Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

Feel free to leave comments.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Twa Lairigs

Sometimes you just get that urge to do something that everyone says you shouldn't. I guess it's a wee lost remnant of the naughty boy who won't do as he's told. In my case I'd been looking at maps of the local area of the Cairngorms and I kept spotting this obvious way through the hills. To make things worse, I look at this obvious route every time I look out my bedroom window. Regardless of the season, the Lairig Ghru shows as as a deep defile through the plateau, inviting me to explore it. So it was that I decided to incorporate it on a wee route into some unfamiliar spots and to tick off my June bivvy-a-month at the same time. 
Ready to set off - the target behind me
The weather wasn't looking too promising as I headed off towards Glenmore from home. It was warm enough, but a wee bit damp. However, in an effort to stay lightweight, I'd opted for bivvy bag instead of tent and to minimise the amount of extra clothing I'd be taking along. 

The road less travelled (by me, anyway)
After passing An Lochan Uaine (the green lochan) I took the right-hand path signposted for Braemar, pedalled up and down a nice bit of track, then came an immediate cropper. As my front wheel embedded itself in some hub-deep mud, I tried to unclip, got cramp in my thigh, and promptly fell over into a shallow puddle. I was stuck while the cramp released itself, unable to move from my position or get the bike off me. Luckily, my blushes were spared as it was only after righting myself that a hiker came strolling past.

I got going again okay, but my calf was now feeling incredibly tight and that was the last thing I needed for the push up onto the shoulder of Bynack Mor. Leaving the Munro-baggers path I was now on tracks I'd never explored before. There is a fair mix of walking and riding depending upon the terrain but I managed to make fairly decent time towards the Fords of Avon and the nearby refuge. 


Looking over to Ben Avon

Fords of Avon refuge
 It's a terrific wee place. Barely tall enough for me to stand up in and just about large enough to accommodate half a dozen prone sleepers, I can see that it would be a great haven in the event of the sort of adverse weather that could be expected along here.


The river crossing itself was OK. I opted to remove shoes and socks and cross barefoot in an effort to keep dry shoes as long as possible and the water never got above knee deep, though it was flowing fairly fast. 
The river crossing. 
The next section had much more walking than I'd suffered so far but I was glad to get to the col of the Lairig an Laoigh and start the fun descent into Glen Derry. This is surely one of the Cairngorms most beautiful spots, the wide flat valley interspersed with patches of woodland and the river carving a way through it. 

Dropping in to Glen Derry

Lovely singletrack along here
I knew I was approaching Derry Lodge when I started to encounter groups of tents, mostly with folk preparing or eating food. It served as a wee reminder that I hadn't been eating much and I wolfed down a couple of chicken wraps as I pondered on where I might stop for the evening.
Should I stay or should I go?
The flats here were certainly a possibility, though it was a bit more crowded than I prefer. However as it was still "only" 8pm, I decided to crack on a bit further and see if I could get anywhere near the Pools of Dee and the summit of the Lairig Ghru before dark. I'm finding that's one of the differences between camping and bivvying. With the former, I'm likely to stop when I see a decent pitch, settle in, cook up some food and relax for the rest of the evening. Bivvying is more about the short stop, finding a wee bit of shelter somewhere and making do in order to get going again quickly. 
Looking back along Glen Luibeg
Passing along the watershed of the Luibeg, I was again alternately riding and walking, though the track improved quite a bit as I was passing Corrour Bothy. I briefly considered detouring towards it but again decided to crack on a bit. 

Corrour Bothy
As the night grew darker, so the path became less and less rideable. I paused at the stones of Clach nan Taillear, tempted to tuck in behind them to get out of the headwind that was now coming down the pass but again decided to crack on. Within 15 minutes or so, the wind started to blow in some rain and as it got heavier, I stopped, unpacked the bivvy bag and sat with it drawn over my head hoping for the rain to pass. This is quite an effective strategy. You stay dry, out of the wind and relatively warm. However, as the rain didn't seem to be abating and a look up the pass showed no sign of it clearing, I reckoned I'd had enough for the night and cast around for a suitable rock to shelter behind. It was, in any case, about 11pm.

What I found wasn't huge, but judicious use of the tarp and a couple of guys gave me a little roof over the mouth of the bivvy bag and somewhere to keep my stuff dry as I unpacked it. One thing I hadn't banked on was trying to get out of my bibtights inside a bivvy bag. Suffice to say that I'm still quite flexible for an oldie! Once in and comfy I found a couple more snacks and just hunkered down hoping to get a few hours sleep until the rain passed and it was a bit lighter.

As it was, the rain and wind stayed on all night and I only really caught a few moments nap between more lucid moments. By the time 4am came, the new day was making its presence felt and the rain had abated. I took the opportunity to pack everything away (managing to reverse the bibtights trick) and head off north.
Pools of Dee - early morning

Summit up
More constant pushing took me to the summit boulder field. Here, it was a case of lifting the bike over and round the various large, scattered rocks. Sometime the way ahead was obvious though not always the best for someone manipulating a bicycle. Other times the path seemed to fade into the rocks themselves and I had to try to spot a decent line. This carried on past the wee lochans that are the Pools of Dee and over the 835m summit  (it's actually quite amazing to think that this obvious low point on the Cairngorms is still higher than most of the hills in Scotland). Neither did it get much better on the downhill, though I would occasionally jump on the bike and pedal or freewheel a few metres as a sort of justification for having brought it.

I can see my house from here!!!
As the path descended, the opportunities for riding gradually increased and so it was that I eventually reached the end of the little track up from Rothiemurchus Lodge and emerged onto a section of the Lairig Ghru path I'd ridden before. 

Reaching familiar territory
From here it's a fun descent all the way back to Coylumbridge. The top part has some rocky and rooty drop-offs and the path just gets faster as it progresses through the forest. By the time I reached the Aviemore road it was 8.30 and I only had a brief spin (buying breakfast en route) to get back home.

All in all, a fairly tough route, with a lot more walking, lifting and carrying than is enjoyable. It was intriguing to be able to look back down at where my house is from the pass but the next (and any future) visit will be on foot only. 




Saturday, 31 May 2014

Torridon at last

There's no escaping the plaudits that Scotland gets for the quality of its Mountain Biking - both the organised trail centres and the "natural" routes that are available through Scotlands relaxed land access laws. Time and again they are internationally awarded and feature in many "must do" travel guides. High amongst the recommendations are the trails in and around Torridon. However I'm rather ashamed to admit that, despite walking many of them during my Munro bagging exploits,  I'd never ridden these trails. With a wee bit of determination to put this right I loaded the Blur into the van and headed off towards Torridon hoping for some great weather.

Well, I was a wee bit disappointed when I got there to find low cloud and a fine drizzle blocking the view of the summits but, leaving the van behind at the visitor centre, I set off into the headwind, uphill towards the start of the Coulin Pass. I knew this was the least hilly of the options but, having passed the Right of Way sign on many occasions, I was determined that this would be part of the outing. 
It's pronounced "cow-linn" (apparently)
The ride started well enough with a spin along an easy estate road and past the two lochs. The climb out at the end of the glen went in easily enough too and I was, by now, beginning to get used to the feel of the smaller wheels on the Blur, plus the rather unfamiliar feel of the frame bending in the middle. Over the col and there was a sign relating to forestry work and pointing out a diversion. I reckoned that there would be nothing going on, it being Sunday afternoon, and whizzed down the wide, fast forestry road to Achnashellach station and the most complex set of bicycle lanes to be witnessed in the highlands. 
Looking along Strathcarron
 Another scoot along some tarmac (aided by the wind this time) and I was at the start of the "big" bit.

Definitely "coo-lags"
I'd looked at my GPS before starting this bit and noticed that sunset was due in six hours (it's shown on the "home" screen). I recall thinking "great - no hurry" and then comparing this to the rather rushed and panic-stricken mode I'd been riding in for the last few months. Here was a chance to savour some great Scottish scenery without worrying about how fast or slow I was covering the ground. 

The track again starts easily enough but there are a few steep bits before the bothy and more than enough water bars to interrupt the flow. I can be quite happy tackling these on the bike but it very much depends on where I am and who I'm with. Alone in Torridon aren't the best circumstances to suffer a major wheel problem or a stupid fall. 
The weather did pick up for me too.

Coulags bothy
After the bothy the track deteriorates into a boggy mess for a while but picks up again before the climb up to Loch Coire Fionnaraich - and the view to the path out of the corrie. 
The last of the riding for a while

That'll be the path to the col then
Across the top of the Bealach na Lice and the main fun is delayed for a while circumnavigating the edge of Loch an Eoin. Then, with a view north to tempt you, it's all downhill as fast as you dare. I thought I was doing fine, the full suspension of the Blur working hard, until I had one brief moment of indecision. With a large rock ahead, I had to opt to go left or right of it, chose neither, and hit it head on resulting in a comedy over-the-bars moment. That was enough to sober me up for a wee while but it's so much fun finding away down the various little drop offs and across the massive rock slabs that I was soon back up to full speed and having a real hoot.
Some of this stuff
Lots of this stuff
I can see the van from here!
Passing Carn Dhonnachadh I could see the settlement of Torridon far below me and I was expecting a really steep descent but the path contours further round to annat so the fun is extended quite a bit.

Finally, with a bit of a bump, I was deposited and Annat for a relaxing warm-down along the road to the van.



I also managed to fit in my May bivvy night after this ride. A drive out the long cul de sac from Gairloch to Red Point and then a short walk past the lovely beach to a little rocky headland had me in as lonely a spot as you're likely to find, with a view over the water to Rona and Skye and the Outer Hebrides just disappearing into the twilight, backlit by the setting sun. With nothing much to do but watch the birds and the waves, trying to work out if the tide was coming in or going out, it wasn't long before I had trouble keeping my eyes open and dropped off to one of the most relaxed sleeps I've ever had outdoors.


On the short walk in
Outer Hebrides
The tide was out....
Fellow campers
Rona and the Staffin peninsula from the bivvy spot

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Back in the saddle

I guess that I should have expected some sort of psychological backlash after pulling out of the Highland Tail Race. The hours and miles I'd put in all suddenly seemed a bit worthless and, after a day out round Loch Katrine, the bikes had been hanging up in the garage, unused. Somehow, I just didn't have any enthusiasm to ride them for a day or two, a week, a fortnight...

Thankfully Ian, one of my occasional riding buddies, had been rounding folk up for a day round part of Perthshire and this had caught my eye for a couple of reasons; if there's such a thing as a "bucket list" of Scottish mountain-biking then the Atholl passes of the Minigaig and the Gaick are surely found in it. These old routes had caught my eye as a hillwalker and yet I've somehow never managed to cross them. I guess that the logistics of the long day between Blair Atholl and Kingussie, and then getting back to the start, never quite worked out for me. However, with a bicycle available, it suddenly looked feasible to do them both on the same day. 

The second reason is that I'd seen bit of both routes from the north end last year and I was keen to see how they both arrived in Glen Tromie. That would give me some possible long distance routes from home.

On the day, the weather wasn't that great looking - in fact, it was lashing it down as I passed Drumochter. However, it was at least holding off as Andrew, Ian and I geared up for the ride in Calvine. 

It's a bit of a sharp start after crossing the A9, but once some height is gained there's a fairly easy spin along Glen Bruar. The track is certainly a lot less rough than when I'd previously cycled here - all of 20 years ago on my way to climb Beinn Dearg. The other thing that had changed was that the river was almost dry - a result of a new hydro scheme perhaps. Certainly, the approach to Glen Bruar from Glen Banvie is now a lot easier. After passing the lodge, the track starts to get a little steeper and then it's the end of the glen with a steep rise up ahead. 

IMG_20140518_105227743_HDR
Where the walking starts
We'd already worked out that this was the time to get off and push and, though it rose steeply, it was reasonably easy going. As the plateau was reached, and the ground started to flatten out, it was off/on the bikes for a while until we eventually reached the summit and started the fun bit! 


IMG_20140518_112732494_HDR
On or off the bike - you choose
IMG_20140518_122257213_HDR
Finally, some downhill
Bruar Big Ride
Still plenty of snow up here too.
Sadly, that was to end all too soon as the track deteriorated into a muddy, squelchy quad track and then through wet bog and heather. Having made the mistake of choosing neither waterproof boots nor waterproof socks, my feet were now sodden. Still, it made fording the numerous rivers and streams easier as I just ploughed through rather than delicately selecting stepping stones. 

Once in Glen Tromie, I recognised part of the track I'd done last year from Glen Feshie. I knew that the percentage rideability was increasing, which was a wee boost. Descending down to the weir, I'd taken a slightly different line from Andrew and Ian and almost ran over an adder sunning him(her)self. Leaving the bike as a marker I called out to the guys to take a look but it was a bit shy and they only managed to catch a glimpse of its tail as it slunk into a wee hole under some heather. 

Another river crossing saw us onto a decent track for a while and then it was up along the Gaick. This is a much lower, faster, easier route than the Minigaig (it was once considered as an option for the main road north rather than Drumochter) so we made pretty good time despite the headwind. 
Bruar Big Ride
Looking back through the Gaick
Another river forded and we were at Loch an Duin. Here, again, there was some on/off bike action, especially given legs were beginning to tire. Still, it was all downhill from here (Andrew would disagree) and the weather was as good as we'd had all day, so it made for a pleasant end to a grand day out in the hills.

I was really pleased to be able to tick off two routes I'd long want to do and it was great to get a bit of a leg-stretch again after my withdrawal from the HTR. A massive thanks has to go to Ian for arranging it and giving me sufficient incentive. 



(and thanks to both Ian and Andrew for the use of their photos)

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Count me Out

The past few months have seen me obsess over the forthcoming Highland Trail Race. I've been poring over maps, doing lots of extra riding, tweaking my equipment choices, planning stops and logistics and basically boring the hell out of my wife. I've certainly been making the most of any opportunity to get out on my bike, though it's sometimes felt like a bit of a chore rather than just being for fun

Last weekend I took the opportunity to do a reconnaissance of part of the HTR route and to get in an overnight bivvy. Starting at Laggan gave me the opportunity to cross the Corrieyairack East to West for the first time, something I'd been thinking about all year but had delayed due to the record levels of snowfall in the mountains. The weather was excellent as I started out, with not a cloud to be seen. 


Cloudless morning at Loch Spey
The road section up to Garva Bridge and then to Melgarve bothy went in easily enough and then it was on to the rougher (but recently resurfaced) track. A few of the stone water-bars proved to be deep and tricky and I opted to get off the bike for a couple. No point in having a stupid accident this early! The foot of the zig-zags was soon reached and I reverted to a little pushing up his section, climbing up through some large patches of snow to the little hut on top. 


Last of the snow patches on the Corrieyairack
Hills, hills and more hills
From here, the view west was amazing with snow-mottled mountains ringing the horizon. The descent is a full-on blast with the only major hazard being watering eyes. A couple of smaller climbs and descents and I was soon at a very busy Fort Augustus. 


First view of Loch Ness
A great day for messing about in boats
My plan here had been to check out a little cafe I'd eaten in on a previous trip and to check out what time they opened for breakfast but, despite it being a busy Easter Sunday, they were closed. I found a little chippie-type restaurant round the corner but after standing in a stationary queue for ten minutes opted just to grab some stuff from the supermarket and eat it al fresco. 

The next section follows the Great Glen Way all the way to Fort William so it's partly canal towpath, partly old railway bed and partly forest track. Another little detour en route took me to the shop at the Well of the Seven Heads, again to check opening times. I made it just as they were closing up for the day so opted for an ice-cream pick-me-up. 
Ben Nevis backdrop
Reaching the public road to Loch Arkaig then had me searching for a little detour by the lochside - the signpost for which was hidden behind a cunningly-parked car. This was a lovely little section with definite potential for some wild camping. I was running fairly close to my planned schedule at this point so opted for food in Fort William - an unashamed indulgence at McDonalds proved just the thing. 

Nom, nom, nom

I'd also realised just before here that the second days riding would see me pass no food stops of any kind, so stocked up with some snacks to carry me through. It was just before 6pm when I headed along Glen Nevis on the West Highland Way and I reckoned a couple of hours riding would get me well into the Lairigmor as planned. 
On the West Highland Way above Glen Nevis
The initial climb out of the glen proved to be OK, until I met a "track closed" sign. It was obvious that some timber extraction was in progress but I (correctly) reckoned there would be no one working on a Sunday evening so skipped around the gates for the short distance involved. I was very glad I had as the signposted detour from a lower forest track ended up with an incredibly steep ascent back to the normal route. 

Once the forest track ended, the WHW simply got steeper and more difficult to ride and I was eventually reduced to pushing and hauling the bike along, including a steep section of steps with a handrail on only one side and a potentially high penalty for loss of balance. I was therefore happy when the path started to level off again and I could get in some more riding. The sweeping singletrack along here towards Lundavra proved to be a highlight of the trip with some easy inclines and rocky steps. After the pleasure however, comes the pain and as the track carried on up again it developed into a massive boulder field. To exacerbate matters, I seemed to be riding into a wind-tunnel and the combination of tired legs, boulders, a laden bike and the headwind meant I was reduced to walking long sections. As I did so, I became increasingly aware of falling behind schedule. 
Tigh na sluebhaich
I passed three French guys who were pitching their tents, watching the setting sun out west while I pushed on eastwards, determined to reduce the distance I'd need to ride the next day. The strong wind threatened to make any overnight stop up here a bit of a pain, so I decided to push on to the relative shelter of Kinlochleven. With darkness falling fast, I reached the final descent, making reasonable time until the path disappeared into the woods, whereupon I was, once again, reduced to pushing the bike downhill. 


Last of the daylight with the Pap of Glencoe in the background
By now, I was fed up of chasing a target time and distance, of concentrating only on getting somewhere and not being able to stop to take in my surroundings. A stunning West Highland evening had come and gone and all I'd been able to think about was plodding on regardless. When I came to a little spot in the woods just outside Kinlochleven, I decided to adjourn to the pub for a couple of beers to analyse my feelings in some comfort before retiring for the night. It didn't actually take me long to reach my decision - the HTR just wasn't going to happen for me. 

I weighed up all the pros and cons; the challenge aspect remained, a big eight-day outing in stunning scenery. However, I was already sick of the single-minded focus needed to maintain the required pace and the thought of riding alone for eight or more days was just depressing. With that out of the way, I set off up the hill a little to set up camp for the night and settle in a little less pressured. The combination of tiredness and a couple of pints of Trade Winds meant it wasn't long before I was fast asleep.


Bivvy above Kinlochleven


If Sunday had been all about decision making, Monday served to absolutely confirm I'd made the correct choice. My mood hadn't changed much the next morning as I ate breakfast and started to pack up and wasn't helped any by the huge climb required out of Kinlochleven towards Loch Eilde Mor. 


A bit of a climb from my sea-level campsite
Room with a view
The headwind I'd hit yesterday had got worse and I knew that I'd basically be heading into it all day. Ride, walk, push was the repeated pattern for the next couple of hours until I eventually spotted the buildings at Luibielt.  
Luibeilt and Meannanach Bothy

The Abhainn Rath and the Grey Corries
Here, the combination of big snow deposits and high temperatures had resulted in a fast-flowing, relatively deep Abhainn Rath and it took me a little while to find a decent crossing spot. Boots and socks off, boots back on to cross and thankfully the water wasn't very cold. I'd passed this way several years ago and had a recollection of there being many deep ditches along the route following the river downstream. That meltwater had made them even worse and I found myself once again manhandling the bike up, down and across them all. 

Final view of Ben Nevis
Pace now had slowed to less even than normal walking speed and I was starting to do all sorts of mental calculations about my ETA at Laggan. An initial 2pm guess soon became 4pm and as the "walk with a bike" progressed, became 6pm and even later. I was even starting to consider get-out options such as detouring to Corrour Station and getting the train north for my wife to come pick me up. However, I pressed on, glad of any longer rideable sections and was relieved to see Loch Ossian on the horizon. 


Loch Ossian (the Youth Hostel in the trees on the right)
From here, the path on the south side of the loch had been repaired a little since my last visit and I found it much easier going. Once the lodge was reached, the track became a vast, smooth motorway and, with some wind assistance, I found myself belting along it, going at a decent speed for the first time since yesterday afternoon. Thoughts of an early bale-out soon disappeared and I set off from Moy to Lochan na h-Earba with a bit of renewed vigour. Here, the wind hit me full-on on again but with the miles counting down and an end in sight it was easier to dig in and find the reserves required. the final couple of miles along the road to Laggan went in pretty simply, arriving just after 5pm, and I don't think I was ever so glad to see my van parked there.  

197km/3200m of ascent

Over the two days, I'd ridden for some 20 hours and covered about 122 miles. An eight day HTR pace suggests 70 miles per day. So, overall, I'd eventually managed a reasonable average pace, but I knew that there was little left to give and the thought of having to do another 20 miles or so would have driven me to despair - let alone having to repeat the exercise for six more days with an even more laden bike.

My admiration for the participants has certainly increased a couple of notches (it was already incredibly high). I guess it's not just about fitness but also having the mental fortitude to press on for so long. For me, I reckon I'm on the limit of being fit enough to complete it but not to enjoy it en route. I considered turning up at the start and simply cycling at my own pace regardless but I know there's a waiting list so much better that someone more able, more driven, gets the opportunity to participate. On reflection, I reckon I'll plan to take things a bit easier, spend more time looking around me and enjoying being outside without having to be somewhere in particular. I'll be following the HTR with increased interest this year and might even turn up to take photos as participants complete the route. My best wishes go to each and every one of them.