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.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

New toys!!

I'm getting a bit more fussy in my old age. Whereas I'd once wander the aisles of Tisos or Nevisport, eyes agog at the wonders contained within, I rarely visit such emporia these days. I'm sure there are still lots of wonderful new things to be discovered but I just hate the whole experience and I seldom see anything that exactly matches what I'd spend my money on. I put it down to developing more preferences, knowing from experience what works - and what doesn't - and not wanting to compromise. 

This change has been accompanied by an explosion in availability of some very well-designed kit from many small manufacturers, made available through the wonder of internet shopping. Of course, it's always a risk shopping like this. You can't inspect the quality of the goods and things like fit, comfort and "feel" are only possible to check once the goods are available in the flesh. However, it's often worth the risk of a poor purchase to get something that's just what you were looking for. 

A couple of years ago, I bought myself a new (actually, secondhand) tent. It's a Scarp 1 and has been great for some all-season camping. It's pretty lightweight compared to some of the tents I've used before. It's a bit fussy when pitching and needs a decent flat area to get it just right but it's pretty bomb-proof and very cosy in colder weather.

Scarp 1 in Glen Etive

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A good pitch in Glen Feshie

I then decided to try out bivvying. This has worked better than I'd hope. The flexibility of not having to peg anything out makes short overnight stops very easy. Couple that with a small tarp and you get a bit more shelter and somewhere under cover for cooking etc. It's still a bit cramped though and I reckon I prefer a bit more shelter from the elements when the weather isn't too great. 


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Experimenting in the garden. This "flying V" is my favourite tarp layout
Bivvy bag and tarp above Kinlochleven. Bike being used as a support.

So - I got to thinking about what would be a great combination of the two systems. I imagined a tarp that was a bit bigger, with a pole to give some height. It would have a midge-net built underneath it, linked to a suspended bathtub groundsheet for bug-free sleeping. Ideally, the door would be longitudinal, giving a decent sized porch for gear storage and cooking. It would need to have great ventilation to avoid the build-up of condensation we so often suffer from in our climate and it would, of course, be ultralight. 

Luckily, someone pointed at the Six Moon Designs website and the Lunar Solo tent. Here, it seemed was my design made real.  After my usual bout of swithering, several months later I ordered it from backpackinglight.co.uk and today it arrived.


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The porch doesn't come all the way to the ground - in order to aid ventilation
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Midge-net "walls" can be seen at the back. The entire front is also medge-net.

I've obviously not had a chance to try it out yet. The seams will need to be sealed and I'll want to experiment setting it up a few times to see if there are any snags. However, it seems to match my list of requirements pretty much 100%. I bought a very lightweight carbon pole to go with it but a normal walking pole can be used instead if I'm hiking. It's certainly very lightweight. At just over 700g (including pole and pegs), that's less than my tarp and bivvy bag combined. Internal space is very good - especially as I'm only 5'7" - and there's enough room to get some bags inside with me as well as more space under the porch. The only issue with the latter is that it's quite high off the ground so anything underneath it couldn't be guaranteed to stay dry. It'll also need careful pitching to ensure that any wind is coming over from the rear. 

I reckon there are a few more nights of suitable weather this year before I might need the extra shelter of the Scarp and I'm really looking forward to trying it out.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Ch..Ch..Ch...Changes

Since starting my new job at Ticket to Ride in Inverness I've seen quite a few tourists come in and head off on of our hire bikes to do a wee tour. It got me to thinking that I've been very much concentrating on the mountain biking during 2014 and not any road riding. With the end of August fast approaching and the need to head off for another night under the stars I decided it was time to ring the changes and do something about that.  

Another reason for wanting to get out and about was that I'd just built a new set of wheels to be used on both the touring bike and the 29er. The front wheel incorporates a dynamo hub. Teamed up with a good LED light from Exposure this would finally eradicate all that unnecessary stress I give myself whilst riding in the dark and worrying about how long my batteries will last. 

The chosen route was simple enough. I'd always fancied a circumnavigation of the Cairngorms and an overnighter would make it a fairly easy-going pace. Fortune smiled on me as the weather forecast for the only two days I had available turned out to be excellent so I could go lightweight too. 


In a previous post, I outlined my bikepacking gear list. That included a tent and a winter-weight sleeping bag. Ditching the former for a bivvy bag and the latter for a lighter, less warm bag, along with a couple of other tweaks reduced my load quite a bit and it easily fitted into the Viscacha seat pack and a dry-bag mounted into a Revelate Harness on the handlebars. 


Compact handlebar luggage
Heading off south from home I was immediately aware of the headwind. Still, I wasn't in a hurry and planned to take things easy so I was unlikely to be running late. As it was, I soon reached Dalwhinnie (noticing that there's now a cafe in the old hotel building) and then on to the run along to Drumochter. I was just going through the gate onto the cycle path at the summit of the pass that I met this lady cycling north. As it turned out, she'd set off from Kirkmichael that day and that was, roughly, my destination. We had a wee chat about possible eating places and then I noticed the electric hub and battery on her bike. After a wee jibe from me about that being "cheating" she assured me it wasn't as it only cut in whilst she was going uphill :-)

The descent to Blair Atholl was lovely. It's a great ride along the old road into Struan and then a short spin to the Watermill cafe in Blair itself. Although clouding over a bit since Aviemore, it was still very warm when the sun came out, though cold when it was blocked. In fact, there were times when one layer of clothing felt too much and others when three seemed barely sufficient. My initial target of getting to Pitlochry before 6 pm seemed pessimistic now and I was soon through it and heading up my first real climb of the day to Moulin. This went in fairly quickly and the undulating road to Kirkmichael was both quiet and scenic so time passed fairly speedily too. As it was, I found myself at Kirkmichael just before 6., well ahead of schedule and earlier than I'd planned to eat. However, I was aware that there would be no other option between here and Braemar and with the Cairnwell climb ahead of me I reckoned it was better to eat now. 

One of the pleasures of solo touring is the chance to chat to folk en route and so it was I got into conversation with the barmaid and then the manager of the pub. Not about anything in particular, just that easy-going chatter about the seasons and how busy or quiet things are. Suitably replete, I did a few stretches and set off into the slightly cooler evening to see how far I was going to get before bivvying down. 


Low sun giving the hills of Glen Shee red tones
The road is gentle enough (though longer than I'd remembered)  until the Spittal of Glenshee hotel is reached. This might have made a good eating/camping spot had it not burnt down only a few days previously (though it was already closed at that time). From here, the road turns north and the climb to Cairnwell makes itself felt. As my rate of progress lessened, so did the daylight. By the time I'd reached the building of the ski centre, the dynamo headlight was in full use and it was around 8:30. Now I had a choice. I knew it would be a fast run downhill to Braemar, a pub and a sheltered river-side bivvy spot. However, I could also tell that it was going to be a very cold night at the bottom of the valleys so I opted to stay high, just where I was. I managed to find a suitably sheltered doorway to lay out my sleeping gear - one that also mostly killed the constant drone of a nearby generator too. As the few passing cars became even fewer, soon the only remaining sound was that of the local grouse population. 

It's certainly one of the strangest places I've slept and once again proved the advantage of taking bivvy bag rather that tent. 



My wee corner was tucked away enough that the first light of day had been and gone by the time I awoke but I was still early enough to watch the sun gradually rise over the hills and take the chill off the morning. 


Not your usual bivvy bag view
After a quick porridge I scooted down to Braemar and wasn't surprised to see that my forecast of low-lying dampness had been correct. 


Brrr - chilly!
I was still feeling a bit hungry so popped into the Fife Arms to see if they'd do breakfast for non-residents. After a bit of confusion, it was confirmed this was OK and I stocked up my internal stores for the forthcoming ride. 


First summit of the day - and certainly not the last

The road fairly undulates across some pretty high and remote terrain and it was all looking splendid until I reached Cock Bridge. Here, the road seems to rise almost vertically away from the river so I grabbed the lowest gear possible and started spinning then forcing my way up. 
It doesn't look steep now!
The first steep climb actually went in OK, as did the first couple of bends and then I could see a slight decrease in the angle. Unfortunately, this proved to be a bit of a false dawn and the steepness of the tight left-hander had me barely crawling, with a couple of cars behind me. At this point, I decided to step off the bike and ended up pushing a few metres onto the next straight before getting back on the bike to continue.

The road continues to rise some fair way before the ski apparatus of The Lecht becomes apparent. 


The last big climb
I was certainly glad to pull in again and pleased to see that the cafe was open so that I could refuel. Of course, what goes up must come down, so it was then a full-on dash downhill towards Tomintoul. Once here, it felt almost like being home and I was happy to spin along in the warm sunshine to get back home and complete the loop.

Still time for an ice cream on the way home


Almost home
I'd certainly enjoyed being out on the road again. I guess I'd almost forgotten how nice it is to spin along making a decent rate of progress and enjoy that there's almost always a choice of places to stop, eat or just chill out a while. The new lighting system promises to make more winter riding possible so I'll be looking at possible routes.

Another thing that did go through my head was the fact that I always tour alone these days (poor Paul and David - I think I wore them out). Maybe I need to find a touring buddy for 2015.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Summertime.... and the living is easy

Summer. Long days, warmer weather, drier ground. Little wonder thoughts turn to epic days out. Those long ridges, the summits, the sound of tyres skipping over dry, rocky trails. The unfashionable warm spell has got me to thinking a wee bit about how I've been spending my time out of doors and I've decided to slow it down a little. Warmer weather also means it's nicer to relax, to watch nature in full flow, to dip your feet in the river and just enjoy what's all around you without needing to be in a rush to go anywhere. Sort of reminds me of an old TV ad....




With that in mind, I've spent some time on easier walks or simply mooching around some fantastic spots in Scotland. Mim and I had a few days in Blair Atholl, including a walk up Glen Tilt. With summer flowers around and a lovely river to cool down in it was just about perfect.

So - not so many words this time, a few more pictures.....


First view up Glen Tilt
Looking further up Glen Tilt
Cooling off in and by the river
Summer is also about cream teas!

The second week of our holiday was spent in the Western Isles. Though I've been through the Outer Hebrides before, Mim never has so we spent some time on North Uist doing some sightseeing, a couple of walks and some paddling in the new kayak.


Horgabost beach. Does it get any better than this?
Lovely quiet campsite at Balranald
Machair
More Machair
Two Oyster Catchers - I love their call
Great sunset right beside the campsite
In the new kayak, exploring the coastline

I'd also long had a hankering to do a specific little walk, following the route set out in a Runrig song - Flower of the West.


I look over Orinsay
To the Trumisgarry shore
To Aloter
And the road to Ahmore

Past Loch Scadavagh and Loch Fada
And the Flatland to the East
Where the dark blue mass of Eval
Meets the rising rock of Lee
Between the Crogary and Maari
I started to descend
Loch Aongais on my left hand side
I look across to Clett
Collies barking on the outrun
Dunlin dancing on the sand
Breakers show round Corran Vallaquie
And empty the Atlantic on the strand


We headed up Crogary Mor on a mostly clear night and took in the sun setting over Corran Vallique before heading down with "Loch Aongais on our left". 




I even got to do my July bivvy-a month,, "escaping" from the campsite one night and heading for a long spit of land on North Uist. My initial plan had been to bivvy down at the trig point on the wee headland but it was thick with flies and I had to find a spot surrounded by sand to finally get away from them. It was a lovely location, with views out over the sea to Harris, but I was strafed by two large owls for 30 minutes or so. I don't know if it was me they were interested in or if there were lots of flying insects in my vicinity but it was fascinating and a bit uncomfortable to have them swooping so close to me.  After a good nights sleep, I was rewarded by a fantastic sunrise.
About as dark as it gets
Sunrise over Harris
Yes, we even have "C" roads here
On my previous visit to North Uist, Paul and I had almost sprinted through on our way to catch the ferry to Harris. This time, in an almost perfect summer week, I'd finally taken the time to explore and experience it. 

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