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.

Advertisements




Glen Tilt.

20 08 2016

The route from Old Bridge of Tilt, around the great lump of the Beinn a’Ghlo mountains is somewhat of a Scottish classic. On a good day, the views, wildlife and trails deliver a microcosm of all that is best in Highland mountain biking.

The Monzie road starts the route with a stiff climb until Loch Moraig is reached. From here, land rover track takes you to Shinagag, then the Girnaig Burn must be forded. The trail has been improved and soon, access to the back of the Beinn a’Ghlo range of Munros will be fast.

For me on this day, the sun was shining, so I did not mind getting my feet wet.

Climbing through the purple heather was glorious and the singletrack trail to Glen Fernate was easy to negotiate on the fat tyres. The land rover track down to the ruin of Ruigh Chuilein, close to Loch Loch and the imposing cliffs above is fast and the low pressure tyres were welcome to tame the loose rocky terrain.

At Daldhu, climbing is the name of the game onwards and upwards to the re-known, pink, stone walls of the remotest hunting lodge in Scotland – Fealar Lodge.

On occasion, I have found rows of deer heads draining their crimson juice here, but today there were just the usual assortment of yapping dogs.

The initial portion of the singletrack descent down to Glen Tilt was boggier than usual – again, the fatties earned their keep after having been dragged up the climb before.

Soon enough, the trail dries and becomes loose and rocky down to the River Tilt and another hop-scotch on the rocks.

Descending Glen Tilt, alongside the river Tilt, is often interrupted by fast jets: they drop low in to the glen and the noise will make you jump out of your skin as they scream overhead at barely 90 meters altitude.

Despite the head wind, it was slightly disappointing to be back at the car. This loop is always beautiful and in 4 short hours, you can enjoy all the solitude the hills have to offer.





Variations.

27 08 2013

Thanks to some excellent route advice from Naegears, I enjoyed a great ride in the Grampians the other day. The starting point, as it has been so many times, was Old Bridge of Tilt car park. Suited up, I hit the trail, up Glen Tilt. This is not the way I would usually choose to go, as the classic guide book ‘Tilt route is MUCH better anti-clockwise. However, this was going to be a variation – involving Carn a’ Chlamain.

If you look on a map, you will see that there is a landy trail all the way to about 10 meters from the summit. It is a munro, but barely, so you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be a breeze to ride on up, turn tail and take the singletrack descent back to Glen Tilt, before going on to the rest of the ride. Well, actually, you wouldn’t be forgiven. You’d be kicked in the jacksie, because it is really pretty steep and loose – testament to what a landy will drive up. Soon enough I managed to get up to the top, and the view, although hazy, was worth the effort.

I could also see the next section of my preferred route – staright up the steep side of Meall a’ Mhuirich and from there onto Carn nan Gabhar, part of the Beinn a’ Ghlo massif, before taking the steeper still route up to Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain and then trying to find a trail I noticed the last time I was on ‘Ghlo, down to the Allt Coire Lagain. All these elements were somewhat ‘malleable’.

As soon as I saw how steep the entire climb would be, taking into account my seemingly low energy levels, I decided that it probably wasn’t on. I would reassess once I dropped to the valley 750 m vertical drop below.

The descent is up there with the best I have done in Scotland. Not overly technical, not overly steep, but it requires constant attention and rewards a positive riding style. You don’t want to be doing this trail if you left you’re riding chops at home.

Soon enough, I sat surrounded by bored looking sheep with my map in front of me and a decision to make. If I returned to the car, I would be home in time to mess around with Daisy before bed time, but it would perhaps be a slight waste of the beautiful weather and trail conditions. I was getting a bit low on water, had limited food and my legs were showing their age. No doubt the imminence of autumn was part of my decision to continue, but rather than slog up the brutal, heather slopes of Meall a’ Mhuirich, I climbed up to the Falls of Tarf and then onwards to Fealar Lodge, before hitting a head wind for the climb up the the pass that takes you down to Daldhu. It was at this point that my water ran out and I consumed the last of my calories. That packet of llamas was nectar, but unfortunately the 119 calories lasted until just shy of the top of the climb, with a fair amount of riding still to do.

All the while I had been hoping to get back in time to say night night to the grom, an aim that kept me driving harder than I really felt able. I could feel my limbs and back beginning to tighten up, odd pains invading my enjoyment of this golden evening. Nevertheless, I closed the loop in just shy of 6 hours, eased my tired body into the car and despite all that the A9 can throw at you, I did make it home to be greeted by a smiley wee face.





To return, so soon?

12 07 2013

Last week end, as Sunday evening began, I took to the road again and made my way to Bridge of Tilt. Extricating my gear and body from the car as the sun’s light waned, I cinched straps, adjusted my shoes and headed north towards the Gaick Pass. I was pretty bushed and had no idea how far I would get, not least because the sun was relaxing towards the horizon and I only had an LED head torch with me. The aim was to push through the Gaick as far as possible, bivi, and re-supply (namely with water) in Aviemore in the morning. If it was looking like I had enough time, I would head over Macdui, drop to Linn of Dee and then come back along Glen Tilt – basically another stab at the route I had tried to do some weeks ago, but punctuated by a sleep stop.

By 11.45pm I came to the end of Loch an Duin singletrack, which had been a wee bit challenging in the low sun and with a loaded bike. I climbed up onto the end of the estate track from the Louis Vuitton lodge, realising that this was the highest point that was both flat and open to the passage of the wind for miles. I was pooped and as the wind is your friend when there are midge to be downed, I unrolled the sleeping gear, popped open a beer and watched the hills in the gloaming. I’m not sure if Scotland ever gets truly dark at this time of year when you are as far north as I was, but the night was warm, and it took me no time to fall asleep.

At 3am I was awoken by some grouse squawking, perhaps there was a fox around or something, and it took a wee while to go back to sleep. I woke again, soon after, cold, but the vapour barrier sleeping bag liner I had brought to experiment with seemed like overkill, so i just cinched the shoulders of the sleeping bag in, and zipped up the bivi fully. Maybe I should have just got up and started moving because I ended up sleeping in until 7.30am. In addition, I had forgotten my coffee filter. The combination of my slow thought – working out if my midge net would work to filter the grounds in boiling water or melt in the process – and the arrival of the day’s contingent of midge, as well as the distance I needed to cover, got me on the bike within a few minutes.

Curiously, I was 45 minutes slower to Aviemore in total ride time than I had been on the Maul a few weeks ago, reinforcing the impression that I had been shifting it a bit that day, Along with the late start, I did some sums, coming to the conclusion that anything other than returning via Feshie was going to get me home later than required. Somewhat ruefully, I stared up at the inviting summits, nomnommed a bacon roll and headed back to Insh to take a different approach into Feshie. It was clear that the weeks dry weather would be kind to me as I covered the notoriously boggy ground of the Feshie/Geldie watershed area with relative ease on the fat Knards. Unfortunately, I must have represented the highest concentration of blood meal for miles around because there was an unprecedented amount of clegs paying me far too much attention. I nearly broke myself in the 30c heat pushing super hard across the moor land, all the while desperately slapping at the inch long, incisor wielding, nasty bastards as they went for any exposed, and even unexposed, flesh in their quest for blood. In the end, I got 2 bites, but killed 5. I think that was a reasonable score.

As I made my way across the Abhainn Rath, this time with shoes on, a fighter jet passed very low overhead, swooped lower and then west as it turned into Tilt. Amazing!

Soon enough, I was making my way into the glen myself when another came over, totally unannounced until it was directly overhead, so close I could see the pilot in detail, which I don’t mind admitting caused just a wee bit of jittering.

Although there was a headwind again down Tilt, I made good time, closing the loop in pretty much exactly the same amount of (riding) time as I had done the other week. Interesting in some ways, because on the boggy sections in Feshie, I could ride on the Krampus, just, and it was also generally drier than previously, so I made up for being slower in nearly every other section.

It took 2 hours 40 minutes to get to the Abhainn Rath from Aviemore, with the detour at Insh, and I was back to the car 1 hour 40 minutes or so after that. Useful, for future reference. A good day, but unfinished business…





Glen Tilt.

6 07 2013

It always happens like this. I spend the evening getting my kit and bike sorted, a destination in mind. By the time I turn the light off and try to get some precious sleep, I begin to wonder if I ought to strike out for somewhere new, unknown. I drift off to sleep, with trails in my dreams. Over coffee, I pull out some maps, crank up the internet and do a little research. An hour of riding time slides by and I haven’t left my home. Then 2 hours. Frustration bubbling, I finally throw everything in the car, and head to where I was going in the first place, or – if I have evaporated too much time – I just ride off with out any clear plan and a furrowed brow. So it goes.

The last time this happened, my original intention was to do the ‘classic’ Glen Tilt loop. I have no idea how many times I have ridden the route, pretty much exactly as it appears in countless guidebooks and magazines, but for some reason always (to my mind at least) in reverse: it is better anti-clockwise. It may not breed contempt, but it is so familiar it lacks excitement.

However, it is close, gives a taste of ‘out there’ and scratches the itch for solitude that I always feel. So, after messing around, looking at Glen Lyon, various other places and generally asking more questions than i answered, I decided to go with the flow and head up the A9. And, to be fair, I have not ridden the classic loop for several years, indeed the last time I was there I went over Beinn a’ghlo.

It had been relatively dry and I was optimistic that both the Allt Girnaig crossing and the peaty, heather covered ground on the other side, before the land rover tack down to Daldhu would be easily rideable.

So it was. The descent from there was very enjoyable, despite it being a wide, loose land rover track. The Maul was handling telepathically. The new rear, tubeless, set up felt superb and offered excellent traction. The whole bike just amazes me every time i ride it.

After turning at Daldhu, I realised that perhaps the reason I had been making such good time was the howling wind! Penitence was the name of the game as I crawled my way up to Fealar Lodge. Again, the recent dry weather meant the usually boggy, grassy trail down to the Falls of Tarf was in superb condition. I met another rider, doing the route clockwise, and then a few guys who were battling a broken chain before I made my way down Glen Tilt, again, screaming into the wind, back to Bridge of Tilt. Overall, completing the 54 km loop in 3 hours 45 minutes was pretty satisfying. I worked very hard down Tilt, my legs felt like they would split, but I am getting some strength back. Time to plan another big ride.





Substance.

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.