Time is pressing for the HT550, so I decided I needed to do a bit of cramming on the last weekend. I had Saturday morning free and figured my cycling is where it is, so thought there was more to be gained by doing a bit of running to get my legs ready for the upcoming hike a bike fest. Whilst I’m at it, might as well have a wee cycle and bivy too!
The kids were as co-operative as ever, so I headed out the door at 2230 after cleaning up vomit from a bedroom carpet and performing some hurried packing. I thought I’d take the new Ritchey Commando, to see if it could edge its way ahead as my bike of choice for next weekend. Wondering what I was thinking, I parked up by the Lochnagar distillery and started off into the Balmoral estate at midnight. I was heading for the bealach on the main track between Balmoral and Loch Muick. It’s a nice steady climb from the edge of the forest, so I was hunting round for a bit of level ground for my bivy an hour later and getting a quick brew on.
I figured I’d wake when I woke, so didn’t bother with an alarm.
It was still cool on the shady side of the pass, so I made myself a cuppa and had a quick breakfast, before laying the bike down out of sight and hopping down to the track. After a short distance, I took the path for the summit plateau.
I jogged along, eventually settling into a brisk walk once it got steep and rocky. Once up on the plateau, there was plenty of room to stretch my legs.
It was pretty warm in the sun, despite the strong wind and was a lovely place to be this early in the morning.
The summit was reached quickly and I took a few snaps before moving on.
I was originally thinking of going straight back down to the bike, but my natural phobia of out-and-backs kicked in, so I headed down the Glas Allt instead, taking a left at the bridge and contouring round the hill to the bealach again.
The run worked out about 11k, which would have to do for my HT550 legwork preparation (I did fit in another 14k run during the week up Kilpatrick Braes on a work trip). I retrieved the bike, had a bit more food and got ready for a speedy ride back down to Balmoral.
On the way down, the brakes decided they were going to squeal like a banshee at any opportunity, this was something that would require looking at later, as I can take the odd bit of noise, but this was off the chart! A bit of realignment of the BB7s and copper grease on the back of the pads should help.
I took a left near Gelder Shiel bothy to take me down around Ripe Hill rather than straight back, then cruised through Balmoral where there was some sort of orienteering championships going on. A short pull up the tarmac to the distillery and I was packed and home by lunch after an extremely enjoyable alternative Friday night.
This was going to be my last chance at doing a proper long mountain bike ride as part of my HT550 preparation, so I booked my self a one way ticket to Aviemore for the May Day bank holiday and hurriedly got the bike ready late on Sunday evening after the kids finally went to sleep. The plan was ride back to Aberdeen offroad as much as possible, with the added interest of trying a new route from Abernethy across to Glen Avon, which doesn’t follow the now traditional outer Cairngorm Loop route through Tomintoul.
My aim was to head out past Dorback Lodge, but instead of taking the left at the first crossing of the Burn of Brown, I was going to keep right and do a lot of climbing onto the moors to the South and see if an old ford across the Water of Ailnack was an option. First though, I had to get there – so after my usual late night fiddling and packing I was up early to catch the 0614 train to Inverness. An uneventful journey saw me ready to go from Aviemore at 1000, after some fiddling with my newly rented SPOT tracker, which I wanted to get accustomed to well in advance of the HT550. I slipped under the railway and onto the Speyside Way to take me away towards Nethy Bridge.
The smooth tracks made for speedy progress, interspersed with some bottom bracket fiddling, as the new bearings I had only fitted last week had decided to set the bike off creaking. No coincidence that this is my only bike that doesn’t have a threaded BB shell!
As I approached Nethy Bridge, the clouds seemed to be gathering in an ominous fashion. Optimistically, I had chosen to believe the Met Office forecast of a cloudy morning, improving later and had opted for minimal waterproof gear, i.e. none! A few drops of impending precipitation hit me as I whizzed along the singletrack before the village.
The heavens opened as I rolled towards the shop, so I went in and got myself a ginger beer and some extra snacks for the ride and sat in a dry spot near the bus shelter cursing my luck whilst I got my jacket and gloves out. With a long way to go, I couldn’t afford to wait it out, so on I went along the river, then up the road towards the Dorback Lodge turn off. I’d skipped the Eag Mhor today to save time and wet feet and luckily the rain eased as I approached the lodge.
The climb after the lodge went by quite easy, especially compared to last time during the Cairngorms Loop, when I wasn’t feeling quite so sprightly! After a quick hello to a couple of other cyclists on the climb, I dropped down quickly to the first ford at the Burn of Brown and prepared to ignore the suggested route to Tomintoul.
A long climb ensued up the flanks of Carn Tuadhan, though luckily never too steep.
I knew eventually the good track would peter out and I would have to see what was on the ground to get me to Ca Du Ford. So it did and I started my heather bashing, contouring round the hill without losing too much height, so I would be able to sight the crossing and pick the best route. I’d plotted a way across where the contours looked least steep, but knew that up close things could be quite different!
Once I was in the right ball park, I took a straight line down the hill and started some foot reconnaissance for a route down once it got too steep. Various deer trails criss-crossed the edge, so I found a way down without too much trouble and was also able to spot a good exit point on the far side, a fair bit upstream from my original guess.
Once down, I relaxed for a wee bit on the rocky beach where the Allt Dearcaige joins the Ailnack and had some lunch in the sun, which had finally made an appearance. Nothing beats time alone in a place that feels so remote, but I still had a long way to go and more heather-bashing to do before I could start making some distance.
I managed to get across with dry feet and started lugging my way up the opposite side, zig-zagging with any deer tracks I crossed. Once up high, I checked out the track high in the distance on the other side of the glen that I could have also used to reach the spot direct from Dorback Lodge. It looked doable, so I made a mental note to give that a shot sometime and compare! The heather was pretty high over here, so dragging the bike was a bit of a pain, but the going eased as I came over the brow of the hill and some unmapped grouse butts provided a rough path I could use to ride down to the main track towards Dalbheithachan.
Rather than take the track all the way down to Glen Avon, I took a right at the bottom of a steep descent and started climbing again, straight up Carn an t-Sleibhe. This would get me high up on the ridge above Glen Loin.
I had been thinking about staying high above the glen and dropping down at the far end after going over the tops, but a lack of any marked path for a stretch along the top made me err on the side of caution, as I didn’t want to be getting home too late with work the next day. Once on the shoulder, I took the first steep drop into the glen, with brakes that had been squealing increasingly all day. Despite the incessant headwind, Glen Loin made for easy progress and I saw Ben Avon loom in the distance as I approached its mouth.
As I emerged into the upper reaches of Glen Avon, the sun was beating down and I saw a tent or two pitched down by the river. It seemed a shame to be rushing through, but I had places to be. I was round the corner and on my way up the steep climb to Donside from Inchrory in no time at all.
As I made my way along the glen, the track gradually improved and turned to tarmac for the last stretch before Corgarff. I was messing about seeing if I could get into some kind of aero tuck, when I realised my front wheel was varying it’s line quite markedly. I squealed to a halt and took a look – one of the Zircal spokes was rattling round in it’s nipple holder and turning it seemed to have no effect. This looked like something I wasn’t fixing today, so I took it easy to the castle, then turned onto the main road briefly, before bearing right onto the old military road.
As I approached the final climb back to the main road, I caught up with some French motorcyclists on BMWs. In the distance, I’d seen someone walking up the hill towards them and realised it must have been one of the pillion passengers having to lighten the load for a steep section. I had no idea if they were supposed to be there, so just said hello and pressed on.
Climbing up the road seemed quite tiring, but I got a little bit of speed up before my turn off, which would take me across the Moor of Dinnet.
I dropped and climbed from Glen Fenzie, round to Morven Lodge, then crossed the Morvern Burn to start heading East by Tom Garchory and Culblean Hill. I topped up my water bottles at a burn on the way and got a good feed in the sun. I’d been stripping off layers since I left the Cairngorms and was down to shorts and t-shirt at 6pm, which reflected the upturn in the weather!
The descent down from Culblean looked fast and loose – unfortunately, I was reduced to nursing my failing front wheel and increasingly squealy brakes down without mishap, so I was relived for it to flatten out and let me pedal to the road. I had been planning more offroad from here leading to a quick whizz down Tarland Trails, but I thought I wouldn’t push my luck and headed towards Loch Kinord instead, taking a chilled out trail through the forest, by the loch and into Dinnet.
From here I took the easy option and hopped onto the Deeside Way to Aboyne and onwards, with a little diversion to the North of Banchory as I couldn’t be bothered going through Scolty.
The sun finally dropped behind the horizon enough for me to put on my lights as I came into Peterculter and I blitzed the last section to get home just after 10pm for a good shower and a pizza before passing out on the couch.
It’s been a while coming, but I finally managed to get Kerr out for a proper wild camp in the Cairngorms. I’d had various plans in my head pretty much every year, none of which have come to fruition, thanks to playing overly safe with the weather, midge levels etc. so it was great to just load up the car and do it. Due to a late start as always, we weren’t going too far, so the old cargo trailer was loaded to the gills and we headed out from the Linn of Quoich. 100 metres and a broken hitching skewer later, the trailer was returned to the car and the huuuuge bag hung painfully from my shoulders. We definitely weren’t going far!
Despite the slight change of camp location, we had a great weekend of getting grubby and dishevelled, finished with lunch and an ice lolly in the sun at Braemar.
A spot of reminiscing back to my first overnight mountain bike ride in 2003.
I’d just become the proud owner of a Scott Expert Racing hardtail, the first brand new bike I had ever owned and somehow got the idea in my head I was going to ride it through the Cairngorms and stop overnight somewhere. I had a distinct lack of lightweight camping gear as well as a non existent budget. Luckily, my buddy Paul had a few bits and bobs from his time with the TA, so I raided his gear and packed up for the weekend. My kit list:
Berghaus 15l Freeflow Rucksack
British Army Goretex bivy bag
Thermarest 3/4 self-inflating mat
Cheapest, smallest, lightest sleeping bag I could find in Blacks
Hexamine stove and blocks
Small mess tin
Couple of army ration packs
Hot chocolate sachets
Ancient Regatta fleece
Edinburgh Bicycles windproof jacket
Helly Hansen base layer
Altura MTB shorts and liner
Salomon trail running shoes
DEET midge repellent
This all just about packed into my rucksack, which was totally unsuited to mountain biking, due to its rigid construction and curved back, which moved the weight outwards to allow a back cooling air gap. I don’t think I’ve ever packed so lightly for an overnighter since and probably never will again!
My route was mainly inspired by Ralph Storer’s excellent Scottish Hill Tracks, which was basically my cycling bible back then. I was planning to take an early train from Aberdeen to Aviemore, ride around the edge of the Cairngorms and finish up in Braemar after an overnight bivy, where Paul would pick me up, since he was planning to go for a drive up to Loch Muick on the Sunday.
I got down to the station on the Saturday morning for the first train to Inverness, which went smoothly enough. Unfortunately my bike booking only got me this far and I was ejected from the next train by an overzealous conductor, leaving me with the option to either try and ride to Aviemore, or wait a couple of hours for the net train and hope i was allowed on it. Since I only had a map of the Cairngorms with me and had no idea of the roads round there at the time, I opted for the latter!
Luckily, it paid off and I rolled out of Aviemore station at lunch time, heading for Loch an Eilein and the first stage of my trip, through beautiful Rothiemurchus Forest. It was a beautiful August day and the summer had been very dry, so the tracks were dusty and the going was good. It was my first time in the area and I’ve basically never stopped visiting since, it left such an impression on me. I worked my way through the forest without any navigational hiccups, eventually being deposited onto the road at Loch Morlich. I popped into the shop for drinks and extra food and continued towards Ryvoan.
An Lochan Uaine was a spectacular green in the summer light and I lingered here for a while, drinking in the ambience of the place and making note to come back with Yvonne some time soon. On past the bothy and I just about caught my turn off rather than flying downhill to Forest Lodge. After fording the river, I climbed back up onto the track that heads for the Eag Mhor as the sun continued to beat down.
An easy river crossing, followed by a push through the trees took me to the narrowest part of the gap, where I gingerly crossed the electric fence and aimed across the Braes of Abernethy towards Dorback Lodge. I got to the Dorback Burn and spent several minutes wandering up and down looking for a dry way across. Eventually I gave in and accepted the inevitable, wringing out my socks on the other side. I made a meal of getting to the lodge, dragging the bike through rough, tussocky grass to hit a sandy track that got me onto the road.
As I rode away from the lodge and the sound of shotguns on an adjacent track, I started to feel a bit tired heading up the big climb before the drop to the Burn on Brown. My inexperience was beginning to show, as I’d ridden every climb like I was on a BMX, rather than making the most of the mountain bike gearing. I also hadn’t noticed that the ridiculously well greased seatpost had been slipping down all day, which was knackering my knees!
Luckily, the many crossings of the burn had me hopping on and off the bike constantly, giving my knees a break. The river was so low, I got right the way along without getting my feet any wetter. Another climb, followed by a fast descent down to the Bridge of Brown, saw me rolling along the road to Tomintoul. As the day was getting on, I decided to fill my face at the chippy and bask for a while in the late afternoon sun. I had a wee chat with a couple of blokes in an old convertible, who were on a distillery tour and handed me a whisky miniature to help me on my way.
Eventually, I started rolling again down Glen Avon, where I was planning to bivy for the night. I was struggling to find a place I felt comfortable in, due to there being a few dwellings in the upper section, eventually settling for a wide grassy area down by the river. As I unpacked my bed for the night, the midges soon closed in, leaving me to set up in bursts of activity, punctuated by running away to get them off my scent. Once ready, I dived into the bivy bag and cocooned myself inside, with the tiniest of cracks to allow for oxygen entry. A combination of a poorly inflated Thermarest and a sleeping bag with no insulating properties whatsoever made for a cold night’s sleep, as the temperatures plummeted in the glen with clear skies above.
I stirred in the morning and tentatively poked out my head to find midge levels had decreased sufficiently to allow me to get my cooking kit down to the rocks on the riverbank so I could very slowly boil some water for a heated breakfast and hot drink, without being eaten alive. The steep sides of the glen kept me in shadow, so I headed off wearing every item of clothing I had, until the effort and a gap in the hillside allowing the sun to thaw me, let me dress a bit more appropriately. As I went along, I glanced up to my right and was treated to the sight of a massive stag posing on the edge of an outcrop in as stereotypically Scottish a scene as I could possibly imagine. I vowed to get myself a digital camera and take it with me on any future rides like this!
I passed the impressively remote and well looked after Inchrory lodge and made my way up Glen Builg, eventually reaching Loch Builg, where I bumped my way along the awkward singletrack, before speeding down into Glen Gairn. I had a big climb to come and the bridge over the Gairn was midge-free, so I took the opportunity to lay down in the sun and get an extra 30 minutes. Refreshed, I got going up the glen and ready for the monster climb up Cullardoch. For some reason I decided to turn on my phone and was greeted with a message saying my first niece had been born that morning, making the weekend doubly special.
My knees creaked their way up, occasionally hopping off for a walk when the going got too steep. I’d made the mistake of being squeamish about filling up my water bottle from the rivers below and was completely out of water, with the sun baking down on me. As I topped out, I was so desperate I decided to take a sip from the whisky miniature I had been gifted. Big mistake! Throat burning, I ripped down the descents towards Invercauld House and made my sorry way along the tarmac into Braemar, where I bought myself as many cold drinks as I could carry and went for another lie down in the sun.
As a sting in the tail, when I called my lift to see when he’d be there, he was just reaching the summit of Lochnagar, meaning he was a long way off. Always a glutton for punishment, I re-mounted, rolled off towards Ballater and took the turn off for Loch Muick and a welcome car ride home.