I felt like I wanted to do something a bit bigger for June, ideally maximising all that lovely daylight. Inspiration came in the shape of an email from Restrap, exhorting riders to do a Solstice Century and earn a badge. Always a sucker for earning a free badge I will never get round to sewing into a cap, I signed up and got thinking. As much as I’d love to do something more exotic, the travel time to get somewhere away from home always reverts me to riding from the house to minimise domestic disruption. Luckily Aberdeen has plenty of interesting options once the ride distance goes beyond a hundred miles!
My last century for the winter solstice had taken me north, but I fancied heading out to do a loop taking in Glenshee, which I have gone over several times in the past, but always heading south. This time I would head over to Angus and along before turning north to tackle Glenshee from the steeper side. I finally headed out on Saturday night at 7pm, knowing I still had lots of daylight to play with, despite having to double back for repairs after my brake pads fell out at the first set of traffic lights! Unfortunately, the weather had also gone downhill from the beautiful conditions we’d been seeing earlier in the week. so I was surrounded by warm greyness as I climbed up and over the Netherley road to Stonehaven.
I’d gone slightly off course to stock up on food at the M&S in Peterculter before climbing over the Netherley road, completely forgetting I would pass right by a Co-Op in Stonehaven. Never mind, I’m sure the weight training would do me some good! I climbed away from the coast on the back roads, with Fetteresso Forest on my right. Normally, I would take the route past Drumtochty to avoid traffic, but it was unlikely to be an issue at this time of night. I wanted to make as quick progress as possible, so I dived down through Auchenblae and joined the B road for Fettercairn as early as possible. This was the right choice, as it was smooth and fast and I barely saw a single car.
After resisting the temptation to stop at the pub, my next waypoint was Edzell and I rolled along at decent speed, though I still had a fair way to go to reach my tentative bivy area.
Time dragged on as I headed westwards, impatiently waiting for the junction I would take to climb a hill and get some sleep in the trees at the top. I’d thought of not bivying and riding through the night, but then I’d be a BAM down for no good reason. I pushed ever onwards into the dark, finally reaching the turn off I wanted some time after midnight. I’d prevaricated over what I was going to sleep in all day, eventually deciding on just my Exped hammock and light sleeping bag. I’d toyed with the idea of my SOL bivy and a warm jacket, but it added up to practically the same weight (More If I took a mat) and wouldn’t be as comfortable. I got the hammock slung up in the trees just over the crest of the hill and settled in after some food and drink.
I slept okay, thanks to the hill deflecting the worst of the wind, a lack of midges and the luxury of a sleeping bag. My faith in the weather forecast paid off and I didn’t need to pack up and go due to any late night showers. I was up and about around 4am, though my hopes of getting some nice sunrise shots were dashed by the continued cloud cover. Never mind, at least I was warm, dry and slightly rested! I hopped back over the fence to rejoin the road, which would drop me quickly to my onward route.
From this point onwards the route was going to trend upwards all the way to the ski centre, so I knuckled down and headed up Glenisla, at one point distracted by a hare that insisted on running up the road ahead of me for a good mile or so before hunkering down in an adjacent field fully in my view. It was interesting to take this stretch at a more sedate pace, as I’ve always flown down here pretty quickly in the opposite direction, aided by gravity.
The deserted roads were a joy to ride on at this hour and I eventually emerged onto the A93, where the climbing would soon start in earnest. Although this was supposed to be all uphill, it felt fine for the time being, though I knew what was coming in the last stretch to the ski centre. It was around 0700 by now and I was seeing the odd car coming along, but still peaceful enough to feel the whole road was mine to enjoy.
Finally the climb began to ramp up properly and I settled in for a tough slog. I’ve only ever come down this side of Glenshee, but I knew it was a lot steeper than the northern side by the speeds I’ve hit during the descent! It very gradually gets tougher and tougher, right up to the last agonising drag over the top, where I paused to gather my thoughts and alveoli.
Despite the fact I was hot and sweaty after the climb, I stuck on an extra layer for the descent, which was going to go on a while! My reward for the steeper climb should be a longer descent towards Braemar, where I planned to stop for second breakfast. I went into a nice aero tuck and flew down the first section, eventually resorting to casually turning the pedals as the gradient eased. Soon enough, I reached the wee bridge onto the old military road, which would make for a nicer entry to the village than the main road.
As I reached sleepy Braemar the sun was warming things up nicely, so I basked on a bench for a while, working my way through my treats from the Co-Op, before availing myself of the toilets nearby.
I wasn’t going to hang about for the rest of the ride, as it was all trending downhill and I wanted to be home handy for taking the kids swimming. I stuck to the A93 the whole way, as it never got too busy until I passed Banchory and it was good to ride on a road that wasn’t mainly constructed out of potholes for a change.
I arrived home a few minutes after midday, feeling great for my little adventure – 153 miles in the bag and only a morning missed with the family. It’s not a bad compromise I suppose!
I bided my time through May, waiting for the weather to warm up enough to let me take my best cycling buddy Kerr along with me. Predictably, that was the last weekend in May, but the forecast was good enough and so off we headed for Braemar on Saturday straight after lunch. As usual, I had no choice in our destination as Kerr was determined to return to “His” camp spot in Glen Quoich. Since he was a year bigger, I figured I would make him work for it this time out. We parked up at Invercauld, with the aim of riding along the Dee to Glen Quoich and then climbing up and along the high eastern side of the glen.
The weather was warm and sultry, just right for shorts and t-shirt, though the first steep climb away from the Linn of Quoich got us hot and sweaty. Luckily I had brought Irn Bru to use as bribery along the way, as well as a pack of Maoam in his bar bag!
We had left later than I would have liked as usual, but I made sure there was no rush other than needing to get the dinner on before he got too hungry. We undulated along above the glen, my only real worry being the level of the river crossing once we reached the end of this track. We had come back this way the previous year, but it had been later in the summer and the warm weather, plus lots of snow still on the hills meant it could be pretty high.
As we dropped to the ford at the Quoich Water, my fears proved well founded, as there were a couple of sections I really didn’t want Kerr walking through unaided. His lip started to wobble at the thought of not getting to our camp site, tantalisingly in view across the water, so I did a bit of scouting round for our options. By dropping off the side of the track a little way back from the ford, there was a wider option available which should go if we were careful. I had to abandon thoughts of crossing barefoot as usual to make sure I had good purchase for looking after Kerr. After two trips for the bikes and a final one for Kerr, who found the whole thing a great laugh and had the advantage of a pair of Crocs to keep his shoes dry, we were finally at our camp site.
The massive exodus of post- lockdown campers to the mountains luckily hadn’t extended as far as Glen Quoich, so we found our favourite spot uninhabited. After receiving some sporadic help with the tent pitching, I left Kerr to play at the river bed whilst I got everything else sorted in camp.
Kerr was ecstatic to find that his stone causeway had somehow survived the winter and we wound the evening down messing about at the water’s edge and constructing a cooling area for our drinks once our luxurious macaroni cheese dinner had been dispatched.
Time was getting on so we decided to turn in for a bit to get cosy, before another night excursion to see what was about and about. As it turned out, it was neither of us – after plenty of one way chat from Kerr, we both drifted off to sleep, with the outer door still held open to let the breeze in on a pleasantly mild night.
We woke early and dozed around for a bit until Kerr decided he was hungry, meaning I had to get myself up and shuffle around our campsite barefoot, as my shoes were still propped up on the nearby tree to dry in the steadily warming morning sun. I sent Kerr to collect the milk from my fridge, but he returned gleefully informing me it had dried out and that we should have stuck with his original spot, to which he had moved it to cool again after being heated up all morning.
We whiled away the morning with cups of tea for me and general splashing around in water for Kerr, with the sun beating down and a complete lack of midges, despite the low winds. All good things must come to and end, however, so I started packing up the tent and kit, ready for our return. As usual, Kerr asked if we could come back and camp out for more than one night next time – he never seems happier than when he’s hanging out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nature and I vowed to try and do this more often.
To get back to the car, I decided Kerr was going to get a bit more adventure. Rather than head back the way we came, we would continue up the glen to cross the Quoich Water much higher up, allowing us to link onto the top of Gleann an t-Slugain. Distance wise, it’s a shortcut, but effort wise, not at all. Once we got past the river-eroded parts of the path, there was a great surface for riding on for a good while. This was a marked improvement on what was there 15 years ago on my last passage.
After crossing a smaller burn, we had a steep push up onto some more rooty singletrack which wound its way through the trees. Despite it being a constant uphill, Kerr just kept powering along, with his wee fat tyres gripping their way out of every dip and rise. We just had the one mishap, with a pedal strike on a steep camber leaving him wrapped up in his bike upside down. I gave him a bit of a break and some more sweets before coaxing him back into action. Luckily, the surfaced track reappeared, which meant a bit less shuttling of the two bikes on the dodgy bits for me and a feeling that he would soon be at the river crossing whose proximity he had been nagging me about for the last half hour.
Finally, the ford was in sight and we dropped down steeply to appraise it. Whilst the levels weren’t too bad, I opted to keep my shoes on again and walk Kerr and the bikes over separately. Job done, we sat on the far side eating our lunch and letting my shoes dry out in the sun.
Once fed, more pushing interspersed with riding brought us up to meet the track from The Sneck. I had promised Kerr a constant downhill from here, which was kind of true, though my memory of the condition of the upper track down Gleann an t-Slugain didn’t quite tie in with reality. It was pretty steep and loose at times, with Kerr sensibly opting to walk his bike down the bits that made him nervous.
The temperature ramped up as we descended, so we stopped at a mini ford and started splashing about and topping up on water, now that Kerr had finished his emergency Irn Bru ration. We were briefly interrupted by the passage of a Mountain Rescue Land Rover as we made sure the bikes were out of the way. They weren’t for chatting, but hopefully nothing too serious had occurred on the hill.
Eventually, we rolled on to enjoy a speedy ride down the rest of the glen, Kerr happily chatting and veering around the track as he saw fit. The more adventurous route home had used up plenty of the day and we arrived back at Invercauld almost exactly 24 hours after we left. Kerr was right, we need to get a multi day trip organised – though I imagine his version has more messing about in rivers and a lot less cycling than mine!
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!
October saw me in my favourite part of the world with the family in a cottage in Nethy Bridge. I had a week to try and sneak in a bivy, which meant I could wait for a decent weather window in the fickle half-term weather. I was also looking forward to trying out my new 29+ WTB Ranger tyres on the Commando, which I’d hurriedly tubelessed up before leaving.
Tuesday night looked windy and slightly wet, but was still a better bet than the rest of the week. After the usual rigmarole of getting the kids to bed, I threw my gear together and rolled straight into Abernethy Forest, practically from the back door. Rather than head straight to my planned spot, I did a bit of exploring the trails nearby on my way.
I took a side track I hadn’t used before to reach Forest Lodge and headed on up towards Ryvoan. I was aiming for the edge of the forest, where I could set up the hammock with some kind of view of the Cairngorms for the morning. After an easy gradual ascent I emerged into the howling wind, thinking maybe I should have stopped lower down! Never mind, I bashed through a bit of heather to find a suitable spot with slightly less wind and got set up.
Due to the inclement nature of the forecast, I decided to set up the tarp for the first time this year, which either says a lot about this year’s weather or more my tendency to wuss out of the rain! I drank a cuppa from my flask, had a snack and got my head down.
As usual, I slept in a bit later than intended as I didn’t fancy packing up in the dark after putting up with this windy spot in the hope of a decent view. I’d originally planned to make a big loop on my way back by going over An Slugain, but I thought I’d better get home handy to start the day’s entertainments with the wee ones.
I still couldn’t bear to completely retrace my steps, so shortly after heading back, I swung a left and climbed up to the buildings at Rynettin, for a better view South.
From Rynettin it was a fast roll to Forest Lodge, where I took a different way back towards the Loch Garten road, which I promptly left to use the local path network all the way back home.
For my August bivy, I wanted to take Kerr out again before the weather started to turn against us, so when a good weather window coincided with a weekend it was all systems go to get the car packed and head out to Braemar again for a second bite at Glen Quoich. I’d sourced a replacement skewer for my old cargo trailer, so hopefully I’d be able to get it to take the load this time instead of my back!
Late as always, we stocked up in the village before continuing to the Linn of Quoich and getting on the move as quickly as Kerr’s penchant for distraction would allow us.
After passing our previous trip’s camping spot, we headed on up the glen – Kerr trying to fill the river with any rocks he happened upon en route. I had a particular spot in mind below Beinn a Bhuird which I had noted years back on a ride through to Gleann an t-Slugain. After passing the fords where inevitably Kerr got his feet soaked and then decided he needed a pee just as some walkers were approaching from the opposite direction, we pressed on along the Quoich Water, reaching my intended spot just as the temperature dropped a bit and the wind got up. Unfortunately, someone had beaten us to the site, erecting a large tarp vertically as a wind shield and sitting round a large camp fire, surviving to the max. Probably not the best summer to be starting fires, but at least there had been some rain recently, so much less chance of disaster than a few weeks previously.
Kerr had been quite excited at reaching my secret camp spot, so began to have a meltdown when he realised it been taken already. I quickly introduced the concept of the super secret camping spot which was just up the path. Unfortunately the path starts to seriously narrow from here, making lugging a trailer and abandoned bike a serious effort. After getting a bit of distance from the rufty-tufty survivalists I started scanning for a new spot, eventually wading through some heather to reach an ideal sheltered hollow beneath a tree.
After a feast of cheesy pasta and empire biscuits, we settled in for the night, Kerr passing out practically in mid-sentence. The late night had no effect on his ability to wake early the next morning, keen to go down to the river and fetch water.
The wind had died completely over night, so as I got the bacon cooking the midges descended. The smoke off my wee stove was a marginal help, but Kerr made the sensible choice and went back into the tent to await his breakfast in bed.
After packing up, we headed back the way we came, checking out my original choice of location. It appeared that the leave no trace ethic was not one embraced by our expert survival neighbours.
With no real time pressure on getting back, I let Kerr mess about as much as he liked along the way. This involved performing rock throwing and dam building at every river crossing we made.
After a loooong time, we finally flew along the last downhill stretch to the road and back along to the car, where we ditched the trailer and went to hang out on the bridge to nowhere, which always fascinates him. Then it was a peaceful drive home with a brief stop for cake and juice at Cambus o’ May.