rebuckled my shoes and plunged in. Thinking about it too much was just going to lead to stalling. The water was cold enough to take my breath away, but it was keeping my bike out of the mid thigh deep water that became the real test as I scrabbled for purchase on the slippery boulders in the river bed. Glad to have made it, I drained my shoes, rubbed life back into my toes and donned the shoes whilst munching on some much needed calories. Onwards.

The Lairig Ghru was barely visible in the low cloud and precipitation: I was glad I had opted for a loop around rather than passage through. I passed Braemar and Mar Lodge after a brief flurry of snow reminded me spring didn’t yet have a solid grip on this land.

From here, I could drop into the gorgeous woodland of the Balmoral Estate. I had originally planned to take the trail up towards Lochnagar and then drop down to Loch Muick before heading out towards Aboyne and north, but given the amount of snow low down in Glen Tilt I decided to miss this part out and keep pedaling alongside the Dee. Before too long I passed the majesty of the castle itself and after pressing a curious button the gates opened to allow my exit.

Steady as she goes. I could tell some of the warmth was beginning to drain from the sun, but I knew I had a few hours of light yet. The aim was to get as far round my proposed loop towards Tomintoul as I could before bedding down.

Candycraig, then Aboyne, follow the off road trail to Tarland, then up, up, up.

After an age of climbing, then following the River Don, and with the light fading fast, I made it to Cock Bridge and Corgarff Castle. Here, I ducked over towards Glen Avon. The temperature was plummeting and I was in no doubt that my energy was going. Twice I rode off trail. As soon as I found a likely looking grove of trees, I unrolled the bivi. Shivering became uncontrollable so it was straight into the sleeping bag once divested of my cycling shorts and my wool longs were in place. I didn’t even crack open the can of Torpedo – or my hip flask.

The lights went out at 8.30pm…

…and came on again at 5.30am after lazing around in my bag for an hour. Rapidly, I danced around to get blood back into my limbs, making coffee and packing the bike.

The moon was still visible in the clear, blue sky as I rolled out of the woods down towards the River Avon and day 2.

As the sun rose more fully, I could strip a layer and really appreciate the landscape. Beautiful.

Unfortunately, as I dropped down towards the river, I dropped into shadow also. This meant it was colder. However, it did keep me honest and my speed up.

After Tomintoul, there was the usual hop-scotch down the Burn of Brown, before climbing up and over to Dorback Lodge. I knew the trail over to the Braes of Abernethy was vague, having failed to find it previously. But this time, I had a gps!

Let’s just say it is no wonder I couldnt find the trail…

A bit of grumpy tussock bashing led to the Eag Mhòr and after a couple of fairly deep river crossings that left my toes numb for the next 2 days, I popped out near Aviemore.

The route I had originally decided to try was through the Gaick, but again, the low snow led me to believe it would be a nightmare, so I opted for the national cycle route 7 alongside the A9 back to Blair Atholl. Of course, this also meant I had to grit my teeth into a fairly fierce headwind for about 50 miles. Ouch.

Once home and defrosted, it was time to make some notes.

Total distance 175 miles. 22.5 hours riding time. Well, there was 2 hours on day one and 1 hour on day 2 of pushing through snow.

The VBL I used as a liner in the sleeping bag was interesting. I did get warm quickly, but I didn’t particularly appreciate the soggy feeling in the morning. I need easier access to several small things whilst riding: I didn’t use the front pocket on the Revelate designs sweetroll for the fist time, which made for less rattling around on rough ground, but if I couldn’t reach something easily, I tended to ignore it. My life would have been made easier with easier access to certain bits of kit. The PHD sleeping bag is great, my riding kit was great, the GPS was worth it’s weight in gold. As my friend chris pointed out, it did randomly jettison. Glad I made a wee elastic leash for it.

I easily carried enough food for 2 days riding and although I refilled with water, this is never an issue in Scotland. I don’t know how much my kit weighed, I had very little on my back – thanks to the new revelate frame bag from Backcountry biking. Otherwise all my kit was as good as ever. My legs, however, were a little weak and I wouldn’t have complained if my overall set up had been a wee bit lighter. Always picky.





Deeside.

5 09 2013

Deeside is the part of the Cairngorm I know least well. After a brief camping trip last week in Tarland, a route around Deeside was on my mind. When the opportunity arose, I decided on a loop around and over Lochnagar from Braemar to scratch the itch.

Heading east along the river Dee to the Old Brig o’ Dee, then into Balmoral, was a welcome start to the ride. The forest here is every bit as beautiful as Rothiemurchas. The long climb to the east of the famous Lochnagar cliffs (site of some of the trickier scottish winter and rock climbing) was easy going. Inevitably, some portage was on the menu. That time arrived after reaching the point where the steep, rough singletrack trail peeled up the bealach between Meikle Pap and Cuidhe Cròm. There was a trail of blood drops all the way up. Someone had clearly had an intimate encounter with one of the sharper rocks on the trail. The view down towards Loch Muick and the Angus Glens was spectacular.

The steep ascent took me into the path of the wind which was blowing a hoolie, but I climbed up the trig point anyway, might as well.

From here, the route circled along the top of the cliffs, before tracking over to Carn an t’ Sagairt mor and the excellent, steep and picky descent down to Loch Callater. Two fast jets flying low down the glen highlighted the glorious, blue sky, but the star of the show was the trail. Not overly difficult, but you have to stay focused and I would happily give up speed for the this type of thought provoking, rock-hopping trail, high above ground level.

With a wistful look back to the mountain top trail, I welcomed the strong tail wind that gave me a speedy return to Braemar. An excellent loop.

~~~

This loop appears in Scotland mountain biking: wild trails 2, ISBN 9781906148522. Well worth a look.





Salvage.

5 08 2013

Indecision paralysed me on Sunday evening. I had an opportunity to head off and camp somewhere, maybe get a bit of trail before a sleep then an early start to allow a good, full days riding on monday.

But I couldn’t decide what to do.

I had sort of mis-planned already: I was supposed to be going to Haugh Cross, but that was Saturday, not Sunday (Duhrrrrr!).

Anyway, after becoming increasingly frustrated, I failed to commit and as time marched on I grabbed my road bike in an effort to salvage some pedal time.

Off out to the Crow Road over the Campsies, where a favourable tail wind helped me to a ‘P.B’ of 14.30 mins for the climb, followed by a few more miles. I generally see road biking in good weather as a ‘fail’ I am afraid. When the weather is good, I like to be in the hills, but I could grudgingly appreciate the 2.30 hr of smooth road as a tonic against peering aimlessly at OS maps.

Monday was to be a different matter, though. I needed a taste of some hills. Some friends had hit a sweet route on Beinn a’Ghlo, which whetted the appetite, so I broke out the maps again and forced myself to decide on a route the evening prior, so I could get away sharp. After making my way up the A9 again, I turned into the car park at Lagganlia, quickly got ready and without fuss pedaled down the road past the gliding club to Auchlean. From there, I kept to the east side of the river and enjoyed some of the trail in the trees before turning up the Landy track to climb towards Carn Ban Mor. Despite this being a Scottish mtb ‘classic’ I had never tried it. I felt that as it was pretty rideable and relatively compact, it would allow me to get home in time for Daisy’s bedtime and I was also curious how the Coire Dhondail stalker’s path looked from the west side of Loch Eanaich: I have a vague notion it might come in handy some day…

The climb sucks. However, you just need to buckle down and get it done. Some good views open up as you clear the edge of Coire Garbhlach and from there it is not far to the top. I made good time, so decided to add Mullach Clach a’Bhlair (1019m) before taking the excellent quality Landy trail accross the Moine Mhor, before climbing to the start of the fabled Carn Ban Mor decent. As time was still on my side and the views over to Braeriach were so fine, I decided the dark cloud was no reason not to make a quick detour to the Carn Ban Mor summit proper (1052m), from there onto Sgor Gaoith (1118m). I had some fine views down to Loch Eanaich and the Dhondail path, as well as the plateau proper, before turning back as a squall hit.

The decent was fine. It has been improved, featuring many large rock water bars, that are at times fun, at other times annoying. The drop is welcome though and it was a good test of my saddle bag’s staying power – more on that soon.

Back to base with 3.20 hr on the clock. All good. Now if only the A9 hadn’t been standing between me and the cold beer in the fridge…