Having been obsessing over offroad touring after my Cairngorms adventure, I was itching for another ride. After much internet research with what little information was available, I decided I wanted to tackle the legendary Corrieyairack Pass. It is an ancient road, built by the industrious General Wade in 1731 to allow for efficient movement of troops around the country for the purpose of crushing rebellion. Ironically, the best recent information I could dig up was 4×4 enthusiast forum conversations and a write up from a mountain biker warning he had been turned back by snow drifts and blizzards in June! However, with my trusty Scottish Hill Tracks book, I had all the information I needed. To make it into an overnight ride, I would jump an early train to Inverness, ride the Great Glen Way down to Fort Augustus for my overnight camp and then ride the Corrieyairack the next day before catching a train home from Newtonmore.
After an uneventful train ride, followed by a bit of kit shopping in Millets, I made my way over the bridge and along the river. I was using a black and white print out of the OS maps for the ride at half normal size to minimise paper. I had a decent idea of where I was going, but anything intricate was going to be tricky! This immediately made itself felt as I tried to catch the end of the Great Glen Way in the housing estate below the psychiatric hospital! I manage to find what looked to be just the ticket and followed it up to the hospital before missing a turn somewhere and ending up going downhill. I also managed to let my bundled up gilet fall into my back tyre and wear a hole in its containing pocket. Rather than face the heartache of going back uphill, I decided to push onwards at a lower level across a forest firebreak and rejoin the path further up. At a squint it looked like it would work!
I got back on track and followed the route along a mixture of forestry tracks and stretches of tarmac road. There was one bit that showed a planned route on the OS map, with no actual path indicated on the ground, so I took a road detour above Abriachan, rather than waste time struggling to find out if there was one. This gave me a phenomenally steep tarmac descent in to Drumnadrochit, during which I still swear my speedo hit 55mph – a speed I have not come close to matching, even on the road bike. Probably a calibration issue with the old Sigma computer, but I wasn’t backing off to be fair!
I was pretty tired and dehydrated by this point, so I hit one of the many tea rooms for tea, Coke and food. I had been so consumed by the idea of climbing the Corrieyairack Pass, that I hadn’t really considered what I was riding beforehand as part of the challenge. After taking on as much liquid as I could consume, I left town and started regaining all the height I’d lost.
I followed the many undulations along, high above the loch, occasionally glimpsing a view when the trees opened out. I was managing to stay on track despite my inadequate map detail, but was goosed and Invermoriston couldn’t come soon enough.
At Invermoriston, I availed myself of the lavish public toilets on offer, shedding some weight and cleaning off the sweat of the day’s exertions. I also made a decision – I was going to skip the last off road section and take the main road into Fort Augustus. Time was getting on and I hadn’t the legs for another climb above loch level. Even so, the steady tarmac incline away from the village felt like hard work at this point. I managed to survive the road stretch without any mishaps and rolled in to town some time after 8pm. After a bit of strolling around the canal to pick a dinner spot, I went in to the Lock Inn, barely making the cutoff for a hot meal. The large pizza went down a treat whilst I watched the football, before reluctantly climbing back on my bike for the mercifully short ride to the campsite.
I was travelling light again with the same army bivy bag, cheap sleeping bag and borrowed Thermarest as last time. I had upgraded my luggage to a Camelbak Transalp pack, imported direct from the USA via eBay at a considerable saving, which was much more suited to cycling and allowed me to carry a bit more kit in it’s many pockets and pouches. I locked my bike to an adjacent picnic bench and settled in for a thankfully mild night in my non-insulating sleep setup. In the morning, I had some fun with hexi-stove cooking of army rations and headed off for what was supposed to be the tough part of this ride with some trepidation after my poor performance yesterday.
I had a bit of micro navigation to do to get me to the bottom of the pass, but managed okay with just one dodgy crossing of field full of cows.
Once through the gate, the climbing began in earnest and there was to be little respite until I reached the top. I slowly winched myself up the first steep section, before dropping down to a dip where I crossed the Connachie Burn, before resuming the climbing.
Next was climbing, climbing, climbing.
I noted the position of Blackburn bothy for a potential future visit, but couldn’t hang about as I had a train to catch and much more climbing to do. On the long steep drag, I admitted defeat and jumped off to start pushing. No big issue, as my knees and backside were needing the break anyway.
As I finally reached the hut at the top of the pass, a couple of proper mountain bikers out for the day caught me up and stopped for a chat, whilst they waited for the rest of their group. They also obliged me with a rare portrait shot for the memories.
Once my lunch was eaten on the doorstep of the hut, I started to head downhill towards the famous zig-zags. Even with the super-advanced elastomer suspension afforded by my Judy TT forks, it was rough going. There were large chunks eroded from the track to drop off, but I was managing okay. Once they were dispatched, the track improved and settled down to a constant rattling. As I ploughed through a ford a little too vigorously, I managed to pickup a hefty snakebite puncture. I began feeling a little anxious about getting to Newtonmore in time for my train.
Tube patched, I resumed my descent, with my arms getting particularly pumped on the rough cobbles taking me down to Melgarve bothy.
I passed by without poking my head in, fully focused on making that train. I was back on the tarmac in no time and just needed to get my head down and see how long it would take me to hit Newtonmore.
I wasn’t really a road cyclist, so wasn’t sure how much quicker I’d be along the main road when I reached it. Turns out I had nothing to worry about, arriving at the train station with a good 45 minutes to spare before my train back home. A highly pleasant way to spend a weekend and expand my horizons of how far I could travel by bike offroad.
Last night of the month? Check. Set out after 10pm? Check. Have work the next morning? Check. All the ingredients for my standard monthly bivy were there, with the added bonus of needing to be back home by 0630 to start getting the kids ready for school/nursery as Yvonne was also in work the next day. For these reasons, I decided on something relatively short, so I’d not be in a rush in the morning. No route planned in advance I went with an idea and a rough location in my head.
I’d decided to give the mountain bike and its plus tyres a go on some sand to see if it would be viable for a longer coastal trek in future. I also wanted to see how light I could pack for a night out in summer. As usual I was on my way after the standard Co-Op shop at about 10pm and rolling down towards the sea after throwing in some town based singletrack. I was a fair way downhill when I realised my phone was still sitting in the garage. As the true horror of being unable to post a sunrise picture on instagram/facebook or obsessively check the weather forecast every 20 minutes began to dawn on me, I briefly considered going back up to fetch it. My main concern was that I wouldn’t have an alarm to wake me up, but i figured the fact that I seem to wake up every 30 minutes when bivying would probably see me right.
I popped out of Seaton park near the bridge and turned down the first road that would give me access to the beach. After hitting a couple of dead ends where the shore line had been eroded I found my way down to the tide line and got rolling North without any sinking issues that would have required fatter tyres. It really was lovely to just pedal along on the flat without a care in the world, taking in the views of Trump’s beloved wind turbines.
I started looking for a suitable bivy spot as the light faded further – somewhere near the base of the dunes with a little elevation to make sure I wasn’t caught out at high tide in an hour. I finally identified a likely looking shelf and scrambled up to take a peek. It looked just right to fit me and the bike in together, so I pulled up the bike and unpacked my gear. My minimal sleeping gear consisted of a Klymit Ultralite V pad, a SOL Escape bivy and my old silk sleeping bag liner, adding up to less than 700g I’d guess. I had a bit of tea and a sandwich before sticking on my light down jacket and sliding my knee warmers down to cover my legs to my socks. It was a mild night, so I didn’t foresee any problems with having so little shelter, as I got myself comfy and tried to sleep.
It was one of those nights that never really gets dark and I found myself able to maintain a comfortable temperature throughout, without any condensation issues. Eventually it got light enough for me to check the time on my GPS – far too early. I dozed for a while longer and eventually struggled upright to take in the sunrise. There was a break in the cloud, allowing the sun to stream through for the perfect picture opportunity I was missing. Instead, I was forced to suffer the indignity of absorbing the view with my eyeballs and brain alone whilst sipping my tea.
My natural fear of out and back rides had me checking out the top of the dune I was camped on to see If I could go back a different way. Directly above, after some bike hefting was a faint path through the undergrowth to a working area at the back of the local golf course. I recognised it as one of the ones I had passed through on a similar bivy last year, so I knew I’d be able to follow the mix of gravel and tarmac paths through this and the next course back to where I’d joined the beach. At just after 5am, golfers were thin on the ground, so I had the courses to myself as I made my way back to the Don.
I didn’t stick to the road long, immediately diving onto a path above the riverside which eventually deposited me in Seaton Park. From there, I followed my usual mix of riverside trail and back field shortcuts to get me home before even the kids had woken up.
Jon was about to get the most thoughtful of 40th birthday presents – a free weekend in close proximity to a sweaty Scouser in the mountains. After receiving a text from his lovely wife that we were to organise something for him as a treat, a plan was finally made during the balmy week in February, henceforth referred to as Fools’ Spring. We were going to meet up in Blair Atholl on a Friday night in March, kip in the car and head out on a weekend ride of one of the Cairngorms Loops, depending on progress and weather conditions.
Needless to say, once the plan was formed, the mercury began to plummet and lots of chat about kit ensued – Jon loves a good bikepacking gear geek-out. When the weekend arrived, snow had returned to the mountains in earnest, so we were going to head out and see how conditions on the ground were before committing to anything too ambitious. I headed out in the late evening on Friday, after getting the kids to bed and made a dash for Blair Atholl, as Jon was already on the train up there from Edinburgh. The roads were quiet and I made good time, leaving us a bit of time for a drink and chat in the Atholl Arms before popping over to the car park in the forest to get our heads down.
In my head, I thought we’d be up and riding about 6-ish, to give us a good chance to hit the top of the route before the wind turned to a Northerly. In reality, we woke about half an hour after that and then spent 2 hours fannying about with our kit in the steadily increasing snowfall.
With the thought of wading through snow at some point during the ride, I’d brought along the Giro gaiters that match my Alpineduro boots, to see if they would squeeze over the Adidas Goretex mid boots I was cycling in. They looked just the ticket, so that was a boost, as the snow felt pretty wet anyway. Jon however, had been so excited about wearing his new Terrex flat shoes, that he had declined my advice to wear boots for this trip, thinking I was winding him up! He went for some wool socks with SealSkinz over them and hoped for the best.
Finally, we were up and running along the A9 cycle path, following the treads of a solitary digger that had hit the road before us. The snow was very soft and added little resistance, so we could just enjoy the muted crunch of it beneath our tyres.
It wasn’t long before we reached the turn off at Dalnacardoch, where an easy climb would hopefully get the blood pumping enough to warm the extremities, as John’s feet were already beginning to feel the cold. We stopped under the trees for a while to allow him to hop about and get some blood into them.
The scene ahead looked both forbidding and inviting. The snow was extremely slippy, so any attempts to switch ruts along the estate track led to an instant dismount, which was funnier to watch than experience!
As we passed Sronphadruig Lodge, I guided Jon onto the first track up to the watershed, promising him a decent walk to get his feet working again. The usual bog- hopping took us across to start of the elevated path along the side of Loch an Duin, which I’d been planning to walk today regardless in these conditions.
We slipped and slithered along, enjoying the absurdity of the situation as feeling slowly returned to Jon’s feet and the wind swung around to start blowing the snow across our faces, rather than the tailwind we’d enjoyed thus far.
As the path levelled out near the far end of the loch, I got to put the 29+ tyres to work rolling through whatever was hidden under the snow and made a beeline for the crossing point of the Allt Loch an Duin. In the past, I’ve taken off my shoes to keep them dry for this crossing, but I figured I’d manage alright today. Jon was not so lucky however and his newly warmed feet were instantly chilled again.
The going is normally really quick on this side of the pass, but as the speed increased, so did the wind chill. Jon’s suffering increased and we were forced to use any steep climb as a chance for him to walk and allow his feet to thaw out a little. Once he started mentioning the numbness spreading above his foot, I called it a day in my head and started planning alternative possibilities. Or, as I put it to Jon: “No fucking way am I ending up with your feet in my armpits!”.
First priority was to get Jon warmed up, so we continued on our way down Glen Tromie in the same fashion, hammering the flats and downhills and using the uphills to give Jon’s feet some movement when walking. This worked for the most part and when we Reached Tromie Bridge I diverted us onto the National Cycle Route that would take us straight to Loch Insh on the back road. After bit of speedy road riding that tested Jon’s foot pain threshold to the limit, we exploded into the restaurant in a flurry of disrobed layers and steaming socks. Jon got himself propped up against the radiator whilst our gloves and headwear slowly dried and attempted to coax life back into his feet. There was no rush now, as one of the proper loops was out of the question and I had time to fill Jon with hot tea and healthy snacks to take his mind off the defrosting limb pain.
After an hour of being well looked after by the nice staff, we started formulating plans. My initial option of bivying in the forest nearby and then riding back down the A9 cycle path to Blair Atholl was sensible but a bit of a letdown compared to what we were here for. I put a more interesting option to Jon, that we could ride down Glen Feshie to Ruigh Aiteachain bothy for an easier night’s sleep and possible warming fire. The next morning, if all was well, we could do part of the Inner Loop backwards by continuing on to Glen Geldie and then back via Glen Tilt to the car. He was well up for this, so we had another hour’s drying time, switched Jon to dry warm socks and made our way over the hill in the deepening snow towards Tovah.
We found the bridge and switched to the other side of the river, climbing up onto the path that would take us to the bothy. A bit of scrambling down the down and up the big landslip at the mouth of the Allt Garblach and we were on some lovely tracks through the forest. Jon was feeling much better with dry socks and fun riding, so we were at the bothy in no time – I was interested to see what the renovations had done to the place. On arrival, we said hi to the other two inhabitants and had a look around. The work had been done brilliantly – upstairs was clad completely and looked pretty posh. The young couple downstairs had cut some of the damp firewood from outside and were trying to coax it into a decent burn in the stove with the door open. Strangely, they had also put their tent up in the middle of the room, so we went back into the first room and got ourselves set up on the bench there – even without a fire, we should be warm enough overnight, with the added benefit of minimising smoke inhalation! We got ourselves out of any remaining wet kit and arranged it around the stove next door, before cooking up some food and heading back through for a warm and a chat.
We didn’t stress about being up too early the next day, as there wasn’t a lot of distance to cover, so we roused ourselves at 7ish and got breakfast on. I went outside to brush my teeth, whilst Jon used up my toilet paper in a weight-shedding exercise at the fancy toilet block. We could actually see the sky, so were keen to get up and running whilst the weather was inviting.
We cleared up and got rolling on the freakishly snow free path from the bothy, before we started heading for the edge of the river where things got much narrower. All the trees were loaded with wet snow, which was deposited all over us as we passed. The undergrowth was doing the same to our drivetrains, with the snow compacting into balls of ice on the jockey wheels, causing an annoying tick followed by random mis-shifts until it was cleared.
We soon reached the turn off for the raised singletrack that everyone seems to miss in favour of the land rover track below. This was as overgrown as ever, giving us a thorough soaking as we pushed through to the last landslip.
The constant soaking had started to mess with Jon’s feet again, but this time I had a master plan – we would soon be walking, a lot! There was still a bit of uphill riding to do however and we were soon high up the glen, looking down on my bivy spot from the full Cairngorms Loop a couple of years back.
The wide track would start to deteriorate soon, so I kept an eye out for trace of the narrow path that parallels the vehicle track. It was hard to spot in the snow, but is a much better bet, as it has a firm base, unlike the alternative which is full of bottomless mud traps! As we pressed on, you could feel the consistency of the snow changing to a firmer feel due to the cold, which made it more of an effort to ride through.
As we approached the watershed, the snow started to come down again in earnest. We now had a push through the heather to reach the Eidart bridge while the wind drove the snow across us as we made a guess as to where the best path was.
The bit after the bridge is always very vague, so I just headed for wherever the pushing looked easiest whilst the blizzard really kicked in, battering us from the front right. I threw on my snow goggles, which made the whole thing much more bearable, whilst Jon went for putting up his hood. After a bit of tough pushing through the now much deeper snow, the snow eased off so we could take stock of our surroundings.
Were were on the path properly now, so just needed to read the terrain ahead of us to keep on it and enjoy the slightly easier going. It was still a world better than my passage in this direction many years back on a January night in pitch dark with no head torch. I had frozen snow banks to climb up and ended up following the path by the feel of the ground underneath my feet!
We also had the wind at our tails now, so our trudge through the snow was pretty enjoyable if hard work, with the odd comedy disappearance in a waist deep drift or hidden burn
Eventually, the terrain started to flatten out and we could see Geldie Lodge ahead on the far side of the river, meaning the tough bit was nearly over. Once we were level with the lodge we joined a proper estate track, had a bit of lunch and progress increased rapidly.
As we got nearer the Geldie crossing, we started to see the first footprints we’d seen all weekend and discussing what time we’d finish the ride. Jon had a couple of options for trains, but it would be handy for him to make the 6pm one back to Edinburgh. It seemed doable, but we wouldn’t really know until we saw the conditions along Glen Tilt. First of all, Jon had to get his nice warm feet wet on the river crossing!
Once we were past the follow up crossings and the boggy bit after Bynack Lodge, Jon switched to his only slightly damp socks in order to avoid a repeat of yesterday and we started to enjoy a slidey ride along the Glen Tilt singletrack. Some bits are great, some are dodgy and some have rocks that are determined to tip you over the side and into the torrent below.
There was much less snow along this glen, so no big dramas – just a regular donning and disrobing of jackets as the regular blizzards blew over from behind.
Eventually, the snow petered out completely, which was surprising considering the amount that had been on the ground when we left Blair Atholl. Still, it kept the progress swift and it was looking more likely we would make Jon’s earlier train.
Taking the turn off to Fealar Lodge wasn’t going to happen today, but I pointed it out to Jon and explained how upset he was going to be for the real thing, if my experience was anything to go by! As usual, The Falls of Tarf marked the start of the really quick part of the glen and we cranked up the speed despite being unsure if we could make it.
The extra effort was worth it, as we screamed into the car park with about 20 minutes until Jon’s train arrived. I sent him ahead to the train station whilst I packed my bike into the car and drove round with his spare gear. He had a leisurely 5 minutes to throw his stuff into his bag before he hopped onto the train and away home. I wasn’t too bothered not to have completed our original routes as we’d had a great ride regardless. Jon’s dodgy footwear choice had probably been a blessing in disguise, as it had let us chill out chat for a good bit rather than the usual non-stop late night finish my escapades have a habit of descending into!
This was going to be my last chance at doing a proper long mountain bike ride as part of my HT550 preparation, so I booked my self a one way ticket to Aviemore for the May Day bank holiday and hurriedly got the bike ready late on Sunday evening after the kids finally went to sleep. The plan was ride back to Aberdeen offroad as much as possible, with the added interest of trying a new route from Abernethy across to Glen Avon, which doesn’t follow the now traditional outer Cairngorm Loop route through Tomintoul.
My aim was to head out past Dorback Lodge, but instead of taking the left at the first crossing of the Burn of Brown, I was going to keep right and do a lot of climbing onto the moors to the South and see if an old ford across the Water of Ailnack was an option. First though, I had to get there – so after my usual late night fiddling and packing I was up early to catch the 0614 train to Inverness. An uneventful journey saw me ready to go from Aviemore at 1000, after some fiddling with my newly rented SPOT tracker, which I wanted to get accustomed to well in advance of the HT550. I slipped under the railway and onto the Speyside Way to take me away towards Nethy Bridge.
The smooth tracks made for speedy progress, interspersed with some bottom bracket fiddling, as the new bearings I had only fitted last week had decided to set the bike off creaking. No coincidence that this is my only bike that doesn’t have a threaded BB shell!
As I approached Nethy Bridge, the clouds seemed to be gathering in an ominous fashion. Optimistically, I had chosen to believe the Met Office forecast of a cloudy morning, improving later and had opted for minimal waterproof gear, i.e. none! A few drops of impending precipitation hit me as I whizzed along the singletrack before the village.
The heavens opened as I rolled towards the shop, so I went in and got myself a ginger beer and some extra snacks for the ride and sat in a dry spot near the bus shelter cursing my luck whilst I got my jacket and gloves out. With a long way to go, I couldn’t afford to wait it out, so on I went along the river, then up the road towards the Dorback Lodge turn off. I’d skipped the Eag Mhor today to save time and wet feet and luckily the rain eased as I approached the lodge.
The climb after the lodge went by quite easy, especially compared to last time during the Cairngorms Loop, when I wasn’t feeling quite so sprightly! After a quick hello to a couple of other cyclists on the climb, I dropped down quickly to the first ford at the Burn of Brown and prepared to ignore the suggested route to Tomintoul.
A long climb ensued up the flanks of Carn Tuadhan, though luckily never too steep.
I knew eventually the good track would peter out and I would have to see what was on the ground to get me to Ca Du Ford. So it did and I started my heather bashing, contouring round the hill without losing too much height, so I would be able to sight the crossing and pick the best route. I’d plotted a way across where the contours looked least steep, but knew that up close things could be quite different!
Once I was in the right ball park, I took a straight line down the hill and started some foot reconnaissance for a route down once it got too steep. Various deer trails criss-crossed the edge, so I found a way down without too much trouble and was also able to spot a good exit point on the far side, a fair bit upstream from my original guess.
Once down, I relaxed for a wee bit on the rocky beach where the Allt Dearcaige joins the Ailnack and had some lunch in the sun, which had finally made an appearance. Nothing beats time alone in a place that feels so remote, but I still had a long way to go and more heather-bashing to do before I could start making some distance.
I managed to get across with dry feet and started lugging my way up the opposite side, zig-zagging with any deer tracks I crossed. Once up high, I checked out the track high in the distance on the other side of the glen that I could have also used to reach the spot direct from Dorback Lodge. It looked doable, so I made a mental note to give that a shot sometime and compare! The heather was pretty high over here, so dragging the bike was a bit of a pain, but the going eased as I came over the brow of the hill and some unmapped grouse butts provided a rough path I could use to ride down to the main track towards Dalbheithachan.
Rather than take the track all the way down to Glen Avon, I took a right at the bottom of a steep descent and started climbing again, straight up Carn an t-Sleibhe. This would get me high up on the ridge above Glen Loin.
I had been thinking about staying high above the glen and dropping down at the far end after going over the tops, but a lack of any marked path for a stretch along the top made me err on the side of caution, as I didn’t want to be getting home too late with work the next day. Once on the shoulder, I took the first steep drop into the glen, with brakes that had been squealing increasingly all day. Despite the incessant headwind, Glen Loin made for easy progress and I saw Ben Avon loom in the distance as I approached its mouth.
As I emerged into the upper reaches of Glen Avon, the sun was beating down and I saw a tent or two pitched down by the river. It seemed a shame to be rushing through, but I had places to be. I was round the corner and on my way up the steep climb to Donside from Inchrory in no time at all.
As I made my way along the glen, the track gradually improved and turned to tarmac for the last stretch before Corgarff. I was messing about seeing if I could get into some kind of aero tuck, when I realised my front wheel was varying it’s line quite markedly. I squealed to a halt and took a look – one of the Zircal spokes was rattling round in it’s nipple holder and turning it seemed to have no effect. This looked like something I wasn’t fixing today, so I took it easy to the castle, then turned onto the main road briefly, before bearing right onto the old military road.
As I approached the final climb back to the main road, I caught up with some French motorcyclists on BMWs. In the distance, I’d seen someone walking up the hill towards them and realised it must have been one of the pillion passengers having to lighten the load for a steep section. I had no idea if they were supposed to be there, so just said hello and pressed on.
Climbing up the road seemed quite tiring, but I got a little bit of speed up before my turn off, which would take me across the Moor of Dinnet.
I dropped and climbed from Glen Fenzie, round to Morven Lodge, then crossed the Morvern Burn to start heading East by Tom Garchory and Culblean Hill. I topped up my water bottles at a burn on the way and got a good feed in the sun. I’d been stripping off layers since I left the Cairngorms and was down to shorts and t-shirt at 6pm, which reflected the upturn in the weather!
The descent down from Culblean looked fast and loose – unfortunately, I was reduced to nursing my failing front wheel and increasingly squealy brakes down without mishap, so I was relived for it to flatten out and let me pedal to the road. I had been planning more offroad from here leading to a quick whizz down Tarland Trails, but I thought I wouldn’t push my luck and headed towards Loch Kinord instead, taking a chilled out trail through the forest, by the loch and into Dinnet.
From here I took the easy option and hopped onto the Deeside Way to Aboyne and onwards, with a little diversion to the North of Banchory as I couldn’t be bothered going through Scolty.
The sun finally dropped behind the horizon enough for me to put on my lights as I came into Peterculter and I blitzed the last section to get home just after 10pm for a good shower and a pizza before passing out on the couch.