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 7 July 2017

Summit Solstice

For a few years, when I was working at the Bank, I managed to persuade some colleagues that seeing the midsummer sunrise from the top of a mountain would be a very cool thing to do. Three years we tried and only on the first - at Cairngorm - were we successful. I thought it was about time to retry the venture and managed to rope in two local buddies, both keen to try out their bivvy gear with a bikepacking trip.

Initial plans had involved beer and food in a bar but we instead met up later and pedalled up the Old Logging Way just as the sun was officially setting.  The sky looked amazing as the sun dipped below cloud level and we barely needed our lights on the first part of the ascent to the main car park at Cairngorm Mountain. 

Old Logging Way approach

Time for a photo stop

I can see my house from here!!!

It was windy though, and this made the tough climb up the main access track even harder. What's more, it didn't bode well for a summit bivvy.

Alasdair has obviously been eating his carrots

Adam on the old zig-zags

Final climb to the Ptarmigan

On reaching the Ptarmigan restaurant we found that it was quite a bit calmer and that we wouldn't have to invoke our contingency planning of bedding down in the restaurant viewing balcony.

The final part of the ascent saw us encountering the occasional bank of hill mist, it looking quite spooky in our lights. 

Spooky shadows on the mist

I'd expected we'd encounter other like-minded adventurers but we had the summit to ourselves. Maybe just the fact it was midweek, though the weather forecast had looked ok.
In trying to locate a suitable bivvy spot, I was only after something out of the strong wind and reasonably flat. A slabby area in the lee of the summit cairn turned out to be pretty much perfect. Adam and Alasdair both chose grassy patches not far away and after a bit of chat and a swapping of hip flasks it was time to get the head down for a couple of hours before sunrise.


I soon nodded off, only awaking when my alarm sounded after 4am. The hill mist was still below summit level and it became obvious we were unlikely to catch any glimpse of the rising  sun. That being the case, I snuggled back into my bag and dropped off to sleep for another couple of hours.

Adam contemplating the slope down to Loch Morlich

After 6, I heard Adam and Alasdair chating and we decided to head down the hill. I felt pretty much rested but I knew they'd not had the same amount of sleep and were keen to get home to a "real" bed for a few hours. Maybe that's the difference in kipping out more regularly - you become accustomed to it.

Mist in the corries

My bed

The descent down the main access road proved to be fast and very, very loose and we all had smelly brakes when we reached the mid-way point.

It was great pulling into Aviemore as the town was waking up, thinking "I've already been up a mountain today". Perhaps next year I might manage to persuade a few others to join me. We might even see the sunrise again!

Monday 3 July 2017

Northern Cairngorms loop - revisited

I'm easily led. In trying to come up with an idea for Junes "bivvy a month", we were always likely to be constrained by me not currently having a van so when Neill suggested doing the Northern Cairngorms loop it was an easy decision, despite the fact I'd been round just last Autumn. On the other hand, it also gave Neill a chance to navigate using his newly-acquired Garmin Oregon with me overseeing it on a route with which I was familiar.

Always looking to experiment and/or improve things I opted to fit the suspension forks onto the Pact for a change. This was also partly due to a shoulder injury, figuring that a bit of bounce would relieve any stress. I also fitted the Revelate Sweetroll rather than the Harness/Saltyroll combo I'd been favouring. The Sweetroll has additional strapping points to fit it better to the Jones Loop bars and I wanted to see if this was worth it before, potentially, selling it.

Ready for the off

The weather forecast was mild, a light breeze. With the potential for midge, I also opted for a tent rather than bivvy bag.

With a planned chippy at Braemar we were in no particular need for an early start and we left the Old Bridge Inn just after 10. The "puddle of doom" was encountered on the way to Nethy Bridge, Neill opting to ride straight through it with David and I attempting, unsuccessfully, to maintain drier feet by skirting round it.

A favourite singletrack section in Abernethy Forest

The Faeshallach and Dorback burns were quite low on account of a rather dry spell so it was no real surprise to find the Brown low too. Three dry-shod crossings of the meanders took us to the path on the south side of the glen and we managed to bushwhack through from there. 

Climbing away from Dorback

With the wee steep push up to the forestry track, the fast descent out and the final spin into Tomintoul we declared the first part of the ride a success and adjourned to the Fire Station cafe. We made it just before a coach party arrived which, given the speed of service, was a bit of a blessing. 

Tomintoul represents one of the significant turning points of the route and from here we turned south. Although I was familiar with the route I was holding back at any junctions in order to give Neill full practice with his Oregon.

A corner turned

The ride up the glen past Inchrory seemed longer than I remembered but we were soon enough on the Loch Builg track. Based on my previous experience I'd warned Neill and David that this section would involve quite a bit of pushing. As it turned out, I was completely wrong. Whether it was the bars, the forks, the drier conditions or (unlikely) my improved bike handling, this bit turned out to be a real treasure. 

    Passing Inchrory 

Lovely Loch Builg singletrack

Skinny dipping was considered....

New hut (closed to the peasantry)

The same couldn't be said for the slog to the new lunch hut above the River Gairn. The wind had been strengthening all day and now we were fully into it. After a few minutes at the hut it was then the climb over Culardoch. Despite the headwind, I decided to dig in and ride the full climb. A couple of sideswipes had me almost off the wide track but I made it with no dabs. That meant a 15 minute wait at the top of the climb until Neill and David appeared. 


Neill ecstatic as he reaches the top of the climb

Given how blowy it still was I was keen to get down again and we made a fast descent into the pretty woodlands near Invercauld. I stopped at a junction here, determined not to be taking the lead and, while faffing around with my camera, looked up to see Neill charging down the wrong descent. Despite pedalling - and shouting - as hard as I could it was almost 1.5km before Neill heard me. That meant another climb before we got back on track. 

Time lost meant we were now concerned about the chippy opening hours and we were very glad to see that it was still serving when we arrived.

We didn't plan to go too far after dinner, so set out to get past Linn of Dee and see what turned up. After a couple of miles we saw a reasonably sheltered spot but decided to press on to White Bridge. The flat grassy area here looked great but was quite exposed to the wind. A search further up the glen didn't prove fruitful  (the one sheltered spot was already fully occupied) so we were left in a bit of a quandary. With dark clouds coming over the mountains and the time of evening I wasn't really in the mood to keep looking.  I've been caught before with these dilemmas and experience says "take what's on offer" so I backtracked to White Bridge just as David and Neill took another look somewhere else.

As it turned out, this was a master stroke. I found a tent-sized spot behind the bridge and was soon pitched with hip-flask in hand.

Cold and cold running water

It was a tight squeeze

It was an uncomfortable night. I just couldn't get my temperature right. It was too warm to be fully in my sleeping bag - I woke up a couple of times with sweat running down my neck - yet too draughty to lie outside it. I've so far avoided buying a lighter weight "summer" bag but this had me reconsidering. Despite that, I awoke bright and early, checked Neill and David's tents were still pitched and set about breakfast. Still there - a second coffee then. 

As I was prepping to go I spotted their tents were down too so set off in pursuit. They'd stopped at the confluence of the Geldie and the Bynack to brew up in the shelter of the old red-roofed house as their camp spot had been just too windy. 

The Geldie-Feshie watershed was next and I recalled I'd struggled along here in the gathering gloom looking for somewhere to bivvy. In daylight it looked much more appealing, with several spots looking likely candidates. 

Another easy crossing

The drier conditions were obviously helping make it more rideable too but we were still reduced to a lengthy hike-a-bike to the Eidart. I actually took a little detour here, opting to follow the path shown on the OS map and part of the official Cairngorms Loops route. Suffice to say that both can safely be ignored in favour of the more direct route now plainly visible due to its popularity. The same can also be said of the short section immediately after the Eidart bridge.

The old route does give a better view of the falls.

The track all becomes rideable again as Glen Feshie develops - though the wee landslips and the crossing of the Allt Coire Gharbhlach still require some manhandling. 

Tricky with a loaded bike

We opted for lunch at Loch Insh Watersports centre before taking the Speyside Way from Kincraig to Aviemore. 

It was certainly worth repeating the route.  The two sections I struggled with last time were both more bikeable than I remembered/encountered and timings for their passage are useful to have in planning other routes in the area.

I'm torn on the Sweetroll/Harness decision. I prefer being able to pack the Saltyroll off the bike and just clipping it into the harness but the Sweetroll does sit "better" on the Loop bars with less rubbing of the headtube. Some further experimentation may be in order. 

Friday 9 June 2017

Familiarity breeds....complacency?

I've written before that I'm incredibly lucky to be able to live in Aviemore as the selection and number of trails surrounding it is immense and varied. As is often the case, it takes an outsider to remind me of my good fortune and a few days ago I was showing some friends around some of the trails which resulted in some appreciative comments, e.g. "do you guys ever go home?" and a couple of wee videos edited together by Kenny Wilson.

Day 1 was the Burma Road from Aviemore, followed by a selection of other tracks to get us to Carrbridge in time for lunch and a quick spin back through the woods at Boat of Garten for ice cream at the Kilted Fudge Company in Dalfaber.

Making a bit of a splash

At the top of the Goat Track

Time to go down

Day 2 was a selection of little singletrack sections linked by the big track round Loch Morlich and Loch an Eilean before running down the top of "Cake or Death" for, err, cake at Inshriach. 


It's important to look up sometimes!  


Ross styling it before cake

Both days had a great mix of trails, banter and food - even the weather was behaving. 

I also managed a spectacularly stupid fall on one of the very easiest of easy tracks in Rothiemurchus. The cuts, grazes and gravel rash would be bad enough but I also landed very heavily on my shoulder which has resulted in quite a bit of pain. With a two-day bikepacking trip coming up, I'm keen not to push things too far so a bit of an enforced absence from mountain biking is in order.

Sunday 14 May 2017

Roads less travelled

One of the signs that bikepacking in Scotland has become a lot more popular is the proliferation of routes being published and discussed online. Living in Aviemore, I'm very aware that many of the more popular options pass close by and there are other areas that are getting a similar level of attention.  However, it's still possible to find some rarely-visited little corners of the country and one of these is Morvern, south of Ardnamurchan. Together with Ardgour they form a wonderful but relatively little visited area. Being devoid of Munros they've escaped the attention of much of the hillwalking community and being surrounded by the sea makes visiting them slightly more complex. I'd also been attracted to the area when trying to fill out my long-term plan of cycling Scotlands coastline and had come up with a couple of routes in the area. With an atypical long dry spell in progress it looked like this would be an ideal option for Shaun and I to get our May bivvy out of the way.

Ardgour ferry at Corran

Meeting first in Corran we drove to Strontian for lunch. It was a superb day - the West Highlands bathed in sunshine.  Sitting outside the cafe there was certainly a temptation to cancel the planned ride, drive to Sanna and just bivvy down on the beach. We gave in though and set off along the road for 9km or so to reach the route I'd planned.

The hottest place in the UK!

It all started off well enough. A rough track led down to a steading - where it promptly disappeared into a field. Through that, we soon met the line of the old track and were alternately pushing and riding as best we could manage. It was fun in that sort of "what a great day to be outside" kind of a way. I knew we were heading for a point on the map marked as Lurga where there was a ruin. It turned out that this was the remains of an old lead mine. 

A good start

Followed by a bit of this

Lurga lead mine
I'd hoped that the track might improve from there but the opposite was true. We were relegated to mostly walking until we came upon a second building at Crosben and a good track out from there. Here, Shaun managed to catch a deep puddle and he fell into a mix of mud and cowshit. Thankfully we emerged from this section of track at Acharn old bridge over a decent river and he was able to wash most of it off.

Smelly Shaun

Clean Shaun

Ardtornish Castle

After a very short road section, we had easier tracks past the castle at Ardtornish and then onto an old road alongside Loch Aline and the clay mine to Lochaline ferry terminal. A ferry had just docked and we were lucky to find the little snack bar just minutes before it closed for the day. 

Back at sea level - Loch Aline

From here, I'd plotted our route along the quiet road. I was aware that an almost-parallel off-road route existed in the forest just inland but I preferred the chance of decent sea views. In the late afternoon sun we were treated to carpets of harebells and the thick coconut smell of gorse flowers.

Harebell everywhere!

At Drimnin we ran out of tarmac and set off along an old "destitution road" to Doirlinn. 

Shaun digging his bike out of the thick gravel!

After an initial very steep and very loose climb (a deep gravel had been laid down as the estate is building a distillery) it settled into a lovely track, climbing and descending round many corners, each revealing a different view of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. 

The warm temperatures hadn't abated much and Shaun was beginning to run low on water. We also knew we'd need to top up for dinner and breakfast. A check of the map showed a reasonably large river ahead - well, it needed a bridge - so that became our target. Unfortunately the river turned out to be out of reach down a mossy, steep-sided gully. Another look at the map showed one more burn before our planned bivvy spot, this one with a house (or ruins) beside it. When we got there, the house turned out to be in good condition and obviously occupied. I knocked on the door and was greeted by a kindly lady we later christened "Mrs Friendly". We chatted for a while, about ferries, about access, about the number of folk passing by, and she invited us in for a cup of tea. That caught me out. I wasn't sure if she was merely asking out of politeness and accepting was therefore impinging further upon her self-imposed exile, or if she was keen for company. In any event, I declined on the basis that we still had a bivvy spot to find before it got dark.

She seemed surprised that we were planning to bivvy at Doirlinn and when we got there we understood why. Apart from the immediate vicinity of the old Drovers Inn, the land was covered in heather, bracken, gorse and birch scrub. What's more, we could see nothing of a potential continuation of the track that we'd need in the morning. After a few minutes scouting around in the scrub - both Shaun and I collecting numerous ticks as we did so - we decided to camp in the front "garden" of the old building.

Late sun on the otters playground

Tonights tipple is....

Sunset over Ben Hiant

Does it count if there's a picnic table?

Loch na Droma Buidhe

We had a guest for dinner

Over dinner we were able to watch a couple of otters swimming around before they retired for the evening and as the sun set and the air cooled down, we followed suit. Now, I normally sleep really well outside, especially if I've been riding for a while, but this was the most sleepless and restless night I can remember. It seemed that I barely slept between vivid dreams - dreams that were all to do with me camping outside this building. I'd hear noises, people speaking, dogs, footsteps and all the time I was in fear, frozen still, eyes closed in my bivvy bag. I'm not a superstitious person but the feeling was definitely one of a haunting. Maybe this was why Mrs Friendly was looking at us a bit odd?

Once Shaun was awake we agreed we'd head off before breakfast while the ticks were still stupefied by the chill of the night. We could hear forestry machinery up the side of the loch somewhere and surmised that was on our route. We located a wee bit of track leading away from Doirlinn and headed through the scrub as best we could, lifting the bikes where necessary, pushing our way through, trying to spot signs that anyone else had been this way. After a couple of hundred metres we spotted a wooden pole, then another. Someone had obviously tried to mark out a way through. A few hundred metres later and we came to a wider and more defined track. Still barely rideable though, so more pushing ensued, some of it through thick gorse. 

Still clawing our way along the "almost-there" track

Eventually we reached the forest road and a chance to make a bit of distance. Shaun refilled his water bottle and we set off between massive woodstacks, evidence of the ongoing forestry activity.

Once we'd hit the forest track, we made good time up to the head of Loch Teacuis and decided this was a good spot to have our postponed breakfast. From here, we could also see across the loch to the location of the next planned section of the ride. I was less than impressed. After an initial track, it appeared that there was no sign of anything amongst the grass and bracken and the thought of a long push uphill in the heat of the day - only to be followed by a long push back down again - was enough to put me off.

Loch Teacuis

Decision made, breakfast eaten and bags re-packed, we therefore set off along another very quiet road, completing a short loop of the small peninsula before striking back uphill on the road for a fast descent and short flat spin back to the cafe at Strontian.

Impressive rock wall at Sithean na Raplaich

Back on the "main" road

Strontian - and the cafe - just over there

The route we did had much to commend it. I'd certainly consider it as a decent day ride, some of the tracks would be much more manageable with unladen bikes. As for the section we avoided, it appears there might now be another circular route, made possible by recent forestry works. Maybe a return visit when it's just a wee bit cooler!