With the panic about COVID-19 beginning to really ramp up, I decided I would bring forward my bivy from it’s usual last-gasp position at the end of the month, to a Wednesday night barely two weeks into March. It was just a precaution, but the lockdown that was enforced the following weekend proved it to be uncharacteristically prescient of me! Still dealing with my knee issues, I was planning another short distance night out, this time using the Commando, as I’d be riding the cliff paths to the South of Aberdeen.
I loaded up the luxuries such as a stove, teabags and milk and just went for a drybag on top of the pannier rack, which I still haven’t bothered to take off since last summer. The forecast was good for a dry night so I only had my Borah Snowyside eVent bivy bag as a shelter, plus my nice toasty Mountain Hardwear Phantom Flame sleeping bag as a treat. I did my usual stock up a the Co-op and was on my way shortly before 11pm. I didn’t have far to go, so no big deal as I took my usual commute route to work along the Deeside Way. As I cut through Duthie Park the smell of illegal substances wafted in the air from some local ne’er -do-wells – never mind, I’d soon be taking in refreshing sea breezes! I followed the river right down to the harbour and made towards the Torry Battery – unfortunately the pleasant ride around the head is blocked off whilst they destroy Nigg Bay with a new harbour, so I had to cut off along the edge of the golf course to climb and drop into the bay.
I slowly climbed back up the other side, eventually joining the nice bike path that parallels the coast road. Almost immediately, I nipped through a gate to join the cliff top path proper, which is a lovely singletrack ride without any real exposure – I normally do it on the road bike, so it was even more relaxing on 29+ tyres! I’ve been scoping this area out every time I’ve been through for a nice spot, so it was really just a question of recognising one of them in the dark.
I reached my favoured spot quite quickly and bundled myself and the bike down the steep grassy slope to a flattish area below. I settled on a spot next to a large rock that would give a bit of shelter from the Westerlies that were due to blow overnight.
I got my sleeping kit laid out on the long cushioned horizontal grass and turned my attentions to a brew. The rock behind me had a perfect shelf for setting up the meths stove – unfortunately I had left the miniscule pot stand sitting in the garage! I resorted to just holding my mug at the optimum height above the flame – annoying, but workable. Tea made and butties eaten, I messed about for a few minutes trying to take night shots, but the wind was quite chilling and I really needed some sleep before work the following day, so I reluctantly turned in.
Once I was encased in my layers, it became apparent that this wasn’t going to work. The unbelievable slippiness of the bivy bag’s bottom layer had me sliding off the sleep mat almost the minute I climbed inside. Unless I wanted to spend the night working my way to the edge of the cliffs, something had to give. Luckily, taking my winter bag meant I could get away without the extra wind protection, so I just slept out in the open – the grass around me was also bone dry, so no real issue doing this. Annoyance dealt with, I rolled over and went to sleep, setting a mental alarm to wake up before sunrise so I could try and get pictures.
After lazing about for an hour or so, I roused myself for a snack and some pictures, before deciding to pack up and go. Being so close to work, there was no way I was going straight in, so I headed South instead of North, to follow the cliff path all the way to Cove. It’s a lovely wee ride, especially when not on road slicks. I turned off before going all the way down to Cove Bay, as I couldn’t be bothered with the steep road climb out. I cut through Cove and crossed the busy dual carriageway to follow the pavement along to one of the stranded back roads left perfect for cycling since the AWPR completion.
I wasn’t quite ready to roll straight downhill to work however, so I took a left near the end of Kincorth Hill, finding a grassy path to my right which lead to a winding way through the abundant gorse. This way will probably distribute a generous amount of leg punctures in the summer. Eventually I popped out onto the main tracks and whizzed along the gravel to the end of the reserve, with just a quick stop at the viewpoint, before mixing it on the dual carriageway to get me to work.
I did this bivy mainly as a precaution in case any restrictions came in to limit movement outdoors, but turned out to have impeccable timing as the restrictions came into place a few days afterwards. Time will tell whether I have to take advantage of the relaxed BAM rules letting me do a back garden bivy for April!
My usual tactic of leaving my BAM until the last minute afforded an unusual opportunity in February – to bivy on a night that wouldn’t normally exist. So, at around half ten on the 29th February I headed out into the windy night to find myself a bivy spot, via my usual Co-Op stock up. I had a vague idea of a spot I wanted to try out at the edge of Durris Forest, so I made my way along the quiet roads to Drumoak before crossing the Dee and starting to climb up to the forest. I was taking very easy, thanks to my broken knees, but soon enough I neared the high point of the road, flaked by snow along the verges. The temperature was dropping rapidly and the wind was getting stronger, so I needed to find myself a sheltered spot. I hopped over the wall into a wooded area I’d always had earmarked for a bivy, thanks to its sunrise facing location. Once I’d identified my tree candidates I slung up the tarp quickly, as I could feel a light rain building up and wanted to get my hammock up under cover. I kept it nice and low and angled the side to keep off any sideways rain that could sneak under the cover. Once done, I poured myself a tea, ate a scone and went to bed.
The wind was blowing a gale all night, but the combination of the stone wall nearby and the tarp placement kept me and even the kit on the floor below nice and dry. It did get a lot colder than predicted, so it took a bit of coaxing to get me out of my bag for a morning pee.
I finished off my tea and scones and got things packed up, ready for an easy downhill ride home.
As I jumped over the wall to drop back to the road, I realised that all the surface water had frozen solid overnight – luckily this was before I tried to hop on the bike and speed away!
I took it easy down the hill to join my usual route towards the Lairhillock junction and then made my way home on a mix of the usual roads.
After two consecutive years of bivying, I saw no reason to stop now. As usual, I had been putting January off for various reasons and saw my plans for a midweek bivy scuppered by illness. I recovered enough by the end of the week for a last gasp effort on Friday the 31st. Unfortunately my knees are still out of commission, meaning I was stuck close to home again. Just as in December, I threw a random collection of gear into my panniers and headed out towards Countesswells at about 11pm with a vague area in mind. Climbing up the back of Blacktop, I cut off onto a ribbon of singletrack that I’ve not tried out for ages, almost immediately being blocked by a fallen tree. No problem, I just pushed up the hill at a right angle, gaining enough elevation over a rise to keep me out of view in a dip under the trees.
With the recent rain, the ground was going to be soaking, so I had opted for the hammock as usual. It was a second night out in my Crimbo prezzy Exped Travel Hammock Lite and for some reason, I’d completely forgotten how I’d set it up last time. After a lot of fussing, I managed to get it slung up satisfactorily between the apparently poorly spaced trees and got the mKettle on the go. One great thing about not being able to ride far is that I don’t obsess over the weight and just lob whatever I fancy in the panniers.
I had a brew made in about the same time I would at home, this thing almost boils things too fast to enjoy the jet of flame it produces! I drank my brew whilst chomping a scone from the Co-Op, before getting tucked in for bed. I’d just thrown in my old 3/4 length classic Thermarest due to the deflating issue with the Klymit Hammock-V and was perfectly comfy in my warm bag with relatively mild temperatures predicted overnight. There was also some light rain in the forecast, so I reluctantly put up the tarp for the first time since December 2018!
I got up after a decent night’s sleep and started pottering about for my morning cuppa, collecting the usual wee pile of dry twigs for the mKettle. It hadn’t rained at all overnight, which I found mildly annoying after ending my tarp-free run.
I did however put it to good use as a windbreak, by flipping it over behind the hammock as I sat there supping and pendulating.
As the sun began to rise behind me, I started packing up, at which point it began to rain lightly. Redemption! I hooked the tarp back into it’s original position and packed away the gear under my shelter, with the rain stopping soon enough to give the tarp a quick shake before stuffing into a pannier too.
I pushed through a bit of bracken to rejoin the singletrack path just beyond the fallen tree and enjoyed weaving my way through the trees. The handling isn’t great with just rear panniers like this, but it was just nice to be doing a ride that wasn’t my commute.
Eventually I emerged onto a better known path and left blacktop behind, taking a random mix of trails through Countesswells, before heading home through Hazelhead Park. Oblivious to the time, I emerged right in the middle of the parkrun and had to reverse my planned direction to stalk along behind a couple of front runners to get myself out of everyone’s way at the top of the out and back running route. I also hung about for a few minutes to egg on a couple of friends I knew would be there, before whizzing away back home to see the kids.
I’d been thinking of getting another long ride in for my December bivy, but unfortunately my knees were a bit of a mess after November’s effort. This had left me struggling even on my short rides into work. I rested up over the festive period and decided I’d just have to make up the numbers this month, as going too far wouldn’t do me any good. So, once the in-laws were away home and the kids were in bed, I started packing up my kit as usual. I was going to use the Commando, as I’d been missing it, but it still had a pannier rack fitted from a planned camping trip with Kerr last Summer. Since I wasn’t going far, I just lobbed the kit in my good old Ortlieb Front Roller Classics and got rolling. I even treated myself to the stove and some milk, rather than the usual flask of tea. No need to stop at the shop, with the last of the turkey making some lovely butties plus various sweet things from the Christmas goody pile.
I had no idea where I was going to sleep, so pointed the bike along the park and forest paths to take me into Countesswells Forest. Once there, I picked a faint trail through the trees and pushed through some gorse to find a nice clearing with a couple of hammock-spaced trees. Time to break out my Christmas present, an Exped Travel Hammock Lite. This is miles smaller and lighter than my usual DD hammock setup, due to it being single layer and not having an insect net. The suspension kit is also way lighter without sacrificing protection for the trees you use. Despite the fact I hadn’t even got it out of the bag before, I managed to get it strung up using the slit lines in no time at all. Fitting my Klymit Hammock-V mat into it was another matter entirely, especially in the strong wind.
I drank my tea and enjoyed my leftovers swinging in the breeze. The temperature was going to be about 9 degrees overnight, so quite the contrast with the -11 on my last outing! Once I was settled in, I was aware of the reduction in length compared to the good old DD, but it was still fine for my 6 foot and also seemed to be easier to sleep in a foetal position. I slept okay, but became aware of my backside getting cold later on, thanks to my mat deflating overnight. This also happened the first time I used it, so it looks like it may be going back unless I can work out if I’m doing something wrong. I woke up at first light, pleased to have chosen an isolated enough spot to avoid any early morning dog walkers.
I’d picked up a random gas canister from the garage and predicted it had about a brew and a half’s worth of gas inside. A highly accurate estimation, as it turned out, so my morning brew was just borderline hot enough to be called a cup of tea.
Packing up was easy – just stuff everything into what ever pannier you fancy and hook back onto rack. I might start using them a bit more frequently, when I’m not going anywhere too far or rough.
I pushed my way back onto another trail that looked to be in the right direction and followed it back to the main forest road, admiring the forestry devastation near the car park.
I was glad I hadn’t planned anything more ambitious, as my knees were hurting even on this short excursion, so I just enjoyed riding slowly along through Hazlehead Park and on to home. Obviously people were still feeling festive, as I managed a 100% pleasant interaction ratio with all the runners and dog walkers out and about on my way by.
That’s another year complete for BAM, making it 24 months in a row. I went through the entire year without pitching my tarp once, which is impressive in itself for this country! I think I’ll keep it going, as it is well worth it as a motivator to get out on those nights when you really don’t want to do anything. I’ve never gone out and not felt better for it, regardless of the distance or location.
Getting my October bivy in nice and early for me left me with plenty of time to think about my November effort. I was hanging on for a weekend when someone could come with me, but with Jon and Brian too busy to manage it, I had to bite the bullet and sort something out. The first step was to book a train ticket to Kyle of Lochalsh for Friday after work.
As usual, I’d been up late the night before, doing all the stuff I had been meaning to do to the bike for ages. I swapped my Hunt front wheel for my Shimano dynamo one, as I’d be in darkness for the majority of the ride. This also prompted me to finally admit defeat and fit my winter mudguards before noticing that my Schwalbe Pro One rear tyre was worn through to the carcass in a few spots. Probably not the best idea to add another 200 miles onto it, so I stole the back wheel off my commuter too, swapping the single cog for a cassette. By the time i was done fiddling, it was getting on for 2am! Never mind, I could snooze on the train.
I had a bit of a wait in Inverness for my second train, so whiled away the time in a coffee shop, before jumping the train to Kyle. Eventually I started to pass stations I’d be cycling past tomorrow and the temptation to jump out and get a head-start. As I passed Achnasheen, I scoped my most likely bivy spot for the night and it looked lovely and clean in the darkness, which was good to know.
As soon as I got going, I felt how cold it was. The forecast had been for low temperatures, but my GPS soon started reading temperatures around -6. This was at sea level, so climbing up to Achnasheen should be interesting! I climbed out of town and began the rollercoaster of a road along to Plockton, Stromeferry and eventually Strathcarron. Despite the cold, there were no issues with ice, bar one frozen trickle across a steep climb that warranted a dismount and some Bambi action to navigate.
Once I turned up the glen, I knew at least I had a steady gradient to keep me warm without slowing me down too much. I wasn’t planning on going any further than Achnasheen, so I was glad to see the roundabout at the edge of the village. I went straight to the train station and over the footbridge after checking to see if the toilets were open. They were, but it didn’t really feel like staying there would constitute a bivy. The wooden shelter on the platform was immaculately clean and had a bench just wide enough for my sleep mat – hopefully keeping off the ground would compensate for the fact I only had a sleeping bag that went down to -2 degrees.
There was no time to hang about – I needed to get some layers on and get into my bag quick. I lay there eating sandwiches and drinking my ice cold Irn Bru from the seat pack. The water bottle full of Lucozade had the consistency of a slush puppy at this point, so I didn’t fancy my chances of a liquid drink in the morning. After my customary half an hour of wriggling to get my various layers of Western Mountaineering Summerlite bag, silk liner and SOL Escape bivy where they were supposed to be, I settled down for some kip. It was my usual restless night’s sleep, exacerbated by bouts of shivering as the mercury plummeted some way below the -6 I had seen before turning off my GPS.
There was no need to set an alarm, as I knew a train would pass by on the opposite platform shortly after 6am. However, some time after five I heard a van pull up at the station and the clink of the gate as someone with a bright torch started shuffling about on the platform, crunching through the thick layer of grit that covered it. He was there a while and the light kept piercing through the side window of the shelter, making me feel he was right outside. I finally figured out he was adding yet more grit to the platform, eventually coming over the bridge and approaching my home for the night. I wasn’t expecting any bother and just as he finished he took a look in and asked me if I was okay, which was preferable to being poked to see if I was a frozen corpse! It would have been sensible to just get up and make an early start on the long way home, but I didn’t really want to miss riding the more picturesque end of the ride in a bit of daylight. Instead I half-dozed/shivered my way through another hour or so, before reluctantly sitting up to start eating and psyching myself up to leave the sleeping bag after the scheduled train had passed through.
As I started getting my self sorted, I decided to stick with the wool socks I had slept in as they were a bit thinner than the new winter cycling socks I had been trying the night before and I needed a bit more wriggle room in my Giro Alpineduro boots which I had had wisely supplemented with some windproof overshoes for this ride. I kept my lovely Montane Hydrogen Direct jacket on as I carried the bike back over the bridge and popped into the mens toilets to shed some weight and get my cycling layers sorted. I begrudgingly packed away the fluffy Polartec Alpha lined jacket and stuck my waterproof on as a wind stopping layer over my Brevet insulated gilet that has seen a lot of action since I got it in a sale 3 years back. Once I had liberally applied some chamois cream, I was ready to find out how well I would keep warm at faster speed for the next flattish section. As I joined the main road, I was already shivering violently and jerking the handlebars around, but I knew that would pass after a bit of pedalling my way towards Garve. I paused every now and then to try and take a decent picture, slightly hampered by the fact my phone was frozen solid and needed thawing out under my layers between shots to stop it shutting down. I had more electrical woes further along, when I tried changing gear and got nothing from my Di2 lever. A slight panic set in, but I was pretty sure the battery was good, as I’d checked the level the previous night. Then I remembered, I’d wrenched on the right hand lever a ways back after noticing it had worked its way inwards. That, coupled with the bar bag leaning up on the cables had probably popped the wire out of its socket. Sure enough, I tried the left hand lever and all was good. The beauty of the 1x setup was that I had reprogrammed the levers so they both controlled the rear derailleur, meaning I didn’t have to stop and fanny about fixing my usual one.
Despite the low temperatures, ice wasn’t a problem at all due to the dry weather in advance of the cold snap. One good thing about using these non-tubeless weighty wheels was that I had fitted my old Continental GP 4 seasons, which have an uncanny ability to feel grippy in conditions where they just shouldn’t work. I reached Garve without too much drama. I would rather have done the next stretch to Contin earlier to avoid the inevitable impatient traffic, so I just got my head down and tried to bang it out as quickly as possible.
Contin was reached without too many early morning drivers trying to kill me and I managed to resist going into Contin Stores, as I had plenty to eat for now. I took a right just outside the village and left the busy road to make my way down to Muir of Ord on some quieter roads. When I reached the town, I couldn’t resist a Co-Op restock, mainly to get myself some drinks that were in actual liquid form, as my water bottle contained a giant orange ice lolly since last night. I got going again and started making good time along the road out of town, before I got the feeling I was going wrong. Sure enough, I’d missed an off course warning from my GPS and was headed to Beauly at speed. I briefly considered just carrying on and getting to Inverness that way, but sense prevailed and I did a u-turn to rejoin my planned route, which should be much quieter roads along the Beauly Firth..
North Kessock arrived promptly and I took a side track that climbed up to the A9 so I could cross the bridge. As I rolled across, I was bemused by wide icy strips the whole way along the bike path, before I realised it was caused by the shadow of the fence keeping the sun from thawing it. Around this time, I started thinking about topping up the chamois cream whilst I was still in relative comfort. Unfortunately, after some frantic rooting around my bar bag I came to the realisation that the tub I’d brought was still sitting on the toilet window ledge in Achnasheen – bummer.
I made my way hastily through Inverness by the same route I’d used for my Forsinard to Aberdeen ride, resisting the temptation to sidetrack to McDonalds this time. Instead I availed myelf of a hot chicken curry pie and a cup of tea from a petrol station Spar en route to Culloden.
I used the bike path/pavement on my way round Culloden, rather than mix it with the cars and feel compelled to ride faster up the hill than I wanted. I took the usual right turn and span my way up another long steady hill, noticing some people who appeared to be waiting for a lift up at the top. As I got closer, I began to have suspicions, which were confirmed when I got a better look at the lankiest member of the group – it was Stu, Jenny and the kids! Every time I do a long ride out this way, I’m always tempted to pop in for a cuppa, but resist, knowing I’d never get going again. Luckily, they’d beaten me to the punch by viewing my SPOT tracker and Jen was holding a steaming hot cuppa and some shortbread! It was such a lovely thought, I was delighted to hang around for a natter before dragging myself away, knowing there were a lot of hours of riding still to be done. I had a quick icy descent to the River Nairn, followed by a steep climb up to NCR 7, which I would follow all the way to Boat of Garten. I remembered from last time that it was basically uphill all the way to Carrbridge and took much longer than you’d expect, so I was under no pretence that this would be over quickly. It was still pleasant cycling however on quiet roads in the afternoon light.
I’d been hoping to get into the hills above Nethybridge in time for sunset, but the light was dying as I eventually flew down the hill into Carrbridge. As I reached maximum velocity, I heard a metallic ping under my tyres, as though I’d run over a bit of debris. My spidey-sense thought differently however, so I ground to a halt to see if anything had fallen off the bike. It looked intact, but the extra throw of the front brake lever told me all I needed to know – I had ejected a brake pad! I made a half-hearted attempt to find it, but had no chance, so I rolled up to the pavement outside the village shop and upended the bike to do a pad swap.
The daylight had really died during this brief mechanical, so I switched on my rear flasher and front dynamo before making my way quickly to Boat of Garten, followed by Nethybridge. I didn’t stop at any shops, as I had enough food to get me to Tomintoul, if not the whole way home.
I now had a whole bunch of climbing coming up and it was getting properly cold again, but at least I knew it well enough that there wouldn’t be any surprises. After a wee thawing rest stop and indoor picnic in the visitor centre I slowly climbed away from Nethybridge, which feels like a second home to me for all the times we stay there with the kids. I winched up the last evil steep bit to join the A939, which I anticipated wouldn’t be too busy at this time of year and evening. My knees had been feeling creaky most of the day, but I did okay and soon found myself entering Tomintoul, where I had a decision to make. Stop and get some hot food, or roll through and focus on finishing. I paused at the village centre, still in two minds, but eventually convinced myself that some hot soup and a pot of tea would see me right in the long run. I went in the pub next to the new tourist office and ordered, before stripping down a few layers to let the warmth reach me. I started fiddling with my phone as you do and saw a message from Yvonne telling me the weather was horrendous and I shouldn’t try and finish tonight. The thought of stopping hadn’t occurred to me since some low points in the morning, but asking if they had a room at the inn was slightly tempting now I was sampling indoor life again. Instead, I gave Yvonne a ring to reassure her and made sure all my clothes were nice and warm from the radiator before prepping to leave after my hot refreshments.
In theory, with warm food inside me and warm layers around me, I shouldn’t have suffered once I was outside. In practice, I was shivering uncontrollably by the time I got to my bike and things didn’t improve from there as I swerved my way along the road, looking like I’d had about ten pints in the pub. On leaving the village I had a long steady uphill which slowly got my blood pumping and the shivering suppressed. Up next was the biggest climb of the ride, up and over the Lecht, which definitely promised to warm me up! It’s a tough climb, but nothing like as bad as coming over the opposite way. Eventually, the lights of the ski centre came into view and I rattled over the cattle grid before swerving off into the snowy car park to get some more food on board and put on some serious layers for the descent to come.
No time for messing about, I packed away my gilet and brought out my Montane Polartec jacket. I rejoined the tarmac and started off down the plunging road in the darkness. My dynamo light only pierced so far, so I dragged my brakes a bit to make sure I wasn’t going too fast if a rogue patch of ice took me out. I did let it rip on the bit I knew was dead straight, whizzing up the re-climb with a vague idea of what was ahead. I very tentatively descended the switchbacks, before normal cycling resumed, past Corgarff and down towards Strathdon. As I reached the junction where I had originally planned to take a right and climb over towards Balmoral before riding home along Deeside, I revised my plans. Since the Lecht, the road had got increasingly treacherous, with patches of frozen snow and bands of ice where the day’s thaw had refrozen across it. I decided to head back along Strathdon instead, so I could gradually lose height and hopefully get clearer roads – at the very least, it would get me home sooner if progress was significantly slowed by ice. It meant I wouldn’t hit my 200 mile target, but as I’d originally planned to do this ride on a long summer day, I wasn’t too disappointed in myself!
I loaded up the route I had taken down from Forsinard on my previous 200 miler and started to head eastwards. I could have just stayed on the main road all the way to Alford, as it was pretty quiet, but thought I’d stick to the back lanes again as it was more direct. Temperatures were hovering around -8 at times, so I kept my big jacket on, which was surprisingly comfortable to ride in – I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do that in a down jacket without feeling very clammy. The fluffy Primaloft lining works like a very lightweight Buffalo with a full zip, but I’m yet to put it through it’s paces in a cold downpour to see if it matches the pile/pertex combo.
Luckily the ice wasn’t too big an issue and I was able to maintain decent progress, bar a couple of stops for snacks and almost liquid drinks from my back pockets. As Aberdeen approached, I realised my mental state was deteriorating when I rode through Garlogie massively confused because I thought I should be in Dunecht! Realising where I was was a nice bonus, as it was much closer to home. The last few miles from Westhill were done very cautiously, partly due to my knackered knees and partly down to random patches of ice on the bike path. I managed to navigate them without a cruel final mishap and rolled in about 0030, where I commenced quietly scrounging about for a mountain of food before attempting to watch Match of the Day without passing out.