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.

Advertisements




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.





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.





As the seasons ebb and flow.

24 09 2016

It is Autumn now. The daylight is retreating and the ground is becoming waterlogged and thick with fallen leaves.

I wanted to head towards the coast, for some reason. Lacking imagination for more interesting challenges, I took the Vertigo fatty, temporarily shod with plus wheels, to the Ardgarten loop.

It is not a particularly challenging loop, though the initial climb. westwards, followed by the climb up Glen Croe will keep your legs honest.

The trail over the Duke’s Pass is singletrack and at times offers a bit of challenge, particularly if it is as slimy on the rocks as I found it, but the views west are what took me there.

I probably ought to type something about my further exploration of plus tyres, as the fatty has allowed me to get time with a 27.5×4.5 a full 27.5×3 (on the rear) and 29×3 front and 27.5×3 rear. With interbike showing upcoming plus tyres from Maxxis that are on the knobblier end of the spectrum, *and* the growing 27.5×2.6 segment (which may well fit more 29″ bike rear ends), it is an exciting time.





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.