27 05 2013

A recent family holiday presented me with a stepping stone for a ride in the highlands. I took off, early, towards Lochnagar, south east of the Cairngorm. I have had mixed luck riding in this area, with changeable weather leading to some memorable times. I wrote about it, briefly, on my old blog,
here, and took a different approach here. The White Mounth holds some spectacularly good trail riding and the views are often breath taking. Coire Chash, the descent to Loch Muick, Jocks’s Road, Capel Mounth and the Kilbo Path are all spoken of in revered tones.

I was keen to try a loop riding north from the Glen Clova hotel, to Bachnagairn, up the steep trail to the pony hut at the start of the Loch Muick descent, but then take the trail up onto Broad Cairn, traverse the rocky summit, dropping to the high saddle then taking in various hill tops en route to Cairn Bannoch, before turning south, over Fafernie, down the knaps of Fafernie, before picking up Jock’s Road taking me back to Glen Doll. Not particularly ambitious, but I didn’t have the strength to be out in the hills all day having just recovered form a gastric bug. The weather was a concern, too, with MWIS highlighting gale force north-westerly gusts and the chance of wintery showers (i.e snow!) intermitently through the day.

Well, as I started out, the gusts seemed to have coalesced into a persistent, gale-force head wind. Progress to Bachnagairn was slow to say the least, but as soon as I reached the steeper, rockier section of trail, the mountains diverted the worst of the howling wind. My concern over how things would be up high was mitigated by the sunny warmth and blue skies. It would be worth while fighting the wind, because when I turned at Fafernie, it would be behind me, more or less.

The climb went quickly, despite my slightly weakened state, and as I scampered up the side of Broad Cairn, I was only slightly perturbed to see a dense grey front envelop Lochnagar. It seemed to be moving well to the north and east of me, so I thought my luck was holding fast.

The decision to make the scramble to the top of the munro, rather than taking the circular path to the west of the summit, was thus made. However, once on top the full power of the wind was unleashed. Standing was near impossible and the enforced carrying of the bike only made things worse. Twice I was blown off my feet on the sharp rock and many times I lost my footing and slid down boulder faces, desperately trying to avoid losing my grip on the bike. Blood flowed from cuts on my legs. I roared as I fought to avoid being blown backwards into the un-welcoming embrace of the jumble of rock. It was then that I saw the front approaching rapidly, denser, lower and more malevolent than I thought possible on an otherwise blue bird day.

I crossed a small snow field and tried to move closer to the relative shelter offered by Cairn Bannoch, but within seconds a fearsome snow and hail shower left me snatching breath from the air and cowering, low to the ground. Two options: wait it out or turn tail and at least put the wind to my back.

After the fact, I learned that wind speeds approached 80mph and the snow and poor conditions led to the closure of ski access roads close by. I think I made the correct, albeit disappointing, decision to turn tail but the circular route around Broad Cairn – with an estimated 3 meters of visibility, in a screaming wind and snow – was harsh. Eventually, I decided I could take enough shelter behind a rock outcrop to get my waterproof gloves and jacket out of my bag (impossible due to the likelihood of the wind taking them until this point), and found a well formed orange sized snow ball had formed in the pocket of my riding shorts.

The front passed after I made the scramble from the summit ‘cone’ of the hill and I was left wondering if I should go back up in order to finish the route. In the end, I elected to descend, then climb up the trail known as ‘Glittering Skellies’ that would take me out onto Jock’s Road at a point close to where I was hoping to have joined. This would afford me clear navigation if the weather deteriorated again, and mean the day was not lost to the weather.

As I finally made it to Davy’s Bourach (a shelter constructed by Davy Glen, many years ago, as a response to the death of several hikers in 1959 in adverse weather in Glen Doll) I smiled as I saw the descent stretch out in front of me.

Victory in the hills is a nebulous concept, but I felt I had definitely snatched something from the jaws of defeat.