Jon was about to get the most thoughtful of 40th birthday presents – a free weekend in close proximity to a sweaty Scouser in the mountains. After receiving a text from his lovely wife that we were to organise something for him as a treat, a plan was finally made during the balmy week in February, henceforth referred to as Fools’ Spring. We were going to meet up in Blair Atholl on a Friday night in March, kip in the car and head out on a weekend ride of one of the Cairngorms Loops, depending on progress and weather conditions.
Needless to say, once the plan was formed, the mercury began to plummet and lots of chat about kit ensued – Jon loves a good bikepacking gear geek-out. When the weekend arrived, snow had returned to the mountains in earnest, so we were going to head out and see how conditions on the ground were before committing to anything too ambitious. I headed out in the late evening on Friday, after getting the kids to bed and made a dash for Blair Atholl, as Jon was already on the train up there from Edinburgh. The roads were quiet and I made good time, leaving us a bit of time for a drink and chat in the Atholl Arms before popping over to the car park in the forest to get our heads down.
In my head, I thought we’d be up and riding about 6-ish, to give us a good chance to hit the top of the route before the wind turned to a Northerly. In reality, we woke about half an hour after that and then spent 2 hours fannying about with our kit in the steadily increasing snowfall.
With the thought of wading through snow at some point during the ride, I’d brought along the Giro gaiters that match my Alpineduro boots, to see if they would squeeze over the Adidas Goretex mid boots I was cycling in. They looked just the ticket, so that was a boost, as the snow felt pretty wet anyway. Jon however, had been so excited about wearing his new Terrex flat shoes, that he had declined my advice to wear boots for this trip, thinking I was winding him up! He went for some wool socks with SealSkinz over them and hoped for the best.
Finally, we were up and running along the A9 cycle path, following the treads of a solitary digger that had hit the road before us. The snow was very soft and added little resistance, so we could just enjoy the muted crunch of it beneath our tyres.
It wasn’t long before we reached the turn off at Dalnacardoch, where an easy climb would hopefully get the blood pumping enough to warm the extremities, as John’s feet were already beginning to feel the cold. We stopped under the trees for a while to allow him to hop about and get some blood into them.
The scene ahead looked both forbidding and inviting. The snow was extremely slippy, so any attempts to switch ruts along the estate track led to an instant dismount, which was funnier to watch than experience!
As we passed Sronphadruig Lodge, I guided Jon onto the first track up to the watershed, promising him a decent walk to get his feet working again. The usual bog- hopping took us across to start of the elevated path along the side of Loch an Duin, which I’d been planning to walk today regardless in these conditions.
We slipped and slithered along, enjoying the absurdity of the situation as feeling slowly returned to Jon’s feet and the wind swung around to start blowing the snow across our faces, rather than the tailwind we’d enjoyed thus far.
As the path levelled out near the far end of the loch, I got to put the 29+ tyres to work rolling through whatever was hidden under the snow and made a beeline for the crossing point of the Allt Loch an Duin. In the past, I’ve taken off my shoes to keep them dry for this crossing, but I figured I’d manage alright today. Jon was not so lucky however and his newly warmed feet were instantly chilled again.
The going is normally really quick on this side of the pass, but as the speed increased, so did the wind chill. Jon’s suffering increased and we were forced to use any steep climb as a chance for him to walk and allow his feet to thaw out a little. Once he started mentioning the numbness spreading above his foot, I called it a day in my head and started planning alternative possibilities. Or, as I put it to Jon: “No fucking way am I ending up with your feet in my armpits!”.
First priority was to get Jon warmed up, so we continued on our way down Glen Tromie in the same fashion, hammering the flats and downhills and using the uphills to give Jon’s feet some movement when walking. This worked for the most part and when we Reached Tromie Bridge I diverted us onto the National Cycle Route that would take us straight to Loch Insh on the back road. After bit of speedy road riding that tested Jon’s foot pain threshold to the limit, we exploded into the restaurant in a flurry of disrobed layers and steaming socks. Jon got himself propped up against the radiator whilst our gloves and headwear slowly dried and attempted to coax life back into his feet. There was no rush now, as one of the proper loops was out of the question and I had time to fill Jon with hot tea and healthy snacks to take his mind off the defrosting limb pain.
After an hour of being well looked after by the nice staff, we started formulating plans. My initial option of bivying in the forest nearby and then riding back down the A9 cycle path to Blair Atholl was sensible but a bit of a letdown compared to what we were here for. I put a more interesting option to Jon, that we could ride down Glen Feshie to Ruigh Aiteachain bothy for an easier night’s sleep and possible warming fire. The next morning, if all was well, we could do part of the Inner Loop backwards by continuing on to Glen Geldie and then back via Glen Tilt to the car. He was well up for this, so we had another hour’s drying time, switched Jon to dry warm socks and made our way over the hill in the deepening snow towards Tovah.
We found the bridge and switched to the other side of the river, climbing up onto the path that would take us to the bothy. A bit of scrambling down the down and up the big landslip at the mouth of the Allt Garblach and we were on some lovely tracks through the forest. Jon was feeling much better with dry socks and fun riding, so we were at the bothy in no time – I was interested to see what the renovations had done to the place. On arrival, we said hi to the other two inhabitants and had a look around. The work had been done brilliantly – upstairs was clad completely and looked pretty posh. The young couple downstairs had cut some of the damp firewood from outside and were trying to coax it into a decent burn in the stove with the door open. Strangely, they had also put their tent up in the middle of the room, so we went back into the first room and got ourselves set up on the bench there – even without a fire, we should be warm enough overnight, with the added benefit of minimising smoke inhalation! We got ourselves out of any remaining wet kit and arranged it around the stove next door, before cooking up some food and heading back through for a warm and a chat.
We didn’t stress about being up too early the next day, as there wasn’t a lot of distance to cover, so we roused ourselves at 7ish and got breakfast on. I went outside to brush my teeth, whilst Jon used up my toilet paper in a weight-shedding exercise at the fancy toilet block. We could actually see the sky, so were keen to get up and running whilst the weather was inviting.
We cleared up and got rolling on the freakishly snow free path from the bothy, before we started heading for the edge of the river where things got much narrower. All the trees were loaded with wet snow, which was deposited all over us as we passed. The undergrowth was doing the same to our drivetrains, with the snow compacting into balls of ice on the jockey wheels, causing an annoying tick followed by random mis-shifts until it was cleared.
We soon reached the turn off for the raised singletrack that everyone seems to miss in favour of the land rover track below. This was as overgrown as ever, giving us a thorough soaking as we pushed through to the last landslip.
The constant soaking had started to mess with Jon’s feet again, but this time I had a master plan – we would soon be walking, a lot! There was still a bit of uphill riding to do however and we were soon high up the glen, looking down on my bivy spot from the full Cairngorms Loop a couple of years back.
The wide track would start to deteriorate soon, so I kept an eye out for trace of the narrow path that parallels the vehicle track. It was hard to spot in the snow, but is a much better bet, as it has a firm base, unlike the alternative which is full of bottomless mud traps! As we pressed on, you could feel the consistency of the snow changing to a firmer feel due to the cold, which made it more of an effort to ride through.
As we approached the watershed, the snow started to come down again in earnest. We now had a push through the heather to reach the Eidart bridge while the wind drove the snow across us as we made a guess as to where the best path was.
The bit after the bridge is always very vague, so I just headed for wherever the pushing looked easiest whilst the blizzard really kicked in, battering us from the front right. I threw on my snow goggles, which made the whole thing much more bearable, whilst Jon went for putting up his hood. After a bit of tough pushing through the now much deeper snow, the snow eased off so we could take stock of our surroundings.
Were were on the path properly now, so just needed to read the terrain ahead of us to keep on it and enjoy the slightly easier going. It was still a world better than my passage in this direction many years back on a January night in pitch dark with no head torch. I had frozen snow banks to climb up and ended up following the path by the feel of the ground underneath my feet!
We also had the wind at our tails now, so our trudge through the snow was pretty enjoyable if hard work, with the odd comedy disappearance in a waist deep drift or hidden burn
Eventually, the terrain started to flatten out and we could see Geldie Lodge ahead on the far side of the river, meaning the tough bit was nearly over. Once we were level with the lodge we joined a proper estate track, had a bit of lunch and progress increased rapidly.
As we got nearer the Geldie crossing, we started to see the first footprints we’d seen all weekend and discussing what time we’d finish the ride. Jon had a couple of options for trains, but it would be handy for him to make the 6pm one back to Edinburgh. It seemed doable, but we wouldn’t really know until we saw the conditions along Glen Tilt. First of all, Jon had to get his nice warm feet wet on the river crossing!
Once we were past the follow up crossings and the boggy bit after Bynack Lodge, Jon switched to his only slightly damp socks in order to avoid a repeat of yesterday and we started to enjoy a slidey ride along the Glen Tilt singletrack. Some bits are great, some are dodgy and some have rocks that are determined to tip you over the side and into the torrent below.
There was much less snow along this glen, so no big dramas – just a regular donning and disrobing of jackets as the regular blizzards blew over from behind.
Eventually, the snow petered out completely, which was surprising considering the amount that had been on the ground when we left Blair Atholl. Still, it kept the progress swift and it was looking more likely we would make Jon’s earlier train.
Taking the turn off to Fealar Lodge wasn’t going to happen today, but I pointed it out to Jon and explained how upset he was going to be for the real thing, if my experience was anything to go by! As usual, The Falls of Tarf marked the start of the really quick part of the glen and we cranked up the speed despite being unsure if we could make it.
The extra effort was worth it, as we screamed into the car park with about 20 minutes until Jon’s train arrived. I sent him ahead to the train station whilst I packed my bike into the car and drove round with his spare gear. He had a leisurely 5 minutes to throw his stuff into his bag before he hopped onto the train and away home. I wasn’t too bothered not to have completed our original routes as we’d had a great ride regardless. Jon’s dodgy footwear choice had probably been a blessing in disguise, as it had let us chill out chat for a good bit rather than the usual non-stop late night finish my escapades have a habit of descending into!