HT550 2018 Day 4

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My sleep that night was not ideal, I woke at some point to register the fact that my sleep mat had deflated and there was a rock sticking into the base of my spine. I shuffled away from it slightly and passed out again. Eventually, I raised the energy to check the time, just in case, 0650 – shit! I got up and quickly stuffed my gear away – the other riders were long gone, but no-one was stirring in the busy bothy. I headed off up the track to Corriemulzie Lodge, but stopped once I was away from the bothy to sort myself out properly and have a snack away from the midges. I had saved a pear, almond and chocolate pie from Lochinver and it did a great job of lifting my spirits, which were pretty broken at this point.

Smooth tracks to get tired legs moving
The last pie from Lochinver and the best – pear, almond and chocolate

Suitably refreshed and lubed up, I gingerly got back aboard and made the most of the easy going along Strath Mulzie. I was interested to see how this route differed from the option to the North, which passes Knockdamph bothy, as I’d always taken that option in the past.

Seana Bhraigh up ahead on yet another clear day

The track began to climb more noticeably and as I whizzed down a sudden drop I got the feeling something was amiss. Sure enough, I’d missed my turn off to the right. I cursed my way back up the hill to take the rough track that had kindly been signposted but ignored by me.

Must learn to ride and read at the same time

Although the going was a bit harder, I was beginning to snap out of my funk and actually enjoy the riding. First over some undulating moorland, then contouring round the hillside high above a grassy gorge. There were even some wet and muddy bits of track, which was now a novelty!

Inviting path ahead
Note to self: fall to the right

Soon, the path left the hillside and dropped down to Loch an Daimh, crossing at the head of the Loch, before climbing up to the main track through Glen Achall. The track then dropped steeply to farmland by East Rhidorroch Lodge, where I weaved my way through the sheep poo, speeding towards Loch Achall.

Loch an Daimh
Loch Achall – always seems to be sunny here?

As always on the bits of the route I already knew, I was going along on autopilot, flying towards Ullapool for a morning resupply when I realised I was off route again. I should have know that flying down an estate track to town was not on the cards when I could be climbing up a rough track above the glen and over a hill to get some nice views of Loch Broom below. I doubled back again and started up the correct route after navigating a broken gate/fence combination at the start.

Looking back towards Loch Achall
Loch Broom and the sprawling metropolis of Ullapool below

I had hoped to be in Ullapool for breakfast before the previous night’s somnambulant fumblings and this was pushing me back even further. As I dropped into the outskirts of town I reached a tall kissing gate that was in no way going to let me wheelie the bike through. With much grunting and straining, I hefted the bike over the 6 foot fence and just about lowered it on the far side without dropping the whole lot. On following it through the gate, I glanced at the fence as I remounted and spotted hinges and an unlocked bolt which had been hidden from the other side! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I went to Tesco instead.

I needed to recharge my batteries and replenish my food supplies, so I went for the buying one of everything approach. The highlight was a huge bag of fresh sliced pineapple from a fridge, which I sat munching outside in the shade. I’d definitely bought too much, so I kept eating and drinking until I could realistically fit the remainder in my bags. There was plenty of sliced edam and chorizo with tiger rolls that should leave me well stocked for the next day or so without getting as dubious as the prepared sandwiches seemed to be in the hot weather. When the food mountain had shrunk to a packable level, I emergd back into the burning sun and started up along the main road. This unavoidable stretch of busy tarmac was one of the more unpleasant bits of the ride, but having lots of uphill made it hard to dispatch quickly. Finally I reached the turn off for the apparent sanctuary of the Coffin Road. I’d been hoping to do this climb before the day’s heat got going. It was 1200.

Never a more aptly named path

I crossed the field and went through the gate to the start of the climb proper. I knew I’d be kidding myself by attempting to ride much of this one, so I jumped off and started walking as soon as I felt the strain. The pitch was pretty relentless without getting ridiculous, so it was a matter of plodding on as best I could and pausing to take on liquid when appropriate. Not long into the climb, the flies started to become an issue – horrible yellow looking things that would not leave you alone until they’d got into an orifice or found a nice sweaty patch of skin to bathe in. I did my usual flailing and whimpering whilst trying fruitlessly to speed up the hill and escape them. The air was stifling and the sun was beating down harder than ever, so any slight breath of wind felt like a cooling shower as I finally climbed out of reach of the yellow demons.

Pushing away from “Fly Valley”
Every lizard I saw was hanging around a body of water for cooling purposes

My mouth felt dry as a bone, but the cold apple and raspberry juice that I had watered down in the Tesco carpark was now warm and sticky and too sweet. It seemed to be making the thirst worse, but I was stuck with it until I found a water source I trusted higher up. The worst of the climbing done, I skirted past Loch Tiompain and started descending towards Dundonnell, with An Teallach rearing up ahead.

Finally over the high point and able to see my favourite mountain
Some downhill to generate a breeze

On the way down I was debating my options in my head. I had a real hankering for a pint of orange juice and lemonade as well as a chance to visit a civilised toilet before heading into the Fisherfield wilderness, which could be had at the Dundonnell Hotel. As I reached the road and started rolling down the hill that way, I had a change of heart and decided that adding an extra 5km onto the route for a posh poo was not worth the effort – I did a u-turn and got on with the job at hand, going up a bumpy hill.

Looking back down towards Corrie Hallie

With some riding effort and the odd push, I was up at the high point and able to get a sense of my surroundings. My route stretched ahead of me and would eventually drop me into Strath na Sealga.

Unforesty Dundonnell Forest
Rough and ready downhill to the glen floor

Once at the bottom, I doubled back on myself to make my way towards Shenavall, a spot I’d been wanting to visit ever since climbing An Teallach on a hot day like this and looking down into the glen below.

Track to Shenavall and Loch na Sealga
Shenavall bothy

As I made my way up to the bothy, my Garmin took the opportunity to die – looked like the cache battery had run out of juice at some point. As I stood rooting through my gear to get my backup, I could feel eyes boring into me from a couple of blokes relaxing outside. I got a definite feeling they were giving me the “We don’t need any extra people in the bothy tonight” look that you sometimes get from people.  I had absolutely no plans to stop here, but I said good evening and went in for a quick look around, mainly to annoy them. The path deteriorated after the bothy and I followed its faint traces through increasingly sodden ground towards the loch, which took a while longer to reach then expected. Once on its shore, progress was straightforward and I finally reached the fabled crossing point of the Abhainn Srath na Sealga. This point had been weighing on my mind since the first night, when Sarah had mentioned a storm was coming in midweek. The last thing I wanted was for my attempt to be curtailed by a river crossing, especially after the mental crossing of the Fords of Avon last year on the Cairngorms Loop.

Today was not going to be an issue as the rumoured storm had never appeared. I took off my shoes and paddled across the freakishly warm water, realising that I could have just cycled straight over and still had dry shoes at the end.

Shore of Loch na Sealga
Wide but shallow

As I air dried my feet and ate a sandwich on the far side, I wondered if anyone was close behind. I hadn’t seen a soul all day, not even Le Shadow, but I figured it was just a matter of time. Speak of the devil, as I got going again I saw not one but two cyclists making their way along the boggy ground to the loch. The chase was on!

Bonus north shore on the way to Larachantivore

I made my way over the rough ground in the direction of Larachantivore and had a look at the buildings there – a traditional stone cottage type and a wooden cabin with veranda. Both were locked, but I imagine the veranda would make a decent bivy spot on another night.

Cabin at Larachantivore

The route followed the banks of the Abhainn Glean na Muice and was quite an enjoyable ride in a lovely area that would be nice to camp out in some time. As I made my way up the pleasantly shady glen, I ran into three French teenagers on their way down, who asked me where the bothy was, I think! I directed them to cross the river and head for Shenavall, which hopefully got through. They had small day packs and were casually dressed, but looked pretty fresh considering they must have come a long way to reach this point. I’d love to know who had thought it was appropriate to point them off in this direction!

Soon enough, the route took a turn to the right and began to climb more seriously up the Gleann na Muice Beag. As jumped off for the push up the final steep section, I started getting paranoid that my pursuers must be gaining on me and kept looking back for sign of them. No-one appeared in the distance as I emerged into the sun at the top of the bealach.

Shady Gleann na Muice
More wildlife chilling in the available moisture

Once up, I followed a decent narrow track across the moor, headed for the pass that would drop me down to Carnmore. This was another spot I’d been looking forward to, after seeing so many other people’s pictures of the causeway at the end of the Dubh Loch. The sun was below my horizon, but the hills all around were bathed in a warm glow and hard to take my eyes off.

Good going up high
Ruadh Stac Mor and A’Mhaighdean across Lochan Feith Mhic’ Illean

As I breached the edge of the plateau, I finally got the view I craved – the track dropped away sharply and to my right. The two lochs lay, split by the narrow causeway. I had this spot in mind as a bivy location purely for the view, but it was feeling a bit brisk in the shade with a strong wind now blowing, so I figured continuing to Carnmore made sense, to try and get a better night’s sleep in the bothy.

The start of a steep and sketchy descent
Dubh Loch and Fionn Loch – an iPhone doesn’t really do the scene justice

The descent was mostly ridden, apart from a couple of far too steep and/or loose sections – I was beyond the point of bothering to lower my saddle and also paranoid I’d never get it back to the right height. As I got nearer the peninsula, I was still debating the merits of stopping early over making up for lost time. With all the dire warnings about how rough the Postman’s Path was going to be, I figured attempting it in the dark wasn’t wise. Not wanting to end up in a mess like last night through indecision, I decided the bothy was the way forward.

As I made my way across, I had to pass a remote estate house, which surprisingly was occupied. The residents were out on the lawn enjoying the sunset with a glass of wine so I stopped for a natter. It turned out they had used the bothy themselves several times over the years and were going for the luxury option this time for a ladies’ getaway. After exchanging a bit of banter, I was told if I needed anything to just let them know, anything! Rather than  get into some kind of innuendo battle, I bid them good evening and slinked off to my grubby cowshed, wondering if anything would have covered a shower and a glass of wine!

The moon peeks over the head of the glen

I was expecting a busy building when I saw the tents outside, but there was only one resident on arrival. I said hi to the young dutch girl who was just getting set up in one of the camp beds and went over to the ropey looking bed divan in the opposite end of the room, rather than freak her out by using the other comfy-looking adjacent camp bed.  Out of the blue she called over: “You don’t snore, do you?” – “I don’t think so”, I lied.  “Okay, goodnight”.  I sat in the gloom, trying to silently make and eat a sandwich before getting my head down. Suddenly, the door burst open, Le Shadow had arrived! In he strode, for a quick high five and to hand me my sunglasses, which I had misplaced at some point during my fevered climb of the Coffin Road. As he stumbled about getting himself sorted for a sleep in the empty camp bed, the original inhabitant asked if we were going to be cooking and stuff before bed or there would be others. “There might be?” was all I could say really. With that, she leapt out of bed, gathered her kit and stomped out in a huff. Obviously, this bothying lark was new to her if she expected lights out at 10pm! Her departure left a space for another late arrival, a chap of few words that I hadn’t met before, who looked highly unimpressed when Le Shadow tried to spark up conversation whilst blinding him with his headtorch.

Salubrious accommodation at Carnmore

Eventually, everyone got settled, especially the two comfy camp bed dwellers and I set my alarm for 0400 – about time I got an early start!

Distance: 49 miles

Elevation: 2009m

Temperature: Max 34°, Avg 24°

HT550 2018 Day 3

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Waking came easy, thanks to a stunning sunrise getting me up before my alarm. As I lay there like a reptile absorbing solar energy, I heard the buzz of a freewheel coming down the pass behind me. The first of the riders I had leapfrogged last night came whizzing by shouting “Nice sunny spot!” Little did I know, this was to be my first sighting of the mysterious figure I eventually nicknamed “Le Shadow”.

Bivy with a view
Up and at ’em

The sight of another rider spurred me into action and I was up, fed, dressed and rolling down the hill without too much delay. I’d opted to got for a normal pair of unpadded mountain bike shorts today, since I figured ‘d be doing a lot of walking and it might ease my pains down below to get away from the clammy chamois for a few hours at least. After the quick drop to Loch Shin, I winced my way along the road, bemoaning the lack of padding for my backside.

Starting the climb at the top of Loch Merkland

Back offroad and I made my way up the glen towards Gobernuisgach Lodge on a straightforward gradient as the sun moved higher in the sky and the temperature began to rise.

Reaching the bealach
Speeding down to Gobernuisgach Lodge

As I sped towards the lodge, I saw another rider off to the side of the path and shouted hello before taking the turn off towards Glen Golly. I stopped briefly on the bridge to let him catch up for a chat, but the midges had woken up and they find me tasty, so I moved on.

Bridge over the Glen Golly River

The track rose immediately, snaking along above the gorge below before steeply descending to the floor of the glen on  a loose section of track that swallowed tyres into channels made by previous riders. I proceeded up the glen on a decent landrover track, pleased that I wasn’t having to walk already. However, up ahead I could make out a track steeply ascending the hill dead ahead and figured I’d be on foot soon enough.

Looking back down Glen Golly

As I hit the steep, I rode for as long as seemed sensible, jumping off as soon as my wheel slipped and gave me an excuse. A sweaty push followed and I could make out a rider approaching the climb not too far behind. Once up on the ridge, it was nice riding but I paused to let Mick catch up, so I could have a natter and see what we’d been up to since the previous morning. Unfortunately the distraction caused us to ride straight past the turn off at Lochan Sgeireach, luckily realising before we went too far. I took the chance to enjoy the view from the ridge and have some brunch before heading back to the turn, leaving Mick to continue on without me slowing him down.

Mick charges over the horizon
Lochan Sgeireach

After the turnoff, the going got rougher on grassy tufty singletrack which took a bit more effort to ride, but enhanced the remoteness.

A good bit
Loch Dionard in the distance
The next ridge to climb looms ahead

Eventually the track started to descend towards An Dubh Loch, whilst ahead all I could see was a steep track ascending the ridge which I assumed would take me to the Bealach Horn. The path petered out and I resorted to jumping off peat hags to get me to the bottom of the hill, where the gpx line encouraged me to pass through a muddy channel between two huge rocks – the first time my feet had got remotely wet so far! I then doubled back to cross the burn that ran from the loch and meet the grassy start of the next track.

A stiff push up from An Dubh Loch

I jumped on and rode as far as was sensible and then hopped off to begin the killer push up to the stony track I had observed from the other side of the glen. Looking back, I could also see my pursuer from earlier had caught me up and was crossing the burn behind me.

Though it was still morning, the heat had already started to build, so I paused regularly for a sip of drink and to listen to my heart beating in my head. It was tough and relentless, but on the other hand I was elated to be here at the most Northerly part of the route, a day quicker than I had expected could be the case. I managed to ride as the gradient eased, before stopping to fill up my bottles at the Allt Horn crossing.

Allt Horn, the coolest, freshest water of the whole trip

The rest of the climb to the bealach was at a much more manageable gradient and I was more excited to reach this spot than any other. I’d always had a picture of this place in my head from Ralph Storer’s book, Exploring Scottish Hill Tracks, with a now vintage mountain bike and rider standing at the bealach, framed by the flanks of Arkle glistening in the sun. I’d basically used this book as my bible from 2003 onwards and tried to ride every route and join different sections up for our coast to coast rides, back when we had more free time on our hands. This section had been in our route for a double C2C back in 2008, but the weather had been atrocious when we reached the lodge, so I’d let the gang off with going down to Loch Merkland on the estate track instead. As I crested the last rise, the wait had been more than worth it, so I pulled off the track onto the rocks and set myself up for some second breakfast and foot airing so I could soak it in for longer.

Bealach Horn view
Luckily there was a breeze
Didn’t have the energy to join my bike for a shot

As I was getting comfortable, my shadow for the day arrived and came over to take some pictures himself. We exchanged a few pleasantries about the view, the hill and the weather before my accent overcame him and he had to utter what became his catchphrase over the next few days: “Sorry, I am French”. No need to apologise, your English is much better than my French! Le Shadow moved on shortly leaving me to enjoy some solitude for a short while, before dragging myself back onto the bike for the descent.

A lot of this on the way down

It was good to be moving quickly again, although I was really missing suspension forks on all the descents, causing me to lower my speed to protect tyres, rims and hands. I passed Le Shadow lower down after he pulled over for a break and then hit a loose section, wondering how on earth they were driving vehicles up this track. A minute later, I had my answer as a small fleet of Argocats made their way up the hill towards me, carrying what appeared to be three generations of a large family, the adults dressed in tweed and the kids hanging out waving as I stood to the side. They must have been heading to the bealach for a picnic – I wasn’t jealous at all!

The iconic split rock mountain exit at Lone

It was approaching midday and very toasty as I rode across the bottom of the glen to head for the next climb over to Kylesku. Once I reached the road, I went on autopilot to the start of the Achfary climb, but glancing at the GPS saw the offroute warning. I turned around, thinking maybe it now started from a different place than I remembered, especially since the gate had a lock on last time, causing us to have to lift our pannier-laden bikes over it. Then I twigged what was going on – I hadn’t loaded the “back” route onto the GPS yet and was past the end of the “out” track! Relieved, I triumphantly opened the second half of the route before continuing to the turn off and passing through the (unlocked) gate into the trees.

Achfary climb in the sun

I didn’t kid myself I’d be riding this whole climb today, so pushed the initial steep bit before riding the remainder under the midday heat of the sun.

Achfary climb summit

I continued along to the turn off that would drop me down to the lower path and bounced my way down towards the loch below.  I’d been hoping to reach Kylesku around lunch and as usual was going to be an hour or so later than I wanted, but still, I’d passed the top of the route in less than two and a half days, so all good.

Above Loch Glendhu
Kylesku bridge

I reached Kylesku before two and headed straight for the hotel with a plan to consume as much liquid and food as possible. I placed my order and sat savouring an ice cold Coke when Le Shadow arrived. He joined me at the table and eventually managed to get an order after the customary “Sorry, I am French” dance. The hotel kindly delayed my meal so we could eat together and we sat like an old married couple, not saying much, but enjoying the company of a fellow sufferer.

I needed to do a bit of maintenance on my body, so let my new friend leave first as I changed back to padded shorts, freshened up and lathered my rear end in chamois cream before heading back out onto the baking hot roads. Next was the infamous hilly coast road section to Drumbeg. I’d thought the good hot meal would have invigorated me, but I was feeling distinctly below par and the steep climbs beat me up good and proper. Drumbeg Stores arrived eventually, probably too soon, but I felt like I had to stop since they make such an effort to look after the riders during the HT550. I said hi to Le Shadow, got myself a nice freshly made sandwich and some veggie samosas, topped up my drinks and moved on, passing him again on the way to Clachtoll.

Quick restock at Drumbeg

I kept an eye out for the turn off for the track to Achmelvich, which has caught people out in the past and then bumped along to my favourite beach in Scotland. I’d been thinking I might bivy here when I was planning this trip, but it was far too early to stop, even if the chippy was just opening. I settled for a quick trip to the loo and vowed to come back with the kids as soon as I have a chance.

Coastal path to Achmelvich

The next section to Lochinver was new to me, as I’d always ridden round on the road from Achmelvich. It started innocuously enough, but eventually turned into a frustrating push along the track that was too narrow to ride without multiple pedal strikes. I was keen to start making progress and found this particularly frustrating, as I knew I had a tough evening ahead of me and hadn’t figured on taking an hour to reach the town. Despite feeling like I had made too many stops, I couldn’t resist dropping into the pie shop and getting a couple to go, as well as yet more drinks. I stuffed it all in my bags and left town on the road to Glencanisp Lodge.

Finally in sight of Lochinver

I passed the lodge, not requiring use of the honesty shop this time round and continued on to the gate that marked the entrance to the latest long stretch of wilderness to be navigated. There was a nice family passing the other way who had been making the most of the weekend, by camping out at the bothy and going walking and swimming over the bank holiday weekend, so I stopped for a natter, whilst the midges gathered around us.

Good paths to start with, aiming between Suilven and Canisp

Initial progress was good, as I got closer to the gap between Suilven and Canisp, which was a pleasant surprise, as I’d expected to be walking from the bothy onwards in my head.

Suilven and Loch na Gainimh

Walking finally became the norm, as I crossed the burn emerging from Lochan Fada and scrambled my way up loose stones to rise above the lochan and make my way across the open moorland. The route now just followed small cairns across the various hills and rises and I was beyond the point of hopping on and off where it was rideable.

Along Lochan Fada

The sun was starting to set, but I had no intention of stopping any time soon. I saw an antenna through a gap in the hills way off in the distance and wondered if there was any phone reception out here. I took the phone out of airplane mode and was rewarded with two bars. I hadn’t been able to call Yvonne yet as I’d always been finishing too late in the night, so I thought I’d take a chance that the kids were actually asleep in time and she was near her phone. Miraculously, I got through and plugged in my earphones, letting me push along while checking up on home. Yvonne was loving Trackleaders, although she was much more excited about Lee Craigie than me. She was also struggling to get her iPad off her Mum, who was well into it and delving into stats and everything! Eventually, I went into a larger dip, cutting me off from the distant reception source, but the chat had given me another morale boost and I was actually enjoying tramping across the hills.

Sun sets behind Suilven and Canisp
Descending to Cam Loch

I was on the bike more frequently as I dropped down to Cam Loch and the sight of civilisation on the other side got me optimistically thinking of pushing on to near Ullapool overnight. However, the rollercoaster of emotions that is the HT550 hadn’t finished with me quite yet tonight. I crossed a stony estuary at the mouth of a burn, where tiny fish shimmered away in the moonlight, then made my way along the northern edge of the loch. I started to suffer along this stretch, with a narrow undulating path and lots of undergrowth to catch on the bike and cause shin/pedal/calf interfaces, as well as being a struggle to walk and keep the bike on the path where it dropped away to the right.

Pebble beach at Cam Loch
I’m sure he wasn’t well when he started out this way

It was less than an extra hour along, but I’d been suckered into thinking the end was nigh when I saw the cottages on the far side, so it felt like eternity. I’d been using the moonlight as usual, but had a real struggle finding the right track through the heather at the end of the loch even with my light on full blast. Eventually I lost it and start stomping around to find the right gap, swearing at myself loudly, which eventually worked and ejected me through a gate onto the roadside.

At this point I had no idea what I was going to do next, so stopped and ate a delicious pie while I pondered my options. The road looked like it was going to be pretty flat so I might as well just ride it to Oykel Bridge and see if there was anywhere I could bivy round there. I climbed back aboard and got going again whilst my backside complained vigorously. As I reach the junction and turned right down the A837, I started to resort to standing up and pedalling vigorously before letting the bike coast for a while whilst I slumped over the bars, avoiding putting weight on my rear. This went on interminably and I started to get sleepy, feeling the bike veering in to the verge before correcting and waking up again. I realised I needed to stop either for a power nap or for the night, but my head was gone and I didn’t seem to be able to pick a spot, pulling in at random laybys or overgrown tracks to case them out before moving on. The clear skies had also brought on a temperature inversion and I could see mist gathering off to my right. Occasionally it would reach all the way across the road and I would hit a pocket of ice cold air with a gasp, but still not enough to wake me up properly. On one of my random stops I found an unlocked shed at the bottom of a drive, which I really should have just used for 30 minutes to get my head straight away from the cold and midges, but my fear of trespassing kicked in and I refused my chance. Finally, the road had a long fast downhill approaching Oykel Bridge, so I let it take me down, freezing me to the bone, but just about awake enough to steer round the corners.

I rolled my weary way past the Oykel Bridge Hotel, my addled brain still unable to pick a spot, so i figured I might as well plod on to the Schoolhouse Bothy at Duag Bridge. I’d have been happy to find a flat spot next to the track, but my brain wasn’t seeing any. On I went, sometimes riding, sometimes walking, sometimes along the track, sometimes towards the trees flanking the sides. The last couple of kilometres to the bothy altered my perception of time and space, no matter how long I waited before looking at the GPS, I’d only ever advanced about 100 metres. As the bothy reared up out of the darkness, I was aware of there being a lot more bikes about than I expected – every bit of wall space had a luminous yellow mountain bike propped up against it. Hopes dashed, I put my head in to the bothy’s rooms to find them all full of comatose teenagers on some sort of school jaunt. I could see what I guessed were my fellow riders in various tents/bivies arrayed about on the grass outside. I could also see all that juicy CO2 had brought in the midges, so I hurriedly got my sleeping gear out and got my head down on the slightly less midgey turning area off the main track. After a 21 hour day, I figured setting an alarm for 4 or 5 was fruitless and passed out before I had decided on a time.

Distance: 98 miles

Elevation: 3019m

Temperature: Max 37°, Avg 19°

HT550 2018 Day 2

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As usual, I woke a few times before my alarm went off and even when it did, lay there dozing for a few minutes whilst I psyched myself up. I eventually dragged myself up and had a swig of morning Irn Bru to get me going whilst I stuffed my sleeping gear back into the drybag and onto the bike. I was just thinking of going and waking the toilet dwellers, when I saw them wheel their bikes out already locked and loaded. Mick seemed refreshed and raring to go, but Sarah was having serious doubts about her desire to continue. Mick headed off and I chatted to Sarah, who was slowly convincing herself her attempt was over. I suggested she tried to ride today and see how she got on before scratching, but I think the decision was already made, so I gave her directions to the start of the route back down along the Great Glen Way to Fort William. If someone who has done the Tour Divide twice was dropping out, it goes to show the Highland Trail is no easy susbtitute!

As I rolled out of town I checked the time, 0600, not quite the racing 4am start the serious riders go for. Still, my main concern was with finishing more than anything else, so no harm in getting more rest. I headed up into the trees on a steep track, jumping off and pushing for a short section to give my knees time to wake up. It was straightforward riding along the Great Glen Way above Loch Ness and I could see several decent bivy spots at view points that would have done the trick last night. I passed through Invermoriston before anywhere was open and took the main road West for a few km before turning off at Bhlaraidh to start climbing up to the hydro schemes and wind farm.

Slightly oversimplified map pointing me to Loch na Stac

The track started out wide and steep where it shared space with the wind farm dirt road, before turning away toward the first of the three lochs and dams.

A nice cooling mist made climbing easier
Rising to a gap in the cloud cover

Finally, I reached Loch na Stac, where the track petered out near the end of the loch and I had to footer about in the boggy ground to find my way onto the beach where the gpx track was guiding me.

Visibility was minimal

The lochside had nice patches of riding, guiding the bike carefully between rocks to keep the momentum, along with the odd bit of hoicking over the larger stuff.

The spooky house comes into view – is this ever not in the mist?

After passing the old haunted house at the far end of the loch, I got going on a narrow grassy trail, but could see something was amiss up ahead. There looked to be a bike tipped over on the right hand side of the track and what looked like a rucksack on the left hand side. As I got closer, I realised it was actually a person lying in what looked to be the recovery position. Heart racing, I ditched the bike and ran forward to investigate. “Are you okay mate?” I said to the stricken figure. Berten, the narcoleptic Belgian below, opened his eyes in brief surprise, then said “Hey, thanks for waking me man, just needed 15 minutes”.  And with that, he got up, jumped on his bike and buggered off!

Re-invigorated Berten after his power nap.

A bit more grassy/muddy riding eventually deposited us onto a good, super fast track heading towards Corrimony where we rejoined the tarmac. Berten fell back a bit, but I figured he’d be heading for the Cannich campsite cafe, same as me. I’d initially been worried I might arrive too early for its 0900 opening time, but my slovenly sleeping habits meant I was there closer to 10. When I got to the counter, the lady did not look pleased to see me, which was worrying. I hung on politely while she tried not to catch my eye and told her I was just after a breakfast when she eventually enquired. She muttered something about there being nothing left and left me hanging. I should have abandoned ship and gone to the Spar at that point, but I had a can of apple juice in my hand and was thirsty, so I hung on in limbo and eventually managed to persuade her to give me a pot of tea and a cake from the fridge. I drank up as quick as I could, with the sound of the smoke alarm in the kitchen going off as a background accompaniment and paid up whilst Mick was enjoying his breakfast and coffee as a reward for getting there a fair bit earlier than me! On my way out I ran into another rider, who had talked his way into using the shower block, which was a genius idea!

At the Spar they had a hot cabinet, so I grabbed a sausage roll and also a fresh baked baguette with some chorizo to make sandwiches for later. They also did tea and coffee, so I could have saved a fair bit of time by following my first instinct and ditching the cafe. Berten also showed up, having received similar service at the cafe and sat in the sun eating a cold tin of beans.

Straight here next time, I reckon

Leaving Cannich, it was a long stretch of tarmac to follow up Strathglass to Struy, where the climbing began again, eventually ending up high above a deforested glen.

Midday heat

I gathered I was on what would normally have been the well known “Path of a thousand puddles”, however the numbers and depth had been significantly reduced by weeks of dry weather, so it was all relatively pleasant.

The path of several puddles this year, thankfully
Heading towards the windfarm

I rounded the bend and started to head West, getting up speed on the more level terrain as I approached the hydro bothy in the distance. A quick drop and climb brought me to the spot that would have been busy with the quicker riders last night, so I had a look inside and a sit outside, eating some lunch. Ron, from the campsite earlier arrived shortly after as he’d been having a nap in the sun further back, so we had a wee chat before I pushed on.

Hydro infrastructure on the way to the Hydro bothy
A friendly welcome at the Hydro bothy
Just checking my hair

Over the next hill and I dropped down to the first of the big dams and some tarmac. I’d been getting a little worried I might be pushing my luck for Contin Stores on a Sunday if I didn’t speed up, but the smooth surface allowed for an extremely quick return to the public roads, with a pleasant roll along the River Conon, followed by an unpleasant sprint along the A835 into Contin.

Dam 1
Dam 2

The shop was open, so i took the opportunity to go crazy with fizzy drinks and food and worry about how to pack it when I got outside. I figured I’d be needing enough for tonight if I missed out on the pub food and also the following morning and lunch, so I didn’t skimp. Berten came and went as I dithered and Ron turned up as I sneaked into the campsite toilets. He was chilling in the sun as I left – he was going well for someone so relaxed!

The next stretch all the way to Alladale was another that was quite familiar to me, although I’d always done it in full winter conditions, so the lack of ice would make a nice change.

Always pleasant riding through Strathgarve
Dropping out of Longart Forest to cross the River near Inchbae
Leaving the forest in Strath Rannoch
A climb, then a drop to Strath Vaich
Heading for Loch Vaich
Speedy drop to the loch
Into the shade near Deanich Lodge

For all the controversy that surround the plans for Alladale, it is a lovely place to ride through and I had bivied there a few times over the years. This was out of the question today, with hours of light left, so I reluctantly continued after topping up my bottles.

Shady side of Gleann Mor

My aching hands got a bit of relief on the smooth tracks near Alladale Lodge and on the short tarmac stretch round to Croick, where I joined the route towards Ullapool.

Tarmac to Croick
Not going to Ullapool just yet!

I’d done this stretch in reverse 10 years ago, but hardly any of it seemed familiar. The first bit was really fast and easy, getting my hopes up of making the Oykel Bridge Hotel in time for hot food. Unfortunately, the going got a bit rougher further on, so it was looking touch and go. As I slowly made my way up and around to Glen Einig I caught a couple of riders, Fabio and Daniele from Italy, that I recognised from my hotel on Friday night. I paused to say hello and Daniele said something to the effect of “Phew, this is tough!” – can’t argue with that! They followed close behind for a short while on an awkward section and then dropped back just before the top and a some quick descending to the forest and Oykel Bridge.

Heading for Glen Einig

It was half nine when I reached the Oykel Bridge Hotel, so there didn’t seem to be much point going in to enquire about food, especially from reports the previous year. Instead, I kept straight on to the Achness Hotel, which was only a few miles down the road and I’d always fancied popping in to on previous rides but had never had the time. I got there quickly, fantasising about a pot of tea and some crisps, since I figured that was all I’d be able to get. On arrival, it seemed I’d just missed a batch of other riders who’d managed to get a meal, but it was great to get some tea, crisps and biscuits on board anyway.

Caffeine stop at the Achness Hotel

A quick freshen up in the toilets and I felt raring to go again, four cups of tea had done their work! I never normally listen to music whilst riding or running, but I stuck in some earphones and charged my way up Glen Cassley, singing along to Gregory Alan Isakov whilst lit up by an incredibly bright full moon. I didn’t bother with lights apart from my tail light, as I wasn’t expecting any traffic this late and would be off road soon enough. The glen seemed to fly by – it’s weirdly easier to ride up than down for some reason. I thought I would run out of steam by the time I got to the hydro road climb, but the music had really uplifted me, so I carried straight on over the pass, only pausing to say hi to Mark , whose light I’d seen from the bottom and was bedding down before the top. I was aiming for the radio mast on the far side, to give me some phone reception and a good view. It didn’t disappoint, with 4G and a view North to the hills I’d be passing through tomorrow, bathed in the glow of a permanent sunset, thanks to our latitude. I savoured the view for a while and did some internetting, before realising it was 0200 and I really should sleep! Alarm set for 0500 and I arranged my slippy bivy bag as best I could to avoid finding myself at the bottom of the pass when I woke, before passing out surprisingly quickly.

Distance: 128 miles

Elevation: 3208m

Temperature: Max 30°, Avg 15°

HT550 2018 Day 1

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Day 1 dawned bright and warm as predicted, so I dragged myself out of bed and headed for the RFC to see who was about. I wasn’t feeling like a full breakfast, so went for a bacon roll, plus one to go with me. I sat outside, chatting to Bob, Jenny and Alan when Bob revealed the luxury item he was taking along – a shoe horn! No-one was going to top that.

I couldn’t dally for too long, so I headed back to the hotel to get changed and check out. As usual I ended up cutting it fine, popping into the shop at the bottom of the hill for supplies before joining the throng of cyclists gathered round the village hall.

Pre-race chat and inspirational words from Jenny

I can’t for the life of me remember what was said other than something like “Don’t come home until you’re absolutely smashed!”, which seemed fair enough. Then, off we went on our adventure.

Following one of the many ‘boners.

I did my best to keep the pace down at the start and bumped down the rough singletrack dropping to the railway underpass where it all inevitably backed up before everyone could settle along the short stretch of West Highland Way before the turn up towards Loch Lyon.

West Highland Way
Nearing Loch Lyon

The loch was reached in no time and I carried on along one of my most familiar bits of the route, chatting to various people as they caught me or were caught.

Photo stop at top
Easy riding along Loch Lyon

After the speedy downhill to the dam, it was a longish tarmac stretch to Bridge of Balgie, where I made a brief stop at the tea room to top up on cold fizzy drinks and take the edge off the heat.

Hot Glen Lyon

Next was the climb over to Loch Rannoch, which I remembered as short and steepish.

Up and over to Loch Rannoch

Having done the hard part, the ride through Rannoch Forest to Bridge of Gaur seemed to take ages – probably because I’d normally follow the singletrack down through the trees and then ride along the lochside on previous rides.

‘boner Mike chatting away at a water stop.

After crossing the end of the loch on tarmac, we were straight up into the forest climb over to Loch Ericht. The passage was a far cry from the last time I’d come through on a coast to coast ride when we’d been forced to lift pannier laden bikes over the full height of the locked gates thanks to the walker’s gates being specifically designed to stop bicycles getting through.

Brief lunch stop at a handy stone table
Plain sailing to Loch Ericht

After hitting the end of the loch, I knew that a bog fest was coming, but I was hoping the dry weather we’d been having would have mitigated the issue somewhat. I still have visions of Paul disappearing up to his waist at one point around midnight on our way to the bothy.

Lovely day at Loch Ericht
The end of the road

As it turned out, the weather had done its job and it was a pretty straightforward ride/walk through with dry feet, which was a bonus. I could see I was catching up with someone and was doubly surprised to see it was Bob, firstly as I hadn’t seen him overtake and secondly as I wouldn’t expect to catch him up on this terrain. I checked in with him and he was feeling pretty rough – he’d been sick already and had another bout as I dawdled just ahead of him. It looked like the heat was a major contributing factor so I thought I’d hang on and make sure he got to Ben Alder Cottage okay, so he could get out of the sun for a while. He took a bit of convincing, but there was no question he needed to cool down for a bit and see how he felt.

Ben Alder Cottage
Awkward bridge by the bothy

Now it was time for the first properly big climb of the day round Ben Alder. The track is always in good condition, the only issue being some of the water channels and the odd burn crossing to break up the rhythm. The burns were a welcome water bottle top up source and the chance to soak your head and take the edge off the afternoon heat. Mark and Rich, who had joined us for the last stretch to the bothy were doing the same and the fresh water seemed to invigorate Rich, who was off up the hill like a rocket. As I got nearer to the head of the pass, I caught another rider, Berten from Belgium, who said he wasn’t feeling the power and settled down for an afternoon nap!

Pristine singletrack when there’s no ditches to hop

I stopped at the high point to chat to two chaps and a youngster who were out on a bikepacking trip too and said they’d seen LOADS of people pass already – I joked that they’d hurt my feelings, but was happy enough with my progress! I headed along the rough downhill conservatively, knowing that wrecking a wheel or tyre on one of the ditches would be a frustrating way to miss out on a finish. Another thing on my mind was the last time I’d come down here, I’d ended up bandaging my friend Paul’s head after a ditch mishap, before rushing him to Kingussie to get stitches at the doctor’s surgery.

Down from the pass and heading for Culra

Once down, the going got a lot quicker past Culra, over the new bridge and up to Loch Pattack.

Grandly pointless gateposts

On the way down the River Pattack I eventually caught Sarah from Canada, who also wasn’t feeling too energetic, so I pushed on a bit to give her some space. At the edge of the estate, there was a 4×4 that had just passed through and one of the occupants was closing the gate as I approached. Rather than acknowledge my presence he fumbled with the lock as quickly as he could, before hurriedly re-entering the vehicle as I stopped and was forced to wheelie my bike through the awkward walkers gate to the side. I wouldn’t have minded so much, but I then had to wait behind them as they picked their way through the bumpier bits of the track down towards the lodge!

Out onto the A86 and I got my head down to get it out the way quickly. The sign outside Wolftrax said the cafe was open, but I figured I was touch and go for reaching Fort Augustus in time for hot food, so I made that my priority and pushed on over to the Spey dam to head for the infamous Corrieyairack. Despite the fact I was short on time, I couldn’t resist stopping at Garva Bridge to take some photos of our wedding proposal spot to send back to Yvonne and keep me in the good books!

Romantic selfie on our engagement rock

The last of the tarmac ended near Melgarve Bothy and it was a case of trundling on up towards the zig-zags, which always takes longer than you think. Sarah passed me as I was taking on yet more water and Mick caught me up at the bottom of the zig zags, for a discussion on whether we were going to make Fort Augustus in time for pizza. Someone had told him it was 30 minutes down from the top, but I was sceptical of that!

Corrieyairack approach

As we made our weary way up, I shouted down to Mick on the switchback below: “Pizzaaaa, come on!!!”. He probably thought I had heatstroke. It was pleasant walking for a bit after a long day’s ride, but I reluctantly climbed back aboard to ride the last stretch towards the ugly tower at the top of the pass.

Corrieyairack summit

As we crested the high point there was quite a sight to behold, as the whole of the glen below us was bathed in cloud, with only the neighbouring peaks emerging above the blanket. I told Mick to go ahead, as it looked like his chunkier tyres would allow him a bit more speed than me on the way down. I took a couple more pictures and he was already a small cloud of dust in the distance!

Big skies

I knew it would be colder in the clouds, but I headed on down without adding any layers, as the temperature was still warm for now. The speed got very high very quickly and as I rounded one of the hills on the way down I collided with a wall of ice-cold air. The temperature change was both pleasant and shocking, so I just went with it and dropped all the way down to the bottom of this stretch without stopping.

Cold ahoy!

There were still some re-climbs to warm me up, but I eventually conceded to the cold after Blackburn bothy by putting on my gloves, since they were easily accessed. As usual, getting where I wanted to be took longer than I wanted, but I rolled into Fort Augustus just after 2120 and made a beeline for the Moorings, which had the expected gathering of bikepacker rigs stood up around the premises.

Brief re-emergence of the sun at the bottom of the pass

I sat with Mick and Sarah and got an order in for fizzy drinks and a meat feast pizza. I’d expected to be much hungrier, but wasn’t feeling it at all, possibly due to the heat and large amount of liquids consumed. The chill off the descent had finally soaked through to my bones and every time I popped out to get something from the bike I felt it more. Because I hadn’t known if I’d even make it this far today, I didn’t really have a game plan for what to do next, so I stayed put, absorbing the heat and chatting to Mick and Sarah, who were similarly spent and theorising on finding hotel rooms. Rich and Mark had come in after me and were planning on pushing on into the forest past Fort Augustus. I should have gone along with them but I really wanted to try and get a shower after the hot day to keep myself in good nick, so thought I’d try my luck at the campsite.

The campsite I knew has long gone but Mick knew where the new one was, so I headed out into the night a good couple of hours after arriving, with him and Sarah, wearing all my extra layers to stop me shivering. They were still determined to find indoor accomodation, so I left them to it, as there was no way there would be a free room on a May bank holiday weekend. Once they gave up, we headed to the campsite, only to find it didn’t open until the 1st of June! We rode on in anyway, as all we really needed was somewhere out the way to lay our bivies. There was a covered bay for the groundskeeping vehicles out of the wind which was spot on for me. I went to check out the toilet block and was surprised to find it open. Mick and Sarah went for the indoor option, but I felt too guilty to push my trespassing any further, so stuck with the original spot. I told Mick I’d come and get him in the morning if he slept in and set my alarm for 5am, as it was already pretty late. Still, 95 miles in the bag!

Distance: 95 miles

Elevation: 2903m

Temperature: Max 34°, Avg 22°

HT550 2018 Prologue

So here I was, in the Ben Doran hotel looking at my bike and wondering how I still hadn’t managed to get it packed in advance. Various things breaking on my original bike choice had led to me taking along my newly minted fat bike for the HT550.  I had just built up some 29er wheels for it rather than go full fat, so figured it should be quick enough, although going from full suspension 26er to rigid 29er was a fair shift in philosophy. A midweek trip for work had left me with no time to sort out the first choice bike, so it was time to give my wheel building skills the ultimate test!

Mostly ready at 1am

I’d arrived in Tyndrum straight from work, unfortunately too late to join in with the beers down by the river. I’d checked in, wheeled the bike into my room via the open fire escape and got myself a nice dinner and beer at the Real Food Cafe before going back and getting packed. I’d been planning to keep my gear to a minimum and the stunning weather forecast looked like backing that choice!

The Bike

  • Ritchey Commando frame and fork
  • Novatech fatbike hubs laced to Stan’s Flow 29er rims
  • Bontrager XR2 Team Issue 29×2.35″ tyres
  • Ti seatpost and Brooks Cambium saddle borrowed from road bike
  • On-One OG bars
  • Avid SD7 levers
  • Avid BB7 brakes

Luggage

  • RockGeist Barjam HarnessBirzman pump.
  • Rockgeist Apogee Harness Feedbag.
  • Rockgeist Foxglove saddlebag.
  • Alpkit Stemcell x2

Equipment

  • Borah Gear Snowyside eVent Bivy
  • Thermarest NeoAir original
  • Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag
  • Alpkit 8l drybag for harness
  • Midge net
  • Spare inner tube
  • Tyre boot
  • Tubeless tyre repair kit
  • Topeak Ratchet Rocket Lite
  • On-one chain breaker
  • Leatherman Squirt PS2
  • Valve core tool
  • SRAM 11 speed quicklink
  • Gear cable
  • Brake Cable
  • 2 pairs of Avid BB7 Brake pads
  • Gorilla tape, zip ties
  • Hiplock Z-lock
  • Birzman pump
  • 750 ml water bottle
  • Monkey Cage
  • Spot Tracker
  • Garmin Edge 1000
  • Apple iPhone 7
  • Exposure Joystick Mk10
  • Topeak Tail Lux rear light
  • Petzl E+ Lite
  • Anker 10000mAh battery pack
  • Xiaomi 10000mAH battery pack
  • 4x Lithium AAA spares
  • Mu USB charger

Toiletries

  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Wet wipes
  • Toilet Paper
  • Buttonhole chamois cream
  • Sudocrem
  • Ibuprofen
  • Paracetamol
  • Sun cream
  • DEET insect repellent
  • SiS Electrolyte tablets

Clothing

  • Castelli Endurance X2 bibshorts
  • Howies Cadence short sleeve jersey
  • Smartwool trail running socks
  • Adidas Terrex Trail Cross SL shoes
  • Endura MT500 II gloves
  • Castelli A/C cycling cap
  • Kask Mojito helmet
  • Rapha Brevet insulated gilet
  • Adidas Terrex Tracerocker hooded fleece
  • Buff
  • Castelli Nanoflex kneewarmers
  • Freestyle waterproof shorts
  • Castelli Idro waterproof jacket
  • Montane Featherlite trousers

Looks like a lot of gear, but it all went in, with plenty of space for extra food as I went along. I threw in a couple of Trek bars and some shortbread from the hotel room before finally getting to bed after 1am. I’d pop into the shop on my way to the start for the rest. At least the 0900 start gave me time for some sleep…

Lochnagar Bivy Duathlon

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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.

Comfier than it looks

I figured I’d wake when I woke, so didn’t bother with an alarm.

Nice view to wake up to

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.

Lochnagar

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.

Lochnagar plateau

It was pretty warm in the sun, despite the strong wind and was a lovely place to be this early in the morning.

Looking back towards the bike.
Cac Carn Beag ahead

The summit was reached quickly and I took a few snaps before moving on.

A sense of place
Towards the Stuic

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.

Monelpie Moss

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.

Heading to Balmoral
Gratuitous Commando shot
Path has been resurfaced recently

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.

Downhill past Ripe Hill

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.

Aviemore to Aberdeen

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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.

Speedy Speyside Way

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!

A bit of dragonfly spotting to take my mind off the creaking.

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.

Abernethy Forest singletrack

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.

Track around Dorback

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.

The sign says left, I say right.

A long climb ensued up the flanks of Carn Tuadhan, though luckily never too steep.

Looking back
Shelter from the wind was available

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!

Heather bashing to the Water of Ailnack
I even got to ride a bit!

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.

It got much steeper than it looks

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.

Lunch on the beach

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.

Steep drop followed by a right turn.

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.

One good climb always leads to another?

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.

Ben Avon and some scared sheep
Easy ford and a short climb before dropping me into into Glen Avon.

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.

Inchrory looking as immaculate and uninhabited as ever.

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.

One of the Wade bridges.
Another bridge and my stricken bike

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.

Looks hilly, but probably easier than taking the road

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.

Track onto the moor
On my way to Morven Lodge

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 lodge’s highly effective gateposts
Sunbathing by Tom Garchory

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.

Chilled out Loch Kinord

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.

Deeside Way behind Aboyne

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.

Sunset near Drumoak

Kerr’s First Bikepack

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.

Trailered up and ready to go
Lovely evening for it
A nice breezy spot to keep the midges at bay
Down to the river for hydration
Kerr’s in charge of water scooping
Dinner’s on
Tucked in for the night
Tent marbles was not a success
Prompting yet another river visit
Bacon buttie brekky
He woke up and announced he was going to find a pet lizard – I may have underestimated him
Heading back
Shortly before crashing whilst stunt-riding under a gate
A friendly beetle provided welcome distraction

Bikepacking Beginnings

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
  • KFS
  • 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 next 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!

Glen Builg
Glen Builg on another day

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.