Monkey off my back.

14 07 2013

So sunny, still. With a full day to go and mess around in the hills, a long run of very dry weather and stable conditions, you might just try something a little out of the ordinary. I’ve been turning over a crossing of Ben Macdui as part of a route ever since I first dropped down to Loch Etchachan and made the mistake of riding past the shelter stone, before the most hideous ‘schwack ever down Strath Nethy several years ago.

Heading down Coire Etchachan to Glen Derry is the clever plan. All that remains is connecting the dots: how do you close the loop? With a relatively early start and the super stable conditions, I knew I could get up Macdui pretty quickly and travel light – no need to take thermal and winter layers. With B.A’s help, the descent would be fantastic, so the only remaining question was how to get back to base. I decided to start at Feshiebridge and take in some of the Inshriach trail, before heading around Loch Gamhna and Morlich and taking the ski hill road. The two options for returning without making the loop massive are Glen Feshie, in which I have recently been bitten and remain a bit shy, or the Lairig an Laoigh. This pass is rocky and usually wet and boggy – not a problem on this day. If you have to use it, I much prefer north to south, but on this occasion I was just going to have to suck it up.

I made quick time up to Macdui and decided, due to having been there once or twice before, that I didn’t need to go to the actual top. Instead, I tracked around the vague trail to the ruin that marks the start of the trail down to Loch Etchachan. No snow today, just a rocky, steppy, highly enjoyable technical descent. I don’t usually ride on the limit when I am solo in the backcountry, the risks if you hurt yourself properly are not worth it and I don’t want to have to rely on any emergency services just for the sake of an extra ‘cc’ of adrenalin. However, I was pretty close to my ragged edge on this drop, slamming the ground at one point and lightening my Saint cranks a smidge.

As I came to the throat of the Coire and looked down on Glen Derry, I couldn’t help but smile, soaking in the view – what an environment! The higher you get, the higher you get for sure! the views of the peaks around were intoxicating. Truly, when the weather allows you to feel comfortable enough to take your time and look around at that altitude, you are blessed!

I tore myself away and danced past a party of young walkers before making the scrabbly, loose descent down to the Hutchison Hut, which was in fantastic condition after recent renovation.

From here the Lairig an Laoigh beckoned me on. The climb was rough, water damage to the trail obvious and I was walking more than I was riding. I knew that this would continue until the Fords of Avon, where I met 2 hikers and their ample supply of vino tinto. Why not, eh? it was shaping up to be a beautiful evening and there had been no midge and the only cleg I saw all day landed, somewhat optimistically, at my feet before a size 43 ended his reverie.

There is somethign to be said for pedal removal if you have to make a prolonged ‘schwack. Every time the bike gets hung up on vegetation or a rock, the rear of the bike swings around and the pedal took another slice of the back of my leg. Those Alaskan backcountry bikers know their onions! On this occasion I decided to just put up with it, afterall, the pass is short, right?

Not short enough! but after passing the tors of Bynack Mor, with a short yomp up onto the improved access trail, there was only 400 sharp water bars and the descent past the Ryvoan Bothy until I could take the soothing, smooth tarmac back to the car.

The route took 7 hours total. B.A behaved impeccably and I felt like a large monkey had been plucked from my back. I don’t think Macdui would be good as part of a bikepacking route: the trail deserves your full attention and effort on the way down and I think even if you were travelling extremely light, as I was almost exactly a year ago, it would encumber you to the detriment of enjoyment.

Ok. Next up, some buff, woodsy singletrack, no rocks. Or some sewing…



9 06 2013

A solid week of sunshine in Scotland means one thing. Well, ok, admittedly it means more than one thing, but for *me* it means one thing – big rides on trails that are less than welcoming when the ground is wet. I have a penchant for big loops that tack together great trails, provide stunning views and, importantly, give a sense of wilderness. I have never truly reflected on my need for isolation, silence and solitude. Previously, I have explored several loops through the Cairngorm – probably my preferred part of Scotland.

Link back to some old entires: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Anyway. The plan was relatively simple and for once there were various sensible options. Start at Old Bridge of Tilt, head out on cycle route 7 north, past Bruar to Dalnacardoch and cross the A9 at the turn off for Trinafour and head through the Gaick Pass to Insh. From there, I could roll through Inshriach to Inverdruie with the possibility to deal with any issues in Aviemore, a refuelling stop meaning I could carry slightly less stuff – a note on this later. From here, I would have several options: 1) turn around and head down Glen Feshie, which was likely to be at it’s most rideable due to the prolonged dry spell. 2) go over Ben Macdui, drop down past Loch Etchachan and then into Glen Derry. 3) take the Lairig an Laoigh, past the fords of Avon and, again, down to Glen Derry.

The return was simple – from the Geldie Burn, I would follow the Allt an t-Seilich, then the Allt Garbh Buidhe to the Falls of Tarf and into Glen Tilt.

The other thing to consider was whether to close the loop in one go or take kit for a quick bivi. I can move faster if I am lighter, but my current fitness is questionable at best – I had never attempted this particular configuration. Estimating how long it would take me was tricky because there were some sections I had not ridden, for example from the Geldie to the Falls of Tarf, and I could not predict how strong I would feel.

In the end, taking advantage of our latitude and thus prolonged day light, I decided to bite it off in one go. Ideally, I would cross Macdui, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes to try and predict the possibility of difficulty due to snow. Although it has been sunny, the cornice overhanging the descent to Etchachan has a habit of persisting well past spring.

I awoke at 5.30am and got the last few bits of kit ready, filled the water bottles and took off. Soon, I was parked, chatted to some riders about to head off to do the classic Tilt loop, and made north. The climb to the moraine holding back Loch an Duin went very quickly. There was just enough wind to ground the midge and it was beautifully warm. The singletrack on the west side of the loch kept the interest level up and soon enough I was passing Gaick Lodge and onwards to Glen Tromie and after 3 short hours and change I popped out at Insh.

Given how quickly I was covering ground, and the fact I felt pretty good, I began to seriously consider Macdui. At this stage, you can ‘cut the corner’ and drop into Feshie, but that would have precluded a stop at Inshriach plant nursery and cake shop – which provided a welcome raspberry and blueberry calorie boost and some much needed extra water. From here, I took the typical Loch an Eilein/Piccadilly/Loch Morlich route to the bottom of the Ski access road. looking up gave me pause for thought: there was still a hell of a lot of snow on the east facing slopes of the corries. That raised the possibility of a significant amount of snow up top and that would mean a turn around after a brutal, several-hour climb, which would force a stop on the Aviemore side. Not really an option. I stopped for a few minutes, unwrapped a sandwich and did what any itinerant solitudinarian would do: I phoned my wife.

After a quick google search, she pulled up some info suggesting that as little as two weeks ago, it was all but impassable to the summit due to high snow volume. Even given the temperature of the last few days, I felt it was extremely unlikely to have melted enough to allow free passage.

Hmmm. So: Lairig an Laoigh or back to Feshie. As much as I like dropping into Glen Derry, the trail down to the Fords of Avon, and for the first wee bit after, sucks. Battering, slow going, on/off rocky mess. Fine if it is a means to an end, but seeing as the real gem in this area is the Etchachan descent, I would be doing the Laoigh simply as an alternative to Feshie, that I rarely enter due to its extreme bogginess in parts. No doubt, the first part of Feshie is extremely beautiful and it is a pleasure to pass the old trees and meander along side the river.

The weather meant this might be passable with minimum fuss and it had the advantage of avoiding high ground, around which some grey cloud was beginning to build. Decision made, I reversed and was soon rolling down towards Auchlean, around six and a half hours in.

Although it was as dry as I have ever seen it, progress slowed markedly after the Eidart bridge. No matter, my arse was beginning to feel pretty tender, so there was some satisfaction in getting off every now and again to yomp through the watershed, dried out sphagnum moss, peat, rocks and all. No doubt the Skittles sours helped the morale and the energy levels. Once you start, though, there is no stopping!

As I reached the ruin of Geldie Lodge, the trail improves to Land Rover track and the speed picked up again. I can’t quite remember exactly, I think because my attention was diverted to the huge rolls of grey cloud and precipitation moving over the hill tops to the west of my position, but I think I had been moving for around nine hours at this point. Apart from a wobbly hour or so in upper Feshie, stomach cramps and low energy, I was feeling surprisingly good.

One thing that you will encounter on the route is river fording. I had brought extra socks with me, but left them in the car. This forced barefoot scrambles over the river. I don’t know if I have particularly soft feet, but I find this very painful. Anyway, this time, I was careful not to lose my sock as I had one time in the Abhainn Rath, forcing a prolonged hop scotch on the wet rocks.

Soon enough, I was enjoying the narrow, steep singletrack on the descent down towards the Falls of Tarf. It was clear that there had been some pretty heavy precipitation and I was glad to still be dry. The rock was in places slippery and it was hard at times to let caution rule but I was tired and knew that it would be a bad time to take a digger.

On reaching the Falls of Tarf, I let out a deep breath that I suspect I had been holding for many hours. Barring a weird mechanical or a significant, random, event, I would be back at the car soon. Maul rewarded my exuberance with easy velocity – I sped down Glen Tilt and the end of an epic ride.

Some facts and thoughts.

The ride took 11 hours and 10 minutes in total. I took ~1.5 hours to get from Inverdruie to the ski hill, eat, be informed and turn around. I have no idea of the distance.

I rode Maul, my cross country bike. It is light, capable, comfortable and reliable. I did develop a creak from the rear of the bike. I will investigate.

I carried a Mountain Feedbag and a medium Wingnut. I had a water bottle with filter and a 3 litre bladder. In the end, I did not need the filter. My bag was too heavy – my back was unhappy and it was cumbersome, I should have strapped more weight to the bike. I could easily have used a second Feedbag, and I could have mounted a bottle cage under the downtube and perhaps a third on the steerer, courtesy of a King top cap bottle cage mount. That would have taken over a kilogram off my back.

I wore a patagonia capilene t shirt, endura equipe shorts, the chamois is second to none – important given I have not ridden for this long in recent times and an icebreaker mtb top. I took a buff, endura roubaix knee warmers, a 200g icebreaker long sleeve and a patagonia houdini jacket (perhaps the most valuable bit of kit I own!) as spares. I felt this was pretty light, but likely to see me through.

I ran tubes – 27psi rear, 24psi front. I was concerned about pinching on the rocks at various point on the loop. As soon as the Protection Contis are available, they will be fitted and I will return to lower pressures. The bike was a rocket, but I was rattled around and this would help a lot.

This loop would lend itself to a bivi stop and a lower overall velocity. There are so many beautiful places to bed down and it would offer an alternative, more relaxing, ride.

Ben Macdui could be easily (!) added into this loop. Or you could extend, taking in Tomintoul, much as the classic Cairngorm Tour loop that is in all the mtb guidebooks suggests.

My fitness is poor, but at about hour 8 I grasped hold of some strength I used to have. It was extremely gratifying to remember how empowering it is to move well in the mountains.