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.

Friday 8 February 2013

Getting some direction

I'm not 100% sure when and where it started but it seems I've always had a fascination for maps and old routes. I learnt some map reading skills when I was in the Cubs and then the Scouts - certainly enough to get around the countryside fairly safely - and I've explained in my blog about my A9 trip that my father would often point out some old routes he was aware of, particularly the "Wade" military roads. Most of that was forgotten about when i took up motorcycling, especially as access laws in Scotland means you are more-or-less limited to tarmac. However, when I started to get back into hillwalking it wasn't long before I found myself poring over maps, looking at the various black dotted lines and trying to interpret how they would traverse the terrain in real life. As a Munro-bagger, many of these old routes are only used as a way of getting closer to the final ascent, or as a way into somewhere for an overnight camp. After all, our ancestors were mainly interested in how to travel through the countryside, not how to get to the tops of all the hills. 

That fascination also exhibits itself whenever I'm driving somewhere and I see one of the green-arrowed Scottish Rights of Way signs. I can never help myself from trying to work out where the path goes and what it might be like. Old railway lines and old roads also grab my attention whenever I look at a map and I am forced to ponder on what sorts of folk used them and why they are no longer in use. I have, at various times, harboured the notion of filming all the remaining Wade and Caulfield roads, probably from the saddle of a bike, and yet never quite got round to doing something about it. 

Now, as I sometimes find myself with an excess of free time and considering what to do with it, I've started to think about how I could put it to better use. I'd thought about various volunteering opportunities before and been in touch with some organisations. However, one look at my skill-set and I'm soon asked if I could set up a website or do some other IT role. Frankly, and this might sound a bit selfish, I've no intention of getting back into that. So when I was thinking about it again those old green SRWS signs came back to mind and I got in touch with the organisation now known as Scotways. We had chat to discuss how I could help out in a voluntary capacity, seemed to hit it off fairly well (well - it's more map geeks, innit?) and I now find myself as a volunteer path surveyor for Scotways and the Heritage Paths website.  

I really can't say how excited I am about this. I'll be walking and riding lots of routes, adding to the existing descriptions, adding new descriptions and taking photos as necessary. With my cycling background, I'll also be considering how usable they are by bike - and on horseback - with things like gates, fences and other obstacles to negotiate. So if you see me out and about, taking photos of random bits of track, or riding back and forth looking for some hard-to-find bit of a route, you'll now know what I'm up to!

Friday 1 February 2013

Just made it!

The problem with Resolutions (New Year or otherwise) is that they are made whilst in the most optimistic frame of mind and reality rarely matches our predictions. When I'd decided I'd try to get out for at least one nights bivvying/wild camping each month I was of course thinking of those lovely May/June evenings when it's warm enough to sit out under the stars with a hipflask and just watch the world go by for a bit before relaxing into a nice warm tent and a nice warm sleeping bag. Of course, in order to get through to May, I have a few colder months to endure first. Having put it off during the early, milder days of January, then watching as the freezing weather arrived, it was starting to look like I was going to fail at the first hurdle and as the end of the month approached, we were left with stormy conditions that looked somewhat less than inviting. 

Nevertheless, I made plans for a night on Loch Lomond-side, somewhere north of Rowardennan. I reckoned that would give me a simple cycle in and, at this time of year, it would be very quiet. As the days ticked away, it became obvious that this was a rubbish plan. The strong winds were all westerlies and the east shore of Loch Lomond would be taking the full brunt. A hasty re-plan brought up Tentsmuir Forest in Fife. This is an area I've wanted to explore for some time. I'd passed it on my North East Coast cycle tour a couple of years ago and seen the NCN1 signs but been unsure of how suitable the tracks would be for a touring bike with panniers and so gave it a miss. It also had the advantage that it wasn't too far away to get to and I could make some sort of loop out of it.

The usual last-minute faffage saw me leaving Edinburgh behind schedule and more luggage issues at Leuchars meant I was a whole hour behind my self-imposed timetable when I set off. As a result, it was already getting dark as I started along the Fife Coastal Path and by the time I reached the edge of the forest I was already having to use the front light. This wasn't too much of an issue on the broad forest tracks but by the time I reached the trails through the dunes at Kinshady it was difficult to see far enough ahead to make good progress. What's more, the trails here are like a rabbit warren and it was hard to keep to the main trail. All I could do was keep the trees to my left and head north in search of a sheltered spot. 

At one junction, I headed towards the trees and I found an old WWII pill-box that had once been inundated by the dunes. It was very sheltered hereabouts - too much so in fact. There was little view of the sky and none of the beach. A couple of hundred metres further north, I found a much better spot. The forest was to my back, giving me shelter from the howling winds and I had an open outlook eastwards. 

A few minutes later the tent was pitched, the mat inflated, the sleeping bag unrolled and the water was on for a cook-in-the-bag meal. It was cold though - very - and I clambered into the sleeping bag still fully dressed as I sat to enjoy my food. A little Oban malt whisky and all was soon right with the world. 

After reading a few chapters of Life of Pi on my phone and another brew-up to get some heat, it was just a case of hunkering down for the night, listening to the roar of the wind in the trees and the occasional bird cry from the beach. That's when it started to get lighter and I knew I had to get out of the tent for a while. The moon was rising over the north sea against a dark, starry sky. I managed to get a couple of (poor) photos, wishing I'd brought a better camera with me. Then it was a few star-jumps to warm up again and back into the sleeping bag until morning.

After looking at the weather forecast I'd already decided that I should make an effort to wake up around 5:30. The wind was due to change direction and I knew my little spot would be a bit exposed. However, as I flitted between awake and asleep all night, I was also aware that the rain had returned with a vengeance and when 5:30 came it was still lashing it down, the tent was still stable and I just hunkered down for another couple of hours. At 7:30, the rain had subsided and I opted for a quick breakfast so I could get everything packed away before it returned. 

My hands were getting numb rolling the tent up and doing up the straps but as soon as I was on my way again, I warmed up. I headed north to complete the coast ride round to Tayport and then back south via the Morton Lochs to make up a little loop. On the way I saw more pillboxes, an icehouse, deer and lots of rabbits. With lots of interest in Tentsmuir Forest, I feel it's an area I'll be back to explore further - both by bike and on foot. 

As I headed back along the Fife Coastal Path, I met one of the local rangers who was very, very interested in the bike. He'd seen my tracks from the night before and was intrigued by them. As we chatted he seemed very switched on to "evironmentally-friendly" low-impact of the wide tyres and I gave him some of my details to pass on to his colleagues. As I reached the van again at Leuchars, the heavens opened. Perfect timing.

Overall, not a bad night out. All the gear worked, although I'll no doubt add/change a couple of things, and it was refreshing just to get out into the wilds again for a wee break. Plans for Februarys bivvy are already being formulated and this time it might be using the 29er.

Oh - and this was waiting for me when I got home.......

Monday 28 January 2013

Snow - at last

Well, the first blast of a decent winter has just come and gone. Already I've been cycling in the snow more than I did last winter so I thought it was worth a quick round-up of how it's been going.

The first decent trip took me up Allermuir via Harlaw, Maidens Cleugh, and Castlelaw. However, due to a nascent blizzard I'd not set off until almost 2pm. However, I did get some beautiful clear blue sky as I set up towards Maidens Cleugh. On the way up, I bumped into PHRP Ranger Susan Falconer, author of the Cicerone Pentland Hills Walking Guide. We chatted a bit about some path repair work that the local mountain biking community are going to help with his year and, of course, about the bike. As I set off again I could see some low cloud approaching and was expecting a further snow fall. At the reservoir I headed towards Castlelaw, then up past the shooting ranges and along the big track that carries on over to Dreghorn. So far, the thin layer of snow hadn't been an issue. However, cutting off the track to climb Allermuir it wasn't long before the snow got wetter and deeper and I eventually ran out of traction. By this time, the low cloud had settled in and I just pushed the bike up the last couple of hundred metres to the mist shrouded trig point. 

Gutted not to get a view, I hung around a few minutes in the freezing wind until I could make out at first a slight thinning, then finally a break. With my late start, the low sun was casting an orangey-pink light over the summit so I quickly snapped off a few photos before my hands started freezing. 

From here, it was a straightforward descent, picking up my my ascent trail to the main track and then round the front of Capelaw and down to Bonaly Reservoir, the sun getting lower and lower, pinker and pinker as I went and it has completely set by the time I reached the track alongside Torduff that would take me back home. 

Overall, a nice wee run and the big fat tyres coped really well in the snow.

My next ride was out to Listonshiels and back along the "Yellow Brick Road" to Wester Bavelaw. This time, things didn't go quite as smoothly. A damp easterly was blowing the snow around and pretty soon it was collecting all round the bike. Crucially, it also froze up the rear mech so I was reduced to just two gears (i.e. the front rings). This is a problem I've had before in these conditions and one of the reasons I'd initially decided to fit an Alfine (internal gear) hib to the fatbike. I'd subsequently removed this as I couldn't get the range of gearing I really wanted but I now considered a different way of using it. 

Wet snow build-up

As a result, the Alfine has been re-installed and I've kept the dual rings up front too. This necessitated the purchase and installation of an Alfine chain tensioner. While not looking as "clean" and potentially introducing a point of failure, I reckoned this was a chance worth taking. 

My next ride was therefore with the Alfine fitted and I must say I'd forgotten just how it felt. Gear changing is a noiseless, smooth and quick affair, so mush so it's often tempting to think it hasn't actually happened. Pickup after gear changing is also instant. Overall. I'm very impressed and with the range of gearing now at my disposal I'm tempted to run the bike this way in the longer term too. In fact, with a slightly larger "middle" ring at the front I can extend the range even further giving me some really good gears for some road-inclusive island hopping I have planned.

Waypost at Listonshiels. I love coming out this way as it has a wilder, more open feel than the area around Harlaw and Bavelaw.

Thin snow over ice - always a bit tricky!

I love the colour the setting sun makes on Scots Pine

These weird frozen waves were on Threipmuir Reservoir. It's amazing what you spot when you are just being observant.

The Pogies in all their glory.

The other modifications I've made this winter are mostly to stay warmer. The Hotpog Pogies may look like a set of over-sized boxing gloves but my hands remain toasty even with just a thin pair of summer gloves on underneath. The only issue is stopping to take photos etc as removing your hands from the pogies can result in them getting pretty cold pretty quickly. 

I also decided to try a different tack with my footwear. My Shimano MT90s have been great over the years and are worn on all my remote bikepacking trips. However, I've noticed that the leather soaks through and then, despite the Goretex liner, they start to feel really cold. I spotted some Salomon Snowshoe boots at Decathlon one day - waterproof and insulated, they sounded ideal. So far, they have been. I bought them large enough that I can still fit a decent sock inside and have wiggle room and they are perfect in the colder weather. A lot cheaper than bike-specific boots too!!

So - with one round of snow gone, I've just about set myself up for the next. Here's hoping it won't be another 12 months.

Thursday 24 January 2013

More fun in the snow

After last years dismal performance, at least we've had some snow this winter and it's great to be out enjoying it while it lasts. This weeks walk was a little stroll around a quieter area of the Pentlands, retracing a walk we did last winter but with a little shortcut. 

Leaving the Bavelaw car park we set off along the Rigs Road on hard-packed snow. That was soon to end as we reached the little path that runs alongside the telegraph poles towards Listonshiels. This can often be a bit of a mudbath but the problem today was that the snow had been drifting in and was thigh-deep in places. That made progress a little slow but we managed through cleaner that I can remember. Heading from Listonshiels up to the Borestane the snow was just deep enough to cover the track in places and we were glad of the fence posts marking the way for us. At least it also covered the wooden "road" which was one less potential obstacle. So far we hadn't seen any other footprints. I was a bit surprised until I remembered that the bulk of the snow had only appeared 24 hours ago.

 It had been very calm all the way up here and I was expecting a stronger breeze as we crossed the col but it remained quite still all the way down to the North Esk Reservoir. Again, some patches of snow were very deep (crotch-deep in palces) and, being soft, made for hard going. We were therefore glad to see the little bird hide and escaped in there to watch the Mallard and a Whooper Swan while we had our lunch. Whoever had been in before us had neglected to close one of the shutters so it had quite a bit of snow inside it but was handy nonetheless. I made sure it was securely closed up before we left.

From here, we followed the edge of the reservoir, crossed the dam and then began the steep climb up towards Spittal Farm. On this occasion we carried on up the hill rather than take the steep descent and then the climb up Monks Rig. This is the first time I've walked over Spittal Hill and I wasn't sure how much of a track there would be but the quads have obviously been up here and, even under a bit of snow cover, it was clear that the track carried on all the way along the ridge. Approaching Green Law I was treated to a very unfamiliar Pentlands skyline with West Kip very prominent. 

Passing over Green Law we were soon down to the Red Road - a track we know very well. There were signs of some cross-country ski-ing from here all the way back to Bavelaw and Threipmuir Reservoir. We arrived back at the car just as it was getting dark - perfect timing!

All in all, a lovely 11.5 mile circuit with enough climbing for a bit of exertion and not another walker, cyclist or ski-er seen all day.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Boots on again

I've been a bit lazy, not posting up here. I was going to do an end-of-year round-up but every time I thought about it I got a bit depressed that I'd actually done so little. My mind has therefore started to focus more on plans for 2013. First priority is getting Mim up Mount Toubkal in April. With this in mind, the hiking boots are getting a good airing again and we are starting to explore some more local routes just as we did this time last year. One issue with this is that I do like my loops. For some reason, I just hate doing there-and-back routes even though logic suggests you have a different view in each direction. As a result, we are often forced to make our way across heather bogs in search of a path that will take up back to our starting point.

After a bit of internet searching I was lucky enough to find a nice loop in the Manor Hills just south of Broughton. Leaving from the tiny hamlet of Drumelzier we made decent time on a good landrover track up to Pyketone Hill whereupon the low cloud dropped a little and left us without any view at the summit. Dropping down on to the Theives Road it started to clear, though there was little time to stop and take in our surroundings given the very cold breeze. We followed the fence line up to Long Grain Knowe and Middle Hill before dropping over Glenstivon Dod where we managed to find a little shelter from the wind long enough to have some hot juice and a sandwich. From there it was a simple walk up to Drumelzier Law and then we followed the ridge line all the way back to Finglen Rig and back to the valley.

A very pleasant walk out and a wee bit longer than we've been doing recently. The Theives Road looks like an interesting through route that I must look into a bit more.

In the cloud on Pykestone Rig

Poor Middle Hill doesn't even get a cairn!

A random cairn on the way to Glenstivon Dod

Dropping down for a bit of shelter - at least the sky was clearing

Another random cairn. Quartzite blocks very bright against the dark heather.

Mim about to "top" Drumelzier Hill

A better day than it was when we started - and all (mostly) downhill from here!