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.

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 net train and hope i was allowed on it. Since I only had a map of the Cairngorms with me and had no idea of the roads round there at the time, I opted for the latter!

Luckily, it paid off and I rolled out of Aviemore station at lunch time, heading for Loch an Eilein and the first stage of my trip, through beautiful Rothiemurchus Forest. It was a beautiful August day and the summer had been very dry, so the tracks were dusty and the going was good. It was my first time in the area and I’ve basically never stopped visiting since, it left such an impression on me. I worked my way through the forest without any navigational hiccups, eventually being deposited onto the road at Loch Morlich. I popped into the shop for drinks and extra food and continued towards Ryvoan.

An Lochan Uaine was a spectacular green in the summer light and I lingered here for a while, drinking in the ambience of the place and making note to come back with Yvonne some time soon. On past the bothy and I just about caught my turn off rather than flying downhill to Forest Lodge. After fording the river, I climbed back up onto the track that heads for the Eag Mhor as the sun continued to beat down.

An easy river crossing, followed by a push through the trees took me to the narrowest part of the gap, where I gingerly crossed the electric fence and aimed across the Braes of Abernethy towards Dorback Lodge. I got to the Dorback Burn and spent several minutes wandering up and down looking for a dry way across. Eventually I gave in and accepted the inevitable, wringing out my socks on the other side. I made a meal of getting to the lodge, dragging the bike through rough, tussocky grass to hit a sandy track that got me onto the road.

As I rode away from the lodge and the sound of shotguns on an adjacent track, I started to feel a bit tired heading up the big climb before the drop to the Burn on Brown. My inexperience was beginning to show, as I’d ridden every climb like I was on a BMX, rather than making the most of the mountain bike gearing. I also hadn’t noticed that the ridiculously well greased seatpost had been slipping down all day, which was knackering my knees!

Luckily, the many crossings of the burn had me hopping on and off the bike constantly, giving my knees a break. The river was so low, I got right the way along without getting my feet any wetter. Another climb, followed by a fast descent down to the Bridge of Brown, saw me rolling along the road to Tomintoul. As the day was getting on, I decided to fill my face at the chippy and bask for a while in the late afternoon sun. I had a wee chat with a couple of blokes in an old convertible, who were on a distillery tour and handed me a whisky miniature to help me on my way.

Eventually, I started rolling again down Glen Avon, where I was planning to bivy for the night. I was struggling to find a place I felt comfortable in, due to there being a few dwellings in the upper section, eventually settling for a wide grassy area down by the river. As I unpacked my bed for the night, the midges soon closed in, leaving me to set up in bursts of activity, punctuated by running away to get them off my scent. Once ready, I dived into the bivy bag and cocooned myself inside, with the tiniest of cracks to allow for oxygen entry. A combination of a poorly inflated Thermarest and a sleeping bag with no insulating properties whatsoever made for a cold night’s sleep, as the temperatures plummeted in the glen with clear skies above.

I stirred in the morning and tentatively poked out my head to find midge levels had decreased sufficiently to allow me to get my cooking kit down to the rocks on the riverbank so I could very slowly boil some water for a heated breakfast and hot drink, without being eaten alive. The steep sides of the glen kept me in shadow, so I headed off wearing every item of clothing I had, until the effort and a gap in the hillside allowing the sun to thaw me, let me dress a bit more appropriately. As I went along, I glanced up to my right and was treated to the sight of a massive stag posing on the edge of an outcrop in as stereotypically Scottish a scene as I could possibly imagine. I vowed to get myself a digital camera and take it with me on any future rides like this!

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.